Synagogues and Cell Phones

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Or, “When simple things mean everything and post-church theological diatribes are merely annoying.” 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

In case you’re pretty new here or you’ve just never thought about it — no, I don’t pick out what text I’m preaching on every week. Most of you probably know by now that our texts are on a three year cycle following the church year, and that I love that the texts that I preach on are not pulled from my own personal favorites or whatever I happened to land on that week, but something that we tackle with Christians all over the world. (1)

There are drawbacks to this three year cycle, however.

Well over ten years ago now, renowned New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine said at a conference I was attending: “Oh, the lectionary. God bless the lectionary. Sleep in one Sunday and you miss the story for the next three years.” 

Dr. Levine isn’t a pastor; she’s Jewish, actually. This gave me a great perspective, however, on how people in the pews — that is, you — might see the lectionary. You see, because from this side of the pulpit, after a few years, it can all begin to feel awfully repetitive. It only takes three years of preaching every week, after all, to get what I like to call the “complete set” – a sermon from each Sunday of the whole church year. And after that, every Sunday brings memories of sermons you’ve preached before.

I admit that I had a hard time sermonizing this week, so I decided to let the memories take me where they will and trust that the Spirit is working in them.

This story comes up quite a lot in the lectionary, too. Sleep in this Sunday and you won’t miss it for three years. It makes sense that we read it a lot: during this time of year, the season after Epiphany, we’re telling the story of Jesus’ light being revealed to the world bit by bit. Last Sunday, we heard about him turning water into wine in his first miracle. And this Sunday, we’ve got Jesus in his hometown, preaching, sort of, to his home congregation.

This is where my memory takes me back to my second sermon ever. 

Let me pause briefly to say that way too often, the Church makes preachers out to be Saviors, and we preachers are often happy to play along. The cardinal rule that I was taught about preaching, however, is that if you look at a Gospel story and the character that you most strongly identify yourself with is Jesus, you probably need to look a little more closely at what the point of your sermon is. So by way of preface, I will remark: while this story includes me preaching “at home,” in a sense, I’m not Jesus in this story. In fact, I’m not Jesus at all. 

Moving on.

So my second sermon ever was delivered on this particular Sunday sometime around 2009 in a tiny church in rural Alabama. I was in seminary, and a friend and first year pastor who was out of town that Sunday and asked me if I’d be willing to drive from Atlanta just over the state line into Alabama to preach for him. I agreed, although what they paid me would barely cover the fuel to get there, because I did need more preaching experience. I was only one sermon into my preaching life, after all, and my first sermon two years earlier, while theologically sound, had lasted a total of three and a half minutes. 

So I took the pulpit in this tiny church and began my sermon. I wasn’t two sentences in before I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Use the other microphone,” a kind-faced woman said; “that one doesn’t work so good.” 

I switched microphones and continued, preaching a sermon on this story that was indeed longer than three minutes and thirty seconds and was also, I thought, my okayest sermon yet. Feeling pretty good about the whole thing, I exchanged pleasantries with members of the congregation and began to pack up my things to drive the two hours back to Atlanta.

That’s when I noticed the tall and lean bass player from the praise band sidling up to me. He was about my dad’s age, with a long gray ponytail and several leather accessories telling me that he took his role in the praise band seriously. He had a hard look in his eyes, but I could tell he was trying to look kind but stern, in a fatherly way. As a young woman finding her way into church leadership, I had already learned to recognize that look and brace myself. 

As I remember, he got right to the point.

“I’m a member of an organization that seeks to bring Jews to Christ,” he said, “so I know a thing or two about synagogue services. I just wanted to let you know about what you got wrong about how they go.” 

I resisted the full body cringe that those two simple sentences were bringing on, and I and politely smiled as he told me how the liturgy of a synagogue service generally runs.

There hadn’t been any such details in my sermon, so I was unsure about what he thought I got “wrong” that wasn’t just me reading from the Bible itself, but I let him go on, smiling and nodding in that way that everyone, especially women, are pretty accustomed to doing when we’re being polite to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but doesn’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When he finished, he handed me a brochure for the organization. I’ve kept it an entire decade later, and it stays in my Bible because — well, I’m not sure why, but it does.

One of the life skills I think we all learn fairly quickly is to know when someone is just doing what they think is right and being patient with them when they aren’t actually harming anyone. Sure, you can make a good argument about this organization doing harm, but I somehow doubted that he was willing to listen to my opinion on evangelizing our Jewish neighbors. He was following Jesus as best he knew how; that was for sure.

Years later, I found myself at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian outdoor festival in North Carolina that loves talking about proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind — the things Jesus finds himself reading about in the synagogue in this passage. Many kinds of Christians come to the Wild Goose Festival, not all of them progressive, but most all of them willing to get along with everyone and live in community for a week. 

Typically, several outlets throughout the campground are dedicated to power strips set up so that people can charge their phones. The campground is happily situated in a part of the Appalachian Mountains that doesn’t have a lick of cell service, but there is a cafe with WiFi nearby for people who want or need to contact the outside world, so we all had reason enough to want to charge our phones.

I had had a problem previously with my phone not charging, and I stood at the charging station muttering curses under my breath before the volunteer manning the station noticed me. He appeared to be at that age where you don’t know whether to call him a boy or a young man, but since I’m a terrible judge of age, let’s assume that he was probably at least in college. He, too, had a ponytail. He had kind brown eyes and an easy smile.  Seeing me struggle, he said humbly: “Can I help? I’m pretty good with these things.” 

Desperate, I handed him the phone and the charger and watched as he carefully cleaned off the charger with his shirt and blew a puff of air into the port. Then he carefully placed the charger into the port, and BAM. Charging.

These years later, I still mimic that kid who was probably my age whenever my phone charger won’t work, and it usually gets it working.

Those two stories stood side by side in my consciousness this week as I contemplated what it means to follow the Jesus who proclaimed “release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Those things seem big, and cosmic, and daunting, but I think it’s no real mistake that right next to this text, we also read Paul’s little diatribe about the Body of Christ, and how we’re each parts of that body.

I think Paul’s whole point is that we are parts of Christ’s body, and that can get us feeling like we have to save the whole world — including evangelizing everyone and making sure that young preachers get all the details of synagogue services right. It can lead us preachers into thinking that we’re the Saviors. It can lead us all into convincing ourselves that we have to save the world.

But we’re not, and we don’t.

So instead of trying to be the boss — the head — all the time, I’ve taken to thinking that I prefer to be a strong arm, or a hand, or a calloused but experienced foot, ready to kick butt and take names.

I know — that can go off the rails pretty quickly, so I’ll stop. But take this to our annual meeting, and then take it home: we are not the Saviors. We are not the brains of the body of Christ. Those jobs are taken.

What we can be instead is like that guy at the Wild Goose Festival: humble, helpful, practical. We can be hands and feet, following the directions of the brain, taking the callouses, and the pain, and the joy of work and the joy of moving things and making a difference in the world. Believe it or not, that is enough — enough to save someone’s life and enough to make sure they have a charged phone. Either is helpful, and either is enough. 

We like to imagine ourselves as important pieces in this cosmic struggle between good and evil, putting all kinds of pressure on ourselves and other people, finding ourselves deeply bitter and critical before we know it. 

But you don’t have to be the Savior, or the brains of the operation. Position already filled. What you have to do is what’s painted above the coats in our narthex: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. 

So love someone however you can. Help someone, even if it’s in a small way. You might save a life — or, you might just teach them a trick that they can use to charge their cellphone for years. Either one is worth it. Either one is enough. Amen.

1. An easy-to-use “what’s next in the lectionary” site can be found here, complete with the passages themselves as well as related art and prayer.

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