Beyond the Zone

Sermon for Sunday, February 3, 2019 || Epiphany 4C || Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’m not sure who coined the term “comfort zone,” but I am sure the only reason that term exists is to define the space outside it. We don’t really think about the boundaries of our comfort zones until we have stepped beyond them. We realize that we are feeling uncomfortable, exposed, inadequate. In the moment of that realization we have exactly two choices: we can scurry back to the safety and predictably of the comfort zone or we can remain outside it and discover how God might be calling us to expand the zone.

Comfort zones allow us to feel safe at the expense of challenging new experiences that might stretch and grow us. Such stretching is inherently uncomfortable because humans like you and me tend to shy away from activities we aren’t too good at. Boys at the middle school dance tend to add their support to the structural integrity of the gymnasium rather than venture out onto the dance floor. Folks who don’t have the best singing voices often lament the fact that they are “tone-deaf,” which, statistically speaking, is unlikely. I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so I keep to the shallows, or more often, the shore. The shore is my comfort zone; I’d don’t particularly want to feel inadequate, so I don’t step into the water.

Our inadequacies define as just as much as our strengths do. But while strengths define us positively, like an artist drawing shapes on a canvas, inadequacies fill up the negative space around those shapes. But God, I think, sees our inadequacies from a different perspective than we do. To us, our inadequacy is an impediment, a signal that we’ve left the comfort zone behind. To God, our inadequacy is an opportunity for God to display God’s glory. This morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates this perspective.

Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy prompt him to attempt to dissuade God from calling him to be a prophet. But God has no inclination to heed Jeremiah’s argument. Rather, God seems to call Jeremiah specifically because of the boy’s feelings of inadequacy, not in spite of them. Notice how God answers Jeremiah’s single piece of dialogue in the passage. After God informs Jeremiah that God has appointed him to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (Actually the translators added the “only” bit. In Hebrew, Jeremiah says,“I am a boy!”)

God hears these words and keys in on the second half. “Do no say, “I am [only] a boy,” God says. “Your youth doesn’t matter because I am with you to deliver you. You can’t help being your age. If I wanted someone older I’d call someone else.” But no similar assurance addresses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking. God never tries to assure Jeremiah by saying, “Do not say, ‘I do not know how to speak.’” Rather, God uses Jeremiah’s discomfort at speaking as an opportunity to put God’s own words in Jeremiah’s mouth. God sees room for growth in Jeremiah, and God fills that room with God’s own words. God stands outside Jeremiah’s comfort zone and beckons the young prophet to meet God there.

For his part, Jeremiah knows he is an inadequate speaker. But when he points this out to God, his argument backfires. What Jeremiah doesn’t realize is that God picks him precisely because of this inadequacy. This is a pattern throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Moses has a speech impediment, but God still calls him to stand up before Pharaoh. David wears no armor and carries only a sling and stones when he challenges Goliath, the Philistine champion. Gideon drastically reduces the numbers of his army – from 22,000 to three hundred – when he contends with the Midianites. In each of these cases, the human vessel called to work God’s purpose is laughably inadequate to the task at hand. And every time, God’s purpose succeeds.

God works through human inadequacy in order to draw us out of our comfort zones and meet God in the challenging places God is ushering us towards. If we only ever used our current strengths, we would never nurture any new strengths. Rather than viewing inadequacy as an impediment, we can see it as God sees it. Our inadequacies are opportunities for us to join God as God works through us in new ways.

Think about your own comfort zone. How has God invited you outside it in order to expand it? What new skill did you develop? What new group of people did you meet that you never encountered before? When I was in college, I stepped way outside my comfort zone to join the University Choir. My high school choir director had told me in no uncertain terms that I could not sing. But something urged me on in college despite intense feelings of inadequacy. And being in that choir for four years not only taught me how to sing; it also led directly to my call to priesthood.

More recently, God has been expanding my comfort zone by inviting me to step way outside it again. For the last two years, I have been reading and reflecting on the evil of white supremacy and the hard work of dismantling racism. Through prayer, writing, and conversation, I have been confronting my own biases, my own unexamined dependence on privilege. My comfort zone has never been tested like this before. To be honest, I’m not even sure where my comfort zone is anymore, I’ve been out of it for so long. But I know that, even though I feel completely inadequate in the task of helping to dismantle racism, God keeps calling me to move forward in this work. God keeps showing up in conversation and personal discovery. God keeps teaching me new words, new concepts, new points of view, just like God teaches the boy Jeremiah when he opens himself to God’s movement.

Perhaps you are testing the borders of your comfort zone with similar work. In any case, in whatever way God might be calling you to expand your comfort zone, remember that inadequacy is not a reason to stay put. Inadequacy is the precise reason to move forward. Ask God how can God might work through your inadequacy. Perhaps God might respond with something like this:

“Do not worry that you don’t know how to speak. I do. I’ve been speaking creation into existence since time began. Borrow my speech and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t turn down a fight. I did. My son went to the cross to show that violence does not have to beget violence. Borrow my courage and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t sustain a relationship. I can. I have been the spouse and the parent of my people for as long as anyone can remember, and I have never broken my promise to them. Borrow my love and soon it will become yours.”

Whatever our inadequacies, God can work through them to display God’s glory when we trust God to meet us beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jeremiah learned this, and Moses and David and Gideon. God has taught me this lesson time and time again. I offer it to you. When we find the borders of our comfort zones, that’s also where we will find God beckoning us to take the next step.


Banner: Photo by Calvin Ma on Unsplash.

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