The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue’s sermon for the Holy Eucharist of the 200th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia given on the grounds of Honey Creek to a congregation assembled in front of the chapel on Saturday, November 6, 2021.
God Gave the Growth
1 Corinthians 3:1-15
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,
but only God who gives the growth.”
-I Corinthians 3:6-7
Planting seeds. Watering the tender shoots. Harvesting the crop.
Such logical, orderly steps.
These logical, orderly steps are nothing like leading a church out of a global pandemic.
Of course, in the first days of the pandemic, the steps were clear enough. We had a declaration of a public health emergency. We saw the videos from Italy with neighbors in their windows, singing across the narrow streets. We could watch famous musicians giving a concert from their living room. So we wiped down our groceries, washed our hands, and stayed home. Churches of all denominations shuttered the doors and logged into their Facebook pages and newly created Zoom accounts. Not ideal and yet we dealt with it. We did the best we could.
By the time the Delta Variant this year spiked, the steps were less clear.
Many were vaccinated. The youngest among us could not yet be. Some preferred to wait and so it was not as easy to discern the shape of our common life.
Life can offer clear next steps: A hurricane hits. The roof is damaged. We know what to do. We get tarps to secure the roof and call the insurance company. We check on our neighbors. We clear the debris. We move on.
Or maybe the problem is more personal. The biopsy is positive. The diagnosis is cancer. We still know what to do. We schedule the appointments. We get the surgery. We go through the courses of chemo and radiation. We take time to heal.
Then there are the rest of the times in life, too many situations to name. The problem is so big, the obstacles are unfamiliar, the path is unclear. This is more like what we face in the church now. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. When we open the doors, we discover less people than before the pandemic. More than last month, but half where we were last year. What now?
As I prayed about this evening and what word of grace God has for the Diocese of Georgia in its 200th convention, I recalled another time when I was leading a church and found myself facing a wall. In this case, the wall was literal, made of brick, and in need of removal.
In founding King of Peace in Kingsland, the issue of where to meet in Kingsland was the overwhelming challenge. Schools would not permit churches to worship in them on Sunday morning, which is the most common solution. The public spaces like the Rec Center, might allow a meeting, but no ongoing congregation could worship. The hotel meeting rooms were small, but could work, yet offered no way to have a nursery.
Five months into my call, we did identify a piece of property next to Camden County High School that would put us in a spot where everyone in the county knew the location and the road was sure to get more traffic over time. We bought a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house, and began to worship in the living room. My Dad was a Civil Engineer and he sketched out a plan for how to enclose the front porch, raise the floor in the garage, take out walls, and have space under that roof for 75 or so.
On March 26, 2001, we had a workday scheduled. The plans had been drawn and approved by the building inspector, who knew what we would do, which was most of it, and what professionals would do for us, which was mostly electrical. A man I knew in St. Marys had the expertise to guide the work that day. He supervised maintenance for a couple of apartment complexes and had a broad set of skills. The rest of us would be worker bees. That is until one parishioner and I showed up only to learn that an overnight emergency with an apartment meant the expert we were relying on would not be able to work with us at all that day. We had a schedule with new people arriving through the day to keep the work going. It had taken a lot to plan and prepare for. The parishioner there with me that morning worked on the USS JFK, an aircraft carrier out of Jacksonville. A great guy, he brought no more expertise than I did. We stared at the wall. I was thinking we would to reschedule, because we could not see our way to finishing what we planned for that day. Then the parishioner said the thing that changed the day, “We are going to have to get the wood paneling off this interior wall. I know how to do that.”
And so we began. We took the molding from around the windows and peeled off the paneling. Another parishioner arrived with his Middle Schooler son. He was a sergeant with the St. Marys Police Department. He suggested the next step, “We need to get the windows out. We all know what to do there.”
As the windows were coming out another parishioner showed up. He served on a ballistic missile submarine at Submarine Base Kings Bay, the main employer in Kingsland. And once again the new arrival brought the idea for the next step with him. He knew an electrician buddy who would help. Within a couple of hours, the wiring was up in the attic and capped off. Then we all took turns sledgehammering out the brick. When we worked toward the edge where it needed a smooth line, another parishioner arrived who drew a chalk line marking the cut. We needed to cut the brick, but no one wanted to be the one to make the cut. We hoped it would match the width of a 2×4 and so we didn’t have as much room for error as we wanted. The brick could split or crack. “Not me” was everyone’s response.
Finally, it was clear that if it was going to fail, I needed to be the one to have done the deed. I put on goggles and made the cut through the brick. It didn’t split or crack.
By sunset, every bit of work scheduled for the day was done. By that Sunday, the floor on the porch had been raised, and a wall and door installed. The work for the week was done. In time, we would find our way through the expansion project together. We could never see how to get it all done, but we always figured out the part we could do next.
Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta, offered me a clarifying question this year. One he honed while taking a class in Inquiry-Driven Leadership at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The professor challenged the executives in the program to craft a question appropriate for their business that would cut to the heart of the essentials for their work. Rob’s question became: What does fidelity to Jesus look like in this moment?
This centers everything I do, and I hope that we do on Jesus and holds up faithfulness as the standard. What does fidelity to Jesus look like at this moment?
Fidelity is a word used sparingly these days. The root, fides in Latin, is used commonly in Christianity for faith. In the Roman Empire which gave us the use of the word as we know it, it meant “reliability” and was essential of both parties in a relationship. Christians came to use Fides for faith as they saw that God was completely reliable and we owed that back to God. God was faithful and were to be faithful in response. So this question, “What does fidelity to Jesus look like at this moment?” Gets at the essence of a Christian response. I know that in this moment, whatever the moment is, God is living and true and so I know in my bones I can rely on God. Knowing that, what is the faithful response to God in this moment.
The same week, I learned that question from Bishop Wright, I found myself in an otherwise empty ICU waiting room. I had been in the room before and it is always full of family members. Not on that day with COVID restrictions. I met with a daughter whose siblings would arrive soon, needing to decide about removing a breathing tube for their Mom. She asked me what they should do. I said the question I had been working with seemed fitting, “What does fidelity to Jesus look like in this moment?” She said she did not know what answer she wanted to give, but in pausing, she was 100% certain what her Mom would say. The family gathered. They agreed. Fidelity to Jesus looked like removing extraordinary care that was extending her life with no chance of improving her health. The answer for that moment was to put their trust where their Mom taught them to place their hope, in Jesus.
In the Epistle reading, which gave us our convention theme of God Gave the Growth, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth in the midst of a church fight. There is great dissension about how to be the Church. One particular issue is that one family is claiming priority as they were baptized by Paul himself while another family is claiming that at least Apollos baptized their whole household. Paul sees the issue that they lost focus on the main thing, all of us are equally beloved by God and all of us matter to the reign of God. He wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Then he added, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
The connection here is that we are not in charge of results when it comes to our congregations. We are tasked with faithfulness, which means in the midst of uncertainty, when we are not sure what to do, we just prayerfully discern the next faithful step.
As your bishop, I need you to know that I don’t have The Plan, The Solution, or least of all the one size fits all solution for the congregations of the Diocese of Georgia.
But that is just fine as we all have Jesus Christ—The Way, The Truth, and The Life.
We don’t know exactly what to do to get to here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the door and look at the people back in our pews.
But we do know Jesus, who “sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world.”
That same Spirit can assist us in determining the next faithful step. What does fidelity to Jesus look like in this moment?
For all of us that next faithful step has meant gently letting those we worshipped with and haven’t seen know that we miss them. But for some churches in this moment, the next faithful step has been returning to Morning Prayer each week led by lay persons. For others, it has meant installing a camera system so no matter what happens next, we always have an option for those who are homebound. For some of our churches it has meant tending to the deferred maintenance on our buildings. For still other congregations, this moment has meant rebuilding time of formation or ways to engage anew with service to others in Jesus’ name.
Fidelity to Jesus in a given moment looks less like a sure-fire plan and instead means discerning the next faithful step knowing that the Church is not ours, but God’s.
God gives the growth is not about us working harder, there is no Gospel, no grace in that. God giving the growth, whatever new life will look like where we serve, is about our discerning the next faithful step, knowing that we do not walk alone. We have one another and we have the same spirit bearing witness with our spirits who guided Paul and the other apostles; the same Spirit who was with the early Christians in the catacombs and the coliseums when all seemed lost; and the same Spirit who will never leave or forsake Christ’s Body, the Church.
God takes our next faithful step and blesses it and gives us the next step and the next and whatever growth looks like in our hearts, in our lives, in our churches, that is a gift from God.