(Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9)
“You’re acting like a baby!”
Those words…that sentiment…perhaps more so the older we got…would bring us up short. Take the wind right out of our sails, often prompting us to respond or retaliate in ways that only served to prove the point: we both could be rather infantile!
I’m not sure my sister or I ever thought we would be appealing to reason when making such claims about the other. Born just thirteen months apart, we neither one had room to talk when calling our sibling immature. But I think it was the reaction we were after. A real stinger. Something to put a halt on any reasonable comeback while the insult or slur had time to sink in. You know how these things play out.
“You’re acting like a baby!” one of us would start.
“Am not!” the other would reply.
“Are too!” the original accuser would insist.
And so on, and so on. Back and forth we would go until, at last, a legitimate adult had heard enough and would decide to intervene. Quickly, all petty disputes would be settled with a parent declaring, “You’re both acting like babies!” And showing a bit more frustration, “That’s not how we raised you!”
Likewise, Paul’s frustration level must be riding high as he writes now for the third time, trying to put an end to senseless squabbling. Listen again:
1And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready…
Like infants. Mere beginners on the spectrum of Christian formation. Far from being fully developed or able to stand yet on their own. More akin to newborns who still require their own special language and food. Only here it’s adults we’re talking about and spiritual nourishment. Keep in mind these were not lifelong Presbyterians who had been baptized as infants and brought up hearing about Jesus over and over again in Sunday School and church from an early age. These were recent converts who had been introduced to a radically new way of thinking by a traveling evangelist. So, Paul had to start them out with the basics in deference to their tentative development. But fast forward a bit, and according to Paul, they aren’t making much progress. As if, they are stuck at birth.
It’s tempting to overlook this last point while only criticizing Paul for self-congratulation. If you’ve studied Paul’s writings any at all, surely you’ve run across this tendency to boast: just one reason some people dislike Paul even now. In fact, more than a few scholars have been quick to point out how Paul lacked a certain political savvy in much of what he did and perhaps would have been better served in this particular instance by taking a less direct approach. Maybe buttering up his listeners a bit first before seeming to insult them. I think that’s why we Presbyterians tend to begin our meetings with prayer…and only after, dispense with calling each other names.
But consider the metaphor Paul uses. It’s that of a nurturing mother. Someone we might expect to cradle and comfort rather than call us names. Someone we can depend on to provide what we need for our very survival. Someone who wants only the very best for us, and who will hold us accountable when we fall short of the mark and forget our upbringing as they say where I’m from. Therefore, I think we must hear Paul speaking as one who cares deeply about the spiritual nourishment of that tender congregation still struggling to grow up and, perhaps, get out of their own way. Knowingly, Paul may choose words that sting in the hope they will stir better behavior.
3bFor as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,
Paul continues to write,
are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
What is it, Paul wants to know, that will define this first-century church? If believer and non-believer remain equal parts human, like a sister and brother always only one year and a month apart, where’s the distinction in the flesh? Here, some might launch into a long litany of Thou Shall Nots which often can make us seem rather pious to the uninitiated. But it’s more than just that, Paul contends. For the degree to which we remain bound by any earthly priorities or practices, the more we elect to dwell on unimportant disagreements and insignificant divisions, or, as one friend puts it, “keep on majoring in the minors,” we are never fully free to focus on spiritual matters. Ultimately worldly power, position and prestige must remain for this life alone. If my time working at hospice has taught me anything, it’s how little some things truly matter in the end.
Therefore, Paul works to put things in proper perspective, downplaying even his own contributions.
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul?
Note how Paul changes the ordering of names to avoid all hint of ranking. And then a more generic title…
Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Paul switches metaphors, no longer speaking as a parent but as a fellow laborer. Down-home-folks, as we might say in eastern North Carolina. Those who till the soil to prepare it for seedlings. And who water freshly plowed rows, then tender vines, then young buds that eventually may become flower or fruit. God willing, that is. Because as Paul’s analogy makes clear, we do as much as we can – not because God is dependent on us – but because we are the ones who ultimately wait on God to provide the harvest.
Trinity knows a thing or two about grassroots efforts. Just as in the passage from Deuteronomy that Grace read for us this morning, you have had people point to a promise. And hold out that dream until you were able to see it taking shape. But it didn’t all happen overnight or at the hands of one or two people. And in many respects the soil still lies fertile awaiting new growth.
The earliest timeline panel hanging in the hall outside the church offices, features several newspaper clippings chronicling the chartering of this community of faith and celebrating with equal enthusiasm the calling of new pastors and the welcoming of new members, as this worshipping community outgrew, first, a member’s home and then borrowed meeting space on the campus of Queens College. I hope we always will remember without distinction the significance of pulpit, pew and place even if we have moved beyond printing members’ names in the Observer and settled into a permanent home with room still to grow! If your memory is fuzzy on some of the details or if this is news to you, take a moment sometime to stop and read more about this church’s history as you pass from Sunday school to worship. But don’t just stop there or you’ll miss a lot.
You see, framed artifacts don’t capture the whole story. There’s more substantial evidence to consider. Like the very building we’re in now which always will represent putting down those first roots once this site was secured. Our worship in this sacred space over the past several weeks has been something of a “homecoming.” Not just a time to try out a new pew and meet some new pew mates, but a time to reflect. Each Sunday, I’ve made a point of entering through the main doors, as if arriving almost seventy years ago. Not because I’m trying to be overly nostalgic, but because I want to know something of what that early excitement must have felt like. Maybe, you too, have stopped in your coming and going to note the small plaque out front honoring Herbert V. Carson who helped organize and formally name this congregation in what, then, was the outer reaches of Charlotte. My, how things have changed on this campus, not to mention in this city. In spite of ourselves, we’ve quickly gone from being way out on Providence Lane to being somewhere along Providence Road. But even when or where there are no permanent inscriptions to mark our place in time, we still see signs of change. Maybe it happens so quickly now that it just becomes part of our collective identity before any singular contributions can be lifted up: as well it should be.
To our past and to this place, we also might look to our sense of pride. By the time Dr. H. Louis Patrick arrives in Charlotte, he is coming to lead the third largest Presbyterian congregation in the city. During his lengthy tenure, Trinity will build a new sanctuary, elect its first of many female officers, be frequent contributor to the nationally broadcast Protestant Hour and participate in a pulpit exchange with a sister 1,000 plus member church in Scotland. These are just some of your accomplishments. It’s no wonder many folks think of Dr. Patrick as a father. The rest tend to speak of him more like a god! But we know that our leaders are all too fallible. They each have their strengths and weakness. And the most effective mentors equip and empower others for leadership as Paul had hoped the church in Corinth would be doing by now.
And that’s why Paul thinks it is so important that we all work together without any division or deification. Paul reminds us not to concern ourselves with who planted and who watered as if one task were nobler than the other, or the one standing in a pulpit or sitting in a pew were more deserving of credit. What matters is that we always know from whence our help shall come and that we serve to point others in that same direction.
8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Paul switches the metaphor one last time to that of working to build up God’s kingdom. For our purposes today, huge mounds of dirt will suffice as ample evidence we heed this call. Clearly, something is about to happen here. We are a people on the move again.
So it’s not just happenstance that today’s lectionary text should find us at this very juncture, having just concluded a sermon series around Trinity’s 2020 vision and anticipating the arrival of Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, as this year’s Gilchrist scholar. Just as Steve and Grace have helped focus us on the future of this church, I suspect Dr. Barnes will have something to say about the future of the Church Universal. Christ’s church. Always mindful of the past, but not bound by it. Always concerned for proper ritual, but willing to adopt new routines. Stockpiling a little dirt from time to time, but more eager to spread the Gospel. A new creation always as the goal. Something bigger than just our time and place.
– 3 –
In closing, allow me a brief personal note. My first “real world” sermon was preached in this very congregation. While I trust this will not be my last, it is the only Sunday sermon currently left on my calendar. So, forgive me, if I go against my better training and try to give you all I’ve got. Despite its many setbacks and shortcomings, despite pastors that will try but not always succeed and parishioners who will work and grow weary, the Church remains the best thing we’ve got! Now is not the time to divide and conquer. Now, as in ages past and ages still to come, is the time to carry on… boldly…together.
I’m rooting for you, Trinity! I’ll be watching even when I no longer am worshipping with you. Praying for you as I hope you will continue to pray for me. Periodically, I will pass along Providence Road and may even from time to time turn in the parking lot just to see what’s happening and who’s here. I’ve become one of you…at one with you…enough to know that God isn’t through with you yet. Just as I suspect God isn’t through with me. So, receive these final words of wisdom not as if locked in a childish tantrum but with all the Christian courage and conviction we might muster.
Are we done here?
Are you still open to God’s unfolding creation?
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.