For we are God’s servants…

February 12, 2017

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Preached by The Very Rev’d Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, on the Second Sunday before Lent, using
1 Corinthians 3: 1 – 9 & Matthew 5: 21 – 37

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.’  1 Cor 3:9

On this, my first Sunday with you, as Dean, I want to thank you for your warm welcome and assure you that I cherish the deep honour that it is to be entrusted, with Chapter, with care of this special and sacred place and for its ministry, life and mission.  I do want to give sincere thanks to everyone who has carried responsibilities so well since Dean James’ retirement.

As I find my way here, and begin to get to know you, I’m eager to learn more about the great heritage of faith and history held here, more about what God has done over the centuries in the lives of Kings and Queens and commoners.  And I’m eager to know ‘what is God doing now’? And certainly, ‘where is God leading us next?’  Our readings today, are full of insight.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to live in a certain way: to obey the commandments of the Law and to exceed the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness.  (Matthew 3; 17 – 20)   We don’t hear the word righteous used much nowadays, other than in the negative way of ‘self-righteous’.  But righteousness here describes a very profound joy.  It is life lived in relationship with God, life in its entirety.  Nothing left out.

Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will sum up the commandments of the Law, very succinctly, as: ‘Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.’  This is the heart of the Law.  But here Jesus is amplifying the teaching of the Law by showing us that love of God and love of one another includes not just action, (what we do and can be seen to do) but also includes intention, ‘the thoughts of our hearts’ (what the prayer book calls ‘the devices and desires of our hearts’).  So righteousness demands that we have a reverent respect for all people, and that we will actively seek reconciliation when there is conflict. And, interestingly for these days, righteousness demands that we speak truthfully and with care.

Well, how on earth can this to be done?  Isn’t it all against natural human inclination? Isn’t it all just too difficult?

And we see in Pauls letter to the Corinthians, in this great and bracing love letter to the church, that mutual respect and reconciliation were proving difficult for the Corinthians, this wasnt their natural inclination. So he offers words and images to inspire and to unite and shape the church and enable its growth.

I want to talk about one in particular.

Life at the Cathedral is made up of a myriad of different acts of service and tasks and work.  One of these that I’ve noticed early on, because it’s so public, is the work of our gardeners, staff and volunteers.  (I have to tell you that discovering that the Dean has an allotment has been a great delight, though honestly this will be mostly the Dean’s husband’s allotment).  I can’t claim to be a gardener, though I do know, as I’m sure many of you do, the pleasure of clearing ground, digging and planting and waiting for growth.  Gardening connects us with the earth and our dependence on its harvest.  Land is treasure.  When Paul tells the Corinthians that they are ‘God’s field’, he reminds them that they are a great treasure, and have been bought at a price.

Paul says: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’.  It is God who creates and sustains life, he is ever faithful, every present.  God is still a God of creation.  And we are invited to join in with His loving, creative work.

So here’s a lesson for us from gardening, about the righteous life.  That by daily, deliberate loving actions, that may be small, we can work with God’s creative spirit and enable change and growth in ourselves and in the world around that we could never have imagined possible.  Daily activity, of prayer, of service, of thoughtfulness enable the Holy Spirit to be cultivated in us, and, as gardeners know we need to keep at it.  To keep praying ‘Thy kingdom come.’

And God will give growth, of faith, hope and love.  And there are growing pains, of course these come along, because small dry seeds are only transformed into deep roots and great shoots, through being buried and broken.  Growth is costly, but it’s also the source of deepest joy and fullness of life.

My hope for our cathedral community and everyone who serves here, is that just like Paul we might have the joy of saying, ‘we are God’s servants’, working together.  That we are God’s field, his precious place, full of life and growth, deeply rooted in our inheritance of faith and nourished by teaching, with shoots growing into Gods future. With a healthy bio-diversity of plant-life, tiny and modest as well as great and tall, which means a place for all God’s children to grow.

My hope is that like Paul, we might be people who plant seeds of faith.  Because we long for others to know the faith, hope and love that is growing in and among us.  Because we long for God’s kingdom of Justice to come on earth, as it is in heaven.  I realise that sometimes it can be that talk of growth and sharing faith causes anxiety, but perhaps sharing seeds of faith, in every day actions and words, might be as natural as a gardener planting seeds.  Rowan Williams has said:  The saint isn’t one who makes you think, ‘That looks hard! That’s too hard for me! But someone who makes us think, how astonishing that human lives can be like that….how can I find what they have found?’ (Silence and Honey Cakes 2003 Chapter 2)

In these days of such political upheaval, of brutality in word and deed, of great division between people, this holy space speaks of that which is most trustworthy: God’s faithful presence among us, welcoming us home.  As people come here for whatever reason, I believe, there is the opportunity for transformation. For an experience of an eternal and loving presence that will not let them go.  That’s what this building can do.  And as the church we can show that God’s love is creative and active still today as our lives are transformed in this community of worship and service.

May God bless us with righteousness and growth.

Amen