This morning, I want to tell you a story about a carpenter who worked for his father’s construction company. One day his dad called Junior into the office and said, “Junior, I’m putting you in charge – total and complete charge – of the next house that we build. I want you to over see the whole job from ground up and order all the materials – nails, 2.4’x… everything.”
Well, Junior quickly got to work on building the house that his father had designed. For months before the groundbreaking he studied the blueprints and checked every specification. Then he pulled together a team of dedicated and hard-working people. While he knew that this was something that he could easily do on his own – that wasn’t the way that Jesus worked. And so he brought each individual to this team because of something special that they offered – because of some gift or talent that they had. Joe was the type of guy that made sure everyone else knew what they were supposed to be doing, so Jesus made him team leader. Julius had a special talent for putting up drywall. Sue knew how to pour a fantastically level foundation. Fred was married to the local lumberyard owner and so they would have access to the best materials.
Junior brought his team together and told them – I have given you everything that you need to build this house. You have been blessed with the skills you need to make it work – but you have to work together. I have specifically brought each of you here because together you can do more than any of you could do alone. You need one another to make this happen. So as I start to build this house – each of you have an integral role to play…”
The team eagerly got to work on this great project. They were so willing to follow the guidance of their leader Junior. But after a few weeks of great work, there began to be problems among the team. Steve, who was on the crew that brought food for everyone each day stopped showing up. Megan was a part of the team because of her precision hammer work, but she spent all of her time laying tile. The guy who was supposed to order all of the cabinetry tried to cut some corners and ordered much cheaper material and only half as much as was needed. Pretty soon, others on the team got busy with their families and the rest of their lives and started showing up only every other day. Some stopped showing up at all.
Junior looked around at the jobsite – half finished, and in desperate need of help – and thought… we can still do this.
The truth of the matter is this story about Junior and his construction project isn’t a story about a house at all. While Junior may have been brought up to be a carpenter, he has a much bigger calling that has taken over his life. You see, Junior has another name and another purpose for this thing that he is building… His other name is Jesus and his plan is to build a church.
This church that Jesus has in mind, this church that Jesus is building in reality has nothing to do with 2×4’s and levels and hammers and everything to do with the people that he has called together to build it. Not some hypothetical Steve and Megan – but you and me.
If we go back to our scriptures and look at the word which is used for the church in our bibles – the word is ecclesia – which literally means the “called out ones.” Each and every single one of us has been called out, called here to this place in order to BE the church that Christ is building. In essence, we are the 2×4’s, we are the nails, we are the foundation, the supporting structure, the insulation, the windows, the doors – we are the church.
In our gospel reading this morning there is a lot going on, and we will talk about Peter’s whole declaration that Jesus is the Messiah next week… but as a result of that, as a result of someone finally “getting it” – Jesus, in essence, begins his task of building the church – laying the foundation for the Kingdom of God that he has come to proclaim. He looks at Simon, whose nickname of Peter, or petra in Greek literally means rock and he says, “On this rock, I will build my church!”
It’s almost as if he is telling his friend, You are going to be part of the foundation of my church and nothing is going to stand against it.
Here is this guy Simon Peter, who countless times in the gospels makes mistakes and lets Jesus down and seems to fail in every way possible. And Jesus decides to make Peter the foundation of the church? Sounds a little like our carpenter was using shoddy materials, doesn’t it?
No, because Jesus is the one building this church and Jesus has the ability to take all of our mistakes and all of our weaknesses and all of our failings and when he puts us together with one another, when he strengthens us with the Holy Spirit, when his flesh and blood is poured into this project – nothing, not even death will overcome this church.
In the book of Isaiah we hear a glimmer of that promise. Isaiah speaks to us God’s word when he says, “look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham and to Sarah… for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” (Isaiah 51:1-2)
Who were Abraham and Sarah out of the multitude of people in the world? Nobody really. Nothing entirely special. They had their own faults and weaknesses. But they are the stuff from which our heritage has come and God took their lives and blessed them and made something great out of them. All of it is God’s work, not our own. This church that we sit in today is God’s church, not our own. All of us here may think we are a part of the First United Methodist Church – a church that some of your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents helped to build – but no, you are a part of God’s church, a church that Christ has built through all of them and now is continuing to build through all of you.
The difficult part is letting go enough for Christ to do his thing! And by letting go, I don’t mean sitting back and watching it all happen. I mean letting go of our ideas of what this church should look like, who it should include, and where it is headed. Letting go of all of the “good old days” talk and all of the “we shoulds” and “we shouldn’ts.”
Paul wrote to the church at Rome and sent them a beautiful systematic and theological account of what Christ has done. And he talked about God’s grace and God’s mercy and how we have an opportunity to respond to the grace that has been given to us and he writes in the passage we heard this morning (this from the Message translation): So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. (The Message, Romans 12:1-3)
More common translations of the bible ask us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God – or taking our whole lives, everything about them, our jobs, our families, our passions and hopes – all of it – and placing it before God so that God can bless our lives and transform them and use them to build his kingdom.
The amazing thing here is that God is not asking us to lie down and give up everything… This is not a sacrificial end, but a sacred beginning… Jesus tells the disciples “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Mt 16:24-25) A pastor friend of mine was also working on her sermon and wrote words so beautiful I just had to borrow some of them – because you see, we are supposed to be living sacrifices! Which means like Isaac and his father Abraham, we crawl off the altar, and start living, letting God’s hands shape our lives, pound us into shape, pour us out, fill us up. “You can live your life so that God can do something with you.” (http://faithinflipflops.blogspot.com/)
And the thing is, just like the workers who were called together by Junior – each of us has some part of our lives that God wants to use. Each and every single one of us has been graced with gifts and talents and personalities and passions that no body else has. And because together – all of us running around as living sacrifices- make up this living, breathing, moving Church – we need everyone to play their part.
Peter Gomes is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and he once said that “the church will never be any better than we are.”
I believe that is completely true. Because we are the 2×4’s and the nails and the drywall and the windows and doors and insulation – we are the church. And if we let ourselves wear out, if we put aside our best materials and only bring to the church second-rate lumber, if we cut corners and take the easy way out, then we are a weak house built on a poor foundation.
We are called to Be the church! And it takes all of us, living in partnership with one another to make this happen.
You see, the thing about the church is that it isn’t some country club that you belong to – a membership in an organization where you can pay your dues and show up for meetings once and a while. The church is a community of people who follow Christ with their whole lives! And that is a tough and challenging and beautiful and joyful and rewarding thing!
Because if you look around this morning- you will find all sorts of other people who are on this journey with you. Think of them as the other 2×4’s that support the church with you – think of them as the nails that hold us together – think of them as the windows that will fit perfectly into the holes cut for them that help us to see the world outside of us. We all have a place; we all have a purpose here.
Hear again these words from Paul in the book of Romans: So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t. If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face. (The Message, Romans 12: 5-8)
It takes all of us to be the church. And as living sacrifices, the church needs all of our prayers, presence, gifts and service. Yours and mine.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it means to be the body of Christ, to be the church in the world today. In many ways, the church, both ours and the church universal, have allowed themselves to be more conformed to the culture around us – the attitudes, the expectations, the focus on growth at all costs and on financial success – rather than to be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The best way that I know how to start to strip away all of those things that get in the way, those things that look more like the world than like Christ, is to start back at the beginning – to go back to the basics and look at what it really means to be the church.
So in the next weeks and months, we are going to wipe our slates clean and start fresh. Now, this doesn’t mean that what we have accomplished in the past is worthless… think of it this way. I have a friend who used to run at least 3 miles every single morning. It took her a long time to build up to that, but she did it. At some point though, all of the other things in life began to take priority in her schedule, got in the way, and her running days ended. She still thought of herself as a runner, but she had stopped practicing the art. Like her, we need to shake off the dust, limber up our joints, and start practicing again. Unfortunately, if she went out there and tried to run 3 miles cold, she would have some problems – she wouldn’t make it and she just might give up. Just like she needs to start from scratch, with shorter jogs, building up her endurance, so we need to gradually open up our lives and let Christ in – let Christ transform us from the inside out.
As we do so, each week we will look at one way that Christ calls us to “be the church.” One simple way that we can start being the church again. One step at a time. Little by little, Christ will work on us, Christ will form us and shape us, little by little, Christ will build this church. Amen and Amen.