Homily for October 23, 2011 St. Philip Neri Parish, Portland OR

A quick show of hands: How many of you work for a company or organization that has a Mission Statement? OK, now, how many of you could tell me what it says? Not many!

The Mission Statement is the greatest invention of the management consulting industry of the 1980’s. Great fortunes were made by consultants who hired themselves out to help organizations generate Mission Statements, and along the way they got us to think outside the box, maximize our value proposition, and understand the difference between a goal and an objective.

These Mission Statements are supposed to help us understand what’s at our core: what’s most important about who we are, and what we do. The problem with most of them, unfortunately, is that they tend to be too long, too filled with jargon, and too vague to help us accomplish anything. It’s not a surprise that most people can’t tell you what their organization’s Mission Statement says.

My religious community, the Paulists, has a Mission Statement that works, because we can reduce it to four things that tell us what we’re all about. Our mission is Evangelization (the spread of the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it), Reconciliation (reaching out to those alienated from the Church or society), Ecumenism (working toward the unity of Christians), and Interfaith dialogue (building bridges between different faiths). It’s four things, easy to remember, and an accurate representation of what we Paulists are and do. Its not descriptive of everything that we do, but it describes what underlies all our work.

This week, we have a Gospel reading that very neatly presents a Mission Statement for Christian believers. Jesus is confronted by this Pharisee Lawyer– there’s a great combination– who wants to trap him, make him look bad in front of the crowd. So this lawyer asks a trick question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest.” What he means by this is, “give me a quick summary– pick one law that all the others could be derived from.” This is a mostly impossible task, because whatever law Jesus picks, he’s going to be criticized for leaving something out. It’s an old rhetorical trick. If you can’t attack what someone says, attack what they didn’t say.

Jesus answers, not with one law, but with two, taken from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Both parts would have been familiar to his audience. By putting them together, he avoids the rhetorical trap.

All the law, everything that God commands, is based on love. Not on vengeance, not on punishment, not even on justice. On love. Love of God, and love of our neighbors. That’s not too hard to remember. And it works as a mission statement, because it calls us back to our core values. If we have any motivation for what we do, apart from love, we are in trouble.

Our first reading serves as an illustration of this. This little section of Exodus is designed to delineate social behavior. This is part of the Law that Jesus says is derived from love of God and neighbor. And it’s based on love. Not on an eye-for-an-eye, not on equality, not on justice. It demonstrates a particular concern for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. This is love of neighbor; not the neighbors you’d invite over to watch the Superbowl. These are the neighbors that no one invites to anything. God is asking his people to set up a system to make sure that the poor and the powerless are cared for.

We could do with such a system today. Our judicial system is called the Justice System, and we have a Department of Justice in the federal government. What we don’t have is a Mercy System, or a Department of Compassion. Perhaps that’s why the US has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. There has to be something behind that statistic other than just efficient law enforcement.

As the folks involved with Occupy Wall Street, or maybe Occupy Portland will tell you, our laws tend to favor the rich more than the poor. As much as we might want Law to bring us love and compassion, it can’t. Instead, it’s up to us to be God’s compassion in the world. It’s up to us to live out the love of God and love of our neighbors. We will start to do that when we really own our Mission Statement, when we remember these two elements, from which every commandment is derived. “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”