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This reading from Luke is perhaps one of the most familiar Gospel passages that we have. Not familiar in the sense that it recalls fond memories from childhood. There aren’t a whole lot of children’s books or Bible school stories that wistfully depict this particular episode from Jesus’ ministry. It lacks the kind of needlepoint wisdom of the beatitudes, or the punch of one of Jesus’ parables. There is no miracle healing, or feeding of the multitudes to marvel at. In fact, you may be fairly incredulous at my assertion that this passage is anywhere near familiar. It is unlikely that you have seen any endzone signs with a chapter and verse from this morning’s reading. Rare, even, is the person on the street who could guess at what happens here in the fourth chapter in Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, let alone what it is that Jesus reads in the Synagogue when he finally comes home to visit the old neighborhood on the Sabbath. Really, when it comes to the life of Jesus- the things he said, the things he did, the people he hung out with- most of it is pretty foreign territory to us. Except for this fourth chapter of Luke. We don’t know much about the culture, the countryside, or the customs of Nazareth from so long ago. Shepherds and Roman garrisons, chief priests and peasant fishermen are far removed from any reality we might know here in 21st century Albuquerque. But here in this fourth chapter of Luke, Jesus does something we are still relatively familiar with- that is if the ‘we’ that we’re talking about means people like you and me, gathered here this morning. That’s because here we have one of the few places where we get an account of Jesus going to church. Call it synagogue, cathedral, chapel, meeting house, or basilica- it’s still church. And no matter how much has changed over the years, no matter the music, or the vestments; no matter if it’s high church, low church, or megachurch; whether it’s a handful of people in a rented store front, or thirty thousand crammed into some arena, this is what the people of God do when they gather for church; namely, they hear scripture read and seek to understand what it has to do with where they are.
In our first reading from the book of Nehemiah, we see the people who have returned from exile. This is something that we talked about just last week. The temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians has been rebuilt, along with much of the city of Jerusalem. And when everyone was finally settling in to their respective towns in the land of Judah, they came for church. They did what the people of God do. They gathered in the square of the city and listened as Ezra read the book of the Law of Moses while others interpreted it. In a single event the community that had been scattered by seventy years of exile- those who had been carried away and those that had stayed behind- was suddenly brought together again. Gathering together to hear God’s Word is what makes us church. Now, as church, we have done and still do a great many things beyond what brings us together on Sunday mornings. We talk about what it means to be a person of faith during Sunday School, or circle meetings, or book studies. We enjoy each other’s company and extend hospitality to friends and strangers alike over a cup of coffee and some donut holes in the commons, or over third Sunday lunch, or at a Men’s breakfast, or a Thank God It’s Friendship gathering, or making music together in the choir. We reach beyond ourselves going about our mission to feed a hungry world by feeding families staying with us through Family Promise, or packing Christmas food boxes, or growing lettuce in our basement for the Healthy Foods program at Rio Grande Food Project. And every one of those things are an important part of who we are. But what makes us church starts with what we are doing right now. What makes us church is when we come together from our scattered lives to form a living body of faith that is nurtured and given life by listening for God’s Word to us. This is what we do first. This is who we are first, before anything else. We are a people who are gathered by God’s Word; the very same Word that speaks us into existence. Everything else that we do as a community of faith, everything else that we are as Church, begins here and his grounded in this.
Maybe that is why Jesus begins his public ministry the way he does, by going to church. Everything up to this point has been prelude: the nativity story, the baptism by John, the temptation in the desert. And now, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he returns home. He goes back to his home church for a kind of rabbinical coming out party- local boy makes good. It was his custom, Luke tells us. It was his custom on the Sabbath day to attend the synagogue, where he was no doubt greeted warmly. “We’ve been hearing good things about you, Jesus. They’ve been telling us at the synagogue over the way about how well you speak from the scriptures. Won’t you read for us this morning? Here. Here’s Isaiah, won’t you read for us?” And he does. He opens the scroll and there it is. Sometimes you go to church looking for word from God, and sometimes the Word of God finds you. These simple words of hope from the prophet Isaiah are what found Jesus that morning in his home church. And with them, he opens the floodgates, announcing both the nature of the ministry that he is inaugurating and the character of the church that will follow from that ministry. It is a ministry of good news. Good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. But what if you aren’t any of those things? What if you don’t see yourself as poor, or captive, or blind, or oppressed? Is this still good news?
In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writer Annie Dillard recalls a childhood memory:
“I used to hide a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion,” she writes, “For some reason I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write, I labeled the arrows: surprise ahead, or Money this way. I was greatly excited during all this arrow drawing at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” Then she notes, “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But- and this is the point- who gets excited by a mere penny?” The answer Dillard suggests may lie at the heart of what it means to hear and receive this good news Jesus has come to proclaim. “If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity,” Dillard suggests, “so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”
You see, it can be nearly impossible to hear the good news of release, the good news of sight regained, the good news of freedom restored amidst the clamor of our lives. There is so much background noise, so many other agendas and distractions that seek and claim our attention. And to those who are satisfied by what they see, to those who think they’ve got it all figured out, and just do whatever it is that they feel like; well, Jesus is just one more preacher droning away on a Sunday morning. But to those who come with a hunger that the world cant’ seem to fill, to those who feel shackled and weighed down by forces that are beyond their control- social forces, political forces, even family forces- then Jesus’ words are truly very good news indeed, because the way of Jesus is never the way of the status quo, never the way of business as usual, never the way we’ve always done it. The way of Jesus is the way of new vision, the way of barriers broken and people set free to live in the goodness of God’s steadfast love and abundant favor. The truth is that good news may not always sound so good at first. Just look at those folks gathered at the water gate in Nehemiah. They had returned home, settled once again in their ancestral land after a long time away. But as the book of the law is read and interpreted they begin to weep, they mourn. Maybe they mourned for all that had been lost. Maybe they wept for how far their exile had carried them from God. Whatever the reason, it sure doesn’t sound as though what they heard that morning was good news. But Nehemiah reminds them that the Word of God that gathers us, the Word of God that often reveals our poverty of spirit, is also the Word of the One who would be our God so that we might be God’s people. We are reminded that God’s joy, the year of the Lord’s favor, inaugurated so long ago from a pulpit in Nazareth, is also inaugurated in us every time we gather to be shaped and given life by God’s Word, every time we follow the arrows that draw us to this place, promising freedom ahead or good news this way! This is our strength. It is what makes us church. And it is the Word that is fulfilled in us, if we will receive it.