Prophets of Discomfort

Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Prophets are uncomfortable people. There was a man when I was in college who carried around a giant cross – I have no idea how he lugged that thing about – and stood on the lawn in the center of campus shouting that we were all doomed – most especially the girls wearing short skirts. In this day and age we are likely to walk by him or any other street corner preacher proclaiming the end of the world, averting our eyes and thinking privately that he’s more than a little bit, well,crazy.

Because prophets are embarrassing. Poor Jonah from our reading this morning walks the city of Ninevah end to end – it takes three days – shouting imminent destruction. And he wasn’t the only one. The prophet Isaiah went naked and barefoot for 3 years, as a sign to the Egyptians that the Assyrians were going to conquer them and drag them naked into exile. Ezekiel cooked his food over cow dung for over a year to show the people how disgusted God was by their degredation – imagine the flavor imparted by that particular kind of smoke.

All of them lived out visions of God, because a true prophet is someone who calls attention not just to him or herself, but does uncomfortable things in the service of God and others.

Some time ago a friend of mine was acting as the caretaker for her mother in law. “I’m not Miss Nurse” she said, explaining how far outside of her comfort zone this was. She administered morphene, bathed her mother in law, did all the messy, terrible, uncomfortable things you do for someone at the end of life, and she was afraid of making mistakes. But, she said afterwards, “It gave me compassion. It changed me for the better.”

God gives us comfort, but that is very different from making us comfortable.

God asks of prophets that they leave their comfortable lives behind to spread his message, and the prophets in turn ask that we leave the familiar behind in the service of God and each other—and frankly, none of us are happy about it. Jonah, you may remember, gets God’s call to Ninevah and heads straight in the opposite direction, finally arriving there after a detour through the belly of a great fish. Like Jonah, and like James and John, Simon and Peter – being called by God means leaving stepping out of our known lives to something new.

The problem is, deep down we’re pretty sure our comfortable lives are what we deserve, or at least, part of God’s “blessing” on us. After all, how often do we say “I’m blessed” when referring to our house, our income, our lives that are going just as we planned. And there are preachers who will agree, who will say that God wants us to be “happy”. (Sorry, I’m not one of them.) It seems in our readings this morning God has other priorities than making people “happy” – at least, our usual definition of happy. We often equate being happy with being comfortable, and God seems to be all about disturbing our lives and calling us to be more than that.

Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian empire – decidedly not Jewish – and God sends an extremely reluctant Hebrew prophet to preach to them. Not only that, they actually listen and change – profoundly. They start a new life. In the Gospel this morning Jesus calls his first followers to leave their boats and the life they know and do something new. And Paul’s letter this morning, in which he tells us to imagine a completely different life from the one we currently lead – rejoicers not rejoicing, married people not being married – invites us to overcome our contentment with our own status quo and imagine something new: wherever you are, Paul says, imagine that you are the opposite.

And all of this doing something new and listening to prophets and imagining change that God asks us to do is uncomfortable.  Because while God gives comfort, that is very different from making us comfortable.

Yet, as Christians, we are actually uniquely equipped to tackle uncomfortable things – things we initially think “I could never do that”. Because Christianity is mainstream, because we do this every week, we have a certain blindness about how utterly preposterous we Christians are. We have forgotten that to believe an all-knowing, all-powerful God became a limited, utterly dependent, human baby is beyond belief. That to believe Jesus was killed, and then came back and walked and talked, is utterly without precident. That to eat his flesh and drink his blood in some sort of celebration of that is actually pretty disturbing when you think about it. Like the white queen in Alice in Wonderland, we Christians may believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast!

It is part of who we are, to be a little bit well – crazy. Which is actually comforting, because when it comes down to it, God needs more people who are willing to do uncomfortable, unsettling, seemingly impossible things in order to proclaim by word and example that God’s kingdom is here, all around us, and to build that kingdom up. We are called to be Prophets –all of us.

That doesn’t necessarily mean leaving home to far-flung places like Ninevah, or to Haiti, Pine Ridge, or Dungannon. It means listening to what God is nudging you to do, most especially when it makes you uncomfortable. It can mean hosting a coffee hour or going up to a stranger and starting a conversation after church – even if you’re an introvert. It can mean volunteering to perform music during a service even if you don’t consider yourself a performer. It can mean standing up here and reading the lesson or administering communion or preaching – even if you’re afraid of public speaking (you know, just as a completely hypothetical example).

Because when we care for the sick and poor, reach out to a stranger, feed one another’s souls, we are acting as prophets. We are living out God’s vision of the Kingdom.

As a church family, we are exploring transitioning the 11:00 am service to a bi-lingual, Spanish and English service. We are about to spend more than a year conducting worship without organ music. Your new Vestry is setting visionary goals related to Involvement, Growth, and Outreach. In all of this and much more, God is with us – doing new things – and God will give us comfort, but that is very different from making us comfortable.

We can choose to try to run away, like Jonah. Or we can step out with Simon and Peter, James and John. Because notice that Jesus, when he calls those first disciples, does not offer to make them farmers or bakers. He takes the skills they already have and puts them to use in a new way – I will make you fish for people. When we do that, take what we have and use it in the service of God – even when it’s new and uncomfortable – we bring the kingdom of God nearer to those around us, and the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand.

So I offer this prayer, adapted by Bishop Desmond Tutu, for all of us as Prophets in training this year:

Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.