Thursday, February 09, 2023

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, "I Belong to Laurel Kearns," 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Sermon 2/7/23

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

I Belong to Laurel Kearns

I belong to Laurel Kearns! I know probably a third of you are here just to figure out what I mean by that. So, aside from teaching you about my true gift - how to write a catchy sermon title - let me explain. 

A few weeks ago when we had our chapel service during Spring orientation, I asked our new students - and all our worship attendees - to think about the people who had brought them to Drew. Who are the friends and family members, the mentors and guides who helped you discern a call, make a decision, who encouraged you in the midst of doubts, challenged you to move out of your comfort zone, who helped you see gifts that could be developed in seminary, who supported you with time, with words, with money, with love? I invited us to name those people. Even now, you might be naming those people in your head - the people who have shaped and supported us. 

I’ve been thinking, too, about the ways we are shaped in academia, and how we talk about who influences us. I’m a student in the PhD program here, and when you apply for a PhD program, you typically include in your application who you want to work with at a particular school and why. And so when I was applying to come back to Drew, I reached out to Dr. Kearns before I applied and talked to her about what I wanted to study, and then when I submitted my application, I wrote about how I wanted to work with Dr. Kearns. I wrote about her reputation in the field of Christianity and Ecology, about what other people had said about her skills as a mentor, and I said that I wanted to come to Drew in particular so I could study with her, be one of her students, her advisee. There are many gifted faculty at Drew and I’ve been grateful to study with all of them, but your advisor in a PhD program has a huge impact on the kind of scholar you become. Prospective students consider with care which scholars they want to work with, who they want to align themselves with, what name their own work might be linked with. To adopt, for a moment, the language of Paul, “I belong to Laurel Kearns.” With care and thought, I’ve chosen to link my name to hers in my academic formation. 

Indeed, who studied with whom is something we pay a lot of attention to in academia. I remember one of my TAs when I was an MDiv student here proudly writing on the board her sort of academic family tree - she was a student of Dr. Keller who was a student of, who was a student of, who was a student of. My TA was really proud of her academic lineage, of what it seemed to say about her scholarship - who she studied with. And I just took my “history and theory” comprehensive exam in December (hip hip hoorah!), and I spent a lot of time thinking about (and writing about) people like Marx and Weber and Durkheim and their legacies - how do contemporary environmental social theorists see their work as grounded in the work of classical sociologists? We might describe sociologists today still by their “schools of thought” - Marxists, Weberians, and so on. Scholars can be pretty insistent on and attached to whose scholarship we get linked to. It matters who we cite or who we don’t cite, and how we reflect or break away from the scholarship of our advisors, and whether we see ourselves as part of this school of thought or that one. 

On the other hand, I think about the many pastors who have been part of my spiritual formation over my lifetime. And I think about the pastors who I followed, and who followed me in the churches I have pastored over the years. One of my colleagues was fond of saying that pastors always think the worst pastors are the ones who came right before and right after them. In other words, if I began serving at a church as pastor, I might soon learn about  all the things my predecessor pastor was doing so wrong, and thinking about how I would fix them. Or once I left the pastorate of a church, I might hear about what my successors were doing, and wonder how quickly they would undo all of the good work I had done there. Kind of a cynical perspective, and thankfully, mostly doesn’t reflect my experience! Instead, I think what we hope for, anyway, is that although our ministry styles may differ, we’re still working toward the same purposes - nurturing, growing, tending a congregation as they seek to follow Jesus. We hope that our congregants focus more on following Jesus than on following any one particular pastor. 

Our reading from 1 Corinthians touches on these themes. Back in chapter 1, Paul began with the imagery that he continues here in chapter 3. In chapter 1 he says that he’s heard reports that the faith community at Corinth has been arguing - members are divided. Specifically, it seems like the Corinthians are aligning themselves with particular teachers - with the mentors and guides who brought them into the church. “... Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Then, in chapter 3, in today’s text, he argues that the Corinthians’ arguing over who has been taught by whom demonstrates that they are spiritual infants, not ready for the solid food of divine life with Christ. “When one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?” Paul asks. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 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.”

So, according to Paul, it really doesn’t matter who shared the gospel with the Corinthians, as long as the gospel is received. It’s God who is doing the work anyway - not Paul, not Apollos. Paul can’t seem to resist pointing out that he is the sower while Apollos is just the one watering, and in verse 10 which we didn’t read he humbly tells us that he is “a skilled master builder” who laid the foundation that Apollos is building on, but still, that foundation is Christ, and as long as we belong to Christ, that’s the main thing. It doesn’t matter to Paul who shaped and influenced the Corinthians as long as they end up as fruitful followers of Jesus. 

I don’t know about you, but the skeptic in me says this kind of unity in the body of Christ that Paul proclaims isn’t quite so easy. Sure, we belong to Christ. But doesn’t it matter what other “belongings” we claim? Does it not matter all who shaped us, what schools of thought we ascribe to, who taught us what, who we “belong” to, as long our first place of belonging is to Christ? The currently-under-way split in my own tradition (and Drew’s tradition) The United Methodist Church, with many disaffiliating, leaving for the new Global Methodist Church, suggests that just belonging to Christ hasn’t been enough. What does it mean to count on an identity in Christ if that can mean so very many different things? It seems any unity we proclaim as Christians can only be a very shallow and surface unity, one that comes at a cost of denying a lot of the specifics of what we’ve come to believe and why, and with whose help and guidance. 

Methodist movement leader John Wesley wrestled with some of these questions in his oft-quoted sermon “Catholic Spirit.” His sermon is based on the exchange between Jehu and Jehonadab in 2 Kings 10:15: “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” In it, Wesley argues that if, as the verse from 2 Kings suggests, our hearts are both “right,” even though we have different understandings of how we practice Christian faith, we can join hands in Christian unity. But if you really read his sermon text, you’ll soon discover that Wesley understands your “heart being true to mine as mine is to yours” to encompass a great deal. For Wesley, the question implies all of these other questions, (paraphrased by me): Do you believe in God and God’s perfection? Do you believe in Jesus? Is Jesus revealed in your soul? Does he dwell in your heart? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Are you busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do you serve God faithfully and reverently? Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you love all people without exception, even your enemies? Do you show your love with good works? Yes, Wesley has room in his heart for more than other Methodist-leaning Christians. Oneness in Christ was deeply important to him. But he had some very clear ideas about what it meant to belong together in one catholic spirit. Beneath a shared “belong to Christ” label, Wesley needed to belong to a shared set of values, a shared ethos, to find kinship and community in Christ. 

It does matter who has shaped us, who we’ve learned from, whose wisdom we claim. I can agree with Paul that God is the one who nurtures growth in us. But, as my advisor Laurel Kearns would tell you, the kind of soil we’re nurtured in, and the quality of the water we’re watered with matter too! I belong to God: that’s the first claim that shapes my life, and sometimes I need Paul’s reminders to focus on following Jesus instead of following the followers of Jesus. But I’m thankful for the web of belonging that shapes me, for the shared values and ethos that shape the communities of Christ of which I am part, for those who have planted seeds in my heart and watered my soul. I belong to God, and I claim that belonging because of so many who have shown me a God of justice, compassion, love, and liberation. You belong to God. But who else do you belong to? I think it matters. Amen. 

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