Human beings love to take the easy way out.
Sad but true. And biology has at least a little to do with it. It’s a side effect of the autonomous system in our body that protects us from harm. Think flight or fight responses. Our bodies are hard-wired to favor efficiency over conscious thought. And while that might help us make quick decisions that can help us in dangerous situations, it is also those same systems which harbor things like stereotypes, assumptions, and the easy way out. Our brain makes us feel good when we encounter the familiar and so we seek those things over and over again. Even to the exclusion of other things that might bring us equal or even more enjoyment. Take for example my own love of Star Trek. Growing up I loved the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew. When they started making movies, it felt GOOD because these were characters from my childhood. But when they announced they were making a new show without these classic characters, I steadfastly declared it would be a disaster. I didn’t watch the entire first season, despite the praises of the press, the critics, and even fellow Star Trek fans (traitors!). But curiosity got the better of me and I started watching with the second season. And you know what? It was GREAT! I LOVED this show! But it took a lot for me to even give the show a chance. How sad it would have been to have missed out on years worth of good TV just because I didn’t want to lose what I was familiar with.
“Comfort is your enemy.”
When we think of evil in the world today, we often come up with the most horrible images we can think of. Images that rattle our very belief in the world around us. Events that shatter what we think of the world we live in. The Holocaust. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Serial killers like Charles Manson. Humanity in its ultimate depravity. But those are the extremes. Those may be the most vibrant and visual instances of evil in the world, but they are also (thankfully) very rare. Instead we need to remember that there is evil is around us every single day and if we aren’t careful we could be willful participants in spreading it, and comfort is one of the ways evil works in and through us. It might seem weird to think of comfort as an agent of evil, but have you ever been so snug under the sheets that you didn’t want to get up? That nice warm feeling of being in just the right spot all cuddled up with the fluff of a comforter around you? It feels so safe and so happy that you don’t want anything to change. And that’s how the devil sucks you in. He comes to us in our comfort and says, “You don’t want things to change do you? Isn’t it all nice and cozy exactly how it is? We should make sure it stays that way.” You get lulled into believing that’s true, that it would be the worst thing in the world to change things up, to do something a bit differently. And you end up in the same rut you’ve always been in.
Even when the alternative is BETTER our “comfort” doesn’t allow us to see it.
That’s what happens to the young man in our passage today. If you have a Bible or a Bible app would you go to Matthew 19 beginning with verse 16. Matthew 19:16. Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been healing and teaching throughout the region. The Pharisees confront him on the topic of divorce and Jesus has to correct the disciples who are shooing away the children from approaching him. Then this rich young man comes up to him and asks him the key to eternal life. And this is what he says. If you would please rise for the reading of the Gospel, we’ll be reading this morning from Matthew 19:16-24. Hear now the Word of God.
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19
The problem for the rich, young man isn’t money.
It’s comfort. When Jesus says it’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s not because being rich is evil or bad. It’s because having wealth makes you comfortable and it’s hard for us to leave a life of comfort. We’re wired to stick with what works. By all accounts, if we can accept his word as truth, the young man is a pretty good guy by our standards. He keeps all the commandments. He honors his parents. He loves his neighbor. Pretty good guy. But then Jesus challenges him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” And the guy walks away sad, because it would mean giving up the life he is used to living. The familiar breeds comfort and comfort is the enemy of progress. Why change what works?
It’s why people are so fond of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But if that were the case, we’d still be using horses for transportation. We’d all be fluent in Morse code. Our houses would be near the river to do our laundry every day. Most of us would agree life is better now than it was fifty years ago and better still from fifty years before that. Not only do we have modern conveniences like cars and telephones and washing machines, but African-Americans are no longer 3/5ths of a person, women are allowed to vote, and children are protected from unfair labor practices. Progress not only makes our lives better but our world better, too. To be sure, some things done in the name of “progress” seem to be steps backward (New Coke comes to mind), but overall, the world becomes a better place when we step out of our comfort zone and embrace what is possible.
This tendency toward the comfortable can get the church in trouble.
It’s one of the reasons why our churches are shrinking and closing. We are unwilling to embrace those ideas that take us out of our comfort zone. But as the world changes, so too must we. While the mission and the message stay the same, the way we transmit and deliver it should adapt to the world we live in. Imagine if we were literally delivering the message of God by Pony Express while the world is transmitting it by Twitter, text, and Instagram. That’s the danger of staying in our comfort zone. But it happens all the time. One of my friends who used to pastor a small and once thriving church found this out pretty quickly. By all measures, he is a person who has a passion for trying new and innovative ideas to bring people to Christ, but one of his parishioners literally told him he wasn’t interested in growing the church. He liked it the way it was and any new people would mess it up. I wish that were an isolated incidence, but I know I’ve made more than one person nervous when I talked about growing the church. One person came up to me and said, “I hope it doesn’t grow too big.” I didn’t know what to say at the time, but I think today I’d say, “I don’t think any size we might grow to would be too big for God.” And not because this guy didn’t have his heart in the right place. The person who came up to me is a devoted Christian who gives a lot to the church – in time, in gifts, and with his presence. But what he was really saying was that he was comfortable with the way things were and didn’t want to lose that feeling. But I hope we trust enough in God to know the difference between our discomfort and our disobedience and that we would choose the first over the second.
Psychologically and biologically there are many ways to explain this phenomenon.
But the important thing to know is that we can overcome it. By intention and discernment we can put aside our tendency toward comfort to do what we know is in the interest of our lives and for the Kingdom of God. But it must be with intention and discernment that we get it done. Intention – to knowingly pursue every idea that can create new places for new people to experience Christ; and discernment – to carefully examine our feelings when we resist. Otherwise we may miss out on opportunities that can make our lives so much better – like watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. God has in store for you amazing opportunities in life if only we have the bravery to step forward in faith and embrace them. The real evil in the world is missing out on those opportunities because we are so comfortable with our lives the way they are we are unwilling to take that step in faith. It is in our comfort that the devil works within us. Dare to live a life of discomfort. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.