Choosing and Growing

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, June 14, 2015, by Christopher L. Webber.

I did not choose the readings for this week or next, but I couldn’t have chosen much better. The Gospel tells us how the church grows and the Old Testament talks about choosing someone to serve. How do we grow?  How do we choose people to serve, How do we make choices? What could be more relevant for a parish in transition.

Let’s start with choosing, choosing someone to serve God’s people. What happened when the Jewish people needed a king? The Old Testament deals with that question and it tell us that they didn’t appoint a search committee. They just went to the bishop and said, “Give us a king.” Now the “bishop” in this case was Samuel and he’d been around a long time and the way he saw it was, “You don’t need a king.” They had, after all, survived for centuries with no king. When they needed help God raised up a judge, someone who could do what was needed and go home again. But there was no king, no hereditary leader, in fact, no continuing leadership at all because God gave them the unity and the guidance they needed.

So Samuel told them, “You belong to God and God will provide what or who you need, but you don’t need a king; your job is to serve God not a human ruler.” But the people weren’t satisfied with that; they insisted on a king and God said to Samuel, “OK, tell them what will happen if they get a king and then let them have it.”

So Samuel chose them a king.  Twice Samuel chose them a king.  The first one chosen weas Saul and the one qualification the Bible tells us about is that he was head and shoulders taller than anyone else, so when people saw him that was all they needed to know. He looked like a king so he ought to be the king. Somewhere I’ve seen statistics on American presidential election: almost every time the taller candidate wins.  You can understand that when you are choosing a basketball team, but that wasn’t what Israel was doing and it’s not what most parishes and dioceses are doing.  It’s not what our country ought to be doing, but we do it just the same. Israel did it when they chose Saul. So they made him king and lived to regret it.

Now Saul had some good qualities – he was brave and strong and he looked like a king but he was also jealous and insecure; he couldn’t stand sharing the glory with someone like David. Saul Gains His Kingdom by CF VosAnd his insecurity finally undid him.  That’s when God told Samuel to find someone else – which brings us to the reading for today.  Once again Samuel narrowed down the field until he came to the sons of Jesse and one, the resading tells us “had beautiful ehyes and was handsome.  So they chose him.

David like Saul had many good qualities.  But weaknesses also.  He indulged his son Absalom until Absalom decided to overthrow his father and take it all without waiting.  And we know about David and Bathsheba.

So what do we learn from these stories?  We learn that choosing leadership is fraught with problems.  Two kinds of problems. First, we are all too likely to choose people in the hope that they will do our jobs for us. And second, we are all too likely to chose someone outwardly impressive but inwardly insecure.  It’s all too easy for clergy and people to follow that pattern. It’s all too easy for people to do it at any level of choice. Whether we’re looking for a President of the United States or a parish priest, we’re all to likely to choose someone outwardly impressive who seems likely to make our job easier but can’t rise to the challenge, can’t delegate or share responsibility, someone perhaps concerned with his or her own achievements, serving his or her own needs, rather than serving the needs of others. So bear that in mind.  Don’t look for someone who will do your job for you but for someone to work with you and do the things you can’t do, not the things you can do.

Ministry is a task that ought to be shared.  Each of us has a ministry to do. It’s a bad use of a priest’s time to do things you can do better and that ranges all the way from taking care of coffee hour to the work of evangelism. Thirty church members by definition have thirty times as many friends and acquaintances as the priest and thirty times as many opportunities to invite people here, thirty times the opportunities for evangelism.  The priest can’t do it alone. Especially as a newcomer in the community, the priest can’t be the primary evangelist.  He or she can make a difference once you get them here, but it’s got to be a shared ministry. Ministry has to be shared to be effective.

There are, of course, charismatic personalities who draw people like flies to honey, but they draw them to themselves not to Jesus and not to the church. That looks good for awhile, but it doesn’t last, it’s not solid. It isn’t properly centered.  Ministry has to be centered on Jesus. But this Old Testament reading about the problem of choosing ministry comes to us today side by side with the gospel reading which is all about church growth and the two subjects fit together.

Jesus in the gospel uses the planting and harvesting of a crop as a parable of church growth.  “How does a crop grow,” he asks? And he answers, “You don’t know how it grows and you can’t control how it grows. You can plant seeds but God gives the increase.” That’s probably not what we want to hear; we want answers, we want instructions, we want to be told how to do it. And that’s not what we get.

Now, I have a problem with this parable.  I don’t want to be critical but I have to ask how much Jesus knew about farming. He was said to have been a carpenter. What do carpenter’s know about farming? “You plant the seed,” he said, “and the crop just grows by itself.” Well, not exactly.  There’s weeding to do and watering and maybe fertilizing.

“The earth produces by itself,” said Jesus.  Well, not exactly. The weeds grow by themselves, that’s a fact; the earth produces weeds by itself, but not the crop. But no parable is perfect and no parable should ever be asked to make more than one point.  Jesus does have one point. The church is a lot like a field crop. You scatter the seed and it grows and you can’t make it grow. Botanists know a lot more today about exactly how a seed grows and they can alter it a bit and they can change its growth characteristics, but we still can’t make seeds in a lab or create growing things ourselves. There is, in fact, a lot in the process that we can’t change and can’t control.  And there’s a lot about church growth also that doesn’t come about because we are smart or faithful or use the right techniques.

Before I retired, I used to get invitations all the time to seminars on church growth given by pastors of mega-churches who are all too eager to tell you how they did it (for a fee) and you should be like them. But numbers isn’t the only goal and even if a specific formula gets results and gets people in, you need to ask: into what? is it a church, a worshiping community of faithful people, or is it a performance, a crowd pleasing attraction, a show that has little to do with the gospel as we have received it?  We live in a culture that measures everything by numbers and profit, that judges success by numbers. The Bible warns against that again and again.

That first. Church growth is not a matter of technique or numbers. Jesus’ point is that growth depends entirely on God.  We can plant and we can harvest but there will be no harvest if it depends on us. However much we weed or fertilize there will be no crop without the rain and sun over which we have no control.  There will be no growth unless God blesses our efforts.

The parable is too simple and I think Jesus would have been the first to recognize that. A good parable makes one point and the point here is our dependence on God. There are other parables that make other points. Yes, church growth depends finally on God but Jesus chose and trained apostles because God will not do everything for us, God calls us to serve, God calls all of us to ministries, and God gives us enormous responsibility. God calls us to various kinds of ministry and empowers us for the ministry to which we are called.  As we move forward, we need to be clear about ministry. What goals do we have?  What kind of community are we? What kind of community do we want to be? What sort of person will best help us reach those goals?

I think today’s readings give us a lot to think about as we make those decisions in the coming weeks.

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