I want to talk about visions today. Every person needs a vision to live by – a vision for their life, a vision of what they would like to become, a vision they can hold before themselves, and measure their life against. In the Old Testament, it says, “without a vision, the people perish.” Paul talks about how his whole life as a Christian, was based upon a vision of the risen Christ. Without a vision, we flounder, we have no path, no destination - we wander, like the people of Israel did for forty years, with no particular destination in mind and, like them, become discouraged.
When I talk to couples who are planning their marriage, I ask them about their vision of marriage – what they hope their marriage will look like forty or fifty years down the road. I ask that, because our vision directs our steps, it helps us get to where we hope to go. I tell them my own vision – remembering a couple in my first parish in Baltimore, Art and Pearl Walz. They got married during the Great Depression. Art didn’t have a lot of money, but knew Pearl loved daffodils, so he bought her a daffodil farm for his wedding present to her. Then he and some friends went up to the Pennsylvania border and found an old, abandoned cabin made of chestnut logs, brought it back, and reconstructed it on the property. They lived there all their lives, and rescued several more cabins and put them on the property. When they died, they willed it to the City of Baltimore, which puts artisans in the cabins every summer. That was their vision. Mine was the two of them, every morning, when I’d see them pass by the window of my office, going to get a cup of coffee at Eat ‘n Park. In their eighties, they walked hand in hand, their eyes and voices still full of love after all those years. I said to myself: “That’s what I want. I want to be Art and Pearl.” That was my vision.
Visions are important to churches as well as individuals. Without a vision, we tend to sit around and twiddle our thumbs, not knowing in which direction we should go, and end up in maintenance ministry – just polishing the brass, waiting for something to happen. Instead of planning for the future, we become reactionary – when something does finally happen, it catches us off guard, because we weren’t looking for anything in particular. The difference between a pioneer and a settler, is that the pioneer is expecting things to happen, and so prepares for them; the settler doesn’t expect anything to happen, so everything catches him unaware and unprepared.
In the text today, we are introduced not only to an unusual story, but to two visions of life. Jesus takes the disciples to the other side of the lake – a place where they would not be comfortable, where the Gentiles lived. It’s the “wrong side of the tracks,” where no self-respecting Jew would willingly go. When they land, they find themselves in a cemetery – and suddenly it’s like a Freddy Kreuger movie. They are met by a crazy man, demon possessed, naked, yelling and screaming; and if they lift their eyes, there is a herd of pigs – just a sign of the uncleanliness of this place. We don’t hear anything from the disciples, because they probably refused to get off the boat.
From the other side, the people of town share a remarkably similar vision. These Jews arrive from the other side, a side where they are not welcome, and immediately, things change. Everyone was used to the crazy guy up in the cemetery, although he was a bit frightening. They hear that the Jewish rabbi that has brought his troupe here has cured him, which is interesting – and a little confounding. Apparently, here is a guy with some power. But he has also disrupted the local economy – the demons in the man went into their herd of pigs, and the pigs went crazy, all rushing into the sea. Like the disciples, they are fearful – except their fear is of Jesus, and they ask him to leave. They’d rather have the demon in their own back yard that they know, than this unknown power who has come into their midst.
Opposed to these visions – reactions to God’s invitation of fear and dread – is the one of the writer of this story, who wants us to witness what happens when a vision of God’s kingdom is lifted before people. The disciples, fearing what might happen to them, want to retreat. The townsfolk are more comfortable where they are, with a predictable life, than the unsettling life of the kingdom. In the midst of them is the man, formerly crazy and demon possessed, and now healed, who wants to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
The Gospel asks us: which vision shall we follow?
I’ve had a vision for each of my parishes, and I’d like to briefly share just one of them with you, before sharing the one I have had for this congregation.
My last church, St. Andrew, was in a multi-racial community. Middle-class, southern white people from the town lived on our side of the street. Poorer Hispanics and blacks lived on the other side of the street. And most of our congregation was composed of white northerners from New York, living in gated communities outside of town! What a mix! On top of that, of course, Lutherans are a rare bird in eastern Carolina, where even the mainline churches are more like some variety of Baptist. We built a new sanctuary, with a lot of glass – they liked that vision from my last church, although one guy kept saying we looked like a car dealership - but that vision was really one for my last church, not for them.
As we were planning for the new sanctuary, I had a dream about a large window that would face the neighborhood across the street. It looked like an old woodcut, of a medieval parade, with banners, people riding horses, dogs and cats dancing alongside. They were headed toward a very Jewish-looking Jesus, with St. Andrew greeting him, and behind him, Simon Peter, whom he was introducing to Jesus. There was also the boy with the fishes and loves, who was a black child with curly hair, whom Andrew brought to Jesus; and the Greeks, by which the Bible meant “foreigners,” who looked strangely Hispanic. Behind them was a line, heading out into the distance, of people of every race – since Andrew was the “Apostle to the Nations,” all those whom he brought to see Jesus. At night, the church could light up the window, and the community could see that St. Andrew Lutheran Church was not just a bunch of white guys from New York, ghettoized in the south, but a place for all people to gather and worship.
Here, I have often tended to see this church somewhat like one of those beautiful cathedrals, like you see in towns in Europe. In the heyday of those grand cathedrals, they were beautiful places, and busy, often filled with music and art, places meant to lift the spirit toward heaven. The beautiful stained glass windows were meant to tell the Gospel story to people who often didn’t know it, and who might not be literate. They weren’t just places of worship – they were the center of the town’s life. Many of them were medieval “works projects,” meant to put people to work during difficult times. They were community centers, and around the outside there were stalls where people would carry on business, perform, or put on dramas. It was also a place where poor people knew they could find shelter and something to eat, and a source of pride for the local mayor or prince, as well as the townspeople.
Of course, if you go to see one of those cathedrals today, they are still beautiful, there are still the stalls around them, and often groups want to do concerts in them, because of their sense of the holy that they project, the beautiful setting, and the wonderful acoustics. But they are almost empty of worshippers. Their congregations took it for granted that the beauty of the space and of their worship would keep the place filled. And the clergy, who were supported by the state, saw no reason to be visionaries, no reason to go out into the streets to spread the good news, to make disciples, to immerse people in the life of Christ – they just waited for people to come to them, and assumed that they would. Meanwhile, they did paperwork.
I don’t know if we are like those cathedrals – I like to think that we are, in some ways, because they were vital, exciting places at one time, and very much at the heart of the community, as this congregation is. People from this church are noted every year for their service to the community. Members here are at the heart of the food pantry, shelter services, the homeless shelter, the Lumina Center, and so much more. Pastors almost literally weep when they speak of the musical talent in our congregation. I don’t know of any church in our synod that has a worship life like ours. Nor do any have the kind of youth programs we have. We are blessed. This is a wonderful ministry.
But that isn’t enough. Like most churches, we are slowly losing members. Some of that is just the times we live in – people don’t go to church like they used to. Some is demographics – we live in a town that isn’t growing, and all the churches are aging. But those can be just excuses as well. Yet, besides the music, besides the beauty of this place, besides the youth programs and ministries to the community, we have something else here – the Spirit of the Lord is in this place. Paul says that the nature of the community in Christ is that, when one suffers all suffer with them; when one rejoices, all rejoice with them. We do that well-enough here, but we must make sure we do that outside these doors as well, as the real presence of Christ in this community. We need, both as a church, and as members of it, to live with a vision of the living Christ, leading us, offering ourselves for the sake of others.
That is the vision toward which I believe this church needs to move: a vision of a church which does not see itself so much as a focal point for the community, one which invites the community in – but one that understands that God is out in the community, doing his thing, and is out and about in the community looking for him, and witnessing to his presence there. A church that gathers itself here to strengthen itself, to strategize, and to share where they have seen God at work – so that they can get more ideas about where he might be active, as they seek to find him and witness to his presence. A church that is much like those folks with their GPSes, who geocache, who run about looking for hidden clues – except we are looking for something far more exciting – we are looking for the presence of God in our community and, when we find God at work, we rejoice and celebrate his presence with the entire community.
So, this is a vision I would like to offer to you – it’s a vision of communion. I think it’s a worthy vision, not only for the church, but for each of us to hold as we go through our life. I have always rebelled at the notion the greater church has long held of communion as a meal for insiders. With all the meals that Jesus ate, we tend to focus on just one – the last one, the Last Supper. Of course it was important. But the other meals communion looks back to, other than the Last Supper, were meals open to all. That was his habit: an open table where all were welcome. I believe that is what we are about – as one of our post-communion prayers says, we are “bread broken for the sake of the world.” The breaking and sharing of our lives outside these doors, our eating and drinking with our neighbors, the sharing of our love with the people of this town, our offering of our gifts and talents to the world, our being broken and given for the sake of this community and of our world – that is what gives vitality and life to what happens inside these doors.
May this sanctuary be a place of beauty, where people can come to and feel God’s presence. May our ministries touch the lives of many in healing and reconciling ways. But, most of all, may we always be a living church, a people of vision and faith, bread broken for the sake of the world; where the Spirit of Christ is active, apparent, and celebrated.