[This message was delivered at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on January 23, 2022. The texts are Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21. The sermon can also be viewed on the CoS Facebook page.]
Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe…. That simple prayer comes early in the liturgy of synagogues around the world, setting the tone for gathered worship, much as we pray an opening prayer after our call to worship and gathering hymn. I wonder if Jesus prayed that prayer in the synagogue in Nazareth that day.
I wonder if it was prayed in the vast outdoor throng in Jerusalem reported in Nehemiah 8. We are not the first worshipers to have our regular worship interrupted by events beyond our control. When the pandemic began to hit home for us 22 months ago, we were thrust into unknown territory. Except it wasn’t all that unknown. When our Jewish ancestors were taken into captivity, be it in Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, their worship customs had to change, but not their worship patterns.
Over the last 14 months, as I have served in a pastoral role at Perinton Presbyterian Church, on Sunday mornings I have driven by one house with a sign on the front lawn that says: “No new normal.” I think the message behind that sign is something like this: “We will not change our ways. We will not be told to get vaccinated and to wear masks. We will not comply with a new normal. We will do as we please.” If I understand the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, it is all about new normal living. It is all about repenting of old ways and turning to new ways. It is all about seeing God do new things. Jesus is ever making new wine from old water.
When it comes to gathered worship, we live in this struggle between old and new. Our worship patterns are based on patterns we find from thousands of years ago. I find the worship in Nehemiah 8 giving us a pattern widely held by Christian worshiping communities around the world and across traditions and denominations over the centuries.
The Nehemiah 8 gathering happened almost 2,500 years ago. It was right after the exile of God’s ancient people in Babylon, which lasted much longer than two years. The faithful have returned to glorious Jerusalem, only to find it in shambles, looking like a war zone after a Gestapo bombing raid. The Temple has been desecrated and leveled into rubble. The people face a rebuilding challenge like Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, like Haiti after that earthquake, like Mayfield KY after that tornado last month.
So what do they do? They gather in a makeshift open air synagogue and worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Praise be to our God. Something remarkable is happening. They know what to do. They haven’t forgotten. Their memory muscles are working just fine. No worship guides are handed out and no pews are to be found. We experience the four-fold pattern of gathered worship that we use today: 1, The people gather to worship; 2, the people hear God’s written word read and proclaimed; 3, the people respond to God’s goodness; and, 4, the people are sent out to serve God beyond the synagogue.
Being a preacher and a teacher of preaching, I am particularly moved by Nehemiah 8:8: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” I teach my students that this is the 8/8 definition of preaching: to give the people understanding of what has been read in their presence. Not to entertain or impress, but to give the sense of the scriptures read. Note how full-bodied and full-orbed this worship is. When the Torah is held up to be read, the people immediately stand without being told to. The people respond with spoken amens and hands raised in praise. The people bow their heads and even prostrate themselves before God. And they weep. It is unclear just why they are weeping, but I don’t think its sadness, but gladness. They are emotionally moved by what they are participating in: the gathering of God’s people in a broken place and needy time to worship their God who is sovereign over it all.
I am reading a book of some of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted 20th century rabbi and theologian, who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., many times in the cause of prophetic justice. Heschel said that his hope for modern synagogue worship was that it would learn from Black Christian worship, in which worship is responsive, bodies and emotions engaged in praising God. To which this Presbyterian with a foot in Free Methodism says, Yes and amen.
Early in his Galilean ministry Jesus does what he does on Saturday mornings; he goes to a local synagogue to worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. And something unexpected happens in the midst of the expected. He reads beautiful words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. That is normal. He hands the scroll back to the synagogue attendant. That is normal. Then he says what no one is expecting from a young peasant who does carpentry in this very town of Nazareth: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” No one is expecting such words. A new normal is just beginning.
Jesus reads the word of God written and then declares nothing short of this: he is the word of God living. He is the fulfillment of every word of scripture entrusted to us. We do not worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed in the Bible. Perhaps like some of you, I was raised in a tradition that confused these things. We often worshiped the Bible more than we worshiped God. The Bible was often used as a weapon. The Bible was contorted to show us that we were right and everyone in disagreement with us was wrong. The Bible was twisted into a rule book that assured us that God was on our side more than we were on God’s side, that God was beholden to us, and not we to God. The Bible is so much better than that.
Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. I expect those words were prayed on Saturday, January 15, in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX. They began worship as faithful Jews have for centuries, as Jesus did most every Sabbath day in some local synagogue. And we realize that gathering for worship can be dangerous. There are no safe places in this world. From Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, to Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, to AlNoor Mosque in New Zealand, every synagogue, mosque, and church is a potential target for crazed or hate-filled people. There is an alarming rise in acts of violence in places of worship across our land and around the world. That does not mean that we stop gathering, but that we realize how important it is to keep gathering and worshiping the sovereign God.
No matter what the circumstances, we cannot give up gathering for worship, and that includes virtual worship for people for whom in-person worship is not a healthy option today. This is not an either/or, but a both/and situation. I commend CoS and thousands of other congregations for continuing in-person worship with safety guidelines and offering worship in virtual ways, usually in real time. The key question for us about gathered worship is not, what did I get out of it? Rather, the crucial question is, what did I bring to worship and what did I offer to God?
Annie Dillard writes about worship: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…. The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear … velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
When that massive outdoor synagogue service of worship was concluding, the leader said, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Indeed, for worshipers of God, the joy of the Lord is our strength. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe.