Why do we go to church? I was out with a friend for his birthday last Wednesday. He was turning 35, and like adults are wont to do, he invited his friends out for a couple drinks at a bar, where you can purchase adult beverages. It was fun, and of course there was the inevitable thing that happens: this is my friend John, and he’s a pastor, and he’s drinking a martini. And one of the people who was there said something interesting. He said, “Well, being a pastor means you can do anything." It took me a minute to realize the full implication of that. What he means is that pastors do anything they feel like doing because, what the heck, they're the big shots, and it's do as I say, not do as I do. It was also, I think now, an insult directed at me--of course he's out having a martini. He probably tells all his parish stay in and drink soda pop. Pastors--they can do anything. I wish I had a really snappy comeback for him, but all I said was, "No, I really can't," and that was about as well as I could do. It seemed as if he thought pastors go to church so they can end up doing whatever they want. And what does that mean about everyone else? Perhaps that they’re dupes at best. Well. Are you all dupes?
Why do we worship? These readings reminds me of an early South Park episode, in which somehow a bunch of starving Ethiopian builds a spaceship and flies away from Planet Earth, pursued hotly by Sally Struthers and the Christian Broadcasting Network. In order to capture Starvin Marvin and spread the love of Jesus, Pat Robertson asking people for money to buy new deflector shields for Jesus, negative ion ray guns for Jesus, spaceships for Jesus, and wormhole openers--for Jesus, of course. And it all comes from the greatest twist the church has ever devised on Isaiah 58: a a missionary, leading starving children in a classroom, makes them recite an equation that goes like this: Reading Bible + Accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour = food. It would be really funny, except that sometimes, that actually happens. In Tanzania and Kenya, there are missionaries, none from the ELCA, thankfully, that bring food to starving people, but don't give it away without a show of religion, bribing people to worship Jesus. Such a thing is blasphemy, though, and not at all what we see in Scripture. Is this the fast God chooses? I think not.
Jesus today goes over to a woman in a synagogue, places his hands on her, and says, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." And she stands up to give God praise. Now, the synagogues in ancient times were unique among houses of worship--the centered around the teaching of a text. It's hard to fathom now, when it seems that every religion is like that. But it was not always the case. In fact, that's one of the reasons that Judaism was both so attractive and so repulsive to Gentiles; it was very different from the other religions of the time. And you better believe there was a guy like me there, with a really good sermon all ready to go, with deep insights into Holy Writ, called by the synagogue to be an expounder of the text, the yoke of God's calling. And then Jesus comes along and heals somebody. No one is going to care about the sermon. No one is going to be listening much to any insights into Holy Writ that day. In fact, there's not going to be a whole lot of orderly worship going on that day--Satan had her bound, Jesus lifted her! And what better day to do that than the Sabbath?
The Sabbath is a day to celebrate freedom. Yes it is also a day of rest—to commemorate God’s own rest from creating all that is. But the creative act of God is also a liberating one—God brings things into being and wants them to know themselves in his love. The sabbath is also a commemoration of God delivering the Israelites from the Egyptians—an act of liberation if there ever was one. And the prophets talked about the sabbath being the time to restore things to their proper freedom, the proper freedom they derive from their Creator. So the Sabbath, according to the law, is a time to forgive debts, to celebrate forgiveness. The sabbath is a sign that God cares for all things. So now the crowd rejoices because the remembered Isaiah 58, and the admonition to do good on the Sabbath. It is rest, yes--but how can there be rest when there is worry and fear? The synagogue leader is very respectful of the law, but too respectful to see that the law's purpose is to steer God's people into a deeper relationship with God and with one another.
Authentic practice of our religion does not come from accoutrements, demonstrations, and shows and displays. It is instead the constant approach to God, the mystery and content of our faith, confident that God welcomes us and changes us by our encounter with him. That encounter liberates us from sin and death and fear, because when we encounter God, we encounter the love that has already overcome those things in Jesus Christ. Encountering God is like encountering the other side of death—eternity, mystery, and love deeper than our imagination. It is terrifying because it is completely out of our control. But God love has been prepared for us—the kingdom that cannot be shaken.
That’s the verse in the letter to Hebrews today. ”Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe..." God's kingdom cannot be shaken. By baptism we are made citizens of that kingdom, and have won the right to stand in it and approach God's throne. How much more boldlly, therefore, should we approach this world. There is nothing in this world that can wrench us away from God's grasp.There is no challenge that we face that will cause us to lose God, so long as we remember God's promise to us in baptism. Nothing can separate us from God's love; nothing comes between us and the fulfilling of God's kingdom.
When we worship here, we worship knowing that our past week, and our week to come, contain failures, doubts, joys, and successes. But we come here to be reminded that God has freed us from both the sorrows and these joys, and has welcomed us to Mount Zion. All our striving, all our living, finds its meaning and hope from where we are going--and so we should never give up in doing good.
Jesus, in the synagogue, not only frees the woman from her ailments, but frees the synagogue from a vain worship of form, and steers them to a relationship with God, who we discover slowly as we work through God's commands to love and serve the neighbor. There is no right way to worship, save to praise God in faith, to approach God in need, to share God's love with others. There are wrong ways, though--when we charge to worship, when we make it a transaction, when forget that the whole purpose of worship is that in it we enter a consuming fire, but aren't burnt. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack