Year A, Sixth Sunday in Epiphany
Paul writes to the quarreling church in Corinth, “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. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
God gives the growth no matter who the preacher or teacher may be. No matter how brilliant the teaching or storytelling, God gives the growth. What matters is that we who teach and preach and lead in the faith community, “simply” choose God and God’s ways. What matters for each of us as believers is that we choose life, that we keep God’s commandments leading to love and justice.
At times we get lost in the weeds trying to keep pace with the growth in God’s field. We can get stuck in the minutiae of keeping all the rules of good living and loose sight of God’s commandments. In Matthew 5 Jesus is preaching to the crowds on mountain. His exhortations in our passage this week are ones that can bog us down in debate and misunderstanding of cultural context. I believe they must be understood in the context of Jesus’ greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40,”“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Only in this context can we get out of the weeds of literalistic interpretation and ancient, unfamiliar social contexts to understand that Jesus was preaching to the crowds on the mount about loving our neighbors as ourselves and as we love God. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves made in God’s image and as we love God empowers us to talk across divides with our neighbors, to create marriages of equal partnership instead of “one-ups-manship,” and to speak truth simply and directly to one another. Behind the lived experiences of angry quarrels, of deceit, of unfaithfulness in relationships is Jesus’ reminder of God’s greatest commandments. Happy are those who love God, who love neighbor and who choose life!
Two stories this week came to me through the images in I Corinthian 3 of planting and watering. I was contemplating them in the context of choosing life, staying committed to God’s commandments. The first story is a Chinese folktale entitled, “The Empty Pot.” It tells of a young boy who scrupulously follows the commandments of the Emperor in a flower growing contest despite failing results. It turns out the contest was about following commandments rather than growing the most beautiful flower. You can find this story in a beautiful picture book version also titled, The Empty Pot, by Demi.
The second tale is also from China, “The Cracked Pot.” In this story a young woman fashions two beautiful pots for carrying water from the well at the bottom of the hill to her home at the top of the hill. One is blue and one is red. They are each painted with flowers. The woman loves her pots for their beauty and their usefulness. Each day for many years she carries them on a stick across her shoulders up and down the hill. They become companions in her daily routine. She considers them friends and talks to them to pass the time. One day she notices that the blue pot has a crack. After she fills it at the well at the bottom of the hill, she finds when she reaches the top that it is only half full. But she loves her pot and even with it half full she realizes she still has enough water for her laundry. So she continues to use it. The pot however is ashamed that it is no longer perfect. One day it cries out to the woman to leave it behind because it is no longer useful. The woman is surprised and delighted to discover that the pot can speak to her. She reassures the pot and surprises it with her imaginative use for the water that leaks from it as she carries it uphill. This story reassures each of us that when we are faithful to God’s ways even our imperfections and immaturities can be put to use for God. The story ends with a beautiful image of resurrection.
Finally I considered the phrase in Sirach 15:16-17, “[God] has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” Fire and water are seeming opposites. So are life and death. Yet we know that fire and water are necessary for life. And our lives are composed of many little deaths that can lead to new life in the pursuit of God’s ultimate ways of life. I chose to look at these verses paradoxically and offer you the story, “The Fire on the Hill”, in the spirit of paradox.
In this story from Kenya a young man from poor circumstances is determined to pursue the love the chief’s daughter despite his mother’s efforts to persuade him otherwise. He accepts the chief’s challenge to spend the night in a cold water pool that is the watering place for many dangerous animals. The reward is the hand in marriage of the chief’s daughter. When the mother discovers she cannot prevent her son from following the way of love she decides to help him. Going to the top of a hill that is opposite the watering hole she builds a fire and tends it all night in hopes that her son will endure the cold and danger through the warmth and light he can see in the faraway fire. And he does! It seems he has won his love. However, the chief discovers that the son was encouraged by the mother’s fire and rules that the young man cheated. The young man devises a clever, logical and heartfelt argument involving the “power” of fire to warm water to prove that he did not cheat, thus winning the hand and heart of his beloved.
Enjoy the stories! And blessings on your Epiphany story journey!
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!