“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”
This week I attended our annual clergy conference in Temecula. Driving back on Wednesday, along the Temecula Parkway, I noticed a billboard looming over the highway. In enormous letters it said YOU GOTTA TRY THIS CHURCH! And underneath were service times, mention of Español and Korean, and perhaps a church name or web site - I honestly don’t remember those details. But I got the message: YOU GOTTA TRY THIS CHURCH!
That’s a pretty compelling invitation, that can be read by someone driving at 50 mph, let alone a runner.
If there had been billboards in the 7th century BC, I bet the prophet Habbakuk would have rented one. Write the vision, make it plain on tablets. The challenge for Habbakuk, however, was that he didn’t know what the vision would be. He saw only too clearly how broken his world was: violence, wrong-doing, injustice all around, and he was grief-stricken. How long, O Lord, he cries. This isn’t a question that expects an answer, but a lament. Habbakuk cries out at the unfairness of the world, the suffering and corruption that he sees. His response is to watch and wait until God’s vision might be revealed. But in between the lament and the decision is a dire warning: The verses that we skip in our reading speak of God using the Chaldeans, an invading army, to wreak divine vengeance on the unfaithful people; it’s an example of a dubious theology that says God will use a thoroughly unworthy instrument to achieve God’s ends. This theology is alive and well today, when for example a politician with a history of immoral conduct is supported because they have promised to bring about desirable policies: it’s a theology that says the ends justify the means.
We see plenty of injustice and corruption in our world today and we join Habbakuk in lamenting it. Do we have the faith and the patience to stand on the ramparts and wait for God to speak? Living into the reality of our construction project, we are all going to need both patience and faith as we continue our ministry throughout this time - another 35 months according to the contract, but who’s counting?
Patience is a necessary virtue when we plant seeds. They won’t bear fruit immediately, but the smallest seed might eventually grow into a large and vibrant shrub. The people who pooled their resources to start this congregation 150 years ago had no idea that some day there would be a splendid cathedral, that we would be known for our music, our inclusivity, and our outreach to the homeless, that we would be a community some 1200 strong.
Today we are planting more seeds as we watch the construction. We are living with noise, dirt, and disruption as we wait for the new thing to rise up next door, to house all the possibilities for mission that we have already envisioned and others that we haven’t even thought of yet. The mustard seed of our hopes and dreams, with God’s help, will grow into a great tree that shelters, feeds and supports generations to come.
I am deeply grateful for those parishioners who are able to buy us an audiovisual system or pay for a staff position for a year, but for most of us, most of the time, opportunities to make a difference come in small packages: an hour of volunteering, a one-on-one visit or conversation, a letter, or a vote, or a modest pledge.
The vision that we cast for this city is made up of mustard seeds, of many small contributions, and it adds up to something significant. Each time we open our doors to our neighbors for community gatherings, each time we help a newcomer find their way through the Book of Common Prayer, each time a person who lives outside gets a hot breakfast and a haircut, each time someone hears the Iona invitation and feels welcome at God’s table for the first time, a mustard seed of faith is planted. And many of those seeds will eventually germinate and grow, spreading the good news of God’s unconditional love beyond our walls.
At my last church we had a company come and take pictures of everyone for a parish directory. We received a free gift, a poster-size portrait of someone’s idea of Jesus. It had a watercolor look to it. When you got up really close to the picture, you could see that it was made up of thousands of tiny images of parishioner photos. Write the vision and make it plain - the vision made plain is Jesus, reaching out with open arms. But the vision doesn’t exist without all those little images of faithful people, coming together like seeds covering a field, together showing the world what Jesus looks like.
What kind of vision can we write plainly for the world to see? I believe we can write a vision of love, compassion, service, repentance, empowerment. A vision of inclusion, of difference that remains in relationship, of liberation and generosity. Seed by seed we can build that vision.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” They made this request in response to his teaching about forgiveness. They knew how hard it is to forgive, whether it’s a family member’s betrayal, or an institution like the church that has failed to live up to its professed values, or a culture like the United States that systematically privileges one group and oppresses others.
As a church we need to repent of the abuses that have stained our history. As a culture we need to repent of the evil of racism. We can start with a mustard seed of faith. What will your mustard seed look like, here at St Paul’s? Will it be a commitment to serve on Chapter or help with our formation programs? Will it be a willingness to engage in difficult conversations, speaking the truth in love and maintaining relationship through deep disagreement? Will it be an increased financial pledge? Each seed may seem insignificant, but with God’s help that’s all we need to move mountains.
When you send in your 2020 pledge this month I will write you a thank-you letter. We all like to be thanked for our generosity, and I enjoy sending little notes of appreciation when I know that someone has been generous with their time, talent, or treasure. But Jesus tells us not to expect pats on the back for being the people we’ve promised in baptism to be. We may never get thanks for our attempts to love our neighbor; it’s just what we are supposed to do. Last Sunday we had a baptism at the 1:00 service, and I got to recite the promises and prayers in Spanish for the first time. My preparation led me to notice them anew and to reflect on what is expected of us as God’s people: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to respect the dignity of every human being, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. We have all promised to do these things: that’s why we are here.
Today’s collect addresses our generous and merciful God and reminds us that we live by our faith in God’s goodness. May each of our mustard seeds fall on fertile ground and grow into a vision for all the world to know.
October 6 2019
The Very Rev.Penelope Bridges