Collective Comfort and Challenge

I preached this sermon at Germantown Mennonite Church on January 27, 2019 (Third Sunday after Epiphany). The texts referenced are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21.

A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend over coffee. This friend of mine is a longtime pew buddy – we’re both queer, both grew up Catholic and later became Episcopalians, and actually attended the same church for a little while. My friend told me about their recent experience bringing their parents to church with them one Sunday. Their family is still very Catholic, so they were used to all the smells and bells and high church stuff that comes with going to an Episcopal church. What was weird for my friend’s parents were the congregants at this parish. The people there were apparently a little too inviting. They asked my friend, “People…know your name here? You have friends at church??”

I could understand where my friend’s parents were coming from, because I was raised in a Catholic parish where it wasn’t really normal to linger after Mass on Sunday. My church growing up had a hospitality hour maybe once every 3 months. It was normal to get your communion and go home. You didn’t really get to know the folks who sat in the pew in front of you. Chances are, the longest interaction you might have had with someone other than the priest was during the passing of the peace, and even that was a very small window. Just recently my mom asked me, “Do they shake hands during the peace at your church?” And I said, “Yeah… we do.” Because, apparently, at the newer church my parents attend now, they just wave across the aisle or flash the peace sign. A lot has changed since I left the Catholic Church over a decade ago.

Now I don’t mean to throw shade at an entire denomination, and I know that there are plenty of non-Catholic churches like that out there too. But after years of spiritual wandering and seeking, I’ve come to really appreciate and expect that warmth and intimacy in a church. I’m more than happy to go to a place where people know my name and ask after me on Sundays when I’m not there. I want to go to a place that feels like home. Having a worshiping community  is really important to me and in many ways is an extension of my family, so much so that when I’m dating someone I will invite them to go to church with me before I take them home to meet my parents. (I mean… maybe not on the same day…although that could also work.)

As a queer person, I know that my presence is not always welcomed or tolerated in church spaces, and being nonbinary and a person of color just adds to that alienation. So I do not take for granted the peace that comes with being in a place that sees me and welcomes me as I am. If you have ever been rejected by a faith community and found a place where you feel accepted, I trust you know what that feels like. That feeling of finally being able to breathe. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, but it does mean you can let your guard down a little bit.

I don’t go to church just to feel at home, though. I go to get fed, both spiritually and physically. I go to sing. I go to be with friends. And I also go to be encouraged to grow more into the stature of Christ, and I can only do that in community with others. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget who my neighbor is, and I need my community to remind me. Sometimes I’m tempted to treat people unkindly because society is unkind to me, and I need to be reminded that as a Christian that I’m called to live differently. Sometimes I despair at the state of the world and I need to be reminded that not all is lost; that after death, there is resurrection.

Church community lives in a tension of comfort and challenge. It’s a balance. We want people to feel at home, but we also have to be willing to speak difficult truths to each other at times. You cannot authentically support people who suffer without confronting the systems and powers that oppress and hurt them. When we spend too much time making folks in our communities comfortable, then the church begins to lose its prophetic witness. At the same time, we cannot be in a state of constant critique and rebuke, because it is exhausting and not constructive. It depletes our spirits. We have to nourish each other, with songs, with prayers, with the kiss of peace, with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We also have to be held in community in order to grow. We have to trust each other enough to be called into deeper love.

Our two scripture readings this morning illustrate these dual actions of comfort and challenge at work. Let’s look first at Nehemiah. The events in this morning’s reading take place after the Israelites have been liberated from Babylonian exile and are trying to regain some kind of normalcy. Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and Ezra has gathered the people together to listen to the words of the Law, so that the people could be re-instructed. Something beautiful happens. “Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites… said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

There is immense comfort in hearing something familiar. I may feel lost when I’m visiting a new place, but if I happen to hear someone speaking Spanish or playing reggaeton, I instantly feel a little bit at ease. We have in this reading a portrait of a people who were exiled and divorced from their religious customs, and so to hear the words of the Law again makes them emotional. Even if some of them have heard those same words dozens of times before, that moment of being in community after shared trauma transforms their understanding. So it is for us as well. You may have heard Psalm 23 one too many times in your life, but if you’re having a rough week and read or hear that same psalm, it takes on a whole new meaning for you.

Nehemiah tells the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord”. You survived. You’re home now. Celebrate. Be glad. Share your blessings with others. This is the restorative work of community. But this also a moment of challenge. The law is read again with the expectation and hope that the Israelites will take this moment to rejoice but also to recommit themselves to God, to remind each other of their covenant with their Lord.

Now to our Gospel reading, which is a favorite of mine because I love the drama. Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. He stands to read and the scroll that just so happens to be from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he sits down and says that today the scripture has been fulfilled.

This is one of those sassy things that Jesus can do because of who he is but if we did them they would be weird or inappropriate. Can you imagine if I walked into my parish in the middle of service, read a passage from Isaiah and then told the church, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. And that’s THAT on THAT.” 

…It would probably not look good for my discernment process.

This is Jesus’ mic drop moment, right? Because he is saying to the religious authorities of his day that he is coming to shake things up. He is holding them accountable to their duties to serve the people. And for some of the folks in that synagogue, that may have been a comfort to know, but we read just a few verses later that Jesus is chased right out of Nazareth, so clearly, not everyone was a fan. Confronting people doesn’t always work out, but it’s not too long after this moment that Jesus begins to call his first disciples and build his own community that cares for him and carries him throughout his ministry up to the cross. Even Jesus needed community.

In his well known work We Drink from Our Own Wells, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “Spirituality is a community enterprise. It is the passage of a people through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.” We cannot follow Jesus in a solitary way. That’s why as much as church may frustrate us, if we are serious about this whole Jesus thing, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need others to face the turmoils of the journey. We have to brace ourselves and lean on each other, but we also have to be willing to hold each other accountable to the things we say we believe and to the work God calls us to do.

Community is hard, but it is the only water we have to drink. So gather together, “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions…to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Amen.