Luke 4:14-22, 31-32
One day in the land of make believe, the pastor of a small church announced during worship that there would be a meeting of the Church Board following the service. After the Postlude, the members of the Board gathered at the back of the sanctuary but just as they were about to begin, a stranger came in and sat down with them. It was a visitor who had attended worship for the first time that Sunday. The pastor said, “Friend, I’m sorry; you may not have understood. This is a meeting of the Board.”
“Oh no, I understand,” said the man. “After today’s sermon, I figured I was just as bored as anyone else here.”
Although I said this story took place in the land of make-believe, it could easily have taken place in the real world. I’ve been in ministry for 38 years and I know that not every Sunday feels like an exciting revival. Across the world, Christians come to church on Sunday praying for comfort and hoping for inspiration, and inevitably there are weeks that we go back home feeling pretty much the way we came in. The music wasn’t to our taste that week, the sermon was uninspiring, the day’s scriptures felt irrelevant to our problems, or the communion bread was stale. Not every worship is going to be uplifting to every person every Sunday and there will be times when nothing spiritual happens here for you but when worship fails to inspire you, my hope is that you leave feeling disappointed because if you can be disappointed by a boring worship experience that means that at least you came expecting something different. It means that you have had enough times when church has fed your spirit that you come with the expectation that here you will find something you need. The people I feel sorry for are not those who are disappointed with a poor worship but those who are not disappointed because it means they go to church never expecting to be moved or changed. Whatever their reason is for going to church, whether here or somewhere else — these people cannot be disappointed by uninspiring worship because they never came with the expectation that something real will might happen for them in church.
Long ago, I was told by Fred Gertz that in the early days of Alfred, new faculty members were asked what church they intended to join and in those days the pickings were slim: you could either belong to the Seventh Day Baptist Church or to the Union University Church. The social pressure to choose a church led to packed pews in both church’s services, and though many people sigh longingly for those days, to tell you the truth, I prefer our times because I know that today people come to church not out of habit or social pressure but because they find church a valuable experience. I know that you are here because you choose to be here and not because your neighbors will look askance at you if you are not. You are here because you expect something might happen for you in this hour. You hope that the words of scripture, the prayers, the music, the sermon, the faces of these fellow faithful will bolster your ragged spirit, comfort your heavy heart, and heal your brokenness. You are here because you hope this morning you might find guidance for difficult decisions you are facing, or confirmation for the moral choices you have made. You have come with the expectation that this hour will leave you feeling more hopeful, more joyful, more purpose-filled, and more equipped to live a full and meaningful life. We all know that it won’t happen every week, and there are times we end the hour the same people we began the hour, but on those weeks, it is okay to confess our disappointment because our disappointment means that we believe in what we are doing here together. We trust that Christ is in this place and when things come together for us in this hour, we will be able to feel his presence among us.
Which is why I have to laugh at this passage in Luke. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke, Jesus goes to the local synagogues to teach the people and the gospel says, “They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” Though they gathered at the synagogue regularly, apparently the last thing they expected was that they would actually experience anything serious there. Maybe they, like our grandparents, went because the neighbors would talk if they didn’t. Maybe it was just something they did to relieve the tedium of the week. Whatever their reason for being in that synagogue, it was apparently not because they believed that they would experience a powerful holy presence in worship. And when they did, they were “astonished,” the gospel says, that Jesus made the scriptures come alive for them. He spoke with such conviction that they knew that their God — the same God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaiah and the prophets — was still at work among them, opening up possibilities for a peaceful and just society.
Let me be clear: I am not blaming their lack of conviction on the fact that they were Jewish. There were many Jews who did experience the fullness of God’s presence through their faith and our Bible is full of their names — Isaiah, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, David — but because the Jewish people were people, there were times and places when their religious practices like ours, had become routine and stale. Those people in the villages around Capernaum had gotten into the habit, like so many have, of not really expecting anything to happen during worship. And so when Jesus spoke, they were astounded and the gospel says that they recognized that this man had authority. In other words, when they heard Jesus read the words from Isaiah promising good news, liberation, and healing, his listeners heard those words not as pretty speech but as real promise. They heard conviction in his voice and a declaration that new life was truly possible. And Jesus went on to back his words with action: when Jesus preached peace and said that God wanted us to love even our enemies, the people proved the power of those words by being a man of peace who extended a hand even to those who would harm him. When he promised that God could remake their broken bodies and spirits, he proved those words by healing the sick, welcoming the unwanted, forgiving the sinner, and comforting the broken-hearted. And when Jesus promised that God’s grace is inexhaustible, he showed the people the truth of his promise by loving them all the way to the cross and beyond. Jesus’ authority for the people who followed him, and for us today, comes from knowing that his words were not empty or careless but contained the real power of God’s grace.
And when he was gone, Jesus charged the church — us — with the authority to speak on his behalf. We say it every week — we are the body of Christ — and as the body of Christ, we are to demonstrate as he did that when we in worship say words like peace, love, grace, forgiveness, justice, we are not just mouthing pious sentiments but we are declaring things that we believe are really possible. The church will have authority only if the world sees that its members not only talk about peace and grace in our litanies but that we have committed to living out those words in our lives, that we really believe in peace, that we believe in justice, that we believe in grace and forgiveness, and we are committed to demonstrating just how much we believe in those words. Only then will our professions of faith carry any weight in the world; only then will our faith have the power to change lives.
Many of you have probably heard of the shooting that took place in Nickel Mines, Pa in 2006. On October 6th, Charlie Roberts, who had been struggling with severe depression and mental anguish, left a suicide note for his wife Marie, took a gun, and went to the nearby one-room Amish schoolhouse. There he ordered the male students and teachers to leave and barricaded himself in the room with the girl students. He then lined them up against a wall and began to shoot. Roberts killed five children and injured five others before finally turning the gun on himself. You have probably heard this story not because of the horror of what Charlie Roberts did that day but because of what the Amish community did afterward: they forgave him.
And it didn’t take them weeks or months to forgive: the Amish believe that Christ calls us to forgive those who hurt us, and that those aren’t empty words to be piously mouthed in worship but to be enacted in their lives. They knew that no matter how much pain filled their hearts, they had to show forgiveness and so only hours after the shooting, a contingent of the grieving Amish went to visit Charlie’s wife, Marie.
“They were concerned about me,” Marie said, “and concerned about [our three children] and wanted us to know that they supported our family.” Moreover, when the Roberts family was besieged by media en route to a private burial for Charlie, the Amish stepped in again. Even though they don’t like to have their pictures taken, members of the community placed themselves directly in front of news cameras to shield the Robert’s family. They turned their backs to the cameras so the only pictures that could be taken were of their backs and not of the Roberts. Forty Amish surrounded the gravesite like a crescent as the family had their service.
Charlie’s mother said, “Love just emanated from them.”
The Amish admitted that they struggled with their grief and their anger, yet they also were convinced that their way to healing was through embracing the words of Christ and trusting in his authority. Charlie’s wife said, “It was amazing to me that they would choose to do that for us. It was one of those moments during the week where my breath was taken away, but not because of the evil but because of the love.” (1)
Forgiveness became more than a pious word for those hearing this story because the Amish community was the body of Christ that day, embodying his promise that forgiveness can bring healing to the broken-hearted.
May we too, as the body of Christ, imbue his words — his words of forgiveness, mercy, justice, and grace — with real authority by believing in them with the deepest of conviction, by speaking of them as real, and by living out those words in our lives. May our faith astonish and move people by opening to their eyes a world they never dared to dream might be possible.