“Vision”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 31, 2015 – The First Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:13-16

 

When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about a navy blue label with a yellow-dressed, umbrella-toting girl (you know, When it rains, it pours). I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about a cardboard canister with a little metal spout. He wasn’t talking about a shaker whose holes are perpetually clogged and whose contents would long since have solidified if not for the grains of rice somebody mixed in. He wasn’t talking about a handheld grinder filled with gourmet pink, or black, or yellow sea salt crystals.

When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he was not thinking of salt the way we think of salt—an inexpensive ingredient for cooking, a nutrient of which most of us consume quite a bit more than is healthy, a seasoning that’s in just about everything (as anyone attempting a low-sodium diet will quickly discover).

No, in the time of Jesus, salt was a different phenomenon. It was a precious commodity, relatively scarce and relatively valuable, and it was prized for three key characteristics. Salt was used, then as now, for seasoning, to make food taste better. It was used as a preservative, to keep perishable foods from spoiling. And it was used for healing, to cleanse wounds and prevent infection. Seasoning, preserving, and healing. When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” this is what he meant—these are the roles he called his disciples to play in the world.

Because, God knows, then as now, the world was in need of seasoning. Then as now, there was more than enough bitterness to go around. There were families who had lost loved ones to the cruelties of war. There were children who grew up in homes without sufficient food or sufficient love. There was discrimination that made some people into second-class citizens. There was—there is—more than enough bitterness to go around. The world could use some spicing-up.

God knows, then as now, the world was in need of preservation. Then as now, there was more than enough disintegration and decay to go around. There were occupying empires that tore at the social fabric of local communities. There was selfishness and greed that eroded the foundations of families and of society. There was fear and misunderstanding that pulled people apart. There was—there is—more than enough disintegration to go around. The world could use some preserving.

God knows, then as now, the world was in need of healing. Then as now, there was more than enough suffering to go around. There were good people who were laid low by life-threatening illness. There were people who were dying and people who were grieving. There were people who had endured more trauma than one can imagine. There was—there is—more than enough suffering to go around. The world could use some healing.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to share what we have received—to sprinkle the sweetness and tenderness and mercy of Christ into the lives of those around us. But how do we go about doing those things? How do we go about enhancing the flavor of life, preventing decay, and offering healing? How do we live as the salt of the earth? We need a vision. We need a reminder of what we’re about and why.

A vision can be something mystical, an experience like the one the prophet Isaiah had. It can be something individual, something that you glimpse for yourself, something that informs your own personal choices and way of living. Or it can be something communal, a process through which we jointly discern where we are headed next together.

 

As many of you know, over the past eight months or so, we have been engaged in a visioning process here at the Hill Church. What might this next chapter of our life together hold? we have asked. Who are we now, and who is God calling us to be?

Through second hours and lunch table conversations, through emails and telephone calls, through cottage meetings and chance encounters in the grocery store, your Vision Team has been working hard to hear from as many of you as possible. Tara Smock, Tom Singleton, Jim Nowak, Bruce Lyman, Debby Kirk, and Katy Field, have had their ears to the ground, listening hard. As far as I know, we didn’t hear any ideas quite as exotic and dramatic as the one described by the prophet Isaiah in the text we heard this morning… But we did hear, through many different voices, what God’s call sounds like to us. We heard what’s important to us as a congregation, what lies at the heart of who we are. And through the interweaving of the many voices and many stories we heard, we caught a glimpse of who God is calling us to be.

We have listened and compiled and drafted and revised and workshopped and brainstormed, and now we would like to share with you the summary vision statement at which we have arrived, based on what you have told us throughout this process.

Before we share it, a word of explanation. A vision statement is, by necessity, a conceptual document rather than a concrete one. This version of our vision is a framework, a set of ideas and priorities that will guide our programming in this next chapter of our community’s life. It is not (yet) an action plan, because action plans are specific and temporal. Your church leaders will develop an action plan in the coming months; you can rest assured that you will hear more about that soon. And then, in a year or two, we will develop another action plan, updated to reflect whatever is happening in this community at that time. And on we will go, until some yet-to-be-determined time when we decide that it’s time to revisit the vision itself and see where God might be calling us next.

 

With all that in mind, I invite Bruce Lyman forward to read for us the latest draft of our vision statement. But first, please join me in prayer as we lift up the prayer we have been praying throughout this visioning process, our prayer for vision:

 

Eternal God,

Creator of all that was, and is,

      and is to come,

You have been with us

      since before the beginning,

And you will remain with us

      until long after the end.

We give thanks

      that you have guided us

      through 325 years of history,

And we give thanks

      that you guide us still.

Send your Spirit of Wisdom

      into our midst,

Here and now,

      in this time and in this place.

Grant us eyes to see

      and ears to hear,

      hearts to love

      and hands to serve.

Show us a glimpse of your future.

Teach us who you would have us be.

Call us forth to be your people—

      the Body of Christ on earth.

As we listen

      for your still-speaking voice,

Give us patience

      and kindness

      and trust

      in one another and in you.

Kindle in us your love and justice,

      that their bright light

      might lead us on.

In the name of Jesus we pray,

Amen.

 

Here is the vision we have discerned:

Who We Are, What We Believe, and How We Live

First Congregational Church of Woodstock is a vibrant Christian community where we gather to worship God, to serve our neighbors, and to grow in our faith through our relationships with one another. We believe that God’s love is for everyone—no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. As followers of Jesus, we seek to reach out to neighbors, friends, and strangers, and to share a spirit of welcome with all who cross our threshold. Led by Christ’s Spirit, we commit ourselves to caring for one another and for all creation, bringing our curiosity, our spiritual hunger, our sorrows, and our joys, and finding sustenance for the journey together. In all things, we seek to embody God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, hope, and joy.

 

The Vision to Which God Calls Us

Relationships. We feel called to continue to deepen our relationships within our congregation. We feel called to create opportunities where we can share our truths and our stories, learning from and with one another what a faithful life means. In so doing, we will grow in our faith and in our relationships with God.

Community Engagement. We feel called to expand the welcome we share so that it reaches further beyond our doors. We feel called to connect with our neighbors in new ways—to learn who they are, to get to know them, to listen to their needs and gifts, to discover opportunities for collaboration, and to be changed and enriched by these encounters. We feel called to find new ways of communicating so that all might know the joy, purpose, and identity we find in the gospel message of God’s love.

Faith in Action. We feel called to deepen our engagement with issues of justice by educating ourselves and by taking actions that will build up the realm of God. Following in the way of Jesus, we feel called to broaden our work in the world by seeking out our neighbors—known and unknown, near and far—and by serving our community in new ways.

If you paid close attention to our reading from Isaiah, you might have noticed that God does not wait until Isaiah is ready before giving him this vision, this call. Isaiah laments that he is “a man of unclean lips,” which does not, we might imagine, imply that he was sinful, but rather that he was not ritually purified. He had not properly prepared himself for an encounter with God. But God was undeterred; God accepted him as he was, called him to serve, and sent him out on a mission.

And if you paid close attention to our reading from Matthew, you might have noticed that the verbs Jesus uses are in the present tense. “You are the salt of the earth,” he proclaims. Not, “You will be the salt of the earth—if you just give more money, or earn another promotion, or volunteer for another committee, win another award.” Not, “Be the salt of the earth—or else!” Just, “You are the salt of the earth.”

So, friends, let us go out to be the salt of the earth, to live out God’s age-old call for us in ways that respond to the modern world we inhabit. Let us bring flavor and health and healing to our community. Let us bring love and justice and joy into our lives. God has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word, and we have a part to play in revealing it.

Let’s get to it.