You’ve heard me talk before about one of my favorite poets and theologians, the Irish writer Padraig O’Tuama. I attended an online retreat that he led one Saturday back in October, and during that retreat he told us that one of his dear friends, an older woman, had died a week earlier. He shared a story about a phone call that they had a few days before her death. She called him and said, “I’m dying. This is the last conversation we will have.” She then added: “I love you, and I want you to keep doing what you’re doing.”
They talked for a bit, and Padraig asked her: “What’s giving you comfort?” She told him that it comforted her when people phoned her and told her what they were doing with their day. She liked to know: “What do you see? What happened to you today?” They agreed that we can live in and through each other’s small moments.
What’s giving you comfort these days? It’s a hard question to answer sometimes, especially now. We keep wanting some big news to bring comfort – the discovery of a magic cure or something dramatic that might bring the country together and make it a safe and just place for everyone.
In the absence of those grand and lofty hopes being realized, what’s giving you comfort?
This week I kept returning again and again to the words of Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speaking tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.”
The prophet Isaiah is speaking to people who have been in exile. Having been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the people of Israel had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, including their temple, and they were scattered to different foreign lands. They struggled to be faithful while separated from the people they love and without access to the building where they worship. That seems strangely familiar.
Isaiah speaks into that difficult reality. Comfort, O comfort, my people says your God.
But not everything that Isaiah says sounds comforting – at least not at first.
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
Prophets like Isaiah are truth-tellers. The truth isn’t always easy to hear, but that doesn’t keep them from telling it. Isaiah tells us that we are inconsistent in our faith. Isaiah tells us that our bodies are vulnerable, temporary dwelling places.
I remember the first time I came back into the building after lockdown. I knew in my head that we had shut things down early in the season of Lent. But I wasn’t prepared to see on the wall beside my office the altar covering we had made at one of our Ash Wednesday services. It was covered in crosses that we had drawn of all different shapes and sizes, and winding among the crosses were the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Those words that we say over and over on Ash Wednesday hit me in a different way several weeks into the pandemic. I stood there in the middle of the hallway and let the tears come.
As people of God we try to tell the truth, and we try to hear the truth. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We do not do this to be morbid. We do this in part because it reminds us how much we need God.
And God tells the truth better than we can. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. We need God’s promise that this earthly life is not the end of the story and that even in this fragile, mortal life there is comfort to be found.
So Isaiah gives us this image too:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
God the Good Shepherd is with us, even when we are scattered and even when we don’t feel like we can do this one more day. God is with us, not just with us in some distant, abstract way. God is here. God is scooping us up and holding us close. God will gently lead the mother sheep, which tells us that God has a special kind of care for those who care for others.
I think about Padraig and his friend, how they realized that we can find comfort in each other’s small moments. Comfort often hides in the simple, ordinary places.
Singer Carrie Newcomer has a song called “Holy as a Day is Spent” in which she describes the simple tasks of life as being sacred. The song opens with these lines:
Holy as a day is spent
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
A bit later in the song we hear the blessing of that ordinary comfort as she sings:
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can…
…Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
It’s in those small, tender moments that we are given strength for a time of exile. It’s in the most ordinary of tasks that we take one step forward.
Remember that Jesus, when he comes, does not arrive with fanfare and melodrama.
He shows up as a baby, born in the dark of night, reaching for his mother’s breast and spitting up on the hay. Ordinary and sacred. And he changes everything.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ