Let Us Build A House Where Love Can Dwell
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 26, 2014
The Children’s Talk this morning reminded of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord build the House, those who build it labor in vain.” I will forever associate this verse with a mission trip in Cuba that I had the privilege to be a part of. I was taking ten high school students to visit their Presbyterian sisters and brothers in San Antonio de los Baños, a small city about 35 kilometers southwest of Havana. (It is easy to find on Google maps.) Our visit was an important part of a long-term mission partnership that brought together two peoples who are forcibly separated by their governments. In 1960 the United States imposed a trade embargo with the Communist Island that has proven to be ineffective as foreign policy, profoundly destructive as economic punishment, and continues to be one of the relics of the cold war that we still have not let go.
During the week our two churches spent together, we worshiped, studied, visited and worked as one. Our shared project for the week was rebuilding the east wall of the multifunctional church courtyard where everything from Easter morning worship and regular bible study to congregational fellowship, after school gatherings, and vacation bible school took place. As we worked with the stone and plaster, we naturally spoke about walls that divide, from the wall then being constructed between Israel and Palestine, to the wall being built along our own southern border, but most importantly the social, economic and political wall created by the embargo itself that separated us from one another. We spoke of the grief and pain that affects every Cuban family because there are family members on both sides of the divide. And we spoke of our call as Christians to live out God’s reconciliation between people and to bear witness to our unity in Christ.
When the work was finished, our youth groups painted a mural on the wall – two hands shaking, extended from two Islands (Cuba and Long Island), each displaying their national flags. And surrounding them on either side were the seals of our respective churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and La Iglesia Presbiteriana y Reformada de Cuba. Ours would be a wall symbolizing unity overcoming division, a wall that brought together those who had been separated, a wall that would remind all of us of who we are as God’s people. In fact, we thought of it as somewhat akin to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as a place of prayer, where we could lay our hands on the stone and pray for one another, where their church would gather to pray for us between visits – a monument to our unity in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation to which the church is always called.
As we dedicated the wall we read the words of Psalm 127 to remind ourselves that what we were doing was worth doing because it was God’s doing. God had drawn us together, and God would strengthen our relationship while we were apart. More than two people, two nations, we were one church working to overcome the divisions of the world. This experience was life changing for many who participated. We still stay in touch, pray with and for one another and for our countries. We remember one another when we come to the Lord’s Table. When an earthquake struck off the coast of Havana two weeks ago I wrote the pastor of the church to see if everyone was alright. (They were). In the United States, those of us who made the journey continue to advocate for an end to the embargo. And while more than a decade has erased our brightly colored mural, one of the young women from Cuba said to me just yesterday on Facebook, “the most important wall still standing is the friendship that has continued despite the distance.”
That is what it means to build a church.
* * *
It is not unlike what Paul had done in Corinth. Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, countering Rome’s vision of Imperial Order with Jesus’ own vision of a Divine Kingdom, and he organized communities of faithful resistance. Small house churches, at least four of them, were spread out through the city, meeting for worship and a common meal, sharing as each had ability and giving as each had need, all in defiance of the religious, social, economic and gender divisions on which Roman culture depended. These communities of gentile and Jew, slave and free, strong and weak, female and male came together because they had experienced the reconciling and liberating power of the crucified Christ. Everything on which Roman domination was built had been crucified with Christ, and the Corinthians were now freed to be God’s new people. This was the good news Paul preached among them. They were, as Paul would remind them in his letter, a house built by God. (1 Corinthians 3: 10-17)
Why was this so significant? Well, the Corinth that Paul knew, and that these assemblies grew up in, was not an ancient city. It was the site an ancient Greek city called Corinth, but that city had resisted Rome’s conquest of Greek Civilization and as a result Ancient Corinth had been completely destroyed, its population killed, exiled or enslaved, and many of its buildings razed. And so it stood for 100 years – a wasteland warning to all who would resist Rome. But after a century, as the last of the old republic was swept away and the Roman Empire born, Julius Caesar re-founded Corinth as a Roman City, with Roman buildings, institutions, cults and customs. It was populated with freed slaves and the urban poor from Rome itself, and so became a place with little history but lots of ambition.
New Corinth was an elite driven society, its dominant spirit one of ruthless competition. Biblical scholar Richard Horsley states that first century Corinth was developing “a reputation as the most competitive of all cities, even in economic matters, the city of unprincipled profit takers who would stop at nothing to outdo their rivals.” There was a saying, “Not for everyone is the trip to Corinth,” meaning only the strongest survive.
First century Corinthians were also obsessed with rank and status. This obsession penetrated all levels of society, not only the tiny wealthy elite who scrambled for public honor in their city or for favor with the Emperor. It extended all the way down to the minor officials, to skilled and unskilled freeborn laborers, to freed persons formerly enslaved, and to slaves. Roman Corinth was settled by freed persons, and their never enslaved children and grandchildren wanted to forget the shame of their past. They looked down on current freed persons, who in turn could despise the slaves. Even slaves had a pecking order by the nature of their skills and labor in house or field.
Finally, Corinth completed in expressing public piety. The imperial court (worship of the emperor), combined with worship of the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, cemented the power of Rome throughout its conquered territories. Imperial religion was not a matter of personal faith, but of correct performance of rights and rituals, and public piety was the supreme way of gaining respect and honor.
This is why Jesus’ power was so compelling. It was not the power of armies and ambition, but of stopping, resting, and dying for others. It was not triumphant but compassionate. It was, as Paul would write in his letter, about self-giving, other-affirming love. This is the power that called a diverse group of people together and commissioned them to change the world through the simple act of building strong communities filled with love. They were rich and poor, slave and free, female and male, gentile and Jew, sharing common life for the sake of the world.
So you can imagine how St. Paul must have felt when, just a few short years later, news reached Ephesus about what was happening in Corinth. The Corinthian assemblies had sent Paul an official letter asking for his advice on a series of questions. But Chloe’s people had reached him first and were more honest and direct: the educated and eloquent, the economically privileged, the socially dominant in every way had come to lord it over the others.
- Exacerbated by several years of severe famine, the Lord’s Supper looked less like a common meal hosted by Christ and more like meager charity offered by the rich and powerful to their needy dependents.
- When the Emperor himself chose Corinth to be the site of a new sports festival, some Jews contemplated a special surgery to reverse their circumcision (since the athletes competed without clothing), raising again questions of the past and present religious identity of God’s people.
- And the newfound freedom and liberty experienced by Paul’s female colleagues was, when claimed by elite males, positively libertine (amoral) and self-serving: the question about eating meat sacrificed to idols in Chapter 8 and 10, for example, is a question about elite behavior. Meat was not even an option for the poor.
And to make matters worse, all sides aligned themselves with key personalities or teachings:
- The elite, accustomed to deference, claimed Apollos, the new missionary, for their side;
- Paul’s closest colleagues supported the house church leaders Chloe and Phoebe;
- The Jews, many of them recent arrivals, claimed the authority of Cephas or Peter in Jerusalem;
- And the women who were presently or formerly enslaved simply claimed Christ.
“Thank God,” writes Paul in utter frustration, “Thank God I never baptized any of you, at least not many of you, or there would be a Paul party as well. God forbid.”
Now, lest we too quickly tut tut and moralize about these quarrelsome Corinthians, we must admit that there were powerful forces dividing the Corinthian assemblies, made even more powerful by their being the normal way of life in Corinth. Status, wealth, gender and patronage determined where one fit in society. It was the church that was doing something radically new and counter-cultural. And it was hard to sustain.
* * *
It is no different today. Powerful forces work to divide us too. On Thursday night our church Green Team had their first meeting of the year. We were talking about how difficult it is for many churches to talk about poverty and wealth and the forces that make people poor. When an honest discussion of race is also part of the conversation, it is even more difficult and potentially divisive, because racism is both distinct from but is also one of the forces that make people poor. Congregation like our who have committed to caring for our planet find we have not only chosen to talk about environmental issues, often controversial by themselves, but must also talk about poverty and race, as climate change and corporate pollution disproportionately affect poor and ethnic communities, a phenomenon capture in the term environmental racism. No, our temptation to be a pious reflection of the world around us rather than a force of resistance and agent of change is not that different from what was going on in Corinth.
In a few weeks, three members of our congregation will undertake a journey not unlike the ones I have taken to Cuba. La-Sheila —, Norma — and Wanda — will travel to Lima, Peru and surrounding areas as part of a Presbytery delegation to our mission partners in the region. Accompanied by The Rev. Jed Kobal, our mission co-worker, they will experience the joys and struggles of Christ’s church in another part of the world, receive the hospitality of sisters and brothers they have yet to meet, and no doubt deepen and renew their faith.
And they need our prayers. For together they will visit the city of La Oroya, the most toxic place on our plant. There they will meet children whose lives have been poisoned by the U.S. owned lead smelting plant in town, and they will hear stories that will break their hearts and make them angry. They have read about this, and seen films; it is nothing like being there and meeting the people. But our delegation will also hear stories of faithful resistance, stories of need and responsibility that unite the people of Peru and citizens in the United States. They will know in the guts what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians that we are one body in Christ, and that when one member suffers, we all suffer, and one rejoices, we all rejoice. Upon their return, they will urge us as individuals and as a congregation to do what we can to demonstrate this unity. May we be ready to hear and faithfully respond, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of the children in Peru.
For Paul urged his churches then, and urges us today, to be united again with the same mind and purpose that was in Christ. Significantly, he uses the same word ‘united’ that elsewhere is used for mending nets (Matt. 4:21; Mark 1:19). It is not a call to uniformity of thought and practice, or to ignore the diversity among us or the real needs in our community, but a call to mend what has been torn, to repair what has been broken, and to reconcile that which has been divided, in our world and in our relationships.
This is what it means to build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live. Amen.
* * *
Following a period of quiet reflection, the congregation sang the following from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal:Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true, where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew. Here the cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace; here as one we claim the faith of Jesus: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine, and wheat: a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space; as we share in Christ the feast that free us: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known. Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face; let us bring an end to fear and danger: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Composer: Marty Haugen (1994)
 These three paragraphs are freely adapted from Reta Halteman Finger and George McClain, Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation. (Herald Press, 2013).
 Ronald Allen, et al. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice – Year A. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013)