Safe but not Comfortable
This sermon was preached at Sylvania United Church of Christ on August 16, 2015 on the lectionary text John 6:51–58.
When I entered the ER, I could barely walk. I was so uncomfortable. My face was ashen. I couldn’t see straight. My entire body was shaking.
I wasn’t in an accident. I wasn’t even a patient. I was being given a tour of the Lancaster General Hospital emergency room. There was no one else in it but my group. No doctors or patients, just an empty room prepped to save lives.
I like being in control. I don’t like being out of control or uncomfortable. I was very uncomfortable here. I was not in control of my emotions. I had no idea why I was having this reaction. It was as close to a panic attack as I have ever come.
My group saw this and had me sit down. The leaders later helped me process this reaction to the ER. The ER is a symbol of not being in control. No one really chooses to go there. You end up there because of an accident. Accidents are what happen when you’re not in control. The ER is an uncomfortable reminder that I am not in control, that accidents happen. That we can do everything right and still wind up in the ER.
The ER is a reminder of my death. As Alan Jones stated, “We are all future dead people.” The death rate remains stubbornly that 10 out of 10 people die. 78 years is the average life span. We will not last forever. I was very uncomfortable and I hate being uncomfortable. Yet when I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I get even more uncomfortable.
Today he is talking about people eating him. “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Wait, what?! If I eat you and drink your blood Jesus, that would make me a cannibal or a zombie… and it would make you dead. Literally, it makes no sense, and it’s uncomfortable.
Metaphorically, it gets worse. Jesus has been saying he is the bread of life. He is better than the manna God gave the Jewish ancestors. Jesus even distances himself from the crowd saying “your ancestors” not “our ancestors.”
Yet in the Gospel of John, Jesus is God. The Gospel of John is one epic love poem to Jesus setting him as the Word Made Flesh, the Good Shepherd, God-incarnate. How can God become a human like me and you? That makes me uncomfortable. It might make many of you uncomfortable.
The Gospel of John is also a big invitation to the world to join in the work that God was about in the life of Jesus. The talk of “eat my flesh and drink my blood” is a direct invitation. As Gail O’Day states in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “Jesus’ flesh and blood are the source of life. The key word is ‘to abide’ in verse 56.” Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. “This verb expresses the interrelationship of Jesus and the believer as an extension of the interrelationship between God and Jesus.” (608)
This is echoed in John 17:21, which the UCC picked as the motto of our denomination. Jesus prays, “That they all may become one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” And that’s what he’s talking about here.
John 14:12 echoes this and is my favorite verse of all time: “These things I do, you can do, and greater than these because I’m going to my father.”
“Do what I do!” Jesus is saying. But the crowd? How do they respond? You’ll hear Sam next week preach on this. The crowd says, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” They grumble and then in John 6:66, it is written, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
The Bible is horrible propaganda. Even in the Gospel that is the closest thing to the propaganda of the early church they put this in! In Mark, Jesus can never get away from the crowds, even while on the cross. This isn’t in Luke or Matthew either. People left God only in the Gospel of John, the epic love poem to Jesus. MIND. BLOWING.
The teachings of Jesus are all upside-down. Go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give to all who beg from you, and the craziest one: love your enemies. The Word Made Flesh was crazy enough to try radical compassion and nonviolence. Advice from a dead man who said “Eat me.” Or wisdom directly given to us from God. Depends on your view. And all of those teachings make me uncomfortable.
Yet I have learned to turn toward discomfort. If you’re following Jesus, you better get used to it. Jesus says some crazy things. “Oh, you’re a rich young man who’s interested in following me? Sell all your treasured possessions and come along!” “Oh, you’re mortal enemies with some Samaritans? Here’s a parable where the hero is a Samaritan.” When James and John are arguing about who they think is Jesus’ favorite, Jesus overhears their conversation and asks, “Hey, what are you talking about?”
“Ummm… nothing Jesus.”
“HA! No. You were talking about who’s greater. Here’s who is great: the one who serves.”
I was comfortable in construction sales, driving a company truck where my gas was paid for by the company. I was comfortable and could buy whatever I wanted. But I wasn’t happy at all. I needed to be more uncomfortable. Church helped with that. Hanging out with teenagers in youth group with all their questions and references to things I don’t understand. Hanging with the poor and hungry. It has been said that sermons should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. My pastor did that very thing.
We shouldn’t get too comfortable, and Jesus won’t let us. We do need to get used to being uncomfortable because some things we should never be comfortable with. We should never be comfortable with abused, hungry, and trafficked children. We should never be comfortable with homeless people dying of exposure on our streets. We should never be comfortable with people shooting heroin in their arms, or addictions. We should be really uncomfortable about how women are treated. We should never be comfortable with our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters making 75 cents on the dollar, being treated like property or sex objects. We should be uncomfortable that there aren’t too many black or brown faces with us in this room. Or how uncomfortable we would be going to a black or Hispanic church. Would we be friends with Jesus? Jesus was most likely not white.
We should never be comfortable with being the #1 per capita human trafficking city in America. We should never be comfortable with the fact that drug overdose deaths in Ohio have increased 366% from 2000 to 2012 (Harbor).
We must get comfortable with discomfort because that’s how Jesus operates. Every parable is crafted to get us on our toes, to take notice, to give our world a twist. I’ve experienced this too many times to count in my ministry. Here are two examples.
One of you came to me seeking to be re-baptized. I said no. My Catholic roots were showing. I had knowledge from seminary of how all the arguments went from Luther and Calvin to the Niebuhr brothers about why we don’t re-baptize. But knowledge isn’t wisdom. So when that person asked again a few months later they said, “Look, the old me is dead. The new me needs baptized.” Wow! I said, “I wish I had heard those words when we first spoke! Maybe you did say them and I wasn’t listening. Yet having heard them now, I say yes!” It took that time of both of us being uncomfortable for wisdom to enter in and reconcile us. That person was baptized, and our relationship is stronger.
Our discomfort can come in many forms. Sometimes it comes in the discomfort and scary area of being wrong and having made a mistake. Other times, it could be very mundane. We traveled to Indianapolis for spring break and checked out a church. It was a huge mega-church kind. They had this free indoor playground. I was expecting to be uncomfortable. I wasn’t. Instead I was inspired! I would love to have an indoor playground here! The only ones in the Toledo are at McDonalds and Chik-fil-a. This would be great for fellowship! Our parents gathering and talking. Wouldn’t it be a great attraction for our church?
Yet they don’t teach you how to build indoor playgrounds in seminary. Or even how to get started on planning capital projects. Or how you bring people along on an idea. So I’m uncomfortable there. I’m also uncomfortable because wouldn’t that money be better spent on outreach? But wouldn’t we have more money for outreach from families coming in? Wouldn’t this be a form of outreach, too? I’m uncomfortable because I have this big dream and no idea what to do with it.
I’ve learned so much by being uncomfortable. I’m better for my time spent in that ER in Lancaster. I have given a lot of sermons here and I would suspect a big chunk of them have to deal with my time as a chaplain in the hospital. I saw some very hard situations and the worst of humanity. But I also saw the best of humanity and God at work in some many different lives, in so many different ways.
I’ve learned so much by being uncomfortable. So when you’re uncomfortable with something going on here, that might be a sign that God is at work. If you don’t like children dancing in the aisle or our high energy, loud prayers with them… Well, it’s not for you! We’ve tried the whole “children should be seen and not heard in church” and are the majority of those kids in church as adults? NO! The stats say they aren’t. So we’re going to try something different. You might be uncomfortable with it, but you’ll have to get comfortable with it. That’s literally the future of the church. We must make room if we are to have a future as the church.
You might be uncomfortable with young people or old people or disabled people or diabetics or even with bald people who talk too much… God loves everyone. The biggest complaint about Jesus was who he hung out with. If you’re uncomfortable with the fact our church will be represented at Toledo Pride on August 29, maybe you should go down and walk with us in the parade or even volunteer at or stop by our table at the festival. You might be uncomfortable, but you’ll be safe and welcome. You might be uncomfortable with it, but you’ll have to get comfortable with it. In our discomfort is where wisdom is often found!
Maybe you’re wondering how someone from church is feeling after a recent surgery, but you’re uncomfortable with calling them. That might be God telling you to CALL them or send a letter. We are the church, we can all be ministers. God is calling you to ministry! Sometimes ministry involves staring at the phone and feeling uncomfortable for a minute before making a phone call to someone who has been on your mind.
So church… our challenge is to be Jesus. To be his flesh and blood. To strive to be a place that is safe for everyone but where no one is too comfortable. Yes, we will be more like Jesus when we get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
O’Day, Gail. The Gospel of John, introduction, commentary and reflections. New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1995.