- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 6 Epiphany
In the Name...
There’s a true story about one of our past bishops who was on a transatlantic flight that had an engine shut down. He sent word to the pilot via the steward that he was on board and would pray for a safe landing. The pilot sent back the message that he was much obliged, but would rather the bishop pray that the engine start working.
What is the role of ordained leaders in the Church? That is the issue which Paul tackles in the part of his First Letter to the Corinthians which we heard today and the crucial thing, he says, is not to focus so much on what the clergy should be doing as to consider what we're all supposed to be doing, and why.
The main job of ordained leaders, Paul says, is to sow the seed of the Gospel, the Word of God, and do all they can to ensure that the conditions for its growth are right. But he warns, no leader can produce growth, any more than a farmer can make the sun shine or seeds sprout.
And that is what the Corinthians needed to understand. They had been having some problems and were blaming their leaders. And, since some people blamed leaders that others liked, they were developing factions. One says, "I follow Paul, leave him alone," and another "I follow Apollos, leave him alone.” But who, Paul says, is Apollos? And who am I? Only servants through whom you came to believe. We preached, but it's up to you to work out the implications of what we preached. In other words, he says, we can't live your lives for you.
And, that's an important lesson. Church life and spiritual growth is always a cooperative venture. The leaders sow, but God causes the seed to take root. It's God who raises someone who is spiritually weak or dead to new and revived life in Christ. And its God who makes a church grow in spiritual depth as well as in numbers. But one thing God can't do is make the soil fertile without help.
In many places, Jesus uses the imagery of agriculture, of seeds and soil, to describe Christian life. And in almost all of these parables he casts us as the soil because just as, in nature, the nutrients in the soil become part of the plant, so we become part of what the Word becomes in us.
This relationship between the seed and the soil is the meaning of the phrase "losing ourselves to find ourselves.” The more we grow in the Word, the less self-absorbed we become because we become absorbed into the thing that God is growing out of us. We lose our life as soil to find our life in God.
That's why some people stay away from church and preachers. Because the sowing of even the tiniest seed begins something which they can't stop. God's Will is that the seed becomes something great and wonderful and that, in the process, our lives become one with His. And that worries some folks.
They're happy being soil. They don't want it disturbed, tilled, fertilized. So, they deny the seed its water and nutrients. They pour spiritual weed killer on it and cut it back. And that's a key reason some people feel very discontented and unhappy within themselves. They're trying to prevent themselves from growing. They're fighting back against the life that God wants them to have. And, at the end of the day, that's a recipe for insanity and that insanity is why the church in Corinth was having so many problems.
They were trying to blame their leaders for their church's lack of success when, in fact, the people were trying to have a successful church without changing themselves into successful Christians. They wanted the outward and visible trappings, but weren't so keen on the inward and spiritual responsibilities, particularly, it seems, the responsibility to show love of God and love of neighbour.
Now, in a couple of days, even though it's not a major festival of the Church, America will go all out celebrating St. Valentine's Day. And while sentimental or romantic love is the biggest part of this celebration, Christians might want to take a moment and consider what Love is from God's perspective.
In the Gospel today we heard Jesus address people who were very like the Corinthians. People who were in the habit of tailoring God's concept of Love into something less demanding. But think, Jesus says, about how you say you love others and ask yourself, even if you haven't stuck a steel knife into anyone, in whom have you stuck a verbal one? Or consider the things you've done for which you have not apologized. Or what promises have you broken and then justified yourself in doing so? After all, don't most of us have a reason for what we do, and an excuse for what we do not do?
The story is told of a holy man who invited a beggar to his tent for a meal. When grace was being said, the beggar began to curse, declaring that he hated God and could not bear to hear his name. Seized with righteous indignation, the holy man drove the beggar away. But later that night, while the holy man was at his prayers, God spoke to him: "This beggar has cursed and reviled me for fifty years, and yet I have given him food to eat every day. Could you not have put up with him for a single meal?"
There's nothing very sentimental or romantic about that story, but that story is about the kind of Love which God wants to see grow in us. It's not about mush or feeling good. In fact, loving the way God wants us to can sometimes make us feel not so good - uncomfortable. But those are just growing pains. The stress that results when anything living takes on a new shape. And, as we grow into Christ's life, we will feel those stresses and pains. But as we grow into his image and likeness, we will also find a new perspective and new motivation for all we do.
An old pilgrim was making his journey to a mountaintop shrine in the bitter cold of winter when a storm blew up and he sought shelter at an inn. The innkeeper said to him, "How will you ever get there in this kind of weather, my friend?" The old man answered cheerfully, "My heart already got there. It's just the rest of me that has to follow."
So, today, on the threshold of St. Valentine's Day, let the Love of Christ which took him to the Cross at least take you to a new place in your spiritual life. Let the Word which has been sown in your hearts grow without restraint. And, above all, let yourselves become the most successful Christians God has in mind for you to be.
For we are all God's servants working together. We are all God's field.
In the Name...