Thursday, December 8, 2011

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem...and me.

[A sermon for Advent II, Dec 4, 2011]

"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."

These words reveal a people burdened and weighed down.  

Whether in fact or *only* the collective imagination of the people hardly matters.  When you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it. 

Such is the despair of the people called Israel in our reading from Isaiah.

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem." 

You can recognize a burdened state in your own life retroactively, I think, when you look back at those times in which the words of another felt the most tender.  Like they heard you.  Tender words because the other person saw your hurting - he or she really saw you - you were not invisible in your suffering.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. 

When Israel receives the comfort of God, comfort means that God sees the suffering of the people.  The first pain remains, for a short time, anyway.  The second pain of being alone in one's suffering is removed.

When have you heard a tender voice?  What are the regularly tender voices in your life?

It takes patience to speak tenderly.  God is patient.  In fact, Peter says in the epistle this morning that, exactly when things seem slowest, take the longest, the patience of God is revealed because the Lord does not want any to perish.  Therefore, says St Peter, "...regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."
Comfort my people, says your God.

And even though the reading that begin with comfort continues with language that we, on the other side of Christ's coming, recognize as pointing to Christ - even though we hear the words about preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness and we think of John the Baptist and Jesus - even though we hear these words from the other side of God's comfort, we find that we still have a need for tender words.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, says the Lord.  And, we would add, "speak tenderly to me."  Let me be visible, too.  Speak comfort to my Church, says your God.

Now, there's a recurring Charlie Brown bit that makes clear, I think, what tender words don't mean, at least in our setting.  Charlie Brown, dreaming out loud to Peppermint Patty that he longs for a woman who will kiss him on the forehead and whisper in his ear the words, "Poor, sweet baby."  Peppermint Patty is not impressed and walks away.  A few scenes later, it's Snoopy who whispers in soothing tones to Charlie Brown and kisses him on the forehead; Charlie Brown isn't amused - or comforted, for that matter.

Not the words of empty, self-serving pity, but words of comfort, true hope.  Words that name with honesty and compassion the burdens that we carry.  Words that carry the power of, and potential for, forgiveness.
Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it.

A priest friend asked me once, "Jonathan, what do your folks bring with them to church?"  "What do you mean?" I asked, before adding,  "Coffee, sometimes, but they drink it in the back."  "No, that's not what I mean; what are they carrying, inside?"  "Lots of things," I said.  "Do you find that they carry their fair share of guilt?"  "Yeah," I said, "more than their share."  "Me too," he said.  "I hardly ever work to make people feel guilty because most of them are already guilty by the time I say, 'Good morning.'  It's built in.  No, I think the people have guilt down already.  What they need is God's comfort.  I try to speak comfort."

It's hard to speak comfort.  Not just, but especially for preachers, it's hard to speak comfort.  And not just because everybody else goes around trying to light guilt rockets under other people's behinds - especially in churches.  Blame is just reflected guilt. 

It's hard to speak comfort.  Hard to keep our composure when God looks each of us in the eye and, knowing all that we've done and all that we've failed to do - all that we are and all that we've failed to be - speaks tenderly to us.

"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."

Her guilt is washed away.

I think that the yearning for these words is partly why so many of us, especially in previous generations (though I'm not giving up on this one), have found such comfort in the sacramental rite called the reconciliation of a penitent, known popularly as confession.

To have my sins made visible is to know that God sees my guilt.  To know in my head and my heart that I'm not fooling him.  Not that I CAN fool him, but sometimes I can fool myself into thinking I can fool him, if you know what I mean.  To unbury the guilts that I carry and lay them bare and to hear, even then, the comfort of God is a blessing beyond describing.  Many who experience it describe a literal unlocking in their bodies as they realize, only afterwards, how they had bodily carried their burdens in ways that deformed and crippled their souls.

"Cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid."

And so John the Baptist appears to prepare the way of the Lord, and his call is repentance.  Comfort them, says the Lord.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I am coming to dwell with them.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I delight in them.

There's a church outside of Houston with a simple mission statement: "to be a place of sanctuary."  I thought to myself when I saw it: "Now that's a great mission for a dying church."  No language about outreach, no mission imperatives, no grand ideals for the community's impact on other people.  It sounded static.  Old-fashioned.  Passive.  So I looked the church up.  Three-fifty on Sunday, not counting an evening service packed full with youth.  I was wrong.  Nothing static about it.  A vibrant community serving others and giving of themselves in the world.  But principally centered around the idea that their mission is to be a sanctuary - understood here as a people in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell; a place and people of comfort, safe from guilt, rich in forgiveness and mercy and peace.

Thats the Gospel, by the way: that while we were warring with God, one another, and our selves, Christ Jesus came among us and died for us. 

Sanctuary.  Treaty.  Everlasting peace.  An end to the war.  Peace with God, one another, and even our selves. 

The Lord God "is speaking peace," says the psalmist, "to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him."  All of the readings today speak of peace, God's gift for God's people, and repentance is the pen-knife that opens the gift. 


"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.

The gift is for you.  Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned; but if you seek - when you seek - the forgiveness of God, you will find him more than ready with tender words.  And the fruit called hope still fresh on the table.

Come to the table.  Hope is for you. 

Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment