Feb 1, 2013

4th Sunday: Comfort the afflicted/afflict the comfortable

 Grant us, Lord our God,
that we may honor you with all our mind,
and love everyone in truth of heart.
Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

(Collect, 4th Sunday)
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a familiar line: “I get no respect!”  He would, in often racy terms, decry how he was misunderstood, rejected, and judged.  His claim of “no respect” was a humorous way of dealing with rejection. This Sunday we hear of rejection but not exactly in an amusing way.  
The strange reaction of the enraged crowd towards Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue this Sunday seems somewhat odd to us. “All spoke highly of him . . .” as we hear begins today. That being expressed we might assume that Jesus would bring in endless converts to his way. Now a the sudden turn of opinion on Jesus is shocking. In the line of the prophets Jesus experiences similar treatment. He got no respect.
In our first reading from Jeremiah we hear: “. . . for I am with you to deliver you says the Lord.” (Jer 1: 19). This promise by God to Jeremiah uncovers the real experience of rejection that often was the lot of those called by God to carry a message of truth and love to an often times hostile world.  Yes, the chosen people had strayed away from their initial covenant with God but God desired to call them back.  They must repent and reconfigure their lives in keeping with the sacred law of God, and then he will forgive. That’s good news.  
But Jeremiah, the other prophets of the Old Testament and certainly Jesus himself found disrespect, rejection and hostility as a frequent reaction from some. So too today from his own kinsfolk in Nazareth it was a veritable lynch mob that, “. . . led him to the brow of the hill on which the town had been built, to hurl him down headlong . . .” (Lk 4: 29-30). What’s that about?
It was not the good works, the reported miracles of Jesus in Galilee that the people of Nazareth had heard of and wanted him to offer in their own town but rather the claim that Jesus was making in the scripture passage he had just read: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing . . .” (Lk 4: 21) that caused their hyper irritation. One would think that the crowd would rejoice on hearing this good news.  Finally, the Messiah is among us and we can have hope that the poor will hear “glad tidings,” the captive will hear of their “liberty,” the blind will see, and a “year acceptable to the Lord” would take place. 
While the assembly in the synagogue were familiar with this and other sacred passages, their rabbis, of which Jesus now claimed this position, would read of a future time.  They would claim someone else will come. 
Now Jesus takes this same passage and stakes his claim that he is the fulfillment of this scriptural promise of the Messiah.  He claims that in him the age of salvation has begun.  But, he’s only “the son of Joseph.” If the crowd was right in their sudden accusation then we can understand how dangerous Jesus would be to the culture and status quo of his time – and beyond.
In our present day values of independence and self-initiation any child who tries to achieve more than their parents did, or especially their own father, would be lauded. Not so in the time of Jesus.  No one was ever expected to achieve more or to improve on the born fate of their parents.  Each child would inherit the lot they were born into.  In carrying on the same profession of their father, sons would be praised for protecting the family honor.  Any son who would “think outside the box” or turn to another way of life would be criticized in a breach of family honor. Your father is a carpenter and so you will be the same.  At the very least Jesus does not seem to be carrying on his “father’s” profession of carpentry and stone masonry. How dare he discredit his own father and family!
Yet it was his claim to be the one for who they were waiting, the one who would carry on the sign of salvation spoken of in Isaiah that riled the crowd enough to consider his death.  
So the controversial mission of Jesus begins.  St. Luke may want us to see in this passage not only how the mission of Christ begins but also how it will end and maybe how it has always annoyed the status quo over the millennia of Christian history. While it was clear that Jesus’ mission would go far beyond his own tiny village of Nazareth the mission of the Church which he entrusted to the ages must do the same; we must push beyond the borders. Today we hear more of the evangelizing mission of the Church for good reasons.  
As the Apostles set out beyond the small region of ancient Palestine to the wider ancient world, they too found themselves not only with great conversions but also in the face of hostile pagan rulers.  All of the Apostles were martyred except for St. John as tradition tells us.  We know well the experience of the great missionary to the Gentiles, St. Paul.
In the 12th – 16th centuries of Christian history we see a decided blending of both politics and religion.  We find the Church weighed down by the burden of the earthly kingdom and the spiritual.  Popes and Bishops were powerful rulers of territories whose own personal fortunes and the oft corruption that goes with it was rampant.  The Renaissance Popes of the Italian Borgia family were notorious for their scandalous personal immorality yet at the same time supported great artists, sculptors, architects that have given us grand temples to God such as St. Peter Basilica in Rome and one of a kind, irreplaceable works of art such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  
But in today’s day we find ourselves confronted with tense social issues and the call for the Church to reform itself and to be more accommodating to the prevailing issues of today. Whether it is about human life, marriage, or the right of the Church to speak out in the market place of the public square, the Pope is no longer an earthly ruler in the sense of a King, Emperor or President but a voice for a spiritual and moral force.  So too the voice of the Church takes on the call for spiritual and moral reform and so will be, like Jesus himself, a sign of contradiction at times.  Pushing against the grain, in the opposite direction of what is acceptable and popular, is somewhat of a personality characteristic of the Church’s mission.  Yet, it is all good news.
It may pose the question, “What is the purpose of the Church?” To just annoy everyone?  To be purposely in opposition and spoil the party? Maybe we all have an opinion as to what the Church should be and should be doing. 
In the end, the ultimate purpose of the Church is to be what Jesus himself is: a road to salvation.  What Christ enntrusted to his Church, in spite of the sin we often see in each other, is the way to reach heaven.  It demands our faith and trust in the person of Christ and to embrace humbly what the Church offers in the continuation of Jesus’ presence in his sacraments and his sacred word. As the Holy Spirit works in and through the sacramental life of the Church we find the spiritual tools which bring us salvation.
As we look to this Sunday, very close to the beginning of Lent, we may not have a particular gripe with Jesus but many certainly do have a position on the Church and its teaching.  Do we want to “hurl over the brow of the hill” some position or teaching?  What should I accept with humility and faith? Someone once said, “Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Now, there’s some food for thought.  
St. Paul in the second reading speaks in the all familiar spiritual poem of love from 1 Corinthians 12: 31-13:13.  Isn’t the Church calling all of us to be “patient, kind, not jealous . . .” and to carry on our mission with charity as baptized in Christ Jesus?