A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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The following is a sermon/talk that I gave this morning on the first Sunday of our church’s fiscal year.  I hesitate to share it and yet at the same time feel called to more than I usually do.

Introduction

This is a hard Sunday for me.  Today is now the fifth time that I have begun a new fiscal year with a new fiscal budget, alongside a new “fiscal” board with a new “fiscal” dream.

I will go on record and say that I believe this is an important Sunday.  I believe it is a good thing once a year to give a “State of the Church” type speech where I try to sum up the last year and give some hope and direction for the New Year.  That is a healthy thing to do which is why I have done it on this Sunday for the last four years.  It has always gone well and despite what I am about to say, next year I will probably do it again.

But this year I don’t know what to say.  I have hopes and dreams for our congregation.  I have my lists of things we could do and do really well.  I also have lists of things we probably shouldn’t do.  So I have vision.  I have opinions.  I certainly have ideas by the thousands.  You all should know that about me by now.

However, over the last year I’ve discovered that God does not want me to be a visionary pastor.  I don’t know if I ever believed that but part of me pretended to because I knew some of you wanted a visionary pastor.  So this Sunday was my Sunday to pretend to do that so you wouldn’t hang me or drive me out of town.  This was my day to pretend to be a confident, self assured, visionary leader to help calm those of you who thought you wanted that.

Over the last year I have decided I am done with that and I am done even pretending it.  That happened in a few ways.

Paul and the Corinthians

First I reread Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  The Corinthians hated Paul because he wasn’t visionary enough.  He wasn’t tall, dark and handsome enough.  Tradition tells us he wasn’t a great public speaker.  He was short and stocky and maybe couldn’t see well.  He was the last person you would expect to spread the gospel across the Roman empire.  The Corinthians hated him for it.  They thought he wasn’t a “super” enough apostle.

Paul’s response to them was verses like 1 Cor. 1:27, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”  He repeats similar sentiments in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in what is my life verse, “[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

At the same time I also met with several visionary pastors and church planters.  These are people who drip charisma and have built some awesome institutions.  Several of them have seen a great amount of success by worldly standards.  They are chock full of ideas and “inspiration.”  But I always walked away from those conversations feeling empty.  I did not feel the Spirit there.

I have also met with several other pastors who are not successful by worldly standards.  Most of them pastor smaller churches.  One or two pastor large churches but those churches are not doing successful things by our world’s standards.  Those conversations were always seasoned with salt.  Those pastors were dripping with something that I can only call “holiness.”  I walked away wanting more of it.

As I began recognizing those two types of pastors I felt God was laying out two roads for me.  One was wide and easy and filled with success but I knew where it ended.  The other was a bit rockier and narrower and more difficult but it seemed to be the one Paul and Jesus walked.

Eugene Peterson

Then I read Eugene Peterson.  Some of you might remember a sermon from a few months ago where I told Peterson’s story about building a cathedral in Massachusetts.  For two years he cast this great vision for this awesome building out in a farm field.  It was great.  Their attendance went up during that time.  They raised the money and built the building.  The minute it was built the attendance and finances dwindled.  His denominational executive told him, “start building another building ASAP and they will all come back.”  Eugene Peterson declined that gracious offer to go into more debt on a bigger building that they did not need.  He knew that Christian leadership isn’t about vision casting and building buildings.  He repented and decided to just be a pastor.  Then he wrote ten books about it.  .  .

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

I have also been memorizing Mark’s gospel over the last two months.  Mark is only 15 chapters and 8 verses long.  It is about half as long as Matthew and Luke.  3 of Mark’s 15 chapters, 1/5th of the book, is all about “apostolic leadership.”  For three chapters (8,9 and 10) Jesus constantly lectures his disciples about power and authority.  That is where we get some of our classics.

“Whoever wants to be first must be the very last.” (Mark 9:35).

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34)

“Any who wants to be great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave.” (Mark 10:44)

My favorite is, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  NOT SO WITH YOU!” (Mark 10:42).

I am not sure “leadership” is even a New Testament concept.  To the extent it is, it is only in the form of good following.

Proverbs 29:18

But THEN there is this other verse from Proverbs.  It comes up all the time in leadership classes and seminars.  I have heard it quoted several times this year.  It is Proverbs 29:18, “Without vision the people perish.”

I heard someone quote it awhile back.  It was in the context of “be a visionary 21st century leader.  Come up with a vision statement and hold your people to it.  It’s your job as the leader!”  I was listening to this person and it finally occurred to me that there is no way the Bible says that, at least not in the context of, “without a 21st century vision statement and a leader to be firm and a little bit arrogant in holding the people to it, the people perish.”

So I found it and it turns out the King James Version says “vision” but many of the other translations use other words.  I think one uses, “prophecy” and another uses, “revelation.”  So I looked it up and in both Hebrew and Greek the word refers to the work of a prophet and is more closely associated with “wisdom” than with 21st century “vision.”  “Without prophetic wisdom the people perish.”

The prophets were not doing 21st century executive vision casting.  They were not getting focus groups together and asking a series of questions.  They were not distributing surveys and collating data.  They were not making everybody take personality and spiritual gift inventories and then leading discussions and doing SWOT analyses.

They were praying and they were fasting.  They were studying the Scriptures (which for them was just the first five books of the Bible).  Then they were walking among the people, eating the same food, watching the same plays, listening to the same songs.  They were and laughing with them over meals and crying with them over caskets.  Then they were holding the culture up alongside the Torah and saying, “here is where it matches and here is where it doesn’t and here is what God is thinking and going to do about it.”

They were casting vision but it was God’s vision revealed in the Scriptures and it was a lot more than just five words that comprise a slogan you can paint on your church foyer wall.  The vision of the prophets was an ongoing formational process.

Proverbs tells us, “without that ongoing work of the prophets the people perish.”

The prophets did exactly what I am trying to do week in and week out.  I am just trying to pray.  I am just trying to read the Scriptures humbly and accurately.  I am just trying to meet with you all for dinner or coffee or to play games or to watch movies.  I am just trying to find times to fast.  Then for twenty to thirty (sometimes forty) minutes on a Sunday I tell you about what I think God is doing and saying.  I look at your lives and I look at the world where we live and then I look at a particular Scripture passage and I offer my interpretation of what God might be saying and doing in our midst.  Then I say, “Go live it and we will get back together next week and try again.”

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

About a month ago I was thinking about all this.  I was reading Proverbs, Corinthians, Eugene Peterson and others.  I was memorizing Mark and talking to other pastors.  And I was thinking about this Sunday and realized that I had nothing to say regarding 21st century big vision casting stuff.

Then I remembered a quote from a Methodist bishop named Will Willimon.  I love this quote.  He is talking about churches that complain about their young pastors being too biblical.  Willimon says, “Too biblical? To their credit, bright, young clergy realize that only by being biblical do they have anything significant to say.” (How Odd of God, p. 176)

I don’t have anything significant to say except by being biblical.  So I decided that this vision Sunday I would just turn to the lectionary Psalm, like I’ve done the last several Sundays and will do for several more Sundays.  Then after reading it and studying it, I would just offer it up to you as one more tiny piece of God’s vision for us.  Psalm 32 is a great Psalm for that and I hope you hear God’s vision in it.

Psalm 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Will Willimon’s “How Odd of God”

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Every Sunday morning around 11:30am I do this really odd thing.  I get up in front a group of 40 of my closest friends.  I open up a loose translation of a book whose latest content is 1200 years old and whose oldest content is 5000 years old.  I read a passage and talk about it for about 25 minutes.  My goal is to show the group how that passage informs our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us.

This speech takes a hard week to put together.  By “hard” I mean exhausting.  By “week” I mean hours of historical and theological study, drafting and redrafting, collecting pictures for visual aids, arguing with myself over minute points, and practicing out loud to an empty sanctuary.  Worse than the hours of work, are the emotional highs and lows.  Even worse than those is the very uncomfortable feeling of arrogance I get when I stand up to speak.  The worst of all is the new exhaustion I feel when it all ends right around noon, an exhaustion compounded by the fact I have to do it all over again in the next 7 very short days.

I have been doing this almost every Sunday for about 5 years now and it has not felt any less weird the more I do it.  If anything it feels more odd now than it did 5 years ago.  This may be because lately I have met some non church types, those wonderful saints of the world who have never darkened the doorway of a house of God.  I try to explain to them the process of preparing and delivering a sermon and that there is a group of people willing to pay me money to do this.  Their bewildered expressions confirm one thing, “My vocation is the most curious of all.”

It isn’t the 25 minute monologue that makes it weird.  There are dozens of other professions who do something similar, actors, comedians, newscasters, politicians etcetera.  No, the weirdness of preaching is threefold.

First, there is the curious loyalty to a centuries old book, a loyalty grounded in the belief that this book holds the keys to an eternal and abundant life.

Second, there is the bold, almost audacious claim that the God who rules over all eternity and created all things chose me to give this 25 minute speech to these 40 people every week.

Third, there is the belief, legitimately grounded in the data of my life, that I am the worst person ever chosen for this task.

This awkward 25 minute event repeated once weekly provides the context for Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching.”  He begins the work by noting his delight at reading the papers of undergrads in their first ministry class.  He tasked the naive undergrads to write about why they believe the God of all Creation would choose them to preach.  He now laments he should have asked them to write what kind of God would choose them to preach.  I agree the latter is the more interesting paper.  Luckily, “How Odd of God” is just such a paper.

Click to buy!

Arguing from Barth’s works, Willimon describes this God as the God of “yes” who out of love chooses us feeble, sinful humans to join him in the work.  Willimon relies heavily on Barth’s doctrine of election to claim that God elects us not just for salvation but for mission (the hallmark tenet of the missional movement).  According to Willimon, nothing can proclaim the doctrine of election louder than an inadequate preacher standing up behind a lectern every Sunday and claiming, “God chose me despite all my failings to give you this message today.”

If there is anything to critique in Willimon’s excellent text, it is that Willimon rambles more than usual.  In fact, the book is not too different from the late works of other saints who, having aged to a special level of holiness, can now afford to write more poetry than prose.  This isn’t the text of a young man:  articulate, perfectly structured, and easy to skim.  This is half journal, half textbook which means there isn’t always an obvious correlation between one paragraph and the next.  Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do not fault Willimon for this.  I personally love that as the saints age, the mystery of God awakens a poetry in them not seen in the younger selves.  I have read very similar books by aging theologians and though I don’t follow their arguments, their conclusions are still so poignant they bring tears to my eyes.

But to be fair, making me cry this week was not hard.  I stepped out of the pulpit last Sunday to a nightmare of conflict that consumed my week and threatened to make my entire vocation not only curious but frivolous.  I spent the week stuck in the vortex that is my chaotic thoughts, trying to iron out whether or not I could/should even step into another pulpit again and wondering if God knew what God was doing in calling me to proclaim the truths of our faith in clever little 25 minute speeches every Sunday.  Of course I am not worthy of the calling, at least by the current American understanding of “worthiness” (which isn’t biblical by the way).  However, Willimon’s thesis means that just by standing in a pulpit and claiming “God chose me” reveals a wildly loving God.  After all, if he chose a wretch like me, he probably chose you as well.

How odd of God indeed!