"...Today I appoint you... to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." - Jeremiah 1
When they heard [Jesus say] this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way - Luke 4
When was the last time that your faith really upset your apple cart?
This isn't a quiz; it's simply a matter to ponder. In the language of Christianity, the question could be framed, as a colleague has done, as "When was the last time Jesus offended you?"
The Gospel story from Luke this week continues the telling of a time when Jesus stood before the people of his hometown and preached a sermon that, at first, amazed and impressed them. His message was that God has come to heal those who suffer. But, not content to bask in his community's adulation, he forces the issue. He then tells them, in essence, "I'm not here to do parlor tricks for you; I'm here to say that a life of faith is bigger than wonder and awe. It's also about patience, humility, and repentance."
It's been said many times that religion's task is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." This phrase was actually coined by Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago journalist who said this was the job of newspapers. He wrote a column for his paper in the early 20th century, speaking in the voice of the everyman, a fictional character named Mr. Dooley. At some point, spiritual leaders embraced the words, as a way of echoing an idea common in Scripture, as in Psalm 18: "For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down."
The people gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, who heard their native son Jesus speaking with authority, had surely read or heard this Psalm before; the sentiment was not new to them. But hearing the humble son of the humble Mary and Joseph speak this way to them so enraged them that they were ready to throw him off the cliff. In one sermon, Jesus managed both to comfort and afflict those who listened to him.
It's likely that the people of Nazareth did not experience comfort as we are used to imagining it. We can well imagine their afflictions; probably less so their comforts. But we do know that each one of us experiences both affliction and comfort, in ways that transcend time and place.
There are times when our faith, whatever that might look like, feels sustaining, nurturing and yes, even joyful. We bask in such times; Creation itself appears to be working in our service.
Other times, not so much. Loneliness, pain, deep doubt, and exclusion from the blessings of community have visited most, if not all, of us at one time or anther. At such times, we need the balm of God's comforting words and blessings. If we show up at the synagogue in Nazareth on such days, we're really not eager to hear this young whippersnapper Jesus lecturing us.
There really is no way completely to resolve this tension. When we gather in worship, some of us are simply in better - or worse - shape than others. When we meet on the street or over a meal, the same is true. There is brokenness and wholeness in front of us and within us. In appointing a reluctant Jeremiah to be a prophet, God tells him that his task will be both to pull broken things apart and then rebuild them; to pluck up the dead stuff and plant something new and wondrous.
There is time for both in our own lives, prophets all that we are. In an honest life of faith, we will both challenge and comfort each other - and our own selves. One day we will offer the sweetest comfort to someone; another day, we will look around and see that something is desperately in need of repair. Like Jesus or Jeremiah, we won't necessarily please others in making such a challenge. But there will be time for that pleasing in another time.
Come to be comforted, or to comfort. Come broken or whole. Come somewhere in between these places. Come to pluck and pull; to build and plant. God always knows what to say. In a worshipping community,we are learning how to hear that, no matter what that voice sounds like. In the end, it is always loving.