A Vision for the City

As I rode in the elevator with the search committee to the top of Atlanta's tallest building, I anticipated a joyous last step in the search process.  With a rare view high above the streets of Atlanta, I was sure we would look out and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for a successful conclusion to the search.  Instead, the chair of the committee pointed out the church building far below and asked me a question that stopped me dead in my tracks.  He said, "Scott, what is your vision for our congregation in relation to the city?"  My heart sank as I realized that I did not have a clue what God wanted the congregation to do in the city.

I actually thought of the words of Jesus in the passage before us, and I had a strong sense that Jesus had much to say to the question--something about bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.  But, regrettably, I didn't really know how to connect those words to a vision for the city, so I responded to the question honestly: "I don't have a vision for the church's role in the city; I don't really understand the needs of the city."

I had every reason to believe that my inability to articulate a strong answer to the question would cause the search committee to lose interest in me as their final candidate.  Mercifully, the questioner said, "You don't need a vision just now.  We have a vision for the city, and God will give you a vision in due time.  Preach the Word and pastor the people, and God will give you and us a vision in God's time."

Years later those prophetic words are still being fulfilled.  God is giving me a vision for the city and for the role of the congregation in realizing that vision.  The biblical verses that are at the center of that vision are the very same verses that God placed in my heart at the top of the building--the words of Jesus in the passage before us today.   And it is true that many members of the church had a vision for the church in the city, and they have shared it with me.  Together, we are now finding a fresh and exciting direction for what God wants to do in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

All along I knew the basics of Jesus' inaugural sermon, preached at his home synagogue in Nazareth.  I knew that this first recorded sermon after his baptism set the tone for his entire mission and ministry.  Jesus' words were based on the selected text for the day--Isaiah 61.  I knew that these words of Isaiah were not fulfilled in Isaiah's lifetime, and that they anticipated a future time when the messianic age would commence.  The sign of this new age would be hope and blessing for the poor and oppressed, grounded in the compassionate heart of God.  In preaching on this powerful text, Jesus claims to be the anointed one through whom this new age has dawned upon humanity.  "Today," Jesus said, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  But I didn't know the power of these words for the church in the twenty-first century.  I'm just now beginning to understand what these words might mean for us.

A strong case can be made that Jesus' reference to the poor has both a spiritual and economic meaning.  Certainly the good news envisioned by Isaiah spoke to the hearts of those who longed for God and who felt lost when cut off from God's presence.  They were first intended for the people of Israel who were living in exile in Babylon.  The people of Israel longed to return to Judah, their historic and spiritual home.  

In Jesus Christ, the spiritual home for God's people is no longer a geographic location; it is the very presence of Jesus dwelling in the hearts of all who trust in him and follow him.  In Jesus Christ, this good news goes out from the people of Israel to all people, just as God's good news once reached the widow at Zarephath in Sidon in the days of Elijah, and reached the leper, Naaman the Syrian, in the days of Elisha (Luke 4:25-27).  This good news is for all who acknowledge their spiritual poverty and turn to Jesus in repentance and faith.

But the meaning of "poor" in Jesus' proclamation is surely economic as well.  Something good must come from God's heart to those who are economically deprived and struggling for life's basic necessities.  Throughout Israel's history, the prophets of old called the people of God to care for the poor.  Likewise, Jesus admonishes his followers to give to people in need and to be concerned for their welfare.  He warns the rich that it is not easy for them to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, it is more than "not easy."  It is the hardest thing of all (Luke 18:24-25).   I am increasingly convinced that the material things of this world often distract us from the most important thing of all--knowing God. 

A year ago, men in our congregation began a neighborhood Bible Study.  Because our neighborhood includes homeless people, business professionals, and college students, the Bible Study included men from each of these backgrounds.  The results have been transformative for everyone.  The study begins with a leader giving an interactive reflection on a passage of Scripture.  The men then discuss the text in small groups at round tables.   All of the men find themselves on common ground in their need for God and in their spiritual hunger for more of God. 

Homeless men have profound insights into the meaning of Scripture from their unique perspectives.  A homeless man named Walter recently shared how his life had been in ruins as a result of addiction to alcohol and drugs.  With the help of God and the support of his friends inside and outside the church, Walter is now finding freedom from his addictions and is making progress toward getting a job. 

Tim is a highly successful business professional, who had never known a homeless person on a personal basis before becoming a part of this Bible Study.  As a result of making friends with homeless men, he now feels a profound sense of responsibility for helping to create a climate within the business community to help homeless men find employment opportunities. 

College students are learning that in many cases the difference between the homeless community and working people comes down to family support and educational opportunities.  All of these men affirm their spiritual poverty apart from God. Each week, good news is being proclaimed to the poor--spiritually and economically poor people.

What about release to the captives?  In the days of Isaiah, the captives were clearly the people of Israel held against their will by the Babylonians.  God's grace would ultimately set them free.  Little did I know when I first looked down from the high place above the city that people on and around the very corner where our church has been located for over 100 years were living in modern-day bondage. 

A few years ago, the Mayor's office issued a startling report.  Studies from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that our city was a center for the commercial sexual exploitation of children.  In the midst of Atlanta, three corners were named as particularly problematic for the forced prostitution of children seventeen years of age and younger.  One of those corners was the very one on which our church sits. 

When I preached about this form of modern-day slavery, the congregation responded with a call to action.  Older women in the congregation offered rooms in their homes as safe havens for recovery.  Young people begged for opportunities to form rescue teams that would take their passion for justice into the streets.   Still others said they had particular gifts in the areas of counseling, law, and organizational development. 

In partnership with other faith-based groups within the city, the church helped launch a new city-wide ministry called Street GRACE.  Street Grace stands for taking the grace of God into the streets of Atlanta.  Grace also stands for Galvanizing Resources against Child Exploitation.  This ministry has brought together churches and other faith-based organizations that normally would be separated from one another by theological, ethnic, and cultural differences to work for God's justice for the sexually oppressed children of our city.  The good news of which Isaiah and Jesus speak is bringing release to modern day captives on our very corner and throughout our city!

Many people within our congregation are coming to a personal knowledge of Jesus' proclamation of bringing sight to the blind.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus often worked miracles of physical healing, including restoration of sight to the blind.  Some in our church have experienced physical healing and have lived full and meaningful lives, far beyond the predictions of their doctors.  Surely Jesus is speaking of physical healing in this passage.

When Linda was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was given only a few years to live.  Linda trusted God, and people around her prayed for her healing, and she lived for over fifteen more years.  As one of the most inspiring and grace-filled women in our congregation, she brought love and joy to the lives of countless numbers of people of all ages.  Even though her cancer eventually led to her too-early death, everyone who knew her acknowledged God's healing and sustaining presence in her life.  She was a modern-day example of one within whom Jesus had worked a physical miracle.

The remarkable story of Jesus' restoration of sight to the blind man in John chapter 9 demonstrates that people with physical sight are often spiritually blind to the things of God.  In that story Jesus gives sight to a blind man, who immediately bears witness to the one who healed him.  But the religious leaders question his healing.  They reject the idea that Jesus could be a true man of God because he does not fit their preconceived ideas of how God operates in the world and in the lives of faithful people.  Surely a man of God would not heal on the Sabbath day, a clear breaking of the commandment not to heal on the Sabbath.  But the blind man only knows what happened to him--once he was blind and now he sees.  And it was Jesus who healed him.  This story leads me to acknowledge my own spiritual blindness to what others see more clearly than I.  God is at work in ways far beyond my ability to comprehend. 

Gillian is an elder in our church who has the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking God's timely word into our community of faith.  As Gillian has shared her prophetic insights with the leaders of our church, her words are being fulfilled, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small ways.  God has opened my eyes and the eyes of many in our congregation to recognize the existence of this spiritual gift of prophecy.

Daily, Jesus is opening the spiritual eyes of our congregation.  One of the ways our eyes are being opened is through what our international members have to teach us from a global perspective about God's love, grace, mercy, and mission.  These international members have shared with us that when the economy is bad in North America it is often devastating in developing nations.

As a result of their insights and the strong call of Jesus to speak into human need, our church has chosen to not cut back on our commitments to mission and evangelism.  This is an enormous step of faith for a church that invests over 33% of its total income on ministries beyond our congregation.  We are reducing expenses in other areas, but we are praying that God will continue to enable us to support the ministries that proclaim good news to the poor and oppressed in our city and around the world.  We now see the world with eyes that focus on needs far beyond our own immediate personal concerns.

The chair of the church's search committee spoke a prophetic word when he told me twelve years ago that God would give me and the congregation a vision for the church's mission in the city.  That vision is becoming clearer.  More than ever, we are convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to the deepest longings of the human heart. 

In Jesus, the spiritually poor from all walks of life are filled with love, forgiveness, and grace. 

In Jesus, the economically poor hear a word of encouragement and hope for a better life.

In Jesus, people in modern day slavery are being set free. 

In Jesus, our eyes are being opened.

In Jesus, God's people are mobilized to action--to continue what Jesus began!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Let us pray.

Loving and gracious God, we ask that you would enable us to live into the ministry of Jesus.  May the same Holy Spirit that led Jesus to proclaim your message with power and courage also lead us to boldly do the same that all people, rich and poor from all nations of the world, would find in you the richness of your love, grace, and mercy.  Together may we work for your justice for all people.  In Jesus' name we pray.  Amen.