True North

Exodus 16: 2-15 and Luke 13: 10-17

Psychologists have concluded that if individuals don’t have a strong sense of their purpose, the results are often depression, fatigue, anxiety and physical illness. The Purpose-Driven Life, Sacred Contracts, The Search for Meaning – there are a plethora of best-selling books offering to help us find our purpose or meaning in life. Psychologists have concluded that if individuals don’t have a strong sense of their purpose, the results are often depression, fatigue, anxiety and physical illness. Hence the bestsellers intended to help us discover our sense of purpose.

Apparently, the same struggles exist in organizations like churches, because there is another whole body of literature to help us: The Purpose-Driven Church, Start with Why, The Power of Why, etc. Organizations need to have a strong sense of their own purpose in order to maintain focus, health, and coherence. In other words, we need to be reminded of why we are here, and what we are to do in order to be relevant and able to persevere in challenging times.

We are easily pulled off course. (Human Nature 101)

We all need a sense of direction. That old adage is just plain true: “It’s easier to get where you want to get if you know where you want to go.” It is easy to get off course. Our destination can be lost in the midst of other more immediate desires if we aren’t paying attention.

In Exodus, Israel is in the midst of a trip and they do not know their destination. Their goal is freedom, deliverance, and a better life. But they run into challenges that distract them from that goal.

By Exodus 16, God has delivered them from the tyranny of Egyptian overlords, helped them cross the Red Sea, and saved them from the pursuing Egyptian army. They sang a song of victory over their enemies and God’s deliverance after the sea covered their pursuers. God made bitter water sweet when they were thirsty and lead them to an oasis with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. That’s all good – but they began to complain: 1. They aren’t in control of this excursion. 2. They can’t predict food supplies. 3. They’re ready to turn around and head back to Egypt and slavery because they just can’t stand the uncertainty of the journey.

What it boils down to is that they don’t have what they need immediately, and they don’t want to be without it. In that moment, they were willing to trade their freedom for bondage because the future is more uncertain than they can stand. They even attack Moses and Aaron for leading them out of slavery and into the wilderness. (We read this and ask, “Wait – wasn’t that a good thing?) In the face of the present threat, a food shortage, they forgot what was in the past. Slavery, abuse, being forced to make bricks without straw – (slow down) take on the rosy hues of past memories of sitting about cook fires with pots of meat sizzling and loaves of bread to tear and dip in the juices. It seems to be human nature that we idealize the past, and place the highest value on whatever we are currently lacking. And we are often driven by comfort. Like Esau, we would trade our birthright to fill our bellies. We forget what matters most. We lose sight of the end goal in the midst of the present lack. We forget what God has done for us in the past and ask, “What have you done for me lately?” In the moment, we might even trade freedom for meat and bread. We might lose our destination if we aren’t paying attention!

Jesus does things differently. In story after story, gospel after gospel, Jesus stays focused on his mission and purpose no matter what else is going on, no matter what other people are doing or saying, and no matter what challenges pop up. He seems crystal clear on his purpose.

Today’s story centers around a woman who has been suffering for 18 years. She came to worship at the synagogue – the heart of Judaism. She didn’t approach Jesus, asking to be healed. She came to worship, without expecting anything to happen except worship. Jesus saw her – saw her suffering – called her and healed her. She straightened her bent back and praised God. We might think that was the story – happy ending -- she is healed and praised God. But the synagogue leader was incensed. (V-8 head pop) Jesus healed her on the wrong day! There are six days when healing can be done, but not on the Sabbath! There are rules about such things! But Jesus appears to be clear that the rules are less important than people. If a devout religious person would free an ox or donkey on the Sabbath so it could take a drink, how much more important to set free a person who has been bound by an infirmity. Right? What matters is the genuine need of the person, not the rules. Jesus isn’t bound up by rules – he knows who he is and what he is called to do!

Jesus is free in this story because he knows who he is and he remains true to that regardless of the situation around him. And he didn’t apologize or compromise when the controversy arose. He stays on focus: God intends healing and so healing should be done. What matters is freeing a person from whatever cripples and diminishes her and the rest is details. But in his focus, Jesus challenges standard practice. He challenges the customs, expectations, and past practice. He actually defies them. Don’t get distracted by the fact that we think he is right. (On one hand, other…) Some people thought he was right – others thought he was wrong. And what they thought didn’t matter. What matters is that he stayed true to his inner compass, his true north.

In a recent article, Carey Nieuwhof talked about 5 ways people pleasing undermines leadership in the church. 1. You lose the mission, sacrificing it trying to please people. 2. You end up not liking yourself with the compromises, when you feel like you’ve sold out. He suggests considering who/where you want to be in a decade or so and hold to that focus. 3. It becomes harder to hear the voice of God – because we interpret scripture through the filter of the critics. We avoid what we think is right because it’s just…so…hard. 4. Real leaders end up leaving because the mission is unclear, and what’s left is a group of folks who still aren’t quite happy. 5. Nobody’s actually that happy. When you try to please everybody you actually please nobody. Compromise means the traditionalists don’t get what they are looking for and neither do the progressives. Everyone is discontented and there is no clear direction.[i] People pleasing and compromise don’t help us keep on course. They are distractions.

Jesus gives us a role model for being fixed on the mission. He declares his purpose at the start of his ministry in what we call the Nazareth Manifesto: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. (Luke 4) Criticism, controversy, and expectations don’t change that. He stays on his compass heading.

Mission as Compass ….what it looks like.

It is hard to keep the mission as the focus or compass heading. For one thing, it is hard to get a group of intelligent and strong-willed people to agree on what the defining mission of the church IS. To get support to focus on the mission is even harder – everyone has their own cherished traditions, patterns, expectations – and if THOSE are in conflict with the mission, loyalties get split.

Budget. Mission first means that the budget seeks to further the mission. Budgets, we are told enough for it to start to sink in, are moral documents. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said something on that line. President Eisenhower said something similar in his 1953 speech to the American Society of Newspaper editors. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Church budgets are moral documents as well. And if there is a clear sense of the mission of a congregation, the budget should follow those priorities. Imagine: discussing how to fund our mission in the budget meeting, instead of talking about what money we can expect and what expenses are going up. Easier said than done when Finance is pressured on real costs.

Calendar of events. Our planned activities should also focus on our compass heading. Do we spend our time on things that further our mission? We can fill our weeks and months with good things, fun things, worthwhile things – and not further our mission. What kinds of things will help us get where we want to get? When our time is in limited supply, how do we make sure that we are “spending” it on what matters? Come on November 9 at 11:00 am to help pack health kits. I invite you to bring any children that you are trying to nurture in giving and helping others. Because helping others matters. This IS part of our mission. Sometimes we do plan around mission.

Conflict. When there is conflict, the mission helps sort it out. In Canoeing the Mountains, the author talks about a couple coming to talk with him. They had been a part of several megachurches, but left and after listening to a radio podcast with a pastor, decided to check out a local Presbyterian church. They liked the emphasis on discipleship, reaching the unchurched, and living out a vision of God’s kingdom. But a friend warned them about joining a liberal mainline church, so they went to see the pastor. They suggested to him that he might join a different denomination. Tod asked if the people the church was trying to reach cared about denominations. He explained that the mission is the focus and the name on the door matters little. “But Tod,” the wife chimed in, “the people you are trying to reach don’t care about denominational labels, but people like us do. If you want people like us to join your church, you may want to consider switching denominations.” Tod looked at them and softly but firmly said, “You are not our mission.” He repeated it while they sat in shock. “You are not our mission. Our mission is to be a community of disciples who proclaim and demonstrate the good news in every sector of society. We want to reach people for Jesus Christ. Our mission is not to help Christians move from one church to our church. You are not our mission. But…. I think God brought you here so that you would join our mission.” [ii]

It’s too easy to get off track with differing ideas of where to go and what to do. Focus on mission helps sort out things: competition for budget dollars, time crunches and conflicts. When the mission of the church is the compass heading, not tradition or individual loyalties, the church stays on track. There are fewer distractions, maybe even fewer disagreements. Clarity of purpose and alignment is our goal, as modelled by Jesus. We’ll have to work together to get there – but it is worth our best efforts. Let’s give it a chance.


[ii] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, 132.

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash