The older I have become, the more solid my support system has become. Over time, I have figured out in which friendships to invest my time, and which friendships, while fun, are not necessarily nourishing. I know which friend to call when I need fashion advice and which friend to call when I need major life decision advice. I have learned which friend to find when I want to be comforted, and which friend to find when I need to be discomforted. The discomforting friend is probably the most valuable one any of us has. That is the friend who will tell you the brutal, ugly, harsh truth – not to be mean to you but to save you from going down a dark path, to snap you out of a rut, or to help you get your act together. Of course, sometimes we avoid that friend like the plague because we are not ready to hear the truth. But when we feel ourselves slipping away, when we feel drawn in by temptation, or when we simply feel incapable of doing the right thing, we know we can trust that friend to hold us accountable to being the best version of ourselves – the version God created us to be.
This morning, the lectionary seems to be filled with discomforting friends. In First Kings, we hear about the ultimate showdown with the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of the Lord. The story is dramatic, with Baal’s prophets comically trying to rain down fire to prove Baal’s power, and Elijah showing them up by demonstrating the Lord’s triumph. But we quickly learn that Elijah is one of those discomforting friends when he says to the people of God, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”[i] Desperate for rain in a three-year drought, the people of God have begun to hedge their bets. They figure they can worship both Baal and the Lord. But Elijah will not let them be so divided. Either they trust in the Lord their God, or they do not.
If Elijah sounds harsh, you should hear Paul this morning. Paul starts his letter to the Galatians with a traditional greeting, but we can tell from his lack of thanksgiving for the community, that some harsh words are about to come.[ii] After a quick introduction, Paul cuts to the chase, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…”[iii] At the heart of the issue is whether Gentile converts must adhere to Jewish laws. The Galatians want to narrow the wideness of the gospel, while Paul wants to expand the reach of the gospel. So angry and defiant is Paul that he practically shouts, “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”[iv] In other words, Paul has no interest in soothing feelings in Galatia. He is only interested in correcting behavior and preserving the abundance of the gospel.[v]
And if Elijah and Paul were not harsh enough this morning, Jesus rounds us out with a scathing indictment of the faithful. A centurion, a Roman solider, and sometimes enemy of the people of God, sends a message to Jesus. Despite the fact that he is not Jewish, he sends word to Jesus twice – first, asking Jesus to heal his sick slave, and second, insisting that Jesus not make the journey, but only speak a word of healing from afar. The text tells us that Jesus, who is very rarely reactive, is “amazed,” and criticizes the faithful of God by saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”[vi] If we think about who is gathered around Jesus, we are not just talking about some delinquent followers. Jesus says in front of disciples and everyone that none of them has had the same dedication and faith in Jesus as this outsider. Jesus has no problem being brutally honest about the people’s lack of faith and trust in Jesus.
If you were hoping for a nice, affirming set of lessons today, a time set apart with that friend who always encourages and affirms you, you picked the wrong Sunday. We might have guessed the brutal honesty was coming when we prayed our collect today. The collect says, “O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us…”[vii] In other words, we prayed God would not be that comforting friend today – but would be the discomforting friend that we need.
Now you may be sitting here wondering what kind of discomfort I will be dishing out today. Or you may be wondering on what issue I think we need work. The good news is that I do not have such a charge today. I suspect that you already know where you need discomfort. Your discomfort may need to be from Elijah, who warns about putting idols before God – putting your trust and hope in places and things that will not satisfy. Or maybe your discomfort needs to come from Paul, who warns about putting restrictions on the wideness of God’s mercy. Or maybe your discomfort needs to come from Jesus, who can point to non-believers who seem to trust God more than you. You alone know how the Spirit is speaking to your need for discomfort.
However, even though you alone know how the Spirit is speaking to your need for discomfort, you are not alone in needing that discomfort. One of my favorite parts of our liturgy is the confession. One, I find the confession immensely centering because every week, one phrase or part of the confession jumps out at me – whether something I have done or left undone is nagging me; whether I have sinned against God or my neighbor; or whether I have just strayed that week. Even though we say the confession every week, the confession never ceases to unsettle me. Two, I find the confession comforting because of all the voices that join me in the confession. I love hearing young and old voices, male and female voices, and voices with every accent imaginable confessing the same failings that I confess. The power of that communal act is always humbling and comforting.
Now I know I told you that you should not have come to church today if you were looking for comfort. But the truth is, I find all the discomfort today wildly comforting. Whether we are pushed by our discomforting witnesses in scripture, whether we are jolted by something in our communal confession, or whether we realize that we need to call our best discomforting friend immediately after church, I find the reminder that I am not the only one who needs discomfort comforting today. I am comforted because I know after the discomfort comes, something akin to a fire is lit inside me. The discomfort is usually just what I need to reinvigorate my walk with Christ and sharply focus on where God is calling me to be. If that is not good news, I do not know what is. Amen.
[i] 1 Kings 18.21.
[ii] Audrey West, “Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12,” May 29, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2882 on May 25, 2016.
[iii] Galatians 1.6.
[iv] Galatians 1.10.
[v] Dan Clendenin, “No Other Gospel,” May 22, 2016, as found at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/977-no-other-gospel on May 26, 2016.
[vi] Luke 7.9.
[vii] BCP, 229.