Hannah went into Target at 5 pm to get new socks for going to the gymn, and she met her friend Philomena.Philomena’s cart was about 1/3 full. Hannah asked how long she had been shopping. “Since about 9 am,” Philomena answered.
“What are you shopping for?”
“Nothing in particular. I just like shopping.”
“What is with the stuff in your cart?,” asked Hannah.
“Stuff that was on for a really good price and stuff that was really interesting. I have a garage full of bargains at home.”
Hannah did not know what to say next, so she excused herself, paid for her socks and left.
There are many kinds of sleep-walking, and there are many people like Philomena going through the motions with little sense of purpose.
Today’s theme is hope, and our readings include several angles. Hope needs two things: something to be hoped for, and confidence in eventual success. If we don’t know what we need or desire, then any hope we may feel is blind.
Our reading from Isaiah was a message to the people of Israel as their kingdom was about to be crushed and annexed by Assyria with terrible consequences for the people of Israel. This passage was a message that what was happening was not the end. There would be a much better time ahead. This message, and many others like it in the Hebrew scriptures, have been a source of comfort for Jewish people for over 2000 years, and a voice of confidence.
Our reading from Romans warned Paul’s readers against allowing distractions to take their time, effort and attention away from their primary task, being ready for the return of Jesus.
This warning was stated even more strongly in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. As I read it, I wondered about the author and his community, and the source of these words. Did Jesus actually say them, or something like them? If so, was he talking about himself returning, or was he referring to the prediction in Daniel of the coming of the Son of Man?
The author made the decision to include these words where he did. Was the confidence of the members of his community in the imminent return of Jesus eroding? Were they yielding to temptation to do things that were not consistent with their claimed beliefs, in need therefore for a wake-up call? The hope of their community was in the return of Jesus, putting an end to the harassment and persecution they had been experiencing. After 30 to 40 years of waiting, they could have been experiencing fatigue and loss of faith.
Isaiah’s words were given to a people whose world was coming to an end, and a new, unhappy world was emerging. The hope for a better future was fed by this passage, helping some of the community hang on even in exile. Our world is changing dramatically, even if not quite as violently as that of Israel. Many people today are feeling powerless or lost or confused, not sure of where to go next or what to do.
And this can be especially true of institutions including churches. Many church members hope for things like new members or to be still more or less the same as they are for at least a few more years. These kinds of hopes are not enough for a people who consider themselves followers of Jesus. A fitting hope is one tied to a bold vision of what can be, and a bold vision for the role of the church in helping that possibility emerge. There are many bold visions that are appropriate for followers of Jesus. The UCW in Alberta has a bold vision of no children living in poverty, and a vision of working for that through political activism. Bold visions in the past led to the creation by Methodist and Presbyterian groups of many colleges and universities across Canada, hospitals and hospital ships, and so on.
One congregation’s vision for itself was a picture of a fruit-bearing tree by a river, reminding us that the best visions cannot be adequately expressed in words. Sometimes pictures, songs or stories are needed.
If we don’t have a vision of what can be and how we could be part of that, then we don’t really have hope that is worth celebrating. Instead, we are more like Philomena, doing what feels good without a sense of why we are doing it.
As I meditated on this message, I was confronted by the fact that I am much like Philomena in terms of the leadership I am providing here at St. Matthew’s. I have a vague sense of what the community around us could be like, and a mix of ideas on how we could be part of the emergence of that community. But I don’t know what visions are the right ones for you at this time. We have taken stabs with a few things, and we are learning from them, but our Games Night and Sunday Coffee House evenings are experiments helping us learn. They are not necessarily going to be parts of what we will need to be doing.
I was also feeling guilty about not having gotten a vision team together yet to develop a vision, and then read the following in a book on Leading Congregational Change, “When the timing is right, this group should be charged with developing a vision for the congregation.”
History and thousands of stories tell us that, if what we set out to do is worthwhile and has God’s blessing, we will succeed. Once we have a vision that inspires all of us, we will have the confidence we need to truly have a hope that is worth celebrating.
To get there we need prayer and conversation.
God’s empire is here and it is coming – we experience outcrops of it in many different places and ways. The holy mountain described in Isaiah may be mostly hidden under snow and ashes, but it is here. Talking to one another, reading and prayer will help us see how to be part of the emergence of that mountain. Thanks be to God.
PS: Reflecting on my concern regarding developing a vision and my responsibilities and readiness to invest time and energy in the various new activities we have started, I remembered my responsibilities including helping making the now better as well as helping identify a course for the future. There are more fun things and spiritually nurturing activities coming, so please watch for announcements about these.