December 6, 2020
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
make straight in the desert a highway for
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
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for
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!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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.
No one in the Emergency Room knew quite what to do with me as a Chaplain. It was my final Semester of Seminary, and three days a week I’d ride the train from Princeton to Penn Station, take the subway up to Columbus Circle, and walk into Roosevelt-St. Luke Hospital’s ER. I loved working with the nurses, staff, and doctors in the Emergency Department, mostly because they had no idea what to make of me. What did a chaplain have to offer? I could bring someone a glass of water if I got permission from the medical team, and if someone was in pain I could request a pain consult to provide comfort, but beyond that, their training didn’t cover how to utilize a chaplain as part of the healing team. Each day in the ER, I got a printout of patients, and would make my rounds. I quickly became friends with the floor’s social worker. She was a force of nature that people deeply respected. She had been at ground zero after 9-11, caring for first responders for months, and was tough as nails. She helped create discharge plans, enroll people in recovery programs, find a therapist, signed people up for Medicaid, get them on food stamps. But me? No one quite knew what to have me do. Still, I showed up, and would talk with folks and their families, pray with them, and wait. After a while I would spend my time talking with the nurses and doctors. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do either, but that’s what this semester was all about.
One of the new resident doctors was from Brooklyn, with a strong accent, and a no-nonsense attitude that was made for TV. She was direct, to the point, and thought I was hilarious. What was a chaplain good for? Still, I’d swing by her desk and ask if she had anyone who could use a pastoral care visit. One day I walked onto the floor and she immediately waved me over. “Look,” she said, “I’ve got a young woman in her 20’s who I want you to talk to.” She explained that the woman worked at a jewelry shop and had been taking down a box from a shelf in the storeroom. The box was above her head, and was heavier than she had expected, and when she pulled it down, her arms couldn’t hold it. She was wearing a cheap ring from the store, and as the box fell it hit a table, the ring had bent, and was now cutting into her finger. The doctor explained to me that the ring had to be cut off or she would lose the finger, and the young woman was terrified.
The doctor pulled out from a drawer what looked like a drill, with a circular saw drill bit. She revved it up. “I need to cut it off with this. There’s a guard I need to find to put on here that will make sure I don’t cut her, just the ring, but I can never remember quite how to put it on. Can you talk to her while I try to find it? Maybe you can calm her down. I mean, I could cut it off without the guard, but she would have to be completely still or else,” and she revved the saw mean icingly. From the room, we both heard “Doctor, I can hear you. Please find that guard!”
I walked in and was surprised to see a young man with her as well. He shook my hand and told me he was her boyfriend. We started talking, and I realized that he wasn’t helping much. He kept making jokes about the saw, telling stories of injuries that had landed him in the ER. She was terrified, with her hand bandaged, sitting up on the bed. After a while, seeing how much the boyfriend was making her nervous, she and I shared a conspiratorial glance. “Have you had anything to eat?” I asked her. “Not since breakfast. I could really go for a Snickers.” I told the boyfriend where he could find one, choosing the coffee shop that would give us about 15 minutes to chat. Once he left, she looked at me and said “Thank you, he’s just making me so nervous.” I really didn’t know what to do to calm her down beyond getting rid of the boyfriend, but I tried. After a few minutes, I realized that she was probably only a few years younger than me, and I tried to imagine what I would be experiencing in this moment. My parents lived on the other side of the country, and I had ended up in the hospital twice since I had come out East. All I really wanted in those moments was someone in the room I could trust, who would comfort me. On a whim I asked her, “Is this the first time you’ve been to the ER without your parents?” She immediately burst into tears. “I just want my Mom here. She has always been there when I was scared with doctors.” We talked some more, and I asked her what her Mom would do if she was here. “She’d hold my other hand when they cut the ring off and tell me that the doctor knew what she was doing. I trust the doctor, but I just need someone to hold my hand.” I asked her if she wanted me to tell the boyfriend to do that for her, and she nodded. “He keeps making jokes about them cutting my finger off. He tells me that he’s had way worse injuries, but he’s not the one in pain right now. He just makes it worse.” We prayed, and I walked to the door to wait for the boyfriend to return. I looked him straight in the eye and told him what his job was. No jokes. Hold her hand. Tell her she’s safe, and only look at her, not what the doctor was doing. Looking at me, he said “I really had no idea how to comfort her. This is so weird. I hate seeing her afraid.” I swung by the doctor’s desk, and she had found the guard for the saw. “All ready?” she smiled. “Hey,” the Doctor asked. “What did you do? She seems so much calmer.” I told her about asking about what her family would do if they were here. A smile came on the doctor’s face. “I’ll have her call her Mom on her cellphone and put her on speaker. I can explain to her Mom what I’m going to do and the boyfriend and her mom can support her. I know what it’s like to be away from your family and be scared. I call my Mom all the time from the break room.”
Walking into that room in the ER, I knew that this young woman was going to give permission for the doctor to cut the ring off eventually, but I hadn’t realized that what she needed was to be surrounded by folks to comfort her so she could dig deep into her courage to move forward. She knew what needed to happen, but it was scary, and she just needed to be able to say that out loud, and to be heard. The doctor had tried to explain it logically to her, but this wasn’t about a logical decision. Logically she knew what needed to happen. But just because we logically know something, doesn’t mean we’re not scared, and sometimes we just need to be human and share that we are afraid, and receive some comfort; not distraction, not to be told not to worry, but to know we’re not alone, and that others are with us.
The people of God in our scripture reading this morning know it’s time to leave Babylon and go to their ancestral home. Folks of all ages and abilities have been told by the Persian emperor, Cyrus, who has conquered Babylon, that they can return to Jerusalem, to Judah, and rebuild the temple. But many of the Hebrew people don’t want to go. It’s been 70 years, and Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. Would it be safe to return? It’s a long journey. There are winding roads that could have bandits hiding in the next curve. Their carts, carrying all they own, are scary going down and up hills, and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere was a real possibility. There’s a journey ahead, and it’s going to be difficult. And so, a prophet, from the community and tradition of Isaiah, reminds the people that yes, they will journey through the wilderness, but they will not be alone. There are folks in that wilderness, who know the way. They can prepare the roads, the ways in Hebrew, to ease their journey. There’s a job for those who call the wilderness, not a wild place, but home. Still, most of the people don’t go. They stay in Babylon. But for the ones who do, life is going to be different. They are going to create a new way of life, rooted in the traditions of the past, made stronger from their time in exile, but they’re going to need some comfort to head into a land none of them have ever been to.
We’re in a kind of exile these days, aren’t we? Not one at the hands of empires, although the shockingly poor federal response is leading to untold death and suffering during this Pandemic. But we’re going to have a new administration in the White House, and there is hope coming. But right now, we’re in an exile from what our lives were like before. As a congregation, we’ve shifted how we worship, how we exist as a church, how we live our lives together. Slowly, we’re seeing the journey ahead begin to take shape. This Advent, while the virus rages, we’re beginning to see how we can prepare the way into a new future, one that won’t ever be the same as before, but that can build upon the best of the past, and new dreams for our future. We’re in a liminal space, an in-between time, a wilderness journey. Our wilderness journey holds the potential to help prepare the way for others.
We’re on our way to liberation from this virus. But there are some fears about how to get there. We are in for a difficult winter. The daily death toll is shocking, and we are beginning to experience more restrictions. Some of us have found ways to navigate this, but many of us are still trying to find our way. And now, we’re beginning to hear from folks who have received the vaccines. They are so effective. But for most folks, after the first dose, many people experience a day of headaches, aches, fever, exhaustion. It’s our bodies responding exactly like they should, creating a response to overcome the virus if we’re exposed. But it can be scary. The vaccines we are going to get take two doses to be effective, and there’s a fear that people will be reluctant to take the first dose, and when they feel sick, doctors are worried that people won’t come in to take the second dose. But many of you, you’ll be the first to get the vaccine, because you’re frontline workers, over 65, or have medical issues that put you at a higher risk. You can help share your experience and provide comfort to those who are reluctant to get immunized. Our lives will continue to be restricted until around 70% of the population have been vaccinated. It’s going to take some comfort for us to get there. And I worry if we can do it. But then I look around, and in small ways I see God at work among us, and I find hope and love abounding.
The past few weeks Cassidy has been working hard with Kevin and our choir on drive-in Church. A colleague of mine, Rev. Becca Crate, the pastor of Springfield Presbyterian Church, reached out to ask how we were making it work. And so, Cassidy created the most incredible class on how to do drive-in Church. The comfort she provided for Becca and Springfield’s music minister was so loving. We were on a Zoom, dreaming about how we can gather in a new way. And we are hoping that Cassidy will be able to help other churches, who will pay her for her expertise, and provide funds for our music ministry. It’s a way of us comforting and preparing the way for others, and for them to comfort and prepare the way for us financially going into the new year. It’s new to all of us, but Cassidy is helping to prepare the way for others, from her experiences in the wilderness of FM transmitters and our parking lot choir. I’ve seen you all comforting one another as well; from our supporting our families with children, to re-imagining how to celebrate monumental birthdays for each other, to providing comfort to so many who are grieving.
Maybe you’re someone who has a journey ahead you’re worried about. Who can help to prepare the way for you? Maybe you’ve recently moved into a retirement community; so many of us know the fears of that journey. Maybe you are grieving the death of someone you love or have a family member who has contracted COVID. You’re not alone. Maybe this season has made you realize now is the time to start the road to recovery and embrace sobriety. There is a fellowship of many of us on similar journeys. Some of us are on journeys of raising kids who we are fostering, or adopting, or kids that are coming out, or are gender creative. You’re not in this alone. Others of us are struggling with the anticipatory grief of a loved-one struggling with dementia and are seeing that they need more care than we can provide. So many of us have walked that road. We’re not going to tell you to suck it up and just jump in. Our calling as disciples is often to listen, to make space for each other to be human, and help prepare the way through offering comfort, and then to work together to make the journey just a little bit easier.
Advent is an invitation to prepare the way for God’s liberation and wholeness for others. It’s also an invitation for us to be comforted, so we can hear the voice of the Spirit saying, “This is the way. Walk in it. You won’t be alone.”
The Holy one, I often think, is busy working as a loving matchmaker for breakthroughs into liberation. We can’t do this alone. We need comfort, to know we are loved, exactly for who we are in this moment, especially when we face a wilderness journey. And many of us, we have testimonies of God seeing us through, and coming even more fully into ourselves. May we hear from the Holy one words of comfort. May we connect with those who can help us prepare the way, and may we all rest in the knowledge that we are Beloved, loved enough by God to be loved exactly where we are, and who we are, while being invited into a good and broad land of freedom beyond our imagining. In the name of our Loving Divine Parent, Sibling Christ, and Holy Spirit Friend, Amen.