I was the pastor of a church one time when vision statements were all the rage. Every church had to form a committee and hammer out a vision statement, and a mission statement, and 10 year goals, and all that stuff. Then, we had to have meetings about all these orienting statements. Afterward, we had to have more meetings to talk about the meetings we’d just had, and then more meetings about the meetings we were going to have to have to get these things done.
At some point it felt like we were going to come up with a vision statement that said something like: “This is a congregation that cares not only about love, mercy, justice, and peace … we put our money where our mouth is: We’re a congregation that has meetings to talk about how we’re a congregation who talks about love, mercy, justice, and peace.”
And believe me when I say that it wasn’t other people forcing this whole process on me. I was the biggest cheerleader. I was convinced that I had no bigger vocational responsibility than producing a statement we could put on literature for prospective new members—and I didn’t care how many meetings it took.
Now, I have to be clear about the fact that I actually think having an articulable vision is crucial for a congregation. A common understanding about who we are, and what we care about, and why we care about it. As my old friend Steven Johns-Boehme used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, even an ill wind will take you there.”
But the problem with most vision statements is the extent to which they become vague approximations or unfocused wish-fulfillment statements of what a vision is, peppered with corporate-speak about “maximizing utility” and “targeting divergent constituencies,” while “leveraging our brand” in order to “offer authentic experiences” of “industry standard deliverables” that “achieve maximum impact” … when we tell people “Jesus is nice.”
Too often, summing up what a company or a congregation are about, what’s at the soul of everything they do is an exercise in saying dumb stuff that sounds vaguely smart.
But, as I say, knowing what you’re about is essential to doing good work. No argument from me. And being able to talk about it is crucial, not just the person out front, but everybody else involved too.
So, we came up with a vision statement that went something like, “Our first priority is to equip disciples for the kingdom of God”—which wasn’t an awful start, if you ask me.
But after all those meetings, and meetings about meetings, and word-smithing, and jargon-editing—when we unveiled it to the congregation, the question we got from a very vocal group was, “What gives you the right to say this is who we are? How come we weren’t invited to the meetings?”
I said, “As it turns out, you were invited. You just chose not to be part of the process.”
What was said next can be distilled to some version of “Just because we didn’t want to be part of the process doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the right to veto stuff we don’t like.”
“Okay,” I said, “what about it don’t you like it?”
“It’s not that. It’s fine as far as it goes. Our problem is that we want to have the final say over the shape of the work we do.”
After all these years, I can understand that feeling that we want not only focused understanding of the work, but a say in whether the work is something we want to be part of.
If you’re going to sign onto something, it’s reasonable to want a pretty solid idea what it is you’re getting yourself into.
“Wanting-to-know-what-we-signed-up-for” is precisely where we find the disciples in our text this morning.
Now, you may say, “Wait … what? Our gospel this morning didn’t say anything about the disciples.”
Good question. I swear I can’t slip anything past y’all.
If you look at what comes right before our text this morning, you’ll see that Jesus had gone up on a mountain to pray. When day came, he called his disciples together and chose twelve of them to be apostles. This is where Luke names the twelve: “Peter, Andrew, James and John, and all down the line.”
Just so we’re clear, Jesus calls the twelve from among all the disciples to be his inner circle—the guys (and I say “guys” not generically, but descriptively—that is, it was actually “guys”) the guys who’re going to wander around Galilee, Samaria, and Judea with him, helping him do whatever it is he’s going to do. These are the twelve who will be there when he finally gets to Jerusalem and the heat starts to rise, when the political bosses finally get him in their sites.
Our text this morning is the very first thing he says to the disciples after they’ve been chosen as the ones with whose help, Jesus will announce the coming reign of God. Kind of a big deal. It’d be a good time to unveil the corporate vision statement, right? What’s he going to say as he addresses his first words to his new executive committee?
This is not unlike another passage we’ve been talking about recently. Remember back in Luke chapter four, just after Jesus’ baptism, he was led by the spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days. Having rested up from his time in the wilderness, Jesus came back to Galilee, specifically back to Nazareth where he went to the synagogue on the sabbath, and stood up to read.
It was a big deal because these would be the first words he uttered in public after the inauguration of his ministry. These words he spoke in the synagogue on that first day of his ministry would give everybody some clue about what he thought his ministry was about, what the shape of his world would look like.
What did he say? Remember?
‘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 closed out with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus kicked off his ministry with a healing word for all those vulnerable members of the world who, to that point, had not had anyone to speak a good word to them, had not had anyone to fight for them.
Jesus hit the ground running, articulating from the very first just what the vision was. And it shouldn’t escape us that he understood himself to be a liberator of the oppressed.
First words count.
We’ve got a similar situation in our Gospel for this morning. Jesus has identified the people he wants to be by his side as he sets out to “bring good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” and these are the first words he says to his new A-team.
Listen to our passage for this morning again, this time listening for Jesus announcing his vision of what this new reign he’s announcing is going to look like, what shape this new kingdom he lifts up will take.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Not a lot of subtlety in those words, are there? He just lays it right out there, doesn’t he?
Not like in Matthew, who at least had the good manners to have Jesus make the blessings in the third person. Moreover, Matthew seems to gussy Jesus’ words up a bit, make them a little more spiritual, a little less “here and now.”
Matthew has Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Not Luke. Luke’s Jesus doesn’t speak about some hypothetical person somewhere. And he doesn’t take the gritty edge off it by spiritualizing it. Luke’s Jesus looks people in the eye and says, not “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are you who are poor.”
See the difference? “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Jesus in Luke says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
In Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
You. Immediate. Present. Now. Not later. Not in the “sweet bye and bye.” Now.
Then Luke’s Jesus does something that Matthew’s doesn’t in this particular sermon: He starts calling down woes.
“Woe” sounds pretty formal, doesn’t it? Like a polite form of disapproval—an ancient Near Eastern “tut-tut.”
Turns out, though, the word Luke has Jesus say here isn’t polite at all. According to Luke Timothy Johnson, it’s an expletive, associated with the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a word that expresses “disfavor or calamity either described or desired.” And it’s a complete inversion of the blessings—the flip side of the blessings he’s just named.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
"Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Remember, Jesus is looking right at people and saying these things. He’s not at some comfortable remove, insulated from either the pain he sees or the scorn directed at him. He’s talking about what this new realm is going to look like, because he believes that these are the people who are going to witness its coming.
That’s the thing. Jesus expects that what he’s talking about is a new world, a world where those whose bellies feel that all-too-familiar gnawing, who weep, and who experience the disdain of a world that would just as soon put up a wall to keep them out …will finally get to have someone care about them first.
That’s the shape of this new kingdom—where all the ways the world has always worked … where the well-off and the powerful get all the advantages, while the poor and the powerless have to settle for whatever’s leftover … will get turned on its head.
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he unveils the vision statement of the reign of God. He doesn’t say, “I’m announcing a kingdom where everybody who gets their theology right, who demonstrates a sufficient level of personal piety, and who manages to muster up the appropriate level of faith in me … will get a comfy split-level with walk-in closets and an in-ground pool in the hereafter.”
He says “The word I’m envisioning, the shape of the kingdom I’m announcing is going to feel like bizarro world—a world where the hungry will finally be filled, where the poor will no longer be left to fight over the scraps left by those who want for nothing, where the dispirited and the broken-hearted will not have to languish on the margins. A world where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
“I’m talking about a cosmic rebalancing of the scales, where those who’ve had to hide who they are and whom they love will be welcomed and celebrated, where parents will no longer have to live in fear of their children being stopped by the police—just because they happen to have skin with a different color or worship in another way, where strangers and immigrants won’t have to endure the spite of the “home team” and their children being ripped from their arms and thrown into cages, where women no longer have to be afraid that their gender will put them at greater risk for violence and exploitation, and where the people in power will no longer acquire and maintain that power on the backs of the poor and the voiceless.
“And all of this isn’t merely a hope for some world in the future, after you die. The vision I’m setting down is first of all for you, for this world … right here, right now.”
There will be those who have a stake in keeping the world as it is now who will find Jesus’ vision statement alarming—wishing it was perhaps vaguer, more open to a less focused interpretation.
But if you’re one of the people who’ve felt the scales unfairly balanced against them, the shape of this new kingdom may very well sound like the best news there ever was.