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.

An Advent Monologue for Lectionary Year C

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As I am preparing for our four Advent worship services, I have gone searching for proper monologues for the more drama inclined in my church to perform.

I have found precious few resources online.  What I have found are either incredibly cheesy or more Christmas than Advent.  And I was unable to find anything tethered to the lectionary, particularly the prophets whom I use to lead us to Jesus.

So I sat down yesterday after a long Sunday that ended a long weekend and put this little number together, thinking I would share it with all of you worship planners for your services.  This is to introduce the candle of hope on the first Sunday.  Enjoy!

(From the last century B.C. in a land called Israel under occupation from the Roman rule.)

My people are an oppressed people.  Our once great kingdom lays in ruins and has for hundreds of years.  Our once great leaders are gone.  In their place stand tyrants and sell outs.  Our tax collectors collect much and our employers give little.  We are waiting for freedom.

My people are a storied people.  We tell tales of men toppling colonnades and floods wiping away the corrupt.  Our prophets lived in the bellys of whales and the caves of mountains.  Our kings killed giants and built great cities with palaces and temples.  Our women conquered warriors with tent poles and gave birth to heroes even in old age.  Our God tore down cities to make a home for us.  Our God split open both seas and rivers, struck the corrupt dead on their feet, sent plagues upon our enemies and rained food from heaven down upon us along with water from a rock!  We are waiting for God.

My people are a corrupt people.  We had the eternal decrees of our righteous God in our possession.  We had a great and everlasting covenant with God that would guarantee our freedom and our safety.  We broke it.  Over and over again we broke it.  From our kings to our warriors to our prophets to our farmers and blacksmiths, every person from every tier of our society turned our back on our deliverer.  And we paid a steep price.  We are waiting for redemption.

My people are a promised people.  Though we sinned, though we abandoned our God, though we live in oppression and agony, we proclaim the promises of our prophets,

That a righteous branch with spring up to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That the Lord will return to his temple and he will purify us!

When he does, the prophets say that he will rejoice over us with gladness, renew us in love and exult over us with loud shouting!

And He will stand there and feed us so that we will rest secure and be children of peace.

We are waiting for the Lord to enter his holy temple again.

My people are a waiting people.  Day after day we carry on in our sordid state.  Day after day we cry out tears, tell our stories, remember our past greatness and long for our God.  Day after day we long for a different story, a new chapter, a glorious homecoming.

And day after day we are let down as we wonder how long our God will tarry, how long until He comes back to his Holy Temple.

We are a hoping people so today I light this candle, the candle of hope.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination”

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A very strange thing happened indeed this week.  I actually finished a book!  April was a crazy month full of Easter worship and District Assembly gatherings and online debates and very little reading.

So I decided to mark my return to grace by reading an especially wonderful author whom I have always quoted but never read, Walter Brueggemann.  A friend at District Assembly referenced “Prophetic Imagination” several times so I downloaded it and worked my way through it this week.  As is the case with many books, it spoke “prophetically” into several facets of my current experience.  Or did it speak “imaginatively?”

Click to buy on Amazon

As many of you know, I began pastoring a new church two months ago.  The transition forced me to ask myself the hard practical questions about what a church is and how a pastor should lead it.

At the same time my district gathered to elect a new Superintendant.  In the end most everybody agreed we elected the right person.  Still, the process forced me to think long and hard about who I want as a “pastor to pastors.”  Do I want an executive with a plan?  A leader with a vision?  A friend with a shoulder to cry on?  A prophet with an imagination?  Or all of the above?

Likewise, as most of you know, I have been closely following three scandals in the Church of the Nazarene.  One concerns our Publishing House.  The other two concern our universities.  There seems to be a failure in the upper realms of our leadership to really follow the dictates of love, justice and honesty especially when money is on the line.  Where did this failure come from and why have we been so hesitant to be honest about it?

A key topic in all those discussions was the comparisons and contrasts between churches, businesses and universities.  A friend of mine summed up those differences well in the chart below.

At the intersection of all this stands Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination.”  His brief but in depth discussion of the biblical prophets and holy communities illuminates several disparities between the church’s current state and our divine calling.

I could waste a lot of words fleshing out those discrepancies, but I will stick with a list Brueggemann gives in the preface to the 2nd edition.  He mentions the key characteristics of a Prophetic Community:

1) The community must have a long and available memory that sinks the present generation into an identifiable past made available in songs and stories.

2) There is a sense of pain that is cited as a real social fact.

3) Hope (not optimism) is actively practiced.

4) There is an effective mode of discourse that is distinctive and richly coded in ways only insiders know.  (i.e. a shared language).

The church I now pastor has quite a few families who now serve or once served in the US military.  As I have gotten to know them, I feel a sense of humiliation for the Christian church because the US military does those 4 things way better than most congregations.  They have songs and stories that root their identity in the great conflicts of the last 200 years.  They have a coded language with scores of acronyms that I can barely keep up with.  They have a real sense of pain and loss from living in a world where armies are necessary and they have a profound sense of hope that the US military can be the solution (or at least an integral part of it) to all the world’s problems.  All of this encourages scores of otherwise helpless young men (and some women) to join up.

I am frustrated that the church struggles to garner the same enthusiasm.  As Brueggemann argued convincingly, our insistence on catering to the powers and adopting their vocabulary has completely numbed us to our God given calling.  Now we get together to figure out how to co opt the powers and as we do, we ourselves are being coopted.

But all hope is not lost.  Brueggemann insists that the prophets in Scripture (from Moses to Jesus) did two things to awaken the holy community.  First they led the people in mourning.  Second they sang songs and told stories that energized faithfulness.  To put it more simply, they called the people back to worship and led them in the same.

And this is where the prophetic imagination informs my questions about the church, its leadership and our current scandals.  After all, it is no secret that the evangelical tradition has not done worship well.  We have filled it with the words of our culture, not the words of our ancient faith.  We have sung the narratives of the empire and not the songs of the redeemed.  And we have shared in the anger of the people, not in the compassion of our God.

If that is the case, then it might be possible that after attending those numbing services for decades, certain denominational leaders found themselves closed off to the hope of the gospel.  Instead of being emptied of all but God, they became filled with the edicts, deadlines and demands of the dominant culture.  If that is true, when they became leaders of institutions (like businesses, universities and churches), they had no Christian hope to add meaning or depth to their work and so made the controversial decisions that landed them in the hot seats.

If that is what happened, it means that who we choose to lead us in worship is so incredibly important.  Instead of vision casters, we need creative story tellers.  Instead of institution growers we need professional mourners.  Instead of money makers we need selfless givers.  And instead of relevant hipsters spewing the modern lingo, we need Biblical scholars who can make accessible the rich language of our tradition.

That all sounds poetic up above, but I am reminded by Brueggemann that this all has to start with me in my own setting and context.  After all, it is quite possible that I am currently leading a congregation that will include future CEO’s, University Presidents, Pastors and Superintendants.  It is a high and necessary calling to sing the songs and tell the stories of our ancient faith every week so that they can be grounded in compassion and justice, not in power and money.  Needless to say, the risk of failure is great.

Therefore, pray for me and pray for my church and I shall endeavor to do the same for you and your church.  And I pray the God of all history continues to call up prophets in this time and place who will sing the right songs, cry the proper tears and energize the needed love.