Afflicting the Comfortable

Preached 3/3/13 at Head of Christiana PC

Isaiah 55:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

This text from Luke is one of those times when Jesus really does sound like someone who’s stirring up trouble.  This is not one of those pleasant stories about lost sheep, where we can conjure up an image of a nice, gentle storytelling Jesus and be done with it.  No, this time Jesus digs his hands down into the muck of human life – those things we’d really rather just not think about, if we can help it – and straightens up with his hands full of dirt and manure and dead things, and with a trickle of blood running down his arm, he says, “Look!”

Look!  You know there were people murdered, he says, Jews killed by Romans when they were in a holy place making an offering to God.  And there were others who died in Jerusalem when the tower of Siloam fell.  And you could turn away by saying, oh how sad, but they must have been sinners.  They must have done something to deserve it.  That kind of thing wouldn’t happen to people like us.

But Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook like that.  People tried to explain away the bad things then just like they do today – grasping at something, anything, which makes the victims totally unlike us so that we don’t have to face the fact that sometimes bad things just happen – and he says, what, you think they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  More guilty than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, he says, they were no more sinful than you are.

Whoa!  Hold on a minute.  Jesus, we just told you not to wave this stuff around.  Don’t go bringing our sin into this.

And we don’t like it very much, do we.  Isn’t church supposed to be a place where we feel good about ourselves?  Where we’re reminded that everything’s okay just the way it is, because God loves us?  Well, yes.  And no.  Everything is going to be okay.  And God does love us.  But that doesn’t mean everything’s going to be easy, or comfortable, or tidy and logical.  Because the world is a lot more complicated than that.  And let’s face it, we were created as complicated, intelligent creatures, and I think our Creator expects more of us than just the easy answers.

 * * *

I’m getting ready to go with the campus ministry to Haiti over spring break.  We’ll be working for six days with an organization that is addressing reforestation, housing, agriculture, clean water, economic development, disaster recovery, and community empowerment.  They have learned, over the years, that complex problems will not be fixed with simple solutions.  They could plant as many trees as they want, but if they’re not looking at the big picture, then people will cut down trees to repair their homes, or to sell as charcoal.

The average Haitian eats about half as many calories per day as the average person in the US.  They are poor, and nothing will grow in the soil that has been ravaged first by economic interests and then by natural disasters.  In that place, a promise of the “bread of life” has a much different meaning than it does here.  When Isaiah proclaims that in God we may “delight ourselves in rich food,” to us who are used to rich food every now and then, this just sounds like some nice poetic imagery.  But for someone who lives on one meal per day of rice, beans, and fruit, the invitation to “come, buy and eat!” starts to sound like very good news indeed.

It is an invitation to life.  It is an invitation sent to all of us to live abundantly in God’s vision for our world.  And we can rejoice that the abundance of God’s kingdom is promised to us, too.

But.  There is a saying about the gospel: that it is our business to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.  Actually, that was first coined by the writer Finley Peter Dunne, about the newspaper business, but it was quickly picked up by people in all kinds of fields from ministry to politics to labor organizing.  And it has endured, this dual call to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, because it speaks a profound truth about the work we are called to do in the world and on ourselves.

It is very clear that sometimes we just need a little comfort.  When we are lost, hungry, wandering, searching for a place in the world to be loved and valued, despairing and grief-stricken, the Word of God is a big bear hug and a warm place to rest your weary bones.

But when we start to settle down and think things are pretty much okay the way they are, and “I’m really not striving very hard for the kingdom of God because I’m pretty happy with the world the way it is” – Jesus steps in with fire in his eyes and says, now wait just a minute!  You are sitting in the lap of luxury, and not that you don’t deserve to be comfortable, but may I remind you that some of your brothers and sisters are starving?  I’m sorry you lost your internet access for a few hours during that storm, but have you forgotten that, not far away, some people lost their entire homes and everything they owned and still have barely begun to recover?

Sometimes we just need to shift our perspective.  Sometimes we need a little bit of affliction, a little bit of discomfort, to remind us that the people who suffer are not so far away, and really not that much different from ourselves, so that we will stand up and pay attention.

* * *

When I was in college in Rhode Island, we had a long winter break over the month of January, and the dorms closed, so for the most part everyone went home and hung out at our parents’ houses for a month, but one year a bunch of us came back early.  We stayed in a church basement in downtown Providence, and worked with various social service organizations in the city.  I spent many hours that week sitting in the community room of the Traveler’s Aid, getting to know the people who had come in to sit and have a cup of coffee or just come in from the cold.  I had a lot of memorable conversations there, but there was one that really stood out for me.

He was a guy about my age, someone I might easily have been friends with in a different setting.  And it turned out he was also in college, at Johnson and Wales, right around the corner from where we were.  And their dorms had closed for winter break, just like ours had, and he said he was planning to go stay with his sister this year, but when he showed up, her new boyfriend was there.  And they got in a fight, and the boyfriend stayed, and he had to leave.  So I’m here, he said, ‘cause I don’t have anywhere else to go.

There were a lot of things about that week that changed me.  But that one short conversation hit me so hard because it could have been me.  He could have been one of my friends or classmates or family, and he was sleeping on the street because of a few things that didn’t go his way.  I didn’t ask whether he started the fight with his sister’s boyfriend, or what happened with his parents, because in a way it didn’t matter right then.  He could have been my brother, and he was sitting there in this odd-smelling room drinking bad coffee on a January morning because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.  And that could have been me.

 * * *

The people who asked Jesus about the murder in Galilee were probably trying to trap him.  Trying to push him into saying something so outlandish that they could write him off like one of those crazy street preachers.  So they ask him about these awful things that have happened, to those Galileans who must have been sinners because everyone knew that’s why bad things happened, and Jesus says, no, that could have been you.  That will be you, unless you change things.

Does it bother you that people were murdered?  That college students are homeless, that kids are starving, that families’ homes are flooded and cold?  Don’t just assume they were sinners, says Jesus, because they were no more sinful than you are.  Change something.

And we start with ourselves.  We start with our own fig trees that have not borne fruit for three years because that’s how new fig trees work, and we dig out the roots of our own trees, and fertilize them.  And let me tell you, that fertilizer doesn’t come in a nice clean bag labeled “Scotts.”  That fertilizer comes from manure and compost, the awful disgusting stuff that we barely want to touch with a shovel – and we are called to dig our hands down deep into that muck and not turn away, and use all that waste and pain and yuck that we carry to grow into something new.  And maybe that fig tree will produce fruit this year.

New things will grow.  Beautiful, fruit-bearing trees, figs and mangoes and coconuts and coffee, will grow in the dirt of our lives, even when that dirt has been stripped bare by centuries of greed and power and hopelessness and the unchecked ravages of nature.  But it takes work, and a willingness to get our hands dirty, and the ability to look into the eyes of those who suffer and see ourselves, and our brothers and sisters, and get angry on their behalf.

There is injustice and pain in the world, and it should make us uncomfortable.  But we are reminded in this season that we can’t just write it off and turn away.  Even the one we call our Christ was betrayed by his friends and executed by the ruling powers.  We can’t turn away from that pain and we cannot turn away from the pain of those who are crucified in our own day.  But out of that death comes the empty tomb of Easter morning, and out of pain and hurt will grow new strength and hope, and in the words of Isaiah,

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.


Thanks be to God.

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