One of my favorite games on my old cell phone was Bejeweled – a puzzle game played by matching three colored jewels in a row. I was sad to learn that there is not a version of Bejeweled that will play on my new cell phone, nor on my iPad. So I’ve been on the search for mind games, other than solitaire. Many people recommend the game, Angry Birds. I have resisted this game, mostly because I didn’t like the title – Angry Birds – not wanting to endorse violence, even cartoon violence. So, I refused to get this game. Refused that is until the other night when I found a free version of it, and became instantly hooked on the game – finding it endlessly amusing. Essentially the puzzle offers a tower built of various materials – glass, wood, concrete – and within the tower are pigs, often dressed like construction workers. To the side is a huge sling shot from which one propels birds into the tower. The sound effects include the birds squealing with delight as they fly through the air, a resounding clunk as they crash, and the sound of falling debris. The silly cartoon effects are amusing. Within 24 hours Dan and I had played through all the levels of the free version, and we are now faced with the dilemma of actually purchasing a version.
A recent discussion on the internet focused on the portrayal of violence in books, on television, and in movies – and the potential that being confronted with violence is desensitizing us to real pain and harm. On the other hand hearing the stories of human beings who have lived through tragedy, like the stories told in the Women, War, and Peace, series, has the potential to deepen our awareness and enhance our compassion.
Our reading this morning from Isaiah is just such a story - the people have survived a tragedy and are coming to a new place of hope and healing. The book of Isaiah is an ancient text written by three different authors over the course of several hundred years. It tells the story of the people of Israel subject to violent wars by the super powers of the day – first the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE, then the Babylonian Empire that dominated the country and enslaved the residents, and lastly the Persian Empire, who under the leadership of Cyrus, enabled the people of Israel to establish their own nation, Judah. But within this story of three hundred years of war, slavery, and violence, is a story about the faithfulness of God. God never leaves, never abandons the people.
This morning’ s reading comes at the end of the rule of Babylon and the beginning of the Persian Empire – or, about a 160 year gap between the events described in chapter 39 and the events in chapter 40. All the while the people of Israel have been slaves in Babylon, but are now finding themselves freed. Comfort, O comfort my people, cries God in the opening verses. Speak tenderly; know that God is present in the midst of trauma, violence, and suffering. God lives through the bleakness with us, holding us in God’s embrace and love. God’s calls each of us to be present to the suffering of others, to show compassion and love. God calls us to be the gentle encourager – reminding others that sometimes all one can do is take the next breath, or walk the next step – but that that is enough. Each moment in time takes whatever it takes to live through, a breath, a step, a hand to hold, the quiet presence of another, just being there. Comfort, O comfort my people, cries God.
Thinking about love, compassion, and the enduring presence of God reminds me of a book by Anita Diamant called, "Day after Night." This is a fictionalized story about four women, refugees from World War II Nazi invasions. The four women of this story: Tedi, Zorah, Shayndel, and Leonie all come from different places in the war – bound by virtue of their survival. Zorah is the only one of the four to have spent time in a concentration camp, Tedi was hidden in the Dutch country side, Shayndel, a Polish Zionist fought with the partisans, and Leonie was forced into prostitution in Paris. Each wonders how they survived when others they love did not. The book tells the story of the hard work required to recover from a trauma so intense they cannot even speak of it, let alone comprehend it. It’s a story of the work it takes to remember the past while moving into the future. It’s a story of rediscovering kindness, of holding in tandem love and grief, of comforting one another, of friendship. It’s a beautiful story of an agonizing journey from despair and brokenness toward hope, and a new life. Comfort, O Comfort my people, cries God.
Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds us that God commands us to be present with others, to be a source of compassion, kindness, love, and support. And it gives us clues how to do this – because God is present and doing these very acts within human life and suffering. What God is doing, and what we are called to do is: be present with others in their suffering. We are not called to solve the problems of others as much as we are called to listen and to be present. God’s call to compassion invites us to sit with the person, to hold their hand, and to be present without judgment. We are to speak tenderly, without condemnation or placing any kind of value statement on the condition of a person’s life, why and how they got there.
Sometimes the condition of our lives and the source of our suffering is the direct result of our own actions – and at other times it is the result of the actions of other human beings. And, so we are also called to examine our own lives and consider how our actions may be contributing to the suffering of others. We are called to consider how we are acting in ways that serve the well-being of all humanity, as an act of participating in God’s justice.
Never is our suffering the result of God doling out punishment or inflicting pain, disease, or disaster.
We are to remind others that God is present, God is faithful, and even when all signs are to the contrary, God is with us. And lastly we are to remember that God is actively working to transform the suffering and the tragedy of our individual lives, and the world, into new life, into hope, through God’s mercy and grace.
In a few moments we will celebrate a Rite 13 service, welcoming into adulthood, two members of our congregation – George and John. Over the years, as these boys have grown in faith and in age, we have helped to shape them, form and inform them as young men of faith. Today we celebrate that formation and welcome them into the next stages of their faith development as they grow into young men. It is our hope that they will continue to take on leadership roles in the church and that they will continue to be examples of God’s compassion in the world around us through their words and actions. Let each of us remember that we are the living hands and heart of Christ in the world, and what we say and do matters.
And so, perhaps it is less an issue of what books we read, music we listen too, movies we watch, or computer games we play, rather it is a matter of how we allow them to shape us – will be become insensitive and callous? Or will we understand more deeply and become more compassionate? Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God. Let us go and do likewise.