God Who Hears and Disturbs
A sermon on Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21, and Romans 6:1b-11
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash]
If you have been listening to my sermons for very long, you will probably recognize the name Debie Thomas. She is my go-to commentator when I want a reading of the weekly lectionary that cuts to the heart and speaks deep truth.
This week, she cut extra deep. In her essay on this week’s gospel Debie Thomas asks a question that strips faith down to the bones. “What am I most invested in? My comfort or my salvation?”
Her question suggests that we have to choose – one or the other. Comfort, or salvation. It’s a claim that seems to push against the theology of grace that we Lutherans usually like to prioritize, but it is consistent with the theology of the cross that is also central to our witness: the understanding that God’s revelation does not happen in the places of power and privilege, in the center of “comfort”, but rather on the margins, among the despised and rejected, among those who are told – in word or in deed – that their lives do not matter. The central revelation of God’s salvation is through the cross, and God has never stopped showing up in the least expected, most vulnerable places.
And this weeks’ readings make it clear that God’s story has never been about ensuring our “comfort.”
In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword,” a sword that would divide even close family members from each other. And then he increases our discomfort by saying that if we don’t love him more than our family, we aren’t worthy of him!
The epistle comforts us with the promise of a resurrection like Christ’s, but not until we are united with him in a death like his. In fact, our old self needs to be crucified so that our sin can be destroyed.
And the narrative story from Genesis might be the hardest reading of all, especially in these times. It tells how an enslaved African woman and her son – the son whose very existence is evidence of how complete her enslavement was – become objects of jealousy, and are therefore cast out to die in the wilderness by the original Patriarch and Matriarch of our faith.
If we are looking for a faith to comfort and soothe us in troubled times, we won’t find it in these readings!
But what if comfort and soothing is not the best thing we can ask from God? What if God refuses to simply comfort us because God has something much better to offer? What if God wants to transform us?
Last week, Rev. Rick Oppelt and I published an Op Ed in the local paper that focused on the value of getting uncomfortable in the face of this moment of racial tension, because that willingness to get uneasy is what opens us up to be changed.
When Jesus proclaimed the beginning of his ministry he did not preach “stay the same and believe.” He preached “repent and believe.” He called the people to metanoia – to the changing of their minds and hearts. He knew that true faith and trust in God only comes through our transformation. And, in the same way, true love of our neighbors, which is the way Jesus has called us to live out our love for God, only come through transformation… through us getting uncomfortable about the inequities and injustices that we have accepted and lived with.
Rev. Rick and I didn’t quote from any of today’s readings for our Op Ed, but we easily could have because they confront us with the same necessity of getting uncomfortable… of letting go of the assumption that faith can just be a source of comfort that never challenges or changes us.
But God’s Word DOES challenge us, it disrupts us, it can even divide us from those we love! Not that division, in itself, is a good thing. Jesus was not saying that his GOAL was to divide families. That would be completely inconsistent with his call to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love even our enemies. But Jesus knew that the truth he brings is a truth that doesn’t let us stay comfortable. It doesn’t let us just “make nice” to avoid rocking the boat. It doesn’t let us stay unchanged. And when we are changed by the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, other people notice. It changes our values and our commitments and our behavior… but when others don’t want to be changed in that way, or take offense at the ways that we are changed… then we are forced to decide what matters more:
The comfort of familiar patterns and relationships.
Or embracing the gift that is God’s transforming work in our lives.
Of course, that call to commitment, to transformation, is not always the source of the divisions. Sometimes divisions are the result of human sinfulness, as we see in the story of Hagar and Ishmael.
When Abraham severs ties with his son, when Sarah turns against a member of her own household to whom she owes protection, they are not doing so for reasons of faithfulness to God. She is motivated by jealousy. They both have failed to trust God’s plan.
This story is important for us to hear because it teaches us that not all suffering is about the costs of righteousness. Abusive treatment is not holy. Leveraging power and privilege to cast out the dark-skinned slave who has been used and is now inconvenient is NOT the division Jesus has come to bring.
But this narrative offers us another part of the story… it tells us about the way God responds to the people who get hurt when we do the dividing. The path of Jesus may not be about making us comfortable, but God does reach out in comfort to those who are hurting, and abused, and cast aside as unimportant or problematic. God IS a God of comfort for those who are wandering in the wilderness because those who had the power refused to care for them. God is always on their side. God will always hear their cry.
In this story of Hagar and Ishmael, God is the God who hears. And earlier in her story – when Hagar was once before wandering in the dessert because of Sarah’s abuse, she named God “God who sees” – the only person in all of scripture who holds the honor of giving God a name.
There is profound comfort to be found in God, and in the stories of God’s people. God does not leave us to suffer alone – whether the divisions we face are because of our own faithfulness or the faithlessness of others. But there is a difference between seeking comfort from God and expecting a faith that leaves us comfortable.
Debie Thomas offers another set of questions this week that speak to what we expect of God:
“Scripture offers us so many beautiful names for Jesus. Son of God. Son of Man. Emmanuel. Logos. Lord. Christ. Dare we add another? Jesus, The Disturber of the Peace? What would it be like to allow him to disturb us, unmake us, and divide us? What would it be like to experience the peace that costs, the peace that breaks, the peace that saves?”
Hagar named God the God who Sees. We can name God too, if we dare. We can name God the God who changes us.
Thanks be to God.
 Genesis 6:13 “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’ (God of seeing) for she said ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”