Comforting Words / Challenging Words

Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2022 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56

There’s an old saying in church that Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” We see this throughout the gospel when Jesus cares for and lifts up those on the margins of his society while at the same time denouncing the excesses and abuses of those in power. Jesus comforts and challenges in equal measure, depending on the needs and station of his subject.

And yet, I’d bet that if I took a show of hands, pretty much every one of us would rather fall on the comfort end of this spectrum rather than the challenge end. Of course, we desire to feel comfortable; it’s something of a biological imperative. Every organism seeks the right set of environmental factors that will help it thrive. Finding and sustaining such an equilibrium is the chief aim of most life forms – including humans. When we figure out what works for us, what is the least energy-intensive way of doing something, we stick to it. It becomes comfortable. When circumstances change, we tend to cling to what used to comfort us, even to our own eventual detriment.

We come to church to feel comfortable, though in midsummer, maybe not temperature-wise (though I promise we are working on it). We come to church to feel comfortable. There’s nothing with that. In the traditional language service, right before the Peace, we even share what for centuries the church has called The Comfortable Words: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” These and other comforting verses from scripture assured the people that they could, in good conscience, approach the communion table following the confession of sin and absolution.

We come to church to be comforted – by each other, by God’s presence. We seek consolation. We seek solace. We seek pardon. And we receive those things by the constant gift of God’s grace. At the same time, we cannot come to church only for this week’s dose of comfort. We also come so Jesus can challenge us. We come so Jesus can challenge us, and in responding to that challenge, we grow. We grow in our faith. We grow in our ability to love. We grow in our sense of justice.

Today’s Gospel lesson is a challenging one. If our whole conception of Jesus consists of comfort, then we won’t recognize him in this passage. He is totally stressed out by the rigors of his mission. Just a few verses earlier, he had told his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. […] Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And now, a few verses later, feeling the constraint that his days on earth are growing short, these comforting words give way to challenging ones: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

In a world that is already as divided as ours is, how are we to hear these challenging words? The first thing we do is take a breath and recognize our reflexive recoiling. Then take another breath and read the words again. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 

Jesus’ most challenging words are the ones in which he speaks a particular truth that is hard to hear. He knows that the kind of life he calls people to live – a life seeking justice and forming the beloved community of God – will not be received well by everyone. There’s a reason most of Jesus’ early followers were from the dregs of society. His message threatened the upheaval of those in power. Why would they sign on to that? (Sidebar: that’s why Nicodemus is one of my favorite characters in the Gospel. Over the course of the story Nicodemus takes greater and greater risks to his own power in order to serve Jesus.)

Jesus knew that his mission was disruptive. He knew that by offering comfort to those who had never received any, he would be challenging the oppressive structures of his society. He knew that families would be divided – some following his Way towards beloved community, others not. And to top it off, Jesus did not want the “peace” that Rome touted: that is, the mere suppression of conflict at the point of a sword. He envisioned the same peace that Martin Luther King Jr. talks about in his book Stride Toward Freedom. King says, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

The division Jesus sees happening is the one between those who have been caught up in his life of liberating love and those who haven’t. The good news is that this division is not a permanent barrier. It does not put some lucky people forever on one side and the rest forever on the other. The life Jesus calls us into is a progression, choosing deeper and deeper commitment to Jesus’ mission of justice, healing, and reconciliation. In the long arc of God’s story in creation, this mission brings division to an end within the reconciling love of God.

So, we come to church for comfort and for challenge. We leave both nourished and compelled: nourished by Word and Sacrament, compelled by the mission of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. This is why I am such a fan of the end of our current Eucharistic Prayer. Listen for these words later in today’s service:

“Lord God…open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”

We come for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal. Within these pairs exists the life of faith, the path along which we follow Jesus – through comfort, through challenge – into a life of justice and peace.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.

Season 5, Episode 6
“Villains and the Confession of Sin”

In this episode we’re talking about villains across lots of properties. We’re also continuing our book club, reading Becky Chambers’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

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