A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 5, June 23, 2002, dedicated to the twenty-two teens and adults who worked in West Virginia June 9-15, 2002 and especially to Thomas Brownfield who gave his heart, mind, and soul to this project and to the entire church through his selfless acts of love and always to the glory of God!
Revelation 21:15-22:5; Luke 6:46-51
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Kilsyth, West Virginia is a tiny town just a mile south of Mount Hope, which isn't far from Oak Hill. Kilsyth is a struggling town full of hard stories chiseled out of people's challenging existence, carved from the mountains which surround the town to the east and west.
From June 10-14, many of our twenty-two adults and teens from Youth in Faith Service (YIFS) worked on a rehabilitation project for the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) in Kilsyth. It was our job to hang insulation and vinyl siding on the outside of the house and hanging drywall on the ceilings and walls inside the house. Working beside various crews of young men and women from the surrounding area and across the country, we saw slow progress on the Kilsyth site. But, we also experienced first-hand the multiple frustrations of building and rebuilding houses. While there were other sites on which people worked, including painting the post office in Kincaid, painting the main hallway of the SALS school in Beard's Fork, putting a completely new roof on a storage facility in Paige, and two projects which remained unfinished from last year's mission visit in Paige and Powelton, I found the Kilsyth site particularly germane to today's conversation.
You see, the house at Kilsyth was an old, small house that was added onto twice in the last few months. It was gutted, then expanded to make room for an ADA-approved accessibility for a wheelchair-bound young man and his family. With an old outhouse standing nearby and a sewage ditch running around the house, it was clear this home was not far removed from different generation of plumbing. Built on brick stilts and raised about three feet off the ground, the first thing I noticed about this home was that it was not built on a solid foundation. As a result the original house was completely uneven. The rooms that had been added on were slightly less, but also uneven, as well. Built more by "eyeball" than by exact measure, the challenges of rebuilding were plentiful - especially to a crew of well-meaning, but highly untrained folks like us (and our local and national helpers!).
There was one section of drywall I helped hang which had four different measurements along an eight-foot section of wall. We did the best we could and then acknowledged that the "mud" and finishing would take care of the rest. On the outside of the building, we lacked the tools, the training, and proper scaffolding to reach the high places on the south wall of the home which reached 25 feet high at the peak. You should have seen Skylar Olsen, Stephanie Weaver and Frank Cook hanging from ladders and wrongly constructed ladderjacks to do this job. It was both frightening and inspiring!
The week of work on the Kilsyth site taught us many lessons about work and houses. But, I believe, more importantly, we learned many lessons about life. There are immeasurable lessons to be learned when you experience life as a house. The first and perhaps most important lesson is to build your life, as you would build your home, on a solid foundation. I find the story in Luke's gospel instructive on this lesson.
In the parable of the wise and foolish builder, the wise man builds his house upon rock and the foolish one upon the sand. I have always interpreted this parable rather simply - the rock upon which to build our lives is Jesus the Christ. In him and through him all things work together for good! Through Him we learn compassion, love, justice, mercy, and community with others. He is our solid Rock of Salvation!
But, what is the sand of the foolish? And why would a person build their home without a rock foundation? Why would they build directly upon the ground - especially in uneven, lowlands, which easily give way to floods and destruction? Perhaps poverty has as much or more to do with foundations as foolishness does.
There are three statistics about West Virginia stand side-by-side pointing to a rough way to go. West Virginians have the highest home ownership rate among the 50 states. However, coupled with this high degree of home ownership is one of the lowest education rates and highest unemployment rates in the nation as well. Lack of means, and a high desire and need to have a home are also measures of why men and women build in poor locations with poor materials and poor skills and tools in the construction of their homes. Perhaps Jesus' parable would feel better, if the "wise" man, who was most likely a "rich" man as well, would have shared his skills and his tools and his education and his location with his sand-building neighbor! Perhaps, we can be part of righting the wrongs implicit in this parable in our times.
With our solid foundation built in Christ, we can continue our building process. We need good training, good materials, good support from family and friends in building our lives of faith - just as we need good material, good tools, and good workers when building homes. It goes without saying that our faith, built on a solid foundation in Christ needs support. As we make commitments to God in Christ Jesus, we need to gain insights and strength in Christian faith through continual, lifelong Christian education and spiritual growth. How many of you stopped your educational growth process at 14 years old? None of you, I hope. While not all of us have high school diplomas (and God doesn't require one!), all of us seek to grow in our wealth of knowledge and understanding of God! And all of us need good materials in education, good forums for learning, and support from family and friends. Each of us needs to interact with and respond to the spirituality and faith that is welling-up inside of us.
Each of us is alive and vital as children of the living God. We need support to maintain life and vitality, to sustain faith and spirituality! In his book, The HolyLonging, Ronald Rolheiser speaks of the spirituality which is in each one of us. "Spirituality is not something on the fringes, an option for those with a particular bent. None of us has a choice. Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one - either a life giving one or a destructive one." Rolheiser puts it this way:
No one has the luxury of choosing here because all of us are precisely fired into life with a certain madness that comes from the gods and we have to do something with that. We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with this madness is our spirituality.... Spirituality is about being integrated or falling apart, about being within community or being lonely, about being in harmony with Mother Earth or being alienated from her....What shapes our actions is our spirituality (R. Rolheiser, Holy Longing, Doubleday, NY, 1999, pp. 6-7).
In West Virginia I met people who were on fire with God and their spirituality poured out of them in rich and meaningful ways. If I came away with anything, it was the feeling that despite hardship and pain, most of the people we met had not lost their sense of humor, their passion for life, their sense of belonging in community and their connections to the place they call home. I was humbled by their connection to home. We have nice houses, but many of us are still seeking home. I can't begin to tell you how many people I met who were on fire with their spirituality and faith! The holy madness of which Rolheiser speaks was alive and well in West Virginia! And it is moving experience to stand in the presence of such aliveness, which is brought to life because of and not merely in spite of such hardships! My prayer for you is that each of you acknowledge, tap into and grow from the fire that is burning in your soul! Don't let the fire of spirituality and faith burn to embers and die, rather feed the flames of God's Spirit in you and grow!
At last, I gain strength and insight into Life as a House through the final chapters of the final book of the Bible. In the Book of Revelation, we read of John's vision for the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. With a measuring rod of gold, the angel of God surveys a city whose dimensions are 1500 miles wide by 1500 miles long by 1500 miles high. With walls of jasper, gold and clear as glass, this city is transparent, beautiful and filled with the best building materials ever conceived. Every jewel imaginable adorn the city. The streets are paved with gold and the twelve gates are twelve pearls. No temple or church is needed because God is the holy temple, the habitation of holiness! No sun or moon are needed and no electricity is needed because God, the power source for eternity lights the way. Ad every nation is honored within the walls of the New Jerusalem. And the river is one which doesn't flood and doesn't destroy for it is the river of life. The trees produce fruit enough for all and the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. And the gates are wide open! This is a huge city! Is it any wonder that many seek to live eternally in the city of God?
In the end, I am struck by God's creation in the vision of John. The New Jerusalem has see-through walls and open gates. The nations are invited in, and while it is clear that a redeemed and holy life is needed to cross the threshold it is also clear that the openness of God's city is one which calls us all! We don't find a tiny house or a small city in heaven, rather a vast, open air, light-filled, spirit-filled home which beckons and welcomes all people! All God's children are called to enter! As well, all the exclusive words are silenced, the narrow ideas are cast away, and doctrinally small ways of humanity are set aside in the holy habitation of the Most High! Sounds to me like a plan! I like the way God builds God's house! How about you? You see, our God prepares the best for God's daughters and sons in the city which is the New Jerusalem!
I am still learning from the experience of the past week. I am not ready to stop learning. I am also not ready to stop building! I invite you to join in rebuilding a home for a low income family here in Columbus! About three miles from here, west on Broad Street (near the Florentine Restaurant), we are assisting in rehabilitating a house in hopes of making it a home. If you are interested in helping, now is the time to sign up! Michael Kosher is leading our crews at this Gladden Community House neighborhood process! Believe me, you will learn more than house-rebuilding skills. You will learn about faith and life. And perhaps, you will catch a vision of God's plan for the life, the house, and the city - yet to be!
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