Sunday, December 04, 2011

Voices of Comfort, by Greg

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

Sing: Comfort Ye, comfort ye my people.

As I drove to Berkeley on Thursday for a meeting, a hillside on the north side of Highway 24 in Lafayette caught the corner of my eye ... it was nearly completely white, as though snow was slowly drifting down and blanketing the ground. I turned my head and looked and it was, of course, not snow, but the slow, growing accumulation of small white memorials, mostly crosses, each marking the end of a life ... the end of a unique and brilliant and lovable and capable human being. Each memorial marker represents a whole universe of pain and loss for friends and family members of each service person who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for each white memorial marker, somewhere between 10 and 20 civilians have also died in those locations in this latest reminder of the awfulness of war and the utter futility of violent means to achieve peaceful ends.

Sing: Comfort Ye, comfort ye my people.

Another day and another drive. I was driving to work this past Tuesday morning in a dense fog. It was the literal fog we had before the brisk winds cleared the fog and darned near everything else in its path.

I had just read an email telling about the death, on Thanksgiving Day, of Sarah Hammond, the 34 year old daughter of our dear friends from the Baptist Peace Fellowship, Steve and Mary Hammond. Steve and Mary are co-pastors of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio. At our first peace camp in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1999, we had met the Hammonds, including Sarah who was the oldest of their three daughters. You may remember that it was Steve Hammond’s words that helped catalyze Jan’s thinking about becoming a vegetarian.

Sarah had just earned her PhD in religion last year and was already a beloved professor at William and Mary College in Virginia. She was a deeply intelligent and compassionate and sensitive woman. And ... she had also battled inner demons of depression and despair all of her adult life. Steve and Mary wrote a few brief words to their friends and supportive community about their loss and their daughter’s struggle.

I had just read those words and was pondering them as I sat at the stop light in the fog waiting to turn on to La Casa Via ... and in one of those odd, ironic moments, the music I was listening to was a piano medley that combined “I’ll be home for Christmas” and the “Going Home” portion of Anton Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. It was a moment of tender irony. “I’ll be home ... and ... I’m going home.”

These are Mary and Steve’s words:

From Mary -- Our beloved first born child, Sarah, passed away on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 34 after an utterly valiant decades long struggle with mental illness. Sarah, may you find the peace and rest with God that you could not find here on this earth. The God we trust holds you tight.

From Steve -- That call from the police in [Virginia] today was one that we always feared would come. Sarah was such an amazing person. So giving. So thoughtful. So brilliant. She just couldn't believe how amazing she was, and grew tired of this long battle with the darkness.

I really believe that darkness Sarah knew everyday has been finally shattered by the light. And I am glad to trust her in the hands of the one who said "I am the resurrection and the life."

Mary and I are so very grateful for all who accompanied Sarah on her journey. We got this far by faith, farther than, at times, we ever imagined she could make it. But her weary journey has come to its end. We often sing "Come and fill our hearts with your peace," at the Taize service. And it has always been my prayer for Sarah. Now that peace has come.

Sing: Comfort Ye, comfort ye my people.

This past Monday—my day off and the only day of the week I actually get to read the paper, I opened up the morning paper and out fell two sections that, to my surprise, had no news on them to speak of—at least as we think of news. They were the “public announcements” section of the Contra Costa Times. They used to be the back part of another section, like the Business section, but apparently there are now so many “public announcements” to be made that it takes not one, but TWO WHOLE SECTIONS of newsprint to contain this fine, but wicked print. Two whole sections of “legal postings”—and they were, with only a few exceptions, announcements of what people ... families were about to lose ... about to be forced to return to the lending institutions from whom money had been borrowed … two whole SECTIONS of foreclosures … two whole SECTIONS of misery … two whole SECTIONS of families’ lives being turned upside down ... two whole SECTIONS of moving trucks being packed, children being told that they must leave their neighborhoods and friends and classmates, two whole SECTIONS of credit ratings destroyed and futures being frazzled and threatened. Two whole sections of dislocation and misery and frustration and fear.

Sing: Comfort Ye, comfort ye my people.

Our sermon text this morning also speaks of dislocation and misery and frustration and fear. Isaiah’s words are written out of a time of exile ... a time when a good portion of the nation of Israel had been forcibly relocated to Babylon ... and with that forcible relocation, they had left behind EVERYTHING they knew and loved, EVERYTHING that gave their lives meaning ... they had left behind their homes and their Temple and, it seemed, their God and their very future. It was period of unspeakable bleakness and pain.

The people and their priests had no way to understand or interpret their exile except as a desolating punishment ... and as God’s “washing of the divine hands” of the once “chosen people” that God had, generations earlier, led out of bondage and into the promised land. But now that was a painfully distant and mocking memory.

It was only after a great deal of time had passed that a new prophet, speaking in the tradition of the great prophet Isaiah, found his voice, took heart, and began to utter words of comfort and hope, words of mercy and healing.

Sing: Comfort Ye, comfort ye my people.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah sees with eyes of faith that dislocation and misery and frustration and fear are not the final word. On the horizon of faith, which is beyond the horizon of sight, Isaiah sees God’s return and the restoration of God’s people to their land, their homes, their Temple and their place near God’s own heart. What Isaiah sees is not to be hidden or held close, but proclaimed from high places:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” God will feed God’s flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in God’s arms, and carry them in God’s bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah’s word to Israel in exile is a also a word for us and for our world. You who have known the pain of loss and deep grief, you who have known dislocation and misery and frustration and fear ... know that these are not the final word, know that these are not the journey’s bitter end. On a horizon that is yet beyond our sight, a faint, but strengthening glow can be seen ... and it is a glow that portends healing and hope, mercy and forgiveness, reconciliation and return. It is a strengthening glow that speaks of the deep and abiding peace of God for all who have been in literal and figurative exile. It is a strengthening glow that hints at the love that is at the heart of all things, all creation ... love that will find new birth in our lives and on this good earth.

May we ALL be graced and blessed with the eyes of faith that can see beyond our human knowing. May we ALL see together the hints of God’s promise to be birthed once more into this world and into these lives: our lives and our world.


No comments: