The Dodge Caravan and all that followed
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 17th: 1 Samuel 15:22-31; Psalm 23; and Ephesians 5:1-9. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I bet you have heard the quip “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If I’m remembering this correctly, the Dodge Caravan introduced us to the infamous minivan. It was such a popular automotive concept that filled so many needs for young families that it was soon imitated by all the other automobile manufacturers. Minivans of all sorts were ubiquitous. I moved from a Ford Mustang as a single adult to a Chrysler minivan as a young father, joining all the other young families traveling here and there in one minivan or another. Bring the kids to a practice of some sort and the parking lot was full of minivans. It’s true “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Maybe, though, you haven’t heard the rest of the Oscar Wilde quote: “… that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Here’s something I don’t fully understand. A brilliant artist will create a painting that hopefully in his or her lifetime makes a tidy income for the artist, but maybe not. The same painting may be sold generations later for obscene amounts of money. And maybe the buyer doesn’t even appreciate the painting; it’s purchased as an investment.
As an investment, the provenance of the painting is thoroughly vetted. If it is discovered that the painting was created by a master student of the famous artist, it loses its investment value immediately. The student’s imitation of the master is so thorough that only a trained art expert is able to tell them apart. The painting for the sake of the painting is almost indistinguishable from that of the famous artist, but it is an imitation, and as such no where near as valuable as the original.
When it comes to the minivan, imitations of the Caravan became even more successful than the original. No one thought that if you needed a minivan it had to be the Caravan. No one felt cheated if they bought another model minivan, an imitation minivan in a sense. However, the imitation painting of one of the Masters comes down off the wall of the museum. There’s something about the lack of creativity, not talent but creativity, that makes the student’s imitation less than the original regardless of the technical mastery. The lack of creativity is Wilde’s “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
In Ephesians today, we are challenged to “be imitators of God.” Well that sure sets the bar awfully high. The first time we hear such a message in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden story. The serpent tempts Eve by saying, “You will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) This is the temptation behind all sin; it is to replace God. No matter how competent the student artist the Master will not be replaced because all that the student offers is the mediocrity of imitation because the student lacks the creativity that defines a masterpiece. We will never be imitators of God as in replacing God.
To be like God, however, can be of moral value when we understand it as trying to follow God’s example, and Ephesians summarizes this as to “live in love.” Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann, the depraved, sadistic architect of the Holocaust and referred to the “banality of evil.” What a brilliant statement. To imitate God as to live in love is just the opposite. It is to be creative. Virtue and morality are expressed in myriads of glorious ways as opposed to “the banality of evil.” It’s like the creativity of imitating the Caravan by making it better. We look to the example God sets and we try to imitate it in the limited circumstances provided to us in our lives. We don’t replace God. We strive to be “imitators of God.”
On this fourth Lenten Friday, when we remember again how much God in Jesus has sacrificed to give us a perfect revelation of what it means to “live in love,” may we strive to imitate that lived revelation. This is not about repeating the cross or trying to imitate its suffering. It is about being creative in how we will “live in love.”
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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