Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 146
1Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2I will praise the LORD while I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
4His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
5How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the LORD his God,
6Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever;
7Who executes justice for the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry
The LORD sets the prisoners free.
8The LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
The LORD raises up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
9The LORD protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow,
But He thwarts the way of the wicked.
10The LORD will reign forever,
Your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the LORD!

"There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."
"Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there."

It’s amazing how these things stick in your head. The first one, courtesy of Mastercard, is an example of a really effective slogan, the kind of slogan that seems to generate countless ads and even allows for the bridge between sentimental ideas and the product being sold (a credit card).

Surprisingly, neither the MasterCard slogan or the State Farm slogan appear in the Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. Launched in 2000, the Hall of Fame was organized by a panel of experts who identified the best and most effective slogans. It’s worth a look, if only to be reassured that important slogans did make the list, such as a very important slogan from 1929: “Guinness is good for you.”

The second example I started with, State Farm, is an interesting example of a slogan that also functions as a mission statement. We tend to think of mission statements as somewhat longer (and I’ll say more about that in a moment) but there are lots of organizations that try to sum up their mission in a very few words. Walt Disney’s mission statement is “To make people happy,” and while it may not be the most creative statement, it certainly is clear.

Another concise (and more meaningful) statement belongs to our partner, the Daily Bread Food Bank, that puts the phrase “Fighting Hunger” right below their name. It reinforces the core of their work, and it gives the impression they need our help. They have a slightly longer version as well, that reads: “To feed hungry people; To eliminate the need for food banks.” Unusual, in that the mission of the food bank is to eliminate itself, but a very important point to make.

For those of us given to taking the long view, I would call the 1990’s the era of the congregational mission statement. Google the phrase “congregational mission statement” and you will see a diverse range of statements, many hatched in the same window of time. I recall attending (and organizing) workshops, gathering people, writing comprehensive statements that reflected the diversity of the congregation, seeking congregational approval and finally, putting it in a drawer.

Maybe it got hauled out for the annual report and reprinted near the front, or maybe a snippet would appear week-by-week in the bulletin, but largely these statements we created then ignored.

Toward the end of the mission statement era there was also a bit of a backlash, coming first from the people who complained that the statements were never used and must be lost in a drawer somewhere and those who pointed in a different direction altogether.

Again to Google, and you will hit upon several congregations that say something like “we have no mission aside from the mission found in scripture, particularly the Great Commandment, (“You shall love the Lord your God with al1 your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' and 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) and the Great Commission” (“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…”)

It certainly saved a lot of time in developing a statement, and it is clear, but it also seems to have a bit of an edge to it that says ‘we have the truth and those other statements don’t count.’ Finally, as the era of the mission statement was nearing an end, there was a last ditch effort to create statements that looked an awful lot like a slogan. At the former Cliffcrest we said “Gathered in hope, led by the Spirit, sharing Christ’s message with all.” We were trying to say in a sentence what once took a page.

With time to reflect, I’m increasingly engaged by the scriptural approach, minus the edge, of course. You will find hidden near the top of the first page of your bulletin a mini-mission statement of sorts, carefully inserted there a couple of years ago in an effort to summarize what we hope to do in our hour together.

Be joyful and sing as you gather to worship God! – Psalm 100

Do you see it? I won’t ask who is noticing it for the first time, since I’ve never highlighted it before and simply left it there to burn a hole in your subconscious mind and promote joyful worship. Don’t worry, I haven’t hidden anything else…

Sometimes I read something or hear a turn-of-phrase and think ‘that could be a mission statement’ or ‘that pretty well sums up what we’re trying to do here.’ Case in point is another psalm, this time Psalm 146:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Maker of heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
The One who keeps faith forever;
7Who gives justice to the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry
God sets prisoners free, restores the sight of the blind;
God straightens those who are bent;
Loves those who are just
God cares for the stranger in the land;
He sustains the widow and the orphan,
But the way of the wicked he turns to ruin.

Countless commentators have called this a comprehensive description of the Kingdom of God. It reads like a manifesto, a few poetic lines that sum up the Kingdom project of justice, mercy, release, and care for the most vulnerable. For those who argue that we need to find a congregation’s mission in the pages of scripture, it’s hard to find a more compelling statement of what we’re about. And today’s commentators are not the first to notice.

In a week I’m be on my way to Chicago to continue to study homiletics (or as I like to say: ‘to finally learn how to preach!’) and one of the topics that appears time and again is ‘how do you preach the Old Testament in a way that honours it as the continuing scripture of the Jewish people.’ It’s a tough question. For too long the church taught that Old Testament meant old covenant and New Testament meant new covenant and therefore we could use the first half to prove the second half and leave it at that. It’s a debate I can’t fully describe today, except to say that ignoring the Old Testament is not an option and so we need to find a sensitive way to frame our use of what is also someone else’s Bible.

Enter Jesus. Jesus was passionate about the Bible. He read it, he quoted it, he sang it with his friends, and he framed the whole of his ministry around it. Think about our psalm for the day and listen in on a conversation from Matthew 11:

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

His mission reflected what he learned by reading his Bible and finding the very heart of the Kingdom project in it’s pages. Jesus is the Word (as John reminds us) but he also lived by the word and preached the word and followed the word to the cross.


I want to reach back to the beginning and have you think about State Farm. I think the message is so effective (“Like a good neighbour…”) because it speaks to a particular context and it speaks to our longing. We want good neighbours. Most of us know the experience of having a good neighbour and what it can mean for our feeling of comfort and security. The slogan takes a primary desire and connects it to the product they are trying to sell. It takes longing and gives it context.

The bridge from Psalm 146 to the stories of Jesus is longing and context. Jesus takes the longing of a community in exile (Ps 146) and sets it in the context of Roman occupied Palestine of the first century.

There was no justice for the oppressed
The poor were hungry
The blind were blamed for their misfortune
The lepers were cast aside
Widows and orphans and aliens were no longer cared for in a society that focussed on survival rather that the Law of Moses.

Jesus did in his day what we are called to do in our day, to set the scripture in the context of what is happening at this moment in history and call it our mission. And he would commend many of the same passages and many of the same neglected laws because what was happening in the first century is still happening today.

I encourage you to turn to scripture as Jesus did, to love and lead and let it define a way forward, both as a congregation but for ourselves: find your personal mission in the pages of the Bible and give thanks for the never-ending gifts of God. Amen.