Comfort and Challenge

by | Dec 4, 2022

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb,the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:1-10

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight.” ’Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Luke 3:1-12

Good morning, All Souls. I’m very glad to be in worship with you after so long. Thanks to Rev. Julianne for her warm welcome. I believe that congratulations and blessings are on her 13th anniversary of her ordination as a priest. Thank you, Rev. Julianne, for coming to serve as interim rector in this tender and important time in All Soul’s life. Special thanks as well to All Souls vestry, and notably your wardens Kevin Legrand and Daniel Callis, for your leadership and love. I’m especially honored to preside today as Ms. Gretchen McKnew stands to confirm her faith, allowing us all to reaffirm our faith in Jesus and rededicate our lives to His way of love.

Inspired by the rather dramatic juxtapositions of themes in the Scripture passages we’ve heard this morning, both wonderfully reassuring and deeply challenging, I’d like to speak to you about the distinction between what we might call the comfort zone of faith and the challenge zone.

The comfort zone of faith assures us of God’s unconditional love; of Jesus’ promise to be with us, always, no matter what; of Jesus and his complete forgiveness of our sins and desire to help us grow in the fullness of who God created us to be.

The comfort zone of faith is the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, accomplishing more, as the Apostle Paul writes, than we can ask or imagine.

There is nothing we need to do in the comfort zone of faith, nothing we must prove. All that’s necessary is for us is to be open and receive grace upon grace; to hear Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all that are heavy laden and I will give you rest;” to take in the words of God spoken in the psalms, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Whenever I’m blessed with a comfort zone experience of faith, I feel loved, and seen, and held by grace. This is, as we heard in the passage of Romans, “the God of hope filling us with joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the Holy Spirit.”

In contrast, when we’re In a challenge zone of faith, the feeling is anything but comfortable, because that’s when, by definition, we’re stretched beyond our comfort. These are the times when God calls us by name to do something specific that we don’t want to do; or when we sense that God is asking us to show up, or keep going when we’re tired, for someone else’ sake.

These are the times when we can no longer hide or make excuses for our failings, but need to face them, ask for forgiveness, and start again.

We’re often thrust into a challenge zone of faith whenever something big happens that we weren’t expecting, and as a result, we lose our bearings for a time.

A challenge zone is when life asks for more than we can handle on our own and we have no choice but to ask for help.

What is so important for us to remember is that God is with us in both zones, in comfort and in challenge. God is with us, and for us, and on our side.

And we need both zones: we need to know God’s love for us, to feel Jesus’ presence as our friend, to experience the Holy Spirit moving as wind at our backs. The moments of comfort, of affirmation, of feeling loved and guided and sustained are among the best experiences of our lives. These are the experiences that fill us with hope, possibility, and joy.

And we also need, hard as they are, the challenge zones. They are our teachers. Some of our most painful experiences in life, if we let them, create in us a capacity for greater love. I’m not one to go so far as to say that God orchestrates the challenges we face, but I know from experience that God uses our challenges, as my spiritual director sometimes reminds me, “to stretch our hearts.”

Alone as we might feel, God is with us when we feel ourselves pushed into a challenge zone, or when we embrace a season of challenge ourselves, even though it’s hard.

God is with us when our hearts are broken, when we’re scared, disappointed, or challenged. God is with us when we’ve done something we regret and need to seek forgiveness and make amends; when someone does something to hurt us and we struggle to forgive. God is with us when we need to do something really hard and don’t want to, when we need to face the things we’d rather avoid. God is with us when we’re grieving, when we’re angry.

God is with us, and will see us through.

About a month ago, inspired by a conversation I had with a group of young adults from another congregation, I invited people from across the diocese to send me their questions of faith. The questions I’ve received cover a wide range of topics, all of them, as you might imagine, from the challenge zone of faith–questions about how to reconcile human suffering with faith in a loving God; how to forgive oneself or others for harms done; how to pray in such a way that feels like a real connection rather than a recitation of words.

I can’t promise definitive or satisfactory answers to any of them but I am honored to ponder them and offer what imperfect insights I can. They encapsulate those most important moments in our life of faith, when we are challenged, tested, and when we can learn first hand what it means to trust in God when, as the African American theologian Howard Thurman would say, “when our backs are against the wall.”

Today I’d like to share with you a question I received a few years ago at this time of year from my goddaughter, a sweet young woman in her mid 20s who was–and still is–struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, coupled with significant mental illness that requires constant vigilance.

We hadn’t spoken for a long time and I was happy to hear from her. “I’ve been praying all morning,” she said, “and reading in the ‘Big Book’ (the writings of Bill W. that underscore the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous known as the 12 steps.) I don’t think I’ve ever prayed as much as I’ve prayed today.” She went on. “God is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really understand religious people who say that they know exactly what God is like. But then I thought of you.”

We talked a bit longer. I had the sense that there was something more she wanted to tell me, and eventually it came out. When I asked her if we might be able to see each other over the upcoming Christmas holidays, she said: “I think so, but all I know is that I am alive today.”

There was a pause. “I am practicing sobriety,” she said. “I have been sober for 9 days.” Another pause. “Before that, I was sober for over a year, but then I relapsed.” “It’s really hard,” she said. “It’s so hard. But I don’t want to die of alcoholism.”

Lord help me help her, I prayed.

“I don’t want you to die, either,” I said slowly. “God doesn’t want you to die. I am praying hard for you and am here for you, and I am so grateful that you are in my life.”

“We are all living one day at a time,” I told her. “God is a mystery to me, too, and beyond my understanding. But I believe that the mystery we call God wants to be in relationship with you, and will make Himself known to you in ways that you can lean on.”

My goddaughter’s name is Hope and she is still struggling to hold onto hope. Each day she begins again, as we all do. When she remembers, she tries to pray because her life depends on it. It depends on her ability to trust in what in AA they call her “higher power,” and that we, as Christians, call God.

I pray that Hope might know the love of God, a love that comforts and encourages her, assures her of Jesus’ presence, and helps her trust that nothing can separate her from the love of God. I long for things to be easier for her, that she might know goodness and joy and ease. I want those things for all my loved ones, for all of you, and for all God’s children.

But Hope is in a challenge zone now, big time. It isn’t easy, and there’s no turning back. And so I pray that my sweet goddaughter survives the gauntlet of challenge that is bigger than she is, and will one day know the grace, resilience, and blessing that awaits her on the other side.

And when she falters, stumbles, falls back, as she has done several times since that phone call, I pray for those who love her to surround her with as much comfort as they can give, because she needs that, too. We all do.

Perhaps some of you, or someone you love, are in a challenge zone now. Please be tender with yourselves and with them. I daresay that All Souls as a congregation is a challenge zone of faith, all of which to say is that things are hard now, you don’t know how things will turn out. I pray that God will give you hope in the midst of all that is being asked of you.

Sometimes I think we try to will ourselves into being hopeful people, to supply that hope for ourselves. But that’s not how it works with God. The kind of hope that sustains and gets us through comes from God.

When we don’t feel it, there’s nothing wrong with us.

Sometimes other people carry hope for us when we can’t. We don’t need to pretend, but rather ask for what we need to get us through.

Christmas, of all celebrations of the Christian year, is meant to help us lean heavily on the comforting side of faith, assuring us of God’s love coming to us as we are and the world as it is.

Yet it stands to reason that in the very season of “comfort and joy,” we are also most in touch where we need God the most, the God of hope who can fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t our doing; this is the gift that comes from God.

I”d like to close with the final words that the political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, preached from the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral a few years ago. You may have read that Gerson died of complications from cancer recently, at the far too young age of 58. He also struggled with clinical depression, about which he spoke openly in his sermon. This is what he said:

Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.1

May I pray for you?

Gracious and merciful God, I thank you for these your beloved children, for those for whom this a time of comfort and joy, happiness and peace. I pray that you will shield their joy and amplify it in this holy season.

For those for whom this is a time of challenge and struggle, Lord I pray as the Apostle Paul prayed, that your spirit of hope may fill them and sustain them through this difficult time. Lift them up, Lord. Hold them close. Help them know that they are not alone.

And for those of us for whom life is a mixture of both comfort and challenge, help us to receive the bits of goodness that are all around us, and face our difficulties and challenges with grace. Open our eyes to see your hand at work within and around us. And to trust that your love never fails.