Sunday, September 06, 2015

Out of Our Comfort Zones

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 6, 2015

Year B, Proper 18: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Out of Our Comfort Zones
            For the past few days I’ve been seeing parents post pictures on Facebook of their kids heading off on the first day of school.
            Sometimes parents will also post pictures from the first day of school last year or sometimes years ago, like the first day of kindergarten or first grade, giving everybody a look at before and after.
            Some parents express dismay that their kids are growing up so fast and some will admit to being relieved that the long summer vacation is over and the kids are back in school and out of their hair.
            For years, I’ve enjoyed seeing these pictures but this year it’s a little bit more meaningful for me as I return to school, too.
            Thank God, Sue didn’t take my picture on the first day of new teacher orientation and, thank God again, my parents didn’t dig up a picture from my first day of kindergarten or first grade, heading off into the unknown, heading out of my comfort zone.
            A lot of people have been asking me how the first days went. It was fine, though I’ll admit to you that I’m amazed and kind of intimidated at how much technology is in school now. When I left Prep 11 years ago, I was still mostly using chalk, paper, and ink in my classes. Now, all the boys have computers in class and teachers are expected to do much of their – our work – through these devices.
            No more chalk.
            So, to be honest, I feel a little bit like an antique.
            Like a lot of the kids in those first day of school pictures, I am definitely heading out of my comfort zone – which is both unsettling and exciting.
            You probably know the feeling.
            It may sound strange to say this but the fully human Jesus of Nazareth had a comfort zone, too.
            He grew up in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee, which was the countryside. Although even as boy Jesus probably had contact with foreigners passing through on their way to Jerusalem or one of the other cities, like us he must have been most comfortable with his own people - his fellow Galileans - who would have shared similar life experiences, would have eaten the same food, would have shared the same outlook on life, would have spoken with the same distinctive Galilean accent.
            But, many of the Jewish prophets had a vision that the Messiah would unite all peoples, that eventually the whole world would come to Jerusalem and worship God on Mount Zion.
            So, it was necessary for Jesus the Messiah to head off into the unknown. It was necessary for Jesus the Son of God to leave his comfort zone.
            And, we hear Jesus doing just that in today’s gospel lesson from Mark, when Jesus leaves Israel and travels into a gentile, non-Jewish, land.
            And, what we discover is that Jesus had kind of a rocky start to leaving his comfort zone.
            Jesus tries, unsuccessfully, to keep a low profile. We’re told that a Gentile woman, a non-Jew, came and bowed before Jesus, begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
            In one of the most striking and shocking moments in the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, maybe because he was uncomfortable with – or even prejudiced against – this non-Jewish woman, insults her and her daughter, equating them with dogs - definitely not a compliment.
            Then, in one of the greatest moments in Scripture, the woman, rather than crawling away dog-like, like perhaps you and I might have done, challenges Jesus, pushing him – drawing him - out of his comfort zone.
            And, Jesus the Messiah of the whole world cast the unclean spirit out of the woman’s daughter.
            Jesus left his comfort zone - and that changed everything.
            Well, here at St. Paul’s, over the last two years or so, we’ve been leaving our comfort zone, too.
            It can be both unsettling and exciting.
            As we heard, leaving his comfort zone wasn’t easy for Jesus and it wasn’t easy for the early church, either.
            In today’s second lesson, the author of the Epistle of James calls out the early church for some pretty crummy behavior: showing favoritism to certain people. In their case, apparently some in the church were favoring the wealthy, inviting them to sit while the poor had to stand in the back.
            We don’t do that!  But, like everybody, we have our comfort zones. Of course, we have certain people that we feel most comfortable with. Maybe they’re people who are like us – sharing a common background and similar experiences – maybe they’re people we’ve known for years and years, maybe we’ve known them our whole lives.
            But, one of the things that I’m proudest of during our time together so far is how, together, we’ve headed out into the unknown, how we’ve moved beyond our comfort zones.
            This hasn’t happened without some bumps along the way but, for the most part, we’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by welcoming all kinds of new people into our community – people who like all of us bring their mix of gifts and challenges.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by taking on new ministries here at St. Paul’s. Think of how many of us have started serving as lectors, and chalice-bearers, ushers, hosts, singers, and more in just the last few years! And, a bunch of others are about to take on new ministries!
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by working much more closely with our Jersey City sister churches, by welcoming the neighborhood into our house for healthy food and concerts and poetry readings and yoga and crafts and even a comedy show.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by taking our church out to the streets, by offering Ashes to Go at McGinley Square on Ash Wednesday, by walking the Way of the Cross with a hundred other pilgrims on the streets of Jersey City, by community organizing with people from more than 30 other congregations, and by working with others to begin offering shelter to homeless families.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones.
            But. You know how God is.
            God is out there – just ahead of us – just beyond our comfort zones, calling us to love more deeply, to give more generously, to work together with ever-greater unity – to keep moving beyond our comfort zones – to help God build the kingdom where there are no walls separating us – the kingdom without racism – the kingdom where refugees are welcomed rather than left to die.
            God is calling us to build the kingdom of unity that the prophets dreamed of long ago.
            Jesus began to change everything when he left his comfort zone and healed that gentile woman’s daughter.
            And, you and I here at St. Paul’s are building our little corner of the Kingdom of God each time we head out of our comfort zones.