A MAN WITH A CAN     1 Corinthians 3:5-9

The last two months, for me, have been a rollercoaster, to say the least.  We had the chance to go to Disneyland on our vacation two weeks ago, and I can tell you that Disneyland has nothing on two months of processing a move across the country.  That’s been a way better rollercoaster than anything we rode there.  It’s been an interesting journey, to be quite honest with you.  In many ways I didn’t see the emotional journey coming that I’ve been on, and that we’ve been on together as a family.  I’ve experienced sort of mini panic attacks, and immense sadness, and a little bit of anger, and immense doubt in the midst of it all.  I knew that this day was coming.  I woke up this morning and it was sort of that Brian Regan thing of like, “Oh, it’s due today!”  This day that I’ve been getting ready for for so many days just sort of snuck up on me.  It’s hard for me to believe this is my last Sunday standing in the pulpit here as Lead Pastor of South Fellowship Church.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to take some time to remember and to reminisce a little bit, and to do so with thanksgiving, and that’s been such a natural thing because God has been so abundantly good.  Kelly and I were talking last night after a night with friends in our neighborhood.  We said to each other, “This is so hard because it’s been so good,” in every phase of our life here.  I thought about what do I preach on the last Sunday I have with you and what do I try to impart.  To be quite honest, I feel like my bucket’s a little bit empty today, but I’m going to do my best to impart something to you that I hope gives maybe a little bit of framework for where we’ve been over the last seven years and hopefully, a launching pad for this next season for life as a community of faith as South Fellowship Church.

What I’m reminded of is that transition in the church is as old as the church.  This is something that’s not new, it’s actually something that’s ancient, it’s something that’s old.  I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul as he’s saying good-bye to the elders of the church at Ephesus.  It’s a church that he helped start and pastored for three years.  These are people that he grew to love deeply.  Acts 20:36-37 —  He knelt down and prayed with them all.  And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him….  and sent him off to Jerusalem.  You can read in Acts 13:2-3 where the church is having this prayer meeting and worship time—the church in Antioch—and the Spirit of God says to them to send out Paul and Barnabas and it seems like it’s that next day that Paul and Barnabas are on a ship to Cyprus to start their very first missionary journey.  Can you imagine missing that prayer meeting?  You get there the next day and your pastor and teacher for the past year is gone!  Transition in the church is as old as the church.  That doesn’t make it easy, it just means that we have a little bit of perspective on what this looks like and how this goes.

If you have a Bible and want to follow along, I’m going to be camping out in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.  Context is that the Apostle Paul has planted the church at Corinth; he’s no longer the pastor there.  A man by the name of Apollos has come in after him to be the leader and teacher and one of the pastors in that church.  There’s some people saying that we like Paul better and others that are saying, “Well, we follow Apollos.”  What Paul tries to do in the first few chapters here is reframe that whole discussion.  Here’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 — What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field, God’s building.

I was struck by the fact that I didn’t plant this church.  Dale Schlafer did back in 1979.  Brad Strait pastored after that.  Then in 2012, God graciously called Kelly and I to come and water.  Yeah.  As I’ve tried to think about what these last seven years have been, this is the image that came to mind.  This is how I want to say it today:  I’m just a man with a can, partnering with a God who had a plan.  I’m reminded of John 9, where there’s this little boy who comes to Jesus.  All these people are hanging onto every word that Jesus has and every word that he’s saying.  They’ve gathered on this hillside and there’s no food.  The disciples ask well, how are we going to feed all these people?  This little boy goes well, I’ve got five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus said, “Bring it to me.”  He brought it to him.  Jesus took what seemed like a totally insignificant, completely insufficient amount of food, looked at 5,000 people and somehow took what was insignificant and insufficient and multiplied it.  Over the last seven years, I’ve just imperfectly—oh man, horribly imperfectly…..but I think the picture I have is that I’m taking my two fish and my five loaves and I’m taking my can and God’s filling it up as he’s gracious…..I’ve just had the chance over seven years to see God multiply my life.  Our lives.  To say that I’m grateful is an understatement.

One of the tensions that this text points out—I think it’s this tension we all wrestle with, whether we’re in “vocational ministry” or whether we work in business, whatever our life looks like.  Whether we’re a mom who stays home and raises kids or whether we’re retired, we have this tension, especially as people who want to follow the way of Jesus.  Here’s the tension:  We wrestle with thinking man, my work doesn’t matter.  God’s just going to do what God’s going to do.  I just want to gently, pastorally say to you that is an absolute lie.  Your life and your work matters greatly.  Somebody needed to bring the food to Jesus for him to multiply it.  Jesus is gracious enough to invite you into his story, to bring your gifts, and to bring your talents, and to bring who you are to him, and to give them to Him and to see what He might do with them.  I think that’s one polarity we wrestle with.  We wrestle with thinking, “My life and my work and what I contribute to this church, or to this community, doesn’t matter.”

Then there’s the other polarity of thinking that it all depends on us.  Larry, who’s one of my best friends in the entire world, usually on Sunday mornings at some point, will pull me aside and he’ll say, “Remember, this all depends on you!”  He did it again today.  He’s speaking my love language of sarcasm.  It’s his way of reminding me, “Ryan, you’re just a man with a can, partnering with a God who has a plan.”  That’s all you are.  I’ve needed that reminder.  Maybe you do too.  To reject the polarity of thinking, “It all depends on me,” and the polarity of thinking, “My life doesn’t matter at all.”  We all live in this beautiful, mysterious in-between of somehow what we bring to the table matters deeply and somehow it’s God who infuses all of it with meaning.

The Apostle Paul is going to unpack this tension.  This is more just from my heart today, but I want to give you just a few things that would be an encouragement to you and sort of some takeaways as we look back together and as we start to look forward.  In verse 5, he says:  What then is Apollos? What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.   This translation is making it seem as though the Lord is assigning belief to each.  In the Greek, it’s really, really clear.  What he’s assigning to each is a task.  Paul and Apollos had this role to serve the church.  They did it in a way that’s just simply following the instruction of Jesus.  Here’s what Jesus said to his disciples  — And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. {That’s still the way of the world.  If you have the power, if you have the influence, if you have the money, if you have the fame, use it for yourself.}  But it shall not be so among you.  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) 

This isn’t just unique for those who are in leadership in the church, but…..I want you to know that every believer is a servant and every servant has a task.   Sometimes we get the opportunity to choose what our task is, and sometimes our task is given to us.  But what I’m reminded of, number one, is that I’m not the master.  If I’m a servant, I’m not the master.  I just get to come under the wings of the master.  I get to live in his wind, in his spirit, in his love, in his goodness, I don’t need to control it.  My role, as a follower of Jesus, is to be a servant, and that means I don’t need to call the shots, I just get to live under the good Master.

I’ve shared with you a little bit about how God started to—what Kelly and I felt like—maybe start to reassign our task.  I shared some of that with you in the message that I gave when I started to say listen, we might be moving, and God seems like he might be leading in this way.  But I want to give you a little fuller picture of what that looked like for us.  I know there’s some of you may be wrestling with the idea of 1) Ryan, how do you know? and 2) Are you just seizing an opportunity?  As you know, back in January and February, I did a series called “Life is A-Mazing.”  It was about discerning and discovering God’s will.  It really started to mess with me.  About three-quarters of the way through it, I was approached by the church in California, Emmanuel Faith, to ask if I’d be interested in interviewing for their lead pastor job.  I had turned them down a year-and-a-half before for a role there and they called me and I said, “No! I’m happy at South. I love South.”  Then I started preaching on Jonah and I gave a message entitled “Life on the Run.”  I was driving home from church and thinking, “Man, Lord, I wonder if I’m running from you, number one, but number two, I’m so glad I already said no.”  Then the search firm Emmanuel Faith was working with emailed me and said, “Ryan, we heard your name floating around, are you interested in having a conversation?”  I gave him a list of reasons why I was a terrible choice for them.  They said, “Well, if some of those are put off to the side, are you interested in having a conversation?”  I said, “Well, maybe.”  On March 10th, I had a meeting with Janice and Craig Hammersmith.  Over lunch, they were sharing about God’s prompting in their life about missions and potentially moving their family of six to Luxembourg in the next season.  I drove home from that meeting thinking, “They’re willing to move to Luxembourg and I’m not willing to move to San Diego.”  On April 4th, Jodi Nevins, who’s on staff with us, met with me—we have a standing meeting once a month just to catch up.  She came into my office and said, “Ryan, I’m really nervous to meet with you today.”  She said she told her husband Eric that she was feeling that way and he suggested praying about a question to ask me.  She thought that was a good idea but nothing came to her.  She went to bed and woke up at one in the morning and said, “The question was really, really clear what I was suppose to ask you.”  I said, “Great.”  She said, “What would it look like for us as a church to accomplish the mission and the vision without you as being involved?”  At this point, nobody knew any of these conversations were happening, except Larry.  I went, “Are you kidding me?”  She said, “I went back downstairs; I couldn’t get back to sleep.  I was listening to my Bible meditation app, just praying and praising, and the word that came to me was real crystal clear.  I was suppose to give you the word ‘release.'”  It was this process, you guys, of God just slowly prying our fingers off of something we loved.

From there it got weird, if that isn’t weird enough.  We’re still going, “God, we’re not with you on this.”  On April 15th, I got a text message from somebody I have never met before.  They said, “Hi, Ryan, my name is Kelly.  I’d like to speak to you about purchasing 7584 S. Ogden Way.  Did I reach the right person?  Thank you.”  I wrote back, “No, absolutely not!  We’re not interested in selling.”  In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “What is going on?”  You can write that off as circumstance, that’s totally fine.  I’m actually okay with that, but some of the ways God speaks and moves is through circumstance.  I asked our neighbors and friends, “Hey, did you guys get this text?”  Nobody else.  April 20th, Kelly and I sit down on our couch after a long day.  We look what’s on our DVR.  We like this show “Restaurant Impossible.”  There was a new season and a new episode; we haven’t watched this show in a year.  We put on “Restaurant Impossible” and where was the episode filmed?  Escondido, California!  May 5th, I went to meet with someone from our congregation.  She’s been a missionary in Democratic Republic of Congo for forty years.  It was this really encouraging and sacred meeting we had for almost two hours.  At one point, she started to quote a hymn.  I said, “Norma, what hymn is that?  I’ve never heard that hymn.”  She said, “The hymn is entitled ‘I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.'”   May 24th, I was having it out with God.  I told Kelly, “I feel like I’m on a runaway train and I don’t know how I got here and I know where this is going and I’m not sure I like it.”  I was really wrestling with leaving my dad and Kelly’s folks.  In my regular Bible reading, I came to this passage:  Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:28-30) 

May 29th, we flew out to California.  I preached there and said, “God, if they don’t vote at least 90% I’m not going.”  I’m like praying for an 80% to just say, “Okay!  I knew it!  I knew all this was messing with me.”  The vote was over 95%.  Got home on the night of June 2nd, and on June 3rd we had to make this decision.  I wrote an acceptance letter.  Through tears, I wrote an acceptance letter.  I told Kelly that I couldn’t send it.  I went out on a run.  On the run, I had this idea:  I’m going to write a decline letter also, and I’m going to see which one feels more in line with what God’s doing.  I wrote the decline letter and felt like I worded it really well.  I told Kelly to read both letters and to tell me what she thought God’s doing.  She read them and said, “Ryan, we just know.  We know.”  The assignment has been reassigned.  We’re servants, not the master, and we don’t call the shots.

Here’s a few implications for us, I think, as a community of faith.  The person who follows me as lead pastor of South Fellowship Church will have the same job description, but in a lot of ways will have a different task.  The task is contextual.  The task is unique.  My task for seven years was different than they’ll have, because the church is a different place than it was seven years ago.  We’ll both have the chance to be filled and to pour our little lives out for the sake of the kingdom.  But I think God’s going to grow something different in this new season.  {Will you lean in for a moment?  I just want to say this as clearly as I can.}  That’s a good thing.  That you’re not looking for somebody who’s just like Ryan.  You’re looking for the person that God will call for the next task, for the next season, to lead this church to a place I didn’t lead it to.  One of my pleas with you is that you would support the next lead pastor of South Fellowship Church—the next person who’s a servant with the task of watering this unique field, right here in Littleton—that you would support that person with the same love and support and care that you supported me with from day one.  They’re going to be different, and different isn’t bad, different is probably what this church needs to move into the next season.  So that’s one implication.

Second implication is this:  My task is changing, but that doesn’t mean that yours is.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, transitions are times for the church to rise up.  To say, “God’s planted something in me also.”  Maybe you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for a while wondering: A) Is this the church for me? or wondering B) What do I have to contribute?  I want you to reject the idea that you don’t have anything to give and I want this to be the season where you put your hand in the air and go, “What might it look like for me to pour my life out just a little bit more in this church for the glory of God?”  Because you’re a servant too and as the Apostle Paul would write to the church at Ephesus:  For are his workmanship, {In the Greek, that word is poiema and it means poem or song.  You’re God’s song!}  …created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)   Your work matters.  And when Paul says, “Listen, who’s Paul and who’s Apollos?  We’re nothing,” he’s not saying that their work doesn’t matter, he’s saying the story is not about us, it’s about Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 3:6-8, he says:  I planted, Apollos watered….  {That image is one that I’ll carry with me.  That as a pastor I’m just a man with a can following a God who’s got a plan.}  but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who water is anything, but only God who gives the growth.    It’s this mysterious inner working of our work and God’s, and God’s spirit and our sweat and it makes something beautiful.  I think the call is to recognize that our greatest blessings are the work of His hands, not the result of our labor.  Think about this, when you plant a garden, at the end of the summer (assuming it grows), very rarely do you look at it and go, “I’m amazing!  I’m awesome!”  No, there’s this mysterious combination of soil and water and rain and photosynthesis and all of these things that I had zero control over that happened.  I think our lives, in so many ways, are just the exact same thing.  It’s really good—whether you’re a follower of Jesus here or not—for us, every once in a while, to pause and remember that the best things in our life aren’t the result of our work.  Think about that.  The best things in life are not the result of your work.  Whether it’s a friendship…..certainly there’s work that goes into that, but did you arrange the meeting?  Did you create your exact personality that would mesh with this person?  No!  So much of that is gift.  If you’re married, the same is true of a marriage.  If you have kids, the same is true of your kids.  The greatest blessings in your life are not the work of your hands, they’re the result of His labor, His work, His goodness, His grace, and His mercy.

As I’ve had the chance to reflect on the things that I’m most grateful for here at South, I want to affirm this once again.  My greatest blessings here are not the work of my hands, they’re the result of His Spirit.  His hands, not my labor.  A few things I reflected on.  It’s been so fun to see, because ministry and church is all about people.  It’s been so fun to see God grow this church, to see more people come to know and to love Jesus.  That’s been an absolute blessing for me.  I’m shocked at what God has done.  To see him clarify our missions and our values when we had a discussion in our elder board about changing our mission statement to be “helping people live in the way of Jesus with the heart of Jesus.”   It’s a huge, huge step for an organization to change their mission statement, and for us, it was one part of one meeting and we just went, “Yeah, this feels exactly like what God’s been doing and this is exactly who we are.”  For me, as a pastor, to carry that banner and go, “Oh man, there’s such alignment in my soul with this church,” has been an absolute joy.  I didn’t create that, God did that.  To look at our values on the wall and go, “Those are things I’d give my life to.”  Absolutely.  Pursuing the presence of God.  Practicing relationship with Him.  Helping people move towards wholeness.  Being and living together as a family of believers.  Being rooted in the Scriptures and grounded in the Scriptures.  Renewal.

When we got here, there was around $300,000 in debt.  We’ve seen God wipe that out miraculously, and move us to a place of financial wholeness.  We’ve seen God birth a Young Adult ministry here.  We’ve seen Him start, in the last seven years, a Celebrate Recovery ministry, where people are getting free from hurts, and habits, and hang-ups.  I can assure you, that is not the work of my hands.  It’s not the work of Nicole’s hands; she’s doing an amazing job leading that ministry and I’m so grateful for her partnership, but it’s nothing that we do, it’s the way that God works when we show up and use our gifts.  We’ve seen support groups started that address mental health issues, divorce, addiction, and grief.  Praise God!  We’ve seen the Food Bank remodeled; that was a lot of work of our hands!  Specifically Bill and Erin and Sharon and Larry and John and so many others.  But God’s the one that’s going to make it grow. He’s the one that’s going to make that meaningful, not us.  We’ve seen Family Promise started here, where we get the chance to open our facility for families experiencing homelessness to come and live for a week and try to get their feet back under them, in partnership with twelve other churches around this area, to create seamless transitions for people to hopefully find jobs and find a place to land.  Man, you guys, that’s good work.  But God infuses it with meaning.

I’m so grateful, in the last seven years, that we’ve seen God move in such a way that South Fellowship now has female pastors.  Personally, I’m so grateful for that, because I always said I wanted to raise my daughter in a church where she saw strong female leaders.  We’ve seen missionaries sent out.  We’ve seen spiritual formation and practices and taking discipleship seriously, in the forefront.  I’ve seen a staff that’s grown together, that loves each other, that is like family.  I could stand before you and tell you I’m just a man with a can trying my best to follow a God who’s got a plan, and it’s the work of His hands, not our labor.

Graeme Keith was the treasurer for the Bill Graham Association and one of Billy’s long-time friends.  He was in an elevator and somebody else was in there.  The man said to Billy Graham, “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?”  He said, “Yes.”  “Well,” the man said, “you are a truly great man.”  Billy responded, “No, I’m not a great man.  I just have a great message.”  I would say the same thing.

Verse 9.    For we are God’s fellow workers.   {I just want to set this straight.  Fellow. Workers.  Paul and Apollos: Fellow workers.  Dale Schlafer.  Brad Strait.  Ryan Paulson.  Fill-in-the-blank.  Not competitors; fellow workers.  Just people with a can and some water, doing our best.  Fellow workers, not competitors.}  You are God’s field, God’s building.  According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.  Let each one take care how he builds upon it.  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.   I just want to remind you:  understand that your fruitfulness, in the past and in the future, is determined simply by our foundation. Our foundation has a name.  His name is Jesus.  He’s unshakable, immovable.  He’s the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, next Sunday.  Jesus is the foundation.  He’s the chief cornerstone.  He’s the head of this church.  He’s the senior pastor.  You’ll just get another under-shepherd.  Where we build matters.  Where you build matters, not just as a church, but as a person.  Jesus would say, listen, you’re either building your life on sand or you’re building your life on rocks, but the foundation that you lay will determine the fruitfulness that comes from your life.  So where is it?

As Aaron and the team come forward, I just want to end by reading one of my favorite verses to you.  Paul writes in Philippians 1:3-7 — I thank my God in all my remembrance of you    {I just want you to know, South Fellowship, that Kelly and I will remember this church.  Not only because you took a risk on a 31-year-old guy who had no senior pastor experience and were gracious with me while I learned (really gracious with me), but because we’ve grown to love you deeply.  We really have!  So when we remember you, not just you collectively as a church, but you, individually, we will do so with fondness and with gratitude and we’ll thank Jesus.}   …always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.    I’m so grateful the last seven years hasn’t been me building a ministry.  It’s been us linking arms and hearts together for the sake of the kingdom.  This really has been partnership.  I’m so grateful for that.

Paul says:  And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  Hear me, South.  God is not leaving you.  He has great things in store for you.  He’s committed to the plans He has for this church.  He’s committed to the plans He has to you personally.  This is our chance, both collectively….because Kelly and I are in this too.  We’re stepping out—Free Solo style—sort of going, “Alright, God, you’ve been so good to us this last seven years, and we’re just going to do our best to trust that if this is where you’ll lead, this is where you’ll provide, that you’ll be good to us too.”  But hear me, South, God is not done with you.  I firmly believe, with everything in me, that the best days of South Fellowship Church are in front of her.

Finally, I say this to you:  It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace.   We have both tasted and seen that God is good.  That our eternal home is Him.  That we have the opportunity to make our home in Him today.  Paul says those things knit us together and they drill relationships deep within us.  Kelly and I would say to you all, as a community of faith, but also as individuals, you are deeply, deeply, deeply in our hearts and we love you dearly.  So, South, continue to chase after Jesus.  Continue to serve the people around you in this community, and continue to love each other well.  You’ve done it for seven years, I have no doubt that you’ll continue doing it in the future.  Whatever can God gives you to water in the field that he plants you in, do so knowing that He’s the one that’s at work.  Amen.