July 27, 2014
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

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The Reward

Epiphany 7 | Ordinary Time 7

from the book
Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A


James L. Killen, Jr.



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The Rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, pictures Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God if it is really necessary for him to die on the cross. In deep anguish he prays, among other things, "I'd have to know, I'd have to know, my Lord, if I die, what will be my reward?" We don't think or talk much about the reward of the Christian life. I suppose we feel reluctant to ask because we think that, if we are being Christian just for what we get out of it, we are probably doing it for the wrong reason. But the question sometimes occurs to most of us, doesn't it? And in our scripture lessons for today, Paul mentions a reward. So let's let ourselves ask the question just this once. What is the reward that comes to those who live the Christian life?

There is a reward. When we think about the Christian's reward, we usually think of something that waits for us beyond this life, something we don't quite know how to describe because it is hidden behind a veil and probably cannot be adequately described in the words and concepts we have developed to describe things in this life. That expectation has been important to Christians down through the ages. It was important to Paul. Later in his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). The hope for the hereafter has been very important to people in our day, too. Jonathan Kozol wrote a book about the lives of desperately poor people living in a slum of a great city. The book was titled Amazing Grace because the author said the lives of these people were so empty of hope or of promise that they could only find meaning for their lives in the promise of heaven they heard in their little church.1 That promise of a reward in heaven can also mean a lot to people living under oppression or going through debilitating illness and also for most of the rest of us as we approach the end of life. The promise of a reward beyond this life is important.

But there can also be a reward, a wage for work well done and for a life well lived, in this world, too. The Corinthian Christians were interested in that, maybe more interested than they should have been. Corinth was a busy, cosmopolitan city, a center of commerce, a place where people could move up the ladders of affluence and of status. Lots of people were thinking about that sort of thing - and some of them let that kind of thinking get mixed up with their religion. Those who were so interested in "wisdom" were, for the most part, really just looking for an excuse for feeling superior to others. Yes, they were interested in knowing what would be the reward of their righteousness. Finally, Paul said, "Okay, okay. If you want to talk about rewards, we will talk about rewards."

Paul said that a foundation has been laid and each of us is invited to build upon it. We will be rewarded on the basis of how well we build.

Paul said that he had laid the foundation by preaching to them the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a person or a community builds on any other foundation, they are building something that cannot last. No other foundation can support the structure. So what are we to build on? We are to build on a knowledge that God is, and that God loves us all, and that God is at work in our lives and in our world to save.

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As individuals and as churches - and as a universal church - we are called to build something on that foundation. Each of us is to build a life. Together, we are to build a church, and as a whole human race, we are to build a world. We do build those things. We each do build lives. We do build churches - and the church. Yes, and we are the ones who build the world we live in. We might as well accept responsibility for doing the jobs and do them as well as we can.

People and communities build in lots of different ways with lots of different materials. Of course, some don't think much about building anything. They just kick back and let things happen as they will. But those who do that have to accept responsibility for what gets built in that way.

Of what do we build our lives? Do we build them of commitments to great purposes, of high values, of deep appreciation of beauty and goodness, of integrity and of discipline and of love? Or do we try to build them of the things that magazine advertisements promote?

Of what do we build our churches? Are they built of strong beliefs in eternal truths and of deep commitments to the loving purpose of God for the salvation of the world? Or are they built of the comfortable little services designed to serve its own members and, perhaps, to attract some of the desirable outsiders into membership?

And of what do we build our world? Do we build it of commitments to justice and well--being for all people? Or do we build it of competitions to see who can most effectively exploit others and prosper from it - or out of balances of military power that are designed to oppress and to destroy?

When we get honest, we have to admit that all of us are built of some good stuff and of some stuff that is not good. A song from the '60s described the lives and the houses that people were building as "little boxes made of ticky--tacky." Most of us have incorporated a certain amount of ticky--tacky into our structures - but we are likely not to realize it until judgment day comes.

Paul says we will be rewarded for what we have built and built well. Then what is the reward? The reward for building a good life is the good life itself. What we claim to have built is really God's gift to us. A life built of great commitments and high values and of love will be life in its fullness and there is nothing better that we could ask for in this life. It is not the wealth or the status symbols or the accumulations of pleasure that really make a life, it is the deep wholeness and humanity. No matter how much of those other things a person has or doesn't have, it is the quality of the life in the center of the circumstances that is the reward.

And the reward for building a church and a world that live up to their highest purposes is that we get to enjoy the benefits of such a church and such a world. We get to enjoy the service of a church that puts us in touch with the living God and enables us to live the good lives God wants for us. The reward of living in a world that is committed to justice and well--being for all is that we get to live in safety and in a life--enriching harmony with all other people. That, too, is the gift that God keeps wanting to give us.

To what extent are we enjoying that reward? To what extent are you enjoying the wages of work well done? We may not really know until some crisis makes it obvious. Paul introduces the idea of a judgment day into our thinking. "... 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" (1 Corinthians 3:13). Are we talking about the final judgment? Paul may have been. But judgment day can come right in the middle of life when something happens that puts our building to the test, something like a catastrophic illness, or a national crisis like the September 11 tragedy, or maybe some opportunity to do some great good that shows whether or not we are willing to rise to the challenge. Just as a hurricane or an earthquake can test the quality of a building's construction, so a crisis in our lives, or in the life of our church or nation, can show us how well we have built. If we have incorporated too much "ticky--tacky" into the construction, the structures may not be able to stand and serve. If we have built well, our reward will be that we will be able to cope and to keep on living a good quality of life in the midst of whatever circumstances may come along.

But Paul adds something very interesting. He says that even if the crisis proves the inadequacy of our building, it may still work for our salvation. It can show us what is important and what is not. The "fire" can act as a refiner's fire and cause us to rebuild and to rebuild better.

Let me tell you a story about a fire. A certain Christian man finally got that big promotion in his profession. He moved to a new city to assume the responsibilities of vice president of a major bank. He and his family were excited about building that fine new home that they had always dreamed of. They built it in an affluent suburb where all of the homes were fine. They brought into it all of the things that they had accumulated and treasured over the years and they carefully selected the new furniture and appliances that would make their home just right. The family was really beginning to enjoy their new home and their new situation in life. Everything looked just right - but no one could see the defective wiring that a careless workman had left as his contribution to their happiness. One night only a few months after moving into the house, the man had a dream that there was a fire in the attic. He woke up in a fright - and discovered that his dream was true. Quickly, he woke up his wife and children and got them out of the house as it burst into flames. As he stood and watched his dream house burn, neighbors came running up to him and asked if there was anything he wanted them to try to save. He shook his head and said, "No. My wife and children are safe and there's nothing else in the house that is worth the risk of life." Very quickly, the fire had caused him to put things into perspective. It would be unrealistic to say that they did not suffer some grief because of their loss. But they knew to be grateful that they still had everything that was really important. That was a kind of a salvation.

Many have gone through crisis experiences that helped them to realize that some of the things they thought were very important really weren't and some of the things they had neglected were the things that really made life worth living. That can indeed be an experience of salvation - and that, too, is a kind of reward.

But then Paul moves on to enlarge his metaphor and he has a surprise for us. He says, "Do you not know that you [you Christians, you churches] are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16). If we can keep our lives from being cluttered up with things that distract us from what is important, the Spirit of God will teach us real wisdom and help us catch a new vision of things as they really are. One of the things we will be shown is that since you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God and all things belong to God, then all things belong to you.

Now, there is a vision we may have a hard time catching. We are an awful lot like the Corinthians. They were so preoccupied with who has wisdom and who doesn't and who has wealth and who doesn't and who has status and who doesn't and which house church has the most attractive pastor and which has the truest doctrine that they were missing the magnificent vision of the whole that was there before them. We do that, too. We divide our lives up like we divide our property into little gated communities with guards at the gates or like pieces of turf with "keep out" signs on the fences. Then we exhaust ourselves with being defensive of what is ours and jealous of what is not. Paul says to forget that foolishness. Everything good is yours. Does that come as a surprise? Can you take it in?

Some of our songwriters have caught the vision. An old spiritual that came to us from a group of people who had nothing at all in this world said, "All around me looks so shine, asked the Lord if all was mine. Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray." Another hymn describes the beauty that surrounds us when "morning has broken" and how that beauty takes on eternal significance. Then it says, "Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning born of the one light Eden saw play! Praise with elation, praise every morning, God's recreation of the new day!" You don't have to own a sunrise or a sunset to enjoy it. You just have to claim it and take it in before it slips away. It was put there for you. It is yours. God gave it to you.

You can feel the same way about the wisdom and the accomplishments and the goodness of other people. They are yours, too, because ultimately they are God's. In just that same way, every bit of the beauty and goodness and truth and nobility and aliveness and joy that are to be found in this world, in all of life, yes, and in death too, are yours. Don't try to own them in some way that hoards them and keeps them away from others. That won't work. That will spoil it. But simply move through life with arms and heart wide open to embrace and to share every good thing that is there for you. And when the time comes for you to leave this life, approach the great unknown beyond this life in the same way. Everything good is yours. God has freely given it to you. And that is your reward just for allowing the Spirit of God to show you that you are beloved children of God.


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1. Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace (New York: Crown, 1995).