Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Creative Rage and the “Beloved Community”

Sancta Colloquia episode 305 ft. David Justice

In this episode I had the privilege of sitting with my friend from my dissertation writing group: David Justice (@DavidtheJust). David explained to me the thrust of his research: MLK Jr, the concept of “Beloved Community” and the constructive and creative power of rage. While we in the west tend to downplay and even vilify emotions, David demonstrates that King allows room for emotions, even the ones we’re terrified of…specifically rage. Yet King, speaking of “Ghetto Rage” argues that this rage is the rage of being beyond sick and tired of your dignity being tossed out and your humanity dragged through mud and denied.  It’s here at this intersection of vibrant personhood where rage burgeons and forces the body into action—creative action. It’s not the rage of which keeps nothingness at bay, rather it’s the rage that penetrates and pierces nothingness with somethingness, or, referring to what David explains leaning on King, “sombodiedness”. David explains that this creative rage—which works in tandem with love and never devoid of it for King—seeks to establish the beloved community as it establishes everyone’s dignity and where individualism lending to autonomy is rid. This rage pushes back against the status quo and those who willingly (complicitly and captively) accept, uphold, and defend the status quo. In this “pushing back” the oppressor suffers; King is just fine with that. This suffering of the oppressor is the manifestation and identity with those who suffer. Truth be told, though, and David explains that King is aware of this aspect: those who oppress are already suffering in the system of oppression. Thus, this felt suffering isn’t new, it’s just bubbled up to the surface where the oppressor can acknowledge it. The conversation with David is timely as we sit in the aftermath of an election that exposed white America’s true colors: anti-black.

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

David Justice’s research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. He primarily explores the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument, he draws on his rootedness in the Black church and puts King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA in Religion from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Here is the article referenced in the episode:

https://conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/divine-dissatisfaction-loving-rage-and-the-imagination-of-a-better-world/

The quote I reference from an episode of the Magnificast was by one of their guests: Amaryah Shaye. The quote is actually used in their show intro and I can’t quite remember exactly which episode with Shaye it’s from but this episode is a good one to listen to and start with:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-19-universally-bad-with-amaryah-shaye-armstrong/id1214644619?i=1000390664041

Further/Recommended Reading:

Books

  1. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
  3. King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality by Sylvie Laurent
  4. Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon by Eboni Marshall Turman
  5. The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  6. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  7. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
  8. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly
  9. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions by María Lugones
  10. The Radical King edited by Cornel West

King Sermons/Speeches

  1. “Beyond Vietnam” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam
  2. “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention
  3. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-conclusion-selma-montgomery-march
  4. “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement” https://www.apa.org/monitor/features/king-challenge
  5. “The Other America” https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm
  6. “Our God is Able” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-xiii-our-god-able
  7. “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/mia-mass-meeting-holt-street-baptist-church
  8. “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/why-jesus-called-man-fool-sermon-delivered-mount-pisgah-missionary-baptist
  9. “The Drum Major Instinct” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/drum-major-instinct-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church
  10. “The Birth of a New Age” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/birth-new-age-address-delivered-11-august-1956-fiftieth-anniversary-alpha-phi

Liberating the Captives

Sancta Colloquia Episode 207 ft. Robert Monson

 

#BlackLivesMatter✊🏿 #SayTheirNames #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor #AhmaudArbery #SeanReed #TonyMcDade #TrayvonMartin #BlackTheology #WomanistTheology #LiberationTheology #Resist #Resistance #Equality #Liberation #Revolution #Protest #Justice #HumanRights #Activism #SpeakOut #SilenceisCompliance #SilenceisViolence

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia @SanctaColloquia), I had the opportunity to sit with my friend and colleague, Robert Monson (@robertjmonson). Robert and I discussed one overarching theme–The God who liberates black people–in two points: the necessity of practical theology and the need to redefine the term “Theologian.” At first, one may think that these ideas are single concepts disconnected from each other, but, after talking with Robert, it is easy to see how these two ideas are twin ideas. Monson explains that “Practical Theology” is, simply put, the academic discipline of theology brought to the ground level. In other words, Practical Theology answer the question: “How does this [academic] theology inform our orthopraxy?” Monson explains that concepts of God are lofty, and when the person listens to academic papers about God (often described and defined (wrongly) through and with whiteness) the question is: “Who cares?” So, Practical Theology bridges the gap between knowledge and why we care. Practical theology breaks into the very echo chamber that renders us lethargic and useless and attempts to bridge the gap between heady, academic, ivory-tower language and every day real people. Along side this is the term “theologian”. What or who is a theologian? Standard ways of defining such a concept or “person” cause us to imagine theologians as old, cis-het white, men (almost like our go to images for God). Monson informs us, “What we define as ‘theologian’ is harming how we see both theology and God. ‘Did God only speak through white men post Martin Luther?’” He makes an important and rather startling point that “Even CS Lewis gets a pass” as a theologian (an untrained cis-het white man). However anyone falling outside of the “rule” (women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+) has to verify and demonstrate and be approved by the ruling class to claim the name for themselves. Even when the minority goes through the hoops to become a “theologian” they are then called a heretic because they stray and push back on “theology proper.” As mentioned in the introduction to the show, even if we do meet the “standard” we won’t because, to quote Dr. Callahan, “we weren’t meant to be there in the first place.” Case and point: Dr. James Cone. Robert informs us that Cone’s theology is not that radical, he’s actually looking at the text and seeing practical things: God liberates people and didn’t just give them an abstract future hope that maybe one day they’ll be liberated…in Heaven. By arguing for “black theology” and for the equality and beauty and rights of black people, Cone gets charged with heresy because he’s not towing the white-theology line of the ruling authority. Even though new definitions and change are scary, Monson says, we need more diversity at the “theologian” table…maybe that table should look more like our communion table…

Intrigued? You should be.

Listen here: 

 

Robert Monson is originally from Illinois and grew up talking people out of their faith in Christianity only to be converted in a powerful encounter in college. He has many years of experience in cross-cultural missions, church planting, and college ministry. Additionally, while in Bible College undertook the task of learning two foreign languages, teaching himself piano and guitar, and becoming well versed in various cultural settings.

Robert’s main passion is seeing people grow in their faith in a way that is not burdensome. He is passionate about studying and learning from a variety of different faith traditions, authors, etc. and disseminating that information to others.

Further Reading and referenced links:

James Cone interview with Terri Gross: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89236116

Youtube Video: Panel Discussion | Black Public Womanist Theology: Reflection on the lives and legacies of Dr. Katie Cannon and Aretha Franklin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRPB8rLy34c&t=924s&app=desktop

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass

My Soul Looks Back by James Cone

A podcast I would recommend that does good work: Truth’s Table (https://www.truthstable.com/)

I work here: Subcultureinc.org

And my writing and podcasts can be found here: subcstudents.com

 

 

Photo Credit: Nate Sparks