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Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Causing Us to Run

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 119:137–144
John 1:1–9
Habbakuk 1:1–4, 2:1–3

This stubborn hope that Habakkuk proclaims and awaits is no mere Pollyanna response to the ills and angst of his age; it is instead the only response that leads to life, to wholeness, to justice, and to love.

Sharron R. Blezard

What do you think people see when they walk by this church? As they walk quickly, trying to get from their job to lunch, or from dinner to home, or from one store to another, or as they move slowly, eyes lifted up to see all of the high-rise buildings that surround us, doing their best to take it all in—what do you think they see when they pass in front of this place? I’m certain they see the beauty of the buildings: the tall steeple, the green ivy clinging to old stone, the flowers and the plants behind small iron railings. Depending on the time of day and the weather, they probably see people standing in the courtyard, taking pictures, or the open Sanctuary door as folks of all ages and cultures come in and go out in a steady stream. I wonder, don’t you, what do they see here at and in Fourth Church—and does that vision inspire anything in them?

We know from our experiences with Open House Chicago that some folks have walked by our church for many years but have never come in. Apparently, from what our volunteers hear, some of them have always just assumed this old church must now be a museum. They express surprise that a church this old and large is still a living, active, interesting house of worship with a congregation dedicated to being part of God’s work in the city. I wonder if that discovery inspires anything in them, if, along with the pamphlets and the pictures with which they leave, they also take away new possibility for what can happen in a mainline Protestant, urban faith community. I suppose I really just want to know if anyone sees anything that is going on here that makes them want to run: not run away, but run because they experienced something of God, something of inspiring possibility in this place that compelled them to leap into action.

That is what Habakkuk was waiting for. Habakkuk is a prophet about whom you might not know much. He was presumed to be active in Jerusalem sometime in the seventh century BCE, when Jerusalem was being threatened by the Babylonians but before it fell in 597. From what I can tell, Habakkuk was more of a praying prophet than he was a preaching prophet. This short biblical book is less sermon and more prayerful conversation between Habakkuk and his creator God. The conversation is wide-ranging. It moves from painful, honest lament in chapter 1 over what the prophet sees as God’s inaction in the world, to a demand that God respond and a willingness to wait for that response in chapter 2, to a renewed confidence in God’s mercies and praise for God’s faithfulness in chapter 3.

But it is the beginning of chapter 2 that intrigues me the most today. After Habakkuk put it all out there—his honest disappointment and fear over the violence and injustice he kept seeing take place—he writes this: “Then the Lord answered me and said, ‘Write the vision, make it plain on tablets, so that the one who reads it will run.’” Now, like last week, the translation on which I rely differs from the NRSV in the pew Bibles. The NRSV translates the text as “write the vision, make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” Yet the NRSV’s translation changes things around from the Hebrew (Anna Pinckney Straight, The Well, 2010). It does not follow the words, the syntax, or the emphasis of the Hebrew. When we do pay attention to those things, when we notice how the original prophetic words were structured, then we see that the purpose of the vision is to cause the receiver of it to leap into action, to run as quickly as she can to do what God is calling her to do in the world. Here is the translation on which we are focusing: “Write a vision, make it plain on tablets so that the one who reads it will run.”

That is why I am so curious: will people who are in worship today, maybe even for the very first time; or do those who come through the doors not to worship but rather to tutor, or to attend an adult Christian education class on Howard Thurman, or to receive emergency food from the Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Service Center, or to attend a book study with the Center for Life and Learning, or to receive counseling from a therapist with the Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being or care from one of our pastors on staff—do any of those people leave this place inspired, ready to run, and willing to leap into God’s action in the world because of what they experienced of God here, what they saw happening all around them? Is there a vision that is made plain so that when they see it they cannot help but run, ready to participate in God’s justice, in God’s mercy, in God’s work for peace?

You might remember that a few weeks ago I asked you to consider what our persistent God would not leave you alone about, would not stop bothering you about. Today I want to know something else. I want to know what you see. I want to know what it is that happens here through Fourth Church that causes you to run. What do you know about God, what have you experienced of God here, that compels you to leap up into action? Ready to run and ready to tell. Ready to run and ready to change. Ready to run and ready to act. What is that for you?

Is it our long-held vision of being a light in this city, a light that reflects the true Light attested to in John 1, a vision we have had for quite a while but one we believe is still a faithful response to God’s call on us as an urban, mainline congregation? Many of us in leadership still find that vision so compelling and still full of even untapped possibility that we named our 2017 annual appeal after it: Let your Light Shine. It is our fervent hope that when we all rededicate ourselves, both with our money and with our energy, to that God-given, God-inspired vision to be a light to reflect God’s light that our collective light will burn even more strongly, even more brightly, becoming like an LED spotlight or one of those huge canister lights that shine up into the heavens and can be seen for miles around.

So much of what I have noticed about who we are as a church and as Chicago Lights convinces me that our current call is to continue to shine that kind of bright light, a light that both highlights the beauty and mercy found in God’s world as well as highlights the continued suffering and injustice still found in God’s world. That call to be an honest, searching light is why we have engaged in conversations and advocacy about racism and police-community relations and mass incarceration and gun violence and the need for jobs and refugee resettlement. We, like Habakkuk, are called to keep lifting up our collective voice of lament and shining our light on the violence and the pain we continue to see or continue to experience firsthand. We, like Habakkuk, are called to keep demanding that God pay attention to what is going on in God’s world, while at the same time doing what we can to trust God is at work and to participate in that work even in God’s waiting time.

For me, our God-inspired, God-given vision to be a brightly shining light in this city is a plain enough vision, a big enough vision to cause me to run in response. Does it do that for you? What do you know about God, what have you experienced of God here, that causes you to leap up into action? Ready to run and ready to tell. Ready to run and ready to change. Ready to run and ready to act.

A regular visitor to this congregation recently shared his ready-to-run story with me. This particular young adult has not officially joined the church, but he is here almost every Sunday. One morning after worship, he came up to me and said, “I want to tell you why I am here. I know this is a predominately white congregation [he is a person of color], but I feel God has given me a vision. God wants me to be here and to be part of what God is doing to break down the barriers and the stereotypes we have of each other. Plus,” he continued, hot coffee in hand, “I also come because I want other young people, those who run the streets, guys who would never even imagine walking into this place, I want them to know the church cares and that they would be welcomed here too.” Then he shook my hand and walked off.

I suppose in this particular young man’s case what he knows of God, what he has experienced of God in this place, has actually caused him to run into the building, into this community, just as much as that vision has propelled him to run outside of it. By what must be the power of God’s Spirit, he has seen God’s promise of love that transcends all those things that try to keep us apart. Through this gathered community, through music and worship, through a warm cup of coffee and conversation, he has seen God’s Light and felt God’s love that proclaims everyone is a beautiful and claimed child of God. Period. He is actively doing what I charge every new members class to do: he comes and inhales God’s expansive grace for himself and then he goes and exhales that expansive grace and claim for others. That is the vision God has given him, in part through his participation here, and it is a big enough vision, a compelling enough vision, that he runs out to tell others they are welcomed before he runs back in to live that welcome out.

So again I ask you: what vision of God or of God’s beloved community do you see in the mission and ministry of this church that causes you to leap up into action? Ready to run and ready to tell. Ready to run and ready to change. Ready to run and ready to act. I met another newcomer to this place a couple of days ago. She is also not a member of the church, but she has recently become a tutor with Chicago Lights. Already, even after just a few weeks, she cannot believe she has not done this before. She told me she is certain she has the most delightful student of them all. She greatly enjoys the time they share studying and visiting, the relationship of care that is forming.

The new tutor told me she now wants to try and reschedule all her out-of-town trips to take place on the days on which she does not tutor. “I cannot miss that time with her,” she explained. “It is too important for us both.” Through that work of Chicago Lights Tutoring, a program that puts people in each other’s lives who probably never would have met without it, through the way it lives out the vision of being a light in the city by changing lives one at a time, this new tutor has experienced something of God, even if she might use different language to describe it. But the vision of all the possibilities that could emerge for both tutor and student has this woman ready to leap up into action. Ready to run and ready to tell. Ready to run and ready to change. Ready to run and ready to act.

One last story, this time about a younger Presbyterian in another city but someone who also saw God’s vision with such clarity that she was ready to run and participate in what God is doing. The story comes from a Presbyterian pastor friend in Virginia. That pastor tells the story of a little girl she knows who once saved up her allowance to an all-time high of $12. When that little girl heard her mother was going to the grocery store she begged to be taken along so she could find something to buy worthy of the money she had collected. So up and down the aisles they went, passing by candy and donuts and toys and books, considering possible investments for the child’s jackpot of cash in her little purse. Alas, though, nothing really made the cut.

As they were leaving the store they saw a group of people playing some music and collecting donations to build a new church in their small town. Their collection buckets had a drawing of what their church was going to look like. The music and pictures caught the child’s eye, because she was a regular at Sunday school herself. Slowly her hand went to the purse and she pulled out the tiny roll of twelve one dollar bills. Her mother held her breath wondering if she’d count off one or two, but the child put the whole wad in there at once, and smiling broadly, rejoined her mother to push their grocery cart to their car. “Why did you pick that to spend your money on?” the mother asked. Without missing a beat the child answered simply, “I wanted to see what God can do” (Liz Forney, “Are You All In?” Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, 5 November 2006).

Clearly, through worship and Sunday school and children’s choir and outreach into its community that child’s congregation had helped her see and experience God’s vision of hope and possibility in such a plain way that she, a child, felt inspired and ready. She was ready to run and ready to tell. Ready to run and ready to change. Ready to run and ready to act. I want to see what God can do, she said.

So again, what about you? What in your life, in your life in this place, compels you to leap into action so you can participate in all that God is doing in this place and out there in God’s world? Tell me. I want to know. And then commit to it. Commit your time; make a pledge with your resources.

We spoke of this in September, but please don’t forget that our endowment pays for the building costs—around 20 percent of our budget—but the money you and I give helps everything else happen, what takes place in the buildings, the ministry and the mission of being a light. Our pledges and our fulfillment of those pledges is the fuel, so as you have already heard today, it is critical that we all participate in our Annual Appeal at some level.

But then, don’t just stop with giving your time and money; also give your energy. Give of your whole self to that vision that God has given you—the vision that makes you want to run. Because I, like that little girl, also want to see what God can do, is doing, in you, in us. So let’s go church. Let’s start running. Amen.