Making It Plain

Sometimes we can be too clever for our own good. It was my first job out of seminary, working as a full-time Director of Christian Education in a Presbyterian church in the northwest Chicago suburbs. The church was experiencing a growth in its younger families, and we decided to put our energies into the Kindergarten program.

There seemed to be a lot of animal stories in that class – Jonah, Noah – so we reshaped the curriculum around that, finding lessons in the Old and New Testament that would bring animals to the forefront, plus other stories of Jesus and his ministry as well. Every aspect of the lesson plan was neatly planned – from the opening songs to the snacktime, everything was related to the story for that particular day.

I was proudest of the snacks. When we read about Jonah, we had goldfish. When we read about Noah, we had animal crackers. When the story was Jesus feeding the 5,000 with bread and fish, we had tuna sandwiches. But my favorite of all was the snack for the Zacchaeus story. I suggested Keebler cookies, because they were made by little men in trees.

Sometimes we can be too clever for our own good.

I haven’t been back to that church in years, and I wonder what, if any, of that program survives. A quick survey of their website this week indicates not much – the classroom barely warrants a mention there. My hunch is that we spent so much time on the snacks that we forgot about the importance of the lesson itself. Perhaps we had focused on the frosting and the sprinkles without thinking about whether there was any nutritional value in the spiritual meal.

In a word, perhaps we should have heeded the advice that God gave to prophet Habakkuk: “Make it plain.”

We don’t know much about this minor prophet who appears and then disappears again in three short chapters. Given the content of the book, he is probably writing some time during the 7th century B.C.E., which makes him a contemporary of Jeremiah’s. His name means “embrace,” and the book of which he is author largely consists of a dialogue between the prophet and God. Habakkuk challenges God on what he sees; in short, the wicked destroy the righteous, so law and justice never seem to win anymore.

It is a complaint which we might share, that what is good and fair and kind seems to give way to what is bad and unjust and cruel. Illness wins. War wins. Hatred wins. Violence wins. Healing loses. Peace loses. Love loses. Justice loses. Habakkuk’s view of the world seems pretty accurate, but it’s not a lesson we’d necessarily like to learn. Is there even an appropriate snack for that bitter taste of defeat?

What Habakkuk brings to this all is a willing persistence. With the diligence of a guard at their post, he will wait for God. He knows that God will hear his complaint, will respond, will provide some kind of satisfaction. And sure enough, the word comes; not in the form of an answer so much, but rather as encouragement: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

In other words, God is still God. Though the world seems lost to injustice, this does not mean that God has thrown in the towel. Love, mercy, grace, hope, these things still rule the day; maybe not in the way that we would like, and maybe not in the time we would like. But in God’s time, and in God’s way, God’s words of promise will and do have the final say. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question, wrestle, struggle with this God; the prophets are full of complaint against the divine. But if we learn anything from Habakkuk, our calling is to stick it out; in essence, to say, “I may not get you, God. I may not understand what you’re all about. But I’m not gonna let go.”

There is still a vision; and for those of us, like Habakkuk, who cling hopefully for dear life, our role is to share that vision. As God tells the prophet, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” Don’t hide it. This faith we hold, this hope we nurture, share it. Broadcast it and proclaim it. Publish it and distribute it. But keep it simple and straightforward; no elaborate cursive or fancy prose necessary. Don’t get carried away with the snacks; the essence of it will do just fine. And make sure they can read it; write it big, so that even those who are sprinting by, can get just a whiff, a taste, a glimpse. Let them know that there is something different about this vision, about its hopes and dreams, its blessings and surprises.

There is still a vision.

As we conclude our Stewardship season today, all this talk of vision seems altogether fitting. Our messages have written it out in ways that speak of our generosity in time, talents, and treasure. The character of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has always been generous on all three counts. This past year is evidence of that, where we forecasted a deficit budget and yet managed to break even. Through October of this year, we have not kept pace with 2006, but we are carrying a minor deficit rather than the large one we had anticipated. And in it all, let me be as plain as a can: let us look beyond the numbers and costs to see the witness they represent and the ministries they support. In short, our elders have a vision for this place, a vision we hope is an echo of the vision that God has for this place.

Over the past few months, in our Session meetings and discussions, three words have come up again and again: welcome, challenge, and growth. And in all three, there is both an element of “already” and of “not yet.” We see these three characteristics as part of who we are right now; and yet, not perfectly so. We also see them as things we are on the path to living into more fully.

First, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is a community of welcome. We open our doors to so many. Members and friends come to this place nearly every day of the week for ministries of education and worship, music and service. And for those from our broader community served by the stewardship of our space, from the support groups of Alcoholics Anonymous to the growing ministry of the Presbyterian Church of Restoration, our Hispanic Fellowship; from the welcoming of our Preschool children and families to those whom we serve through our Food Pantry and Bargain Shop, for them, we are most assuredly a place of welcome.

Or to put it in the language of the lesson from Luke, we seek to follow in the footsteps of little Zacchaeus. We, too, want Christ to enter our house; we want to open our doors and invite the divine into our midst. We want to serve and welcome those whom God would have us serve and welcome.

But here’s the question: are we willing to climb the tree first to make it happen? Perhaps it isn’t enough simply to make sure the door is unlocked on a Sunday morning and that we are there to shake hands with those who happen upon it. Maybe we need to be willing to write that vision a little larger, to make it plain to those who jog by or even those who never happen upon the intersection of Lanier Drive and Woodrow Way. Perhaps Zacchaeus is a fitting character for us to see ourselves, tucked back here always seeming to be one block away from where the action is.

We are already a community of welcome; but not quite yet.

Second, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is a community of challenge. A church must be a place of welcome, of meeting people where they are on their spiritual journey. We must provide places of respite from the chaotic and busy world, moments of comfort for aching souls, ministries of healing for the broken and brokenhearted. And yet, if we are going to remain faithful to the gospel, we must continue to challenge ourselves and one another; otherwise, we might be tempted to think that we’ve already got all the answers.

Mark Labberton is a Presbyterian pastor and this year has written a book entitled, The Dangerous Act of Worship. In it, he writes:

“When worship is our response to the One alone who is worthy of it – Jesus Christ – then our lives are on their way to being turned inside out. Every dimension of self-centered living becomes endangered as we come to share God’s self-giving heart. Worship exposes our cultural and even spiritual complacency toward a world of suffering and injustice.”

Or to return to the story from Luke, the church seeks to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Here is Zacchaeus, this chief tax collector, this rich and traitorous man. And yet, of all the worthy people there in Jericho, among the throngs of those who have come to greeting Jesus along the road, it is the home of Zacchaeus that Jesus wants to visit. The crowd is not pleased.

There are places of challenge in our life together. We are always stretching for new ways of faithfulness in an ever-changing world. Recognizing the community around us, we have started ministries to teach English as a Second Language; we have begun to explore the struggles and joys of the Presbyterian Church in Iran. Our Sunday morning education hour for all ages challenges us to not only say we believe, but to learn to live that faith in all aspects of our lives. We know that we cannot sit still; to follow in the footsteps of Christ means that there is time to be on the move.

But here’s the question: are we willing to risk the displeasure of the crowd? Or do we really prefer the trappings of respectability? Can we live with moments of discomfort, even in worship, to sing new songs and pray new prayers, to be reminded that we are broken and imperfect and in need of God’s healing and salvation? Or would we really prefer to pretend that we’ve already got all the answers?

We are already a community of challenge; but not quite yet.

And Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is a community of growth. This third characteristic, in a sense, stems from the first two. If we are welcomed and challenged, if we are comforted and stretched, if we are embraced and nudged, then we cannot help but grow.

In the past few years, our membership has grown, our worship attendance has grown, our staff has grown, our budget and our stewardship have grown. None of this has been dramatic, but it has been real nonetheless. However, if this is the only way we measure our growth, then we miss the deeper meaning and potential of growth in our lives.

Or to move back to the story from Luke once more, it is Zacchaeus, alone among the crowd, who is transformed by the encounter. This diminutive tax collector who has made a fortune off of others knows that he is the last one who should receive Jesus into his home. He promises to give away half of his possessions to the poor and to repay those whom he has defrauded four times over. It is as though he is responding to Christ’s act of mercy with one of his own. Growth, with all the welcome and challenge it implies, is the way of the gospel.

We are already a community of growth; but not quite yet.

Friends, this is the vision that I want to write before you today. I have done my best to make it plain. The invitation to each us is to be an integral part of this vision, and to share in its realization with our time, our talents, and our treasure. And if this vision is of God, then if these characteristics of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church as a community of welcome, of challenge, and of growth seems to tarry, wait for them; they will surely come. They will not delay.

sermonsMarthame Sanders