Message for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (1/28/2024)
There’s a danger in reading today’s Gospel story in a way that pits Jesus against Judaism. Such an interpretation goes something like this: Jewish law forbids healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus disregards the law in favor of mercy. That is to say, Judaism is characterized by legalism whereas the ministry of Jesus is characterized by love. It’s simplistic, but tragically, that kind of logic has led to all kinds of anti-Judaism over the centuries. And, of the many reasons Christianity has to repent, anti-Judaism is an important one.
The truth is that Jesus is Jewish, and remains committed to Judaism throughout his ministry, as do his disciples. In fact, the main theme of today’s Gospel is that Jesus establishes himself as a compelling rabbi. It’s on the Sabbath in the synagogue that he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” So, if there’s a controversy, it’s an intra-religious controversy; the dispute is over who represents the tradition more faithfully– the official spokespersons at the center, or the mysterious rabbi on the margin.
At the heart of this story is not a question of Jesus versus Judaism, but of how Jesus demonstrates his credibility, of what happens in the assembly to convince his listeners that he is a trustworthy teacher.
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
It’s easy to become preoccupied with demonology here. What are we to make of unclean spirits in the Gospel narrative, and what is the meaning of Jesus’ power to expel them? May I suggest, however, that those are questions for another sermon, and ask your forgiveness for not addressing them? For our purposes today, let me simply affirm that ancient people took the reality of spiritual affliction for granted, and the Gospels portray Jesus as one who exercises authority over spirits.
On RIC Sunday, I’m more interested in the way Jesus relates to a person in distress in the synagogue, and what that has to say about God and God’s people. Imagine being present in the assembly that Sabbath day. Faithful worship over the generations has ingrained certain expectations in the minds of those gathered there, and the appearance of a man with an unclean spirit is a disruption. It would be easier to usher him away and continue with the liturgy, wouldn’t it, to put him out of sight and out of mind? For one reason or another, he doesn’t belong.
But, Jesus proves his legitimacy as a spiritual leader precisely by attending to this person according to his particularity and for the sake of his dignity. Jesus provides the right kind of care at the right time, even at the risk of upsetting the order of things. Jesus loves the man conspicuously– that is to say, publicly, unambiguously, unreservedly– and thereby gives evidence to the power of God’s love in a way that the people in the synagogue can perceive: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”
Therein lies the connection for churches celebrating Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday today. As an RIC congregation, we unequivocally affirm folks in the LGBTQ+ community and celebrate your full participation in the life of the church. This commitment is not an exercise in political correctness or a strategy for church growth; it’s a step we take together for the sake of love, taking our cue from Jesus, our trusted rabbi, who loves conspicuously, regardless of the risk.
Throughout January, some of you have read and discussed Jamie Bruesehoff’s Raising Kids Beyond the Binary: Celebrating God’s Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children. Bruesehoff is a Lutheran, and the mother of trans child. By way of illustration, let me share with you a story she tells about the importance of conspicuous love in faith communities:
[Excerpts from pp.147-8, 190]
Friends, in this congregation we refuse to ignore the untold harm churches have done to LGBTQ+ folks in the name of holiness; what’s more, we refuse to put LGBTQ+ folks out of sight and out of mind. Instead, on RIC Sunday as every day, we reclaim the promise and challenge at the heart of our confession: You are wonderfully made by God who knows you and loves you conspicuously, and you are called and equipped to love your neighbors conspicuously, too.
Liturgy © 2024 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
Liturgy © True Vine Music (TrueVinemusic.com). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.
“All Are Welcome”; text and music: Marty Haugen, b. 1950; © 1994 GIA Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand”; Text © 2007 East African Annual Conference, admin. General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik English adapt. and arr. © 2007 Greg Scheer, admin. General Board of Global Ministries, GBGMusik
“We All Bow Down”; Lenny LeBlanc; © 2002 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music, David C Cook)), LenSongs Publishing (Admin. by LenSongs Publishing, Inc.). All rights reserved. Used by permission through CCLI License # 11177466.
“All Who Are Thirsty”; Brenton Brown | Glenn Robertson; © 1998 Vineyard Songs (UK/Eire) (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (Integrity Music, David C Cook)). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI License # 11177466.
“I Saw the Light”; Hank Williams Sr. © 1948. Renewed 1975 Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music (Admin. by Sony/ATV Music Publishing). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.