Old Testament Reading: Genesis 12:1–5 (The call of Abraham)
Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 9–13 (Jesus put to the test in the desert)
Reading from the Revelation to John: Revelation 21: 1–7 (The new heaven and earth)
What a blessing it is to have a chance to share some thoughts that have nudged me for some time, with a community of God's people who have accepted and sheltered me in the last several months. This is the beginning of your church's year in Christian Education, and I am honored to be asked, as chair of the Montgomery County School Board and as a fellow Christian, to help you inaugurate it.
People feel different ways about education, based on their own experiences. Some people find it exciting and can't wait for the start of school. Sometimes those people become teachers or professors—voluntarily spending several more years in school beyond their high school graduation!! Other people find education and school frightening-because they don't feel successful, or don't feel valued. But for all of us, education involves leaving our comfort zones-forging into, or being dragged into, new territory, that is unfamiliar to us. Here's what some elementary students recalled about their first day of school:
Does that sound familiar to you? Does it feel familiar? Even those of us who feel excited about education have to recall those feelings and honor them to be good teachers. I had a colleague who, at age 55, decided to take cello lessons, not only because he had always wanted to learn to play cello, but to remind himself how it felt to be a struggling student. Good teachers know what it is like to leave their comfort zones.
But leaving our comfort zones is not only a necessary part of education, it is a necessary part of life. Even after we leave school, we build and protect our comfort zones, and we fear leaving them. What do I mean by “comfort zones”?
How many of you are sitting where you usually do in church this morning? Did any visitors inadvertently sit in “your” spot?
Here's another example: I grew up Methodist and, as you know, whenever we said the Lord's prayer we asked God to “forgive us our trespasses” More recently I have been Presbyterian. Have you ever had to say the Lord's prayer asking forgiveness for your debts? Then you know what it is like to leave a comfort zone!
We all spend a lot of energy creating and protecting comfort zones. They are not bad, and everyone needs them to feel secure, as a base of operations.
But, over and over again, God sends us out of our comfort zones:
At the ripe old age of 75, here were Abraham and Sarah, living in comfort and retirement. And God says: “Leave your native land, your family, and your father's house and go to a country that I am going to show you.” Wow! Who wants to hear that? And just when they were having the hot tub installed!
And what about Job? A sound and honest man-living in the lap of luxury and with a wonderful family. Suddenly without his health or his wealth or his children. Is that closer to home? Perhaps you know someone like that. Maybe you feel like that.
And then there are the prophets, sent from their comfort by God to speak truth to power: Moses sent to Pharaoh—“But God, I am a poor speaker, so why should Pharaoh take any notice of me?” Scholars have wondered why Moses stuttered, but when you consider that all boy babies were supposed to be killed, and he was concealed for 3 months as a baby, you can imagine we was told to “shush-up” an awful lot!
Jonah sent to Nineveh, who set off running away from God and jumped on a ship heading the other way. Jeremiah sent to prophesy—“Ah, Lord, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a child!” Ezekiel, who felt bitter and angry about God's hand laid upon him. Hosea, who was made to marry a whore to experience the unfaithfulness that God felt from Israel. And Amos, who was taken from his flock and ordered to prophesy.
And then there was Jesus. Having just been baptized, feeling the Holy Spirit descend upon him, and hearing the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you,” what happens? The spirit drives him into the desert where he is tempted by Satan. Some favor! The angels looked after him-but it was no picnic, indeed, no food for 40 days!
And as soon as the disciples start to get comfortable with Jesus, what does he do? He sends them out town-to-town, door-to-door, without credit cards or suitcases, to do his work.
And recall the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus the beggar whom the rich man ignored. When they died the rich man languished in the all-consuming flames, while Lazarus rested in the bosom of Abraham. What an image-to rest in the bosom of Abraham. This story was the source of that great old Negro spiritual:
What is it, that is so high, so low, so wide, that you can't avoid it—you've gotta go through it? I puzzled about that for many years. Only as an adult, after living through a lot, did I decide that it's suffering. After all, that is what Lazarus had done, and the rich man had not. That is what brings us ultimately to the bosom of Abraham. We can't get there by avoiding it—we get there by accepting it—perhaps even embracing it. We get there by leaving our comfort zones, as the rich man would not.
Evidently this idea of getting people out of their comfort zones is important. It feels like punishment, for it always involves some suffering. Is God being retributive or sadistic? Is God jerking us around? Isn't there an easier way? Our hearts cry out—Yes, there must be an easier way. But our spirits whisper—No, we grow when and only when we leave our comfort zones. This is the redemption that comes with suffering.
Some churches have more congregational participation than others. In the church I grew up in there was none. But I know that preachers appreciate congregational response. So, when I say “God calls us to grow” I want you to say “Amen!” And when I say “But we seek our comfort zones” I want you to say “No, No!” And when you leave church today, I hope those responses will echo in your head, because we need to encourage ourselves to grow, and discourage ourselves from seeking our comfort zones.
What happens when we leave our comfort zones? We are less self-reliant, for we are in unfamiliar territory. We look around for new places of stability. We reach out to others, and to God. Tired muscles grow stronger, broken hearts open with understanding, lost travelers seek new direction. We become spiritually larger.
“God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. “But we seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) They wanted to go back to Egypt-back to the fleshpots! Because that's what they knew.
“God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) Jesus wandered in the desert fasting for 40 days among the wild animals. “But we seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) Satan tempted him with bread and political power. And certainly those are temptations for anyone concerned with the well-being of society, and their brothers and sisters.
“God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had, and give it to the poor, and follow him. “But we seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) “The man's face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”
“God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) Jesus ate with the diseased and the sinners. “But we seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) The Pharisees criticized him. Over the last twenty years I have spent many weeks and months working with an urban ministry in Chicago—Good News Partners. I have often taken Blacksburg youth to work in that ministry. One of the things we always plan to do is eat our dinners at the soup kitchen there. But that is very hard for young people from Blacksburg, and they rarely eat there more than once. For you see, “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!)
But “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) I had an elderly friend named Art Sanzenbach, who died a few years ago in his mid-nineties. His wife, Marion, told me this story about “How Art became a Democrat.” Art was a Presbyterian, and when he was living in Minnesota in the early 1950's Art was a Republican. Once when he was in the town library on a Sunday afternoon he heard the librarian behind the desk slam down the telephone and say, in a barely concealed whisper, “Those damned Presbyterians!” Well, Art couldn't help overhearing this and, being the gentle soul he was, asked if he could help—“I'm a Presbyterian,” he said. “What's wrong?” “Well,” said the exasperated librarian, “I've been trying to get someone to read to a blind woman in town, and I've been calling all afternoon, and I finally tried all the Presbyterians I could think of, and nobody will do it!” “Well I'd be happy to do that,” said Art. As it happened the women wanted to have someone read her a recently published biography of FDR!! Well, you know, “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) And, no, Art didn't seek his comfort zone. He read the book to the woman, and lo and behold, he became a Democrat for the rest of his life. “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) Well, I think that was growth, but I'll leave it to you, in this election year, to decide for yourself!
Not only do we grow when we leave our comfort zones, but we grow when other people leave their comfort zones. I grew up near Cleveland, in a suburb that had no black families. (We were a diverse community, however, because there was one Jewish family!) Somehow in the mid-1960's my parents got involved with a program called “Friendly Town” that gave inner-city youth a chance to spend a week with a suburban family. People did then and may still disagree over whether this is a good thing for the inner-city youth, but it was a good thing for me. We hosted a black youth my age named Warren Hogue, and in succeeding years we hosted Warren, his brother Robert, and a girl named Diedre, at various times. Those children left their comfort zones. I don't know if they grew, I hope they did—but I know I did. For when people leave their comfort zones, they end up creating larger comfort zones for everyone.
We are comfortable with our own families. “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) But when Jesus was told his family was looking for him, what did he say? “Anyone who does the will of God—that person is my brother and sister and mother.” “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) And expand our comfort zones.
We are comfortable with our neighbors. “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) But when Jesus was asked—Who is my neighbor?—he responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) And expand our comfort zones.
Peter denied Jesus three times. “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) But at the end of the Gospel of John, after the resurrection, Jesus comes to Peter in his discomfort, and he gives him another chance. He asks, “Peter, do you love me sacrificially more than the other disciples?” And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you as a friend.” (The Greek is agape in the first case, and philia in the second. It is odd that no translations find this difference important-but the difference is extremely poignant, and really the only way to make sense of Jesus' further questions.) Jesus tells him to feed his lambs, and then asks, “Peter, do you love me sacrificially?” Jesus is asking less, but still what can Peter say to this, since he had so recently denied him? Peter again replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you as a friend.” After telling him to look after his sheep, Jesus finally meets Peter in his own comfort zone and asks, “Peter, do you love me as a friend?” And Peter, humbled and discomforted by Jesus' focus on him, repeats that he loves him as a friend. Jesus tells him to feed his sheep, but he is not finished, for, “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!):
In one of those bone-chilling and unforgettable passages, Jesus leads Peter onward: “In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” We keep being called out of our comfort zones.
Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins—our sins of alienation and separation—from God and one another. He did that by going to the cross and showing us that there is a better life on the other side of the cross. Did he do this for us—by going to the cross? Or did he show us how to do this-by going to the cross? Jesus left his comfort zone—so much so that he felt forsaken by God. It would be so much easier if Jesus had just done this for us—then we wouldn't have to leave our comfort zones. Because, you know, “We seek our comfort zones.” (No, No!) Perhaps it isn't an either/or-one way or the other. Perhaps Jesus' going to the cross enables us to go to the cross, and find life on the other side. But there can be no doubt that God calls us out of our comfort zones over and over. Because “God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) And expand our comfort zones.
And what would happen if we all could leave our comfort zones for the sake of expanding the comfort zones to all? I think this was the Revelation to John: for “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne 'Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; and they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past has gone.' Then the one on the throne spoke. 'Look, I am making the whole of creation new'.”
“God calls us to grow.” (Amen!) And create a new heaven and a new earth, by going through the suffering of leaving our comfort zones—so that we may all be rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Amen!
James C. Klagge
September 24, 2000