abundance, Apostle Paul, blessing, church, faithfulness, God's kingdom, grace, Jesus Christ, love of God, Psalms, United Methodism
I don’t usually post entire sermons, but on Sunday, June 15, I preached my final sermon among the wonderful congregation at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria, California, and am being appointed now to the First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, California, as of July 1st. So here I am including my final sermon called “What Grows in God’s Garden?” based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.
As I look over the vastness represented in Scripture – the many voices, times, cultural and historical contexts, the personalities, and the ways of expressing faith – a consistent theme is faithfulness. It is a theme that encompasses the relationship between God and creation, and between God and humankind.
Scripture portrays God as always faithful to the people God has called for particular purposes – first Abraham and his descendents, the Israelites, and then the early communities who gathered around the story of Jesus and moved out under the Spirit’s power to change the world.
Those who seek to live according the commandments of God in the Hebrew scripture are themselves called the faithful. Those who seek to live according to the way of Jesus and the greatest commandment in the New Covenant are also called the faithful.
In other words, faithfulness is somehow sown into the very fabric of this divine-human encounter toward which each of us is drawn.
The Psalms lift up this theme of faithfulness repeatedly. In Psalm 145:10 we hear:
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.
Then just a few verses later, after extolling the glorious splendor of God’s everlasting kingdom, the psalmist adds (vs. 13b):
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
As we theologize on Scripture and consider how God is revealed in this world, in the church, and in our lives, and as we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are aware of only glimpses of the kingdom here and now. Yet we still believe God’s kingdom will come in the fullness of glory someday! We believe that God is always faithful and that as we contribute our own faithful witness and actions, the kingdom is revealed a little more and a little more.
We celebrated 140 years of Christian ministry in this valley last year – 140 years of people doing their utmost to be faithful to the call of God so that this congregation could be part of what God is doing in the world.
Imagine the settlers of this town and others who followed them putting their sweat and their tears and the joy they had in Christ and their Wesleyan spirit of grace all out on the line so that a Church could be planted here and so that all who would listen would hear of God’s faithful love.
Think of how many Sunday School classes have been taught and how many children have been touched by the story of Jesus in those years!
Think of the worship that has been conducted in several different locations, and now in this place, and of all the worshippers who have felt the strange warming of their hearts in the presence of Christ expressed through word and sacrament!
Think of the caring fellowship that has been expressed among the faithful in this church over the years, moving beyond the superficial to love one another as Christ commands us!
Think of the mission trips, service projects, outreach efforts, and ministries that have been undertaken by this community of faith … and more importantly, think of the lives that have been changed, the addictions that have been overcome, the meals that have been served to the poor, the lonely who have been visited, the lost who have been redirected, the grieving who have been comforted, the showers that have given a new sense of self-worth to so many, and the homes that have been rebuilt or repaired!
These are all validation of God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. These are a confirmation of the fruit of the Spirit in our life together. These are an authentication of the presence of Christ in this community.
I commend you for carrying on the vision of this faith community after 140 years – building beloved community and helping people commit their lives to Christ and grow in grace.
All of the beautiful ways that this church has witnessed to the faithful love of God over many years continue to this day. We can look upon all of it and see what God has done in our midst, and be grateful.
As I came here four years ago, I told you that I was pleased and proud to be appointed to this church. As I leave here I want to express the same sentiment – I am pleased and proud that I was given the opportunity to be your pastor and to provide spiritual and temporal leadership for a time.
You will continue to be a witness to the love of Christ through your ministry presence in this community. You will continue to give spiritual nurture to children and people of all ages.
You will continue to serve others with tangible signs of God’s gracious kingdom, by visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, encouraging the stranger, praying for those in need, and serving the poor.
I have no doubt of any of this because I believe God is faithful, and I believe you are faithful, and that is enough.
The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, says that he is one of the “servants through whom (they) came to believe” (1 Cor. 3:5). But he acknowledges he isn’t the only one. Paul says to them, “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” (3:6-7).
In the United Methodist Church, appointments are made and ministers are moved, and congregations must rely upon the growth that God gives. None of us is indispensable, but each of us is necessary. Our gifts are necessary. Our hearts are necessary. Our love is necessary.
Like Apollos, I have carried the water pail for awhile, and have tried to give the right amount of attention to the needs of the church, and now another one of God’s servants is coming to be in ministry with you, to help you grow in faith and trust, to listen with you for the promptings of the Spirit, and to walk with you in discipleship and mission. You are called to live out your baptisms and be the people God created you to be – generous, giving, hopeful, loving, gracious, Christ-like.
Paul uses a metaphor for God’s people not used anywhere else in scripture. In the midst of his observation of how God desires growth in the spiritual life, Paul says to the people of God, “you are God’s field” (vs. 9). This is an intriguing way to think of ourselves, as a field in which things grow, things of beauty and things of usefulness. God’s field – a place of growth and emerging life. As I look over the past four years and consider the growth that God has caused in our lives together, I am glad that I could be a part of your journey for this brief time.
A father and daughter prepared to part at the airport one day. After a hug the father said, “I love you. I wish you enough.” His daughter boarded the plane, and a few moments later, a woman who overheard their conversation asked the father what it meant to wish someone “enough.” He said that wishing someone “enough” was a tradition in their family. There was even a short poem attached to it.
I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough ‘hellos’ to get you through the final ‘goodbye’.
(Mennonite pastor and author Ralph Milton in an e-zine titled Rumors)
The life of faith provides us with the opportunities to be generous and supportive of one another. As Paul says, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). That’s a pretty healthy way to think about our discipleship – seeing our lives as full of enough of God’s goodness and grace, and choosing to help other people see their lives as full of enough too.
I close with a Franciscan Blessing that makes me want to be a Franciscan:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those
who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
God is faithful.
You are faithful.
That is enough.
Words & photo (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson