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Catch the Vision

October 19, 2010

Haggai 1:13-2:9; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Matthew 28:16-20 © October 17, 2010 by Tom Cheatham @ First Church, Amory, MS

Had there ever been a building any uglier or more plain? It had all the character of what novelist Tom Clancy once termed a “government layer cake”: functional shelter, useable space, but unimaginative and nondescript, four walls and a roof without beauty. Uninspiring. Sad.

The old-timers stood there looking at the pitiful excuse for a Temple and remembered how it was before the Babylonian scourge. The glory of Solomon’s magnificent house of worship. The national pride it brought and represented. How could the community have worked twenty years only for this? Some shook their heads in disbelief. Others covered their faces in shame at the sorry state of the nation. Still others wept quietly, discouraged and despairing.

So the prophet Haggai had his pastoral hands full. How could he convince the older folk that even the ugly duckling structure they had was better than a heap of stones in the middle of Jerusalem? How was he to inspire pride in the workers who were giving their all to the project, making it as attractive as it was possible to do with extremely limited resources? What could he say about the future that would bring renewed hope and vigor, the power of working together toward a common goal?

His answer lay in the heritage all the people revered and knew, whatever their opinion of the new Temple. His ally in the cause was liturgy, of all things; specifically, the Festival of Booths underway even as he spoke on that October day in 520 BC. The event celebrated and remembered the presence of God with the ancestors in a defining moment of Jewish history, namely, the Exodus. It recalled the power of God’s deliverance, the sustenance Yahweh gave in the wilderness wanderings. The festival was about shelter, real and symbolic. As someone has said, it proclaimed a “message of continuity beyond destruction”; it spoke of “hope, and thanksgiving, even in the midst of despair. Haggai’s word on this occasion was a challenge to the present for the sake of the future in the midst of the celebration of the constancy and generosity of the Lord” (NIB, Haggai: 724).

The prophet spoke first to the leaders: Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua, the high priest. And that was no accident. It’s the leaders of any community, civic or religious, that set its tone, provide examples of conduct, steer a course toward the future. If they are demoralized, it’s more than likely that the people will be, too. If the leaders fight among themselves or put partisan and personal concerns above service, that will send a message of the wrong sort to the rank and file. But if those in charge truly lead, then the community will discover a new vision for tomorrow. There will be a clear sense of mission. And folk will be encouraged because important things are happening, and there’s fresh vigor in the church, the town or the nation.

But what does it mean to lead? Stephen Covey has contrasted leadership and management. The latter has a bottom line focus, namely, how can I accomplish certain things? The former is top line: What are the things I want to accomplish? Covey cites the saying: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Then he concludes: “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

Every community needs managers who can get things done. We can’t make it without people who have organizational skills; practical know-how in any number of areas; and most of all, common sense. But we also have to have those who ask “why not?”, “what if?”, “who says?”, men and women who “cast a vision” and point toward the future.

A budget may seem at first glance to be a managerial document. It tells who gets paid what, how much we’re anticipating spending on lights and curriculum and music. And that’s true. But a closer look reveals a budget as an expression of mission and vision. Look at it, and you know what an organization’s priorities are, what it sees as essential.

In the church, what is essential is not up for debate. Our Lord gave his vision to us. It was to become a community that followed his teachings, that observed all he had commanded. It was to be a body that multiplied itself, making disciples, those who follow Jesus.

Bill Easum, a church consultant, makes a very strong case for focusing on that primary mission of the church when it’s budget time. He observes: “…[C]ommitted disciples of Jesus Christ always fund relevant ministries. We have too many church members and too few disciples…. Historically, money has followed three things. One, it follows a clear sense of mission…. [C]hurches on a passionate mission have the money they need to accomplish that mission….Two, money follows relevant ministry….Three, money follows servants who role-model a…life of giving in every relationship….” Easum insists that those kinds of servant leaders disciple church members into an immediate, intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In most cases, he says, discipling takes place in four ways: the practice of an intimate community life; well-equipped lay people who do most of the ministries; an environment in which people can live out their spiritual gifts without asking for permission to do so; and the church, which has an extremely clear understanding of its mission, allows people to organize around that mission.

Leaders are the key. And commitment to mission, vision, and values, not mere fund raising or underwriting a budget or ensuring completion of a project, is the issue. (I made a speech at Presbytery about that the other day.) That’s why Haggai went to the leaders first. His words to Zerubbabel and Joshua are good ones for today, too: “Take courage, work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts…my Spirit abides among you, do not fear.” Take courage and work, for I am with you; do not fear. Believe in the vision; trust God to act. “I will shake the nations…I will fill this house with splendor…in this place I will give prosperity.”

But no matter how great the vision, there are no leaders without followers. So Haggai next addressed the people of the land. These included people who had gone into exile in Babylon as well as those who had remained behind. Those deported had been the cream of the crop—artisans, scholars, government officials, business people, farmers, anyone who might contribute significantly to the life and economy of Babylon. The ones left behind were the poorest of the poor in the back streets of Jerusalem, unskilled, uneducated, maybe some criminals as well, anyone unlikely to be anything but a burden on the Babylonians.

But now all these folk had to find a way to make it as a community, despite their different backgrounds and experiences, their viewpoints and their abilities, their attitude toward this new building project. All had been brought together by the drought that had occurred in 520 BC, and now Haggai sought to unite them around a common vision as they had been around a common problem. They, too, were to take courage and work, for the house of God would once again be filled with splendor.

Haggai urged the vision against all the data; right now it was hard to imagine this ugly structure as anything but a boring gray cinderblock embarrassment. But they had to trust God to act. They had to believe that God would see to it that the nations who had stolen the treasures of the former Temple would return them. They had to believe that the Lord would bring prosperity. And that word in Hebrew is “shalom,” which also means “peace” and “wholeness.” It’s a vision of more than a nice building for worship. It was about a community where hostilities have ceased and understanding prevailed, where conflict was managed creatively and folk worked together for the common good. They would not deny or discount their differences; they would use them to help create something greater than the sum of its parts. They might even learn to celebrate their diversity. And, on the way to wholeness themselves, they just might help someone else to find it.

It was much the same kind of scene for Paul as he promoted an offering for the poor mother church in Jerusalem. As we’ve noticed before, the Corinthians were procrastinating big time on paying their pledge. Maybe they entertained racist thoughts, like “why should we Gentiles help a bunch of Jews.” Or they resented being asked to give anything for folks across the Mediterranean Sea when there were needs right there in Corinth. They might not have trusted Paul and Titus to use the money as intended; the two churchmen could have been buying a condo on Crete and a villa in Rome, keeping mistresses in jewels, fine clothes, and the latest smart phones. And, of course, as anyone does, the Corinthians might have wondered: “What’s in it for me?”

In that regard, there’s a wonderful story my friend Tom Walker once told me about an encounter with a potential member of First Presbyterian in Franklin, Tennessee. The man asked Tom, who was pastor at the time: “If I join your church, what’s in it for me?” Tom responded: “If you join, we’re going to ask you to come to worship, to serve on a committee or in some other ministry, we’re going to expect you to give your money sacrificially. So unless there’s something there that appeals to you, I guess there’s not a whole lot in our church for you.” The man responded: “Excellent. You passed the test. I’ll join.”

Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians in a different way. There was something in it for them. They would be enriched. They would be blessed. They would be rewarded. But the return would be the satisfaction of having lived a worthwhile life, which is what the man in Franklin was looking for, maybe what all of us and our neighbors are looking for. It was the enrichment of having done a service to others. It would be the sense of focus and purpose that comes when we are moving toward a goal larger than our own agendas and bigger than the problems that beset us. It would be the awe felt that somebody in another city who did not even know you was praying on your behalf and holding you before the throne of God in thanksgiving for your generosity. It would be the experience of connectedness and community with folk who were part of the same family through baptism, which is a bond that supersedes race and gender and economic status and all those other things that divide us.

Names and projects and locales have changed, but one thing remains constant: the generosity of God, the gracious act of Jesus Christ that calls into being a community of stewards entrusted with that indescribable gift. They are people that know that God longs to bless and will not settle for less. Not in the sixth century BC or the 21st century AD. They are people gripped by a vision, who know what in God’s name they want to accomplish. They are as one writer has described: “…purpose-driven people, filled by the Spirit with visionary dreams and praying for [God’s] power, [who] will multiply the church in this generation.” They are people who are confident of the companionship of the Sovereign of the universe, and so they take courage and work.

Sisters and brothers, have you caught the vision?


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