“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)The United Church of Christ has a lot to offer on its website and through the different mailings it sends around. There are a lot of churches out there doing very well and being very creative to help them do very well, and they’re sharing what they do with others.
Congregations are different and what works in one may not work necessarily in another without some tinkering. This past week, for example, I was perusing the “Churches Alive” site.
I ran across it in the 2018 Annual Report that the Conference mails to all its congregations. There are a couple of copies on the back table if you’d like to look through it yourselves and then maybe bring it back for someone else to read.
Periodically, I also receive a copy of “Spotlight” from the Conference. The most recent one shared a story from the Rehoboth Congregational Church that was written by their pastor. It was about change, and as she put it, about being “comfortably uncomfortable.”
That idea of “comfortably uncomfortable” strikes a chord with me. I see in our faith constant repetition of the message that God challenges people, that part of our living the faith is to be alive, to grow, to change, and this means we need to deal with being “comfortably uncomfortable.”
Take this morning’s reading from Isaiah that Amy shared with us. It’s written by a prophet who scholars have named “Deutero-Isaiah,” which means “the second Isaiah.” There are three different prophets writing during three different times and they’re all called Isaiah and they’re all found in same book of Isaiah.
Deutero-Isaiah was writing after the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple. He’s writing during the time when Israel was a people living in exile in a foreign land. Almost every anchor of their faith-lives was destroyed when the Babylonians tore through the walls of ancient Jerusalem and destroyed the city and deported her citizens. But the Jews in exile did not abandon their faith; they changed their faith. They became “comfortably uncomfortable.”
This is what the prophet is talking about when he shares the experience of communicating with God: “Morning by morning [God] wakens — wakens my ear to listen, as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.”
The prophet’s calling is to listen and that doesn’t sound surprising at all. What he says next is surprising. Deutero-Isaiah makes a point of letting us know that he was not rebellious and did not turn away. In other words, God’s revelation was unexpected and maybe even unnerving, but the prophet persisted in listening. And the prophet was true to his calling because he was willing to be “comfortably uncomfortable.”
Today’s Gospel is the same powerful message, but in the negative. Jesus has just been reassured by Peter that at least His disciples realize that He is the Messiah, the Christ. Then, however, all heck breaks loose. Jesus reveals directly for the first time that He will suffer and die when they arrive in Jerusalem.
Peter has the audacity to pull Jesus aside and reprimand Him for saying such a thing. Then in Jesus’ most powerful rebuke ever recorded, He says to His disciple, “‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”
Peter wanted to follow the Messiah he expected. Peter wanted a triumphant, powerful, vengeful Messiah like he had always been told about. This expectation was so commanding that Peter dared to rebuke Jesus.
In the negative, this embarrassing account that was so bravely repeated in our earliest traditions, yells out as loudly as possible that Jesus did not come into the world to confirm our expectations or to conform to our plans. Jesus came to challenge us, to make us different, to make us “comfortably uncomfortable.”
At the Rehoboth church this idea made itself real one Sunday when the person in charge of getting the little cups used during Communion forgot to buy them. Rather than not have Communion, the sacrament was shared by intinction.
There’s a picture of intinction on the cover of the Annual Report. It’s each person coming forward and taking the bread and dipping it in the chalice of wine. This new practice caused a conversation to begin among members about intinction and whether they liked it or not. And this incident is what got the pastor thinking about “comfortably uncomfortable.”
I’d like to share what she wrote: “People do not like to be uncomfortable. They like to know what is coming next. They like their traditions to be predictable and their spaces to look or feel a certain way. We do this in the church all the time. We worship a certain way, we arrange our flowers a certain way, we set up our sanctuary and our narthex a certain way and we do not want those things to change.
We have the same events, year after year. We have traditions that we hold fast to. We often do not want to try something new because sometimes it is hard to picture something that we have never done before. Many of us are so accustomed to the way we do church here [in Rehoboth] that we cannot imagine doing church any other way.
But guess what?, the pastor in Rehoboth continues, Jesus … broke tradition. ... God’s grace is kind of a funny thing sometimes. My point is this: It is okay to be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. It is okay to try something new. It is okay to do something that has never been done before, even if that means stepping onto a path that has never been traveled on. It is okay to walk away, even if it is just for a moment, from the rituals and traditions that we do by rote and see what else God is calling us to do in this moment.
Friends, she continues, … sometimes doing church means being comfortably uncomfortable. It means being willing to compromise so that everyone feels like their voice has been heard and that their opinion is valued. It means not immediately dismissing something just because it is different and actively listening to new ideas. … It means listening to God’s still speaking voice guiding us along a journey that is filled with a grace and love that will exceed even our wildest imaginations.
So do not be afraid to be comfortably uncomfortable. Push your boundaries. Stretch yourself. Try something new. And be amazed at God’s potential within our community. As a church, we can and will do great things.”
I thought this was a great message from our sister church in Rehoboth. Their church has also been around for hundreds of years, just like ours. And just like Hatfield, they have traditions that have been in place for generations. But they also realize that a living tradition, as in all living things, entails change.
We heard today in Isaiah and in the Gospel that God surprises. Keeping the traditions means being “comfortably uncomfortable.” Let’s try to listen as did Deutero-Isaiah to God’s Word. Let’s not try and tell Jesus what to do as Peter presumed.
As we start to talk of next year’s budget and of stewardship, let’s not only talk about the future in terms of money, as absolutely important as that is. Let’s also talk about what God wants us to do, needs us to do. Let’s let Jesus have a voice in our plans, even if that means being open to the surprises of change, and of being “comfortably uncomfortable.”
For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I know it's hard, but try and separate the story behind the ad below with the message of the ad; and I know this is hard too, but try and read John 3:16 accordingly. Think that God sacrificed everything, even Himself, so that we could live. Don't just "believe in something." Believe in this.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Many, many years ago I was a parent chaperone on my daughter Kristin’s school trip to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. For lunch we walked over to a small pizza shop on Boylston Street. Almost right next door was the bookstore for the Berklee College of Music.
I love music, but am not at all musical. So as a joke I went into the bookstore and bought myself a Berklee teeshirt.
One day I’m wearing the shirt out with a friend. We’re at the Tavern Restaurant in Westfield. On the weekends they bring in musicians to play. I’m sitting at the bar with my friend having a bite to eat and one of these musicians notices my teeshirt.
He asked if I went to Berklee. I didn’t want to tell him that I was a local pastor sitting at the bar with my friend so I agreed with him, that yes, I attended Berklee.
Now I’ve committed myself to the teeshirt. The musician continues the conversation. He asks what I studied. I didn’t know what to say, but my mother was a classically trained vocalist, so that’s what jumped into my head.
Next thing I know this guy is asking me to come up and sing at the Tavern Restaurant with him – right then, right there. My friend who knows I can’t carry a tune for the life of me is encouraging all of this: “Sure, Randy, go ahead. Sing.”
Well, finally I had to insist that I just wasn’t up to it, but boy that was close. It’s one thing to say that you’re a Berklee College of Music trained vocalist. It’s another to actually be able to sing anything, to get up and just do it.
This is my intro to the words of James that were read a few moments ago. James is an enigma of early Christianity. The New Testament gives quite a few clues that Jesus’ immediate family was skeptical of Jesus during His lifetime, and it also gives clues that the James of today’s Epistle is part of that family. Then, after the resurrection they were found among His closest followers.
Early Christian tradition holds that James became the first leader of the church that was in Jerusalem. James was not a disciple of Jesus. James was not an apostle of Jesus. But James still became the leader of the most prominent church in the very earliest days of our faith.
His is a story of transformation by faith. His is a story not unlike most everyone who would have been a Christian in ancient Jerusalem. There well may have been people in that church worshipping Christ who had been at the Praetorium yelling, “Crucify Him!”
Believing in Jesus isn’t defined by the past, it’s defined by how we live now.
So when we hear the words of James as written in the Epistle bearing his name, part of which Ed read for us a short while ago, we are hearing the sermons of the earliest church. We are hearing what the very first followers of Jesus considered to be of spiritual importance if you wanted to be a Christian.
And guess what? We hear James tell those other first believers as they gathered in some non-descript house somewhere among the winding alleys of old Jerusalem: “Be doers of the word.” Put your faith into practice. Work at it.
For people in that church sitting there and listening to the brother of Jesus talking about “Be doers of the word” this was not some abstract teaching. James was emphasizing the work of faith.
These were people who may have seen Jesus with their own eyes, who may have heard Him preach with their own ears, who may have witnessed His acts of power, and even His greatest act of power which was the cross and the empty tomb.
Jesus was not some theological concept for them. These were people who were eye-witnesses themselves or who knew eye-witnesses. These were people who knew quite well how Jesus lived. They knew the example He had set.
And they knew exactly what James meant when he preached “be doers of the word and not merely hearers.” It was the hard stuff of compassion and charity not only in words, but, for example, by actually sharing what little they had with those who had even less.
It was the hard stuff of trying to get along peaceably with people, again not only in words, but by reaching out to accept others who acted, looked and thought differently.
It was the hard stuff of faith not only in words that sounded good, but by really forgiving each other because they knew what it was to be forgiven.
It was trying their best to live the example of Jesus of compassion, respect and inclusion. It was not only wearing a Berklee College of music teeshirt. It was really knowing how to sing.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus also talks about the hard stuff of living the faith. He is confronted by Jerusalem authorities. They wanted to know why the disciples weren’t following all of the legalities of religion. You can hear the frustration of Mark the Evangelist as he talks about the rules for washing cups and pots and kettles. Jesus calls these sorts of things “human precepts.” In other words, they’re distractions. They’re not the real work of faith.
Instead of these distractions, Jesus warns that faith is about redefining who we are from the inside out. In today’s Gospel, Jesus lists twelve sins, twelve being the symbolic number of completeness, and they all have to do with how we treat each other.
These, He says, are the sorts of things that “defile a person.” Not the distractions that religions love to compile, but how we treat each other – this is the work of faith. This is what it means to be “doers of the word.” How we treat each other.
This is not only wearing a Berklee shirt, but actually being able to do music.
So I can imagine some people’s reaction to this message of be “doers of the word.” They can hear it as Jesus’ insistence to work for social justice. Period. But that’s a misconception of worship, of why we’re here. Worship is not a work of faith. It’s a benefit of faith.
Those very first Christians who were listening to James gathered to support and lift-up each other. I don’t think they could have done it on their own. Church was where they heard the gospel so that they could live the gospel. Church was the community that gave them a reprieve from the harshness and selfishness of the world. Church was an oasis.
In times long before church buildings were legal, when Christians gathered it was in homes and it was around humble tables to share in Word and to break bread. That shared conversation of the gospel and that shared meal defined them as family, as brothers and sisters.
Now 2,000 years later we continue that tradition. We have shared the gospel and now we will be invited to gather at the Communion Table to break bread with each other and with Christ. And this defines us as brothers and sisters with each and with Jesus.
This is the food that gives us the strength to “be doers of the word” in our daily lives.
This is where we discover the difference between wearing a Berklee College of Music teeshirt and saying I can sing, and actually being able to sing.
So let us gather at the Communion Table to be fed by Jesus so that we can, as it says on today’s bulletin cover, go out and Just Do It!
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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