Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29)
So I have a little quiz to give you today. Listen to these words, and then I’m going to ask you to identity where they come from. Here they are:
“May barriers which divide us crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”
So do you think those words come from (a) Lincoln’s second inaugural, (b) Washington’s farewell address, (c) the armistice signed 100 years ago today, or (d) the Book of Common Prayer.
If you answered “d, the Book of Common Prayer,” you would be correct. Who knew that the Prayer Book could be so visionary? The reason I ask, is that last Tuesday morning, as a number of us gathered here in the church to offer prayers for the nation as it went to the polls, we read several prayers just like this from the Prayer Book. What struck us as we did so, is that cumulatively they sketched out quite an amazing vision for what a just democracy looks like. If you want to read them for yourselves, they are in the two sections “Prayers for National Life,” and “Prayers for the Social Order,” beginning on page 820.
They talk about aspirations toward such goals as “honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners.” They ask that God will “fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.” They pray for “sound government,” or “courage, wisdom, and foresight” for our leaders, or “understanding and integrity [among us all], that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.” Most striking to me was a prayer “For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience,” where we asked that God would give “to us your servants, grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth.”
But even more striking was how strange these lofty sentiments and high ideals sounded to our ears as we read those prayers, trained as our ears have become to expect discord, accusation, aggression, and distortion in anything related to our civic life. And so I have to say that it felt good, at the dawn of an election day, to be reminded by our own Prayer Book that our nation has thrived most, when there have been leaders of vision and imagination, rather than those who rely on a rhetoric of division and antagonism. As the prophet reminds us today in our reading from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
This Veterans Day might remind us of the fundamental importance of vision in the shaping all human affairs. As you probably know, Veterans Day had its origins in commemorating the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, at precisely 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918 (100 years ago today).
At the end of World War I, the war that was to end all wars, there were some (like then president Woodrow Wilson), who had the courage to imagine a world order that could be reshaped in a new direction toward integration and collaboration. As we all know, however, that vision quickly gave way on the world stage to the retributive Peace of Versailles, which was so punitive toward the defeated Germans that they soon rebelled in the form of a fascist dictatorship, which set about making Germany great again, leading directly to yet another world war. As Omar Bradley, one of the generals in that later conflict put it, in World War I “we won the war, but lost the peace.” How differently things might have turned out, had there been a truly shared vision for waging peace.
The good news, however, is that although we may not always have a vision for ourselves, God does. And the Christian life is all about realizing God’s vision for the human community. And what’s more--you don’t even have to look very hard to find it. Jesus articulates it pretty clearly: we are not to lead lives centered on our self, but on one another—even when it means (as in today’s gospel) respecting our enemies. Like the Good Samaritan, we are to regard every human being as endowed with equal dignity. Like the Prodigal Son’s father, we are to extend mercy and compassion, even when it seems undeserved. Like the Sermon on the Mount, we are to be healers and peacemakers. And like Jesus himself, we are to discover our greatest freedom in giving our self to God’s ways of relationship and community, for in so doing we put our own life into cosmic alignment with the underlying principle of the universe.
But our reading from Proverbs has still more to teach us. “Wrath stirs up strife,” the writer goes on to say, or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galations, “Be not deceived: God is not mocked, for we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7). These are days in our country when each of us would do well to be reminded that what we say and do, whether as individuals or as public figures, is not isolated. Every word that we say, every thing that we do, plants a seed whose harvest is far beyond our immediate intent—for good or for ill.
William Shakespeare, in the play All’s Well that Ends Well, wrote that "The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war." His words remind us that who we are, and what we do, reaches far beyond the immediacy of today and into the future. When those words and deeds are aligned with God’s vision for us, they contribute to the building of God’s kingdom. When on the other hand they are aligned with self centered and partisan motives, they contribute not only to the inhibition of the reign of God, but the erosion of the human capital—the dignity of the human spirit—which is the essence of that kingdom.
Today in the forum, we are talking about recently founded communities of hope known as the new monasticism. They tend to distill the Christian message down to its basics—like one community known as The Simple Way in North Philadelphia, which is all about rebuilding a forgotten neighborhood that had even been abandoned by the church. Their understanding of God’s vision is simply this: “Love God. Love People. Follow Jesus.”
They explain the origins of their community like this: “In 1995, dozens of homeless families had moved into an abandoned Catholic church building in North Philadelphia. They were told by the Archdiocese that they had 48 hours to move out, or they could be arrested. With nowhere to go, these courageous mothers and children hung a banner on the front of the building that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?” The families held their own press conference and announced that they had talked with the real “Owner” of the building (the Lord Almighty!) – and God said they could stay until they found somewhere else to go. That was the spark that that lit the fire of The Simple Way.
If you want to know more, come join us at the Forum. But even if you are not able to be there, may I suggest that you take away with you this morning those few simple words that give one community’s understanding of God’s vision for human life, and think on what they have to say about God’s vision for our life together, and for your life in particular: “Love God. Love people. Follow Jesus.” It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that. Amen.