November 13, 2016

The Vision of God

 

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25 (NRSV)

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

 

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

 

 

I have wrestled with what to say during the election season. Other than a couple of jokes, I have largely avoided the topic, because it is so divisive. Sadly, whenever something is in the realm of politics, it is believed by many to be off limits to talk about from my position. In many cases, that may be true, such as openly endorsing a candidate from the pulpit or fundraising or the like. But some things – as my friend Michael Williams says – are Jesus issues, even if they are highlighted in the realm of the political.

 

It was a feat of discipline to not comment on how devolved we have become as a nation that our electoral process turns people into caricatures and completely strips them of their humanity. It offers them temporary status as vulnerable, volatile demagogues who can spend billions of dollars just to make the other look bad. Watching two people live as both heroes and villains makes for an interesting commentary when we say all people are God’s children, including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Gary Johnson.

 

Now we come to the after where I yet again have to discern what is a Jesus issue in our country and what is my own viewpoint. I think God would have a lot to say about recent days, and I bet few of them would start with the election. It’s what has been said and done before and after that I would think bothers God the most.

 

In recent days, I have read stories about racist epithets being shouted at people of color: “go back home,” “get out of our country,” “this is our America now,” and the dastardly graffiti scrawled on roadways, bathroom walls, and in our gathering places. I saw a story of a Muslim woman having her hijab ripped off her head as a slur was spit at her. Many Muslims and Sikhs are even questioning whether they should wear the markers of their faith at all under threat of harassment and violence.

 

Even if the majority of these cases are the work of the uneducated or of mocking children, we are responsible for this tone and tenor. Even if it is all happening out there and not here, which, by the way, I bet it is happening here, we are dutifully called to watch and pray for God to end our hatred. We are to stand alongside those are being yelled at and put ourselves in the way of those who face violence and rage lobbed in their direction. Having views and opinions are political issues, but treating our neighbors and enemies with love and dignity – that’s a Jesus issue. We cannot simply be silent when God’s children are hurting.

 

In the end, even amidst all of this poor behavior, I always hold true that God is working toward an ultimate good, sometimes in spite of us.

 

That’s a hard claim to make. If we look at our history, this is not a new phenomenon. For all the good, there is a lot of bad; and for all the bad, there is a lot of good. Christians tend to like making the claim that God will make everything well in due time; however, claiming, “God’s going to win in the end” is just bad theology if we don’t have a healthy dose of realism and sadness towards the moments when God obviously does not win. When people are forced into wars and violence, no matter how noble either cause may be, God watches God’s children suffer. When trade and commerce, no matter how good for some, leaves others to die in the cold, God does not get God’s way. For every moment of triumph in medicine, a person suffers due to lack of resources for their care. I have to believe God has a vision, and we aren’t there yet. God will win in the end, I believe, but it’s a long road getting there.

 

The good news is God does have a vision, and it is good. It is a vision of joy and wholeness and fulfillment in the presence of heaven. God has chosen not to dictate every action in our world in bringing this vision about, but God does have a hand in our world. That hand has reached out far before us, even before Jesus. Today’s passage in Isaiah speaks to this message of comfort to us just as it did with the Hebrews.

 

First, some background: The Book of Isaiah is actually three, separate writings that span multiple centuries. We know that due to scholarly research in language, grammar, and syntax. If the prophet wrote it all, he lived long enough to change from what would be the equivalent of Shakespeare’s English to our modern version.

 

The chapter we read today comes from the third set of those writings. The Hebrew people, who had been exiled for years due to Babylonian conquest, were allowed to return home under new Persian rulers who did not desire to keep them in captivity. They had the enormous task of rebuilding their cities, villages, homes, and lives. Even though they were home, they probably felt like strangers in their own land.

 

The words written here are words of hope for those persons who likely felt they had no place after their homeland had been settled by new people. For many of us, we don’t feel that pain. Our families have been here generations. When I tried to understand the meaning of this, I looked back at my father’s family history. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came to the US via Ellis Island, NY, possibly for a new shot at life.

 

When they arrived in New York, the country was very hesitant to welcome Eastern Europeans. Starting life in a place that is not your own without much more than others like you is a hopeful, yet daunting, feeling, I imagine. Nevertheless, they managed to make a life for themselves. They had a vision that America offered something worth staying and working for, and that is part of what we celebrated this past week with our veterans.

 

The promises God makes in Isaiah are powerful for people like my great-grandparents. They left a land where things were familiar but they weren’t thriving.  They came to a place where they thought they could leave behind uncertainty of surviving. They went to a place where they could have a home and work and a life. That is God’s vision.

 

The intent is for us to share in that vision. We are to all work, and enjoy that work, and share with each other. The section about planting and eating isn’t about “what’s mine is mine” but the idea that all will have their place and will benefit together. They will thrive together.

 

We have lost the vision of God for our world. We took the image of the kingdom of heaven and labeled it heresy and socialism. When that happened, instead of the church picking up the slack and proving that God’s vision isn’t a pipedream, we sold out to the market society. We stopped believing in God’s vision and await the inevitable death of the Church as a force of change and goodness in the world.

 

I was reading a blog post by a bishop in Texas. He said something powerful. The vision of the church is often left to the pastor because people think the pastor can do the most change, but in denominations like ours where the pastor is not local, it leaves the church without a coherent vision. I know many pastors who like to walk into a church and say, “This is how it is going to be; these are our projects; and you better get on board.” I don’t work that way. I shouldn’t work that way. I want you to tap into the image of God for our world and let me help you get there.

 

I have realized, though, that I am not doing a good job of equipping you all to share your visions. For many of you, your experience of church is coming here on Sundays, listening to me and a few others talk, then going home. That doesn’t encourage vision. For our children and youth, we only want them to talk when they are answering questions we ask them. That doesn’t encourage vision either. I want to know what vision you feel God has put on your life. I want to know where you think you can help people and make sure you get there.

 

A while back, I developed a vision team, and then I let it fall. We jumped too quickly to making a new program. I failed to hold us accountable to listening to what is needed. If we just look for a new thing to do, we start making our vision happen and not God’s vision. We must be together if we expect something to happen. I am discerning a way forward for our community to build a vision that is holy and hopeful. I want this period in our church’s history known as the time we decided we want our future.

 

I am aware of the concerns about having long-term vision here. You have been burned by short-term pastors. When folks have said that to me, I usually respond with “that is why the church needs to take care of itself so no matter who is in charge, you still lead.” I know that sounds a little too sweet, but it is true. You are fully capable of handling your own dreams. I know you have the ability already. When I said we need people to help with visits, people volunteered. When we asked for nursery help, y’all signed up.

 

I have heard so many of you talk about how great it would be to have a family life center for us to have extra social space or event space. Sunday School teachers sorely need more room, so an education wing would be awesome. I heard one person mention that we could have an on-site shop to keep lawn equipment and tools so we can help fix and care for homes in the community. The only thing stopping us from having all of these is believing we actually can.

 

The vision of God is for those who have no home to have a home. The vision of God is for those who have no meal to have a meal. The vision of God is for all those who are weary would have rest, for those who are alone to have a friend, and for the lost to meet their savior. God’s vision is couched in the success of the church. Are we ready to be that?

 

We have to be a better place, and we can do that if the church is willing to lead the charge. I think this church is fully capable and ready to take its next steps in creating a vision by listening to God. I believe in Charlotte-Fagan’s part in the gospel. We just have to get over our fear of loss. For the time of Advent, we are going to do a churchwide Bible study using Sent.  That is going to give us a baseline for crafting our vision as we prepare to welcome the newborn Christ into the world.

 

Soon after that, I will call the Vision Team again and we will start the process for finding what God wants us to do. And I am going to leave that up to you. It’s not my job to make your vision. I’m just here to remind you that Christ does not let believers simply walk by a world of hurt. We are here to turn it around.

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