Grounded in Grace
A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 23rd, 2014
Matthew 7:24-29, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Our first passage comes from the very end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Here Jesus has finished telling the disciples that when someone strikes them on one cheek, rather than retaliating, they should turn the other. He’s told them to give more to those who take from them. He’s told them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, to not draw attention to themselves through their prayers, and to not judge other people, lest they be judged. He concludes his sermon with this:
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers he helped found in the ancient Greek port city of Corinth. The passage I read and preached on last week spoke of how he called them God’s field, God’s building. Listen for how he speaks of his work among them.
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. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Today is a very special day. Any day we get to celebrate a baptism is a very special day. What a delight it is when we get to celebrate the baptism of a baby. It’s a visible sign and seal of God’s invisible grace. It’s a reminder that God’s love for us as human beings comes before we are ever able to respond to it. It’s an acknowledgement on the part of parents, and family, and friends and a whole community of faith that the God whose love was and is embodied in Jesus Christ— and through the Spirit also in us— has laid a foundation for us on which to build our lives. And Annie did great today, didn’t she?
Several months ago, Annie’s mom Bizzy was the worship leader here. One Sunday morning she was standing up front, doing what Sallie Casto is doing today, doing a marvelous job, as she always does. When the time came for the offering, Bizzy went down to receive it and handing her the plates were the ushers for that day: John and Janet, her mom and dad.
A member of Immanuel related to me to this week how deeply touched he was by watching that scene unfold that morning. “It was like seeing, in a concrete way, how one generation passes the treasure of faith and leadership on to the next—but more than that, it was a testimony to how John and Janet, had laid a foundation on which their daughter was building.
Of course, that’s part of the task of parenting, is it not? To help lay the foundation for a child on which to build his or her life. To help them learn right from wrong; to teach them kindness and respect and reverence for life and awe at the wonder of creation and a sense that we belong to each other and that there is something beyond us that calls us out of ourselves and into service.
But here’s a secret. That’s not a one or two person job. It takes a village. Grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and, get this, congregation members and Sunday school teachers. That’s why there are so many people here today for this occasion. That’s why we all made promises a few minutes ago.
Whenever we have a baptism, we celebrate the work of laying a foundation. When the Apostle Paul talked about his work among the early Christians at Corinth, a congregation which believed they were very wise indeed, he talked about it in terms of having laid a foundation for them. In fact, he said, “No one can lay a foundation other than the one which has been laid, Jesus Christ.”
Now we know, in the strictest sense, that this is not true. There are billions of people in the world who are adherents of other religious traditions and some who follow no tradition at all and some who, though they are wonderful, kind, remarkable people, deny the existence of God at all.
They would not claim to be building their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Yet they are no less a part of the human family, no less loved by God, no less a part of the beloved community than you and I are. They just build their lives on other foundations, or none.
But baptism, if it is to mean anything, if it is to be anything more than a cute little ritual, means that we are committing to build our lives on the foundation of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ, Messiah. On the stories about him, on his teachings, on his Spirit, on his invitation into loving God and one another— on his living embodiment of the truth that sin and death and fear and evil get a word, but they don’t get the last word, in this life or the next. That foundation has already been laid, but each time we baptize another infant, child, youth, or adult, each time we celebrate another soul under construction (to quote from my sermon from last week), and that we are God’s building, we commit ourselves again in community to remember that.
You don’t start constructing a building without laying a foundation. Well, maybe you do, but it’s not terribly wise. Without being on solid footing, the building isn’t likely to stand up to the wear and tear of wind and weather. That’s what Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount are meant to point out: Build on rock, he says, not on sand.
But what does it mean to build on the foundation of Jesus? What are we committing or recommitting to, today?
First, to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ is to build on something solid. Something, and someone, upon which you can count, when the winds and rains of life come—not to prevent them from coming, but to hold you fast when they do, like arms wrapped around the stump of your legs.
The beauty of Christian faith to me is not that it promises that everything will go well in life, that all will be smooth sailing. The beauty of Christian faith is that it is centered in the message that God cared and cares enough about human beings to get involved in the world, to be made manifest in a love that was and is willing to challenge injustice, that was and is willing to suffer for the sake of another, that was and is willing to endure the worst that life can throw at us and not run and hide or go anywhere.
One way of reading the story of crucifixion is to say that Jesus hung in there with humanity. He didn’t bail. A life based on the foundation of Jesus hangs in there in the midst of suffering—and recognizes that God can be counted on in the middle of it all.
Friday night I had the opportunity to meet a real hero. Aaron Alonso is the nephew and cousin of members of my former church in North Carolina. He is a Marine who had his legs blown off by an IED in Afghanistan earlier this month, February 8th. I conducted his grandfather’s funeral, years ago, and his cousin’s wedding, but I’m not sure he really remembers me.
Here’s part of an email I wrote to his Aunt Donna yesterday:
It was my sincere privilege to be with Aaron, Kimberly, and Debbie for a couple of hours last night at Walter Reed. (His wife Jess was not around while I was there—resting, I think). I delivered hugs from you and your family to Debbie (his Mom, Donna’s sister)—Aaron’s not quite in shape to get one right now…
Debbie is very strong, but all of this is wearing on her (as you’d imagine). Kimberly is such a treasure—her tender heart and her obvious love for her big brother shines through so warmly. Aaron, who was being tended to much of the time I was there, looked meaningfully at me and mouthed thank you. He also showed me a picture of his daughter Riley on his phone! What a cutie! (And Riley, by the way is 5 months old).
It is so clear that Aaron is a good, brave, strong man. I prayed for him and all of his family and friends with Debbie and Kimberly and I think they felt the Holy Spirit surrounding them with support. Those prayers will continue.
There is a long road ahead. There will be setbacks and bumps in that road. It will be daunting and, I suppose, without any guarantees, but I do know this: that love—first of all God’s love and, tied to that, all of ours (family, friends, and faith communities)—will carry Aaron and those close to him. Debbie has my cell phone, and I’ve told her that she can call me any time, that I’m her pastor on the ground here and Immanuel is her congregation here.
There are no guarantees for any of us in life, save this: that Jesus’ life means that God will not abandon us in the storm and that we are called as followers of Jesus to embody that truth for others.
Second, a life built on the foundation of Jesus is a life based in grace. The grace of God, grace for others, grace for ourselves. The kind of grace which can say from a cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And from a mountain, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Anne Lamott never spoke truer words than when she wrote, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”
But the world in which we live is not big on teaching grace. McLean is not the greatest place to learn about grace. Our world thrives more on shame, the sense that we are somehow fundamentally ‘not enough.’ So for many of us, our sense of identity and self-worth is somewhat driven by the approval of others, what we produce, and how we are regarded by others – whether people think we’re smart enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough (God help us from that), or wealthy enough, or at the right station in life. The question is, do we have the right clothes, the right cars, the right resume? And we can’t be vulnerable, can’t let our guard down, because we’re always comparing ourselves to others, because we think we’re not enough. If you don’t have a foundation centered in grace—and the knowledge that God and other people will love you even when you’re not at your best—then you face a big crisis, when you retire from work, or you lose your independence, or you go through middle school for God’s sake, or you don’t get into the school you think you’re supposed to, or you get laid off from a job you thought you’d have forever, or if you even just have a bad hair day. If you don’t have a foundation in grace, well then you’re in trouble.
I think Marilyn Monroe, that beautiful, talented, and very bright starlet whose life ended too soon, was speaking to something important when she said, “My work is the only ground I’ve ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation but I’m working on the foundation.” Baptism is about laying the foundation now, and learning to build on it, now.
The final thing about building on the foundation of Jesus is that it empowers us for the work of going outside of ourselves for others and it regularly reminds us of God’s call to that work. We are shown grace, but it is not a cheap grace. It is a grace that calls us to go beyond ourselves in care for others.
That’s what makes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount so challenging and compelling. He outlines a way of living and then says build your life on this way, these teachings.
Elouise Chase, one of the wonderful old saints of Immanuel, died this past week in the facility where she was living in Connecticut. I’ve been in conversation with her niece, and she will be talking with the rest of the family about having a service not just at Arlington Cemetery, but here at Immanuel. She will be laid to rest alongside her husband John at Arlington.
Elouise and John, for those of you who didn’t know them, really lived out Christian faith, particularly through their involvement in projects that were meant to serve others—especially our Dreamer Program. They undeniably built their life on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
I was telling our confirmation class just this last Sunday night that I’ll never forget what I’d heard about a conversation that took place between two Johns. John, who was a Rear Admiral, and my predecessor John Sonnenday. The Admiral, veteran of several wars, told the pastor, “Do you know what is unique about Christianity among world religions? It’s the call to love your enemy.”
Now, I’m not a scholar of world religions, so I don’t know if that is in fact completely correct. But here’s what I do know. I know that it is just exactly the kind of thing somebody might say if he built his life on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
Welcome aboard, Annie!