This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 2st Sunday in Lent, 11 March 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18; Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1; and Luke 13: 31 – 35.
I still don’t know what to make of the events last week. Did those students, the young man in California and the young woman in Pennsylvania, know or understand the consequence of their actions? Could they see what the future would be? Is it possible that their actions were in part because they didn’t think they had a future or that whatever future there was not worth it?
When we read the Book of Genesis, we see what the vision of the future can be in terms of one individual. Abram, later of course renamed Abraham, is a key (if not the key) figure in the Old Testament. His story fills sixteen chapters of Genesis. He was obedient to God from the time he left his home (in Genesis 12) through his willingness to sacrifice his son (in Genesis 22). Nonetheless, he had his moments of doubts and uncertainty.
The beginning part of the Old Testament reading for today suggests that Abram was worried about his very survival. Perhaps he was worried about retaliation for rescuing Lot (in chapter 14). It is more likely that his concern stemmed from the fact that he had no male child to pass on his lineage and possessions. And in a society where that the ability to pass on your legacy was your future, to have no way to do so was to have no future.
But as it states in verse 6, "Abram believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to [Abram] as righteousness." Abram believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises and was given the vision of the future in the stars that he saw during the night.
Jesus also had a vision of the future. In the presence of the Pharisees sent from Herod, Jesus could see in his mind’s eye the long and bitter trek to Jerusalem where he would die rejected by society. But Jesus also knew that if He did not go to Jerusalem, if he did not die on the cross, then everything that he had done up to that point would have been worthless and there would be no hope in the future for us.
The astonishing thing in the passage from Luke that we read today is the presence of the Pharisees. Our usual picture of the Pharisees is one of those who measured and counted every bean on their plate in order to tithe yet could turn around steal from widows and orphans. They were the ones who prayed on street corners so that everyone could see them, they were tone ones who traversed land and sea to make one convert and then would make this new convert into a twofold son of hell. The Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs with all manner of uncleanness inside.
Perhaps this passage speaks of our tendency to lump people together and judge them alike, to paint them all with the same brush. No doubt we all identified with the above picture of the Pharisee; yet we are also aware that they were at least two Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea, who were very different. There is so much good in the worst of us and so much evil in the best of us that it behooves us to be careful in our judgment of others.
I do think that what those students did was wrong and anyone who feels that the only way to get attention is to do something violent is also wrong. To do something wrong just because others did you wrong can never be a justification for actions. But I also think that they truly believed that there was no alternative for them to take.
It is the easiest thing in the world to criticize. There are those who decry society’s impact on students saying that it is because society has allowed violence to be such a part of our day to day life that violence is seen as the only alternative. Yet, in condemning society, these critics fail to realize that we are society.
But what alternatives did those students have? Who could they have turned to in their community? If there were a student in this area who was thinking of something similar, whom would they have or where could they go?
Verse 32 gives a needed corrective to the stance of being so nonjudgmental that we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to obvious evil. There is no virtue in a hypocritical and simplistic refusal to see the devil at work! Jesus, you remember, said that others would know us by our fruits. It is possible to be so open-minded that our brains will fall out.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, to tell Herod – "that fox" that he will continue in his ministry, is a reminder to us today that there are times when we need to respond boldly and openly to the schemes of the evil around us.
Now is not the time for criticism; now is the time for action. Action requires a vision, an understanding of what is to come or perhaps what we would like to come. Historically, it has been religion that has offered the guidance for spiritual and moral values. We, as a society, suffer today because we have lost our vision. And without a vision of the future, we are perishing.
What is vision, anyway? Webster’s Dictionary defines vision as "the act or power of imagination." And it goes on to define imagination as "creative ability," the "ability to confront and deal with a problem," and "poetic creation." Imagination means to picture something new; to have a vision of the future is see something that otherwise might not be seen.
The alternative moral and political vision that society requires today is unlikely to come from the pinnacles of power. Too many leaders make bold pronouncements without understanding what the local situation is. What will work for one area does not always work for other areas. The true vision often from comes from the small communities, such as Walker Valley, working from the bottom up to change people’s lives.
To have a vision requires imagination – the ability to see what cannot be seen in the present and the capacity to picture a new reality. Vision requires using more than ordinary sight, being rooted in a historical memory, and building upon some experience of what you seek to envision.
If what we are to do is to have some basis on prior experience, then we should consider what Paul told the people of Philippi, "Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us." In this day and age, we are disinclined to set ourselves up as models of behavior, not just because we are so humble but because to do so requires an uncomfortable amount of accountability. It is not enough to offer people guidelines for living. The most lasting lessons of faith are not passed on in the classroom; they are conveyed in what we see in living, moving bodies.
Each of us has a unique experience with Christ. We have individually come to know Christ. Each week we come together as a community to share that experience. We see in Christ a hope the future that cannot be found anywhere else. Our celebration of communion today is a reminder that the promise of the future, much like Abraham’s future was set before him in the stars, is set by the cross and the empty grave. The challenge we face is to find ways to help others so that they may see the same hope and promise of the future.