Missional: Mission Statement
Today, after a hiatus in our series to celebrate Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, we finally return our series focusing on those components that are my dreams, and I hope yours too, for Apple Valley: that we would be a congregation that is Fruitful, Prayerful, Invitational, and Missional. It was almost a year ago now when we first talked about what I had in mind when I said I dreamed that we would be a missional church. We focused on a key verse: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” I shared with you our denomination’s mission statement, our purpose statement. The Book of Discipline says that the mission of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world” and further that that mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.”
I hope that you recognize in that mission statement some of the themes you also just heard in our gospel reading from Luke’s gospel. Because when Jesus gets up and shares these words, his first time, at least first recorded time teaching in the scriptures, what we get from Jesus is his mission statement, his purpose, his plan of what he is going to be all about. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and then concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus says he’s going to - and in fact already is - embodying the words of Isaiah in the world. That’s his purpose, why he’s there.
When I was writing my long final project for my doctoral work, one of the hardest parts to get just right was the very beginning of all those pages. The most important part of the whole work is stating the question, and stating the thesis.. What question am I asking, and what is the answer I’m going to try to prove in my paper? Any of you who have written a paper will remember being taught that you must have a thesis statement that you can prove. And you have to state your thesis right up front, as soon as possible: what’s your purpose for writing the paper? What’s it all about? In my draft project proposal, my advisor said that I needed to get to my thesis sooner. Right away. And then, as I wrote each chapter, everything I wrote had to point back to my thesis. The instructions for the paper were clear – I had to constantly loop back to my thesis, and my chapters had to support that my thesis was on target. Everything else I wrote, no matter how long, how many words, was just a kind of evidence for what I said on the very first page. Like a mission statement, a thesis gives the purpose, and everything else hinges on that. So it goes with our lives in Christ. We are disciples, following Jesus, and no matter what other things we do, what unfolds on the pages of our lives, everything is meant to point back to our primary identity as children of God, followers in the way of Jesus. Do we think we understand God’s purpose in the world and for us? Do we know our life’s purpose? What is your purpose in life? And then, if we know our purpose, how are we responding, living our lives, in light of that, and in light of God’s purpose for us?
Sometimes we talk about doing things “on purpose” or “on accident.” My mother tells a story about meeting with her life insurance agent when she was still working as a nurse. The agent talked to her about an “accidental death” policy. She joked, “Well, if I die, it sure won’t be on purpose!” He didn’t seem to think it was very funny though! When we do something on purpose, we claim responsibility for it. If we say we did something “on accident,” often we’re trying to let folks know that we aren’t responsible for whatever happened. Sometimes, though, I worry that we live our whole lives in sort of an “on accident” mode, never being intentional enough to claim responsibility for how are lives are turning out. We say we have a direction or purpose or set of beliefs that guide our lives, but we don’t state our thesis very boldly, or our life’s supporting paragraphs never seem to loop back to that these statement, or worse, our supporting paragraphs disprove our thesis, showing that whatever we claimed as our purpose was just empty words. We wander through life a bit accidentally, hoping that we’ll also accidentally end up following Jesus.
Jesus shows up at the synagogue in his hometown to declare his purpose. He reads from Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’” When he sits down to teach, the practice in Jesus’ day, everyone is just waiting to hear what he’ll say. He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a big claim! But everyone is thrilled with Jesus. He speaks so well! Isn’t he so grown up? Isn’t that Joseph’s boy? He has so much potential! He’s really going places, this Jesus. They’re delighted. If only things had ended there...
But instead, Jesus is not content to leave them content! There’s a saying that Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and Jesus definitely seems to think they are too comfortable. So he continues speaking: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town . . . there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’”
The people are filled with rage at his words, and try to drive him off a cliff, and we as 21st century readers are left wondering what we missed. Why did his words upset them so much? Well, what Jesus points out to the people is that God sent these prophets to work through those who were not Israelites, those who were not a part of the community, those who were not a part of the in-group. Basically, Jesus says, God has a practice of picking those who are outside the synagogue, outside the congregation, outside the acceptable parameters, outside the normal, and using those very people to accomplish God’s purposes.
The people don’t want to hear it, and they don’t want to hear it so much that they’d rather just push Jesus off a cliff than listen to anything else he has to say. But Jesus isn’t saying anything new - God’s preference for the outsider, for the pushed aside is right there in the words Jesus read from Isaiah. Jesus read about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, not good news for the middle class, release for the independent, sight for those who just won’t open their eyes, freedom for the comfortable. And Jesus is coming to embody this very message. He, too, is going to be at work on the margins, using those that have been excluded, that have been rejected, that have been left out. That’s his plan, his purpose, his path: to serve those who have always been on the bottom of the heap.
It’s always easy to put ourselves in the role of receiving the blessings of scripture. Jesus says he comes to bring good news and release and recovery and freedom and favor. Who doesn’t want that? It sounds great, and we’re ready to have all these blessings. And friends, God does want to bless us. But to receive God’s blessing for us, we have to find our right place in the story. We who are already in, who’ve already found our place in Christ’s church - we’re called to come alongside Jesus to serve. We’re called to put others before ourselves. There can be no “me first” in discipleship unless we’re offering ourselves as first to serve, first to give, first to love. As a congregation, we’re not meant to sit waiting to receive the good news - we already know it! Instead, the church, Christ’s body, exists to share the news with others. We exist not for ourselves, but that we might help get this message, this purpose that Jesus declares, to others. He’s given us the purpose statement, and we’re meant to be the supporting paragraphs, always pointing back toward Jesus.
“He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” May it be so even here and now. Amen.