Still, that was not everything that interested my dad. He had always been a tinkerer and a builder like his father, and there was a part of him that always wanted to be an architect, too. So, at age 60, after his heart-by-pass surgery, he accepted the early retirement he was offered, and immediately signed up for the ELCA Mission Builders program, basically, a roving band of retired Lutherans who went around volunteering to build new church starts. Curioiusly, most of the volunteers in my parents crew were from the upper Midwest, and they always worked on projects in the sunny south during the winter months. My mom and dad did three projects with the same foreman, Ford, and a handful of fellow volunteers that came and went over the changing of the seasons. The volunteers had to either bring their own RV camper to live in, or stay with a parishioner. The host congregation also fed them their meals, in exchange for their service. And everyday, before beginning work, they gathered for devotions, praying that, what they built, the Lord would grow.
The work was challenging. Most of the volunteers never had construction experience, including my dad. They worked with contractors, had deadlines, and, by necessity, learned lots on the job. My dad proved to be a fast learner, and Ford took him under his wing and taught him everything he knew, finally recommending him to take on a project the next year, as a foreman himself, for the first time. My dad certainly did some soul-searching and wondered if he had the sufficient skills and gifts? But, he decided, this was his opportunity. Over the summer, he spent countless hours diagramming and planning, indulging his architectural aptitude, staying in contact with Ford, and working to be as prepared as possible, come building time. One of the pitfalls for this project was that the building design was to be of metal siding instead of the wood frame that he had always worked with. But basically it was the same process.
Long story short, he succeeded in completing the project, but it entailed some very long days. Contractors were difficult to work with, promises were routinely broken, and he was forced back to the drawing board, and he spent much more time on the phone, than on the work site with his friends, which he missed. But, in the end, you could never take away the satisfaction he clearly felt in finishing that job as foreman, the architect, in a manner of speaking, of Shepherd of the Hills, Birmingham. But after that year, he retired from his second career, this time to the golf course!
My dad’s namesake, Paul, the Paul from our 1st Corinthians reading, continues with his building metaphor in this week’s installment, in the 3rd chapter: “…like a skilled [a wise] master builder I laid a foundation, …Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” You can almost hear the whir of the skill saws cutting, the punch of the nail-guns over the compressor, and the sweet smell of pine wood, as the volunteers got to work, after morning devotions. The foundation, of course, that Paul was laying with his preaching, was Jesus Christ. Each builder, whether Paul, or us, must fit our building, our-selves, to that foundation. The look of our exterior, even the layout of our inner sanctuaries, may be completely different, one from another. Yet each of us has a gift for building on the foundation of Christ. Not that we have construction worker talents, or architectural aptitude, but we all have the gift of faith. The church is not just a building, not just as a balm for when we are hurting, but the church is the foundation upon which we build our life of faith that we live as new creations, born again, to be sent out, as lights and beacons to the world, reflecting the strong foundation, that supports us. Our faith, the gift God gives each of us, is honed and made steely strong here. We pray and listen and discuss God’s word and discern the movement of the Spirit, as we edify and exercise our faithfulness. We build it up on the foundation of our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it,” as Paul said.
The church is the people. Paul knew that, of course. They had no First Corinthian Church to walk to each Sunday morning. They gathered for worship in the homes of believers. Paul’s metaphor of building was about them. You know that sign, “excuse our mess: work in progress?” The sign on Paul’s worksite, the nametag of every member in Corinth, would have said, I think: “Excuse our Progress: volunteers creating vision!” Each builder was putting their gift to work for the progress of the church and the Body of Christ.
Finally, with his words, Paul hammers together the crowning piece of his foundation. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” To the ears of the Corinthians, a temple building people, this had to come as jarring and radical news! Paul had opened up a sacred space that none of them had ever thought of being welcomed into! Everyone knew that the Temple in Jerusalem was the very dwelling place of God. And in the holy of holies, the innermost chamber of the temple, where the ark of the covenant was kept, was where the chief rabbi alone, and only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ever entered that holy and sacred room. But Paul declared that they plural(!), the church together, the collective whole of the Corinthian believers, were the temple of God. That the most holy of holies, dwelled in them! Christ, Paul insisted, had taken out his saw and cut loose the Spirit of God, to dwell in believers, in the Body of Christ. God was taking on flesh in us, another extension of the Christmas story, and growing in the lives of all those reborn in Jesus.
Paul laid the foundation. We are the builders. Not many of us have gifts for construction building, but we all have the gift of faith, and as good stewards we “choose carefully” how to use our gifts as we build on the foundation of Christ Jesus. We are God’s temple, God dwells in us, and grows our faith.
“Excuse our Progress: volunteers creating Vision!” That’s our sign to the world, on our building, and the nametag over our hearts.