Sermon 9.17.17 Charter Sunday

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 7:24-29
Sermon: Foundation for the Future – The 50th Anniversary
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week I heard someone interviewed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook, out of Boston, Massachusetts. The person who called in was from the Tampa Bay area. She said that she and her husband were newly married. They had grown up in St. Petersburg. They had been planning to buy a house and make St. Pete their home. But after this storm, given sea level rise and the increasing temperature of the water which increases the likelihood of more and worse storms, they have decided that they will not be settling here but will be moving to a safer locale. They do not want to create their future in this area any more.

While that sounds drastic, we can also see how it makes good sense. They are talking about building their lives on solid ground, not shifting sands. And we can affirm the importance of this though many of us will continue to live on Florida’s shifting, unsteady sands.

In the scripture that we heard this morning, we hear of Jesus sharing a parable about building a house on an unstable foundation of sand and building a house on solid rock. This image would have spoken volumes to the residents of Palestine at the time. A house built on sand in the dry season would seem secure. Yet when the rains and winds and floods came, the house would be washed away. Better to build on bedrock. The story is figurative yet we can also relate to the literal image of building on sand and rock.

At issue in this story is the response of those who hear the word of God. There are those who listen and don’t act. And those who listen and do act. They are the ones who build on the rock. The issue is not knowing. The presumption is that those listening know the will of God. At issue is the doing of the will of God.

The verses we heard this morning are the conclusion of what is know as the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. It includes some of the most well-known teachings associated with Jesus such as:

Love your neighbor.
Turn the other cheek.
Blessed are the peace makers.
Love your enemy.
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters.
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

These teachings and many others are known well by those who are part of the church. But at issue is not knowing these teachings, it is putting them into practice. The one who builds on rock is the one that puts them into practice. The one who knows about them but does not act accordingly is the one who builds on sand.

When we think of churches building on sand today, we are not talking about churches that don’t know these teachings of Jesus which convey the will of God. We are talking about churches that know the sayings but do not put them into practice. Churches building on the sand are churches that are basing decisions and behavior on greed and economic gain. They are churches that are denying human influence on climate change. They are churches reinforcing racism, white privilege, and fascism. They are churches that promote American exceptionalism. They are churches that exclude certain kinds of people. They are churches that promote division and violence. They are churches that in some way deny the humanity of others. Churches that are ignoring or acting in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus are churches that are building on the sand. And this includes each and every church at one time or another including this one.

Through Jesus we are encouraged to build our ministry and our lives as disciples on solid rock. On a firm foundation. This means putting into practice the teachings that Jesus gives us which show us the will and way of God for the good of all Creation. What does that mean for us? Well, for one thing, it means being shaped by the goodness and generosity of a loving God. It means accepting a foundational belief in the sacredness not only of every single human being, but in the sacredness of every life and all of Creation that sustains life. To build on the rock in gospel terms means to define the worth of a person based on their value to God, not based on economic output, or class, or ethnicity, or sexual identity. It means doing good, not just not doing bad. It means working for peace and reconciliation and seeking the well being of those you consider enemy.

To build on the rock means to build on the teachings of Jesus and to choose behaviors and actions which reflect that. It means allowing yourself and the faith community to be formed, shaped, and designed by the way of Jesus. As the New Testament shows us, this can be a significant challenge when there are forces around us that are pushing in other directions. It can be hard to build on the rock of generosity and love when the community around you is focussed on greed and gain. It can be hard to build a community of justice, equality and mutuality when the societal context reinforces racism and classism. It can be hard to build a community that reverences the Earth and Creation in a context that is rooted in ravaging the environment through the acceptance of toxic energy, chemicals, waste, and over consumption. In the story we heard, Jesus knows that he is directly assaulting the foundation of his religion and his culture by accusing them of being built on sand. It is a verbal attack on accepted values and behavior.

As we begin this 50th anniversary year at Lakewood United Church of Christ, we are dealing with a nexus of issues. Yes, the church needs a new roof and we are looking at other issues that need attention to maintain the structural integrity of the building. We are looking at the importance of Creation Justice and thinking about what we can do to manifest our reverence for the environment examining options like solar energy. We are also thinking about climate change and sea level rise. Will it be feasible to do ministry in this location for another 50 years? We are examining that. Given these realities as best we can determine them, what do we need to be doing as a congregation regarding our buildings and grounds? What is the best use of our resources? How do we build on the rock? How do we take action based on the way of Jesus?

There are other challenges in our context that we are thinking about as we launch into the next 50 years and beyond. We are living in a time of more and more and more information but of less and less intimacy. The teachings of Jesus encourage authentic connection and relationship. People are deeply yearning for such connection and belonging. And the church built on the rock offers this. How can we implement the way of Jesus in the next 50 years in terms of encouraging healthy relationships?

As we assess our context and think of building on the rock, we are mindful that we live in a time when life is safer perhaps than at any other time in the past. And yet there is increasing fear. Why is there so much fear when there is quite literally less to be afraid of? We live with more access to information than any other time in the past, we know so much more about the world and about other people. Yet instead of this information leading to harmony and understanding, it is producing threat, hostility and hatred. How can we bring the teachings of Jesus to bear on these realities?

The intersection and the nexus of these many issues, and challenges, and circumstances make it a very exciting time to be part of the church and to be celebrating an anniversary that invites us to look back and to look ahead. In the next fifty years, what is the ministry that will be needed from this church and how are we positioning ourselves to build on the rock and to provide a solid foundation for those who will come after us? How are we making sure that we are building on the rock so that this church will be faithful in sharing God’s love for the good of the world entire?

Looking back, we can see how those in the past built on the rock giving us a solid foundation. In many ways the teachings of Jesus were taken very seriously and were borne out in the actions of the church. There was a commitment to racial integration in the 1960’s even when it meant that members left the church. The church has built on the rock hastening the end of the Cold War through a relationship with a sister church in the Soviet Union. The church chose to embrace the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the 90’s. Again, something which led to losing members. The church has confronted poverty through Operation Attack, being a founding partner of Pinellas Habitat for Humanity, and Family Promise. The church has built on the rock working for justice for the farmworkers and for all workers. The church has built on the rock confronting violence in its many forms from nuclear weapons to handguns.

Jesus teaches us that a faith community built on the rock of the gospel can have a constructive, creative influence on a world that is desperately in need of the love and compassion that is at the heart of our faith. Our voice is needed in the public square and in personal relationships.

Those who have been part of the ministry of this church for the past 50 years have given themselves to building on the rock; to being true and faithful to the way of Jesus no matter which way the wind is blowing. The goal has been to see that the ministry of the church is promoting transformed lives that put the values of Jesus into concrete action in the world. It has not always been easy. There has certainly been conflict between the dreams of the gospel and the reality of the society in which we live. There has also been contention within the church from time to time.

In looking back on my tenure at Lakewood, I tried to identify what I remember as the most contentious issue that was confronted. Many years ago, in the mid ’90’s I believe, the church council spent several months discussing what to do about the American flag that had been displayed in the sanctuary. Apparently at one time, there was an American flag and a Christian flag in the sanctuary. That was standard practice in churches then and it still is in many places today. For some reason the flags had been removed – maybe when some repair work was done or something like that. And, inadvertently, they were not put back. After a long interval, this was noticed. So it was requested that the flags be put back out. This issue came before the church council. Opinions were sought from the congregation. Many people weighed in. Consensus did not emerge. It finally came down to a vote at a church council meeting. Well, you know the result of the vote because you don’t see the flags here in the sanctuary this morning. But the way that it was resolved is interesting. When it came time for the vote, the moderator called the question. Those on the council voted. And the vote was split. Half for putting the flags back out. Half against. It was the one time in my 25 years here that the moderator had to cast the deciding vote. The council members were commenting about which group she was going to side with, and who she would make happy. Was she going to keep the group happy that wanted the flags in the sanctuary or the group that wanted the flags displayed in the Fellowship Hall? Who was she going to keep happy? The moderator, Kristin Andes, announced that her intention was not to please one group or the other, but to please God. There you go. Build on the rock. Trying to the best of our limited ability, to side with the gospel. And you know how she voted.

May we continue in our commitment and intention to build on the rock; to be designed, formed, and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ so that our actions are part of building a more just and loving world for all. For at least the next 50 years!  Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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