Sunday’s sermon: The Uncomfortableness of Faith

uncomfortable faith

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Hebrews 4:12-16

  • When he was teaching in Minneapolis, Peter had a big sign hanging at the front of his classroom that said, “Do what’s best, not what’s easy.” This was really important for the students that he had. At that school, 94% of the kids lived below the poverty line, and more than 60% of them were English language learners. They came from tough homes, tough neighborhoods, and tough life situations. For these kids, the choice between what’s best and what’s easy wasn’t always a simple decision.
    • On the one hand, they spent 9 hours at school each day learning about what’s best – education, respect, perseverance, attitude
    • On the other hand, the “real world” they went home to presented a whole host of problems → decisions that may have seemed “easier” at the time
      • Failing in school
      • Choosing between family obligations/expectations and themselves
      • Making unhealthy or even dangerous life decisions
    • You can see why such a simple phrase can be so important, so powerful, so radical … and also so uncomfortable for these kids. And I think that our faith can be like this, too. We know that faith can be empowering and fulfilling and strengthening. It can be something that soothes and teaches and enhances our lives. But that doesn’t mean faith is always easy. That doesn’t mean that faith is all warm fuzzies and heavenly pats on the back. It’s not always something that’s going to be comfortable for us. If anything, the Bible is full of stories and other types of passages that detail ways in which encountering God mean encountering a thoroughly uncomfortable challenge.
      • Sermon series over the next month and a half – explore some of these stories
        • Uncomfortable relationships with Jonah
        • Uncomfortable wrestling with Jacob
        • Eventually wrap up talking about how beautiful being uncomfortable can be
        • Also using the various verses of hymn “The Summons” to dig into these topics
    • Faith is important, and we have to remember that things that are important aren’t always comfortable. Things that are important come with risks. But with these risks come extraordinary rewards. → illustrated by our Scripture readings for today
  • First and foremost, both passages highlight the importance of faith
    • NT passage from book of Hebrews: God’s word is living, active[1] → “active” = powerful and effective
      • Renowned preaching professor and scholar Fred Craddock: The God who spoke still speaks, and that word is inescapably valid. In the writer’s theology, words of Scripture are words of God for us today.[2] → The Word of God is alive and well, powerful and effective, still active, still moving, still relevant, and still important. God continues to work in the world
    • OT passage from Deut speaks to importance not in any one particular work but in the whole Heb. phrase itself
      • Beginning phrase of the passage: Shema yisrael adonai elohainu adonai ehad → This is what’s known as the Shema, one of the most central and significant prayers in the Jewish faith: Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.
        • Centerpiece for Jewish morning/evening prayer services
        • Often first prayer that parents teach their children to pray at night
        • Tradition: last words spoken by Jews before death
        • This is one of the most powerful, elemental prayers for Jewish people. It gives voice to the basic tenets of the Jewish faith, reaffirming the beliefs that people have passed down throughout countless generations. The weight of history upholds and strengthens this prayer – a history full of challenge and struggle, pain and exile … an uncomfortable history. And yet it is in this history – with all its frustrations and foibles – that the Jewish people continue to find strength, reassurance and relief.
  • In this uncomfortable history, we are reminded just how truly uncomfortable faith can be. It highlights that sometimes faith involves risk.
    • Explore this idea more in the coming weeks as we go through some of that troubling history, but today, that risk is made clear by both Old and New Testament texts.
      • Deut: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.[3] → Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a risk, but this verse speaks of involving your whole self in your faith.
        • Heb. “strength”= abundance, force → So this passage isn’t just speaking to investing your bodily strength in your faith. This passage encourages us to throw our whole selves into this endeavor we call “faith.” This means we don’t hold back, we don’t reserve anything “just in case,” we don’t save any part of our commitment for a “rainy day.” We don’t get to hedge our bets or draw up some elaborate contingency plan. There’s no sphere of our lives, no place in our hearts, no piece of who we are that isn’t open to being changed by God. When it comes to faith, we go all in … period.
      • The rest of Deut supports this, fleshes it out: Recite [these words] to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.[4] → emboldens us for public witness
        • That covers anything and everything, anytime and every time, any activity and every corner of our lives. There are no outs here, folks. No wiggle room and no allowance for comfort zones. God is asking us to step outside those beloved comfort zones, difficult and challenging though that step may be.
      • NT passage emphasizes this risk, too – describes the Word of God as: sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.[5] → Sounds pretty uncomfortable to me!
        • Scholar: The readers are helped to see how muscular and active faith is. Faith is tough and tenacious; it holds fast. It stands firm. … Faith is not mentioned at quiet times, accompanied by sonnets, but in the story of a people struggling through the desert, accompanied by grumbling and rebellion. … In other words, faith is more than an orientation of the heart toward God, although it is that. Faith has something to say about God, and it does so with boldness and confidence.[6]
    • So when it comes to these challenges, this time in the desert, the grumbling and the rebellion and the discomfort, what are we willing to do for God? [PAUSE] Maybe the question – the real question – should be when it comes to our comfort zones and our faith, what are we not willing to do?
  • Before you answer that, let’s talk for a minute about the rewards. Now, when I say “rewards,” I’m not talking about pray right or worship right or read the right Scripture passages or believe the right things and God will make you smarter, stronger, richer, more attractive and more perfect. The Bible says over and over again that, in life, these are not the rewards that truly matter. However, our texts for today are able to shed light on the true rewards.
    • Passage from Deut. actually begins with the reward: Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD![7] → “Our God is the Lord!” This same powerful and creative being that brought light and dark, water and rocks and trees, birds and fish and even creepy crawly bugs into existence – this almighty God is our This is the same being that cares for us, hopes for us, longs for us, and loves us without question. That in and of itself is quite a remarkable thing.
    • Passage from Heb. follows risk directly with reward: Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.[8]
      • Approaching the throne of grace with confidence = uncomfortable
        • Manner of approach is uncomfortable – know we’re unworthy
        • Reason for approaching is uncomfortable – hesitant to ask for something because we’re afraid of what the answer might be
        • E.g. – asking to have people over when I was a kid – always the chance for “not” but if I didn’t ask, it definitely wouldn’t happen → And our relationship with God is no different. Asking God for things can be uncomfortable because what if God’s answer is “no”?
      • But “mercy and grace when we need help” … what better reward can there be?
      • Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from book of James: My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.[9] → The trials and the testing? Not so pleasant. That’s why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” or in another version, “Save us from the time of trial.” But this passage points out that sometimes, it is only through these uncomfortable times that we can truly grow: “let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.”
        • Times of faith growing and stretching are uncomfortable – think of it as spiritual growing pains
    • Our texts for today remind us that faith in God is an empowering and a fulfilling thing, but at the same time, faith isn’t supposed to be easy. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable all the time because it’s a constant act, a journey. It’s something we pursue, a road we walk whether the path leads up or down, whether the way becomes rocky or uneven or even a bit of a tight squeeze.
      • Tradition as Presbyterians speaks to this = “the church reformed, always reforming”
  • Today, I’m going to leave you with some questions – something to ponder from today and for the future as we continue to explore this uncomfortableness of faith: Where do you feel most comfortable in your faith? And where is God encouraging you to challenge that comfort? Are you willing to do what’s best or just fall back on what’s easy? How is God calling you out of your comfort zone? Amen.

[1] Heb 4:12.

[2] Fred B. Craddock. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 54.

[3] Deut 6:5.

[4] Deut 6:7-9.

[5] Heb 4:12-13.

[6] Craddock, 54-55.

[7] Deut 6:4.

[8] Heb 4:16.

[9] Jas 1:2-4.