“Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”
If you are in church on this snowy, icy, cold morning it is your custom to be here! Art Bunton used to pull me aside after the late service and tell me I needed to preach about the importance of coming to church every week. “But Art,” I would say, “the only people who will hear me are the people who don’t need me to say it!” Most likely you are familiar with the phrase “preaching to the choir”. Well today I want to coin the phrase “Sunday is our Custom Customers.” You folks are to church services what letter carriers are to delivering the mail… neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will keep you from getting to church within eight minutes give-or-take of when the service begins.
We are learning more about the synagogues Jesus attended. Because archeologists had never found their ruins, for a long time it was thought the synagogues around the Sea of Galilee were small, simple structures that did not stand the test of time. It made sense because the rural, poor agrarian communities of the region would not have been able to afford to build something significant and, in fact, did not need to because the Jerusalem Temple was only a week’s walk away.
But just a few years ago a dig uncovered a synagogue from the time of Jesus in the hometown of Mary Magdalene on those shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was big enough to hold over 200 people and, considering the era and location, was much more opulent than anyone ever expected. It had a mosaic floor, multi-color frescoes on its walls, chambers for private reading and study, a room to house the scrolls, and a bowl at the entrance for ritual washing. In the center of the sanctuary, archaeologists unearthed a mysterious stone about the size and shape of a small chest. Various images were carved on its flat surfaces, including a seven-branched menorah and a chariot of fire, along with symbols associated with the Temple.
Given Luke’s report that Jesus went throughout Galilee preaching and teaching in various synagogues, it is most likely he did so at least once in this very location. Far from back-water, country rubes, his audience was well-educated and steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. They knew how to find a particular passage in a specific scroll. They shared the tasks of reading in public and expounding on the meaning of what was read.
We can imagine the synagogue functioned much the way our church does. It was a place to encounter God and to rehearse cherished traditions. It provided a space to offer prayers of thanksgiving, contrition, and concern. It was where one went to question and to learn. It was a communal gathering point to talk about the events day. No matter where he was, it was Jesus’ custom to attend a synagogue on the Sabbath day. We Sunday is our Custom Customers understand why. We get it.
There is no word if synagogues held annual meetings. Still, they, like we, had to manage budgets, address issues of building maintenance, line up volunteers, and get word out about births, marriages, burials, and other life events to be celebrated. In the days prior to his baptism, Jesus no doubt did his part to tend to these mundane tasks.
And while it was his custom to go to synagogue on the Sabbath, the gospels reveal once Jesus began his public ministry his experiences in these houses of worship became more and more contentious. He heals a person in a synagogue on the Sabbath, forgiving that person’s sins, and this sets off a firestorm. Today’s reading, with its sermon in his hometown synagogue in front of those who knew him best did not go well either. Congregants are enraged when Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of prophecy. They want to throw him off a cliff, but he slips away.
So Jesus increasingly takes his message to the streets, the lakeshores, and the hillsides, while not neglecting to attend synagogue. His mission is not dependent on his popularity. Luke tells us Jesus engages his mission because he is filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the same Spirit you and I receive at baptism; the same Spirit we invite to live in us, to move around us, and to work through us.
It is my observation that we Sunday is our Custom Customers are Spirit filled/Spirit fueled people. We show up out of more than habit. We sense how God has called us, how God has equipped us, and how God has placed us here in Suffolk at St. Paul’s. It drives who we are, what we do, and how we are in relationship with one another. Thank you for being a blessing in my life and for blessing so many others in and through this place – as is your custom!