David A. Leslie: “Visions and Visionaries”
“Visions and Visionaries”
How little time there is to be a baby, to be a little child. It was just two weeks ago, on Epiphany, we read the story of the magi and their encounter with King Herod and the Christ child. Only two weeks ago we were at church placing these travelers in the nativity crèche to complete the birth story. And only last week at home we were packing up the Christmas decorations and taking the tree to the recycling center.
How fast the Christ story moves forward. How nice it would be just to relax and “coo and ah” with the new arrival, but for the writer of the Gospel of John, there is no time. There are no childhood narratives, no baby pictures, no videos or home movies of the first birthday, confirmation, or school play. Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, “Come and see…follow me,” is offered in the imperative form giving us a sense of urgency. There is no time to ponder, for there are places to go, wonders to behold and visions to see.
God’s visions are of a world different from the one that we encounter daily. God’s call to discipleship centers on the collective task of challenging our complacency with the world’s affairs and building up a community of people who are committed to the holy ends of justice and peace. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us of this calling in his sermon, Strength to Love, when he wrote, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Yet as modern day skeptics, we face the difficult challenge of opening ourselves to the prophetic zeal—at times, for good reason. Listening carefully and observing intently, there seems to be an unending cacophony of words and no shortages of visions offered in the marketplace. Politicians, preachers, business leaders and even ecumenical executives feed us vision after vision. Everyone has a pronouncement and vision about something. It is important we ask, “Are these the type of visions that tingle or dull our senses? Are they holy or profane?”
Now as we know all too well, there are different kinds of visions and visionaries. There are those that enhance life, justice and community, as well as those that destroy. Out west in Oregon, for example, visions and visionaries have helped to preserve our magnificent Pacific Ocean coastline, ensuring that it is held in public trust and accessible to all people. Visions about justice and the good society led to the creation of the Oregon Health Plan, one of the few state medical assistance programs that offer the poor comprehensive health care coverage. Vision-inspired tribal and agricultural leaders within our region are working together to create salmon restoration and economic development programs that are breathing new life into tribal and non-tribal communities. Sacred visions of peace are leading the faithful to march and speak out against a war with Iraq.
On the other hand, visionaries in Oregon created the climate in the 1920’s for more than 25,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan to call Oregon home. Clouded visions led to the internment of Japanese Americans in Oregon during World War II, resulting in the confiscation of their fruit orchards in Hood River, businesses in Portland, and farms in the Willamette Valley.
Today, so-called visionaries are leading a relentless assault on government, taxes and public services. The results of these attacks include decreasing financial resources necessary to adequately support the public and private agencies and organizations that address the needs of those on the economic margins of society. Sadly, this is happening at a time when Oregon has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and has been deemed the hungriest state in the country according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nationally, we also find ourselves caught in the vise of contrasting visions. Visions of economic well being through massive tax breaks, international peace through a conflict with Iraq, and security at home as the result of a war on terrorism are creating images that make many of us pause and others weep. Visions once articulated of universal public education, a hospitable place for refugees and immigrants, and adequate health care for all citizens seem to be fading. More and more people are pessimistically asking, “Can anything good come out of Washington?” There seems to be a divestiture from our obligations to one another and the world at large. The immensity of our challenges seems overwhelming and, at times, paralyzing.
Fortunately, however, Christ will have none of this. Even in the face of Nathanael’s backhanded comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, Jesus invites us to follow and be more than we often think we can or should be. Jesus says, “Come and follow me for you will see—for you will live into—greater things than these.”
Yet, discerning and discovering the visions that will lead us in the right direction are not easy. This is especially true when we may not have the type of first person, cynicism-shaking encounter with the Christ that people like Nanthanael, Paul or Thomas had. It is important to ask Will the vision before us be a mirage, leaving us thirsty and at death’s doorstep? Will it lead us to water that quenches our thirst and renews us for the journey? Which calls to discipleship should we follow? While I will not be so foolish as to attempt a definitive answer to these questions, I do believe that there are signs to help us discern the sacred visions and the right way to travel. Let me share four of them with you this morning.
First, to follow Christ is to follow life. John reminds us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus reminds us, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Christ is about life and the building up of God’s Creation.
Second, Christ’s followers are asked to be about God’s task of tikum olam—repairing the world—and being bearers of love, peace and justice. As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us, we are called to both repair the breaches in society and create the breaches in the walls that divide people and destroy community. When we are about the collective task of peace and justice, Christ and the prophets remind us that rightness in relationships and true health and well being are possible.
Third, we must remember that discipleship is not a calling to be lived alone, isolated from the past and all the saints and prophets who have come before and laid the ground for future generations. We are but a part of the story. Thank God for people like Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the countless others who answered the call, “Follow me.” Surely, these are the “angels of God ascending and descending” from heaven.
As we honor the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we do so remembering first and foremost that he was a servant of God, a person who while could lead, could follow and be a part of the cloud of witnesses. Our Gospel lesson reminds us that it is when we are together that we find strength and are able to see and participate in great wonders.
Finally, the breath and depth of visions do matter. The visions that God has called the church to live into are big, daunting, and ear tingling. Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk Center, speaks eloquently of this notion in his autobiography The Long Haul. The Center was founded in the 1930’s in eastern Tennessee as a gathering place for community organizers, advocates and educators to address social issues and problems. Among the people whose journeys took them to Highlander include Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reinhold Neibuhr who, by the way, wrote the first fundraising appeal for the Center. In his autobiography Horton wrote,
Anything that one person can do alone is not worth doing when you are dealing with social problems. If a problem is that small, then the goal is too limited. There is a popular theory that if you give people simple enough goals that they can reach without too much effort, they will get a sense of success and that success will build them up. I think that’s a lot of malarkey. If a goal isn’t something very difficult, all that people will learn to do is tackle little problems. You can’t develop any valuable leadership if you don’t teach people that they can deal with big problems.
In other words, if a vision is not something big, stretching and difficult, it is probably too profane to be holy. There is a good chance it is not of God.
As a father of three great boys ages 7, 10 and 13, I have learned that visions are an important aspect of parenting. When the boys were little, there were many times when I joked with them and said, “I think I’ll just keep you 3 or 4 years old.” Of course, they’d hear nothing of the sort. They wanted to get older, grow up, and have more freedom. Yet, how powerful are those moments of small successes like the first word or step. I just wanted them to stay 3 or 4, for I knew all too well the challenges that lay ahead.
But as they grow older, gain confidence and awareness, I am also reminded of the wonders yet to be encountered. While my wife and I can’t hold them back, we can nurture their sense of excitement, help them develop the empathy and skills needed to be engaged in an often times disappointing world, and discern the difference between the sacred and profane. Through these commitments, hopefully they will walk the way of Christ, and be captured by a vision of true life centered on the magnificent and wonderful power of love, peace and justice.
On this second Sunday after Epiphany, some of us may want a few more moments to enjoy the baby. Thankfully, there are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that allow us the time. But there again is the Gospel of John calling us to action. It is in this tension we are called to live. It is in this tension we are called to serve.
Jesus, the true visionary, calls us with the invitation “Come and see…follow me.” Let us embrace this calling for the sake of peace and the well being of all of God’s children—and God’s marvelous creation—today and in the days to come. This is our calling. Let us rejoice in it and call it good.</P