St. Paul rocks out the building metaphor in writing to the Corinthian church. He wants them to know that Jesus is the foundation and not any teacher or other person. And then we need to build on that foundation.
A sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany. Based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
I grew up working in the family business. My dad, after his time in military service as a tank mechanic, used the skills he learned to wire large machinery. After a few years and upon earning his Master Electrician’s license, he struck out on his own founding LaBelle Electric. I learned the basics of the trade and got instilled with a good work ethic. I can look at a blueprint and imagine how something comes together from paper into reality. I’ve been on construction sites throughout the entirety of my life, and when I head to a Habitat build or see some of the work my brother does when I travel back to Michigan, it’s very familiar.
So when Paul begins talking about buildings and foundations, it’s right up my alley. The metaphor works for me. Partly this is because electricians are on a construction site right from the beginning, laying underground pipe when the foundation is being poured, and they are one of the last trades to leave needing to wait for the painters to finish before putting on outlet covers or finishing touches on lighting. Paul tells us that there’s a construction project happening, and that project is us.
Paul describes himself as a master builder—for those who have seen the new Lego movie, this is easy to envision. He’s worked hard in setting up the Corinthian church, in laying a foundation for them. And that foundation, he tells them quite simply, is Jesus Christ .
No before we start imaging Jesus getting squashed by a building or poured over by cement—easy to do if you have a child’s imagination that runs wild sometimes or are a kids yourself, and if that isn’t you, well, you know have that image in your head (You’re welcome)—Paul really means the teachings of Jesus. The way Jesus lived his life. The things that embodied Jesus’ ministry, the love he showed, his own sacrificial death and especially his resurrection. Those become the makings of this foundation. Jesus, his love, his compassion, his suffering and his conquering of death.
And now those who work on the construction site, the electricians and carpenters and plumbers and roofers and heating and cooling specialists, they all come in and build on that foundation. Paul talks about this in detail in the next verses, but our lectionary committee in their great wisdom decided to leave the specifics out. Hear these words from verses 12-15 that were omitted from our reading today:
“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Paul is clueing us in on what sort of material we should use. While we can use anything that is nearby, Paul subtly tells us to use the things that will last like gold and silver and other gems, those that will remain after a testing by fire and not to use much wood, hay or straw that will turn into ash and float away. Before I move into talking about what will last, let me point out something straightaway. Paul doesn’t say that we will be lost when the testing fires come, rather only the things we used to build with. Putting it another way, Paul declares that while we will face testing (he doesn’t say any of us are exempt from this), that we will not only survive but find true salvation and be purified, we will not be utterly lost; good news to be sure.
So it comes down to the materials we use and the work we do. Any DIYer knows this. When you’re at Home Depot looking at materials you can use, you first think about your budget, then you try to get the best you can. When it comes to issues that could lead to harm, you call in reinforcements. Many of you might feel comfortable replacing a light switch, but changing a service panel would be out of your league (and mine too, for what it’s worth).
So it comes down to the basics of Jesus. Pope Francis, in a recent off the cuff video taken with an iPhone by a Pentecostal pastor the pope had befriended while he lived in Argentina, addresses a large gathering of American Pentecostal Christians about Christian unity (I’ll let that sink in for a moment). He begins speaking in English to them, asking pardon since he’s not very fluent, then switches to Italian but declares he speaks neither English or Italian but the language of the heart. He says, “This language of the heart has a [particular] language and grammar. A simple grammar. Love God above all, and love the Other [the neighbor], because he is your Brother and Sister. With these two rules we can go ahead.”
First love God above all. Take time each day to pray, even if only for a few minutes. Give God thanks for the good things you have, for your breath, the opportunities of this new day. Be grateful in all circumstances for God’s abiding presence. God’s deep love. A simple prayer of Wow or Thanks or Help, as Anne Lamont puts it, can go a long long way. Simply pausing, if nothing else, to recognize God in your life.
Read scripture. Even just a few verses. It’ll help you learn and remember the stories of our faith, and encourage and remind you that God has worked in the past and God continues to work even today. Scripture can inspire you when you face difficulty, guide you when you fall off track and help you when you seek to find the way forward. We can offer two things that may help you. First, there is a pamphlet in our Bell Tower Entrance called Forward Day by Day. These are small devotionals with a reading, small meditation and prayer. We get these every few months, and I encourage you to pick one up. Second, for families, we have subscribed to a Daily Devo sent each day to your email. The format is similar to Day by Day, and it includes a photo or video about the topic. If you are interested, let me know and I can add your email to the distribution list. These small things can go a long way to building up your faith.
Second, love others. We promise to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace. As our world grows ever smaller with the advancement of technology and information, who our neighbor is continues to expand. Sometimes just giving monetary support can change someone’s life. When we hosted our international potluck here at St. Mark’s nearly three years ago, Melissa and I, like others of you, sponsored a child. We became connected to Evelyne a young girl from Burandi. We send in our monthly support, and each Christmas we send a larger gift for her. This week we received a letter of thanks for that Christmas gift. Evelyne writes, “I thank you very much for the attachment you have proven to me, and for the financial support granted to me.” She tells us that the gift we sent, $100, was exchanged for a large sum in their local currency. She continues, “With that amount, we bought different need items of the family: clothes and shoes for me, clothes for mum—with them we will be well dressed and look smart on Christmas while going to church. Some food products like rice and palm oil to improve our diet, soaps to improve hygiene, a goat for farming and iron sheets to rehabilitate the roof of our house and with them the rain will not longer be harm[ful] for us.” With the letter she sent a photo, with Evelyne and her mom holding a couple new clothing items, a small sack of rice is in the foreground, three large metal sheets are behind them leaning against their modest hom, and off to the side is a young goat. $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world, and I think it’s some of the best money we’ve ever spent.
Love others. Focus on relationships and spending time with the ones you love. Open yourself up to new friendships. Share your stories. Be kind to those different from you. Don’t look down on others because of their circumstances. Be present when trouble comes, and allow others to be present to you. Find connections either locally like Southborough’s Food Pantry or Project Just Because, or around the globe either through organizations like Compassion and World Vision that invite sponsorships of children like Evelyne, or those working for justice like Love146, our February partner. Don’t make it all about you. Love.
That’s the stuff of gold and silver and precious stones. That’s the building materials we should reach for again and again. And notice the building that we are constructing. It isn’t our own individual places not our own lives, but rather a temple for God. And more than that, the you Paul uses when we writes, “You are God’s temple,” isn’t a singular you, but a plural. “Don’t all you all know that you are God’s temple,” he asks. Together. In community. The work we do in creating this wonderful home for God takes all of us together. The Christian faith is never lived alone; it is always in community. And God calls all of us, each and every one of us from the youngest to the oldest, to do our part, to share the language of the heart and to construct a dwelling place for the Almighty. May we do so with enthusiasm, commitment and joy. Amen.