Living in a Construction Zone
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 16th, 2014
This morning’s scripture lesson is from the 3rd chapter of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the church at Corinth, a congregation filled with people who considered themselves quite knowledgeable and wise to the ways of the world. People, in other words, very much like us. In the first couple of chapters of his letter, Paul differentiates between human wisdom and divine wisdom, suggesting that the message about the cross—the message of vulnerable love—is foolishness to many. But it is in fact the divine wisdom, the power of God seen in what many would interpret as weakness. And the Corinthians were having none of it.
A colleague of mine writes, provocatively: Paul confronts these would-be wise Corinthians Christians with the executed Christ, who shows that God is not to be seen as the projection of male fantasy about power and control, but as the compassionate one who confronts human foolishness and invites relationship for change.[i]
In the passage I’m about to read, Paul tells his hearers, who have divided into factions (striving to feel superior to one another due to what they believed or whose leadership they followed), that as long as they are doing that, they still have a lot of growing up to do. They aren’t even close to getting the message. Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t think this kind of internal bickering is really a problem at Immanuel, thank God. Where we disagree we can by and large agree to disagree agreeably. But, true confession, I can from time to time look at others in the larger body of Christ and think I’m wiser, more theologically astute, more intellectually honest, more socially conscious and more politically correct than they. It happens on both sides of the aisle. Maybe you feel that way, too. If so, then this passage may speak to you. And listen for what Paul returns again and again to the idea of growth, as if to say, don’t feel you have arrived. God isn’t finished with you yet.
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 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.
Late Wednesday afternoon, after conducting our monthly worship service for the residents at Chesterbrook and sticking around to visit with a few of our Immanuel members who live there, I headed over to Sibley Hospital to meet the newest addition to our Immanuel community, little Laina Victoria Hancock. She’d been born earlier that day. Her mom Barbara is a frequent attendee of our Immanuel in the Evening services and her grandparents Dan and Barbara Krabill are over the moon with joy at having their first grandchild.
It’s one of the real perks of pastoring to be able to hold and bless a newborn on the very day they arrive in this world. Looking down at little Laina, as I cradled her in my arms, I couldn’t help but think of doing the same thing with my elder daughter Rebecca, a day short of 21 years before.
I thought of how quickly those 21 years have passed and how much growing and changing she has done over those years, and the growing and changing that lies ahead for her. I also thought about how much growing and changing Barbara and William— little Laina’s parents— have in store for them, as they become used to being parents. And I thought of my time earlier that afternoon with our Immanuel members over at Chesterbrook and the sorts of growing and changing, adjusting and adapting to circumstance and challenge, the holding on and letting go they’ve had to go through over the past 90 or so years as they raised children of their own and said goodbye to spouses and homes and coped with aging bodies and minds.
At the kick-off event we have every year for our confirmation process I always talk about how the life of faith is a journey, and that confirmation is just one of the earliest steps on that path. God isn’t finished with any one of us yet, I go on to tell them. But what does that mean?
Well, Paul in today’s passage uses a number of metaphors to get at that question. He compares his hearers to infants who aren’t old enough to be weaned and move to solid food—there are stages to spiritual growth. He likens them to a field of vegetables or grain that is seeded and watered by others, Paul planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but it is God who helps the plants to grow— nurturing is important.
And then, at the end, Paul claims that they are God’s building, which calls to mind the idea of being under construction. All of us together, and each of us individually, are being built by God. We are under construction. Our souls are under construction. Little Laina’s soul, your soul, my soul. Ours, and the souls of the ones we love, and the souls of the ones we struggle to love, the ones with whom we disagree. That’s what I want to focus on today.
The first thing to say about being under construction is that it takes time and persistence.
Three mornings a week, I take an early morning exercise class that meets in Tyson’s Corner. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve come out from the mall to Rt. 123, I’ve seen the Metro Silver Line go up. I’ve seen the station take shape, and a hotel right on the corner seems to gain a floor every other day. Although it seems like these things have gone up rocket fast, just like my daughter turning twenty-one seems like it happened in no time, in reality, there was a lot of time that went into that construction. To expect it to be finished, fully developed right away with the snap of a finger would be unreasonable.
So it is with the spiritual life—our own and others— once we are committed to the idea that we are under construction we can’t think that we’re going to be a finished product right away. It takes time. Like the seed being planted and the plant being watered. We don’t spring full grown from the ground. There are things I only recently became ready to hear. I am a better husband now than I was. I have a deeper prayer life now than I did.
Community, church, change in culture, grows that way, too. It doesn’t happen overnight. But day in day out work pays off. Learning the stories, sharing with each other, praying and singing, working together to make a difference in the world, putting in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours[ii], this is what builds a soul.
I think of the people I know whose lives of faith I most admire and they’ve put in the time in Bible study and support groups, in service to others, in prayer and meditation, in reflection. It takes persistence.
David M. Bailey, the singer-songwriter, God rest his soul, who fought a courageous battle to live and to love fully the days he had left after being told he only had six months to live, continues to inspire me. I was reminded of David this week and a song from one of his earliest albums. He called it Rome.
Lisa wanted to become a writer/ Change the world with each stroke of her pen/ After 10 years she still had not been published/ It took everything she had to start again/ I saw her on a curb in New York City/ She said ‘David, there must be a better way’/ I said ‘Come on, let’s go buy you a notebook ‘/Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day
Stuart wanted to become a doctor/ Change the world by making people well/ When he learned he could not fix his broken heart/ He slowly sank into his private hell/He showed up at my door one Sunday morning/ He said ‘David, I need somewhere safe to stay.’/ I said ‘come on in and have a cup of coffee’/ ‘Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day
William wanted to become a singer / Change the world one song at a time/ But the world did not pay attention to his words, melodies, or rhyme/ I saw him in a bar one night last summer/ He said ‘David, I don’t know where I belong.’/ I said ‘you better write that down on your napkin’ / ‘Cause It sounds like a great line for a song…’
…I suppose I should practice what I preach/ But patience has never been my way/ It’s not the same thing as an empire/ But your dreams should be rebuilt every day.[iii]
I don’t know whether we have to rebuild our dreams every day. But I do know the soulwork of intentionally viewing ourselves as a house for God, takes time and commitment. To hold on to the vision of a deeper, fuller, more peaceful and compassionate life individually and together as the scaffolding goes up and the project seems to be delayed, to remember that we are under construction and are not complete, this is key. So we must take heed to what Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We must trust in the long, slow work of God.”
The second thing to say about being under construction is that it can be messy and inconvenient. Those of you who have had renovations done in your home, or have watched your home being built from the ground up, know what I mean. The contractors, the different specialists, etc. But you don’t need to have had work done on your own home. All it takes really, is being around road construction with the orange barrels and cones and trucks and cement dust, and so forth, to understand about messiness and inconvenience.
The kind of work God’s Spirit, God’s Love, does on us and in us involves rearranging priorities, installing or instilling values and perspectives, and it takes a certain amount of trial and error. That is messy and inconvenient. Love can be messy and inconvenient.
This is how the children’s author, Lemony Snicket, who wrote the Series of Unfortunate Events books that my kids loved when they were younger, put it in his book Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid. “Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby. Awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”[iv]
You can have a carefully constructed theology, which helps you sort who is in and who is out, but then some real human person comes along and messes everything up. You can talk about loving your enemy all you want, but then somebody comes along and hurts somebody close to you and all you want to do is get him back, and the process of wrestling with that creates a mess. You can think you have life all figured out, that your system is working just fine, and then some tragedy happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members in Los Angeles, is the founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion. If anybody knows about how messy and inconvenient God’s construction project is, it is Father Greg Boyle. He quotes Mother Teresa, who he says diagnosed the world’s problems by saying, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Here’s how Boyle’s speaks of what God is building in him and his community. After telling the story of how a gang member named P-Nut called him from jail after he heard that he’d been diagnosed with leukemia, Boyle writes:
No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” The prophet Habbakuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to its fulfillment and it will not disappoint. And if it delays, wait for it.”[v]
I think that’s what Paul was urging on the community of believers at Corinth, and on us as we live and work in a world alongside people with whom we don’t always agree. To trust in the long slow work of God and in the meantime to practice the messy, inconvenient discipline of love for each other and the world.
And here is the final point. What God is building in the world and in us is love lived out, not a theoretical framework or an interesting intellectual construct. A member of the Sojourners Community penned these words on Sojonet at the God’s Politics Blog this week:
It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.
When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.
When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.
When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.
When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.
When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.
When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.
When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.
When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favorite theologian is.
When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.
When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.
When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.
But when you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.
You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.
The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?[vi]
What God is building in the world and in us is a messy, inconvenient love lived out. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary” Bill Loader’s Home Page.) You can find the link here: http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpEpiphany6.htm
[ii] This is a reference to an idea advanced in Malcolm Gladwell ‘s book Outliers. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2008. Print.
[iii] David M. Bailey, “Rome” from his album Love the Time. Please go to his website and buy his music! David, who died several years ago, came to sing at Immanuel in 2006 and his music has touched many of our lives.
[iv] Snicket, Lemony. Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Aviod. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. Print.
[v] Father Greg Boyle Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York, Free Press, 2010), p. 190.
[vi] Stephen Mattson, “When Christians Love Theology More Than People” God’s Politics: a blog by Jim Wallis and Friends (January 22, 2014) Here is a link to the full article http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/01/22/when-christians-love-theology-more-people