The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2017
I Corinthians 3:1-9
The day was May 5, 1985. Cinco de Mayo. A small group of people gathered in St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena, California. There was the priest, the baby, family, and a few close friends. I’m not sure they knew what they were doing; or, maybe it was that they had no idea what the consequences of that day would be. They had no idea that a little water, and some prayers, would shape that baby’s life. But I believe, I know, that God knew what he was doing on that day.
I’ve often thought about that day because of course, I was that baby. My grandfather was that priest. St. James’ in South Pasadena is my mother church. It was my family and their friends that gathered around a font of water to pray. To hold up this child before God, to hold me up; to offer me to God’s service. Little did they know.
Now, I’m going to be very honest with you this morning. Though my mother’s father was a priest, my family did not go to church. As I understand it, and as I know very well, being a clergyman’s family is a cross to bear. It was a burden for my family; and so, growing up, my family stayed away from the church. We would go occasionally, I have fleeting memories of Sunday School. I remember Christmas Eve and Easter; we were those people who came twice a year and sat in your pew. That was me. But I know, in looking back, that God was always there.
I made my first decision to follow Jesus when I was sixteen years old. Three things happened that summer. My grandmother died, and it was at her funeral service that I actually prayed the Lord’s Prayer for the first time. Second, that was the summer that I inherited her 1978 pink Cadillac Coupe D’Ville. It was a Mary Kay car. The third thing that happened that summer was that I had to read “Canterbury Tales” for my summer reading project. And there, in a book centuries old, I found what I was looking for. If you remember Canterbury Tales, it was the Priest in that story that stood out to me. I decided I wanted to be him. I wanted to have what he had.
And so I decided to follow Jesus. Then and there, I chose love. I chose life. I chose to become someone different.
But you know, I was simply becoming the child of God that I was created to be. I was finally responding to my baptism. The water and the prayers that had been offered on my behalf – they were answered – it just took sixteen years. That’s half of my lifetime. But to God, that was the blink of an eye.
When St. Paul is writing to that church in Corinth, I feel like he’s writing to me. Like he knows me. For a long time, I have needed the milk of spirituality, I was not ready for solid food. Because I was still of the flesh. But as St. Paul says to that tiny church twenty centuries, “I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the growth.”
My grandfather and my family at that small service of baptism planted the seed. Years of maturing, of questioning, of not going to church; the Canterbury Tales; that all watered me. The seed was dormant, yet the seed was still there. And so God gave the growth. And God is still giving me the growth as I seek to wean myself from spiritual milk and to try solid food.
I have learned a number of things so far on my spiritual journey with God. The first is this: everything I have received is a gift. God’s grace and love for me is an unearned, undeserved, extravagantly generous gift. The mercy that I feel everyday, that is a gift. It’s freely given by God. On my good days it’s there, on my bad days it’s there. Whether I recognize God’s grace or not, it’s still there. It’s all gift.
I have also learned that sometimes things take awhile. God took his time with me. God has all the time in the world because he created both time and the world. If God has a vision, it will be accomplished, but rarely will it be on our timetable. It’s been a good lesson to keep in mind as we undertake this building project. Things take awhile, but God has plenty of time. In my haste and in my enthusiasm to get things done, I want to get them done fast. But I look in the mirror, and I’m reminded that with God, some things just take time. And that, too, is a gift.
I have also learned from my journey with Jesus that seemingly small actions now have tremendous consequences down the road. Saint Paul did not start off planting some huge, beautiful oak tree at the church in Corinth. He planted a seed. For me, it started with a splash of water on my head. That seed, that splash of water is still reverberating throughout my life. Who knew, who knew that May 5, 1985 would bring you and I together?
And so when I baptize children, I wonder – who will they grow into? When I place bread in your hands, I wonder – how will God work through this bread to make you grow? When someone new walks into this church for the first time, I wonder – what seed has been planted and how are they growing? I wonder about the thousand thousand small things I do every day – am I planting good seeds, am I watering what I should be watering?
Paul planted. Apollos watered. But neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything. God is everything. Because God is the one who makes the tree to grow.
And I’ve learned that I’m still growing. God is still calling me deeper, calling me to grow closer to him. I was baptized when I was an infant. But that was just a seed. I was confirmed when I was seventeen, but that was just the watering. And you might think that after seminary, after six years of priesthood, I would have things figured out. The opposite has happened, actually.
Though I resist it everyday, God is still trying to give me the growth. God is still weaning me off the spiritual milk and is desperately trying to give me the solid food of faith. I have committed to follow Jesus, to live the way of love, but I’m not very good at it. I’m still growing. And, I suspect, that will be the case for my entire life. And that even on my death bed, God will still be teaching me. God will still be growing me.
Do not ever think that you are done. God is never done with us. Day by day we are called into the mystery of God’s love. And mystery – mystery is not something that can never understand. Mystery is something that we can endlessly understand. Mystery is not something that we can never understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand. I think that fully comprehending the love of God will take the entirety of my life now, and the life to come.
I want to end with a note about this sermon. Most of my sermons are about doing things. Do this, do that. Pray. Give. Worship. Serve. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. But today, I’m just in a different place. Rather than “do,” I want us all to simply “be.” To remember that we didn’t plant ourselves, we didn’t water ourselves, we don’t grow by our own will. However we have grown and whatever we have received has been a gift from God, unconnected to what we have done or left undone. We do not plant our own seeds of spiritual growth, we do not water our own spiritual life, we do not grow by our own will. God takes away the milk of spirituality, and gives us real food. It is God, and God alone, who draws us out of ourselves and into the life of grace. I think it is fitting that we end with a prayer:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto
thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
2 thoughts on “Gift”
Wow, Jimmy, I enjoyed reading this sermon. We still think abut you at St. Mark’s and enjoy following your growth. Our time with you was short, but it was obvious that you were a special person. Enjoy your journey.
Excellent! Thank you for sharing this great understanding of God and of our growing in His knowledge.
It was a joy to meet you and your precious members at the “Meet Up” several years ago. I, too, continue to grow in His grace.
Blessings, Danna Dewlen