"We are a community of faith united in exploring what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ, to be a people of God and to love and care for our neighbors. As a Church we will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross and no loyalties above those which we owe to God."
A Mission Statement
January 31, 2010
Rev. Tim Phillips, lead pastor
Text: Luke 4:16-30
Praise to One who feeds the hungry, frees the captive, finds the lost,
Heals the sick, upsets religion, fearless both of fate and cost.
Celebrate that constant presence – Friend and Stranger, Guest and Host.
So Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue and, finding the place in his own Hebrew prophetic tradition, he offers up a mission statement:
“The Spirit of God is upon me because the Most High has anointed me to bring good news to those who are poor.”
By the end of his sermon, the folks in his hometown are so angry with him, they are ready to throw him off a cliff.
Around 1985, I was in one of those transition periods of life. And I found myself looking for one of those ‘in-between jobs’ -- one that would keep me fed while I re-examined my sense of calling.
Thanks to a friend, I was recommended for a job as the support staff person for the strategic planning process of the Medical Library Association. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a medical librarian much less an international association of them. But it was the perfect in-between job. The process would take about a year. They had hired a consultant. My job was simply to take notes, summarize conversations, provide documents and be the general lackey for the needs of the planning team. I could do that. And they would pay me.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the Medical Library Association was doing this strategic planning process for the same exact reasons I was working for them. Both of us were in transition. We were in that uncomfortable in-between space where the world is changing and you don’t know how you fit anymore.
With the rise of technology, the Medical Library Association was trying to discern its professional role. Were they librarians or information technicians?
They were working on a mission statement because they were trying to understand who they were in this critical time of transition and how their values would translate in a new world of technology. They taught me that a mission statement is the way we talk about who we are and what we value as the world changes. I give them a lot of credit for even recognizing that they were in that in-between space and being willing to try to figure out where they might be going next.
In the process, they also taught me that a mission statement is not just about skills or talents. A mission statement is about spirit and passion. After all, the word ‘mission’ itself is neutral. The armed forces talk about a ‘military mission.’ Relief agencies talk about a ‘mission of mercy.’ The mission of one is to save people and the mission of the other might be to kill them. And, in our strange world, is appears possible to use these phrases interchangeably. But when we say that someone is ‘on a mission’ what we mean is that he or she is filled with passion and clarity and commitment about doing something.
The Medical Library Association was working on a mission statement not because it was trying to identify its skills but because it was trying to identify its spirit.
And, in that process, they taught me about the dangers of a mission statement – that mission statements can just become institutional jargon that don’t really mean anything. I don’t know how many hours they spent arguing with each other about out what qualifies as a mission statement and the nuanced distinctions between mission, goals, objectives, and strategies. It was hard not to get distracted by the lingo and easy to imagine that this wasn’t really going to get them anywhere. When I came to the end of my time with them, I sent around a memo to the other staff with a list of words or phrases I suggested be banned from the organization’s vocabulary. At the top of the list was ‘planning for planning.’ Just how far removed can you get before you actually have to do something?
So what I learned about mission statements in that process is that they are about:
Who we are in a critical time of transition;
They aren’t just about skills or talents but about spirit and passion;
And that the danger of a mission statement is that it can become institutional jargon that doesn’t mean anything to anyone.
When Jesus stands up to read in his hometown synagogue, it is not surprising that he would turn to the Hebrew prophetic tradition of Isaiah. Like Isaiah’s time, the world was in transition. The people of Jesus’ hometown were surrounded by a poly-culture of nations and backgrounds and religions. Imperial power had used to its advantage this diversity by pitting the interests of one group against another. And, at the same time, through proximity and the technology of things like region-wide roads, there was greater access to a larger world. The world of little old Nazareth was changing and, in the middle of that transition, Jesus offers a mission statement:
“The Spirit of God is upon me to preach good news to those who are poor;
to proclaim liberation to those who are captives;
recovery of sight to the blind;
release to those in prison;
and that this is the year of God’s jubilee when all debt is forgiven and all that has been torn apart will be mended.”
That all sounds fine to the people of his hometown – it is biblical after all – but what makes them angry is what he implies by telling the also-biblical stories of the prophet Elijah feeding the widow in Zarephath when his own people were starving at home in Israel and the story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian, a general in the army of their sworn enemy. While these are stories from the past, what it acknowledges is that new and wider world they may be defending themselves against. According to Roman Catholic Bible scholar, Richard Cassidy, it is this acknowledgement of a wider world and Jesus’ “universalism” that makes them mad.
Jesus offers the people in his hometown a mission statement that recognizes the world is changing in ways that reach beyond their boundaries and requires a loyalty greater than an allegiance to their own. Or, as our mission statement says in our own time of the world’s transition, “we will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross and no loyalties above those we owe to God.”
A mission statement is what we say about ourselves and what we value when the world is in a critical moment of transition. And in that moment, Jesus says: “The Spirit is upon me to preach good news.”
I realize that there is good reason to be suspicious of statements like “the Spirit is upon me.” Individualism has done great damage to our social fabric. But a mission statement is about some ones – some people – willing to say ‘the Spirit is on us to do something.’ A mission statement is not wishful thinking about what we hope someone else will do. It is a statement of what we will do and be. A mission statement says, we are the ones.
Alice Walker wrote We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For from a poem by her friend, June Jordan. Walker says:
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see. This does not mean we believe, having seen the greater truth of how all oppression is connected, how pervasive and unrelenting, that we can “fix” things. But some of us are not content to have a gap in opportunity and income that drives a wedge between rich and poor, causing the rich to become ever more callous and complacent and the poor to become ever more wretched and humiliated. Not willing to ignore starving and brutalized children. Not willing to let women be stoned or mutilated without protest. Not willing to stand quietly by as farmers are destroyed by people who have never farmed, and plants are engineered to self-destruct. Not willing to disappear into our flower gardens, Mercedes Benzes or sylvan lawns. We have wanted all our lives to know that Earth who has somehow obtained human beings as her custodians, was also capable of creating humans who could minister to her needs, and the needs of her creation. We are the ones.
We are the ones. We are the ones “exploring what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ,” we say, we are the ones called to love and care for our neighbors; we are the ones who will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross and no loyalties above those we owe to God. We are not waiting for someone else to do this. We are the ones. We are not the only ones. But in this critical time of transition in the world, we are the ones who will do this and be this.
And our mission statement means that we have committed ourselves to goals and objectives too: “to liberate hearts and engage minds and to embrace the world.”
Do our hearts need to be liberated? Are there things that can grab hold of us so that our hearts are not free for faith or praise? Are there things that can grip our hearts with the chilly fingers of apathy or fear? Are there things that can take our hearts prisoner?
And these are not disconnected things. Sometimes our hearts have to be liberated in order to engage our minds. And sometimes only in engaging our minds can our hearts be liberated.
While I was away, I was again reading Diana Butler Bass’ study of vibrant mainline liberal congregations and she observes that in those congregations “worship has moved eighteen inches: from the head to the heart.” At the same time, she says that one of the most attractive qualities drawing people to those congregations is the opportunity for thoughtful reflection and what she calls the real meaning of “liberality … theological generosity.”
This is what our mission statement says about us – we are the ones whose goal is to liberate hearts and engage minds in order to embrace the world; not pitying the world or trying to purify it, not hoping to escape the world, but to embrace it. We are the ones. We are not the only ones. But, as Alice Walker says, we are the ones.
“The Spirit is upon me to preach good news to those who are poor,” Jesus says, “to proclaim liberation for those who are captive; recovery of sight to the blind and release to those who are imprisoned – to proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor,” and “today,” he says, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We are the ones. And now is the time. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” Alice Walker says. And she opens that volume by saying:
It is the worst of times. It is the best of times … It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very Earth is being stolen from us, by us: the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the animals disappeared, human degraded and misguided. War is everywhere. It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect. A blessing when we consider how much suffering human beings have endured, in previous millennia, without a clue to its cause … Because we can now see into every crevice of the globe and because we are free to explore previously unexplored crevices in our own hearts and minds, it is inevitable that everything we have needed to comprehend in order to survive, everything we have needed to understand in the most basic of ways, will be illuminated now. We have only to open our eyes, and awaken to our predicament. We see that we are, alas, a huge part of the problem. However: We live in a time of global enlightenment. This alone should make us shout for joy.
Sometimes I think we spend an awful lot of time waiting for some other people to do what needs to be done. And we keeping looking for that perfect time to begin doing what needs to be done – we get stuck in planning for planning.
But, my friends, we are the ones and now is the time. Now is the time because this is the time of great urgency and opportunity.
So the mission statement Jesus offers is that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news and proclaim that this is the year. And then he asks the folks in his hometown to think about place in a new way. When Jesus tells those stories that imply good news for people living in other places, he is not saying that this good news excludes them. This is that age old competitive spirit that is so effective among us – that if there is good news for someone else it must be bad news for me. Or, on the larger scale of our world, that competition between the global and the local.
There is wisdom in that old bumper sticker about thinking globally and acting locally. It isn’t enough to simply cultivate universal consciousness when there is work to be done here. And, in this world, it isn’t enough to focus on the local without some consciousness of the world. The goal of embracing the world begins here.
Alice Walker says that there …
is a happiness that comes from honoring the peace or the possibility of peace that lives within one’s own heart. A deep knowing that we are the Earth – our separation from Earth perhaps our greatest illusion – and that we stand with gratitude and love, by our planetary Self.
Embracing the world starts right here – in our own hearts, with the person sitting next to you, the people you meet on the street, your neighbors next door and the nations across those imaginary boundaries of this one planet.
Embracing the world begins in this place. It does not end here but it does begin here because we are the ones; now is the time; this is the place.
On this Sunday of our 140th Annual Meeting, I probably don’t have to work very hard to convince you that this congregation and this community and this nation and this world are all in a critical time of transition. The world is changing. And, like the prophetic tradition of Isaiah and Jesus, we come to this moment with a mission statement:
“We are a community of faith,” we say, “united in exploring what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ, to be a people of God and to love and care for our neighbors. As a Church we will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross and no loyalties above those which we owe to God.”
And we have our goals and objectives: to liberate hearts, engage minds, and embrace the world.
All that is great. But, as the Medical Library Association taught me, all that can just be institutional jargon if we are not willing to say:
We are the ones.
Now is the time.
This is the place.
Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue and offers a mission statement:
“The Spirit is upon me to preach good news to those who are poor … to proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor.” And when he sits down, he says: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We are the ones.
Now is the time.
This is the place.
And, today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.