Perhaps a question worth posing this morning is “what is worship to you? When you come here on Sunday morning, why do you come?”
Now, perhaps you come to feel inspired, or – as a fellow clergy puts it: “Get air in your tires” for the week ahead. Perhaps you come hoping to learn something about the bible or to give thanks to God for the blessings you’ve received. Perhaps, for you, this space is sacred and holy and here, together, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, you sense the divine presence, an encounter with the Almighty. Perhaps you come here to feel comforted or to find a sense of meaning in your life. Or perhaps you come out of a sense of obligation or guilt; or maybe a combination of those reasons. Now let me just say, I’m glad you’re here, whatever your reason. But might I suggest this morning that worship is contemporary in as much as it should not be an escape from our present reality. I go to yoga from time to time and, when I do, one of the first things the instructor says is, “For this hour leave everything outside the door; relax, this hour is for you.” Well, I appreciate yoga because it helps with my flexibility but that is hardly a philosophy we’d apply to worship. Worship can’t be about you and it is lacking in meaning and value, if we leave our concerns for the world outside the door for, although we worship an everlasting and omnipresent God, our worship of him does occur in a context, in a particular place and time, among particular people and, as such, it ought to impact – ought to exercise a profound influence on that time, that place and those people.
This morning’s gospel reading is a story about worship. It is, for Luke, our introduction to Jesus’ ministry. Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who begins Jesus’ ministry with this story and, by doing so, it says something very important about what Luke wants to communicate about Jesus – who he is and what he does. After being baptized and tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his ministry which brings him, in short order, to Nazareth, his home town, on the Sabbath and so, he heads to his hometown synagogue.
This scene reminds us that God’s Word speaks to us in the context of worship – and it reminds us that worship doesn’t always make us feel better… in fact, it can leave us feeling unsettled, challenged, or just plain mad. Hopefully this morning I’ll strike a sweet spot somewhere between challenged and mad.
Now the interactions between Jesus and this congregation may leave some of us scratching our heads. So, hopefully I can provide some clarity because within this story, from our perspective, it looks as if Jesus was given a compliment and responded to it with an insult. So, just where do things go south?
Well, after Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, he sits down to teach. But it turns out to be a very short message. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he says. The passage Jesus selects is a kind of "mission statement" or "purpose statement" for his ministry. Jesus announces that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he will be about the work of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, giving sight to the blind and setting the oppressed free. Now, this is good news, right? The people of the congregation are amazed. Jesus is speaking so eloquently; their little Jesus. Ah, he's grown up so well. But, there’s a hint of disrespect in their question “Is not this Joseph’s son?” My New Testament professor, Tom Boomershine, frequently reminded us how important it is to consider the tone of voice in gospel dialogue... however speculative such a practice might be. So, while we 21st century Westerners might use this inflection, “Is not this Joseph’s son,” a 1st century Palestinian may have been more apt to voice, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” You see, in Jesus’ culture, people didn’t move between classes. If you were born a peasant, you were expected to die a peasant; none of this upward mobility stuff for them. So why is Jesus, the son of a blue collar worker, presenting himself as something much more? How dare he do that? The encounter continues to deteriorate when Jesus – for his part – doesn't seem to respond very graciously. He speaks to the crowd a proverb that he suspects is on the tip of their tongues: "Doctor, cure yourself," which might more accurately be translated, “Doctor, cure yours,” as in your people; your neighbors; your own kin. Jesus anticipates they might ask him to do the kinds of miracles he's done elsewhere right here in his hometown. But Jesus offends them by calling attention to a part of their history they’d just as soon forget… those parts where God shows preferential treatment to people who are, well, not his people; non-Israelites; dirty, nasty, Gentile foreigners. What? How dare Jesus call to memory these embarrassing episodes of Jewish history? Just who does he think he is?
And here’s another cultural factor in this story: the people in Jesus’ culture believed in something known as "limited good." In other words, there was only so much good stuff to go around. Here in America today, we tend to assume that our ability to acquire and consume things is only limited by our wallets or our credit line. If something runs out, we assume that we – or someone, at least – can go get more or go make more. But, ancient eastern thinking was very different. Good was limited – like the slices in a pie. And, if I take two slices that means you might not get a slice. Good was limited and, if I took more than I was entitled to, you were likely to wind up getting cheated out of your fair share.
So, those people of Nazareth thought they had first dibs on their hometown boy. Jesus was a healer and a miracle worker and – in the minds of his villagers – these were good things with a limited supply. In their minds, whatever “good” Jesus had belonged to them first and foremost. In other words, they should be served first from that metaphorical pie. And here’s the reason why: Eastern culture was – and still is – a communal or collective culture. In eastern thinking, I am not an individual entitled to pursuing my personal dreams and doing my own thing. I am part of the group. And, I ought to be living in a way that benefits my group. So, how dare Jesus take his “limited good” of healing and miracles to outsiders? Jesus belonged to his village, he belonged to this synagogue, and whatever good he had – the ability to heal and to liberate – belonged to them first.
The people in the congregation get angry. Their rage turns deadly. Not only do they drive Jesus out of the synagogue. They run him out of town. They're so angry, they try to kill him. This congregation of God’s chosen people has evolved into something like an angry lynch mob.
But, that wasn’t how it started. They began as a congregation that had come together in worship to hear the Word of God and to hear something about what that word meant for them… which is, at least in part, why we came together this morning. But these Nazarenes don’t like the way Jesus interprets God’s Word. Jesus makes clear that, just as he doesn’t belong exclusively to them, neither does God’s Word and neither does God’s grace and goodness.
Contemporary… “belonging to the present.” Friends, sometimes we behave as if we want to keep Jesus and the good news of his gospel to ourselves. But Jesus makes pretty clear that God’s Word and God’s grace need to be taken outside this congregation to those who need it the most. Within the context of worship, God’s Word makes clear our call to ministry: our call to serve the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Jesus says that today God’s Word is fulfilled – a word of action, the bringing of real, personal, transformative power into people’s lives. And here’s why we need to understand Jesus’ mission statement as our own call to ministry; because the gospel of Luke is a two-part series. And part 2 of Luke’s story is Acts; which tells the story of how the Spirit of the Lord came upon the followers of Jesus so they could say and do the same things Jesus said and did.
Friends, long before K-Love, Jesus was a big proponent of contemporary worship: worship that belongs to the present; worship that impacts our relationships with those outside our doors right now in transformative and life-changing ways. Worship doesn’t simply connect us with God; it also connects us to others. Worship ought to make clear our mission – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, bringing sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.
I was thinking over the weekend that we shouldn’t approach worship like we approach entertainment, books and movies… but, then again, maybe we should. After all, if you have seen the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I’m betting that you’re friends and your co-workers know it. I bet you’ve talked about it with them. But do you ever talk to people about what we see and hear and do in this place? I mean, anytime we read a great book or see a really good movie; we talk to people about it, right? And, if it’s based on a true story, we talk about the impact it’s had on us. Well, guess what folks, we’re in luck, ‘cause this book is based on a true story. And, the question is, are we sharing it with others? We can’t keep it to ourselves; we’ve got to share the good news with those who need it the most.
The truly good news is this: that the good news of the grace of Christ has come to us in order that we might pass it on to others because God's grace, God’s goodness, is for everyone; even if they are someone whose lifestyle or identity offend us. From the very start of his ministry, Jesus made it clear – no boundaries would contain or limit what God was doing through him.
Folks, often I hear you say, “But all my friends already go to church.” And, believe me, I get it. It’s hard. I mean, I didn’t know anyone when I moved here 18 months ago and everyone I know at work really does go to church.
But we have to find new ways to reach out beyond these walls because there are a lot of people in our area who experience oppression, who are enslaved by destructive habits or relationships, whose vision distorts their view of the world around them.
I think all of you are aware that we are selling the Graves House and, perhaps you think that is entirely in order to help reduce the debt on our loan or provide money for tuck pointing the church… and it is to some degree. But it is also about not wasting our resources on a house and, by resources, I’m not talking about money… I’m talking about our time; the amount of time we have available to develop relationships… especially with those in need. We support a lot of missions here at Trinity and they are amazing missions and we shouldn’t stop supporting them… but they can’t ever be a substitute for us moving beyond our walls to build relationships with people in need; people who need to hear the good news of Jesus. Together we need to work to discern what God is calling us to do as a congregation to bring good news to those beyond our walls in ways that will bring transformation to their lives… because, if we are not willing to reach out in new and bold ways beyond our walls to offer the unlimited good of Jesus to those in need, then we too are in danger of driving Jesus out of our house of worship, as well.
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