Comfort and Challenge

Comfort and Challenge
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Jun 21, 2020 12:24 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A-Trk 2), June 21, 2020
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  • [A Prayer for the Human Family, The Book of Common Prayer p. 815]

Did you come here today for comfort, or for challenge? Looking at the events of the last week—in your own life and in the world—have these presented you with more comfort, or more challenge?

Comfort and challenge are the twin poles of living, you know. Maybe you have enjoyed the comfort of a warm home, loving family, delicious food, and enough money in the bank. Maybe you have enjoyed the challenge of education, employment, career, hobbies, and everything you do to try to leave the world better than you found it. We all want and need both comfort and challenge.

But we don’t want to be challenged too much. I could have done without a global pandemic and a quarantine that seems like it’ll never end. I could have done without a nation that feels like it’s falling apart, like we Americans can’t even talk to each other openly anymore without destroying relationships. I could have done without two deaths in my family this year. I could have done without all that. There’s such a thing as too much challenge.

But there is also such a thing as too much comfort. We know this too, right? Too much money, too much free time, too much luxury is deadly to your soul. It doesn’t even feel like we have too much before it comes at the expense of others. Somewhere between being destitute and being filthy stinking rich is a range called “comfortable,” a place we’ll go to great lengths to defend. But are some of us too comfortable? Even now?

To even speak of such matters in our society is to be perceived as divisive. Don’t talk about that. Keep your personal stuff to yourself, especially money and politics. Don’t tell anyone your salary. (My salary is $81,000 a year. I often feel too comfortable.) Don’t tell anyone who you’re voting for. (I can’t do that here, because we could lose our tax-exempt status.) Don’t talk about these things! Don’t rock the boat of my comfort.

Dang it, we all want comfort right now. But the world seems to be conspiring against us. We’re not getting much comfort—just lots and lots of challenge. Tech-avoidant people are challenged to use Zoom, and tech-savvy people are challenged to teach them. White people are challenged to think and talk about race for a change, while people of color are challenged to be patient with them while continuing to endure indignities that white people don’t even notice.

Straight and cisgender people are challenged to acknowledge that LGBTQ people are normal too and want similar things in life. Elderly people are challenged to imagine dying from the coronavirus, and younger people are challenged to wear masks so as not to cause such tragedies. Those who most value legality are challenged to welcome people who were brought to the U.S. illegally. All Americans are challenged to reevaluate the way we do policing—and perhaps to reinvent it from the ground up! This is too much challenge all at once! Stop!

Did you come here today for comfort, or for challenge? Can we maybe ask for a little of each? I think that one way to know you’ve found the right congregation is that you are sufficiently comforted and challenged. But be sure to measure that balance over time. Today’s readings promise comfort but provide far more challenge. And I don’t choose the readings, you know; we’re on the same lectionary cycle that many other churches are using, even in other denominations. So thanks for that, Ms. Holy Spirit. Thanks a lot.

Jeremiah never asked for the challenge of being a prophet. He tried to talk God out of it by pointing out all his own faults. God was having none of it and called him to be a prophet anyway. Now, much later in his career, Jeremiah is weary and angry. He keeps saying that Jerusalem is about to fall to the Babylonians. But even his fellow prophets wish he would just shut up about politics.

Jeremiah resents this divisive God who keeps getting him into trouble. Our translation says, “You have enticed me, and I was enticed”—but the English word “entice” is far too weak. It’s really more like, “God, you have manipulated me—you have taken advantage of me—you have used me deceitfully!”

The people all around Jeremiah want him to speak nice words, polite words, words that won’t rock the sinking ship. But the ship is definitely sinking. The Babylonians are at the gates, and Jerusalem will be overthrown and the nation of Judah destroyed. The people don’t want to hear that. Maybe if they ignore it, it’ll go away. Don’t hostile foreign powers (and viruses) just go away eventually? Please? But Jeremiah must shout “Violence and destruction!” because those are the desperate facts.

Is Jeremiah trying to be divisive? No. He’s being truthful: faithful to the God’s call. God wants peace and justice and equity—for the poor not to be victimized, and for all the people to live in love with God and each other. That can’t happen under the status quo. It’s not Jeremiah’s fault that this message is so hard for comfortable people to swallow.

In our gospel passage today, Jesus teaches with similar abandon. But first he does give his disciples comfort: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? … Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Oh! That is comforting. But Jesus can’t just leave it there. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

Jesus is being divisive! His words are cleaving families in two. His uncompromising insistence that we take up our cross stands in stark contrast to the thing about the sparrows. How can Jesus say both of these things at once?

Jesus tries to help his disciples rearrange their priorities: don’t do the safe thing. Do the right thing. Know that God is with you in comfort and in challenge—in joy and in suffering. So when your comfort lies shattered in pieces all around you, and when you are the sparrow that has fallen injured to the ground, understand that this might be necessary.

Jesus shows up in the world and in our lives. Why? To force a crisis. To end the status quo. To uncover everything sinister that had been kept secret and expose it for all to see. He does this most clearly when he goes to the cross, allowing himself to be killed so that everybody can see those evil forces of control and domination at work and have a chance to repudiate them. It still works like that today.

We need to remember that divisiveness is only bad when it is our end goal—when we intend it to be permanent so we can gain power over others, or simply to be cruel to them. To divide people from one another permanently is to collude with the forces of darkness. But sometimes, temporary, painful divisiveness is the only way to get to reconciliation. We have to get unstuck first.

You know this if you’ve ever had a human relationship of any depth. If you never experience division, maybe you’re not learning. As one of my seminary professors put it, “Conflict is an invitation to intimacy.” But if, like many of us (including me), you tend to be more conflict-averse, you may find it easier just to patch over a divide than to engage with it honestly.

We humans maintain all sorts of tools for avoiding conflict. We might stuff our feelings down deep and never acknowledge them. We might derail a difficult conversation by changing the subject, or by saying, “We’ll just agree to disagree.” Sometimes avoiding conflict is the best we can do in the moment. But when we make these strategies central to our lives, we can never have what Jesus most wants for us: life, and life abundant.

Jesus’ Way of Love means getting honest about our feelings, staying focused on the difficult but important conversations, and not running away when there’s trouble. Jesus divides to make clear the work of reconciliation. Every one of us will eventually be pruned by the sword of Jesus—cut down from our comfort—so that it becomes possible for us to start growing again.

Jesus teaches this to his disciples in language that makes them—and us—very uncomfortable. But the word “disciple” means “learner.” When we decide to follow Jesus on the Way of Love, we are setting ourselves up to be lifelong learners, always ready to be called up short—to allow change, even radical change, into our lives. There’s work to be done, yes, and we disciples are the ones to do it. But it won’t be easy, because so often our work will be perceived as divisive.

So we may not always welcome with joy the work God gives us. Jeremiah’s words are not neat and tidy, but impassioned—honest and raw. Like a child screaming at a parent, “I hate you so much!,” Jeremiah needs to go through divisiveness with God to arrive eventually at reconciliation. He expresses his doubts faithfully and finds that there is a larger comfort ready to receive him. By the end of his lament, Jeremiah has worked through his emotions and has arrived in a new place:

Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord!

For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

But can God deliver the needy without calling human beings to the divisive work of exposing evildoers? Not a chance.

The same is true of Jesus’ disciples. He tells them, “Do not be afraid,” even as he sends them out into the most fearful situations. Jesus comes to force a crisis—to divide for the sake of eventually reuniting. Comfort will once again be yours, yes, because you are of more value than many sparrows. But today, let’s accept the challenges God has put before us. Amen.