Comfort O Comfort My People Isaiah tells us. But where do we find this comfort? that’s the question we have before us today. Where do we find comfort? I don’t know, maybe comfort can come from a most unlikely source? Who here remembers Fred Rogers? Mister Roger’s Neighborhood? Who watched Mister Rogers on PBS as a kid or, like me, watched it with all four of my children? Come on, you can admit it… Anyway, I bring up Mister Rogers today because he was a picture of comfort. With his melodic voice and mild mannered ways, Mister Rogers would always begin the show… do you remember? Yep, by putting on his tennis shoes and his sweater. Brilliant. Why? Fred was brilliant because he understood that shedding the clothing of the world, so to speak, and changing into that sweater subconsciously took his young viewers to a safe place. While in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood every child was invited first and foremost be comfortable. As she remembered the life of Fred at his memorial service, Teresa Heinz Kerry said of Rogers, “He never condescended, just invited us into his conversation. He spoke to us as the people we were, not as the people others wished we were[i]
What a beautiful thought this is as we enter the Season of Advent. The season when we prepare for the coming of Christ into our hearts and lives once again. But Advent can be a stressful time. A hurried time. A time of year when we may feel anything but comfortable. However, Walter Brueggemann, UCC theologian and Biblical scholar, provides us with a wonderful prescription if we’re feeling ‘discomforted’. “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations,” he writes, “to consider our life afresh in light of the new gifts that God is about to give”[ii]
In other words, At the beginning of a new church year, we remember who is really in charge of everything, and set our hearts on being part of this One’s plan. A plan that paints a very clear picture: while God is the One who brings this dream to reality, there’s work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.[iii]
Comfort O Comfort My People. Isaiah, Like Fred Rogers, is inviting us to shed the garments of the world; the stress of buying presents, preparing the meals and baking all those cookies. Perhaps you’re dreading the renewal of an uncomfortable family relationships? But Advent is a time when we are invited to set all these things aside, and to just be. The Anticipation of the Coming of the Christ-child gives us the opportunity us to rest into the comfort of knowing that God’s really in charge.
And when we set all the distractions aside, it’s clear that we are challenged to extend the hand of peace to all the ends of the earth. Isaiah, as we look at the full width and depth of his work, is calling for us to loosen the grip on our swords and our instruments of war, and to take up the things of peace. We are called to participate in bringing God’s comfort to all people.
This is the first Sunday of Advent. Today we lit the candle of hope. In the coming weeks, as we write our Christmas cards and sing Christmas carols, with their lovely messages of serenity, grace, and good wishes, my prayer is that we all will hear a call, deep in our souls, to pursue peace in our lives and in the world around us, not just to talk about it as if it were a sweet but unattainable idea. But instead, take real, concrete steps to heal division, alienation, and broken relationship in our family, our community, and the world, if we have the courage to do so. Beginning with just one step, one relationship, perhaps one apology or offer of peace, we need to believe that we can be part of, what Walt Whitman called a “beautiful peace.”[iv]
And it all begins with forgiveness; asking for forgiveness, forgiving ourselves and others. Fred Rogers once said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.” “…forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”[v]
Ya know, for me anyway, that quote sheds some new light on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. How did the final line from the theme song go? “…won’t you be my neighbor?”
As people of faith, how can we live out Mister Roger’s question? How can we extend the hand of peace, of comfort, of hope, and ask people from other races or religions or cultural experiences to “…be our neighbor?” How can we transcend our differences and learn to how to speak with one voice about the call to peace given to us by our Creator, who, loves each one of us? What can we share in common–our care for our children, for the earth, for the future–that brings us together in recognition that we, and our lives, belong to the same God and therefore find our common ground in peace, not war? How might we deepen our respect for one another? How might we listen to one another, and in the listening, hear the voice of the Still-Speaking God?
One final thought this morning. The great Christian thinker, Thomas Merton, once said, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed–but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”[vi] My friends, comfort finally makes its way into our lives when we acknowledge our own short-comings. One of the biggest challenges to peace, to finding a sense of comfort, in our society today comes from all the finger pointing. Facebook and Twitter are full of reasons and encouragement to hate the other guy. But the Bible is not. Jesus clearly spoke out against injustice, we all know that, but the message behind his words always pointed us toward the hope that justice and peace and equality would become the norm of society. And for Christ’s hope to become a reality, we must roll that finger back in, and speak words of peace, words of reconciliation, words of forgiveness, words, like those uttered by Isaiah thousands of years ago, word of comfort. Comfort O Comfort my people. That’s my hope for all of you on this first Sunday of Advent. Amen.
[i] Vancheri, Barbara (May 4, 2003). Pittsburgh bids farewell to Fred Rogers with moving public tribute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved on January 9, 2011.
[iv] Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. (exact quote: “Peace is always beautiful.”)
[v] Ibid. Vancheri.
[vi] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Direction Press. 1961.