Sermon, Feb. 19

1 Cor 3: 9-11

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

You are God’s field, God’s building.

You are God’s field, God’s building.

I’m going to preach briefly today, because I want to give time to our guest speaker, Crystal Plummer of the Episcopal Church Foundation. Crystal is our guide as we walk together through a process of discerning whether this is the moment for a capital campaign to raise funds for some updates and improvements of our building and grounds; and if so, which projects and possibilities should be the focus of that campaign. And in a few moments she’ll talk us through that process, what it means and where it goes from here.

But the lectionary, our cycle of readings, gave me a good text for leading into Crystal’s words, and reminding us why we ask questions like this – what is God calling us to become, and how could our buildings, our property, better accommodate and support that growth?

You are God’s field, God’s building. I’m not a Greek scholar; I fumble around with online resources and pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I got curious about those words, field and building. They seemed suspiciously generic. I wondered if the Greek nouns, the words originally used by the apostle Paul in this letter to the church in Corinth, were more specific and perhaps carried a bit more meaning. So I poked around a bit, and my hunch was correct.

Let’s start with “building.” Turns out the Greek word is oikodome. It’s a compound of two other words – oikos and dome. We’ve talked about the word “oikos” here before – it means a household, a group of people living together under the same roof, functioning as a system. It’s broader and messier and has fuzzier edges than “family,” which is why I like it as a metaphor for a church. Then there’s Doma. We’ve got words based on that – who can guess what it means? Yes – house or home. As in “domestic.” For the language geeks, this turns out to be an Indo-European root, which means it’s really old and really widespread – I was surprised and fascinated to learn that the English word “timber” shares the same root, by way of Old Norse, and originally meant “building”, or, “to build.”

Okay, so, back to Paul: the building here isn’t just any building. It’s a home. A place where people live together. But there’s more: my online source claimed that this word isn’t exactly a noun – more of a gerund: it implies the building process, not a finished product. A home under construction.

So what about the field? It turns out this Greek noun is only used here. There are LOTS of fields in the New Testament, but they’re all named with the noun agro, root of our word “agriculture.” But this field is “georgion.” I was stumped; I thought, Paul used this word for a reason, but I can’t find anything that tells me what this noun implies, that’s different from agro.

Then I saw that another form of this word is used a LOT – the form that means a kind of person, or a kind of worker: someone who tends a vineyard. Someone with the particular skills to care for, prune, support, and encourage a grape vine, so that it will grow strong and healthy, and yield plenty of good-tasting grapes. In that form, this word all over the place – like in the parable in which the landowner rents out his vineyard to vine-keepers, or in John chapter 15, verse 1, when Jesus says, I am the true vine, and my father is the vinedresser. Georgos.

It’s not quite that Paul is calling the church a vineyard – that’s still another Greek noun – but he’s calling the church something that God tends, as one would tend a vineyard. So what’s the biggest difference between a vineyard and a field? With a field, you plant; the plants grow; you harvest; then you till the waste back into the ground and leave it for the next growing season. Every year it’s wiped clean, and the farmer starts over.

But a vineyard is perennial. It takes a long time and a lot of care for the grapevines to mature. That’s why you’d build a wall around a vineyard, and not around a field – a vineyard is a significant investment of resources, time, and care. Thinking about that image, my mind goes to our work slowly adding perennial food-bearing plants on our property here – hazelnuts, currants, fruit trees. It’s a long-term project that will yield results years or decades in the future – and only if we think ahead now, and put in the time and effort to nurture that potential.

You are God’s field, God’s building. You are God’s vines to be tended, God’s home under construction. Paul is writing to a particular church, in this letter, and he sees a particular need for growth in that church – a few verses earlier, in last week’s text, you may remember that he called them spiritual BABIES, not ready for solid food, because they were devolving into trivial factionalism instead of staying focused on Jesus Christ. But, while that’s the context for Paul’s words here, images like this – of cultivation, tending, and building – are used for the Church and for God’s people throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New. God expects God’s people to be always becoming. Never finished. Another season of growth, rightly tended, will yield more fruit. Another day’s work with brick and mortar, rightly planned, will make more room for an expanding household.

In the conversations we’ve already begun, about possibilities for our capital campaign, we’re talking about things: walls, carpets, fixtures, pavement. But we’re always, really, talking about who we are, as an oikos, a household of God, and where we feel the tug of becoming. As we continue those conversations, we will encourage each other always not just to name what we’d like to do, but why we’d like to do it – What constraints would be eased, what possibilities could be accommodated, by the changes we imagine?

As we walk farther into this season together, I’ve found some grounding in the words of the Jesuit scientist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His words echo and amplify Paul’s invitation to the church in Corinth to make themselves available to God’s ongoing work among and within them, and to trust their becoming to God, the Master Architect and Vinedresser. Here are Teilhard’s words:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time…. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.