The Foundation

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The video of this service can be watched here. The sermon begins at the 32' mark.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, when we were still in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, how Paul tries to tell his readers to quit being loyal to their leaders? Quit following me, quit following Apollos, quit following Cephas, he said. It doesn’t matter who brought you the gospel. It doesn't matter whose hand baptized you. The good news was about Jesus, and it was into him that you were baptized. The message to the Corinthians was clear. And it should be clear to us today: We should be much more concerned with our commitment to Christ than whether or not we’re loyal to our denomination or our pastor.

He brings up the same subject again here in chapter three—though this time it’s more subtle, and I think the imagery is easier to remember. Here he uses a farming metaphor to help his readers understand what’s going on. Imagine, he says, that you’re a field—not you as an individual Christian, but the whole congregation. And imagine that I planted a seed, and this Apollos guy came later and watered it. We were both doing our jobs as farmers, but neither of us could perform the miracle of bringing that seed to life and turning it into a fruit-bearing plant. Only God has that power.

So once again, he’s telling them—and us—that our faith should be in the One whose Spirit is at work invisibly in our hearts and in the world, and not in those who simply do their jobs. Missionaries and evangelists, preachers and pastors—they’re all just sharing a message that isn’t theirs: It’s the good news of Jesus Christ, and it’s God who’s at work to unstop ears and open hearts.

We’re in a very different situation, of course. We aren’t people who’ve never heard of Jesus. Even if we’ve never opened a Bible, we’ve heard about his birth. We’ve heard some of the stories of his life. We’ve heard of the cross and the empty tomb. We have hundreds of generations of Christianity behind us. So we are not the empty fields that those Corinthians would’ve been.

But that doesn’t mean the metaphor is meaningless to us. Paul might just as well say to us, You are God’s field. Once again, he’s not saying that to me or to you—not as individuals. He’s saying it to us as a community, as a congregation. We are God’s field and God is at work within us to bring forth growth, to produce fruit.

Though it’s God who does these things, God’s workers have a part to play. There are those who plant seeds, and those who water. Yes, I reckon I do both of those things, since I’m the pastor. But I’m not the only one. Every single person here is a seed-planter. Everybody in the church has ideas or is empowered to start something new. Everybody here is capable of speaking a kind word or doing a good deed at just the time and place it’s needed. Everybody here can put a dollar in the offering plate on their way in. Everybody here showed up today. All of these are ways of sowing seeds, and all of them are necessary. We can’t be a church without all these things happening. So if you don’t think you’re needed or if you don’t think you do enough, then take heart: You’re probably already doing God’s work! Pray about how you can do more. Look for places where you’re needed. But keep at what you’ve started, because it means something.

Have you ever seen flash mob videos online? They usually show crowds milling around in public places, like a mall, or a huge train station. Suddenly one lone person begins singing, and then one or two others join in, and this keeps on until a hundred people—all of whom looked regular onlookers—are suddenly part of the plan, and perform a carefully orchestrated number.

I saw a video of one of these a while back. It showed a guy holding a double bass in the middle of a city square. Hundreds of people were milling about, and he had a top hat in front of him, apparently for coins. So a little girl gingerly walked up to him and placed a coin in his hat. He then took his bow to his bass and began to play. It wasn’t a melody anybody would’ve known. But it sounded like a melody we should know.

Then suddenly out of a nearby building came a woman with a cello. She joined the bassist and began playing with him. But her melody was familiar. It was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It wasn’t long before others pulled out instruments and joined these two—either one by one or in small groups—until an entire orchestra was playing a glorious song—the one we know as Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.

But that wasn’t all, because present on that busy square were also singers. And before all was said and done, out of nowhere, an orchestra and choir had performed the final movement to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And it all grew out of a little girl, who planted a seed when she placed a coin in a hat.

As for those who water, you’re just as important. You’re the ones who help the seed-planters during the growth process. Not all idea people are good at follow-up. Those who water are those who work to make things happen, who speak words of encouragement, who nurture and teach and pray, who cook and serve and clean… and even sing. Once again, we can’t be a church unless waterers do their part.

After two thousand years of Christianity in general, after over four hundred years of the Congregational Way, and two centuries of what’s called the Restoration movement that brought about the Disciples of Christ… and after almost 150 years in this building: Our field has had plenty of time to grow weeds. I suppose in some stricter churches they might see weeds as people whose ideas aren’t appreciated, or whose deeds are condemned. That seldom happens in a church like ours, of course. But there are still times when we recognize that we are carrying too much baggage or have veered off in the wrong direction. Our response may be as simple as cleaning out the church kitchen. Or it may be as complicated as writing a whole new church constitution that enables us to be true to the gospel in a new era. But no matter what, the modern church needs weed-pullers as much as we need seed-planters and waterers. In every case, we do our job, and the Holy Spirit is at work to make God’s love known in our community and in our world.

Today’s scripture reading didn’t just say You are God’s field, however. Paul immediately shifted after saying that to using another metaphor: You are God’s building. In writing, of course, we discourage this thing called mixed metaphors. The New Yorker magazine even used to have a regular feature called Block That Metaphor: They’d find examples of mixed metaphors in other publications and publish them without comment. This was supposed to be funny (and, of course, it was). These would’ve included sentences like, “When the going gets tough, the early bird gets the worm,” or “Too many cooks break the camel’s back,” or “I smell a rat, and it’s time to nip him in the bud.”

But Paul isn’t guilty of that here. He simply switches metaphors so he can make a slightly different point. If we ended today’s reading with You are God’s field, and then opened next Sunday’s reading with You are God’s building, we wouldn’t even have noticed the shift. But it’s there, and it enables Paul to shift from talking about how God is at work to change us to how Christ is the bedrock that keeps us faithful.

Maybe we need to hear this today. It’s been a tragic week. Of course, it seems that we’ve been on tragedy overload for years now, since covid started, and then since Russia invaded Ukraine. But things got worse when we woke up Monday to the news of a serious earthquake in Turkey near the border with Syria. When it comes to initial news about earthquakes, you never really know what to expect. Few of us understand geology well enough to predict severity, even if we know the Richter scale reading. And besides geology, architecture, construction, and even political concerns all play a rôle in how bad the situation is during and after an earthquake.

And, unfortunately, the situation with this earthquake has been much worse than any of us imagined—tens of thousands of deaths and unimaginable destruction. Besides severity, though, there’s something else that sets this disaster apart. Nowadays, virtually everybody carries with them the wherewithal to record a video with just a second’s notice. And so we’ve been seeing not just buildings after they’ve collapsed, but some pretty tall apartment buildings even as they are in the very process of collapsing. It’s been horrific to watch, but I haven’t been able to look away.

What I can’t help but notice when I watch these videos online is something that I suppose I knew all along. The buildings don’t crumble from the top down. The upper floors can look perfectly normal. But suddenly it’s the foundation that gives way. The first floor buckles and the rest of the building collapses in on itself.

A poor foundation—that is, one that is carelessly built, or even one that was carefully built but with the wrong materials—can result in collapse. And Paul would’ve understood this more than most of us. Remember, Paul was from a place called Tarsus. And Tarsus was in Turkey, in the same area as this earthquake occurred. So Paul must’ve known—either firsthand or by hearing about it all his life—that a good foundation was crucial to a building’s ability to withstand shaky ground.

And so it is with the church. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. As long as we are in Christ, we don’t have to worry that the foundation will give way. It has existed since before the creation of the universe and it will still be there beyond the end of time. This does not mean that there won’t be any tremors or earthquakes. But it does mean, as the 46th Psalm assures us, that God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. So let the oceans roar and foam! Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The city of God cannot be brought down.

Paul closed today’s scripture reading by saying that whoever is building on the foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. Let us therefore always be aware of our purpose, aware of what the foundation is we build upon when we undertake anything in the church. Care must be taken to make sure that it has integrity—that it fits on the foundation. If the structures we build do not tell the world who Christ is—if they do not build up justice, work for peace, spread love—then the foundation will remain, but what we build on it won’t last.

I can’t end my sermon here. I’ll do that next week when I complete this series on the first part of 1 Corinthians. And so I’ll close by asking how we can better recognize our true foundation and how we, as 21st century American Christians, can share the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to change it forever.
—©2023 Sam Greening