I probably ought to start this sermon with a disclaimer. We’ve been together long enough to trust one another. And so I want to take the risk of being really honest with you about this thing that we do together called “church.” I am not preaching to you because I think of you as the saints. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love you and how grateful I am that you step up to take care of one another. I asked for help with Faye Wilkinson’s memorial service and hospitality for her family members and had more people volunteer that we needed. You are so generous! I want to have an important conversation with you and this is my long opening concern. I would love to continue this conversation in any venue you choose.
What did you hear in the gospel reading? I hear it as Jesus claiming his mission statement. There was a time in the latter part of the 20th century when churches were encouraged to write their own mission statements. Christian churches were beginning to decline and for whatever reason, the Church began to look to the business community for advice. Perhaps it was because business and the economy were booming. We wanted to learn how to grow our business. That should have been a red flag because we are not a business. But it wasn’t. We were beginning to be afraid because our future as an institution was looking more and more uncertain. The business gurus of the time encouraged companies to create vision and mission statements. So United Methodist churches began to develop their own mission statements with workbooks like Vision 2000, which challenged congregations to imagine what they would like to be five years down the road when they reached the turning of the century and to write a vision and mission statement to help them live into that vision. I would imagine that this church’s statement was developed then, “Inviting all to share the Christian journey.” Or maybe this mission statement comes from the second round about ten years later.
That’s about the time that the greater United Methodist Church came up with a mission statement of its own: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s not a half bad mission statement. It echoes the closing of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But the cynic in me notices that we betray our fear of declining numbers at the beginning of the statement by “making disciples” who will somehow transform the world, whatever that means, I’m sure that will be good and useful, but what we need is more people! So I’ll ask you, ask I have asked myself and several other churches (because I have been something of a mission statement guru), have we lived into our vision? Almost every mission statement had to do with growing in numbers. Have we grown? The answer for all of those churches is no. But, and this is an important but, most other membership driven groups have also declined. All Christian denominations are in decline in the United States and almost gone in Europe. There are some United Methodist churches that are growing, but they are an anomaly I think because they have a very special vision.
The irony is that vision and mission have always belonged to the people of God. Business borrowed it from us and we embraced a corrupted version. The genius of business is that it realized that stating the reason for your existence and then doing only that could be an effective model for success. The shadow, or dark, side is that business often allows the bottom line to overshadow the debt it owes to the human beings that contribute to the bottom line. Investors become more important than employees. When the Church began to fear for its life, it began looking at the bottom line in terms of seats in the pews and income and who would take on the functions we have learned to think of as necessary. It tries to hold on to everyone and continues to count members who have long since moved on or lost interest. When it cannot support itself, it begins to ask the community for support.
But, again this is an important but, the Church should never have become an institution. The Church started out as a renewal movement within the Jewish faith. When the movement expanded beyond and lost its connection to the Jewish community, it was still a social movement. The Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s a movement that breaks down social barriers.
I believe that Jesus believed that God had a vision that was expressed over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures, first in Leviticus and also in Deuteronomy in which God lays out a detailed plan for the well-being of the whole of creation including human beings, animals, and the land. In Leviticus, God commands the year of Jubilee:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
I won’t read the whole of the 25th chapter of Leviticus, but I suggest you do later. What Jesus quotes Isaiah proclaiming is an announcement of the year of Jubilee. Not that we have any written documentation of the year of Jubilee ever being celebrated. Jubilee is not a fuzzy wish, it is a call for specific actions. Jesus believed he was anointed by the Holy Spirit to live Jubilee. His actions were in accordance with bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor—Jubilee.
That is our mission statement. Everything else that we do is kindness within our community. But our job is Jubilee. If we are not bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, we are not being faithful to our call, and there is no reason for us to exist other than as a social club. At the heart of this mission is love and mercy. We have to figure out how to do these things with passion and risk the life of this institution doing it in order to continue to have life. Not to grow, although that may be a by-product, but to live. The Spirit gives us life in order to offer life.
Richard Rohr is one of my favorite contemporary theologians. He writes:
If we're honest, culture forms us much more than the Gospel. It seems we have kept the basic storyline of human history in place rather than allow the Gospel to reframe and redirect the story. Except for those who have experienced grace at their core, Christianity has not created "a new mind" (Romans 12:2) or a "new self" (Ephesians 4:23-24) that is significantly different than the cultures it inhabited. The old, tired win/lose scenario seems to be in our cultural hard drive, whereas the experience of grace at the core of reality, which is much more imaginative and installs new win/win programs in our psyche, has been neglected and unrecognized by most of Christianity.
I remember speaking at a prayer breakfast in my early years in Cincinnati and saying, "What if the Gospel is really a win/win scenario?" At the break, a successful Catholic businessman came up to me and said in a most patronizing way, "Father, Father, win/win? That wouldn't even be interesting!" And it really wouldn't be interesting to most people who live their entire lives inside systems of weighing, measuring, earning, counting, and performing--which is pretty much the only game in town.
Up to now, Christianity has largely mirrored culture instead of transformed it. Reward/punishment, good guys versus bad guys, has been the plot line of most novels, plays, operas, movies, and wars. This is the only way that a dualistic mind, unrenewed by prayer and grace, can perceive reality. It is almost impossible to switch this mind during a short sermon or service on a Sunday morning. As long as we remain inside of a dualistic, win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and vindictive moralisms and myths (Star Wars being a most recent example) and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offered us. The spiritual path and life itself will be mere duty instead of delight, "jars of purification" instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:6-10). We will focus on maintaining order by sanctified violence instead of moving toward a higher order of love and healing--the heart of the Gospel.
The heart of the Gospel is love and healing, mercy and forgiveness, release, recovery, and freedom. We have good news to share and important work to do. I have so many “What if” questions in my head this morning. I won’t trouble you with all of them, but what if we were to rethink church (that’s another United Methodist slogan, by the way)? But I mean it. What if we looked at everything that we do and question whether it does what Jesus laid out in his mission statement—which is our mission statement if we are in truth his body? What if we looked at how we spend our time and our treasure? Anybody interested? I can’t think of anybody I’d like to have these conversations with than you.