Luke 18:9-14; Joel 2:23-32
While many of us have visions of candy and costumes in our heads in our heads these days, we are sitting here today because of a different kind of vision. On October 31st, 1517, the Professor and pastor Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, setting forth a vision of a church that needed healing and reforming. He disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money – called indulgences in his day. He also denounced other corrupt practices of the papacy, especially the doctrine of infallibility of the pope. He argued that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds. Eventually Martin Luther went to trial for heresy in 1521. Called the trial that led to the birth of the modern world, Luther was ordered to recant his writings under threat of excommunication (and unspoken, threat to his life.) It is at this trial where Luther refused to recant and uttered these now famous words: Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence...I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience....Here I stand. God help me! Amen!" This powerful vision of reforming the church, preached in earlier times notably by Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, Erasmus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, -- eventually led to a new movement called the Protestant Reformation, of which we are direct heirs.
The Protestant Reformation, which we celebrate today, finds us now at another impasse. It is said that at least 85% of mainline churches are plateauing, declining, dying or in some state of transition. A major shift is underfoot. What will emerge is anyone’s guess. What is clear that change and transformation begins with a vision.
Scripture is full of visions to build on. Look at our readings today. Are churches today more like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, recognizing itself as a community of sinners, dependent on the mercy of God, and serving through the grace given us by Jesus Christ? Are churches tuned into the hurt and rejection people carry, and recognize its call to proclaim the message of forgiveness and reconciliation? Or have churches become Pharisee churches; reciting beautiful prayers, grateful we’re law-abiding citizens, able to fast, follow the ten commandments and give generously of our money. Jesus asks us which person in the parable displayed the vision, the traits—of a church community that God finds acceptable. Are we a repenting, open to grace church -- or a complacent church? Are we a church, like prophet Joel describes: a people that rebounds from the drought -- the plague of locusts -- from a time of famine and loss -- to a new time, a time of dreams and vision, to a time of the outpouring of Spirit on all peoples? Are we stuck in loss, of old dreams of what we once were, devoured by struggle, plagued by a famine of spiritual habit, unable to move forward?
Churches need to have a vision to thrive. Proverbs 29:18 tells us:” Where there is no vision (revelation from God), the people perish, blessed is the one who keeps the law.” Vision is forged in searching God’s word, in embracing the promises God speaks to us – and reveals to us how we are to proceed
Even Jesus had a vision statement that guided his ministry. He proclaimed it the first time he preached in Nazareth: (Luke 4:18) when he quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus’ life was grounded and directed by this vision. That’s what made his work powerful, effective; clear for all to see whether they liked it or not. The clear vision that Jesus lived awakened the hunger for good news, liberation, healing, for the experience of favor in people’s hearts. The question for us, how close does our vision align with the vision of Jesus?
Let’s look at it from another angle. The opening line in Presbyterian Church Book of Order, (one part of our constitution) describes the mission of the church – but sounds like God’s vision statement: It states: “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father Son and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.”
Vision drives us, inspire us and point us to the direction we must go, and keep us focused. Visions often seem impossible, larger than life– but that is good, because it makes the Holy Spirit the agent of power –not us. Vision leads to mission . Without action, a vision is just a fantasy. Vision with action however, can change the world. Experience the power of these short, bold vision statements:
Oxfam: A just world without poverty: Feeding America: A hunger-free America : Human Rights Campaign: Equality for everyone: Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live: San Diego Zoo: To become a world leader at connecting people to wildlife and conservation: In Touch Ministries: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in every country of the world:.
We’ve been talking this past month about how to make our church a spiritually evolving church. How we ourselves tap into the source to be spiritually evolving people. We’ve looked at practicing faith, gratitude, commitment and now vision. They are incorporated in the vision of Jesus, and by the vision of our very constitution -- as we are guided to find our unique vision, our message to proclaim. Vision gives us a compass. Vision keeps us connected and focused on Jesus – not ourselves. Vision makes our dreams bigger than our memories. Vision gives us a purpose and destiny. Having a vision, that incorporates our faith, the power of mercy, and activates our commitment, is powerful. Such a vision transforms.
Today, we are facing a new reformation. Churches and faithful people are faced now with revitalizing Jesus’ movement. We are being moved out of the complacency of a Pharisee church to a “tax-collector church” -- a church that knows its need for God, is transformed by the mercy of God, and sent forth to serve. There is a vision unfolding around us if we would dare to see it. It looks something like this: faith communities evolving beyond labels (catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran), finding commonality, and even giving greater respect to the faiths of the world. We are discovering a world of seekers from all paths people who define themselves as spiritual, not religious. We are discovering more Internet users are searching for religious and spiritual information online – relying on all forms of social media.
Today, Vision is calling us to follow Jesus every day of our lives; and be of service to each other and our communities. Through his own vision statement, Jesus models the path of transformation that enables us to live in the world in a new way – a grace-filled way, filled with humility. We are discovering the need for reclaim creative devotional lives, and a wide variety of spiritual tools. To find innovative uses of space and gathering places. To engage seekers who desire to supplement their disciplined study of the Bible, relevant to the needs of the day – open to the explorations of other sacred texts and the wisdom of many traditions. We are discovering the old-age need to tame the mind and purify the heart. We are called to read the signs of God's presence in the texts of our own experience. We are called to engage a world that seeks active contemplatives and contemplative activists. There is a strong vision for forgiveness, connection and justice – love enacted in the world – to: serve the poor and helpless, to practice nonviolence and take stands against war, to advocate for and protect our environment, to seek ways to end the growing gap between the rich and the poor. These are glimpses of the vision of the emerging church.
On this reformation day, we are called to consider the emerging visions for the church. New configurations of spiritual communities are emerging. God has promised to pour out God’s spirit on all flesh. So today our spiritual imperative is to claim the dreams and visions God is placing in our hearts. The great abolitionist, humanitarian, and visionary, Harriet Tubman: once said:
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t stifle the vision that is emerging around the world, among many peoples, in much different way. Rooted in the very vision of Jesus, inspired by the vision of our own church constitution, let us capture the Vision – full of mercy, gratitude, commitment to what matters – make our declaration to the stars – for here we stand – and like Martin Luther –God will help us. Amen.