Comfort- Sermon for October 4, 2020 from Pastor John

Sermon for October 4, 2020

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     In the Thursday New York Times there was a picture gallery of staff of a small community hospital in Brooklyn. They were interviewed to get their thoughts about the many patients admitted with the Covid virus. One doctor told the story of a patient asking him, before he was put on a ventilator, to please tell his wife he will be home soon. He then made the sign of the cross on his chest and placed there pictures of his kids. Unfortunately he died later that evening. The gallery showed photos of heads of departments: physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and even the CEO of the hospital, all with reflections to share. But what I found so interesting was the inclusion of non-medical staff. You saw pictures of housekeepers, maintenance workers, and even one called a “patient transporter”, the one who would come and take patients to various rooms. A housekeeper said “The hardest part during the pandemic was cleaning all those beds and you know these patients did not transfer, they died. It was hard for me because I never saw in one day so many people die. I see life differently. It’s short. You love your family more than before, because you don’t know if you are going to see them again or not.” Whether you read the comments of a highly trained nurse, or the housekeeper who makes the beds and mops the floors, you felt they understood they were all a team, doing their best to fulfill their calling to make their community hospital a place of healing during a time of a terrible plague. In the scripture texts today, we heard about vineyards and the expectation of a good harvest. That Brooklyn hospital was like a vineyard where staff of all kinds worked hard to bring about the fruit of healing and hope.

In the reading from the prophet Isaiah he announced that he was ready to sing a love-song. It was a song for his beloved concerning his vineyard. The three most important crops for ancient Israel were grain for bread, olives for oil, and wine to make the heart glad. We heard that a great deal of work was done: although the soil was fertile, the land had to be cleared of stones. With that back-breaking work completed choice vines were planted. A watchtower was built to guard the grapes. A wine vat was also made for the harvested grapes. Vineyard growers had to be patient and ever vigilant. After vines were planted, and weeds removed it still would take two or three years before a fine fruit appeared. But in spite of all this labor of love, the expected fine crop was a disappointment: “I expected it to yield grapes for finest wine, but it yielded what was called ‘wild grapes’, completely useless for wine. In anger the vintner or farmer ripped up the vines and abandoned the field to the weeds.

Isaiah’s love-song turned into a lament. The song was really a folk song about what was going on in Israel during the time of the prophet. The vineyard represented the people. The people are God’s precious and pleasant planting. God chose Israel not because they were large and powerful, they were chosen because God loved them. God provided their rescue when they were trapped into a terrible slavery in Egypt. God brought them to a land of their own not so much to settle down and enjoy the land’s abundance. Ever thankful for the goodness of God they were to be a witness to the world, revealing the wisdom of God’s word and instruction. God expected his ‘planting’, his people, to produce the fruit of justice, mercy, and faith. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed. God expected righteousness but heard a cry of despair. The prophet saw a great deal that was wrong in society of the time lamenting, “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights.” Everything was exactly opposite of what God’s word instructed: “you call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, you are wise in your own eyes and shrewd in your own sight.” People seemed to be enthralled by wealth and consumed by consumerism, ignoring the Word of God which commands seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. People seem out to gain advantage for themselves and not “regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of God’s hands!” Strangely the people worshipped and prayed but God said he did not want to hear any more worship songs and would not listen to prayers because they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

One could respond and think ‘Well, that is an interesting Bible study about the time of the prophet Isaiah, ancient history, but nothing really to say about today.” Don’t dismiss this text. It is a text of judgment that is warning us about the here and now. It is not all that uncommon to hear people talk about freedom, usually meaning doing whatever they want. They figure freedom means individual freedom. Such an attitude can close one’s heart and mind for those who cry out. Isaiah claimed the people of his time were without knowledge. They do not see the work of God. How is our sight, our insight, do we understand that the whole earth is the Lord’s? How about the instruction from the Word of God? The instruction of the Word of God teaches how we are to take care of the earth, and to show care and compassion for one another.

Texts today are a judgment, but judgment never means that God has rejected or given up on us. Isaiah wrote “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” Repentance basically means to change the mind. Importantly this means to change our mind about God. God is not perpetually frowning and fuming about our sin. God asked “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” Do we not realize all God has done and continues to do for us? God provides all that we need for each day. God provides a purpose for each one of us, to serve God with our lives under the guidance of God’s word. God also is our peace, a peace that cannot be overcome or overthrown by life’s struggles and sufferings because we are God’s beloved. In the second lesson the apostle Paul said “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” Notice the prophet Isaiah combined repentance with redemption. Repentance is not covered by you or me simply saying “I am sorry for my sin but then continuing to live in disobedience.” Our baptism has marked us with the cross, the assurance of our redemption or freedom purchased for us by Jesus on the cross; as we said Christ Jesus has made us his own. Belonging to Jesus means we are to represent him.

Isaiah had God ask, “When I expected my vineyard to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” We have already answered that question, a failure of knowledge, or seeing the work of God, and rejection of God’s instruction from God’s Word. God is ready to intervene and stop us from being wild and rebellious. Jesus has come to set us free or redeem us from the control of sin. Jesus has made us his own so we have knowledge of freedom in Christ which is the freedom to serve others. Today, October 4th, celebrates the commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi, author of the prayer that guides our freedom in Jesus, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

If you do not mind a play with the English language, an example of sowing love is to look at the quilts in the sanctuary, thankful for those faithful hands which sewed them together. I was reading about quilt-making from Lutheran World Relief: the quilts are to be sturdy and warm for the key goal is comfort. The quilts are given to people around the world who may have very little. They are especially important for the most vulnerable, the very young and very old. May the beauty of these quilts inspire us today to work in Jesus’ vineyard, producing the good fruit of comfort for people we know who are anxious and fearful and hurting. Simple gestures of thoughtfulness and caring bring needed comfort. I still remember the words of a lonely bachelor in the hospital years ago: he received one get-well card from a thoughtful member of the community and he said “That card came just in time.”

The word ‘comfort’ in the Bible is also associated with the Holy Spirit. May the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, ever remind us that Jesus has made us his own. There was this image in the confirmation material the other week saying that in baptism we are super glued to Jesus. Jesus did say “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide, remain, make your home in my love.”

I think again of that small hospital in Brooklyn and the staff interviews, from CEO, to skilled ER doctors and nurses, to housekeepers and porters. My impression was that there was no concern about status and privilege. They were working together, too busy to be preoccupied with self, but together forming a labor of love, providing comfort and working to save lives. This is the work of the church, is it not? We are all bound to Christ and each other through our baptism into him. Gifted by the Holy Spirit we work to bring comfort in a community where there are so many in tears.

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