Who Labors? Who Reaps? Who Gives the Growth?

IMG_1412During the recent Acts 8 Moment mission gathering in Scottsdale, we gathered each morning for worship and Eucharist at an outdoor chapel in the desert. Here’s the sermon from the second day of the confe
rence, preached by Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale.  (Readings: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29, Psalm 99, 1 Corinthians 3:5-11, John 4:31-38)

“I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.”

Cup A Joe was in innovator in the locally roasted coffee bean trade in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I grew up. The coffee shop sat on the college town main drag of Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, opposite North Carolina State University. It had two rooms, the more lively of which was a large space with room for a band or poetry readings in the corner, and whose white walls became yellow with cigarette smoke nearly instantaneously after it opened in 1992.

After my freshman year in college in Indiana, I came home to Raleigh. I spent nearly every night in that room, drinking coffee and chain smoking, hanging out with some high school friends who were also home for the summer, but just as often on my own.

Also hanging out at Cup A Joe that summer was another young man about my age, named Dave. Dave was some variety of evangelical Christian, and he was hanging out with an agenda. He was there to save souls.

Over the course of the summer, he and I struck up a sort of friendship. As a painfully shy but very opinionated atheist, I valued Dave because he was someone I could talk to and it was obvious what we would talk about. As I recall we mainly argued about evolution and homosexuality. I alerted him early on that his church probably didn’t want me anyway because I was gay. He made no apologies for his moral understanding of this aspect of my being, but assured me that his church wanted me very much.

I think Dave valued me because I represented a project. That because we remained in relationship and kept talking endlessly about matters of belief and unbelief, I was someone he could get to yes. I’m not aware of whether he belonged to one of the groups that keeps count of the number of souls saved, but as the summer ended, he did not get to add me to his tally. We parted ways, and for more than 15 years, I forgot all about him.

Dave came back to mind for me after the Act 8 gatherings at General Convention last year. The hopeful focus on growth and renewal led me to reexamine my own conversion to Christianity. I had what our Evangelical brothers and sisters would describe as a conversion experience in the fall of 1996. The details of that are not important to discuss today, but suffice to say that I have always described my conversion as happening at a singular moment.

But then, that’s not really true, is it?

Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

For endless hours, Dave remained in relationship with me. And perhaps even more than that, though it is subtler, my grandfather, who was a minister in the ELCA, listened patiently as his impetuous teenage grandson boldly questioned God’s existence. And more importantly, when I came armed for battle when I came out to him at 17, he gave me nothing to train my weapons on, merely offering me his love. It was only after he died a few years later that I learned he had written a book about the unchurched in the 1970s that included among its various concerns the church’s rejection of gay people.

Dave and my grandfather sowed, but they did not reap.

We in the church have now long been in the habit of reaping that for which we did not labor. In some respects this is appropriate. For new converts, for those just returning to the church, for those coming to the church who have been abused by other Christian traditions, a time of rest is appropriate. After witnessing the power of the resurrection, it’s ok to spare some time to sit on the shores of Galilee and let Jesus cook us breakfast.

But this is to strengthen us for what is ahead. Just so with what our forebears left us: our churches and organs and endowments and so on. The burden of them is grievous unto us in some measure because the world has changed, but in large part because of our own failings. We have reaped that for which we did not labor, but we have failed to labor ourselves.

I scarcely need to expand on this to this group. We recognize this. That is why we are here. Some of us have been awake to this for a long time. Some such as myself have only within the last couple years awoken from our slumber.

So Eldad and Medad started to prophesy, unauthorized, in the camp. What are we to say of this?

We have assembled here because we have a love for God’s church and we are prepared to make a commitment to planting, watering, laboring, and reaping.

Thank God that in this church of 3 million people, we ten are not the only ones.

As we work, as TREC works, as various bodies within our parishes and missions and dioceses work, if all we as God’s people are faithful, we should not be surprised to find new seeds starting to grow, and flowers turning to fruit. And they may not have anything to do with us.

These will be ideas maybe we had, or maybe wish we had. These may be things that popped up outside the usual chain of command (as indeed we have). We should be wary of getting too precise in measuring our own success.

We are doing important work, but we are not the only ones. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says our Lord. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” says Moses.

Dave and my grandfather sowed seeds in me that they did not reap. Presumably they harvested other things. We will sow seeds that we will not reap. We will harvest some things for which we did not labor.

That’s all right. That’s as it should be.

Let us be faithful in planting, faithful in watering, and let us always remember that God gives the growth. Amen.