Psalm 146, Luke 4:14-21
During my senior year of college at St. Olaf, I got an email from my choir conductor asking if I’d consider being part of a task force that the college was putting together. I didn’t need much convincing, partly because “task force” sounded pretty cool and important, and also because I really respected and trusted my choir conductor. If he asked me to do it, I’d do it. The task force ended up being one of the most interesting and unusual parts of my college experience. We were tasked with taking a look at the part of the college’s mission statement that dealt with its Lutheran identity. What did it mean for us to claim a Lutheran identity in a higher ed landscape that was rapidly diversifying with respect to religious identity? What did it mean that the institution was affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a very particular expression of Christianity, when the school also hoped to draw from a wide array of communities across the country and globe? I myself was an example of this, though the Presbyterianism of my upbringing is certainly not too different from Lutheranism! I spent my college years deeply committed to worship life on campus, and I remembered my first year of chapel services, singing parts of worship services that I’d never sung before, praying a different version of the Lord’s prayer, making my way through an unfamiliar hymnal that I came to love. Students from vastly different religious contexts, or from no religious context at all, must have experienced an even heightened version of this. It was good that we were spending time with questions of identity and belonging.
We talked through these questions for months. – I found myself on this committee with a couple of other students, professors of varying disciplines and religious identities, and school leaders including Westminster’s own Jo Beld. We asked questions about religious affiliation in higher education, and we talked through issues related to equity and inclusion. We wondered what it might look like for St. Olaf’s distinctly Lutheran identity to continue to animate the community’s life into the future. The fruits of that labor came to pass several years later with the creation of St. Olaf’s Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community.
That task force was my first time working with mission statements or vision statements. I imagine that many of you have had the experience of helping to craft or edit a mission statement for an organization or a workplace. I’ve also heard of folks who find it meaningful to craft a personal mission statement – to sit down and name a set of values and commitments that guide them in their daily living. I imagine that some of you were part of the crafting of Westminster’s mission statement, too. It is a painstaking process – it takes time and careful attention to language and meaning. But when they’re done, they’re helpful! They guide us forward and serve as a check to decisions and new directions. We get to ask again and again if what we’re doing is aligned with our mission. In the Families, Youth, & Children area here at Westminster, we often return to our baptismal welcome statement as a sort of “mission statement.” It’s the statement we read together as a congregation whenever we welcome a child into the community through baptism. When we’re discerning a new program or practice in the FYC area, we often return to that promise of welcome. Is this new thing going to help us to love, encourage, and support our young ones and their families? That promise helps keep us accountable to God and one another.
Mission statements, vision statements, statements of purpose… They guide us; they remind us who we are; they set us up for accountability. And for Christians, they remind us of the One to whom we belong.
In the gospel story we just heard, we catch a glimpse of what we might call Jesus’s own “mission statement,” at least according to Luke’s gospel account. We hear it when Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord 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 then Jesus rolls up the scroll and sits down and says this: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Almost as if to say: “this is my mission statement. This is what I’m all about. Everything I’m about to do will measure up to this statement.”
This is Jesus’s very first act of public ministry in Luke’s version of the Jesus story. But we’ve already been on quite a journey in Luke so far. The gospel writer has brought us through the long and beautiful stories of Mary & Elizabeth, and Jesus’s birth. We’ve journeyed to the Jordan River to hear from John the Baptizer and to see Jesus be baptized. We’ve traversed the wilderness and witnessed Jesus’s temptation. And now we’ve arrived in the region of Galilee, where Jesus will begin his public ministry. We are in Nazareth, the town where Jesus and his family live. Jesus is the hometown boy – he’s in his own synagogue where he spends many days. We might imagine that the day is a usual one – worshipers are gathered in synagogue, ready to hear from sacred texts. And today, Jesus gets up to speak.
I wonder how the folks in the synagogue are experiencing this moment – it it a regular occurrence for this hometown boy, Mary & Joseph’s child, now all grown up, to be one of the readers in worship? Or is this something new?
Many of the worshipers have certainly heard about what Jesus had been up to lately – he’s quickly gaining attention throughout the region. News about his teaching is spreading like wildfire, and people are curious.
So Jesus stands up and someone hands him the Isaiah scroll. He starts to read, and people’s attention starts to focus in. “Is he reading about the Messiah?” one person might whisper to another. Someone else, a really astute worshiper, might notice that he’s not just reading straight out of the scroll as it’s written. “Isn’t he skipping around in the scroll text?” this worshiper might ask herself.
Jesus is reading straight from Isaiah, the same prophetic book that’s part of our Older Testament. Isaiah chapter 61, all about freeing captives, proclaiming a year of God’s favor, bringing good news to poor folks. But before he even rolls up the scroll, he’s already doing some interpretive work. He’s also jumped back to Isaiah 58, where he picks up some language about letting the oppressed go free. And he hasn’t included all those early verses of Isaiah 61, either – he’s leaving out the pieces that would make it sound like this good news is only good news for the people of Israel. It’s good news for folks in communities all across the world. Good News for everyone…no qualifications. Good news for all of us.
At this point, worshipers are expecting Jesus to hand the scroll back to the attendant and sit down. He does do this – I imagine he rolls the scroll back up slowly and deliberately, hands it to the attendant, sits down, and preaches what might be the world’s shortest sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This one sentence captures the attention of the whole synagogue. In this one sentence sermon, Jesus has said so much. He’s the one they’ve been waiting for. All those things they just heard about in that prophetic scroll, those things the prophet spoke about, of a world turned upside down, where the last become first? That’s what he’s here to do. This is his mission statement, and the Spirit is with him as he embarks. He goes on to spend his life putting this good news into action – welcoming folks who had been pushed to the margins of communities, turning over tables to challenge economic exploitation, feeding people who were hungry.
As you might remember from later on in this chapter of Luke, folks in the synagogue that day are not all excited to hear Jesus’s “good news.” In fact, only moments later, the crowd throws Jesus out of the synagogue, chases him to the edge of town, and tries to throw him off a cliff. That’s serious stuff, and it might seem like a dramatic reaction, but it helps us remember just how radical Jesus’s words are.
When Jesus says he’s here to fulfill the good news of freedom for poor, oppressed, marginalized folks… it might not sound like good news to everyone else. In fact, it might sound like bad news – if I have wealth and power and privilege, is Jesus’s “good news” going to force me to part with it? For others to gain freedom, what might have to happen to me?
Of course, these questions are as alive and active today as they were 2,000 years ago in the Nazareth synagogue. If Jesus has come to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah – to be the very embodiment of freedom from oppression and captivity – what will it look like for us to be part of his story and mission? It’s really tempting to spiritualize this mission statement of Jesus – to wonder what freedom from spiritual sin looks like, or to wonder what it means to be poor in spirit. But Jesus shows us throughout his life and ministry that he’s talking about the real freedom of real people.
This is not merely a spiritual mission, though it is deeply spiritual. Jesus shows us throughout his life and ministry that he’s concerned with the real freedom of real people, the actual eradication of poverty, the material reversal of systemic oppression and injustice.
In last week’s joint workshop with Liberty Church, Rev. Ross Allam lifted up for us the witness and example of Rev. Dr. King. For King, Rev. Ross Allam reminded us, “the spiritual is material.” When we are connected with the mission of God, there are real, material implications for how we connect with God’s world. An apt reminder for our own time.
And so, today as always, our call is to join in the work of Jesus’s mission in the world. To join in the work of creating freedom where once there was oppression, of helping to nurture and sustain a world where all of God’s beloved ones can flourish. And how do we do this? We take a page out of Jesus’s book – we watch and listen for the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. The Spirit never fails to lead us where God would have us go, and to sustain us once we get there.
And the Spirit has been with us. Remember that thus far in Luke’s gospel, we have seen the Spirit’s presence at Jesus’s baptism, naming him a beloved child of God, and we have seen the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, still dripping from the waters of his baptism. The path forward can feel like wilderness and that feeling is real. We don’t know what’s ahead, whether it’s dangerous or a clear path, or what we might encounter. And yet, if it feels like wilderness, this following after Jesus’s mission, that’s probably a good thing – we, too, are always still dripping the waters of our own baptisms. We, too, are held and embraced by the power of the Spirit, no matter where we are on that journey of mission.
Being part of Jesus’s mission in the world… it takes courage. It takes courage to probe our own commitment to the status quo, and to begin asking hard questions of ourselves. Are we helping to uphold systems that actively oppress, or are we leveraging our own positions of power – relationally, politically, economically – to dismantle them? I’m reminded every time I visit the Westminster website of the powerful words offered by downtown faith leaders in fall of 2020: “We are political but not partisan… we believe that our ethical report card is determined by how we care for the most vulnerable in society.” Powerful words, and difficult to embody. Jesus, too, was political but not partisan. But the Spirit leads us onward, and Jesus is already here.
What will we do, knowing that Jesus is already here, the very fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision? Will we attend to the trauma around racism that lodges itself in our own bodies? Will we listen to our neighbors and believe them when they show us how injustice is growing in our communities? Will we seek ways to learn more about reparations efforts in Minnesota and take part in those efforts? Will we teach our children about brave truth-tellers throughout history who have joined in Jesus’s mission? These are all things that the Spirit is already doing in our midst – here at Westminster, in our neighborhoods, in our families. We are not alone in joining with Jesus in his mission of justice and love – not a single one of us journeys alone. That is certainly good news for all of us.
As we move into a time of song, I’d like to read aloud the final two verses of the hymn we will soon sing. It’s a hymn by a contemporary hymn writer, John Bell, whose words are always evocative – these are no different. I invite you to hear them now as prayer.
Heaven shall not wait for the dawn of great ideas, thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain: Jesus is Lord; he has married word and action; his cross and company make his purpose plain.
Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs, when earth has passed and we reach another shore: Jesus is Lord in our present imperfection; his power and love are for now; and then for evermore. Amen.