February 3, 2013
Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön once wrote that “Comfort is the enemy of enlightenment.” If that’s true, I am so doomed. Today, I have been sitting in a fluffy mound of blankets, watching the Animal Planet “Puppy Bowl”, and I don’t really feel like bearing witness.
The readings today, however, all point toward God calling the prophets and Jesus to bear witness – a witnessing that is likely to get them killed. In the Hebrew Bible reading, Jeremiah is called by YHWH to bear witness to the Northern Kingdom of Israel that they are about to be overrun by the Babylonians, who seized Jerusalem and marched its elite off into captivity in 597 BCE. Jeremiah protests, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). The Lord says (in a word) “Tough”: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you” (vv.7).
Jesus was also called to give dangerous witness. Immediately after His inaugural sermon (see “Right Here, Right Now: Inaugurating the Jubilee”), where “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4:22), the crowd in His hometown synagogue suddenly turns on Him, drives Him out of town and nearly over a cliff (which was the traditional method of stoning people to death – the penalty for blasphemers). What caused this radical turn of opinion? The reason was the Jesus quoted Scripture implying, in effect, that – like the Northern Kingdom in Jeremiah’s day – the Jewish establishment was no longer favored by God:But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)
Sidon and Syria were foreign, unclean, non-Jewish lands. Jesus was, in effect, saying to the Jewish community of his hometown, “You ain’t all that”.
People do not respond well when their privileged status is threatened. It’s all well and good to preach about the Kingdom of God, but when that means that “those people” will be moving in with “us” … that’s when the phone lines in the Bishop’s office light up like a Christmas tree. When the minister comes to the church coffee klatch and announces that the parish hall is going to be used from now on as a homeless community shelter and health clinic, that is the point where the church coffee klatch members stop talking and begin locking-and-loading.
Think it can’t happen? In 1985, Rev. Nancy C. James was appointed rector of two small Episcopal churches in rural Virginia. Things went fine until she – with her vestry’s blessing – begin bringing clients from a homeless literacy program that she worked with to the parish picnics, thinking that the fresh rural air would be a good change of pace for them. Soon afterward, she found herself the target of a horrific campaign of harassment and intimidation. Her home was invaded. Her dogs were killed. She began receiving death threats. (See Standing in the Whirlwind, 2005, Pilgrim Press). She survived her ordeal and eventually moved on to another congregation, but her experience remained with her.
I don’t want to write about people being tormented and dogs getting killed. I want to stay in my comfy blankie mound, overdosing on puppy cuteness, along with millions of other Americans.
Scholar Walter Brueggeman might say that I am a (willing) victim of “royal consciousness”, which “has created a subjective consciousness concerned only with self-satisfaction” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2001, pp.37). Brueggman also calls us to see “ourselves in an economic of affluence in which we are so well off that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it” (pp.36). (That great, big bowl of chili and corn muffin did not exactly help, either.) On the other side of the Puppy Bowl is a world and an economy driven by death-dealing inequality and brutality. And witnessing means pulling back the curtain, no matter how groteque, painful, or inconvenient that may be. And it may also mean getting thrown off a cliff while we’re at it.
But that’s not the Good News. The Good News is that we’re not alone in this project. God goes with us, as well as countless other men and women of conscience. At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus does not get thrown off the cliff, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30). Wherever our worst fears are, God is already there with us. Remember, whenever the angels speak, the first words they say are “Be not afraid” (Luke 2:10).