I should begin by noting that today is the first time I have been invited to deliver the homily at a main service. There appears to be a paucity of preachers, so your Chancellor’s name finally came up. If any of you are newcomers, please come back next week, and things will get better.
When I seek inspiration on theological subjects, I often observe and learn from my 4.5 pound dog. His name is Luca, and he has taught me many things about the illusory nature of material possessions and the dangers of pride. But in the context of today’s readings, Luca is very instructive on the subject of comfort.
Comfort is something that small dogs instinctively seek, and they are quite good at finding it. When the sun is shining through a window (you remember the last time in September), Luca finds a spot where the light falls on the floor, and he lies down luxuriantly to enjoy the warmth. We have purchased a high-walled round dog bed made of white fluffy material, and Luca has a way of curling himself up inside so that he appears almost completely relaxed – except for one half-open eye that remains watchful to make sure he doesn’t miss anything important.
And of course when Luca manages to earn a dog treat, he brings it to a place where the largest possible group of family members can observe him while he chews it slowly – making sure that no small crumb escapes his energetic tongue. Yes, Luca knows how to pursue comfort and how to enjoy it. And aren’t we in many ways similar?
We settle ourselves on a soft sofa while using a remote control to access hundreds of cable stations; this saves us from having to stand up and cross the room to adjust the television. Our electronic servant Alexa uses her artificial intelligence to turn music on or off, while other devices adjust the heat or lighting in our homes (although not in my home, which was built in 1914). We inwardly admit that the phrase “couch potato” accurately describes the way we throw ourselves down at the end of a long work week. And on our spare time, we shop for a bewildering variety of additional devices designed to save us from the exertion of manual labor. Our cars offer multiple adjustments so we can minimize back fatigue while driving between social or shopping experiences, and some cars even offer second-rate simulations of massage. And if we begin to gain weight due to our comfortable inactivity, we can subscribe to a weight-reducing diet or hold a pulsing electronic device to build muscle tone while we sit in a chair.
Wherever we turn, we are surrounded by voices telling us that if we purchase the right product or service, we can achieve material comfort, and if we choose to live a materialistic world where we imagine that there is no God, “comfort” is about the best thing anyone can hope for.
But what does all of this have to do with today’s lessons? …perhaps the connection isn’t as obvious to you as it seemed to me…
The prophet Daniel predicts “there will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations…” That doesn’t sound very comfortable.
And in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes his famous prophecy that the magnificent buildings of King Herod’s Temple will be thrown down, so that “not one stone here will be left on another”. That definitely doesn’t sound comfortable.
As a matter of fact, Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Temple goes way beyond discomfort. It foreshadowed an event that less than two generations later brought mass death to the Jews and effectively ended their long established rituals that centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple has never been rebuilt in the almost 2000 years since it was destroyed. It was even worse that some of the Temple stones were thrown down by the Jews themselves – the ones known as Zealots – who were attempting to resist legions of Roman soldiers during the terrible siege that suppressed the First Jewish Revolt in AD 70. And the disaster wasn’t limited to destruction of an important building – tens of thousands of Jews were enslaved and distributed through the Roman Empire (the Emperor Vespasian reportedly sent thousands of them to continue Nero’s work on digging the Corinth Canal that today separates mainland Greece from the Peloponnesus).
In today’s lessons, both Daniel and Jesus were predicting cataclysmic events that the people of God would have to endure before they could find everlasting life, and those words should cause us to consider our own discomforts and the essential role they play in our lives.
An essential reality here is that “We cannot always live in comfort”.
Jesus explained that all of God’s children are invited to enter the Kingdom of God, but he did not promise that everyone could float in on a massaging car seat. On the contrary, in Matthew 19:22, Jesus invited a young man to give away his goods if he wanted to become a disciple, but the young man “went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions.” In Matthew 10:34, Jesus said “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” These and other sayings of Jesus make clear that he did not enter the world to deliver a life of comfort and leisure.
As an unpopular reminder, the inescapable facts of life require that we humans will all suffer sadness, pain, loss, an occasional worldwide pandemic, some very mediocre music and art, and ultimately an end of the life that we know in this world. For some pessimistic people, the uncomfortable existence of sin, evil, and death is proof that there is no God.
But the people who lose faith over such confusion should spend more time in an inspired Christian community like the one that comes together at Epiphany Parish!
The inevitable discomforts of our lives are in no way evidence against the Christian message. They do, however, explain why we all need the Messiah who came to all of us. God sent His only Son into the world, not to remove discomfort but to help us all transcend it by explaining the Father’s love and making an extreme sacrifice to save all people.
Earlier today we heard Daniel say that after the “time of distress” “everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered”. He says: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”. In other words, those who remain faithful in the face of their discomforts can all find salvation and new life.
And although Herod’s Temple would never rise again, the Temple of Jesus’ body was resurrected on the Third Day, and his resurrection life inspired the apostles to devote the rest of their lives to spreading His good news, despite a seemingly endless series of obstacles.
Few if any of us will be asked to endure the discomforts of those first apostles – tortures and martyrdoms all across the Roman world. None of us will be asked to endure the pain that Jesus bore, being tortured to death while having a far greater knowledge of the underlying tragedy than the rest of us can possibly imagine.
More good news is that while the Church calls us all to pledge part of our time and treasure to support its mission, God does not demand that we give up our soft sofa or our cable television. If my dog sits down in front of a sunny window, it is no sin to sit down beside him and share the warming rays. The teachings of our church allow me to retain what my wife will tell you is an excessively large library as my personal window into the traditions of our civilization. We need not do penance for driving cars with an adjustable lumbar support. Most of us will find heat in winter and a cool place in summer. We will have our share of comforts.
But at the same time, we must remain prepared for the tragedies and discomforts of life that tend to increase with age and sometimes fall upon us without a moment’s warning. We must resist the inclination to despair in the face of unexpected discomforts; rather we should recognize discomfort as an opportunity to better understand our humanity and appreciate the infinite grace that ultimately allows us to transcend this life, and prepare for the miracle that occurs when we cease to peer through a glass darkly and finally have a chance to see God face to face.
We must also remain mindful of those millions of people who endure far greater discomforts than we do, both in this country and abroad. The comfortable advantages of this country are of course one reason why millions of people in other lands endure such great privations in order to come here. Discomfort is inherently part of everyone’s life, but it is also a burden that can be lightened when it is shared.
In the great 17th Century hymn by Johannes Olearius, we sing the words:
Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God,
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.
OK, “cover” and “over” don’t completely rhyme. But you get the point.
We cannot always live in comfort, but through our faith and our community, we can all find comfort … in the end.