Afflicting the comfortable – Sun Feb 3, 2019
“Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” I’m not sure the origin of the phrase but I now associate with our dear friend Mathew Zachariah. In the months before he died, Mathew talked about its importance, particularly in relationship with racism and faith. “Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” It is a phrase that seems apt for today, this day of our Annual Meeting of Parishioners, when the assigned Gospel text is more afflicting than comfortable.
Today we hear the second half of the story begun last Sunday, of Jesus’ first act of public ministry recorded in the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus preaches in synagogues throughout the area, to great public acclaim. He’s praised by everyone! Upon traveling back to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, “he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day…” and read from the scroll handed to him, from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then after rolling up the scroll, giving it back to the attendant and sitting down, with the eyes of all in the synagogue fixed on him, we pick up the story today as Jesus declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Good news indeed!
All spoke well of Jesus. The afflicted are comforted, not to mention amazed at Jesus’ gracious words. And more, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Here’s a hometown boy making good. And then Jesus keeps talking… and whole scene almost goes over a cliff. The problem is that Jesus goes on to remind the crowd of times of judgement in Israel’s history. Jesus refers to stories of prophets of old who declared favour and healing to outsiders, to foreigners, instead of to the Hebrew people. The crowd may have been thinking of themselves as the poor and captive, the blind and oppressed, about to receive the Lord’s favour, hopefully in the form of greater power and might. But Jesus strongly implies otherwise. In a matter of minutes, the people go from amazement and speaking well of Jesus to murderous rage. How dare Jesus suggest that God’s favour could again fall on outsiders and foreigners! And so they drive him out of town, “so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
The author of Luke goes out of his way to portray Jesus as a prophet, a true prophet, of God. Luke draws parallels through his entire narrative between Jesus and Israel’s great prophets: Moses, Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah. The parallels with the life of Moses are particularly striking. Moses led the Hebrew people through water and 40 years of wilderness wandering before seeing the Promised Land. Just a chapter ago in Luke, Jesus was baptized, he passed through water, and then was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. He now returns home to begin his public ministry. Jesus is clearly being characterized as a new Spirit-filled prophet, rejected by the people. This rejection is necessary to testify to Jesus being the real deal, and not a false prophet. In just a few chapters, as I think we’ll hear in a couple of weeks, Jesus pronounces a “woe” to those who are spoken well of, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” On the other hand, Jesus reminds the crowd that the true and great prophets have always been hated, reviled, excluded and defamed. In other words, a prophet’s main role… a true prophet’s job… is to afflict the comfortable. And Jesus is among the true prophets.
Somewhere along the way of following Christ, much of the Christian church got pretty comfortable in the world. Some would argue that “the beginning of the end” was way back when Emperor Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. When the Church got in bed with the powerful of the land, the church became the powerful, and lost much of its prophetic voice. One can’t speak truth to power, when one is the power. This didn’t begin to change until the past half decade or so, when the church we know has lost much of its cultural power. But instead of embracing the new found freedom of being unyoked from power, mostly we have fought it, complained about it, vilified it, and resisted the change in status. And more, too many individual Christians, along with church institutions, have claimed the role of victim… as though the losing power is the same as oppression. It is not.
A seemingly benign and yet sneakily insidious result of this phenomenon in the church is an overwhelming focus on being pastoral, comforting the afflicted, particularly within the community of faith. Somewhere along the way, churches became a place, first and foremost, if not entirely, of comfort. We come to church to feel better, or perhaps to escape the world, especially when we feel it’s a world we don’t understand or in which we feel adrift and powerless. It’s the church as spiritual anasthetic. And more, as the church has struggled to connect with contemporary people, we have often ended up focussing instead on making people already in the community, happy. Ironically, I have read articles that name “making people happy” as a sign of church decline. It means we’ve lost sight of any mission beyond ourselves. It means we’re overly concerned with comforting the afflicted, ourselves, and as a result, we have lost capacity and resources to deal with being afflicted. Instead, we just become enraged, and try to throw the source of whatever discomfort we experience, off the nearest cliff.
This week I was talking with a parishioner about key issues he notices in and around his life. When we dug down into an observed problem of not having enough money, he identified the key issue as one of over-spending. And more, over-spending brought on by the perceived need… the unhealthy desire… for instant gratification. He recognized that this pathology was taught, unwittingly, by a parenting style that prioritized feeling good over other values. Not wanting children to experience discomfort, and parents who themselves couldn’t live with the discomfort of emotional pleas, unintentionally created a pattern of over-spending and unmanageable consumer debt in now adult children. Whole generations of people today struggle with emotional resiliency, stick-to-it-iveness, and long-term commitment to anything more than short-term emotional relief. And yet instant gratification is a pale substitute for working for and towards that which we deeply desire, firmly held values, for the long haul.
Walter Brueggemann addressed this issue through a process he called “scripting” at an “Emergent Theological Conversation” in 2004. Through 19 theses, Brueggemann describes how we all live by a script, implicitly or explicitly, in which we have been formed and nurtured. The dominant script of the past several decades is technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism and it promotes things like instant gratification and consumer solutions to spiritual issues, and really, all issues. He further describes the task of ministry as first de-scripting and then re-scripting us to an alternative script… one rooted in the Bible and in Jesus’ ministry… Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and commissioning of the church to carry forward God’s vision of peace with justice, through sacrificial love. This mission is as much prophetic as pastoral, and perhaps even more so. With church culture having swung so far to the pastoral, there is a needed corrective in embracing and engaging our call to prophetic ministry as well.
There is, of course, a time and a place for feeling better, for comforting the afflicted. The pastoral role of the church will never cease, but it is not the only role. Our call is also to prophetic ministry. It was the prophetic ministry of the Christian justice organization Sojourners that created an extraordinary experience for me last spring at the launch of their “Reclaiming Jesus” movement in Washington DC. I was uplifted, more than I can ask or imagine, by being part of a crowd of people witnessing to Jesus’ call to the robust love of seeking peace with justice and speaking truth to power. Finding our prophetic voice of living God’s truth in community is probably the most powerful, inspiring, and attractive road to long-term sustainability. Prophetic ministry has the power of God to provoke, agitate and energize contemporary people of all ages in God’s work in the world, including outsiders and foreigners.
I am aware that there is much doubt, consternation and maybe even anger about our efforts to engage in community development with a different form of leadership than what you’re accustomed to. It is always more comfortable to do things the way we’ve always done them, whether or not they work well, or get us the results we desire. Some people don’t even know that there are other ways of being in community, possibly more productive, more satisfying or more loving ways, than what we have known. All I can say is that I believe. I believe in you, and I believe that together we are called to, and capable of, responding to God’s great love for us in new ways. When the people in our good news story today were so enraged that they wanted to hurl Jesus off a cliff, Jesus nevertheless passed through the midst of them and went on his way. The comfortable might be afflicted today, but we need not fear, for God is always in the midst of us, and we are always loved.