Without a Vision, the People Perish

Without a vision, the people perish.

Words from the book of Proverbs. “Without a vision, the people perish.” The Hebrew could be read, “they fall apart.” This week, I thought of the old line from William Butler Yeats, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold…The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” Yeats wrote his poem in the aftermath of he First World War, as a pandemic raged through Ireland.

Without a vision, things fall apart.

In my lifetime, I’ve not known the world to be falling apart quite as completely as it seems to be now. I’m just back from vacation, and I’m a bit more rested. But I’ve never known a more difficult re-entry. The world is not as it should be. People talk about finding the “new normal.” I hope very little of these days ever feels normal.

The decisions facing us, they are difficult. We’ve reached past the midpoint of summer. Even in a week as humid as this one, we are beginning to imagine the crisp days of Fall. Usually a time for excitement, shopping for school clothes and blessing backpacks. But the announcements about school plans this week came with heavy sides of dread and frustration. And it’s more than just parents. I don’t know anyone who isn’t facing tough decisions about schooling, childcare, work, whether to visit a loved one, when to venture out. The decisions are fraught.

And in the midst of it all, we are in church, at least virtually. In the midst of it all it’s my job to point to Jesus.

Jesus’ vision: the Kingdom of God

And, thankfully, Jesus comes well equipped. The Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino calls teachings like the ones Jesus has for us today the central work of Jesus. Those of us who grew up in nice white suburban churches might have missed these teachings. When the Jesus you’ve been taught does little more than stand in fields with his blonde flowing locks, looking pastoral, holding sheep you might not have needing words like these. But these teachings of Jesus are radically re-orienting.

Remember, Jesus lived in a time when the center refused to hold, when things were falling apart. Jesus lived on the dangerous edge of the Roman Empire. His neighbors were nervous. The Herods, local leaders empowered by Rome, exploited the people’s labor. Federal officers were sent into cities and provinces to terrorize the people, to keep them compliant. Jesus lived in a time, and came from a region, that was known for rebellion.

And Jesus was a radical. Jesus believed in revolution. Not in violent overthrow, Jesus did put stock in mere anarchy.

Jesus believed in the power of a vision. His people were perishing in the hands of incompetent rulers. Jesus believed Proverbs. He knew the people needed a vision.

Jesus called the vision, “The Kingdom.” Sometimes he talked about the “Kingdom of God.” Sometimes he spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” as in our verses today. He chose the language intentionally. Jesus spoke specifically against the powers and principalities of his world. He spoke against Rome. He spoke against Herod Antipas, and Pilate and all those whose rule was failing the people.

Today you might hear Jesus’ vision described as the “reign of God,” or “God’s commonwealth.” Both of those I like, because it gets us past gender and monarchical understandings. Jesus used the language of his day, and he used it specifically. He was proposing a different vision, for how we might relate to one another, how we might relate to the earth, how we might live and thrive.

The Parables of the Kingdom

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, small, seemingly insignificant. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, buried in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like a yeast, that works its way through all the dough. The kingdom of heaven is like a great pearl, or a great fish.

We could spend all morning with any one of these metaphors. I want to hold to the wider theme. Jesus preached to a people who were frustrated, who were tired. Jesus preached to a people who were suspicious of their neighbors, that they might be collaborating with the empire. Jesus preached to families divided: one brother left to join a revolutionary group of protestors, a cousin renounced the world to study with John the Baptizer, an uncle was collecting taxes for Herod.

Jesus lived in a time when things were falling apart. Yes, Jesus responded with healing. Yes, Jesus fed people, and touched people. But principally, principally, Jesus gave folks a vision.

Jesus taught that hidden in all of the frustration. Hidden in the difficult choices of life, like a treasure in a field, like yeast in the dough, like a tiny mustard seed spreading roots below the soil, God’s presence was there. Another world is on its way.

Pay attention to the invisibles.

We have some practice these days with invisibles. We are wearing masks to control the invisible. I don’t wear a mask for my sake. I heard a social scientist explain this week that it is hard for Anglo folks like me, culturally to get this. Her words resonated. It’s funny, we “norm” Anglo culture so much that we forget it is a specific set of behaviors, not the only option. Culturally, Anglos do not understand taking on a behavior that isn’t a direct benefit to themselves, the social scientist explained. And so, in this case, I need to work against my cultural training. I need to make sure my mask isn’t hanging around my chin, or below my nose, for the sake of my neighbor. I need to wear a mask not for my sake, but for my neighbor’s.

I raise the issue of mask wearing to say, we are practicing awareness of the invisible. Jesus would say, keep practicing. Because there, buried just beneath the soil. There, hidden to your human eye, the seeds of God’s revolution are already growing. The yeast of God’s radical vision is already spreading, faster than the disease. The treasure of God’s love is available.

You get a choice of where to “live”

Be aware of the invisible ways that God’s kingdom is spreading. Jesus looked out on a group of tired, frustrated, oppressed people. He told them, “you get a choice of where to ‘live’.” You can stay in this tired frustrated place. Or He said, you can follow me. I’ll take you to another kingdom. You can choose to stay here, you can choose to stay in your fear, to stay in your frustration. You can also choose to move. Live in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus wasn’t describing pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. Don’t be distracted by that word “heaven.” Jesus was telling folks, God’s presence is available now. God’s love is available now. God’s justice is available now.

This week I was talking with one of the parents in our congregation. School reopening plans were just being published, and this parent told me they didn’t know whether choosing to be fully online or a hybrid model would be better. I quoted some old advice I used to share with seniors when I was a college minister.

It’s old advice because it’s good advice. I didn’t come up with it. Often making the ‘best choice’ is a fallacy. It puts all the weight on one moment. Yes, there are moments when we make big choices, but often the work of making a right choice is the day to day work that continues. You make the right choice by making whatever choice you make the right one on every day going forward.

I told this parent, whatever they chose, I trust them I know them well enough to know, they will continue to lean in. They will continue to advocate not just for their students, but for equity for all students. I know many of you are wondering which parent, and I’m not going to tell you. The beauty of this community is that we have so many parents I know will be working for equity, will lean into these questions not just for their sake, but for their community.

Good Trouble-makers

You are the kind of people the late Congressman John Lewis had in mind when he said: “You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way… to get in the way.” You are people who make good trouble.

I know many of you are facing difficult decisions. But I also know that this is a congregation that knows mustard seeds. I trust the folks in this congregation to keep showing up, day in and day out. Whether that is in person or online. Keep showing up. Keep moving. Keep grounding. I know the people of Holy Communion and I know that you will continue to work for God’s justice. You will continue to look for God’s presence. You will continue to make God’s love known for all people.

Without a vision, the people perish. But with a vision, with God’s vision, the people can do extraordinary things. With a vision God’s people can do more than survive. With a vision, God’s people can rebuild our world and make it a little more like the kingdom of heaven.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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