Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year A, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week at Wednesday evening worship, when I read this Gospel and said “The Gospel of the Lord,” the response was kind of weak. This is not the sort of reading that one would naturally say “Thanks be to God!” for. This is the sort of reading that makes people frown and look sideways at their Bibles. The Prince of Peace saying he has not come to bring peace, but a sword? The Son of the one who commanded us to honor our father and mother saying “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Really?

Let’s back up a bit, and see if some context will help. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples to preach his message. And he tells them he’s sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Our Gospel reading is part of the instructions Jesus gives before sending his disciples out for the first time to preach on their own. This is what Jesus wants his followers to know about what they’re getting into when they preach Jesus’ message. This is what awaits those who preach the Gospel. Division and strife.

There’s an old saying that has always particularly struck me: “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at Jesus’ ministry. What did Jesus do on Earth? Well, first off, he never met a sinner he didn’t forgive and eat with. Whenever Jesus met someone who was outcast, someone whose life was in tatters, someone who was ignored and oppressed by society, he forgave them whatever sins they had committed and he ate with them. When he met someone that everyone knew was a sinner, he didn’t join the chorus of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. Doesn’t mean he liked what they were doing, but he apparently figured that society had already done more than enough condemning already. He forgave them, loved them, and shared fellowship with them.

I want you to stop and take a moment. Think of someone or some group of people that you believe are sinful. Some person or group of people who have done bad things. Some person or group of people that most of the good people in town look down on. Those people, whoever they are. Think about that person or group. Then imagine Jesus going to visit them in their home, telling them he loves them, and staying for dinner. It’s not a comfortable thought, is it? That right there was enough to get the pillars of the community upset.

And when Jesus saw someone in pain, someone hurting, someone ill or injured or grieving, he healed them. Right then and there. No matter what else was going on. He didn’t care if it was the “right way” or the “right time,” he didn’t care whether the person was an insider or an outsider, he didn’t care about the rules of society. If he saw someone hurting, he healed them. And in so doing, he stepped on a lot of toes.

Even worse, he was not shy about calling out the sins and failings of the pillars of the community. All the “little” things they swept under the table, all the things they had convinced themselves weren’t sins at all. The things nobody would dare point out. He called them out on their greed, their hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their blindness. He pointed out the ways they interpreted the Scriptures so that their own culture was justified and other peoples’ was dismissed. He went out in public and pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. And the pillars of the community really didn’t like that.

Jesus spent his life seeking out the people whose lives were in ruins, who had been shoved aside by the community, and loving them. And then turning around and telling the leaders that they were just as sinful as any of the ones they looked down on, and they needed to shape up. This is not, to put it mildly, a way to become popular. The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who are afflicted, whether through the whims of fate or their own bad choices, don’t need any more afflictions, they need comfort. And people who are comfortable and have everything going their way don’t need more affirmation; they get enough of it from everybody else. What they need is a good kick when they get too complacent. And that’s what the Gospel does: it reminds the sinners and the sufferers of God’s love and mercy, and it reminds the self-righteous ones who coast on their laurels that they, too, fall short of the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel Jesus preached, it’s the Gospel Jesus lived, and it’s the Gospel that eventually got him killed. Because, of course, nobody likes being told they need to shape up. Nobody likes being told they’re a sinner. The pillars of the community have resources to shut up people who point out the Emperor has no clothes, and in first century Palestine, those resources included crucifixion. Jesus’ death on a cross was a direct result of the message he preached. Every time he ate with and forgave sinners, the leaders of the community grumbled against him. Every time he pointed out the sins of the good people, they grumbled against him. And began to lay traps for him, first to discredit him and finally to kill him.

So why, if that’s the case, would anybody want to preach the Gospel? What makes it worth it? Freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from having to pretend things are just fine when they’re not. Freedom from the idea that might makes right. Freedom to seek justice even when it’s not popular. Freedom from pettiness and cynicism and apathy; freedom to be the best we can be. Freedom to acknowledge when society is messed up and the freedom to live lives of joy and hope even in the midst of a broken world.

But in order to be free, you have to first acknowledge all the things that are holding you down. And that’s not always easy or fun. To be resurrected in Jesus Christ, you first have to die. And nobody likes dying. Even in a community where most people are Christian, the heart of the Gospel is no more popular than it was in Jesus’ day. There are some sinners we don’t want to forgive; some outcasts we don’t want to bring back in to the community. And there are certainly truths about ourselves and our sins that we don’t want to face! Comforting the afflicted can make you pretty unpopular. Afflicting the comfortable is even worse. If we’re really serious about following Jesus, we’re not going to be winning any popularity contests. If we’re really serious about following Jesus’ commands to forgive sinners and heal the broken and call out sin where we see it even when we see it in the leaders of the community, we’re going to face resistance. There will be conflict; there will be division. Not because God wants there to be conflict or division, but because that’s how people react when you call them on their bad behavior.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be blindsided by this, and he doesn’t want us to be, either. He’s quite clear: following the Gospel means taking up the cross. It means that people will be upset with you for telling them what they don’t want to hear. If you water the Gospel down so that people who are comfortable in their sins stay comfortable, and those who are afflicted and cast out and unforgiven stay afflicted and cast out and unforgiven, you are denying Jesus. You are denying the message he was willing to die to give us. And Jesus has a warning: if we deny Jesus, he will also deny us.

But in the midst of all this, there’s good news. We don’t get sent out alone, and we don’t get sent out without help. Yes, there will be conflict, and division. And in some places and times, there will even be physical danger. After all, most of the twelve disciples were eventually killed for their belief in Jesus Christ and their spreading of his message. Today there are still places in the world where being Christian can get you killed. But God is with us whenever the Gospel is truly preached. When we preach Christ, when we live the Gospel, Jesus lives in us. God knows each sparrow’s fall; God knows all of what happens to us. God knows each hair on our head and God is with us always, even when things get dark. We may lose a bit of life in this world; we may find ourselves deep in conflict even with those we love. But we are not alone in our conflict. And the Good News, the word of freedom and hope and love, is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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