Sermon: The House That Love Built

A man with a nagging secret couldn’t keep it any longer. In the confessional he admitted that for years he had been stealing building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked.

“What did you take?” the parish priest asked.

“Enough to build my own home and enough for my son’s house. And houses for our two daughters. And our cottage at the lake.”

“This is very serious,” the priest said. “I shall have to think of a far-reaching penance. Have you ever done a retreat?”

“No, Father, I haven’t,” the man replied. “But if you can get the plans, I can get the lumber.”

At the Men’s Breakfast last week, the Meeting House was filled with impromptu historians who were trading amazing tales, weaving the strands of private and collective memory that bind the people of this place – village and church – together. My role was to offer a `brief prayer’ at the beginning of that breakfast, and then engage in the better part of valor through silence and listening.

And – in the course of learning many other things – I heard once more how this church was originally built on another site; back up the hill “on the green.”

At some point, legend speculates, the local land agent wanted to develop that land for other commercial purposes. And so this beautiful building was physically lifted up and moved down the hill to its current location.

But that was only possible, explained our resident church historian Russ Grills, because it was built on an old English style foundation; a foundation that was laid half a story above the ground. Thus, it was a relatively simple matter to slide scaffolding underneath the building, transfer it to a bed of large logs and, basically, rolled it down the hill to its present site.

It was an amazing undertaking –  particularly 188 years ago – to accomplish without causing significant damage to the structure of the church.

The original foundation had to be incredibly durable, for one thing. But at the same time, one would think, there had to be a kind of architectural foresight which would allow such adaptation to the serendipitous demands of a changing world.

When I first heard that story, I marveled at the condition of this beautiful, historic church. It seems as solid and pristine as, I might imagine, it was on the day of its ribbon cutting ceremony 218 years ago, in 1799. And, though I realize numerous changes, updates and improvements have been made over the many decades since its founding, I must say the succeeding congregations of First Presbyterian Church have obviously been remarkably faithful in maintaining the integrity of this sacred site.

Faithful in preserving this building consecrated for the purposes of God; a building which, throughout the generations, has provided a holy place for the people’s worship, a place of nurture for the budding disciple, a friendly haven for the lonely sojourner, a compassionate mission for the impoverished neighbor, a blessed sanctuary for the displaced refugee.

For it has, indeed, been all of these things to others; and much more.

But, beyond the effort and dedication that has gone into preserving and maintaining this beautiful historic building, I marvel even more at the love and devotion which has gone into defending and sustaining the beliefs, the ministry, and the mission of this church.

For I know that the only way you could have accomplished either feat is because you have maintained Jesus Christ as your rock-solid foundation, while, at the same time recognized that the church must sometimes adapt to the shifting geography of the world around it. You put the preservation of both this church and its abiding faith at the center of your collective lives together. And that is highly commendable; perhaps especially in this complex age.

The church at Corinth was set in one of the most diverse cities in ancient Greece. It was a major center for commercial trade and governmental activity. People across the empire came to live and work in Corinth. Christian communities formed that included – with the intent of equal status toward – Jews and Greeks, men and women, aristocracy and peasant, slave and free. As believers began to form those early communities of faith, they understandably struggled with questions surrounding their new identity as Christians: What is our sine qua non, our essential quality, defining character? How are we to now relate to each other? How can we people of such diverse backgrounds work harmoniously together toward the common goal of bringing in the kingdom of God?

Differing factions began to emerge behind various leaders: Apollos, Cephas, Paul.

The Apostle Paul addressed those competing mindsets by casting himself as a master architect; reminding these struggling Christians the foundation for the Church at Corinth was Jesus Christ alone. One might lay down that foundation, others may build upon that foundation, serve to preserve and maintain it, seek innovative ways to transfer from one place to another it in a changing world. But Jesus Christ is the One who undergirds it all.

Jesus Christ is the One who shall shoulder the burden when the reality of gravity exerts itself upon us. Jesus Christ is he who will lift us up when the world weighs us down. Jesus Christ is the One upon whom we base all else in our lives together. For Christ is the only One who can reconcile our differences, heal our dis-ease, redeem our hatred, restore our hope.

“Do you now know that – together – you are God’s temple?” Paul exhorted the congregation at Corinth. “For the very Spirit of God dwells in you!”

Like the great old hymn proclaims:

“Christ is made the sure foundation,

Christ, our head and cornerstone,

Chosen of the Lord and precious,

Binding all the Church in one;

Holy Zion’s help forever,

And our confidence alone.”

In his book A New Church for a New World, Rev. John Buchanan gives an indictment of human fallibility in the church: “When we think about the history of the church,” Buchanan goes on to say, “and where we are today, we do realize that part of the way that the church has lived its life and sought to define itself is by understanding the church over and against something else, over and against the world, or society, or the church over and against pagans, or heretics. Tools used in this are exclusion, excommunication working towards purity of doctrine and practice, and, undergirding all, the exercise of power.”

Buchanan then offers a wonderful definition of what makes and church distinctively the Church: “Human beings have always pondered the mystery of life—how we got here and what life is for. When people become church, God is doing something, taking the initiative, calling, forming, inspiring, and equipping people to be a new reality. Christ’s body on earth. The church is the way God continues to be in and to love and to save the world.” (Geneva Press, 2008)

“Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church,” muses Frederick Buechner, “would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away, the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place” (The Clown in the Belfry, p. 158).

From time to time, when we begin to drift far from our roots, I think we need to be reminded of that foundational truth.

Christianity first migrated from Ireland to Scotland by the Irish monk (Saint) Columba in the Sixth Century, establishing the first Scottish faith community on the tiny island of Iona.

In the Middle Ages, this monastic settlement became a vital center for European Christianity, evangelizing the faith throughout Scotland and Northern England, attracting many thousands of people on their own spiritual pilgrimage.

Over the next several centuries the abbey suffered various attacks; first by Vikings, who burned it to the ground in 825, the residing monks martyred in the raid; then later by forces led by two Irish bishops.

During the Scottish Reformation, in the sixteenth century, as with numerous abbeys throughout the British Isles, the Iona Abbey was pillaged and dismantled by iconoclasts, the stones that made up the church used to build other buildings. Statues were broken, windows shattered. Only the foundation was left.

Then, centuries later, in 1938, George MacLeod, minister and prophetic witness for peace, in the midst of the poverty and despair of the Depression, left his parish in Govan, Glasgow with a vision for a new community in Iona. He recruited unemployed skilled craftsmen and young trainee clergy to Iona to rebuild both the monastic quarters of the mediaeval abbey, as well as the common life of working and living together as Christians. Once again the Iona Community became a sign of hope for Scotland and beyond.

The first order of business for MacLeod’s fledgling congregation was to rebuild the Abbey upon the ancient foundation. On the Sunday the restoration was completed and the building rededicated, Rev. MacLeod offered the following prayer: “We are Your temple, not made with hands. We are Your body. If every wall should crumble and every church decay, we are Your habitation. Nearer are You, O God, than breathing; closer than hands and feet; ours are the eyes with which You in the mystery look out in compassion on the world.”

Let it ever be so, in Jesus Christ. Amen.