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The following sermon is one of many by the Rev. Foster Freed of the United Church of Canada that will be presented on this site over the next few months and years. Foster is one of best preachers I have been privileged to hear in my years of ministry. Foster is the pastor of a large and growing congregation (Knox United) located in Parksville on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia.
"The Vision Thing"
A Sermon Preached at Knox United Church, Parksville, B.C.
Transfiguration Sunday / The Eighth after Epiphany
by Foster Freed
Mark 9: 2-9
I was having a conversation with a ministry friend the other day...
...a conversation which, on some level, I now regret having had!
We were talking, you see, about congregations, about congregational life, and--in particular--I was sharing with him my excitement and my anxieties concerning the process that the Knox congregation is presently involved in. This process of exploration and dialogue, leading up to next Sunday's congregational meeting, where we will be deciding whether or not to undertake a major capital campaign.
At any rate: as this conversation continued, it occurred to me that there was a strong analogy--a powerful analogy--between the kind of journey that we are on here at Knox, and the kind of journey that three of Jesus' closest associates (Peter, James, & John) found themselves on when they climbed the mountain with Jesus, to bear witness to his Transfiguration. And, like I say, it was with some foreboding and some misgivings that this analogy came to mean: because it meant, if I was to be faithful to the inspiration, that I would need to share the analogy with you this morning, when we celebrate (according to our mainline Protestant way of doing things), when we celebrate the Feast of Jesus' Transfiguration. When we commemorate Jesus' journey, with James and John and Peter, to the top of the mountain, where he was transfigured.
And so yes: that is my way of serving notice that it is my intention, this morning, to use this sermon time to share some of my thoughts and some of my feelings about this process into which we have entered. And I do that, let me say most clearly, I do that with a great deal of trepidation. Let me explain.
Back in November, during the run-up (and also during the aftermath) of a previous congregational meeting that dealt with this issue in an earlier incarnation, both before and after that meeting, I began to receive feedback about my own role in the process, which--at that point in time--was to keep a pretty low profile. The word I was getting, was that a number of you--a goodly number of you--wanted to know where I stood on things; that before you could make up your minds, that you wanted to know where I stood. And so, in my contribution to the Annual Report, and also through some of my sermons, and also in my introductory letter to the "Deep in Our Hearts" study document, I have tried to be more open. More open about my excitement concerning this process. Which has now yielded more feedback, this time from those who are expressing disappointment because I appear to be taking sides.
I hasten to add that I am in sympathy with both of the above concerns, even as I hasten to assure you that I really am trying (in my far from infallible way) to steer an appropriate course through this exciting process. On the one hand, I am in sympathy with those who want to get a sense of where I stand on some of these questions; as the Order of Ministry person here at Knox, and as one of this congregation's resident theologians (please notice I said one of, I am hardly the only one): given who I am, you have the right to expect me to share with you (without a whole lot of fanfare, but also without a whole lot of coyness) where I stand on an issue as important as the issue of building expansion and a capital campaign. But, but: I am also sensitive to the fact that in the United Church of Canada, the order of ministry person does not arrive on the scene as the boss: despite the fact that some of you jokingly (I sure hope it is jokingly) occasionally refer to me as the boss. In truth, I am here as minister: which means servant. And so, while you are entitled to know where I stand on an issue as crucial as this, you are also entitled to have me back off at the appropriate time, and permit you as a congregation to make the final decision on this matter. And so that is the "middle course" I am trying to steer, and I ask your forbearance and forgiveness when I fail to navigate it as gracefully as you might wish me to.
And so, having survived a rather lengthy prologue to my remarks, let me proceed quickly to the main course: a main course that consists of three hopefully tasty dishes, three insights, more specifically three comparisons I want to draw between the situation we face (all of us together), and the situation Peter, James and John faced, when Jesus tapped them on the shoulder, and hauled them up the mountain.
The first insight has to do with the uncertainty we face--with the uncertainty we face--as we contemplate climbing the mountain: in our case, the uncertainty we face as we consider undertaking a rather bold capital campaign. But I wonder, I wonder: if Mike Wallace had shown up at the foot of Mount Tabor just as Jesus was setting off, and had Mike Wallace shoved a camera in the face of John or James and Peter and asked them what they expected to encounter at the top of the mountain, I wonder if they could have responded with anything even vaguely resembling coherence. And my hunch, my hunch, is that even if they had been coherent, they sure would not have come even closer to guessing at the marvels that were awaiting them at the top of the mountain.
From where I stand, our situation is not all that different. A wonderful, comprehensive study document has been prepared. It contains all kinds of important and useful information. I hope and pray that every member of this community of faith will take the time over the next 8 days, not only to peruse it, but to read it closely. It will answer many of your questions. And yet, it would be insane to pretend that it will answer all of our questions. Some journeys, you see, simply need to be engaged; until you begin walking, until you begin the hike, you don't really know what the terrain will be like. And so, at the start of this next phase of the journey, let's not be too frightened if we come to the realisation that there are some unanswered questions, some things that we will only find out when we take the next steps together. At the start of any journey, only so much of the road ahead can clearly be seen. Life, even life-in-faith, is like that.
That's my first comparison, having to do with the uncertainty that faces us, not unlike the uncertainty that faced James, John and Peter as they accompanied Jesus up the mountain. My second comparison has to do with the challenge, the profound challenge they faced when they came back down from the mountain. We didn't hear that part of the story this morning; but some of you will realise that when Jesus and his three closest disciples come back to join the others, that he not only predicted his passion and death, but that he also faced one of the greatest challenges of his ministry: a young boy, ravaged by an evil spirit, and a frantic father who is convinced that Jesus can help.
And so, as much as I would love to stand here this morning and promise that this congregation--this family of faith--will enter into the fat life as soon as a renewed physical plant is built and paid for, were I to do so would make me a liar. Just as it is impossible to have complete certainty at the start of the journey, it is impossible to promise a challenge-free future at journey's end. On the contrary: if there is anything that I can promise you, it is that this community of faith will face further challenges down the road regardless of what we decide next Sunday. And frankly, frankly: the alternative to further challenges is far too painful to contemplate. What kind of community of faith would it be, that stopped facing challenges? What kind of community of faith would it be, that did not find the wherewithal to welcome tomorrow's challenges and uncertainties, having been through the fire (and having grown as a result of having been through the fire!) of today's challenges and uncertainties?
That's my second comparison, having to do with the inevitable challenges we will continue to face (not unlike the challenges James and Peter and John continued to face) after they came back down the mountain. My third and final comparison--and this is the really crucial one--my third and final comparison has to do with what happened to Peter and John and James when they reached the summit of the mountain. Namely, that they were privileged to behold the transfigured Christ; that they were awe-struck with a powerful vision of Christ's ultimate destiny; a powerful vision of their own ultimate destiny.
And boy, oh boy, do I have to be careful here, lest I sound like one of those politicians who promise that if you vote for their party, the Kingdom of Heaven will instantly come down to earth. Because what I am not saying, what I am most definitely not saying, is that there is only one appropriate way forward for Knox United Church. I won't say that, I can't say that, because I don't believe that.
But what I do believe, what I strongly believe, is that Knox--if it is to move boldly into the future--must become more conscious of, more articulate concerning, more intentional about, the mission that drives us, and the vision (yes the vision) that draws us into the future. The mission and vision that are contained on page 8 of the study document; the mission and vision that we hope to ratify next Sunday, not so that we can set it in stone, but so that we have a strong starting point for all of our planning and all of our dreaming. "A vision of a warm, welcoming, and inclusive community of faith. A vision of a congregation whose worship vibrantly and joyfully celebrates God's presence. A vision of a congregation of loving acceptance, rooted in cross-generational relationships...
…Above all, a congregation that tries to be faithful to its vision, by providing opportunities for people to deepen their experience of God, to be equipped for discipleship and Christian leadership, to be prepared to take risks in faith; to model generosity; to grow dynamic small group ministries; to provide space for a growing church and community; to work for social and environmental justice; and to reach out to serve the needs of Oceanside and beyond." That, friends, is a powerful vision, provided we don't merely adopt it next week and then file it away for five years. But if we choose truly to place that vision continually before us, and--of course--to seek God's strength and blessing--that vision (of this I am certain) can sustain this congregation for many years to come, the way the vision of the Transfigured Christ sustained James and Peter and John throughout their long and turbulent ministries.
Friends in Christ, brothers and sisters in this Knox family of faith. I truly believe that it is the vision that is crucial, that is decisive in all of this. The vision thing. Ultimately, ultimately, decisions around this building, decisions around the best way forward vis a vis this physical plant: as important as such decisions are (and they are very important), as important as such decisions are, ultimately they boil down to strategic choices. A variety of strategic decisions, as to how best to live out the vision. That there is disagreement concerning the best strategy or strategies for enabling the vision to take shape, is hardly surprising and is not--in the end--all that important, provided we don't confuse our various strategies with the vision. Provided we don't get so locked into our various strategies, that we forget the vision we share, the mission we claim, the love we embrace, and the unity we seek...deep in our hearts.
Which is why....which is why I can make one promise to you. And this is a promise I make with deep sincerity. As much as I hope that we step out in faith next Sunday, and undertake, no doubt in fear and trembling, this capital campaign, as much as I hope that we do that, I promise you that on the following Tuesday, health permitting!, that I will be back behind my desk at 9:00 a.m., working with excitement, with enthusiasm, and with hopefulness rooted not in this or that strategy, but rooted in God's vision for this congregation. Christ's mountain-top vision for his Church: as true home, as place of succour and nourishment, as place of inspiration and deep meaning and purpose, for all people, indeed: for all creation.
May the God of vision lead us onward: this day and for ever more. Amen.
copyright - Sermon by Rev. Foster Freed 2003 - 2006 page by Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks - 2006 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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