Gospel: Luke 4:14-21
1st Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This week I met a woman involved in Phoenix Rising, an organization that helps give people support who are coming out of prison. She told me that since coming to the area 8 years ago, she’s been lazy. Maybe because she’s an introvert, she hasn’t done her church shopping. She’s found a place to practice her spirituality—an Ashram where she can meditate and place a flower at the foot of a picture of Jesus. Her community invited her on a pilgrimage to India and she went in December. And in this unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers and a foreign religion, she felt she was starting to understand what it was about her own religion that worked for her. On Christmas Eve, as her community joined in Christmas Carols, she found herself in tears, longing for Holy Communion and the familiar feeling of Christmas celebrated in a Christian church.
For those of us who worship regularly (whether that be weekly, or monthly) we may start to take for granted all the comforts and familiarity of our traditions and friends and songs known by heart and sights, smells, and sounds that we are used to. Certainly there is nothing wrong with being in weekly worship! And yet sometimes we forget why we come. It is simply habit. When someone asks us why we go to church, we may find ourselves at a loss. “It has always been this way.”
For the Isrealites in the Old Testament Reading for today, they have been away from their temple for 40 years, having been taken to captivity in Babylon. This is the first worship service since they returned. (Notice that many of them wrote their names in the friendship registry) While they were away, they longed for old days. They realized what they had been missing. They missed worshiping God and sacrificing. And they realized that they had been forgetting that worship wasn’t just about going to the temple, but about how they lived their everyday lives. They realized that they had forgotten to care for the orphan and the widow. They had forgotten about God’s proclaiming Jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor that Jesus reads about in the Gospel lesson. They had been following what was convenient about God’s law and not following what didn’t profit them.
Now they start this worship service. You can imagine the mixed feelings. They feel regret that they missed out on so many years worshiping here. They are missing those who have passed away before they got back to Jerusalem and never got to see this day. They are overwhelmed with the work that has to be done reconstructing the temple and repopulating the area. Maybe some were even angry with God for taking them away for so long. What would they find when they went back to their homes? How would they get everything back to livable conditions? Why hadn’t they just followed the laws to begin with and done what God wanted?
They feel joy that they are finally gathered together again. While they were away, they could put their exact finger on why it was that they went to worship. They knew exactly what they missed most, what they were there for now. They were rejoicing that what they had longed for so deeply was finally coming to pass. They were finally together again, worshiping in Jerusalem and hearing God’s word again, God’s promise. And they were filled with hope.
Paul knew why he went to worship. He was missing it while he was away starting other churches and while he was imprisoned. He went to worship because in worship we practice unity. Although we all have different gifts, monetarily, and in ability, we need each other to survive, to serve the poor, to share the good news of God’s love, to experience the healing of forgiveness (which is always necessary in community), and to transform society into one that is more just.
In this morning’s readings, even Jesus goes to church—well synagogue, anyway. He goes to read God’s word. Do you remember the verse from the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John is speaking of Jesus. Jesus is the word. So here we have the word, reading the word. We have the promised one who was there at the beginning. In Genesis, God spoke the word over the chaos, “Let there be light.” And there was light. When God speaks, the words take shape and become. So here is Jesus, God in the flesh. God spoke and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Jesus is reading from the book of Isaiah. He is reminding the people of Nazareth why they worship (and us why we worship). We worship because we are God’s words coming to life. God has spoken a word of healing, of justice, of release, and of freedom. Jesus is the fulfillment of this reading, this word spoken by God. And so are we.
Paul has explained in his letter to the Corinthians that we are one body. We are one body with each other, and with Jesus, who is the head. We need him. We can’t say to Jesus, “I have no need of you.” The same way, Jesus doesn’t say to us, “I have no need of you.” Jesus does need us to be his hands, his feet, his cuticles, his teeth, his iris, his kneecaps carrying out this word that God is speaking into existence. God has chosen us to bring about this plan of good news for all people.
Today is Reconciling in Christ Sunday where we remind ourselves what it means to be the body of Christ, welcoming to all members of the body regardless of differences. We welcome the tattooed and pierced, the bald and hairy, those in suits and those with their pants falling down, crying babes and mothers with dementia, the polite and the grumpy. All are welcome. We don’t say to some parts of the body, you are welcome and leave others out in the cold. We are all one and we celebrate that today. More and more I am convinced that it isn’t about who we welcome here in church, but who we are welcoming of out in the community. Most parts of the body are not going to set foot in these doors. Yet they are still a vital part of the body and of us. It is up to us to live this welcome, not just at church, not just on Sundays, but everyday, out there, daily.
We are all one body. Jesus has the power of the spirit, so do we. Jesus was anointed and set apart—so are we. Jesus was given the power for healing—so are we. Jesus came to set people free—so do we. Jesus came to die to give life to others—so do we.
Maybe this gives us mixed feelings. We thought we were going to sing a few hymns, pray, have some communion, maybe coffee and treats. And we find ourselves part of the body of Christ. We find God speaking a word of hope to those who are sick and troubled and left out. We find God asking us to die, so that someone else can have life, to give up what is precious to us so that someone else can have hope, too. We find ourselves filled with power that we are asked to give away.
And yet, look at us. We’re not getting any younger. Some of our actual bodies are feeling our age. At times, our congregation is feeling its age—the lack of financial security, the same volunteers doing most of the work, the fear of the future. And our church is feeling its age. Everywhere you look, mainline denomination congregations are in decline. People aren’t going to church like they used to.
We have mixed feelings about this. We feel shame. We ask ourselves, “What didn’t we do right?” At the same time, we feel tired. We ask ourselves, “Do I have the energy to think differently, to worship differently, to see God and my neighbor differently, to see the church differently?”
“Today the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This isn’t a prescription for what we need to do. This is a description of what God is doing, now, what God is fulfilling. God is making us his body to bring freedom and good news. And God is bringing freedom and good news to us who are struggling in our own way. This is good news for a body that is getting tired and weak. This is good news for a congregation that is teetering a bit. This is good news for a denomination that is slipping. We know the bad news. Our shortcomings are all too apparent. We gather here to worship and give thanks to God for the good news that we are one, that we are free, that we are gifted, and that God is bringing another reality to this world that we can participate in, where everyone else can know and live that good news, too.