I had a little extra time on my hands the last month or so, and spent some of it watching home renovations on HGTV. Lots of them. One of the shows that I kept running into was a show about converting basements into apartments to create rental income for homeowners. It seemed like every time a basement renovation was begun, there were major issues. As rooms were reconstructed and the drywall ripped off, moisture was often the culprit of whatever the crisis was. Water came in through bad foundations and made messes, grew mold, and in one case, peeled paint off the wall. Time and time again, the necessary repairs to the foundation wound up doubling the cost of the renovation and made homeowners throw up their hands in despair. I have to admit, it was interesting to see how the foundations of these basements had to be dug up to make the repairs – to fill cracks or seal concrete required excavation on the outside of the house to see what work had been originally done when the house was first built.
In Paul’s letter today he talks about foundations. I don’t think he is planning a basement renovation, but he is trying to prove a point to the church at Corinth. In this letter, Paul is attempting to point out to them that some things need to change. In his absence, the church at Corinth was experiencing some growing pains and a leadership crisis. The members of the church are rallying behind the work that either he, or Apollos, were doing in the name of Jesus. They were choosing sides offering praise to one and complaints about the other. The recipients of the letter were more enthralled with the individual messengers of the Gospel rather than the Gospel itself. The churchgoers are trying to give credit to one and place the blame for failure on the other. Paul and Apollos, however are untied in their ministry and Paul is writing to re-focus the church. He uses two metaphors to describe what he sees happening in the church – the metaphor of the garden and the metaphor of a house foundation. Through these descriptions, Paul reminds the people of whose work is being done in the church at Corinth.
Let’s go back in time – 32,000 years. Way before Paul, into the Upper Paleolithic Era. This is the time when tools were long stone blades, and some of the well-known cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux and Coa were created. Humans lived in houses, some made of mammoth bones, and others with dugout areas for windbreaks, floors, and hearths. It was during this time that the first hunter-gatherer economy was developed. And, somewhere in the area we now know as northeastern Siberia, a squirrel was at work. This squirrel buried a seed deep into the permafrost of the tundra and there it remained. We don’t know why the squirrel never came back to dig up it’s food. Maybe it forgot the location, maybe it died, maybe it decided that the other seeds it buried were tastier. The seed stayed buried for 32,000 years after it was planted. This winter, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that they had found the seed and cultured some of the cells. “Team leader Svetlana Yashina re-created Siberian conditions in the lab and watched as the refrigerated tissue sprouted buds that developed into 36 flowering plants within weeks.” While Paul was writing his letters, those seeds were cocooned in the permafrost of Siberia at a cozy -7 Celsius. They had been frozen about 30,000 years at that point, and they continued to remain frozen until now. So, the question becomes, who gets the credit for the blooms that have grown from the cells of this seed? The scientist who cultured them in the lab and watched and waited? The team who found the seed and brought it back? Or the squirrel who buried it? Perhaps we could read the letter this way: “The squirrel buried, the scientists cultured, but God provided the growth.” God provided the growth, and flowers bloomed from a 32,000 year old seed.
In the first passage that Ted read today, we heard from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower….Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from God, there is no growth. Apart from Christ, there is no fruit. We may begin programs, start Bible Studies or classes, initiate ministries and become frustrated that they are not all we want them to be. We may even fail sometimes. But in God’s garden, perhaps it is not a failure, but a seed we have planted. Perhaps when we say “what if”, someone else tends to that idea and it grows into something beyond recognition. I think about this when I think about how we raise children in the church. We plant seeds through their lives – the prayers spoken at baptism, the songs sung in choir, the trips to Montreat, and confirmation class. We, as the ones who make promises, plant the seeds of faith in their lives. But, thank God it is not up to the planter to also do the watering and harvesting. As a family of faith, some of us plant seeds, and some water and tend as god provides the growth. What a Sunday school teacher says may make a lifelong impact that is not felt for years into the future. As adults, we are continually watered and fertilized as well. When we gather together for supper or Sunday School, some seeds are watered, and new ones are planted. However, no matter who plants, or who waters, it is God who provides the growth.
Paul is speaking in a metaphor to tell those at the church in Corinth that it is not about the worker individually, but about the work that God does to provide growth in the church, and growth of those who call themselves disciples. We are part of the same church that Paul was – sure there have been divisions, expansions, and changes, but at our center, we are all the same. It has taken the work of many over the centuries for the church to get where we are today. Seeds were planted long ago, others cared for them, and sometimes we are lucky enough to see them sprout. God provides the growth, and we bear the fruit.
Once that was made clear, Paul moved on to a new metaphor. I think one of my High School English teacher would have loved this passage – she liked metaphors. Just as we settle in the garden and dream about the garden that we may see grow in our lifetimes, Paul directs our attention elsewhere – to the house that is being built next door. Well, really, it is just the foundation he wants up to look at for now. When I read the passage from Paul, and the description of the foundation, I immediately thought of 2 things – the first were those renovation shows I mentioned to you before, and the second was the house we worked on in Tuscaloosa last month. When we arrived on the first day, all that was finished was the foundation. A stack of cinderblocks in the basic rectangular shape of the house that would be finished there. The storm room was portioned out as part of this process, and that is where we began. I remember as we built during the week – well, Ok, for me until Wednesday, that we kept measuring not from the last part of the work that had been finished, but from the foundation. We knew that the foundation was straight and level, and so relied on it for all of our other measurements. I did not really understand this until we started laying the floor. A chalk line was drawn so we would put the individual pieces of wood in a straight row. If one row was crooked and we measured from it for the next piece, then all the rest after that would be crooked too. But, by marking our line from the foundation we stayed straight and solid. Everything that was attached and framed was calibrated as straight and level from the foundation to avoid compounding errors.
Paul describes the church, and us, as what is being built upon a straight and solid foundation. And he names the foundation as Jesus Christ. We are to measure what we do based on our lives in Jesus Christ. The church can be like the Habitat house – one group lays the foundation, the next the floors, the next raises walls and outs on a roof. The work of each team is dependent on the work of the team that came before. Each team has to remain true to the measurements of the foundation to ensure that the house will stand. If the house is solid, it is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. If it is to stand, that must be the case.
One Hundred and Sixty Nine years ago, our congregation was founded. The foundation of the life and work for this particular community of faith was laid. Those who began our church founded a place with Christ at the center, and built from there. It is a solid foundation that has stood strong. As time has passed, we have continued to build on that foundation of Christ. We teach, we minister, we worship, we serve in His name and as a response to His love for us. My prayer is that 500 years from now, we can still say that about ourselves. That as we move into the future, we do not simply measure and build on the last piece we built, but that we go back to what we hear Christ calling us to do as His people and build from there.
If you were given three words to describe our church, what would you say? I find myself paying attention to many of the church signs and websites as I travel around, and wonder what another community of faith might be like. I see words like “committed, connected, rooted, and fellowship”. Every day in my inbox I get e-mails about how to market the church, how to get our message out to the community, to tell people that we are “contemporary” “Christ seeking” “welcoming” “casual” “inviting” etc etc. These e-mails remind me of being at the circus or being on the boardwalk surrounded by carnival games. Voices call out from all sides to step right up and see the oddity or play the game. Barkers call out that they can guess your weight or age, and you can win a stuffed animal if you shoot straight at the target. Sometimes, the church landscape can feel a little like the carnival midway, with voices competing for our attention. “Step right up where our pastor is cool and hip, and we can solve all your problems. Our band rocks, and we have great powerpoint. Oh, and our choir is amazing too, and we have the best youth group in town.” None of those are bad things, and we could say many of them too. But, on what are those claims based? If they are not based on a faith community with a firm foundation in Christ, they will leave us feeling empty and deceived, much like when you play the carnival game and walk away empty handed. What do we claim about ourselves as a congregation, and how do those claims reflect our foundation in Jesus Christ, against which we measure and plan everything else?
Those are not only questions to ask about ourselves as a congregation, but also as individuals who also claim that Christ is our foundation. Can we really say, deep in our souls, that Jesus Christ is our foundation? Jesus helped the poor without judgment – do we? Jesus reached out to those that repulsed most people – what do we do when we encounter someone who is ill, homeless, or dirty? How about when no one is looking or asking? When we have a hard day, week, month, or year, who do you turn to for support? I have seen a saying that asks the question: “Have you prayed about it as much as you have talked about it?” How did Jesus feel about gossip or the exclusion of others? When we read in Acts that the members of the first church gave up all their possessions for the common good, do we squirm inside or rant about healthcare and food stamps going to the undeserving? Yeah, having Jesus Christ as our foundation and measuring point can make us uncomfortable. But that’s also what makes us able to say that we are Christians – we follow the one who died for all of us, even when we don’t measure up.
Tonight is the last training class for our 10 new church leaders – 5 Ruling Elders and 5 Deacons. They have spent weeks learning about what it means to be a leader in the Presbyterian church, and how to think about following Christ as they seek to make decisions, and care for us as this particular congregation. What are our expectations for them as leaders? Many times, there can be as many expectations for church leaders as there can be for pastors. Sessions can be expected to provide every desired program to every age group of the church, keep a pristine and perfect facility, recruit hundreds of new members each year with flashy marketing and ads, all while balancing the budget and paying off the capital debt. The Deacons are expected to know what is happening with every congregation member at all times – whether that information is given to the church or not – visit everybody who needs visiting, feed the hungry and plan mission trips, pray for everyone and never let a single need of the congregation or community slip through the cracks. It can leave us with the impression of our leaders as the barkers at the carnival – “step right up and see what we have done to make this a great church!” But, when you go behind the tent, what do you see? Do we expect programs and events so that we can say we have them? “I go to FPC because there are 2 children’s choirs, we feed the hungry, and worship on Sunday is awesome. “ Or, do we have these programs and events because they are foundational to who we are as Christians?
The ordination vows that our Ruling Elders, Deacons, and Pastors take are all centered around the authority of Jesus Christ, and that first confession that Jesus is Lord. This is the same confession each of you make when you join a congregation – who is your Lord and Savior? Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. That is the foundation of our beliefs. Jesus Christ is the place we begin to measure in all the building that we do. Perhaps a more fair expectation of our leaders is not flash and awe, not what is cool or sexy, or trendy, but to expect them to begin with Jesus in all that they do, and to support them in that. To help our leaders ask the questions “how will this help us see Jesus? How will this help us show Jesus to the world? What would Jesus think about this?” We support them by helping labor in the vineyard, the garden, and the construction site, recognizing that the outcome of our labor does not come from us, but from Jesus. I for one am grateful for this new class of leaders, as I am grateful for every class. They remind me that the work of the church is eternal, stretching out from the past into the future. They do not have to bring in the kingdom of God in the next three years. They merely need to plant seeds, water what has been planted before, and get out of the way and let God provide the growth. So, I encourage each of us to go back and look at our own foundation. To measure from Christ, and build on him. Only a house built on a solid, level foundation will rise to stand the test of time. The only level foundation we have is Jesus Christ – everything rises from there.
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
August 26, 2011