If you’re a close reader of the Musing, and have a good memory, you’ll notice that the Beatitude for today is different than advertised. Late in the week I took some executive privilege to shift it closer to what was emerging for the sermon. So our Beatitude for this fifth week of Lent, rather than being Blessed are the available, is now Blessed are the comforted – or the afflicted. If you were gearing up to be available, and no longer feel blessed, please accept our apologies. Please be blessed nonetheless.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul brags about his pedigree as the ultimate religious person, then turns around and calls it all garbage. Reading through his different writings, it’s pretty clear that the guy had a good sized ego, but it’s also clear that he was a person who underwent a massive life conversion, and came out on the other side a new person. He still liked to boast every once in a while, but now, as he would call it, he was “boasting in Christ.” Boasting about not only his strengths, but also his weaknesses, and his utter dependence on this Christ consciousness which had invaded his world, and turned it upside down.
What Paul says to the Philippians, specifically, is this: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
His list of competitive advantages that he had over other people reminds me of an exercise that we did at a training I went to back in the fall. Mennonite Central Committee has developed an antiracism training called Damascus Road, which, it just kind of donned on me this week, is named for that very conversion experience that Paul had which led to him being such a powerful leader in the church. Bluffton University hosted one of these trainings for their students and faculty, and I attended with several other members of the leadership of Central District Conference. One of the opening exercises, as a way of starting to think about all the different forces of oppression and privilege at work in society, was called the cage of oppression. A picture of a big cage was drawn on the board and we were supposed to come up with all the different oppressor and oppressed pairings that we could think of to put inside the cage. Naming a group that has held power historically, and the name for the other group which fell outside, and therefore had less power. The first pairing was obvious enough: White, and people of color. Power, less power. Other pairings people named were men and women, educated and uneducated, straight and gay, native and immigrant, youthful and elderly, able bodied and disabled, wealthy/middle class and poor.
One of the points of the exercise was to show that even though the focus of the training was on racism, that it wasn’t the only form of oppression; to preempt anyone’s attempts to claim that by talking about one form of oppression we were ignoring or minimizing the others. It was a good point.
Another point of the exercise, the leaders told us, was for us to realize that even if you are in the dominant place in one category, white, for example, that everyone falls into at least one place where they are the oppressed, and that the point wasn’t to separate us into two classes of oppressed and oppressor.
At this point I raised my hand, and noted that as a white, educated, straight, native-born, youngish, able bodied, middle class male, I fit into every single one of the oppressor/privileged categories that we were able to come up with! I suggested that maybe since I was a Mennonite I could maybe claim the oppressed category because of 16th century persecutions of my ancestors in the faith, but that this kind of felt like a stretch.
For someone who was a sociology major in college, hyper-sensitized to these kinds of social dynamics – this was not a new revelation. It does, however, remain a rather sobering awareness.
When Paul talks about having reason to be confident in “the flesh,” he’s using one of his favorite riffs, which he often contrasts with “the spirit.” The flesh vs. the spirit. Some have accused Paul of being anti-body, of having a sharp dualism between the body and the spirit, elevating the spirit and demeaning the body, a highly unfortunate mindset Christianity has wrestled with for centuries. It is true that Paul uses dualistic language and categories, but it’s also true that he chooses to use the word “flesh,” rather than “body,” and has a different agenda in mind than that sharp split between the spiritual and the physical. For Paul, “flesh” represents all of those things that he bought into so deeply in his former life that caused him to become completely blind to reality of Christ. Things like undergoing all the right religious rituals, having the right genes, the right demographic, rigorously following and enforcing religious law.
He had completely bought into that form of sacred identity and meaning-making, and it had turned him into an oppressor, which he was oblivious to, until he had an unexpected encounter with Christ while on his way to the city of Damascus. When he was stopped in his tracks and was knocked to the ground by a blinding light – remaining blind until he was given the gift of learning to see in a new way.
There’s a saying: that Christ came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. This is also said about the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah speaks comfort, comfort to his people taken into exile, but reprimands those who live in luxury but ignore the poor. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable. Another way of saying this, is that for some people, their lives are completely messed up, until they meet Christ, who helps them put it back together. The prodigal son, from last week’s parable, is the icon of this storyline. Christ came to comfort the afflicted. For others, their lives are nicely put together, until they meet Christ, who completely messes them up. Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler, who was shocked when Jesus told him that he had to sell all he had and follow him, is one of the icons of this storyline. The Apostle Paul is another. Only he actually followed through on the invitation, calling the former things he once valued garbage, rubbish.
I have wondered at different times, if different churches emphasize one of these at the expense of the other. Congregations like ours, being the demographic that we are, probably fall more into the category of afflicting the comfortable. You’re welcome! On the outside, we’re pretty comfortable people, but we don’t want to let that define us. We’re set up pretty well, but Lord knows there’s a lot of injustice out there in the world to attend to that we can’t turn a blind eye to. This is most likely pushed further along by our Mennonite ethic of action orientation, and our slight confusion with what to do about having so much privilege in a world of so much need. Maybe we think that if we seek too much comfort, we will miss the other, more difficult message that prods us in the back.
For many of us, Christ is that persistent and sometimes annoying voice in our minds that refuses to let us forget the poor, the fact that there are people in Oakley who have slept outside through the winter, for example. If that voice went away and we were allowed to feel completely comfortable with the way of things, where would we be?
But the longer I am a pastor, the more I realize that those of us who appear to have it all together on the outside, also carry plenty of burdens and pains with us. Some we are able to talk about. Some we’re not yet ready to talk about but will someday. Some hurts are too deep for words.
Lest we overemphasize the affliction of the comfortable side of the gospel, our other New Testament reading for today features a scene of the afflicted being comforted, although not without controversy.
The scene takes place in Bethany, in the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. John is quick to remind us that this is the Lazarus who had died, that Jesus raised from the dead. He also notes that this is six days before the Passover, which means we are less than a week away from another death, the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the season of Lent, and the cross is looming larger each week.
This is an intimate scene. Close friends, in the final week of Jesus’ life, sharing dinner around the table. Relaxing, comfortable. Until Mary does something that is quite uncomfortable for the others. She takes a pound of costly perfume, not a two ounce bottle, but a pound, made of pure nard, and pours it on Jesus’ feet. And she lowers her head down and starts wiping his newly anointed feet with her hair. An intimate scene just got a whole lot more intimate. And the smell of the perfume drifts up and fills the entire house. Jesus accepts this great and extravagant gift as Mary’s way of anointing him for his burial, a prelude to what Nicodemus and Joseph will do for Jesus after his death, anointing him before laying him in the tomb. Mary is comforting Jesus, and Jesus in turn defends her. They find comfort between themselves as this fragrance engulfs them and everyone around.
But Judas protests. His objection is well-founded, practical, and even, one might say, justice-minded. He looks at all the oil spilling out of that jar and sees dollar signs. Dollars that could be put to a whole lot better use than going up in smoke and blowing away in the wind. “What about the poor?” he says. Jesus, I’ve been listening to you for a while now and I’m pretty sure this perfume could finance some programs that could put a serious dent in the poverty problem around here.
This is coming from Judas, so supposedly there’s got to be something wrong with it, right, but he’s got a good point. Judas lobbies for the very thing Jesus has been teaching, to comfort the afflicted, but, Jesus notes to him, he is missing the moment. He is missing what’s happening right in front of his eyes. An extravagant, intimate, sweet-smelling anointing. The afflicted, or soon-to-be afflicted, are being comforted, and there’s no need to set up a competition between who is more afflicted. There will always be poor ‘out there’ to be comforted – and that will always be the mission of the church – but now, in this moment, in this very house, comfort is being poured out in abundance. And it is good. And it takes nothing away from anyone. It only adds to the abundant goodness that God is making available in this world.
If there were to be a continuum and on one side, are the comfortable, in need of being afflicted. On the other side are the afflicted, in need of being comforted. Where would you fall? It does seem to shift, depending on the day.
This is one of those services where we offer an anointing with oil to anyone who wishes to receive it. It is a sign of God’s presence among us, on your life, and the anointing means what you need it to mean. A prayer to become discomforted, or a prayer for healing, for comfort. As we sing, you are welcome to come forward to receive an anointing for whatever you carry with you. You are also welcome to come forward on behalf of another person, accepting the blessing on their behalf.