Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Vision Thing

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church, Rochester, NY on the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

It is quite convenient—what one would call serendipity—for me to be here this morning and to have these particular readings. My biggest project with you currently is working with a Vision Team on a renewed sense of identity and mission for the congregation. We are asking the simple yet profound and vital questions: Who are we? Why are we here? It is “the Vision Thing.”

It happens that the readings today are all about “the Vision Thing” as well.

First off we have our patron Stephen being stoned to death. As this excruciating thing is happening to him he has a vision of heaven, of God’s glory and of Jesus’ presence at the place of honor. There are two important things to note in relation to this vision.

First of all, the stoning was being done by religious people. This tells me that the answer to “the vision thing” is not necessarily to get more religious (by that, I mean mostly “more pious”). Parish Mission Statements or Vision Statements are fairly useless when they simply exude piety. I’m talking about things like “to know Christ and to make him known.” Not that it is not a worthy thing to know Christ and to make him known, but what does it really mean in practical terms? It does not answer the question, “how?” for instance. This parish, given our patron, ought to be cautious about an overemphasis on piety. Stephen was stoned to death by it.

Second of all, Stephen’s vision leads to something very particular: his plea to God that those who are stoning him be forgiven. That may seem like simply the “right thing to do,” and it is certainly that. But in saying it, Stephen has actually changed his mind about these people. One of the reasons they are stoning him is that he has just accused them of being hypocrites since the days of Moses, ending up with murdering God’s Messiah. “You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit…” he says, “you have not kept [the law].” Stephen’s vision turns this condemnation into forgiveness.

Now we move on to the passage from the First Letter of Peter. In it the apostle piles up the images, culminating with the grand and glorious vision

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Notice again that the vision has consequences. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people, for what? In order that we proclaim the mighty acts of God that have brought us out of darkness into light. And Peter goes on to say a bit more. These mighty acts, this journey from darkness to light, is a journey from not belonging to belonging, from not experiencing a life of mercy to receiving it.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

This vision is kind of the bottom line for us. Any vision we have for ourselves has to have this vision as a base. This means that any vision we have of ourselves has to come out of our own sense of who we are as God’s people as opposed to those who hold any other allegiance or are defined by their relationship to someone or something other than God.

Finally there is this morning’s Gospel reading. There are really two distinct visions in this passage. The first, God’s heavenly home where there are many rooms, where each of us has a place to dwell prepared by Jesus himself. Then there is the image of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life,” through whom we have access to God.

They may seem like contradictory images: heaven with room for many, if not all, a very inclusive image, but then a narrow, exclusive way to that inclusiveness. But does it have to be an exclusive way? After all, it is Jesus who says he is the way, the Jesus who prepares a place for us in the home of God where there is much room. This is Jesus who hung out with the disrespected and outcast, who had compassion for all, and who, in this same Gospel, says that if he is lifted up he will draw all to himself. Perhaps this way is not a narrow, exclusive path, but a wide, inclusive “super highway.”

And the truth about Jesus is a big truth, bigger than we can ever comprehend, bigger than our way of following him. Again, it is Jesus who is this way and truth, not us, not the church.

This vision has consequences as well. We are inviting people on a path that must be deliberately chosen and the choices we must make “exclude” us from other ways of being in the world. Look at the promises of the Baptismal Covenant and you will see a commitment to particular choices that form a particular way of life.

No vision is worth the paper it is printed on if it does not call a person to make choices, which means one of the realities we face—contrary to our instincts—is that some people would choose not to take this path.

What does this passage have to say to us as we discern our vision? I think it says we have to walk the fine line between on the one hand wanting to seem embracing of the culture around us—be inclusive—and on the other hand not being afraid of what makes us distinctive—as Christians and as Episcopalians. Whether or not we know the precise way, truth and life is up for debate. But we do know a way, a truth and a life that we unashamedly offer to others.

So what have we learned about vision?

· It leads to real consequences that sometimes change us. It does not rely on religious platitudes.
· It grows out of our own clear sense that we are God’s people in this place and at this time. As such we are called to do something to proclaim the way to the light.
· It seeks both to embrace the world and define ourselves as distinctive from it, to offer people choices to make to follow a particular path.

Beyond these things I want to say a bit about why we need to do this vision work in the first place. It is really quite simple. If a community such as this wants to do more than survive it must, at the very least, be very clear about who it is and why it is—fundamental questions of identity. That identity, moreover, must be a truly communal one. It cannot come from any one person—clergy or lay—or small group.

Why this emphasis on identity? Because you cannot invite people into something that you know not what it is. It is not enough to just think of yourselves as a friendly church that any right-thinking person would belong to if they were just thinking clearly enough. Every church that exists on the face of the planet thinks that about itself.

And you cannot do mission if you do not know out of which you are doing. Who we are is the true shaper of what we do.

Now I have no doubt that part of what we discover on this “vision quest” will be things we already know, and some of the things this community already does are strong indications of its identity. We are not so much trying to create an identity but uncover it. That’s why we shouldn’t be afraid of this process—it is simply discerning who God has already made us.

And that’s why it is good news, real gospel. God has made us something together and, as the old saying goes, God don’t make junk.

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