Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Alex Ross on the Feast of St Luke. October 2018.

2 Timothy 4:5-17           Luke 10:1-9

I don’t know about you: but I love ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ statements. There’s nothing I enjoy more of an evening than to sit down with a brandy and pour over the latest offering from a diocesan website. Now – I don’t mean statements about genuine Christian mission, but those – sometimes pithy – sometimes tortuously elaborate – word constructions designed to articulate something about aspirational corporate identity, jam packed with the latest buzz-words and active verbs.

The Diocese of Ely is one of my favourite: the strapline is ‘People Fully Alive’ – the adverbial form ‘fully’ supposedly adding depth – whereas my thesaurus offers ‘exhaustively’ as a synonym. I have two children under 3, I am ‘exhaustively alive’.

It goes on to enumerate three ‘imperatives’ – which some bright spark has dressed up in the language of prayer. It is unclear for whom the prayer is an imperative: for us to pray, or God to answer? In any case, they are to – engage – fully (that word again), and courageously, with the needs of our communities, locally and globally; to – grow – God’s church, by finding disciples and nurturing leaders; to – deepen – our commitment to God, through word, worship and prayer.

These ‘imperatives’ are forged ahead with five ‘Levers of Change’ – a rather sinister turn of phrase which I’m not sure belongs more to the modernist mechanisation of Stalinist Russia, or a medieval torture device for coercing confessions. Nevertheless, these ‘Levers of Change’ are also actively verbal: to nurture, to develop, to serve, to re-imagine (that one is a favourite among such statements) and to target.

And it all comes full circle, as these vision and mission statements always end up proving their own justification, “The vision,” so says Ely, “will ultimately become the plumb line by which diocesan strategy is developed, resources are allocated and ultimately by which objectives and outcomes are measured.” The culturally obscure reference to a ‘plumb line’ is I guess an attempt to be Biblical – it’s just unfortunate that it’s a biblical image that more often than not represents God’s wrathful destruction: from Amos to Isaiah to the Lamentations of Jeremiah: “He shall stretch the line of ‘confusion’ over the nations, and the plumb line of emptiness.” One wonders if that’s where all this ‘visioning’ and ‘strategizing’ leads: the plumbline of emptiness.

Now, as you might have guessed – I am being facetious – but the fawning over vision and mission statements has not escaped this House: as I sat up at 5am this morning, feeling ‘fully alive’ looking after my children, I looked up Westcott’s own vision statement: which is similarly peppered with suitably emboldened adjectives like ‘Holy’, ‘Wise’, ‘Compassionate’, and provocative verbs like ‘disciplined’, ‘immersed’ and ‘creatively engaged.’

It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with all of this – it’s all good stuff – it’s just that it’s so easily, and instantly, forgettable.

Which brings me, rather belatedly, to this evening’s Gospel – which gives us a great mission statement: See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.

Oh, what would this House be like if that were its mission statement: Westcott, sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.

It goes on: Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. There is no ‘equipping’ – no ‘resourcing’ – and certainly no ‘creative engagement’ – just a job to do, and a simple message: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

So tonight I want you to imagine for a moment a parallel universe – away from the pumped up optimism and hyped up clichés of the church’s envisioning and strategizing, where you might be being sent by Jesus to be lambs in the midst of wolves.

There will be wolves in your ministry – as you offer yourselves to a world which has so much need that it threatens to devour you. There will be wolves that stalk and follow you through your ministry – threatening from a distance, ready to leap at any wrong move or stumble. There will be wolves who confront you face to face, and bare their teeth snarling threats and aggression. And, increasingly so, there will be wolves who take one sniff of you – turn up their noses and walk away, wolves of apathy who make it plain that you’re not even worth a nibble. How many houses will you go to with the message of peace, only to be left lingering at the doorstep – like a slightly shifty and suspect salesman.

And in the face of these wolves – you are to be like lambs. Of course, that’s not a straightforward Scriptural image. You’re not necessarily to be like any old lamb – but the lamb who faces the Beast of Revelation, stained red with blood as if it had been slain, and – yet – who conquers. The lamb of God, who takes away sin by the blood of his sacrifice, who faces the wolves and presents his flesh to their lancing teeth – the lamb from whose side when pierced pours forth salvific blood and the water of life. How might we be like this lamb, in the midst of wolves?

The imagery of the Cross – to which I have alluded – is critical, and it is made explicit in St Luke’s account of the Crucifixion: to the wolves who lead him away and divide his clothing by casting lots, the Lamb says only “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” To the wolves who hang beside him, whose own guilt he carries upon himself, the Lamb says only “today you will be with me in paradise.” To the wolves who had shortly before mocked him, and offered sour wine to compound his suffering, the Lamb reveals his righteousness. The Lamb loves the wolves – loves them to health – loves them into submission – loves them to salvation. From the Cross the lamb looks out over the world, into every dark place, into every hidden and curtained sanctuary, and – loving it – conquers.

St Luke’s Jesus is characterised by compassion – with a particular concern for the poor and vulnerable, for a justice which brings down the mighty and powerful and lifts up the oppressed, and which has hard words to say to the lover of riches. Luke’s Gospel also – and of course its ‘Part 2’ in the Book of Acts – is most concerned for the all-embracing love of God in Christ which reaches beyond all barriers, to even the Gentiles!

So, back to mission and vision statements – let me give you one more, the only one you’ll really need and, I can guarantee, the only one you’ll have a hope of remembering. Someone once told it to me, and I offer it to you. Go out, like the Lamb, into the midst of wolves: and love the people. You can forget the rest.                      AMEN.

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