For years I thought the phrase “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted” was found somewhere in scripture, referring to the role of the prophets. Eventually I discovered that it was actually a quote from a 19th-20th century writer, Finlay Peter Dunne. The full quote is: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Our two scripture passages give us a nice sense of just why I was so sure the quote was from scripture.
Our passage from Luke afflicts the comfortable. It comes late in the gospel. Every year, in the last weeks before Advent, the gospel readings we are offered[i] are from a passage scholars call “the little apocalypse.” “Apocalypse,” even though it simply means, “uncovering,” is a word we associate with disaster; and that’s pretty much what it means here. Jesus is talking about disaster. Jesus knows his own death is drawing near, and he’s warning his people about what comes next: suffering, calamity, and a time when all the things they hold dear will literally crumble—cities, kingdoms, people’s health and well-being, and even, most horrifying, the Temple in Jerusalem. Their holiest place. The place where, they believe, the presence of God pierces the veil between heaven and earth. About the Temple, Jesus says, “One stone will not be left upon another.”
So, in one passage, we have words of dire warning about endings, from a man who sees his own end rushing unavoidably towards him.
And then we have the reading from the prophet Isaiah. This passage comforts the afflicted. This book bearing the name of an 8th century BCE prophet was most likely written by several hands, over the course of at least 200 years. The portion I read is from the very last chapters, and these words are spoken to people who have been through precisely the kind of devastation Jesus was describing in our other reading. These words, even though they were written centuries earlier, came at a time when the people had indeed seen the destruction of the Temple, and all the horrible losses that went with it—the loss of homes, loved ones, lives. The experience of being exiles, unwilling immigrants to another land where they did not know the language or the customs, where their religion was not welcome, and where they could only long for a home that no longer existed.
God speaks through the prophet. “I’m about to create new heavens and a new earth,” he says. The former things, the painful things… they will recede into the past, and you will never be bothered by them again. And then the prophet ticks off all the things that every single one of us wants for our own lives: The place we live, to be a joy and a delight. No more weeping, no more pain. No more devastating losses of little children and infants. A life expectancy, ladies and gentlemen, of a hearty and healthy 100 years for all! Being able to build not only homes, but also lives that are filled with abundance and satisfaction. And peace. The kind of peace in which former enemies, those who once were predator and prey, are able to give one another the gift of living their lives in contentment and well-being, in gladness and rejoicing.
In this other passage, words of comfort to people who have already seen the worst, to let them know that God will see them through. Words of encouragement to people who are wondering why these things happened, reminding them that God always bats last.
These passages, offered up by our lectionary, have a profound punch this week. You know, and I know, that we cannot help hearing these words in our own context, the outcome of a hotly contested presidential election which seems, to some people, to echo in the words of Jesus, and, to other people, to echo in the words of Isaiah. And not only is our nation divided, but Christians are divided, proponents of each major candidate seeing their guy or gal as Jesus’ obvious choice.
So that’s where we are. We are people living at the same time, in the same country, but somehow, in two entirely different worlds, one in which it looks as if everything is about to crumble, and the other in which it looks, finally, as if everything is going to be alright.
And yet: those of us who are Christians, we understand ourselves to be, not only members of one universal church, or one local community, but one body, the body of Christ. We are as intimately bound to one another as the hand is to the arm, as the ear and eyes are to the head, as the heart is to the chest. So, we not only are called to figure out how to work together, we are required to do so. We are not only called to find ways of healing, our very existence depends upon it.
I am convinced that both these passages offer us pathways to healing.
Jesus tells us that our ultimate faith can never be in institutions. The Temple will crumble. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Oceans rise. Empires fall. He paints a portrait of a world where much is out of our control, with one very, very important exception: We are in control of the way in which we live out our calling as his followers. What we do. What we say. In the best and the worst of times we have an opportunity to give our testimony, which Presbyterian preaching guru Tom Long describes as, “talking ourselves into being Christian.” Jesus promises that he will give us the words and the wisdom to speak.
So, we do what our faith calls us to do, and say what our faith calls us to say. We will not always have complete agreement as to what that is. But earlier in the gospel Jesus gives us a blueprint at the outset of his ministry, when he opens the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, and read:
“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 favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
This week, people across the country have been presented with some compelling opportunities to do this work.
You may have read stories in the news this week about incidents occurring in the days following the election. These are stories about people being harassed because of their race, or because of their sexuality, or because of their religion, or because of their assumed immigration status. Muslim women who wear the hijab have been particular targets, as have people of color. At the same time, a video has circulated showing a fight between people of different races has been described as a man being beaten because he voted for the newly elected president.
So to be clear: Anyone, in the name of either candidate, using the outcome of the election as an excuse for violence is wrong, their actions are indefensible, and they must be stopped. That said, I am going to tell one story—not to indict all people who voted for one particular person, but to show you how one community responded.
At Baylor University this week a student named Natasha Nhkama was assaulted by a male student who pushed her off a campus sidewalk, using an age-old racial slur. He said, “No (N-word)s allowed on the sidewalk.” When confronted by a nearby student, he replied, “What? I’m just trying to make America great again.” As word of the incident spread around campus, some students began to formulate a plan to escort Natasha to class. In the end, more than 300 students showed up to do just that on Friday morning. Natasha got to her class without incident.
These students answered the call of Jesus. They accompanied a frightened woman who had good reason to feel she was at risk, and they helped her to feel safe. Good news to the oppressed. Binding up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Offering the tiniest glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
This is one of our pathways to healing: to be good news for the oppressed or harassed, whomever they may be. To show up for those in need of allies, for those who are being made to feel that they are anything less than God’s beloved children. To speak out. To intervene. To protect one another. To provide safe spaces, where no one will be harassed. To walk people to class, or to work.
A funny thing happens when Christians do this work that Jesus has called us to. The world begins to resemble very much the vision that Isaiah spun for us. We participate in God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth. We begin to create communities that are places of joy and not dread. No more weeping, no more pain. Places where people are empowered to build not only homes, but also lives that are filled with abundance and satisfaction. And peace. The kind of peace in which former enemies, those who once were predator and prey, are able to give one another the gift of living their lives in contentment and well-being, in gladness and rejoicing.
We have work to do. We can do it together. We must do it together, in the name of the one who has called us to do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. Tables for these can be found at textweek.com.