Monday, February 04, 2013


A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, the day on which All Souls launched the public phase of the capital campaign, All Souls Forward: Living Up to Our Name.  The lectionary readings were from the Book of Common Prayer, "For the Mission of the Church," Isaiah 2:2-4, Psalm 150, Ephesians 2:13-22, and Matthew 28:16-20.

A few weeks ago, a parishioner who has been working on the capital campaign committee made a suggestion for how I might approach the sermon for today.  He suggested we sing “The Church’s One Foundation,” just before the sermon and that then, I make the point that the church’s foundation—this church’s foundation on the new addition—will depend on you (and me).  We can determine whether our foundation will be stone, or brick, or stucco, or something even cheaper.  I suppose if we had the real version of Jennifer Johnston’s fake million-dollar-bills (you’ll see them in the window decorations downstairs) then we could build a foundation of titanium with marble casing!

Foundations matter.  There’s a famous parable Jesus tells about someone who a house built on various foundations, the point being—build on something that’s strong, that’s reliable, that you can count on. 

The image of a strong foundation runs throughout our worship today.  Isaiah imagines the House of the Lord as being built on a strong foundation.  He refers to it as a mountain—mighty, high, immovable, impenetrable…. “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… raised above the hills…,” the focus of many nations.  From that solid, unshakable stronghold comes teaching, instruction, and the Word of the Lord.  It’s a grand vision for any House of the Lord.

The psalm continues the spirit, praising God in his holy temple.  Again, it’s a temple that is a firmament of power, a vast and magnificent thing.

Later this morning, we will sing “The Church’s One Foundation.” The choir will sing “Upon this Rock,” and on and on these strong, solid images go.  Foundation upon strong foundation.

But guess what—even though our church building stands pretty strong—the oldest part from 1913, the larger worship space since 1925, and the education wing since the 1950s, and we’ve withstood earthquakes, ice-storms, floods, and hurricanes--- we’re actually NOT on a very solid foundation. 

We’re on landfill.

The geophysical survey confirms that there’s a lot of strange stuff underneath us.  Landfill is stuff thrown away.  In some places it’s absolute junk—old cars and waste that is compacted… all kinds of things.  Under us there’s probably a lot of rock taken from elsewhere, some concrete, and metal, and some stone, … and who knows what else there might be.

All of this means that our lovely building—this building into which we bring our hopes, and worries, and loves and losses, where we say our prayers, where we Commune with the Body and Blood of Christ…. is on top of junk, trash, and rubble.

But that’s ok.  It’s actually ideal for a  church, because this is what churches are—places for us to bring all the junk, the detritus, the mistakes, the failures, the stuff we’d love to throw in a hole so deep that no one can ever see it—the church is a place for all of this to be brought before God.

And no other place in the world gives us that opportunity.

The Letter to the Ephesians talks about the Church, the faithful community, being built upon a foundation of the apostles and the prophets.  “Who we are” is built upon the saints.  But think about those people for a minute.  None of them was perfect in this life, but they were made perfect in their willingness to offer themselves to God—warts, worries, and all. 

The prophets “mis-hear” God more often than they get a direct word from God.  Much of the accounts we have of prophets has to do with God’s trying to straighten them out, God’s making something out of the mess the prophet has often made. 

The disciples seldom understand what Jesus is saying, and many of the stories we have about them are stories that allow us to imagine that perhaps we might have acted differently, had we been right there with Jesus. 

Most of the saints are the same way—they struggle with their faith, they don’t always get it right, but they bear their wounds and Christ the wounded healer blesses them and makes them well, and whole, and renewed. 

Last week I was able to sit in on a class at Virginia Seminary.  The class was looking at T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets as prayer.  In one section of the “Dry Salvages,” Eliot plays with the idea of water washing over our lives, and with it all of the stuff we’ve done or thought or said—the stuff we hoped we’d thrown away, or hidden, or buried, or burned.  The water uncovers all of this and washes up. “It tosses up our losses,” Eliot says, and he wonders when it ever ends, with wave after wave turning up.  “Where is the end of it, the soundless wailing…. Where is there an end to the drifting wreakage…?”  

Eliot answers his own question as the movements of the Four Quartets flow along, and it has to do with the Incarnation.  It has to do with Jesus, who redeems everything.  Jesus is like those children in other countries and our own who pick over what we throw away.  They pick over the trash heaps, looking for what’s salvageable.  Except for Jesus everything is precious—all our mistakes, all our failures, all our sins are redeemed in Christ.  Each one is turned into something beautiful and useful. Junk is turned into jewels. It’s just like a beautiful building built on a dump, like a landfill becoming a place for All Souls.

We are redeemed, and that’s why we baptize the way today’s Gospel urges us. We are saved from having to sort through all the trash of our past, all the scraps of our striving, all the sin that would try to take us down with it.  Christ raises us up to new life.  And that’s what we have to share. That’s why we do mission. That’s why we welcome everybody to the table.  That’s why we’re moving ahead on accessibility and hospitality—to extend Christ’s love onward and onward. 

We don’t worship our building. We are not defined by our building.  But it is a home base for us as we move through the world.  It’s a place to return to, to come home to, to see old friends and meet new ones, to renew and sustain ourselves at the familiar, common, but most uncommon Table. 

T. S. Eliot drew inspiration from his own life, from water and wind, and fire and earth, but he also built upon other poets, one among them, George Herbert.  As many of you know, Herbert was an English parish priest in the 1600’s and the bulk of his poetry is organized around the image of a temple or church. The poems describe the inner reality of things that might at first seem mundane.  And in one poem, Herbert writes about the foundation.   

MARK you the floore ?  that square and speckled stone,
                    Which looks so firm and strong,
                                             Is Patience :

And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one
                    Is checker’d all along,
                                             Humilitie :

The gentle rising, which on either hand
                    Leads to the Quire above,
                                             Is Confidence :

But the sweet cement, which in one sure band
                    Ties the whole frame, is Love
                                             And Charitie.

        Hither sometimes Sinne steals, and stains
        The marbles neat and curious veins :
But all is cleansed when the marble weeps.
        Sometimes Death, puffing at the doore,
        Blows all the dust about the floore :
But while he thinks to spoil the room, he sweeps.
        Blest be the Architect, whose art
        Could build so strong in a weak heart.  (“The Church-Floore,” from The Temple)

We will do the best we can trying to keep a firm foundation on landfill, but may Christ our Redeemer remind us that however shaky our spiritual, physical, psychological, or moral foundation—if we bring it to him, he will sort through and strengthen.  He makes junk into jewels.  This is the good news we live and the good news into which we invite all the world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

No comments:


Subscribe in a reader

Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites