This is the message I preached on Sunday, May 27, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
1 Corinthians 3:1-16
Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. 3 Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? 4 When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? 5 After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. 7 Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. 9 We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building.
10 I laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to me, but someone else is building on top of it. Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. 11 No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 So, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, 13 each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. 15 But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire. 16 Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?
There is something wonderful about coming home. I remember when I lived and worked in Los Angeles with some churches there in my early twenties. I felt at times, though I was still here in the US of A, I was off in a far country. Though the work was good, though I had great experiences, though I even met a woman I fell in love with and married, my late wife Katharine, there, it wasn’t home. Nobody had that soft reassuring twang and lilt in their voice I knew growing up in Eastern North Carolina. Whenever I asked for sweet tea, I either got odd looks or something that tasted alarmingly like tropical fruit. Everyone was always in a hurry. Nobody really answered when I asked, “How are you doing?” And good fried chicken and grits – yes, this was before my vegetarian days – were hard to find. Everyone gave me the side eye even for asking!
Those few times I could scrounge up the money on my meager assistant pastor’s salary to fly into NC and come back home were a welcome respite. When I stepped off my plane, I knew I was home, home in the land of kudzu and sweet potato pie, home with folks who knew how to say “howdy”, have southern hospitality, & be a neighbor. I knew soon I would able to laugh and cry as you can only do with dear family and close friends. I was reminded, no matter how far away I went, no matter what happened, no matter which choices I made, I could always come home again.
This is what we often celebrate in the church at homecoming. We remember that here, in the church, you are always welcome. No matter how long you have been gone, how far you have moved away, you are always welcome here. Our arms at Hanks Chapel are always open to embrace you back – just as Christ always will open his arms wide to us.
I think this message is timeless and true. I don’t think there is ever a time to not remind us of this promise. I am so glad we can remind you each of that each Homecoming.
Yet as I reflected on what message God has for us this Homecoming at Hanks Chapel, I could not help but turn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. In these words, Paul gives us another challenge. He asks – will we welcome God back home this homecoming?
You see Paul challenges us to remember that being God’s people, being God’s church, is not just about us being welcomed back, no matter what we’ve done. It is that. It is not just about us remembering those who have gone before – something we should do and have done as a part of our service here at Hanks Chapel. It is not just welcoming back those long gone from our doors, whether it be through callings from God that took them away or through wandering in a wilderness all their own. All of these are good, necessary, and true. It is also remembering that you and I are made to be the temple, the dwelling place, the home of God in this world. As we spoke about last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, the day God began to pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit on all who open their lives to Jesus, God promises to come and make God’s home in each person who follows Jesus, through giving them the Holy Spirit.
So we are challenged to ask the question: how then can we welcome God home this homecoming? Both in our our hearts and lives as individuals — but also in our families, church, and community?
One way Paul points to us welcoming God home in our reading is remembering who it is all about. It is easy to miss the point. Paul describes how people miss the point by getting caught up in labels and names. “I follow this person” or “I follow that person,” they say. It is easy to get caught up in how so and so always did things years ago in the church and either cling to that, or fight against it — rather than asking where is God in this? What is God saying now, today, and where is God the Spirit leading us all together? It is easy to get caught up in people’s personalities. We can give into simply blindly going along with others — whether that is moving in lock step with a popular person or group in the church, or siding blindly with a political party, so much so we forget those left out by its stances. This blindly going along can even be about trying to keep up appearances, when we make choices less out of what God is calling us to do and more out of concern for whether we will look respectable to others. And though honoring those who’ve gone before us as we do each Homecoming is a part of us recognizing, as the book of Hebrews challenges us to, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses challenging us to lay aside everything that hinders, we can also lean so heavily on their example, their way of doing things, we live as if we can get to God on their coat-tails, rather than inviting God into our hearts and lives for ourselves.
Ultimately, our life as Christians is not supposed to be about any of these potential pitfalls I’ve mentioned. It is supposed to be about making room for God to move in us — and the way God moves in our own lives can be so very different for each person. The path God paves for you may be very different from the path God paves for me. The kind of home you are to make for God might be different than mine — perhaps your life is to be like a yurt in your back yard, or a giant mansion, or an old log cabin, a giant farmhouse, or a cute little bungalow. What counts is not whether the home of our lives look alike — how boring would that be! — but that our lives, however similar or different they may be, are built as spaces where God is welcome to dwell. We can compare our callings to others, whether those that have gone before us or those in the next pew over, and feel we aren’t enough because we don’t live out our call like they do; or we can judge them that they are different or wrong for the same reason. However, whenever we do either, we forget it is not about comparing ourselves among ourselves, but about making room for God ourselves. As the hymn the choir sang last week says, “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again… If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’” However different our paths, each of us can welcome God’s Spirit into our lives in ways that share God’s love.
Another part of welcoming God home in our lives, church, families, and communities this homecoming is pointed to by Paul’s language of fire. We often find such imagery of fire scary sometimes, jumping to thoughts of hell and damnation. Paul, on the other hand, is not talking about damnation at all here — in fact, most of the Bible’s language of fire is about something different than damnation. Paul instead is talking about how life sends things our way which, on the surface, can look scary or seem out to harm us. But we won’t know until we get to the other side of these fiery moments whether what we face is something to be feared or not. Fire may harm — but it can also purify and heal. Fire removes impurity from metal and can sanitize something that has been exposed to germs that carry disease. Paul’s language of fire warns us that the thing which seems like a blessing we want to hold onto with all our strength may be the very thing we need to let go of, for if we hold it too tightly it could be a fire which destroys what we care about or where God calls us to be. Also that experience which seems to bring the greatest pain can also teach us the most about ourselves and God’s plan for us, if we let it — teaching us compassion, humility, lessons we need to learn for the next step in our journey. It can purify us and make us whole.
Rumi, a Persian poet I love, puts it very well in his poem “The Guest House” —
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
Learning to embrace all of who you are, every experience you go through, all your so-called strengths and weaknesses, all your so-called trials or joys, all your so-called triumphs or failures, as places where God can work and teach, is part of welcoming God home in your life — and also in our communities, churches, and families.
A final challenge of welcoming God home is also recognizing that God shows up most of all in each person we encounter. Most of us have heard Matthew 25, in which Jesus tells us both, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me’ and ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’
Sometimes we tend to think we can only experience God’s Spirit in extraordinarily holy people — in preachers, in church leaders, in some of the sainted folks we have just remembered together. Yet these words of Jesus tells us that in each person we encounter — no matter how seemingly ordinary, different, or strange they might appear to us and others, God is present already. Jesus recognized this included people whom the religious establishment deem as too sinful too, and embraced those outcasts from the church so warmly that people mockingly called him “the friend of sinners”. Each person we encounter — well, God is with them, for the breath of life they breathe comes directly from the Holy Spirit. God is guiding their life, their every experience they have. And if they have opened their life to God, the Holy Spirit too has come to dwell in them. Too often we are too quick to judge others as not knowing God, when the Bible tells us not only was our Savior in whose steps we are called to follow “a friend of sinners”, but God the Holy Spirit even has spoken through former prostitutes, dirty fisherman, and even once a donkey. There is no one we can rule out. Only God knows another’s heart.
I can tell you, in my work as a hospice chaplain, I meet with people from every conceivable background and walk of life, some which would be celebrated by everyone and some which other people might look down on. And yet there is not yet a person I have met through that work as a hospice chaplain who has not taught me something about God as I truly listened to their story.
Friends, if we want to welcome God home in our lives, in our families, in our churches, and in our community, each time we meet a new person,we need to press pause on any judgments we are tempted to make. We need instead to ask ourselves, “Where is God in them?” and look and listen for how God shows up through their life. There may be talents and gifts they have that they either already are using or can begin to use to help others. They may have lessons they learned in their life we never could have learned in our own lives, since their journeys have been so different from our own. And, after all, any lesson of truth and wisdom we gain ultimately comes from God, the giver of every good and perfect gift, doesn’t it?
For those who might want to join us in future weeks here at Hanks Chapel, I hope starting next week to begin a sermon series where we spend more time talking about how we can connect with God the Holy Spirit, who lives in us, strengthens us, and guides us. This series will discuss further ways we can grow in welcoming God the Holy Spirit home in our own lives, in our church, and in all the places we find ourselves: homes, neighborhoods, work, school.
But for right now, what a great challenge — to not just experience being welcomed home by God, but to choose each day to ask the question: how can I welcome God home in me, in my life, in my relationships, my community, my family? Let us answer that call with open hearts, open lives, open minds, and open hands. Amen