January 24, Third Sunday after Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Bryan Cones

Has anyone ever asked you why you go to church? If they did, how did you answer them, or would you if they did? What reasons would you give?

I’ll say right off the bat that I don’t think that’s a very easy question to answer—like trying to explain why you’ve been married to the same person for 30 years, or what it’s like to be in a war. There are some questions that don’t lend themselves to one sentence answers. I frankly don’t have my 10-second “elevator speech” ready which would allow me to explain to a stranger all church means to me.

Lucky for me and for us today, all three readings answer that question in pretty powerful ways. The first reading comes just after the Israelites have returned from Babylon and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. They are gathering now to try to remember how to be Jews, specifically how to worship as Jews: After a full generation in Babylon as captives and prisoners, they’ve forgotten how to be God’s free and Chosen People, and they’re probably wondering if God has forgotten them.

And so they tell Ezra to get out the Torah, the books of the law, and read it to them and interpret it for them, maybe even translate it for them, in case they’ve forgotten the ancient Hebrew. It is a restored worship service, and it was so important to them that by the end of it they were weeping, either out of grief for having forgotten who they are, or joy for having recovered that knowledge. But the governor, Nehemiah, tells them not to cry: They are God’s Chosen People, and remembering that is cause for rejoicing. Recovering their worship helped remind them who they really were, and that God hadn’t forgotten them after all.

So why go to church? Because here God reminds us who we are, numbered with Israel among God’s Chosen and Beloved. God always remembers that and gathering here helps us to remember that, especially when life causes us to forget.

There’s some forgetting going on, too, in the second reading, and it also has to do with what believers do when they gather to give praise and thanks to God: The Christians in Corinth have forgotten that the Eucharist really is for everybody, everybody, everybody at church, and have started to have big fancy “Eucharistic” dinners for the rich members, leaving only scraps for the poorer ones.

On top of that, they’ve gotten a little full of themselves, with some of them bragging because they can speak in tongues, or receive special insights and prophecies from the Holy Spirit, which in their mind is more important than organizing the meal or cleaning up after it.

Paul is at pains to remind them: You are one body, and you need each other, all of you. Out there in the world they may value rich more than poor, or some gifts over others, but here we remember that God values most what the world considers weakest. We all need each other as much as our hands need our noses and our feet need our ears.

So why go to church? Because here we remember not only who we are but whose we are: We belong to each other, as one body in Christ, and here we value all our many gifts and differences equally as expressions of the Holy Spirit working among us and within us.

That’s the same Holy Spirit after all, who rested on Jesus, when he went back to his hometown, to his home congregation, and at his usual Sabbath service announced to all his friends and family (and maybe discovered for himself) the mission God had sent him on: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to those who had lost it, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

That’s quite a mouthful—imagine the looks on all those faces when he sat down and said the scripture was fulfilled in their hearing, in him!—but it’s a pretty good summary of what Jesus was all about, and of what he will go on to do in the ministry that starts in this passage in the gospel of Luke. We might even call it his mission statement.

So why go to church? Because it’s here that we remember not only who we are, and whose we are, but what we are here for: We’re the ones who carry on Jesus’ mission in our words and actions: bringing good news to those who are deprived of it, announcing freedom from anything that oppresses people, and practicing welcome and giving witness with those whose dignity has been denied, and proclaiming God’s favor: the unlimited mercy and compassion God offers to all people.

Why go to church? These readings offer some answers, and we may others of our own, but there’s something noticeable still lacking: Just what does all that mean practically. Which brings me to my own final answer to that question.

Why go to church? Because it’s only here, in the community of believers, that we can discover just how we live out what it means to be numbered among God’s chosen, beloved people, who value everybody, everybody, everybody equally in all our gifts and differences, and who seek to live out in real words and actions the justice, freedom, and welcome that God is calling us to bring to all we meet in our everyday lives. This is the place, and we are the people, in which we get to work all that out.

Why go to church? Well, that ain’t a bad way to spend a Sunday morning.