I wonder if anybody recognises this gentleman. It is Kevin McCloud. Are there are any other Grand Designs fans in church this morning? For those of you who don’t watch it, the basic idea is that each episode features the building of a Grand Design, a house that is extraordinary, either because of its architecture, or the space they’re trying to fit it in, or the fact that the folk involved are building it themselves from straw and mud. There’s a massive variety of houses and people featured, but the one thing that they have in common is that they have seen the potential for something new and are determined to turn that vision into reality. They look at a field and see a mansion, or a 50’s bungalow and see a modernist larch clad eco home. They see what is there, however unpromising, and they also see what could be there. Looks a bit like vision to me.
These week came the sad news of the death of Jill Saward. She looked at the most difficult and painful of situations and saw through the pain to the possibility of something better. Aged 21 she was raped by burglars in her father’s vicarage in Ealing. At the trial the judge said,”Because I have been told the trauma suffered by the victim was not so great I shall take a lenient course with you” and sentenced the two men who had raped Jill to lesser sentences than the man who had not. Following the trial Jill waived her right to anonymity and used television and newspaper interviews to campaign for changes in attitudes to rape as a crime and to advocate for the victims of rape. In 2006 she said, in an interview, “”Of course, sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge. But I think it creates a barrier and you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So, although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release. I don’t think I’d be here today without my Christian faith. That’s what got me through”. Looks a bit like vision to me.
What about this bloke? This is Eddie Hall, the Beast from Stoke on Trent. He is one of the four strongest men in the world. I was watching a documentary about him the other day, and they showed some photos of him as a boy, and you know what, he looked pretty much like any other ten year old. Not particularly tall or bulky. So what took him from that to this. One of things is his vision. He has three things that he very clearly sees himself doing, three things that have driven him on. One was to hold the world dead lift record. Second was to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger and third is to win World’s Strongest Man. This is a picture of him breaking the world dead lift record, lifting 500kg. This is a picture of him with Arnie and last year he came third in World’s strongest man, competing with a dislocated finger. In that documentary another strong men said something that caught my attention. He described how he visualised himself making a world record lift again and again so that when he came to it, he wasn’t doing something new, he was doing something he had done a thousand times already. Looks a bit like vision to me.
The power of vision is unarguable. The prophecy that God gives to Isaiah begins with a command, an imperative. See, look, perceive, imagine, envision. We know from the rest of the book of Isaiah’s messages from God, that God was not in the habit of pulling any punches with the people. When they had got things wrong, were being unfaithful, oppressing the poor, not loving God or each other as they should, God told them so in no uncertain terms, and made it very clear what the consequences would be. Even this vision of the future, which is so positive and encouraging, is clear that things are not like this now. “Weeping and crying will be no more” acknowledges the reality of grief and pain now, whilst promising that they will come to and end. “Never again will infants die or older people not live out their days” is real about the experiences of child mortality and early death, whilst holding out the hope that it won’t be this way forever. “No longer will they build houses and others dwell in them” portrays an unjust distribution of land and wealth, of labour not being fairly paid for, a system that will be done away with in God’s economy.
Vision is about both seeing what is really there now, and about seeing how it could be in the future. Godly vision allows us to see from God’s perspective what is really there now and how things could be, and will be in the future. Isaiah had Godly vision. He saw the reality of the present day, and the call and promises of God for the future, and that vision filled his life and ministry with power and effectiveness.
So what about us, what is our vision. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because there are overlapping visions. There is the vision we have of our individual lives, of the life of our families, or the life of the church, and the life of the community. These are not independent, but are connected and inform each other. This morning we are focussing on the vision for us as a church, but as we do that, we have to remember these other aspects of life.
So what is really there in All Saints? As I’ve been meeting many of you, I’ve been asking you to tell me what is great about All Saints and what isn’t so great.
These are the words that came up most often in the descriptions of what is great, the bigger the word, the more often it was mentioned.
Words such as “fellowship, family, group, people, and encourages” reflect the value that we place on relationships with each other. Words like “Bible, preaching, teaching, sermons” capture our emphasis on the Word of God. And, “worship, music, and services” express the importance of our worshipping life together.
On the other side, what about things that we think aren’t so great?
It perhaps isn’t so easy to pick patterns out of this one. Maybe the number of times “people” appeared (just as it did in the positives) reflects the reality that in any community much of how we feel about that community is bound up with what the people in the community do and say, and we all have a responsibility for that. Do the words, “cliquey and lost” provide another perspective on the strength of the relationships in the church – is it always easy for those who join the church to feel truly part of it? The fact that “services and music” appear on this one too illustrates the fact that different people can look at the same thing and think different things about it.
This can happen with our vision of the future as much as it can with how we see the present. If a Grand Designs couple look at the field they have bought and one of them has a vision for a Mock Tudor mansion, and the other sees a eco-friendly hobbit hole being built, then they are going to have some serious conversations before starting to dig the foundations.
When perspectives and visions collide like this then we need to be careful to listen to each other and to God so that we can move forward together. Mary and Martha experienced this clash of perspectives. One day Jesus came to visit them, and they threw a dinner party for him. They had very different visions as to what this should look like. Mary wanted to sit with Jesus, spend every possible minute with him, show her love by listening to him. Martha wanted to do for Jesus, give him the best possible dinner, show her love for him by serving him. The problem was that Martha thought that Mary ought to see things her way, and asked Jesus to intervene. But Jesus actually saw things Mary’s way and gently reprimanded Martha.
Some time later Mary and Martha gave another dinner party for Jesus, and it is this one that we read about this morning. Notice the similarities. Martha is still serving. Mary is still at Jesus’ feet. But also notice the differences. Martha is content in her service and not trying to make others see things her way. Mary is even more abandoned in her worship. And now Lazarus is present as well, raised from the dead, reclining with Jesus in friendship at the table.
I spoke about this scene when I came to interview for the post of vicar here. The set passage was the one about the earlier dinner party, and I did talk about that, but I brought this one in as well because it seemed to me that it could be an important part of the vision for All Saints if I were to be appointed to lead this church.
Jesus is our Lord and we are called to serve him. That means using and spending our time, our money, our energy, in the way that he directs us to, and not in the way that we might choose to. My vision is that All Saints be a church that equips people to serve, gives them opportunities to serve, and sends them out to serve. Some of that service might be within the church, but much of it will be in the work places, voluntary organisations, schools, communities that we are part of. We don’t come out of the world to serve Jesus, we serve him in it.
Jesus is our God, and we worship him. There will be different ways of expressing that worship at different times and in the different congregations that make up All Saints, but the thing that will be in common will be that it will be focussed completely on creating a beautiful fragrance that fills the whole house with a perfume that delights God.
Jesus is with us, our friend, and we lean against him. All Saints has to be a church that expresses the welcome of God and draws people into deeper friendship with Jesus and with each other. Our love for each other is attractive and is a strength, but we must not pull up the drawbridge, in fact we must use the strength that we have gained from the friendship that we have found here to lean out, to reach out to others and to draw them in. As Jesus came to be with us, so we must go to be with others.
I was so encouraged that the third question that I asked, about what we thought would be great if All Saints could do, brought these responses. Again, it’s all about people, that’s us, but beyond that, I was heartened by the prominence of “outreach, Wellington, community, town” There is vision here to see All Saints bringing and being good news to Wellington and the wider community, and that excites me.
In that documentary about Eddie Hall, one of the commentators who knows Eddie well made a telling observation. He said that Eddie, in common with all Strong Man competitors, has a hole in their lives that they were trying to fill with success as athletes. He said, “I hope it’s enough to fill that hole, he might get there and realise that he’s just Eddie Hall from Stoke, and that will be the true test of his character”
Some of you will have heard of VeggieTales- the animated retelling of Bible stories. They were very successful, but for Phil Vischer, whose vision they were, it turned into a bit of a business disaster and ended up with him becoming bankrupt. He said this,
“If God gives a person a dream, breathes life into it and then it dies, then God might want to know what is more important to the person – the dream or God? The impact God has planned for us doesn’t occur when we’re pursing impact. If occurs when we’re pursuing God. At long last, after a life time of striving, God was enough. Not God and impact or God and ministry. Just God.”
In the end the vision for our lives, the vision for this church, our vision of our communities has to be centred on God. If any other vision takes the place of God then it isn’t a vision, it’s a mirage, and we will end up in the middle of a desert, dying of thirst. Only Jesus is the living water, only Jesus is the bread of life, only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It is only when our vision is centred on Jesus, our Lord, God, with us, that we will know God’s friendship, worship wholeheartedly and serve faithfully.