John is exiled … banished to the island of Patmos for his Christian faith. Isolated from family and friends, he suffers privation and hardship.
On the mainland, his fellow Christians are suffering persecution: being rounded up, arrested, flogged and crucified. His family own family is endangered.
But here’s the thing: as bad as it is, John is given a vision. He sees beyond what is, beyond the pain and anguish, to the future God intends:
It is given to him to see “a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals … God will wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more …” Did you hear that … can you see it? No more children shot to death in the streets of Mattapan … no more mothers tormented because their children have been taken from them. No more soldiers bloodied and destroyed by war.
Moses had a vision. Moses guided the children of Israel for 40 years through desert wilderness. As nomads, they scratched a harsh, meager living from the desert. Everything was parched, dust. Their flocks were scrawny, and so, too were the children of the Children of Israel. For 40 years they journeyed in these conditions, lifting one foot after another … along the way, burying and mourning their dead. And for every single day of those forty years Moses told them to lift their eyes from the parched, arid earth … and look ahead to see what he could see: the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. A land of clear rivers, a land fat with cattle and figs, a land forested with olive trees, quince and pears.
Martin Luther King had a vision. He was standing on the white marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was there that he told the whole nation what he could see. In his vision he saw the day when the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners were sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.
In his vision he saw the day when his four small children would be judged …not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
He saw before his eyes a day of equality and justice,
Nelson Mandela had a vision. He was behind bars, imprisoned on Robin Island. Through the bars, past the guards, on the other side of Apartheid he beheld a vision of a non-racial, democratic South Africa.
Ludicrous, these visions, every one of them. Ludicrous, preposterous, naïve: John’s, Moses’, Martin’s, Nelson’s. If you were an actuary setting the odds on whether or not any of these visions could be realized, you’d say the odds were long to none.
Here’s a question: What makes us different than the animals? Opposable thumb? Or, maybe it is consciousness of our own death? Or perhaps, altruism: the ability to care for another, act on another’s behalf without regard to either the cost or benefit to ourselves?
I propose that what makes us different is what Moses had. What Dr. King had, and Nelson Mandela: the ability to see beyond what is, to what might be … beyond Apartheid to a non-racial, democratic South Africa; beyond inequality to civil rights; beyond the desert wilderness to the Promised Land … beyond pain and death to resurrection life.
What separates us from our sister and brother animals is our capacity and desire to imagine a future finer than the present, a purpose greater than our own lives … and then to pray for it, labor for it, sacrifice for it, even die for it.
“Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs) Well, if not perish, then languish in mediocrity, muddle along, get by, make do.
We’ve had a vision. The leaders of Old South Church … the members of the Church Council, your board of Trustees and your ministers, we believe we have been given a vision of a future that is bigger, finer, bolder and more faithful than our present.
We didn’t come by this vision by accident. We have been listening for God’s still-speaking voice.
We put the question directly to God: “God, what is your vision for Old South Church? What would you have us be and do? How can the church of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and Phillis Wheatley, the church of the Boston Tea Party … of radical abolitionists and those who built housing for the poor and marched for civil rights … how can this church—these people—serve you in the future? We are listening, God. Speak to us.”
Here is what we have heard.
God is calling us to live our Christian FAITH AT THE CROSSROADS
Jesus and his followers ministered at the crossroads in their day—at the contested areas between slave and free, male and female, Gentile and Jew and Samaritan, rich and poor, sick and well—so does God call us to minister at the crossroads, in the contested areas of our time.
We hear God in anguish over the ways that Christians and Jews and Muslims are fighting … killing each other over holy books and holy lands and holy houses of worship … We hear God’s anguish over the growing distance between rich and poor … black and white, inner city and suburbia …
Our fear of the other, our ignorance of the other, our distance from the other … these are killing us … and they are breaking God’s heart.
We hear God reminding us that we are located at a great urban crossroads for a great purpose. Not a small purpose. At the crossroads between the Back Bay and the South End, between Center City and Inner City, between great affluence and greater poverty; at a crossroads between a storied past and a faithful future; at a crossroads between sacred and secular … at a crossroads between Jew, Christian and Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and evangelical.
We hear God calling us to roll up our sleeves, wade in deep and minister at the crossroads, in the contested areas of our time.
It wasn’t so long ago that Cardinal Law of the Catholic Diocese of Massachusetts was the “go to” spokesperson when the media needed a religious (ethical, moral) perspective to some issue of the moment: war or poverty, violence or education or healthcare.
Since Cardinal Law’s ignominious departure over the child abuse scandal, no religious group or person has filled that void. The leadership of Old South Church hear God urging us to fill this void, to reclaim public voice … speaking into the issues of the day from the Judeo-Christian ethic … an ethic grounded in a commitment to the common good.
God is calling us to be a SANCTUARY IN THE CITY
Christian churches are in decline … urban churches, one after another, are closing their doors. Even those that are hanging on, are barely open: great wooden doors are locked, windows are shuttered. The vast majority of church buildings in Boston and across Massachusetts are open for a stingy two to four hours per week.
We hear God shouting to us from heaven: fling open the doors… fling open the doors of your hearts and welcome in all God’s people: saint and sinner, lost and found, rich and poor, gay and straight. Pry open the doors of your minds. Ready yourselves to adapt and adjust to changing times so that my Good News is fresh every morning … and doesn’t become stale news, yesterday’s news.
We hear God saying: Old South Church—you’re okay … you’re not bad—but you are half the church you could be.
You’re a 600 member congregation … you should be 1000 members and planting new churches. You hold three worship services per week … double it. (Over the past five years half of our growth has come from our two new worship services: First Worship and Jazz Worship.)
We hear God urging us to step it up and take our place as a Cathedral Church … with a deep ministry of receiving, hosting and mentoring pilgrims … Quinn, Liz and I already do this, perhaps more than we have time for: we are regularly visited by seminarians, groups of clergy, church groups, students, the curious, the hungry who come here to touch and taste what it is we know of God.
We hear God urging us to capitalize on this extraordinary space and location: renovating the basement into dormitory and teaching space—exploiting and adapting new technologies—so that we might teach and mentor a new generation of Christians.
God is calling us to be formed, transformed …CHRISTIANS IN FORMATION
Here is the third thing: the majority of young Americans (18-25) believe, sincerely believe that Christians are dreary, boring, homophobic and judgmental. Such is our reputation.
Without a personal acquaintance with the Christian Church they know what they know from the news. They hear hate and venom spewed alike from pulpits and pundits,
Not long ago churches like this could expect most newcomers to arrive here with a working knowledge of Christianity … they knew the stories of our faith, were acquainted with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, took comfort from the 23rd Psalm.
Not so any more. Today we welcome newcomers who don’t know the stories of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the fish, or how Moses confronted Pharaoh and freed slaves. They’ve never been to a Christian funeral and do not know the hope that is in us. They’ve heard, of course, of Dr. King … but not Reverend King … and don’t know that it was the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Jesus, Martha and Mary whose vision he pursued … a biblical vision of “justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
We hear God begging us to give loud, confident and joy-filled witness to the earth-shattering, radical, life-transforming Good News that the Christian life is filled with drama and adventure and marked by mercy. That God’s love is munificent … boundless … that just as Jesus loved the lepers of his day … so too are we called to the costly work of loving the lepers of our day: immigrants, Muslims, the poor, LGBT folk …
This love of enemy, this practicing of boundless love … these do not come naturally to us. We are fallen creatures. We are East of Eden. God’s Vision: Old South Church as a faith academy … we come to be formed by, change by God … made better than when we arrived.
God aches for us to learn to practice a love even for our enemies … a love so drenched in grace and mercy, that it takes the world’s breath away.
Since the death of Jesus, Christianity has undergone some radical shift about every 500 years. The last such sea-change, Great Reformation of the 1500’s, occurred roughly 500 years ago. Christianity is at this very moment, undergoing such a period of radical transition. We can’t know what will emerge … but we believe God is calling Old South Church not merely to ride the crest of this great new wave … but to be among those who are designing the new surfboards, by which we can harness the Spirit’s power and energy, for God, for good.
People of Old South Church: God is calling us. God has a claim upon us. Can you see it? Can you see what God has in mind for us?