Monday, July 23, 2012

Building or Being Built?

Sermon Delivered July 21, 2012 
2 Samuel 7:1-14
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34

Earlier this Summer, my daughter and I participated in what has become somewhat of a tradition – the annual building of a drip castle. If you have never built one of these it is the careful result of filling your hands with wet sand and letting it slide through – little by little – to create larger structures. Usually there is some kind of hard packed base, and usually there are portions that break off due to their height and weight becoming out of balance.

But, with enough patience or persistence – which ever characteristic suites you best – you can eventually come up with something quite unique! The most unique thing about it is that it never comes out the way you have in mind, and it always ends up as the result of participating with forces beyond your control. That seems to me to be a lot like who we are and what we do in the church. In fact, this tension between building something unique for God and becoming something unique by God’s grace seems to me to be the central issue of our texts today.

It makes me wonder, what makes us who we are as a people of God? Are we a people who have a building dedicated to God? Are we a people who are building something dedicated to God? Or, are we a people who are being built into something to glorify God? We are in a crucial time as we seek a new Choir Director, and I think it is highly providential that God picked this time to inspire the Session to offer a new Vision Statement. The idea behind this statement is to compliment our Mission Statement with a description of the way we both see ourselves and want to be seen by others. The statement says that we are “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.”

In thinking about that statement and the previous question, “what makes us who we are as a people of God,” I am reminded that Presbyterians Today recently sent out an email asking for a picture that shows the mission of our congregation in a single photograph. So, what would be in that picture? [Members gave responses such as: the building, the choir, the organ, the basket ministry, relationships, and our connection with presbytery.]

All of these are good and wonderful things. In a recent conversation with someone about our congregation they said, “Wow! What an active church, especially for so few members!” Boom. There’s that tension – the tension of living into the identity of the category of a small church.

When we own that category – small church, average attendance of 60 – we tend to focus on the anxiety of scarcity. That’s why we have a separate building fund. We have maintained that fund because it is a commonly held belief in this congregation that people will be more generous when there is a tangible result. That is why the pledges for the building fund, though a smaller total, tend to outpace the pledges for the general fund – both in our commitments to give and in our giving.

I’m not saying that this is bad. If it were not for the building fund we would not be able to do badly needed repairs like repainting the ceiling in the sanctuary or fixing the air conditioner motor that barely made it through last Sunday’s service. What I am saying is that I believe that the church can and will find ways to be faithful in its response to God’s grace – and this congregation is no exception.

And so the tension we must embrace is a tension no less than that of King David, whose desire to build a house for God was corrected by the One who would build David into a house – even though that promise would not be fulfilled in David’s lifetime. As Christians, we can hardly hear that the One through whom God will fulfill this promise will be “a son to God” who will be “punished with blows inflicted by human beings” without thinking of Jesus.

Surely Paul, a devout Jew, understood that Jesus was both punished and raised from punishment in order to fulfill the promise of a kingdom without end. And this kingdom has a purpose that is seen and demonstrated when those who are separated come together in a way that puts hostility itself to death! How can we do this? I once had a dear friend speak of another group of people whom she felt hurt and offended by. She said, “Just do not expect me to love them or accept them!”

All of us – except for children who have not been harmed by others – have people or groups of people that we are at odds with. How can we put hostility – the uncontrollable anger that is connected to our sense of right and wrong – to death? Is it the right thing to do? Is it possible? Yes and no.

No, it is not right to leave the innocent at risk. No, it is not possible for us to turn off certain emotions and keep other emotions. Yes, it is good and right to let go of judgments and preconceptions that lead us to behaviors that define and limit the grace of God to our understanding and experiences. Yes, it is possible for God to end hostilities between individuals and groups – but only God can do this.

Only when we allow ourselves to see ourselves as a part of the fabric of the church do we actually become the church. Only when we look to Christ as that solid base can our lives become the sand that is transformed from ordinary to extraordinary!

The thing is – whether we allow ourselves to be joined with something larger than ourselves or not – whether we are the sand that makes up the castle or just sand on the beach, we are still involved in God’s active presence. And whether we are passively protecting the dunes or actively beautifying the landscape by demonstrating a new quality of life, the waves will one day come and take us all.

And that’s a good thing, because – like it or not – none of us in this room happen to be God. Yet all of us are being built into a spiritual dwelling place for God. All of us are a part of the work of the One who knows that our needs – and the needs of others – are without end.

And so Jesus steps out of the boat and looks on the needy with compassion – and that includes you and me. And yet we, as Christ’s disciples – hungry and tired and feeling like our resources are near their end – must step out with him.

This is a place, I must confess, where the metaphors all get a little confused. Are we in the boat or the crowd? Are we sheep or shepherd? Are we to be as Christ or just Christ-like? Are we a people with a building dedicated to God, a people building a kingdom for God, or a people being built into a house for God? The answer is, of course, yes! Yes, we are all of these things and more, because we are in participation with the will of God – which is well beyond our control.

The beautiful thing about that is that we can expect to see hostility come to an end between those who are committed to being built into a house for God. When we all decide to put our differences down at the foot of the cross, the hostility that goes with them is put to death. And when hostility is put to death, peace and unity that are unbound arise from its grave.

I saw this happen once. In 1997 I served as the Assistant Director of Camp Cherokee. One of our campers one week was a girl who was a refugee from an African nation that was being torn apart by civil war (I’ve long since forgotten where). She taught us this song:

Building up the temple,
Building up the temple,
Building up the temple of the Lord, of the Lord.

Boys come and help us,
Girls come and help us - building up the temple of the Lord.

God has given me, eyes to see...
God has given me, mouth to sing...
God has given me, arms to build...

Building up the temple,
Building up the temple,
Building up the temple of the Lord, of the Lord

And so this song was sent to a group of privileged American children by way of a young girl fleeing violence and hostility, and hostility was put to death. And God did this so that I would know that it can be done. And God did this so that you would know that it could be done. And if God can do this through a 10 year old girl, just imagine what God can do through you – you who are like wet sand in the hands of someone who is doing things far greater than you can imagine!

By the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, all are invited to become as one! All are encouraged to know that God’s love is not only enough, but truly the only thing which sustains us as a people of faith and as followers of Christ! Truly, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Truly, they (those who are not here by choice or by exclusion) are a part of it, too.

So, as we follow the Good Shepherd, let us continue to be built (as we have for almost 137 years) into a home for faith where all might find a place to experience, explore, and express the love of God. And, Beloved of God, there is nothing scarce or limited about that! Amen.
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