In my lifetime of being a United Methodist, I’ve never experienced the level of anxiety in myself or across the board for the future of their church. As you all know, today is the first business day in the Special General Conference that will determine the future of the church—not just on human sexuality, but perhaps on the makeup and structure of our denomination as it moves forward.
Everyone is trying to picture the future of the church. What will it look like? While I have absolutely no idea what if anything will happen as a result of the next few days of deonimational deliberation, I think that in order to help us picture the future of our church and the denomination, we could hardly do better than draw on the image that Paul suggests in 1 Cor, but maybe with a little help from postmodern architecture. Now before beginning, let me say that no image of the people of God is perfect or complete, and that’s why Scripture has so many of them. Last week, Paul told the believers in Corinth that they were like plants organically connected to the field where God brings growth and new life, but now he provides a metaphor from the building trades. Hear this word:
1Cor. 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? …. we are God’s servants, working together; you are …God’s building.
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must take care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
So if GC2019 is like the denomination trying to decide how and where the church should be built in the future, then we would do well to heed this advice from 1 Corinthians and make sure that the church is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There are some people who say, “If the foundation is poured concrete, then by God, the whole thing is gonna be poured concrete. Let’s form this thing up and reinforce it. Let’s make the connection to the foundation obvious and literal.” What might that position look like if it were a building? Well, fortunately for our exploration this morning, there is a school of architecture called Brutalism!
How would you like to live there, or work there? As much as we want to ensure that our church is built on the foundation of Christ, if the result is ugly, then we might need to reconsider. Scripture often talks about “the beauty of holiness.” That is, what is good and true is also beautiful.
Now on the other hand, there are some who might be tempted to build something creative and beautiful while saying, who cares if it’s structurally sound as long as it looks good. At first glance, the instructions to build on a foundation that has already been poured might seem like a hindrance to creativity. But I actually think that the more our work is “tied in to the foundation,” the more we will be able to extend ourselves even further and to push the forms we’ve been given. For instance, consider an example of postmodern architecture like the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art in Columbus, Ohio.
The Wexner Center is not just a place to hang contemporary art, or a roof to keep rain off your head. Like a lot of contemporary architecture, it’s an attempt to say, “this is what architecture ought to do.” It’s playful and fun, it’s de-centralized rather than having one main resting point for the eye of beholder. I see several possibilities that this building suggests for the future of Oconee Street.
1. It’s connected to traditional forms, but clearly distinct.
Notice how it is situated next to these other buildings. Their straightforward, rectilinear form provide a contrast to the creativity and playfulness of the Wexner Center. It’s very possible that as a result of General Conference, some churches may exit left or exit right, (or both), but no matter who keeps the name UMC, or whether or not there are two denominations or three Connectional Conferences, we won’t be alone.
2. There is another aspect to consider in the next view of The Wex:
The Wex is provisional and playful with historic forms. You see these white geometric poles? Those evoke scaffolding, like a builder would put up to work on the walls. Scaffolding suggests that the work of architecture is constantly under revision, that it’s not fixed and final.
Similarly, discerning the will of God for the church is work that has to move forward through time. Every generation has new challenges to work through, and the work of building on the foundation of Christ is never done.
3. The Wexner center is interesting for the way it builds on its foundation. It’s connection to the foundation is complex—more connected for being less obvious.
One of the most interesting features is a column that playfully deconstructs what a column is. It doesn’t rest on the ground, but hangs from above, it doesn’t support the roof overhead but is itself supported by the roof. But notice. The cross members that it hangs from are supported by what? The wall at the edge of the building. And that wall is resting on what? Not a hovercraft, not a gaseous substance or water or mud. The wall that holds the cross member that holds the column is itself resting on a solid foundation. Reference to the foundation can be deferred, but not disregarded altogether.
Just because we’re built on the foundation, that doesn’t mean that the connection has to be obvious. Sometimes the church might need to cantilever it’s ministry into new terrain, or to make room for new ministry and new people. But a floor that cantilevered out over nothing in some ways has to rely on the foundation all the more. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house called Falling Water.
The horizontal floors echo the dramatic rock formations below, and to achieve the effect of flying out over the water, they had to extend past the foundational supports. About 20 years ago, major cracks began to appear as the cantilevered concrete began to pull away from the foundation. As architectural historians began to cull through the details of its construction, they discovered an angry correspondence between the architect and the construction foreman, in which the lead on-site builder tried to tell the Wright that the building would never last and that it would require twice as much steel reinforcement than Wright had specified. When the restoration of Fallingwater got to a certain point, they realized that despite the architects protests, the men who built it did in fact double on the the reinforcements to the foundation, and the only reason that the building lasted as long as it did was because those who built it took great care to build on the foundation that had been laid.
Paul says that the work of church leaders will one day be judged, not just in the slow breakdown of material by natural processes like gravity and erosion, but by a decisive gesture of God. The true nature of our work is not how good it looks, or how obviously it hews to the foundational footprint, or how big it is or how grand it is. What separates lasting material from ersatz imports can only be known by the revelation of God. There will come a Day when the Chief Building inspector asks us to show our work. Straw roofs will be consumed with fire, and wooden walls will be tinder in the fire, but there will be parts of the building that will remain in all their golden splendor.
While the judgment of God might seem a foreboding prospect, if we care about the future of the building, we will welcome it now so that we don’t have to fear it in the future. Because we’re the children of God, its kind of like “knowing somebody down at the permit and inspection office.” We don’t fear their judgment but welcome it. There are several stages of getting construction inspected—the foundation, the framing, electrical and plumbing all have to be approved before the work is covered up with sheetrock. If we didn’t have those preliminary inspections, how much more trouble we would have to go to if something leaked or arced and the entire wall had to be torn off. Better to show our work while we’re still in process. Better to welcome God’s inspection of our church, knowing that it’s provisional and unfinished and maybe a bit messy and hard to explain to people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do here.
In these days of uncertainty it’s important to remember that we are not the ultimate judge of what will last and what will not. This Special General Conference is important for the future of our church, but it is by no means the decisive moment that reveals which parts of the UMC that have been built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. General Conference 2019 is more like a remodeling job whose worth will only be proven in God’s good future.
There is something in these proceedings that makes us impatient for that future. Every plan and piece of legislation has its advocates, with the various factions determined to win out over their foes and to some extent that’s necessary. Take heart in this season of uncertainty. In the end as at the beginning, we are God’s building through and through. General Conference 2019 is not the Day of Judgment. It will not fully determine once and for all who is faithful and who isn’t. That is for God to do. Nor will General Conference determine how the church will look in the future. That is also the creative work of our Chief Architect who allows us to participate in good work of building the church. Back here at Oconee Street we can have the courage to extend ourselves in love because we are tied in to the foundation of Jesus Christ.
“Showing Your Work”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
Feb. 24, 2019
Listen to the choir anthem, “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation“
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