Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
December 7, 2008
Years and years ago, a very old woman whose name I can’t even remember, made a crocheted lap robe for me because she was afraid my knees would get cold while I worked at my desk. She was nearly blind and not terribly skilled with yarn to begin with, and she was using up scraps she had tucked away from many projects, so the little robe is not a work of art, by any stretch, but whenever I see it, I think of her and of how she welcomed me as her pastor. Another woman in another church I once served crocheted an afghan for me to keep, after giving me a stack of afghans to take to a battered women’s shelter for which I did some work. And my cherished friend Katie Savides who died just a year ago, crocheted every time I saw her, right up to her death. We have two baby afghans she gave us when our children came to us. My sister Annie crochets all the time – usually baby hats of all colors for newborns – orange and black for Hallowe’en, red and white for when the Badgers are winning, green and gold for the Packers, win or lose. When Katie died, Jim gave her all Katie’s leftover yarn, a treasure for Annie on many levels.
I think of these women when I think of comfort. I think of their hands and the miles of yarn that passed through their fingers over their lifetimes. It isn’t true for everyone, I know, but people who love to work with thread, yarn, embroidery floss, fabric, find the process soothing, even prayerful, and very, very comforting.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Prepare the way of the Lord. Comfort, comfort my people, your penalty is paid, you have served your term. My soul magnifies the Lord. The lion shall lie down with the lamb. That all the world should be enrolled. The time came for her to be delivered. The shepherds were out in the field, keeping watch over their sheep. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. Three wise men came from the east. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned another way. O Lord, let your servant depart now in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation. If ever there were a definition of comfort for the garden-variety Christian, it would come in these phrases. They tell the story of our salvation. They are as familiar to us as the feel of yarn through Katie’s fingers. They are tender, gentle and the very heart of the Christian faith - God has come to us, Emmanuel, and in God’s coming, all have been reconciled to God.
Isaiah, a prophet of direct and unabashed judgment, also wrote of comfort and reassurance after the dismal defeat of Israel. God was very angry with you Israel, Isaiah wrote, but you have paid your due now and your warfare is over. But it isn’t over, is it? Not by a long-shot. War still rages, blood is still spilled. Bombs explode, children are lost in refugee camps. There isn’t enough yarn in the world to bind-up the broken hearts of those whose lives we cannot even imagine in our most vivid nightmares.
Whence comfort for them? For those who still sit in darkness, whose bodies do not give them joy and whose minds are dulled by the sound of gunfire, the relentless scrabble for food, the fear that blanks out other human emotions.
The Word of God, introduced by John the Baptist, sustains and comforts those who sit in darkness, those who suffer and are lost, those who despair. But it also comforts us when we get tired of hearing about all the suffering in the world. It gives comfort to us when we worry that we do not have enough to be as generous as we want to be or as generous as we know is needed. It comforts us when we find ourselves supporting our children, our parents. It comforts us when recognize the cyclical nature of economic downturns, political victories or defeats, foreign enemies who become foreign allies, only to become foreign enemies again. It comforts us when we’re resentful that we have to go through all that again. But it also comforts us when we are facing something we’ve never had to face, or when we are embarking on a mysterious journey on which there can be no accompanying friend. It comforts us when we are disappointed in ourselves, or when we are disappointed in those we love, or when we are disappointed by those we trust. It comforts us when we are just plain sick and tired and disappointed.
Most parish pastors will attest to the anecdotal experience of being called upon to conduct a memorial service right before Christmas. Months will go by without a death in a congregation, but December comes and with it, almost as certainly as comes the snow in New Hampshire, someone in the church dies. I have had occasion to speak with several of you who are facing death or who have just lost a loved one to death. Those of you who are walking now in the valley of the shadow of death can attest to the great chasm that exists between the need for comfort and the reassurance that comfort is very near. When my father died in December, I discovered these words, as if for the first time, from Isaiah 40. People are like grass which withers and fades, Isaiah wrote, but the Word of our God will stand forever. At that time of great sorrow, I needed to believe that something would outlast human life, particularly the life of my father whose influence in my life had been so great. Was it now just over, as if it had been just a temporary little thing? Wasn’t there something more permanent, more reliable that could sustain those who sorrow? who walk in darkness? who are overwhelmed with burdens? There is. It is the comfort of familiarity, of generous friends who make and give warmth, of the shepherd who carries lambs close to his beating heart and guides the mother sheep back to the security of the flock. It is the comfort of the Word of God that was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
May the glory of that Word be revealed to you again this December. I promise, it will bring you comfort. Amen.