Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.” When session last met I said that I planned to have a service in which we focused on our new mission statement: To live by faith and be known by love. This passage from Habakkuk seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. Today is also Reformation Sunday – and, although, I’m not focusing on that, the idea of Reformation is a constant reminder that we are always to be reformed, recreated. Reformation is an ongoing event.
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.” As I listened to three scholars reflect on this passage, one of them said, “How could runners possibly read the vision?” It got me thinking about church signs. When I was in seminary, one of my preaching professors talked about his professor who demanded sermon titles that would grab attention. He told his students, “I want you to write a title that would make someone get off the bus!” Our professor’s story was that he, or someone in his class, wrote just the right title: “There’s a bomb on your bus!” (It was a different age!) He was not a fan of sermon titles – meant to be cute or clever. In fact, her would not accept sermon titles. He feared they would trivialize the message.
One of the other scholars in the conversation said that our translation is misleading. He suggested that the intent is to write the vision on tablets so that it can be taken with the runner – and taken out into the community and shared.
“Write the vision.” I have to admit, I had never asked a church to do this before. Maybe I assumed that the vision was plain. “We’re to follow God!” But, what does that mean in a particular context? Different churches, different communities of faith, are called to serve God in different ways, according to their gifts and abilities. One thing I read again and again in my research was that the vision, the mission statement, should be short – short enough for everyone to know it. (This is true for churches and businesses!) I am grateful that this session chose a mission statement that is brief – and, I think, memorable. “To live by faith and be known by love!”
So, what’s the purpose of a mission or a vision statement? Good statements shape the life of a church or an organization. They provide a touchstone for our planning and our doing. It is not enough to have the vision. We let the vision call us, inform and form us. A speaker at a presbytery gathering said that we should take the mission or vision statement and then set goals, objectives that can be embraced, carried out, and, in a sense, measured. For example, she talked of one church that undertook a feeding program, to live into their mission statement. They said they would plan to serve a particular number of meals in the coming year. When they accomplished that goal, they set a new one, increasing the number.
I was going to use only the Habakkuk passage, but, it struck me that the gospel lesson is also one about vision. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In many ways, the parable from last week takes on flesh in this story. Jesus had said that the tax collector in the temple, the one who cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” was the one who went home justified – set right in God’s eyes. Here, we have a tax collector who wanted to see Jesus – but he could not. He was small in stature, the story says. What that means is a little unclear! Does that mean he was short? Or does that mean he was held in little regard by his people – because of his position? Whatever the interpretation, he was prevented from getting close to Jesus. So, this man ran ahead and climbed a tree – a piece of information that Jesus’ hearers’ would have found unimaginable! No dignified, self-respecting man would have dared to do such a thing! But, he wanted to see Jesus. He wanted to see this man who might help him be reconciled to God. He had a vision that drove him to act. In return, Jesus saw him – and offered him the grace he needed.
I think of that professor’s aversion to sermon titles frequently – especially when I’m trying to think of a good title. I have to admit I look at sermon titles on church signs. You can sometimes get a sense of what matters to a particular church by its public postings. Some of those public postings are funny. Some are terribly judgmental. Some have little to do with faith. Now, those are not vision statements. They’re peeks into what that church values behind its walls.
I think the passage from Habakkuk reminds us that our vision is not only about how we are people of faith within these walls. Our vision needs to call us out into the world as well.
Our new statement has just two parts: to live by faith and be known by love. To live by faith speaks to our own faith journey – as individuals and as a congregation. It reminds us that we need to explore and deepen our faith daily, weekly, monthly, yearly –throughout our lives. God is always calling us to grow in our understanding, to shed our blinders and see God anew. The church – the people of God – is God’s gift to us. Here we seek together, we challenge one another, we explore and question and support each other in this great adventure of being God’s beloved.
As we talked about what we could do to live into this portion of our mission statement, we decided to reinstitute the conversations after church and add a once a month potluck that would include a program. That may be enough for the year – or maybe there is something else we could or should be doing to help us grow and deepen our (your) faith. What other ideas might we consider?
• Invite others to come to church
• Continue having the last hymn be a special one suggested by someone in the congregation. (Maybe enhanced by sharing a story about why that hymn matters.)
The second part of our statement is “to be known by love.” This church has always been generous in its mission giving. The session has had some wonderful conversations about our community. There is a lot to celebrate about Gulfport – its diversity and inclusiveness. We’ve talked of ways that our presence in this community could be in celebration of the wonderful aspects of where we are located. I know that we have folks who are out there, present, participating and contributing to this community’s assets. That is a way of being “known by love.” We’ve talked about the possibility of doing something that can be known as this church’s contribution to the whole community. Right now, nothing is planned. Of course, no community is perfect and there are people who need to know of God’s love and concern. Over the past few years session has often spoken of Gulfport Elementary School – one of this county’s struggling schools. I met with the principal and he told me that it ranks as the fourth worst school in the county. He, Mr. Hathaway, is new this year, charged with turning this school around. So, to be known by love, session chose to focus on this school. One way is by having monthly drives to provide for the school. Today we are dedicating what we’ve collected during October. For November, I would suggest that we collect those composition notebooks (black and white marbled covers). They need to be wide-ruled. I’m going to talk with Mr. Hathaway to see if there is any interest in having a buddy or friendship bench for the playground – a way of working against bullying.
Do you have ideas as to how we might be “known by love?” What can we do in our community to share God’s love more broadly – and to celebrate the signs of God’s gifts of diversity and inclusion where and when we find it?
From the congregation:
• Continue supporting the missions and ministries that have been important to the congregation.
• Be a good neighbor!
As I was thinking about our mission/vision statement and about Habakkuk’s directive that it be written on tablets so a runner could read it, I wondered how we might take this statement into the world – in ways that remind us and, perhaps, invite others to know it. I’ve put new posters in the back. It’s on the bulletin. I’m thinking about doing a banner. But all of that is internal.
I was trying to think of something I could make for everyone – and I suddenly thought of those wristbands that people wear to show their support for particular causes. It turns out, you can order wristbands quite reasonably. So, I did. I’m planning to wear mine daily – as a reminder to me of the vision, the mission, “to live by faith and be known by love.” I invite you to take a wristband – let it remind you of God’s call to us, to journey in faith and to share God’s love. “Write the vision; make it plain.”