A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/A • February 19, 2017
© 2017 All Rights Reserved
Click below to hear the sermon preached
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. [1 Corinthians 3:10]
I grew up around builders: in my home, in my neighborhood. As far back as I can remember, there were blocks to play with and stack, wooden blocks that would come tumbling down if not carefully balanced. Trips to the beach meant building sand castles that became more and more elaborate the longer we sat there in the hot sun. Later, living in that post-war moment when Americans were building homes, my friends and I never lacked for the source material to build endless tree houses and forts. The forests were little subdivisions where we industriously nailed bits of wood to create our own vacation homes with precarious ladders that let us climb up and hide, at least until the street lights went on and summoned us home. I may not have been a master builder but I have been a builder and perhaps so have you. Maybe your building used different materials; perhaps you built a family, nurtured it with a thousand dinners, an endless set of trips to school events, late nights up with a child who just wouldn’t sleep. That kind of building is harder than the tree houses but so much more important. What have you built? What are you building? What are we building together?
We have been walking through the first chapters of Paul’s First Corinthians and it’s important to remember the topic he’s addressing. He wants to point the church forward. Just as he helped them gather and get started, now he is showing them a path forward because they’ve wandered off the path of Christ and into division. Paul sets this conflict up as between the human wisdom of the Corinthians and the way of the Cross. By human wisdom, he means that great collection of ideas we glean from our experience. It is the way we do things, the way we have done things; it is what we did last time. There is also attached to this something he talks about as “secret wisdom,” the mystical vision of heaven some preachers speak about even today so wonderfully and beautifully. Paul, for his part, says he has decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except the cross of Christ. He goes on to say that their very conflict shows they are still babies in the faith; he calls them to put aside conflict and come to the Cross to grow up into Christ.
Now he offers them an insight built around the act of building. Paul was the founding pastor of this church. He laid a good foundation; now someone else is building. He wants the Corinthians to understand that all of God’s work is dynamic, changing, constantly evolving. Usually we focus on the pronouncement that Paul laid a foundation like a master builder. What interested me more was his immediate transition: someone else is building on it. We usually think of buildings as staying in place. But Paul is summoning the Corinthian Christians, and us, to imagine their future.
It’s hard to imagine the future. When I was in seminary, I lived in an old farm house owned by a family that had settled Chelmsford, Massachusetts in the 1600’s. The woman in charge of the farm divided people into those who came before the war and after the war; it took me a while to realize she meant the Revolutionary War. The same family had owned this farmhouse since it was built. Now most of us know how moving out of a house forces us to take stock of what we have, what’s worth moving, what to give away or throw away. When Jacquelyn and I moved here, we sent truck loads to the land fill and so much stuff to the Goodwill they asked not to bring anymore. Perhaps you’ve done the same thing: looked at things that had hidden out somewhere and said, “We don’t need that anymore,” consigned it to some fate. It’s how we trim our households. This house had never been through that; the family had never moved.
It was built in the 1820’s across from Baptist Pond, a little pond where the local Baptist church used to immerse people. Unfortunately, that end of the pond had silted up and was rumored to have snakes, so the Baptists had moved their immersing to a public beach. The town of Chelmsford needed a blacksmith, and they lured one there with the promise of the house, which was built for him. His tools and his shed were still on the property. The blacksmith had two sons who served in the Civil War. One of the son’s discharge papers hung in the room I used for a study. After the Civil War, they came back to Chelmsford, and cut the house off it’s foundation, raised it up a full story and built more space so they could both live there with their families. So they did, raised families of their own, cut ice on Baptist Pond, raised crops and had a little dairy operation that included churning butter. I know these things because they left all the stuff in the house and the sheds. It was a great house, strong, secure and it just lacked one thing: electrical outlets. The house had been wired around 1910 and no one thought anyone would need more than one electrical outlet per floor. Who would have thought anyone would need more than one outlet? What would you use them for?
Well, we learned to live with one outlet. We constantly plugged and unplugged thing. But that wasn’t the only challenge. In the living room, there was a fireplace and some logs, neatly tied up, ready for a fire to be laid. When we moved in, the family member who was in charge pointed out the logs and explained that the father of the lady who actually owned the house had put those logs there in 1919 and then had a heart attack and died. The logs were the last thing he’d ever done and they had been there ever since. She didn’t have to make her point: if we wanted a fire, we needed different logs.
I was a youth minister in those days and one of the great things about the house was being able to have the dozen or so senior high kids in my youth group meet there. Now senior high kids haven’t quite grown up so sometimes they revert to being two year olds. We all do. One day, while I was off getting snacks from the kitchen, they got to wrestling around. I heard the noise of it but when you’re a youth minister, you get used to noise, so I didn’t worry until I went back in the living room and everything was quiet. Quiet always concerns youth ministers. I looked around and asked, “What happened?” And then I followed their eyes to the logs. The logs were no longer tied; the logs were scattered. The logs that had been tied up since 1919. “We’re really sorry,” the kids said. So was I. We tried to tied up the logs but it didn’t look quite right; it didn’t look quite the same. The next time the land lady came over, I confessed to what had happened. We stood in the living room and I tried to explain about the youth group and the logs and how we had tied them up. She said, “I noticed they had been changed.” That’s the worst indictment a real New Englander can deliver. I said, yes, they had. There was a long moment and she said, “Well, there’s no point to them now. You might as well use them up, burn them.” It turned out that whatever we had feared from changing the logs didn’t happen. They were, after all, just logs.
We all become used to things in churches. Somehow, what’s there becomes what should be there, what has always been there. But the truth is? Most if it is just logs; most of what we do is just what we have done. What we need to do, what we must do, is to distinguish what’s just things we’re used to doing from the real foundation. “… like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it, “ Paul says. The foundation is important but it’s also important to see that God can do new things, that God does do new things, and to watch for them, celebrate them, make a space for them.
What Is the Foundation?
What Are We Just Used To? What is the foundation? It’s the compassion that flows from the mind of Christ, from thinking about others with the mind of Christ, thinking about ourselves with the mind of Christ. That is the foundation faith of the church.
It’s a challenge. I’ve only built one church meeting house. Around 1990, I was serving the Suttons Bay Congregational Church in northwestern Michigan. We were growing; the church was packed. We needed more space. After a long, long bit of soul searching, the church decided to gut the building and completely redo it. Part of that involved the downstairs area we used for Sunday School. It was a terrible space. For one thing, many years before fuel oil had spilled all over and the response had been to cover it up with rugs. When the oil seeped through, more rugs were put down.
So we were going to tear the whole place up and start over, in a church with lots of kids. Everyone on the Building Committee had ideas about how many rooms to divide this space up into and how big the rooms should be and what color and where we would make storage. So we did what Congregationalists do: we argued and put off decisions until finally the architect said you can’t wait anymore. Given a deadline, some of the arguments got more heated. Then one night, I remember it the way you remember coming out of the Christmas Eve service, when the candles are still lighting up your soul and the warmth of the moment fends off the cold, someone said, I have a new idea. Well, we were so involved in all the ideas already proposed, to be honest, no one really wanted a new idea. But we were polite people so we said go ahead. And this was the proposal: that we have no rooms at all. “Right now, we have lots of kids, but we don’t know how that room will need to be used in the future. Let’s leave it as one big room with movable dividers. Let’s assume we don’t know what God will do in the future here.”
Well, neither the 6 small room people nor the 4 big room people thought that was a good idea but it grew on us and that’s just what we did. We left the whole room open, with some dividers that could make sort of rooms and furniture that rolled around. Ten months later, we moved in. Two months after that, the local Rotary Club came and said, “You have this big room, could we meet there on Mondays?” We realized something: we never thought of the Rotary Club but because we could roll back the dividers and the furniture we could do this. It paid for the dividers; it made the church grow even more. Who would have thought?
It pays to work smart. I think our church ought to get the best advice, use the best practices, do the best job we can. We ought to constantly learn from the wisdom of people who study churches and try out their lessons here. But that’s not the foundation; that’s the furniture. The foundation can’t change; the foundation is permanent. What is that foundation? We need to distinguish it from the furniture because we can always move the furniture around in different ways and furniture sometimes wears out and needs replacement. Paul is clear: the only foundation that can sustain what we are building is the Cross and the only sure guide to the future is the mind of Christ. To think with the mind of Christ is to realize that our own wisdom, our own ideas about how to do things, are temporary; only the ongoing compassionate love of Christ is permanent.
Now we are building here, together, a great church. The foundations of this building are a hundred years old; the foundations of the church itself are even older, they are the great mission to create a free church here in Albany that expresses the love of Christ, that shines the light of God’s love. The most important question we can ask isn’t, “What are we going to do?” but “What is God doing?” The most important answers can’t be found from our own wisdom; they came from prayer and asking, “How can we make God’s love concrete?” The most important things we do may not be exactly what we used to do. God does new things; so should we. Whenever the mind of Christ calls us to new ways of loving, we must listen and not be so concerned about keeping the furniture that we forget the foundation. The love of God, the mind of Christ, is the foundation faith that undergirds us. Build on it, and we can together in God’s time, in God’s way, build a church.