(a sermon for February 16, 2020, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-23)
Along Route One just north of the town of Monticello, Maine there still stands an old farmhouse that is in fact, the Lowry family homestead. Surrounded by acres of woods and potato fields, my grandparents lived in that house for pretty much their whole lives; it was where my father and his brother and three sisters were all born and raised, and it was the place we gathered for countless family reunions, Christmas Eve celebrations and Oyster Stew suppers, which was in those days the Lowry family meal!
It was also a place of endless fascination for me as a young child, in particular in the way the house itself was laid out. Actually, it was and is a quintessential New England farmhouse, in that it exists in pieces that were built over time and are connected one to another. First there was built the main structure – or the “big house,” as it’s sometimes called in these parts – with the kitchen and living space downstairs, bedrooms and, eventually, a bathroom (!) upstairs. Then, some years later, a couple of additions were built on: on one end, an extra kitchen and living room where my grandparents stayed in their later years while my uncle and his family were living in the main house; and on the other side of the building, an addition made into a laundry room. And then, attached to that laundry room was a shed, or “back house,” that was built primarily for storage and to stack firewood. And of course, this is to say nothing of the porch that at one time or another was attached to the front!
Like I said, as a kid I loved that house! I remember it as being filled will all sorts of nooks and crannies, with doors in every room leading to these “mysterious” closets and crawl-spaces. And the thing was that though it really wasn’t all that big of a house, it still just seemed to me to stretch on forever! These days I like to think of it as in the words of that Schooner Fare song, the “big house, middle house, back house, barn,” built piece by piece and all connected as one; but not only by virtue of wood-framed walls and a shingled roof but in a much larger sense by the several generations of family who have lived there, as well as in and through all the changes in their lives over the years.
It’s an amazing thing when you think about it: all that history; all that experience; all the stories that grew out of a house that continue to be told to this very day. But here’s the thing: it all started by the house having first been built on a strong foundation… because whatever else you choose to build on it, a good foundation is what really matters.
Actually, it strikes me that much the same thing can be said about this church building in which we are worshipping this morning. After all, not only is this building one of the oldest – if not the oldest (!) – original church edifices still standing here in Concord, but it’s also quite literally connected to our fellowship hall, which began its life as a residence across the street here on Mountain Road and was physically moved here to become part of the church! That’s interesting in and of itself, but it seems to me it’s a great analogy – a parable, if you will – for who we are and have always been as a congregation Truly, we at East Church have always sought to be a congregation that reaches out in faith and love to one another and outward to the people of this community. And we do that, come what may, because first we were built on a strong foundation… and like I said before, a good foundation is what really matters…
…understanding that while all those rocks and blocks of granite that underpin this building are of great importance, there’s more to it than simply that. In the words of Brian Peterson, of Lutheran Southern Seminary, just as any building “must fit its foundation, [be] supported by it and shaped to match it,” so it is with the church. Because the church, you see, already has its one foundation, and as we sang at the beginning of the service this morning, “it is Jesus Christ our Lord.” And as Paul makes clear in our text for this morning, “each builder must choose with care how to build on” that foundation, because the materials we use in the building will not only be revealed, in the end our construction going to have to pass inspection…
…which, it seems to me, is not only applicable even now to the manner in which we govern and direct the building up of our churches (including this one!) but also to the way you and I seek to build our lives as well!
This morning we return to Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth; a group of new believers who were remarkable both for the passion expressed in their new-found faith but even more so for the divisions that almost immediately rose amongst them! In fact, at the time when Paul had sent this epistle, there was this growing divide amongst the Corinthian Christians over what leader they should follow: Paul, who had spent 18 months amongst them as a “founding pastor,” so to speak; Apollos, this new, well-spoken and apparently very charismatic missionary leader in their midst; or the well-remembered sentimental favorite Cephas, that is, Peter… yes, that Peter! This question of leadership had become, to say the very least, a heated discussion, and it had now gotten to the point where whenever Christians were gathered there were bound to be lots of signs waving and fiery debate (kind of sounds like primary season in New Hampshire, doesn’t it?).
So of course, here comes Paul right in the midst of the fray! But his response to this conflict is quite interesting: rather than claiming a pre-ordained victory or spiritual high ground over his central political rival – excuse me, his spiritual partner Apollos – Paul acknowledges that yes, “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation” with you in Corinth, “no one can lay any foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation [that] is Jesus Christ.” Actually, a couple of things should be mentioned here: first, that this is indeed metaphor, because in these early days of the church there were no temples under construction; Paul is talking here about the building up of the body of Christ (in fact, the Greek word that’s used here for “church” is ekklesia, which is where we get the term “ecclesiastical,” and refers to a gathering of people). And while we’re on the subject of language, the Greek words that get translated in English as “skilled master builder,” actually are better translated as a “wise architect.” So it’s not so much that Paul’s bragging about all he’s done in building up the church; but rather that “using the gift God gave [him] as a good architect” [The Message] he was able to build on the only foundation that matters: the good foundation, the strong foundation, the foundation that is firm in Jesus Christ.
So essentially, what Paul is saying here is that while yes, I do have some part in the building up of the church (as does, for that matter, Apollos, or Cephas or any other human leader), ultimately this is not about me; and by the way? It’s not about you, either! This is about you and I at work together building up the Body on the good foundation that is Jesus Christ; using the kind of spiritual tools and materials that will stand the test of time and show forth the sincerity and passion of your faith. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Paul asks. Don’t you realize that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple?” Like we said before, it all comes back to the foundation on which you build; this foundation on which you are built… it’s the foundation that really matters!
So, then… given all that, the question is… what’s your foundation?
I remember once, years ago as a much younger pastor in a prior parish, I met with some visitors in our church to discuss the possibility of their joining with our congregation as new members. Now, I should tell you that though I had only recently had the opportunity to meet this couple in person, their reputations certainly preceded them: I was already aware that these were people greatly respected in our community as tireless volunteers, and moreover they were very well thought of by their friends and neighbors. They’d been coming to worship for a few weeks, they seemed to be hitting it off with everyone, the pastor included, and soon I was having folks in the congregation coming up all excited and telling me we’d be really lucky to have these two be part of the church!
So now we have this meeting and, well, it was interesting to say the least! First of all, this woman had a literal checklist of questions she wanted to ask, ranging from the program goals and frequency of youth ministries in the church and whether or not we participate in a sports league, to whether or not I would ever preach on things like the virgin birth or the story of Adam and Eve (no joke!); and she took extensive notes on every one of my answers. And some of the questions were rather telling: If you become a member, are you required to serve on a committee, and for how long? What about stewardship; how is it decided what we’re to give? Are you supposed to come every Sunday to worship, or can you just come sometimes? Kind of odd questions to ask the pastor, I’ll admit, but okay… I’m not exaggerating when I say that this conversation covered just about every aspect of church life, and also that it felt pretty much like a job interview!
But it was all very enjoyable, and when the meeting was done I felt pretty good about our conversation and the prospect of their joining the church; but alas, it was not to be. After a couple weeks, they were gone and rumor had it they’d started attending another church. And of course, what I’m thinking – because this pastor is only human, after all – is what did I do? I mean, I tried to be gracious and welcoming, but also honest and above all, pastoral… so what did I say to these people that was so wrong? How had I driven these people away from our church? Well, later on I learned from a fellow pastor that this particular couple who were so well-respected in the community were also well-known by local pastors as chronic “church hoppers” who had gone through the same interview process in virtually every church across the denominational spectrum for miles around and had never settled on any church… anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. And as I shared my disappointment to this colleague, he said it all: “Don’t worry about it, Michael. Some people are just far more concerned about all the benefits they get from faith than ever looking at its responsibilities.”
I’ve never forgotten that; and it’s always served as a reminder to me, not only as an occasionally overeager pastor but also as a Christian who is ever and always challenged to grow in wisdom and to always build on a good foundation of faith, that as many and as wonderful are the blessings that come in this life of faith I lead, it is not wholly or even primarily what I get out of the experience that is the most important, but rather the glory of what I am strengthened and enabled to build along the way all with the spiritual gifts I’ve been given, most especially in the love of Jesus Christ, who is and shall always be the foundation of all that I am and everything I seek to do. The Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, a Presbyterian pastor from Georgia, says it well: “Good foundations matter… [and] as people of faith, our foundations should [always] be in the promises from God; those outlined by Christ himself and those proclaimed throughout the entirety of scripture. [These] are the bedrocks of our faith that allow us to build our lives in a way that is shaped by our relationship with the Divine.” And what we build on that foundation, both in our work individually as people of faith and together as the church, will grow and expand even as it’s ever and always being tested and refined by God.
In other words, it matters, beloved; what we believe should always translate to how we live: in how we talk to each other, how we reach out to others in need, how we seek to “be” the church in this time and place. Part of our responsibility, yours and mine – as Christians and as the church – is to make sure that whatever we are doing, we are doing on the foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
What’s your foundation? Because it matters, beloved… it matters.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry