Sermon delivered on Septuagesima the 12th February 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG. Sykes at St. Alban's Church of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 30: 15-end     1 Corinthians 3: 1-9     S. Matthew 5: 21-37

1 Corinthians 3:7 "Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth."

From St. Paul's saying we can reflect that a farmer or a gardener can do what he considers to be right concerning planting and watering, but there are those things that are beyond human control also that influence what the outcome of his work is going to be. The farmer or the gardener can make a significant contribution, but ultimately, it is only God who can put everything together to give growth and fruition. St. Paul, of course, implies that the building up of the church follows a similar pattern.

With that in mind, let us consider what the immediate tasks are of the Church of St. Alban's.

Outwardly at least, there seem to be two major goals for any living organism: to grow, and to survive into the future.

To grow involves providing for growth: a wise mother makes or acquires a size of clothing for her growing child that the child can grow into, and is not merely satisfied with some tight-fitting garment that may look good enough at the time of purchase. Those of us who have read of the old and former Chinese custom of foot-binding will see that as being the opposite of what is needed for a growing organism. That is preventing growth: this is providing for growth.

Also, to survive into the future involves providing for eventualities that are unseen at the time, and which may even be unwelcome, but which nevertheless must at some time be faced.

In the case of St. Alban's, and again in outward terms, we have two major challenges that are fairly evident: one is to get our building plans into actual effect, (for the sake of providing the clothing for growth) and the other is to overcome any obstacle there may arise to obtaining God's choice of rector for as many years ahead as we can foresee. Neither one is easy and both involve resources that we might be tempted to think are beyond us; just as bringing up a child into adulthood, coping with his development and getting over the hurdles of adolescence etc. are all not easy, but they absolutely must be attempted, so that one day the parent can be satisfied with what has been accomplished.

The Word of God for us today does I believe provide some seriously good pointers for how we can and should proceed, while providing for the spiritual, mental and physical contributions that every one of us can make, from the most spiritual to the least.

Building a building is not indeed the sum total of building the church, but I do suppose that we can get some helpful insights into building the communion of the Body of Christ from the various projects the church is engaged in, in this case erecting, furnishing and adorning a building in which, and by means of which, it is intended that through worship and communion with Him and obedience to His Word, God shall be glorified.

In the reading today from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians mention was made, as we have noted, of planting and watering. Here St. Paul is using agricultural imagery, before moving on to using building imagery. In an agricultural setting you plant and water, sometimes for long periods, before any visible growth comes about. The equivalent processes for putting up a building have in our case needed to include the kind of discussion and planning that successive church councils and other forums have engaged in over a period of years, indeed from before we were given to make the move to our current site here at 461 Shedden Road. The farmer, no doubt, considers where on his property is best to plant a particular crop, taking into account what other farming activities he needs to engage in and indeed a host of factors. He may want to consider whether buying a separate field somewhere might be wiser than keeping within his current boundaries, and indeed a farmer might even decide to emigrate to another country and sell off or dissipate his assets among family members.

St. Paul's imagery of planting and watering and receiving development as a gift of God is not only applicable to developing a new church building to worship in: indeed such was not the original application intention of his thought. It is even more applicable, I believe, in finding and developing the oversight and ministerial cure of congregations. No matter what the physical circumstances of a congregation may be, it is inevitably going to have to change its leadership patterns over time as no particular pattern of personal leadership can go on for ever. The time arrived for us over a year ago to search for a new rector and to see that we would be in a position to provide for new leadership. This part of our development project is now showing promise and provides much cause for hope, but we have not arrived at any certain position yet, and we must continue to pray and work together with faith and determination under the Lord's guidance until we do so.

St. Paul is of course right: it is not the Pauls and Apolloses among us, not, say, the Sykes’ or Hall or Calder or anyone else that can determine the entire dimensions of a project or the success of its outcome. We all have to proceed in faith as well as with the best gifts that we have been given and our hearts’ best intentions. We must continue to pray that God, who furnishes His people with such intentions and gifts in great variety, will in His own will and purpose bring them to fruition. We must, indeed pray that He may keep such efforts as we make, within the parameters of His will, and His will is a holy will, a will that desires not merely the growth of a building or the acquisition of a rector that the congregation loves, but our own spiritual growth and that of those around us in the time allotted to us. We need to pray that who we truly are, as members of the body of Jesus Christ, is not in any way denied or negated by those things that we do, even by things that we may do in the name of the church herself. We need therefore always to keep in mind St. Paul’s perspective, that even when we employ the gifts we have to the best of our abilities, it is not any of us who are anything, but it is God alone who gives the growth; and indeed that growth may be given either in association with our good use of the gifts He has given us, or even in spite of a use of them that went beyond or even against the divine parameters. We remember that St. Paul was writing to a church in which their many gifts were commendable, but in which the way they used their gifts was often the cause of his displeasure and distress.

The holiness of God’s will is emphasised throughout the Old Testament and certainly in our first Lesson today. The message there is simply that if we keep within the parameters of the divine will, which is conceived of as holy and something to be obeyed, things will be well for us and those who depend upon us, but if we stray away from that will, and adhere to voices that are not from God, in effect making those voices our gods instead, then the blessings of life will depart from us. It would be a mistake to interpret such words as meaning that any setback that we may experience in time is a sure sign of God’s displeasure, and indeed setbacks are always a part of any project that I have ever had any experience with. As Christians, it is the ultimate outcome of any case that we are most concerned about, and not temporary setbacks. When we do experience any setback it is a natural thing, and I believe a good thing, for us to refer back to Head Office, so to speak, and to pray and receive such guidance as we are permitted as to the cause of the setback and whether to adjust our input or to persist in it or to repeat it. Our knowledge of the God of the Lord Jesus assures us of the enduring goodness and patience of the Lord, and even any severe instruction of us is always merciful and for our good.

The holiness of God’s will is emphasised also in today’s reading of the Gospel, in which examples are given of a way of righteousness or holiness that is better than that taught by the teachers contemporary to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord Jesus teaches that angry and insulting behaviour are violations of another’s character, and are a kind of murder and are judged accordingly, because that is what they will ultimately build up to if unchecked; lustful intent is a violation of another person too and breaks the marriage covenant, just as does open adultery, which, again, it will build up to if unchecked; and our word should always be believable among one another or before others, and not need an oath as does a law court. We need not be in any doubt at all that in any circumstance the way of holiness will always turn out to be the way of greatest blessedness in the end.