Sermon by Armando Ghinaglia
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You are God’s field. Saint Paul is just so flattering. You are God’s field. Great. Just great. Teeming with worms and dirt and standing water and God knows what else. Try comparing your loved ones to a field and see how they feel.
If you’ve worked a field or tended a garden, you know it’s hard work. There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed. You prepare the soil. You plant tiny little seeds into the earth and cover them up and water them (if you remember where you even planted them). And you hope and pray to God Almighty that they’ll grow. Often, they won’t. But sometimes—sometimes—they do. And they grow into their full stature. They flower and bear fruit. They do what they’re meant to do.
So you are God’s field. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. Paul’s not waxing poetic about a patch of dirt, or even waxing poetic about you, he’s talking about God and—as he writes in Philippians—God “at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
He starts out: I, Paul, planted. What has Paul planted if not the seed of faith? Jesus uses seed imagery throughout the gospels to describe faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Seed sown on good soil is like the faithful who understand God’s word and bear fruit. God’s servants sow wheat in God’s field while the devil’s sow weeds.
The letter to the Hebrews says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Far more than we can imagine comes from the smallest seeds. Tiny acorns give way to mighty oaks. Faith the size of a mustard seed moves mountains.
Seeing faith as a seed also reminds us that faith isn’t something that comes from us or that we make for ourselves. Others have to prepare the fields and plant the seeds. Others inspire us to become more than what we are now. Sometimes that happens more overtly, with a friend’s story about how God has worked in her life, or a sermon, or even a single line in scripture. Sometimes that happens without us realizing it, from looking at someone we love and admire—a parent, a friend, a spouse—someone whose example touches something deep within us, who leaves an imprint there that lasts for the rest of our lives.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine talks about how his mother Monica and bishop Ambrose helped him come to the faith. They prepared the ground so that he might receive the seed of faith. His conversion experience came one day when he heard a voice, as of a child, outside, singing, “take up and read, take up and read.” So Augustine went and read the first chapter he found when he opened his Bible—an exhortation to renounce the debauchery that characterized his former life, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh. Augustine writes, “at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”
So we begin by faith. We begin with a seed. But a seed by itself cannot do anything. That seed of assurance, that seed of conviction, that seed of belief is nothing unless it sprouts, unless it takes root, unless it gives way to action. The letter of James says this eloquently: “what good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works?” “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” because “faith is brought to completion by works” (2:14-22).
The seed is just the beginning. Without movement, the seed dies—and faith is dead.
Thus, Apollos watered. Plants need water to take root and produce energy. Water allows a seed to break out of its shell and sprout, taking root in the soil. Water allows a plant to produce the energy it needs to survive and grow. Without water, the seed cannot become more than what it is, and the plant cannot make the sugars it needs to keep going. It wilts, and dies.
Without hope, we’re much the same. Without hope, we struggle to find the energy to get up and keep going, day in and day out. Hope allows hidden possibilities to break out from the seed of faith within us. Hope gives that seed of faith a new life. Hope makes that seed of faith something more than what it was. Hope, then, like water, does two things: it lifts us up, and it keeps us grounded.
By hope, we cling to some future good we really want. We hope to live a long and healthy life. We hope to find success in our careers. We hope to give our kids with a better life. It’s obvious how hope lifts us up. But how does hope keep us grounded?
We usually think of hope as some kind of pie in the sky, but the letter to the Hebrews says that hope is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19). When the rains fall, and the floods come, and the winds blow, trees with shallow roots will topple and fall. It takes an anchor—it takes hope—to keep our feet firmly planted in the time of need. Hope doesn’t just keep us growing upward—it keeps us grounded.
In our relationship with the world around us, then, hope is odd. On one hand, we can’t just reach out to the heavens in hope and abandon our attachments to the things around us here and now. If we do that, when the storm comes, we’ll find ourselves powerless to stand firm in faith, and we will surely fall. On the other hand, there’s a real danger that we’ll forget that we’re meant to be more than roots. There’s a real danger that we won’t go beyond what’s familiar to us—what’s safe—what’s comfortable—a danger that we’ll sprout more and more roots instead of growing upward. If we do that, the day will come when we realize we’ve choked ourselves off—that we’ve grown inward, instead of outward—that we’ve become obsessed with protecting ourselves, and in that obsession, that we’ve resigned ourselves to a barren life, a life that bears few risks—it’s true!—but yields even fewer rewards.
Hope, then, both grounds us and lifts us up. It reminds us that we are in this world—that we are made to be in this world—that our loves and desires and attachments to the good things God has made—can in fact be good and that those things can help us become more than what we are. But hope also reminds us to fix our hearts on heavenly things even while we draw strength from what’s around us; it reminds us that we are not of this world—that we are meant for much more than the soil around us, that we are meant to reach the heavens.
So God gave the growth. Just as plants move and grow toward the light that nourishes them, the love of God bids us to draw ever closer to God. God gives the growth. Unlike plants, our wills allow us to stretch, to move, to yearn, to draw near to God. Still, it’s God in Christ who makes that possible by working in and with us—it’s God who made us to be fruitful and beautiful starting from the tiniest seed of faith that Paul planted, that tiniest seed that Apollos watered, growing toward the knowledge and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, Paul comes to faith. In Christ, Apollos comes to hope. In Christ, God comes down to us so that we may rise up to him.
You, then, are God’s field. Genesis in describing Paradise says that “out of the ground the Lord God has made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Plants in their maturity are useful, beautiful things. They give food and shelter to God’s creatures. They become medicine to heal our sicknesses. They clean the air, taking in our waste and transforming it into new life.
By God’s grace, we take in the changes and chances of this life, take in the sorrow and pain of this world, and transform them, by hope, into new life as we draw near to God. We bind up others’ wounds when they are hurt. We become a refuge for the weary. We bear fruit that strengthens and gladdens the hearts of those around us.
And more than that, by God’s grace, we become like a garden bursting with beauty. The garden’s beauty points to the one who made it. But I am not the gardener, and you are not the gardener. Our mothers may have planted, and Marilyn may have watered, but God has given the growth, so that the beauty in our lives testifies first and foremost to the glory and majesty of a God who works in unexpected ways.
So whether you feel like a lush spiritual valley, or whether you feel like a field that reaps more rocks than crops—heck, even if you feel desolate—you are God’s field. If you’re overflowing with faith and hope and love, cherish the bountiful fruit that grows in your hearts, and share it with others. If you’re not sure that God is working in your life, if you’re not really sure that anything good could grow in you, remember that, with time, even the desolation left behind after a volcanic eruption puts forth flowers that are colorful, and rare, and above all, beautiful. Those flowers may not seem like much, but they’re reminders that God works life in the middle of what the world calls barrenness.
By the grace of God, we are what we are, and God’s grace working in us will not be in vain. We bear within us the seeds of faith, nurtured by the waters of hope, growing into the fullness of the love of God in Christ Jesus. May we come to bear fruit and show forth beauty in all that we do and in all that we are, so that God working in us may bring life to the world. Amen.