Isaiah 61:1-6a

Luke 4:14-21

Luke tells us that as Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue, everyone’s attention was rapt on him. Jesus had become a well-known preacher before he came back to Nazareth, and his home-town crowd wanted to know what he would say. This was a defining moment in the early part of his ministry, Jesus’ chance to set a tone for the future and tell what he’s all about. I sometimes have similar moments when people ask me about our congregation: “what kind of church are you?” In reality, they usually ask one of two questions: “Where is your church (by which they mean this building)?” Or “how big is it?” Sometimes they’ll ask something about our worship style. They’re asking what they think is important, trying to fit our church into the community or their mental landscape.

There’s usually something unspoken wrapped into this question. People who ask about the church are not fitting a new idea into their landscape, because churches already have a place in people’s minds. Some people are more straightforward about the unspoken issue. They might ask if I “preach the Bible,” by which they mean to ask if my theology matches theirs. Or they might turn up the volume on their God-language in order to prove that they’re as Christian as they think I’ll demand of them. Others avoid their own religious or political ideas because of what they assume I’ll think. One pastor in the state of Virginia, when he has to admit that he’s a pastor, hears the questioner making silent comparisons to Pat Robertson. That’s the same Pat Robertson who blamed the Haiti earthquake on a mythical pact with devil, which is something I’ll just come out and name as a stupid idea. So this pastor wrote an op-ed column for his local paper, describing what kind of Christian he wants to be linked to. He talked, for instance, about the people who were already in Haiti before the earthquake trying to lift that country out of its poverty.

Jesus answers the same question: “what kind of rabbi will you be? Judaism at the time was deeply divided, Pharisees, Sadducees, and zealots all trying to define the religion for everyone else. Jesus didn’t enter a religious vacuum any more than we do. He knew people would try to fit him into slots on issues like the resurrection, paying Roman taxes, and just how to interpret the scriptures. So with all those eyes on him, Jesus took the scroll of Isaiah and turned to the places where it reads, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, to offer liberty to the captives, to announce God’s salvation, and make a way to freedom for the oppressed.” Then he sat down and offered this interpretation: “all this is fulfilled as you hear it from me.” Jesus claims an identity. He makes a public mission statement: “I’m here to set people free, to embody salvation from all that binds us.”

It’s an indictment of American Christianity that those other questions get asked first, as if the church is all about a building and numbers. What’s worse, those are too often the right questions. The culture understands the church perfectly. We do fight about worship and doctrinal purity. We judge ourselves and others by the size of our budgets or membership roles. We invest all our energy worrying about the building. We let the people who blame earthquake victims for their own disaster speak for us. We give the floor to those who defend positions rather than serving others. If people ask us what makes Christianity special and we have to argue about why the Bible makes sense, we’ve lost our identity. If people ask me where the church is and I don’t have a better answer than “across from the courthouse and the library,” I’ve lost my identity.

Jesus makes his identity public: he is doing good and serving others. Just imagine if we identified ourselves that way, by saying, “here’s the good we do.” Imagine if we (and all Christians) made service our calling card, if we made relief to the poor and the release of captives our public face. Even when people ask us the wrong question, what if we answer with what good we do? “Where is your church?” It’s at the Salvation Army serving dinner. It’s in the kitchen baking cookies for the Billy Bell Bakery. “How big is it?” It’s as big as compassion, big enough to devote our resources and energy to lifting up the downtrodden. “Do you preach Bible?” I sure do. My Bible tells me about joy replacing sorrow and ruined cities being rebuilt. How we worship and pray matters, but it matters much less than how we serve. Service is what Christianity looks like from the outside.

There’s something remarkable about our call to service, even compared to the calls to love, unity, and worship we’re exploring in these few weeks. The call to service grows itself. You can take service as your identity first, and it will become you over time. You can’t fake a call to love, unity, or worship. Trying to look worshipful usually makes you less able to worship in reality. We can’t pretend to be united in the Spirit, even if honoring our commitment to unity feels like pretending sometimes. You sure can’t fake love – you either want what’s best for others or you don’t, and anything else is just sentiment. But if you make believe that your purpose is to improve the world for other people, you’ll do it. That will become your purpose. If the church even just pretends that our identity in the world is to serve, it will be. Even our worship, unity, and love will grow and deepen.

The next time someone asks me where the church is, I want to answer: it’s caring for the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. It’s living God’s salvation in the world. The church is building up the city that lies in ruins. We’re there in spirit with the rescue and aid workers in Port au Prince. We’re here in spirit and flesh, in Virginia, Eveleth, Mountain Iron, Britt, and Buhl, lending a hand where these cities need building up. We’re at the Salvation Army, feeding the hungry, we’re working with AEOA to end youth homelessness. We’re up on the roof, swinging hammers with Habitat for Humanity. Sometimes the church is even right here, holding a space open for Alcoholics Anonymous or educating the community at our forums.

In a few moments, we’ll be presenting our offerings toward the work we do. Our individual gifts may not be huge by themselves, but together they are a blessing. Our individual roles in the community may not be as big as they were in years past, but this congregation still matters. Together we’re still heard. Even Jesus was just one person. In human terms, he was nobody. But the Spirit of God was upon him to serve. The Spirit is upon us today, to serve others where we find them, to proclaim good news to all through our actions. Who are we? For everything else we are, we’re filled with the Spirit to create God’s good news here and now.

Amen.

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