Friday, March 17, 2023

"Where the Holy Rubber Meets the Road"

 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me 

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

I saw Bruce Springsteen on tour last week, and something’s been nagging at me ever since.

     What happened in that arena for about three hours between Bruce and the E Street Band and their fans was pretty much church. And I don’t mean the old clichés about the audience worshiping the pop “idol.” He wasn’t the focus of the worship so much as the leader — the priest, as one of his old songs imagines — leading an arena full of people in communion with a god who knows their lives and offers them peace, joy, redemption, forgiveness, love, a new start — whatever it is they feel they need.

     The fact that the god they were worshiping was ill-defined, and I’m sure even varied from person to person, doesn’t change the fact that in a very real sense worship was happening.

      Part of it, I know, is the way music can, at its best, drive emotions and connect us to other times and places. But there’s more than that behind 18,000 people standing and singing and sharing for three hours in the Church of The Boss.

     I’ve written before about how Springsteen composes songs; he’s said, “The verse is the blues, and the chorus is the gospel.” His faith is complicated, but he has said that he believes in Jesus. And, as someone who’s listened to his music for 40 years or so, I think he is pretty clear on what the gospel is.    

     He writes in his recent memoir of his Catholicism, and the “poetry, danger, and darkness” he absorbed from it. He writes: 

“I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus…  

He writes about his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, where he still lives with his wife. He says it’s a place 

“where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures…and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town. Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy….”

     We’re reading the Gospel of Luke in our Wednesday night Bible study, and the last couple of weeks we were talking about Jesus’ return to his own hometown, Nazareth. Luke says he “found the place” — so he went looking for it — where Isaiah wrote about the proclamation of “good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind.” He read about setting “the oppressed free” and proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus went on to say to the assembled family and friends and neighbors and enemies, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This was one of the defining texts for his ministry. His theme.

     In Jesus’ own hometown, people were leading hardscrabble lives in the shadow of the steeple — or, at least, the synagogue. They lived “where the holy rubber meets the road.” And Jesus told them that he had come home to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, the long-awaited good news Isaiah preached that God was going to put things right for hurting people.

     That’s the gospel. It’s where “the holy rubber meets the road.” It’s for the crookedly blessed, for the blind who are given sight, the oppressed who receive justice, the sinners trying to hold off demons. But sometimes we Christians treat it more like a ledger sheet, an accounting tool that lets us see who’s operating at a spiritual profit and who’s at a deficit. We live a disembodied gospel, spiritualized, sanitized of “poetry, danger, and darkness,” and unconcerned with the hardscrabble lives people are living in the shadows of our steeples. But a disembodied gospel is only good news to people who aren’t hurting, whose only need is some assurance of going to heaven when they die. It can also lead its believers to a disregard for the pain and suffering of others. 

     I think that’s how Christians justified slavery, or rooted for the police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, or today sneer at people concerned about racism or misogyny as “woke.” It’s why we can elect political leaders more on the basis of what we think will make us more prosperous than on who will do what’s just and right. We believe the gospel is about saving our souls, which in our theology are somehow separate from our bodies. We forget that Jesus preached justice and care for the poor, healed the sick, and told his followers to visit those in prison. His actions and his words together painted a picture of the kingdom coming, the holy rubber of the Year of the Lord’s Favor meeting the road, God blessing the most crooked. 

     Crooked. That reminds me of the story in Luke’s gospel of Jesus healing a woman in the synagogue who had been “disabled by a spirit and could not straighten up at all.” Jesus has her come to the front — apparently he wants the worshipers to see her. When he heals her, his words are, “You are set free — released — from your infirmity.” And she stands up and praises God.

     Afterward, when he’s criticized for healing on the Sabbath, he just says that they couldn’t wait any longer; Satan had already kept her bound for too long. For Jesus, the woman’s physical condition and spiritual condition were entangled. Freeing her from Satan meant healing her body and spirit, and it had to happen now

     Maybe our worship services — not just that, our church lives, also — ought to be more like that synagogue service that Jesus disrupted, where we can show each other the ways that we’re crooked without fear, and find healing in the power of the gospel. Where we can identify, not with the religious and powerful and all-together, but with the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. And where we can lay the gospel we preach across real lives so that people can see Jesus come in the power of the Holy Spirit to set us — and them — free.

     I still don’t imagine we’ll fill arenas. That’s not what we do. But those people in the arena the other night were admitting, as they cheered, sang, and danced, that they were crooked, weighed down with pain, bitterness, disappointment, fear, and guilt. They were discovering that, for a few hours, they could stand up. And we can help people stand up. Well, not us — but our Boss, our Lord, certainly can. May they see in us his love and mercy, and may we dance together in the aisles and sing God’s praises. 

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