From Shallow Comfort to Life Abundant
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
I want to talk a little bit about prophets. Because we hear from two of them in our scriptures today: Amos and Jesus. Yeah, I think Jesus was a prophet. He refers to himself as such earlier in the gospel of Mark: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
I think we tend to think of prophets as these mystical beings who use these special God-given powers to predict the future. But I don’t think the prophet’s gift is seeing the future. I think it’s seeing the present. Prophets have a few exceptional gifts: first, they are anchored strongly to their beliefs about what is right. Even as the currents of the world swirl around them, tug at them, they hold fast to their beliefs. Second, they have a knack for spotting hypocrisy. They can viscerally sense when there’s a disconnect between a person’s actions and their stated belief.
And third, they’re not afraid to call out that hypocrisy, even when it means calling out people in power. Because while prophets can’t predict the future, they can speculate about the consequences of present behaviors.
Which brings me to the fourth gift of prophets: They have an enormous love for their people, for their nation. Prophets aren’t calling out hypocrisy and harmful behavior because they want to bring their people down. They’re doing it because they see the great potential for love and justice, for life abundant, in their nation, and they so badly want that life abundant to be realized.
The other thing about prophets is that almost no one likes them when they’re alive. Amos had a small following, but the authorities in the Northern Kingdom of Israel exiled him for calling out wealth inequality and corruption in their justice system. He was a rabble-rouser, an annoying activist who kept exposing the shadow side of power.
Jesus had his modest following when he was alive, but for the most part people did not appreciate his message. The Pharisees didn’t particularly like when Jesus called out their hypocrisy. The Romans weren’t a fan of Jesus proclaiming that there was an authority higher than them. There’s a reason the Romans crucified him.
In our own time, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. built the civil rights movement, but at the time of his assassination, polls showed that 75% of Americans disapproved of him.
No, prophets are only fully appreciated after they die. And even then, there’s the tendency to remember only what we want to remember about them. There’s the tendency to white-wash.
With Amos, we remember “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” but not “Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
With Jesus, we remember “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
With Martin Luther King, we remember "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that," not that he called white moderates the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom, “not the Ku Klux Klan but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Which kind of goes to show that we often think believing should feel easy. That life abundant is all about feeling good. We don’t like it when prophets tell us otherwise.
That’s what happens in our gospel today. A man who runs up to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’m not sure what answer this guy is expecting, but it clearly isn’t what Jesus says: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
I imagine this was more than startling to this man. So often we’re taught that we have the things we have because we’ve lived right, worked hard. The wealth and comfort we have is proof of God’s favor.
But Jesus completely inverts that. Our relationship with God isn’t manifested in our individual thriving, it’s manifested in how the whole Body of Christ is thriving. Our relationship with God isn’t manifested in our trust in the shallow comforts of this world, it’s manifested in our trust in God.
When the man heard this, the scripture says, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
We assume that he grieved because he wasn’t willing to part with those possessions, but what if he was grieved because he DID decide to follow Jesus, because he WAS resolved to sell his possessions.
Sometimes following Jesus means gathering in this lovely space with this lovely community and feeling the love of the Body of Christ. That’s part of our faith. But sometimes it feels like giving up everything you have to have life and life abundant. And let’s be honest: that doesn’t always feel great.
And I’m not just talking about sacrificing shallow comfort for the sake of life abundant for our neighbors, our community. That’s part of it, and you hear me talk about that part a lot. But what about life abundant for ourselves? Life that does not rely on shallow comfort but on deep faith?
I’m talking about that moment you decide that the shallow comfort of excessive drinking is not giving you life abundant, and you decide to trust God and go to an AA meeting. I’m talking about that moment you decide that the shallow comfort of simply being in a relationship is not giving you life abundant, and you decide to trust God and call a couples therapist. I’m talking about that moment you decide that working so hard to cover up your emotional and mental struggles is not giving you life abundant, and you decide to trust God and call your doctor.
Doing these things is hard. Giving up the shallow comfort, the easy comfort, and choosing life abundant is sometimes excruciating. And even when you do decide to give it up, it’s not like life abundant just spontaneously happens.
Getting sober isn’t quick or easy.
Rediscovering the joy in your relationship isn’t quick or easy.
Working on your emotional or mental health isn’t quick or easy.
I bet each of us has had a prophet in our lives who has said the hard stuff to us. The friend or family member who has noticed the things in your life that you yourself didn’t want to notice. I know I’ve had those people. I know I’ve sometimes exiled those people from my life only to discover later just how right they were.
So I wonder: how do we open ourselves to the words of the prophets around us? Those who love us so much that they call us beyond the shallow comforts of the world to life abundant, both in our communities and in ourselves.
Are we willing to see ourselves clearly, honestly? Are we ready to put our trust in God?