Comfort the Afflicted & Afflict the Comfortable

Has there ever been a Sunday morning, when you wondered what in the world I was talking about in my sermon? Did you ever think that sometimes I set out to perplex you? What would you think if I told you that if you never went home a little confused, or surprised, or even shocked, that I was probably not doing my job as a preacher?

There's an old principle for preachers, adopted also by some journalists, that says faithfulness to the truth calls us to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Is a hundred-year old quote that can be traced to the work of Finley Peter Dunne. It has again become a catch phrase – that the afflicted shall be comforted and the comfortable, afflicted.

I want to tell you that many of us, who have been comfortable, and some of us who were never really that comfortable in the 1st place, or were maybe more comfortable than we knew we were, have been afflicted in many and various ways. I tell you, from my studies on the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ, it was his way of life as well.

Long ago – over 2000 years ago, a teenage girl was afraid and perplexed. She had been going along her merry way, probably daydreaming about her boyfriend Joseph, one day as she helped her mother around the house, washing wineskins or urns or some such work, when suddenly her life was changed in a few words. This girl was a virgin named Mary. She knew right away by this angelic greeting that something was amiss. "Greetings, Favored One." What could an angel want with her? What would you think? She was right to be afraid – God asked big things of her. Maybe God thought she was too comfortable. God asks big things of us sometimes. Not just 2000 years ago – but now – here. God calls us to do things we never meant to do, to live lives we never wanted to live, to do things that were never in our plan.

That is true for our recent vicar. She’d lived a pretty full and amazing life. She was a nursing dean in an engineering college. Not just dean, but founding dean. She has a list of credentials longer than your arm. She has many degrees, impressive accomplishments. She loves nursing. She never wanted to leave it! She did anyway. Maybe God thought she was too comfortable.

Seminaries are full of people who never expected to find themselves there. I took part in an ordination yesterday, of one of my best friends from seminary. We forged a friendship through one of the most trying times of our lives - summer Greek. They say adversity creates close bonds. Summer Greek could break a student faster than just about anything else!

Ordinations are amazing – it is so wonderful to have together in one place – all the people you know and love from all the various parts of your life! Yesterday, as all of Sandra’s friends and relatives were getting acquainted with one another, she introduced a woman to us, a tall well-dressed African American woman. Here, Sandra said it the 1st person who ever said to me, Sandra, you should be in seminary. You should be a pastor. I threw back my head and laughed, she said.

I also laughed again and again in many faces of people who said I should be a pastor. I had the very misguided idea it was supposed to be my decision. I thought I was in charge of my own life. I was wrong. God had other ideas. And so I stand here before you today in this pulpit. Maybe I was too comfortable.

I’ll bet Mary had many other ideas, too, about what her life would be. This was surely not in her plan. "What do you mean," she said to Gabriel, "that I will have a baby? Joseph and I plan to be married. No, I will be disgraced. No one will understand." My heart goes out to her. How would she explain this to her father? Even more, how would she make Joseph believe this preposterous story?

1. A professor sat at his desk one evening working on the next day's lectures. His housekeeper had laid that days’ mail and papers on his desk and he began to sift through them, discarding most into the wastebasket. Then he noticed a magazine, which was not even addressed to him, but had been delivered to his office by mistake. It fell open to an article entitled "The Needs of the Congo Mission".

Casually he began to read when he was suddenly consumed by these words: "The need is great here. We have no one to work the northern province of Gabon in the central Congo. And it is my prayer as I write this article that God will lay His hand on one - one on whom, already, the Master's eyes have been cast - that he or she shall be called to this place to help us." Professor Albert Schweitzer closed the magazine and wrote in his diary: "My search is over." He gave himself up to the Congo.

That little article, hidden in a periodical intended for someone else, was placed by accident in Schweitzer's mailbox. By chance he noticed the title. It leaped out at him. By chance he read the article. Chance? Nope. God had a plan to change Sweitzer’s comfortable life.

2. A thought for you to ponder this morning. We all here are members of the priesthood of all believers. God has a call on each and every life in this place. What is God asking from you? No one is left out. God is nothing if not an intimate God. A God who knew everything about you even before you were formed in your mother’s womb! A God who came to earth in the form of a human baby so that you may spend eternity together. A God who created you with specific gifts for ministry and with a plan as to how you may use them. I ask you to ponder this question – What is God calling you to do this morning?

3. One day Jesus and the devil are about to have a chat. The devil strides in, cunning and deception on his face, his tail flipping back and forth in his excitement, icicles dripping from the point of his tail.

‘Well," says Jesus. " I can see where you’ve been. To the land of snow and ice." "Oh yes," the devil says to Jesus, "I've down to Mt Joy and Harney today. I saw those beautiful churches, the bells ringing in their steeplse and the parking lots filled with cars." Jesus says, "The organ was playing and the congregation was singing for all they're worth- its hymn sing Sunday." The devil says," I wanted to see what those people you call yours are up to now." With a laughing snarl, Satan said, "I have some tricks up my sleeve."

Jesus says, "you may want to stay away from there, Satan. It’s that time of year." The devil snarled, his ugly nostrils flaring." I saw what you’re trying to do. I saw those letters to inactives that were sent out. Nice try, Jesus, giving those people in Harney and Barlow that idea. Nice letter too. I have other ideas, though. I can keep those people distracted and away from your church. They have too much to do to come to services."

"Oh," Jesus said," but all the people of the congregation have invitations, too – they are ready to invite all their friends and relatives to services over Christmas and New Year’s, to help celebrate my birth. They have been praying. I hear their prayers going out daily, that God will send people to fill their pews. People who need to hear about God’s amazing love and grace. Your plan didn’t work to have them close their churches for Christmas and New Year’s as some others have."

Jesus says, "yes, I have great plans for my folks down there in Harney and Barlow." Smoke was spurting from his flaring nostrils, Satan turned on his pointed tail and was gone. Jesus smiled, as he commented to no one in particular. "I am so pleased with all the council people elected today at Mt Joy and St. Paul. God has called some excellent new leaders. The children and teachers have worked hard on their pageants. It’s great! Hmmmm. Jesus ponders for a moment, his finger on his chin. "Those people in Harney and Barlow are still too comfortable, though."


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