Foundry UMC DC: Sunday Sermons

Foundry UMC DC: Sunday Sermons header image 1

Built Up On What? Sermon preached by Will Ed Green, January 6th 2019

January 6th, 2019

Built Up On What?

Preached by Will Ed Green—Foundry United Methodist Church—January 6th, 2019

          As we begin our new worship series, “This Is Us,” today, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood. Raised by a series of aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and cousins of iterations and configuration. even the best reality T.V. couldn’t concoct. There was Aunt “Neeter”—the roadside grocery-store owner who kept a sawed-off shotgun and fifth of whiskey within arms reach at all times. Granny Green, who didn’t have running water until the 70’s and still had no qualms about her preference for the outhouse out back.

Each one had a different story to tell. And through my slow indoctrination into the stories of “us,” I came to know myself as part of them; beloved and unquestionably a part of something bigger than myself. Made up of stuff that could—and would—endure both celebration and sorrow, hope and fear, deep love and great loss.

           I’ve relied upon these stories to ground and orient me in my ministry and life long after I left the backwoods of Arkansas. They are a foundational element of who I am, something that no matter what degree I hold, professional certification I obtain, or any organization or leader—from bishops to bureaucrats—remains constant and true. The stole I wear today, which I mentioned last week, is a tangible reminder of that. Quilted out of clothes and flour sacks saved to ensure the survival of a family through harsh winters and to celebrate the wedding of my great-great grandmother, I wear it today as a tangible reminder that I stand not only on my own two feet, but on the shoulders and stories of those who stood upon the stories and shoulder of those before them so that I might be able to stand, both for myself and those after me, today.

           That’s what this worship series is all about. Hearing, knowing, and celebrating the stories which make us who we are so that we can—in the face of whatever might come—stand in the knowledge that we can face it unafraid of our place in the grand story of God’s love. As we prepare our hearts this morning to begin that journey, let us pray:

[pray here]

           The letter to the Church at Ephesus, from which we’ve read today, is not a traditional Epistle, or letter to a specific congregation facing specific challenges like First or Second Corinthians. It is, rather, an encyclical, or letter written to the larger Christian community to offer exhortation and theological clarity about the challenges believers faced.

           Its arrival—sometime between 70-80 AD—in Christian conversation was timely. The Church, now predominantly populated by Gentile converts, still struggled with the implications of its Jewish roots and the role and place of its Jewish members. This reality was further confounded by the destruction and subsequent scattering of the Jewish nation state when then-General and soon-to-be Emperor Titus razed the Temple and most of Jerusalem. In other words, the competing demands of national and religious identity, social status, and access to power through citizenship (or not) threatened to overwhelm the people of God and undo the community which the faithful before them had so long fought and died for.

           Sounds familiar, right? Nearly 2,000 years later, we enter another year dominated by voices which compete to tell us who we are. National dialogue begins not with honoring our shared stories, but by drawing lines between competing political ideologies. We who are the institutional church argue incessantly over who does or does not have access, who should or should not have power, what is or is not “God’s Will”—and we’re taught that’s how it’s supposed to be done. Special General Conferences and government shut downs and immigration crises and gun violence and poverty and war and unjust judicial processes press on us from every side, each demanding our undivided attention and telling us that without it we will lose to “the other”—the greatest of American social sins—and in so doing lose our identity and place in the world. Each arguing that one side or the other is the sure and certain way to protect and defend “us” against “them,” to build a sure foundation guaranteeing our peace or joy or prosperity.

           Confronted then as we are now, the author of our text sets out to provide an alternative framework for Christian community, a truly solid foundation upon which we can build our identity and from which we can proclaim the Gospel in the midst of chaos and confusion. Rejecting any notion of identity other than that offered, equally, to all through Christ, the author reminds the Church that Christ’s primary action in the world was reconciliation—not domination. That by the very nature of Jesus’ ministry—with Samaritans and Gentiles and Jews, men and women, tax collectors and pharisees—the old ways of wall-building to insulate our identities from the threat posed by an “other” were no longer necessary. Indeed that, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”[1]

           Setting before the Church then and now the image of Christ as cornerstone—in ancient architectural practice the first stone laid which set, permanently, the placement and orientation of a building AND all the stones that came after it—the author reminds the believer that it is not the institutions of the Church or the State which defined who they were. Rather it is work of Christ through which the world is restored to God and because of which we who are many throughout history, place, and perspective are brought together into a single-body through which the living presence of God is made manifest in the world; “a holy temple in the Lord;  in whom you also are built together spiritually[d] into a dwelling place for God.”[2] Established on a foundation which will not fail, no matter the tumult or chaos of human warring or failing or faltering of our human institutions, the Church is built up on that which lasts and which no one can take from it.

           You know, standing in this pulpit has always been a bit of a queer experience for me. Not only because the view feels eerily similar to what I imagine Edgar Allen Poe’s raven would have felt perched above his chamber door, but because of it’s history. Its installation and construction in the 1940’s—along with the reredos at the front of our worship space— were overseen by Fredrick Brown Harris. A pastor of our congregation who despite promises to have the four evangelists carved into it’s facade installed instead images of his favorite preachers (including himself) with the admonition “Good Ministers of Jesus Christ.” More problematic than this act of egotism, however, was Harris’s well-known and profound racism, actively refusing to allow Foundry’s youth group to meet with black youth groups in town and actively instructing leaders to dis-invite other black Methodists from participating in Foundry events. Truth is, there’s a way in which it was INTENDED as a monument to everything I oppose and repent for in my own United Methodist story. And if IT were the story of us, friends, I’m not sure Us is a We I’d want to be a part of.

           But then I’m reminded, when we gather at table that it’s not this (the pulpit) but that (the table) that is the true story of us. Here at this simple sacred meal, we remember with words and prayers which have endured 2,000 years of schism, war, institutional oppression and broken trust unscathed. Still offering, as Jesus did so many years ago, unfaltering grace, freely given by God to all who would receive it. Here we remember the promise of that the table is always big enough for one more person, always wide enough to welcome all that which we bring with us. Here we remember the admonition of Christ, who promises us that at this table, He is with us—standing in solidarity with us, offering us strength for the journey, holding us in fear, guiding us through our sorrow, strengthening us for the living of these days.

           This, friends, this is the story of us. A community formed by limitless grace which no legislation can deny us, from which no person can bar us, through which all people are united—even in the midst of their diversity—by the promise that God’s love is big enough to hold it all. And as we tell this story, we reminded that with Christ laid before us as the cornerstone of our faith and with the great cloud of witnesses who’ve come before us as our foundation, we are a built out of the stuff that lasts. Not human institutions or ideologies which will—by their very natures fail and falter—but by the faithfulness of God who from generation to generation calls us at this table to remember that upon which we are built so that we can stand firm no matter where we’re called to go.

           I must admit that this is a word I often need these days. As I reflected on what I might offer for your consideration today, heavy on my heart is the ongoing dialogue in our United Methodist Church. As we approach the eve of a special General Conference in which threats of schism have already been made and at which people on either side of a so-called progressive and conservative divide have lobbed threats and employed hateful rhetoric, it has been hard not to be anxious and afraid. I love my church. I’m a sixth-generation Methodist and I owe so much of who I am to faithfulness of congregations from Arkansas and Illinois to Washington, D.C. My heritage, my education, my ministry, and my relationship are all bound up in decisions which will be made in St. Louis in February.

           But here’s what I know. While I believe that there is a path forward for us to remain The United Methodist Church what happens in February cannot take away my identity as a child of God. No vote of the General Conference will negate the access to God’s grace I find at that table. No decision of any body at any point can take away God’s promises made to me through baptism. No warring of factions over policy, procedure, polity or process will never be so great that it can shake my faith because my faith is not in The United Methodist Church but in Jesus Christ, the cornerstone upon which every thing else rests.

           Friends, that’s true freedom. And it’s because of that knowledge that at the end of each day I can know I will wake up the next ready to advocate and fight and resist and show up. Because while I will work myself to bone to save the denomination I love the love and faithfulness of God which has called me to that fight will endure no matter the outcome. “On Christ the SOLID rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” [3]

           As we move into days shaped by uncertainty and disagreement, fear and frustration—from denominational decision-making to the halls of national power—I pray that we that we are build ourselves upon that cornerstone of Christ—bread broken and shared, fellowship and study which grounds us, advocacy and action which offers mercy and seeks justice. That we will root our story in the story of the one who’s love holds the world together—and through who’s faithfulness in the midst of war and threats of war, the shifting and shaking of institutions and ideas, our place in this story cannot be taken away. That we will be free, truly free, from the need for domination and for the work of reconciliation. From the concepts of “us” and “them” so that we might be “us” together.

           The hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” says:

Though with a scornful wonder

the world sees us oppressed,

by schisms rent asunder,

by heresies distressed,

yet saints their watch are keeping;

their cry goes up, “How long?”

But soon the night of weeping

shall be the morn of song. [4]

 

May God grant us grace, with Christ as our sure foundation and cornerstone, for waiting and working toward the light of that morning. A

 

[1] Ephesians 2:15(b)-16

[2] Ephesians 2:21(a)-22

[3] “My Hope is Built” Edward Mote, 1834; William B. Bradbury, 1863.

[4] “The Church’s One Foundation” Samuel J. Stone, 1866; adapt. by Laurence Hull Stookey, 1983

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App