I am at Dover UMC this morning. (Location of church) The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, All Saints Day, are Isaiah 25: 6 – 9; Revelation 21: 1 – 6; and John 11: 32 – 44.
I normally don’t do a series of messages but as the title of this one would suggest I am doing so this week. There were things about the Scriptures last week and the message that I saw in those verses that matched in part what I was thinking about the message for today.
The focus last week was a metaphorical new vision of God by Job and the physical restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight. These visions came on the Sunday when we pause to remember Martin Luther and his vision of a new church.
The opening lines of the second reading for today tell us John the Seer’s vision of the New Jerusalem and a new beginning for mankind. I do not, as some today do, see the Revelation of John as the end of mankind. Rather, I have come to see the Revelation as a new beginning, of a promise of a new hope found in Christ.
It is interesting that we would read this particular passage of Scripture on a day when we pause to remember those who have gone before us. It would not seem logical to think of the past when the focal point of any discussion should be about the future. But, in reality, when we remember the Saints of the church, be it a particular church or the church in general, we are remembering the vision they had for the church and where they thought the church would be long after they had left. And for us today, the vision of the church many years ago must also include the vision that John Wesley had when he first spoke out against a church that had no vision, which could not see the poor and the needy, the hungry and the homeless, the sick and imprisoned.
There isn’t a church in this country or on this planet that wasn’t formed with some vision of its purpose. We see it in the Methodist churches from Cold Spring and South Highlands eastward to Mahopac. Each of those churches represents a stop for the circuit riders some two hundred years ago. I would also expect that the churches along route 22 from Pawling northward to Pine Plains can be measured in terms of the circuit riders who visited this area early in our country’s history.
Sometimes, you have to wonder about the vision or purpose behind the creation of a particular church. I cannot help but think of the local Pentecostal churches in the hollows of eastern Kentucky that are within ear-shout and eye-sight of other similarly named churches. It always struck me that these were churches started by members of one church who had a disagreement and decided it was best to form their own church, even if you could walk just down the road from one church to the other.
But, no matter the reason, every church knows the purpose for which it was founded and a vision of where it would like to go. Or at least it should. A church whose only vision is to be a memorial to the Saints long past is a church without a vision.
For any person or organization to have a vision of the future, to think beyond the moment, is and can be a very dangerous thing. There are risks involved when a church begins to think of what might happen and what it will take to make the vision a reality. It is quite easy to see the present as safe and fear what tomorrow might bring or to sit and think that yesterday was so much better.
But pause for a moment and think about what it must have been for the early church, meeting secretly in believer’s homes, because public knowledge that they were believers and followers of Jesus Christ meant their arrest, torture, and execution. The only assurance that these early believers, these early Saints, had was that there was a promise in life after death, no matter what might happen to them in the present.
Still, the prospect of a new vision can be a very threatening thing. You would think that a new vision should be a liberating thing but people who have been oppressed for long periods of time are not always open to new visions.
You would have thought that the Israelites, after many years of slavery and oppression in Egypt, would have rejoiced in the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But time and time again, they rebelled against that vision and time after time, they demanded a return to Egypt and slavery. Even after all the wanderings, when they stood on the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to cross over, the spies that were sent in to scout the land returned with tails of danger and accounts of giants. The vision was theirs to claim but the people still would rather accept a reality of slavery than any vision of freedom.
It may not seem logical but many times those who have been oppressed or forgotten may approach the prospect of a new vision with a certain degree of numbness and apathy. It is far easier and safer to continue in a world where things may be bleak and without hope because it is a familiar situation than entertain the possibility of something new and transforming because it is unknown and potentially dangerous.
It has been an axiom of society that we cannot buck the status quo. And there are many, even in the church, who would offer no vision of the future because they are heavily invested in the present. Their opposition and reluctance to see the future, to have any vision for the future, can sap energy and prevent change, because they stifle the imagination.
But the hope and promise of a better tomorrow can overcome those who would work against the new vision. They will offer many thoughts that are only designed to stifle and hold back. The future can be very frightening because it is unknown when held up against the reassurance of what the present offers.
The power of vision is its ability to imagine an alternative to the present reality. Vision offers a way for an alternative consciousness to develop, to produce a scenario different from the present. It offers one the opportunity to see an alternative to the status quo, to shed light on the deficiencies of the present.
The people were in grief because Lazarus had died; all they wanted Jesus to do was console Mary and Martha in the loss of their brother. But Jesus offered a new vision, of a life that transcends death. To bring Lazarus out of the tomb was to offer a new vision, a continuation of what He had said early on His ministry, “Go and tell the people what you have seen and heard”. (Luke 7: 22)
Even those who offer a new vision know that it can be frightening. It would be naïve to even think about getting involved in the development of a new vision if one did not realize its costs. To announce a new vision for the future is to say that there is something wrong with the present. And this will lead many to proclaim such visionaries as radicals or revolutionaries and even subversive. And we all know what the secular and sectarian authorities did to Jesus and those who proclaimed the vision of a new church some two thousand years ago. (Adapted from Threshold of the Future by Michael Riddell)
But if the present condition, the numbness of a living death, is nothing more than despair and absence of hope, a vision can offer hope. When we read the prophets, especially Isaiah, we forget their timeless messages found a beginning in social and political crises. In the book of Isaiah, Assyria had swept the northern kingdom of Israel away. Now it rode from the north and endangered Jerusalem. Little did the city realize that the seeds of Assyria’s destruction lay in her expansion. The impending crisis had a “silver lining.”
The verses from Isaiah that we read today share the hope of the changing situation. Through the prophet, God announced a time of celebration in Jerusalem and an end to the desperation that covered the city “like a veil.” God was liberating Mount Zion (upon which the city was built) from danger and was restoring the reputation of the city and the people.
Hope in the light of vindication and liberation. The message of Isaiah still rings true today as it did so many centuries ago. Where do you see hope in the light of danger? How has God restored you when you were “down and out?” How did you thank God for your turnaround? (From http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/a/28-a/FR-28-a.html)
What is your vision of the church today? What shall be your vision tomorrow? When I was selecting the music for this Sunday, it was only natural that I pick something like “For All the Saints”. And I will admit that I picked “Be Thou My Vision” for the most obvious of reasons even though it was not on the suggested list of hymns in my worship planner. But there was a song on the suggested list that I might never have thought about, our closing hymn this morning, “We Shall Overcome.”
Perhaps no song is more associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s but I doubt that many people know of its ties to this area or its history within the Methodist Church. The popularity of the song as a protest song comes, in part, from the effort of Pete Seeger in the late 40s and early 50s.
But the song itself has ties to the African Methodist Episcopal church of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even then, its roots run back to at least 1867. As I explored the history of this song, I noticed something. A gentleman named Thomas Wentworth Higgins, writing in the June, 1867, issue of Atlantic Monthly said that he wondered how such spirituals were developed and written. He concluded that there was something in the minds of some people that lead to the song’s creation but he also concluded that such songs grew by gradual accretion, bits and pieces, in an almost unconscious way. There was a vision involved in the creation and development of this song, just as there is for almost any other song.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy used the words of George Bernard Shaw to speak of a vision for this country, “some see things as they are and say why; others see things as they could be and ask why not.” Sadly, that implementation of that vision was taken away from us that horrible, horrible spring some forty-one years ago. But the vision was not taken away. And today, on this All Saints Sunday, we are reminded of the vision that our forefathers and those who walked the path before us had. We are called to see the vision of Christ renewing our lives and transforming them; we are called to see the vision of tomorrow in the hope and promise of Christ’s resurrection. The words that we now see say that we shall overcome; we shall make the vision the reality.