A sermon preached at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Atlanta, GA on August 14, 2022
All of today’s readings offer wonderful images for a holy life. In our first reading, God planted a vineyard. God’s intention was to cultivate grapes that would produce spirited wine. Instead, wild, bitter grapes were found, and the vineyard was let go in order for nature to take its course. It was an opportunity missed.
Today’s Psalm takes up this theme of God as vineyard planter. This time, hearts cry out for help. There’s a desire for intervention, and relief is found outside ourselves because we’re in, over our heads. We need the planter. We need a savior.
Instead of the image of a vineyard, the book of Hebrews, which was our 3rd reading today, reminds us of the saints of God that came before us. They and their stories become our examples for the holy life; and in their death, they surround the living like a great cloud calling to us and cheering us on to keep the faith.
Finally, we come to today’s Gospel where we learn that following Jesus often leads to division, conflict, and sometimes martyrdom. Truth so often divides people in their interpretations of how to live out truth. This is further complicated when followers of Jesus see signs of crisis all around; yet, choose to ignore, deny, or neglect emergencies. Put differently, we often ignore the truth that is right under our noses not knowing how to discern right action. Understandings of how to faithfully act and follow Jesus are as diverse and numerous as the saints, and is further complicated when Jesus himself claimed that he was and is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
I believe all of these images of grapes, vineyards, clouds, and truth point us to what our opening prayer asks of God, that is, to look to Jesus as an example of godly living, and to follow daily in his blessed steps of his most holy life. How God leads us to interpret exactly what this looks like on the ground, and in our daily lives, has the potential to not only divide our own hearts as we discern what’s best, but also our families, culture, and society itself. A quick survey of Christian history reveals this fact. What, then, are we to do?
I recently had the privilege of serving for a year or so at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. For the past several months I’ve been the chaplain at the Heart Center. The Heart Center is divided up into the cardiac ICU and the cardiac ACU. The ICU treats the children whose hearts are the sickest, while the CACU is a step down unit used for teaching caregivers medical interventions so that their little ones can be discharged from the hospital once medical education and practices are mastered. I was always amazed at how long a child would be in the ICU either recovering from heart surgery or a transplant, or visa-versa, waiting for a transplant or heart surgery. I learned that heart surgery is not a one and done medical intervention for children. In fact, there are mini procedures and surgeries needed prior to the ultimate or desired surgery. It is not uncommon for a child to undergo 4 or 5 surgeries before they are teenagers, and the reason is simple. The heart, like the child must grow. Certain surgical interventions can only happen once the heart is the proper size. Put simply, it takes a long time, and can be taxing on the patient, families, and hospital staff.
Every once in a while, a patient is not recommended for surgery because the medical staff believes that the costs outweigh the benefits. Patients and their caregivers have a right to receive a second opinion. Sometimes the second opinion comes in and agrees with the initial hospital on how to proceed. Sometimes not. When there is not consensus the patient and caregivers then face moral and ethical questions: What is the right thing to do? What will be the patient’s quality of life with surgery, or without it? At what point are medical interventions doing things to the patient versus providing for and helping the patient? How long do they really have? With these types of questions, anxious, spiritual hearts are divided. They want life, and want it more abundantly for their child. They’ve been in the hospital for months, and now these dilemmas manifest.
As a chaplain, I had the privilege of walking alongside families through these difficult times, and it never got old for me when I witnessed what started as a divided family putting aside their own individual agendas and making a decision that was best for their child. A sense of peace fell on the room and everyone seemed to know the inevitable without having to say it. Sometimes we call these times moments of peace or acceptance, and everyone, most importantly, the child is the one who benefits most because love undergirded the discernment. Like a planter who sees that the garden has taken on a mind of its own, the parents ask for help and divine intervention comes along to clear the heart of negative, spiritual debris.
Perhaps it’s planting season in our divided hearts, and we need a planter. We need an intervention. We need a Savior. We may not have the whole picture of what following Jesus will entail, but we have some saints to give us ideas as to what colors, shades and shapes to use. We don’t know if we will offend, who’s hearts will turn away and need a second opinion. What we do know is that he will be with us every step of the way. What we do know is that we are called to carry our crosses because Jesus first carried his. What we do know is that he wants what is best for us, and what is best for us is Him. Jesus reminds us of love, and in fact, is love incarnate desiring to further cultivate our hearts to follow daily in his blessed steps of his most holy life. You have an invitation this morning to follow him in his most holy life. Come and taste the fruit of his vine, and the bread of his labors for he is good. He is love. He is truth.