John 9:1-41 Pain, Hope and Vision
In their book ‘Holy Conversations - Strategic planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations’, Gil Rendle and Alice Mann say that there are three sources of energy for mission planning: Pain, Hope and Vision. Without feeling pain in the church, we may never make any moves to change. Pain makes us notice that something is not right. When our bodies are in pain, we notice it and we look for a cure and we keep looking until we have some hope.
Are we feeling the pain of being the church this morning? Are we feeling the pain of declining numbers and stretched finances? Are we feeling the pain of loneliness because our friends are no longer with us, some have died and some no longer attend church? Are we feeling the pain of a world that seems out of control? Are we feeling the pain of a church that seems to have lost its way? Perhaps you are feeling the pain of losing faith?
Vision in the congregation is a very important thing. Mike Riddell In his book ‘Threshold of the future’ says that the power of vision lies in its ability to imagine an alternative to the existing reality. Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book ‘Holy Conversations -Strategic planning as spiritual practice for congregation’ say that vision is the meaning the congregation makes about its present and its future.
Vision gives us hope but it also makes us aware of the pain. If we are not already aware of the pain vision makes us aware that there is a crisis, that we cannot continue on the path we are going. We need to slow down, speed up, stop or change. Have you noticed sometimes how it is only when we stop and sit down or lie down that we notice that a part of our body is in pain? Vision also makes us aware of what is causing the pain that we are experiencing in the present and most importantly vision gives us hope: hope for the future and hope in the present despite the pain.
Let’s look at today’s reading noticing elements of pain, hope and vision. When Jesus healed the man who was blind the religious leaders could not or would not accept that Jesus had done this. They would not believe his word, and his parents like so many people at the time, were afraid to say anything that would show an interest in Jesus for fear of being put out of the Synagogue. The word 'Jews' here means the group within Judaism that was most opposed to Jesus and who were trying to kill him. A few weeks ago, we heard about Nicodemus one of the leaders of this group who was open to hearing what Jesus had to say but for fear of his own group remained in the shadows of darkness. What pain he must have lived in. Living in fear is living in constant emotional pain, it eventually effects our bodies. Imagine what fear does in the body of Christ, the church. Imagine the difference vision and hope make?
The story of the blind man has multiple layers of meaning and transformation because of the liberating work of Jesus. Though born blind the man can now physically see for the first time. An incredible story. But the story also reveals the spiritual vision the man now has, and it greatly contrasts with the lack of vision the religious leaders had. The fact that the Jews refused to believe this story or anything good about the person Jesus who had done this reveals a deep darkness that the religious leaders found themselves in. The story reveals that not all who are religious have vision. In fact, these people refused to see. They were in darkness and were refusing to come into the light, refusing to accept Jesus the light of the world, refusing his vision for the world, the vison of the Kingdom of God.
Mike Riddell quotes the amazing church community leader in Brisbane, Dave Andrews ,who said something that shocked me and challenged me. Dave Andrews says that within the institutional church there may be those who are moving away from Jesus whereas outside the institution of the church people my be moving towards Jesus. How can this be possible? Could we have lost our way? Could we have lost our vision? Surely, we could not be like this group opposing Jesus. "Surely we are not blind, are we?"
Mike Riddell talks about the congregation as an Open Community. When I read that I thought about how often my experience of church has been of a closed community rather than open to those out in the wider community, open to its neighbours. When I was at Parramatta Mission we started Open Church. We kept the church doors open seven days a week. The growth came from people who popped into the church during the week. We surveyed them and often the reasons they gave were: they were on their way to see a doctor, to find a job or going to court. They needed help, prayer and some kindness. They were welcomed, invited to our Wednesday evening dinner and often found their way back on Sundays or remained part of the life of the congregation without coming on Sundays.
Sometimes people in churches hold a tight grip on who can and who cannot use the church buildings, without realising that they may hold the keys of the kingdom. They literally keep people out of the church. They have the power to open up or close down.
A key word is Open – Are we a closed church or an open community? How might we remain a closed church? What keeps us as closed communities? How do we become an open community? What might we need to do to change, to embrace our communities, to relate to those in our communities?
Last week I was leading our congregation in the second of our mission planning sessions which I am calling a series of Holy Conversations. I asked if any of them or their children had hermit crabs as pets when they were younger. I explained that when a hermit crab outgrows its shell it finds a bigger empty shell and then moves into it. I then asked them to imagine if they were hermit crabs and what would happen as they got older and the shell became too heavy for them to carry. What could we do? Downsize? One person said, "Invite another crab in to share the load." I then likened the congregations of this area to the hermit crab. 50, 60 70 years ago congregations built bigger churches to accommodate their growing congregations and activities, now many of these buildings have become a burden too heavy to carry, to maintain, not fit for purpose.
What can we do? Downsize? Sell them? Invite others in to share them? There is an old saying, a burden shared is a burden halved. Share them with our communities, with partners, collaborators, with people who may also share our vision of working for the kingdom of God or just for a better world, share with people who are searching, looking, people who may have rejected the institutional church but seeking meaning, life, authenticity, truth.
A closed community is one that has hard boundaries defined by ‘right’ theology or correct doctrines and beliefs and strict membership and exercises tight control but in an open community there is a sharing of humanity, of becoming truly human together, becoming human like Christ, sharing one another’s pain and suffering, finding new hope together, dreaming new dreams of a better world. Mike Riddell says, ‘An open community is where everyone is welcomed, whatever their background, their language, their sexual orientation, whatever their theology. Whatever reasons people show up for their dignity is accepted.’
At Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park we share our three church properties with a number of other congregations: A Korean Uniting Church Congregation, An Indonesian Pentecostal Congregation, A Chinese Pentecostal Congregation, An Indonesian Presbyterian Congregation and two non-Uniting Church Tongan congregations. We have made a property sharing agreement with Galilee Korean congregation. They use the Campsie church mostly for worship and spiritual growth activities and we use it for mission - running a drop in once a week with a cooked lunch and as the base for distributing food from four Coles Stores seven days a week through the Second bite food rescue program. At Earlwood, we are hoping to develop an agreement with the Indonesian Pentecostal congregation around maintenance and mission and likewise with one of the Tongan congregations at Clemton Park. The Pentecostal Chinese congregation hire our Campsie hall for worship twice per week but also work in partnership helping us with the drop in and distributing food and the United Church of Tonga assist with the distribution of food and volunteering at the drop in. Some are members of both congregations.
As our congregation engages in mission planning, we are realising how our planning must include the other congregations and community groups who use our halls because we all realise that together we are seeking God’s kingdom or have a vision of creating a better world and we can do that best by assisting each other. For example, our congregation has lots of property resources, but other congregations have people who have skills and time to do things we are unable to do with both property maintenance, repairs and mission. Together we are not only seeking the kingdom but sense we are tasting the kingdom. We work well because we are all independent yet interdependent. We enjoy collaborating and partnering in mission and projects but also doing our own thing in worship. It has its challenges but It’s very exciting and energising, I feel that a shared vision is developing. What we could not see before is coming into view. Despite the pain we have hope.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation