— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This may be “preaching to the choir,” but I want to begin with a question — “Why go to worship? Why go to church?”
We know from many places in the Scripture that Jesus went to church; so, maybe it would be helpful to think about why he went. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue “as was his custom.” And we remember that as a boy he stayed too long in the temple — at least “too long” from his parents’ point of view. And we know from the unfolding of the story of Jesus, as Luke and all the gospels tell it, that there are many times when Jesus worships and teaches in synagogue and Temple.
Why did the Lord of lords feel a need to worship? Listen up choir!
As a human being Jesus yearned for God. Jesus yearned to be in touch with Eternity. It is as common as breath for any human being. We yearn for God… for Wholeness… for Love… for Eternity. Jesus went to worship – to Temple, to synagogue – to be made whole in his relationship to the Creator of the Universe. From the Luke story of Jesus in the Temple it tells us that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom. There was, I think, a developmental principal at work in Jesus’ life – he was growing more and more aware of his connected-ness to Infinite Love and Mercy. So Jesus went to worship as an expression of his yearning for God, as an expression of his yearning for being connected and one with that which is divine, eternal, infinite.
Now surely Jesus, of all people, knew that God can be found everywhere. Why did Jesus go to synagogue, to Temple, to worship? Surely Jesus knew that God can be found in the wood shop, on the lake, on the back nine of the Galilean Hills Golf and Racket Club? Yet, Jesus went regularly to worship with ordinary folks to do the things that ordinary folks do who worship — he prayed, he read and listened to Scripture, he listened to sermons, he sang, he made his offerings.
Jesus went to belong to a people who acknowledge their need, their yearning, for God.
Jesus went to find his own voice — a voice that thundered and whispered in the voices of the teachers and prophets of God who came before him.
Jesus went to worship to make it clear that he was oriented toward God, toward the Eternal to put into practice that which was his deepest yearning…
I think Jesus would affirm something Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:
“The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a man will worship something — have no doubt about that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart — but it will out. That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”
(3000 Quotations on Christian Themes, Carroll E. Simcox, p. 32)
At the risk of oversimplification… if we worship a God who is eternally judgmental, angry, ready to cast out then it makes sense that we too will become judgmental, angry, and ready to cast out. If, on the other hand, we worship a God who is eternally graceful, abounding in steadfast love, always ready to embrace and welcome the other… then we, too, might grow in that direction, in the direction of love and generosity and welcome.
The poet Mary Oliver died this past week. For many of us her poems have found our attention like a flower arising out of the concrete on a sidewalk. Maybe we do not own any of her books but in journals or newspapers or sermons or lectures someone referred to her or shared one of her poems and our hearts were moved and our eyes and ears more attuned to the echo of God, of the Infinite, of the Holy in the ordinary experiences of the living out of our days on this beautiful planet.
Mary Oliver escaped a difficult childhood in what she described as a “dark and broken home” by roaming outdoors, and many of her poems begin with nature and move into questions or thoughts of the spiritual.
Upon her death I went back this week and listened to an hour long interview with Mary Oliver by Krista Tippett. Many parts of that interview were thought provoking but one line seems to echo the words quoted from Emerson about how what we are worshiping we are becoming. Krista Tippett says the following…
“And again, do you think spending your life as a poet and working with words and responding to the world in the way you have as a poet gives you tools to work with? Because putting words around God, or what God is, or who God is, or, I don’t know, heaven — it’s always insufficient.”
Mary Oliver responds… “It’s always insufficient, but the question and the wonder is not unsatisfying. It’s never totally satisfying. But it’s intriguing. And also what one does end up believing, even if it shifts, has an effect upon the life that you live, the life that you choose to live or try to live. So it’s an endless, unanswerable quest. I find it endlessly fascinating. And I think also religion is very helpful in people not thinking that they themselves are sufficient, that there is something that has to do with all of us that is more than all of us are.”
Jesus went to worship to become the man God created him to be. Jesus knew that what he came to believe about God would shape the life he was choosing to live. I do not think it is any accident that Luke tells the story of Jesus worshiping in the synagogue immediately following Jesus’ forty day trial face to face with Satan. Satan was staking a claim. Satan was baiting a lure. Satan was issuing an invitation to an alluring death of surrender to a lesser god. And Jesus, in prayer, turned it back. And then he went to church. Jesus let the God of Abraham and Sarah stake the claim. Jesus took the lure that God through Isaiah and John placed in the water. Jesus accepted the invitation to life and death in surrender to the God of all creation. Jesus worshiped what he was becoming – the God of Love and Mercy!
In the synagogue at worship in Nazareth Jesus accepted the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he unrolled it to the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, sat down, and said:
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Jesus announces that “today” the scripture is fulfilled in him. Today there is good news to the poor, today — release to the captives, today — recovery of sight to the blind, today — the oppressed go free, and today — the year of the Lord’s favor! “Today,” Jesus declares, “God’s heart is made known fully. God’s compassion for the poor, love for all people, and freedom for all people who are captives … all are embodied in me,” said Jesus. “I have worshiped the God of compassion, love, freedom, and I have become compassion, love, freedom.”
As you and I listen carefully to the worship, we, too, can hear the invitation of Jesus to enter into the “today” of God’s compassion, love, and freedom. As we confess our sins and hear the words “In Christ we are forgiven,” as we hear words of Scripture and sermon, as we pray for one another and offer ourselves to God, as we are sent into the world to be ambassadors of God, we can hear the message that “today” the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing because the heart of God is forgiveness and grace, and life can be made new.
We do not have to have everything all figured out to hear this word. We do not have to have a theology that is airtight and unassailable to hear this word of grace. We do not have to understand all mysteries to benefit from the compassion of God embodied in Jesus. All we need to know is that God’s love, God’s heart is embodied in Jesus, and life can be made new “today.” We can be released from all that binds and blinds us, and we can be transformed.
Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit teacher and author from India, tells a story in his book The Song of the Bird he entitled “To Know Christ.” The story is a dialogue between a recent convert and an unbelieving friend:
“So you have been converted to Christ?”
“Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me: what country was he born in?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was his age when he died?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many sermons did he preach?”
“I don’t know.”
“You certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ!”
“You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I do know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces. My wife and children would dread my return home each evening. But now I have given up drink; we are out of debt; ours is now a happy home. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of him!”
As we worship God we become children of God — transformed by God’s love and grace.
As we worship we can begin to answer the questions asked in this poem by Mary Oliver entitled
“The Summer Day”:
“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth
instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous
and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms
and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Here’s something to do…
let’s join Jesus at church again and again and again,
let us bring our one wild and precious life into the mystery
and see what we will become!
Whatever we will be, we will be beautiful!
Thanks be to God. Amen.