The Cornerstone of The Fortress

Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray, using the words of Pastor Melissa Hinnen:

Sculpting God, who is ever creating, help us when we are spinning in circles with no sense of direction. We feel tossed and thrown – wondering “where will I land?” Pause us in the chaos. Show us how to begin again. As we surrender to you, help us to trust the shaping and smoothing of your hands as you mould what feels like a clumpy mess of a soul into something unique. Soften us when we are resistant. Make us pliable to your will, heal the cracked edges, surprise us with formerly hidden details. Not without flaws but perfectly imperfect, made in your image. Relational Potter, through divine partnership help us become co-creators with you; Beautiful vessels, Works in progress, Already but not yet. Pour us out to make room for your Eternal love and Endless grace. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

  • adapted from a post in the Facebook group “the Parlour”

How many of you watch the home improvement shows? I love these shows – but in particular, it’s the ones centred on restoration that really jazz me. People go into these houses that seem to be absolute wrecks and they roll up their sleeves, and from these wrecks, break open walls, discover hidden treasures – Shiplap! Brick! Long forgotten windows and fireplaces! In the ones I like best, the renovators do not destroy what they find, but work hard to update and reincorporate these features so that they shine and go from sad ruins to pride of place. Although the transformations may be shown in the 52 minutes the shows run, the actual work takes longer and is often far harder and far more complex than we get to see. In other words, some transformations take place in ways that we don’t actually see happen – but we can bear witness to by how the finished product has turned out.

I am sure you know where I am going with this – in God’s hands, ruined lives are changed – redeemed and restored, the hidden treasures of the saved person brought into the light to be repurposed into assets rather than deficits. Now I want to slow down here – because there is another set of shows on those home channels where people decide they have watched enough of these shows and, without even realising how much they have taken on, get themselves in so deep that they wind up having to call professional folks to help them repair the damage they have done. In taking this side of the story into consideration, we have to realise that at times we get ourselves so focused on what we can do and on how easy that doing seems to be that we forget we are not the professional builder. Again, to bring this back to our faith context, we often fall into the trap that there is a book to read, a program to work, a prophet to follow that will fix everything that is wrong with us. But when we finish that book, complete that program and order our lives to the prophet of the moment – we find ourselves in a deeper hole than when we started.

So. We come back to the words of Jesus. The hard words of Jesus. Because what the Lord says to us today is that no matter how much passion we pour into literally anything else – if we do not start with God as our cornerstone – no matter what we do, it will always fail. You have to build on the strongest cornerstone, or whatever you try to create will fall apart.

Time and time again in the house renovation universe, they will open up the walls, probe the foundation and what looked solid or easily repaired turns out to be utterly compromised. In our lives as well, we discover that what we thought was sound and strong has broken apart. When the crisis hits, we are not just dealing with the pain of the blow, but the pain of the failure of the structure we thought would stand. In the hard words of the Gospel, we hear that the mistake is ours – we built our structure on things that were not going to last. Now who wants to hear that? That wreck and ruin we find ourselves in is at least in part our own fault because we used the wrong materials with which to build? But Jesus is clear – if we have built our lives around things that don’t last – when the storm comes, we are in trouble.

Be clear – having the Lord as your cornerstone doesn’t stop the storm or even prevent us from getting wet. What it DOES do is prevent us from being washed away. In a few months from now, we will celebrate the anniversary of Luther’s reformation. In his great hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Luther affirms again and again, that God will sustain us in turmoil no matter what. No matter what system fails, the love and strength of God remains. Luther understood pretty clearly that having Jesus at the centre of your life meant that you could survive anything: God’s word forever shall abide, No thanks to foes who fear it, For God himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, Goods, honour, child or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever.

I hope you heard that – that God is the warrior, the sustainer, the life giver. We are not the ones making that safety a reality – God is. In that Mighty Divine Fortress, we are given access to a power that is not our own. Luther was also very clear that that power is on offer to any and all – yet here’s the thing: it lies in our ability to say no to that Divine love. We are absolutely free to build our lives wherever we want. God has shown us, told us what the consequences are of putting anything in place of that Divine love – but it remains our CHOICE. We are free to make our choices – but if we choose poorly – be prepared for the house to fall. If however we really do make Christ our foundation – things will be different. I can’t tell you they will be easy. Jesus himself says – Take up your cross and follow me.  A cross is the absolute symbol of world’s death and destruction – and yet we follow a God who has it made clear that not even the savage cross will win.

If we live in a faith that truly believes that accepting God is the only source of power that matters – then, and I believe, only then – can you be Onesimus (oh Nes -ih – mus) returning to Philemon. Paul and Onesimus, Philemon’s slave,  have been traveling together and Onesimus has become far more than a slave in his time away. He has become a believer and as such, has been elevated into a completely new way to relate to the world. Yet this new relationship, this new life, this restoration has happened away from the world in which he previously lived. Paul seems to be remarkably blasé about sending him back to that world – and everything we know about Paul is that he was that guy. He was so forceful in his character that he never seems to think people will question him. So he seems to have no great qualm sending Onesimus back to his enslaver.

BUT – Onesimus knows. If we can speculate about the text, we can presume it is he who raised the questions that Paul so easily dismisses: but if WE are the ones traveling back to our place of enslavement, are we cool with that journey? Harry and I went to see the Steppenwolf production of “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” on Friday. The play is set at the time of Martha’s coming death, whereby the enslaved people around her know that they will be freed the second she dies. You can imagine the tensions! In United States, this topic of slavery and its real, true impact on how we relate to each other across colour lines is hot and wounding and considering the question of how we got here is not so occasionally explosive. Increasingly, some folks are refusing to even allow the questions to be asked – but, even with all the heat, it is still history, not current events. For Onesimus, he IS right in the thick of it. This is not an academic history lesson for him – this is his actual life. Would WE go back to the plantation?

We know that Onesimus does, because we have the letter he carried back to Philemon. From this act of courage, we know that he had chosen to put his faith in God. He had built his foundation of trust in God and would not break under the weight of the world’s very real threats. The God who restored and redeemed him in his conversion is the one Onesimus trusts to be with him when he makes this journey back to his enslaver.

So the question comes to us – where have we put our cornerstone? Because no matter how much we want to think our security lies in goods, honour, child or spouse – none of those are eternal. To build on them is have a fatal flaw in your design, a failing in your foundation. Jesus says; Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. In this context, hate does not mean something we want to destroy or harm – but instead as Carolyn J. Sharp,  Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School writes; Preachers should help their congregations to understand that Luke 14:26 is not advocating intense hostility toward kin and life, but, rather, is promoting the steadfast refusal to allow something less valuable to displace something more valuable.

To be a follower of God, to be a disciple of Jesus, to live into the call of the Spirit – means we are not only to accept the redemption on offer, but also the sending. And the only way to do this is to have a cornerstone so sure that we can stand as Onesimus did and as Luther wrote, Though hordes of devils fill the land. All threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, They cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage! His might is doomed to fail, God’s judgement must prevail! One little word subdues him.

Do we trust that word? According to a 2017 article by Bryce Young:

The text Luther most likely had in mind was Revelation 12:10, where John writes that “the accuser of our brothers [who is Satan; 12:9] has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” So there is an accusation, a lie — Satan speaks “guilty” against the ones God has redeemed. It’s the same lie that Satan always speaks to God’s people (Zechariah 3:1).

The answer to this age-old lie is not to repeat Jesus’s name like a mantra. Nor is it simply to remind ourselves that Satan’s days are numbered. The answer, for Luther and in the Bible, is to believe the truth, the gospel. The answer is to believe the promises of God, that in Christ you are justified (Romans 5:1), clean (1 Corinthians 6:11), holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4), loved by God (Colossians 3:12), a branch saved from the fire (Zechariah 3:2).

The one, little word against Satan — “Liar!” — is the word of faith.

This morning – we are asked to look at all that God has given us to  shape and build us, to restore and redeem us – and ask ourselves – have we bought the lie? Have we built our lives on any thing other than God? If we have dug that hole, grace allows us to stop and call in the professional – to rebuild on the eternal cornerstone.