Saturday, February 16, 2019

“Building on the Rock” - February 10, 2019

Text: Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

The weather we have been having has really put infrastructure to the test.  Going from 20 below to 50 degrees above zero, repeatedly, is tough on everything.  And I don’t mean just on our skin and aching joints.  Expansion and contraction of driveways, roads, and sidewalks is a recipe for cracks and potholes, and some of those potholes are getting serious out there.  I noticed that the snow removal people damaged a couple of our new parking bumpers – those beautiful yellow parking bumpers.

Then you have got all of the issues that come with extreme cold, like pipes freezing.  We are probably not the only ones who have left cabinet doors under sinks open when it gets below zero and the wind is blowing.  Some people have reported leaks in their roofs as ice dams have formed and melting water has nowhere to go.

And then, I don’t know how many car batteries have died in recent weeks, but I do know it is a busy time of year for repair shops, just as it is for heating contractors. 

The weather reminds us of what we, of course, already knew: it is a lot easier to take care of potential problems before they happen.  Last week, with a wind chill of 40 below or so, it was getting a little chilly in the college lounge so Bob Parrish and I took out the window air conditioning unit, which wasn’t putting up that much resistance to the cold.  It was probably time.  Now, if we had taken it out back in September, it would have been a lot easier, a lot simpler.  There is a right time to do these kinds of things.

We have been in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount now for three Sundays.  It is chock-full of teaching – much of Jesus’ important teaching to his followers is found in these three chapters of Matthew.  There is so much there that last week, we actually took a vote on which part of the passage we wanted the sermon to be about.  The winner was Worry, which just crushed prayer, fasting, and money.  It was no contest.

Well, today, you are not going to get a choice.  In the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks of not judging others - or really, of being able to be self-critical.  There is that wonderful phrase of not throwing pearls before swine.  He talks about seeking, knocking, and asking, knowing that God wants to give us good things.

There is what we know as the Golden Rule, a way of living that Jesus says is pretty well a summary of the law and the prophets.  And Jesus tells us that the road to destruction is wide and easy, while the road to life is narrow and difficult.

But you don’t get to vote for any of those today.  We will be looking especially at the last part of this chapter, which is also the last part of the Sermon on the Mount.    Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the wise person who built their house on the rock.  The rains fell, the floods came, the wind beat down on the house but the house was secure because it was built on rock.  But if you hear my words but don’t act on them, it is like building your house on sand – the rains come, the wind blows, and the house falls.”

Jesus is talking about infrastructure – the building blocks of our faith.  When the storms come, when the floods come, when the snow and brutally cold weather comes, we need to be ready.  We need to be prepared.  Waiting until the storm comes is not the time to prepare for it.

Of course, Jesus is not talking about the weather and he is not talking about houses.  He is talking about life.  And we know that when it comes to life, the storms will certainly come.  One contemporary commentator and author, Peter Vale, has described the change that we are experiencing in our culture as white water change, meaning that it is as fast and furious and sometimes as treacherous and turbulent as the white waters of a raging river.

The question for us is, How do we find stability?  How do we make our journey through life when so much is changing and changing so fast?  What is sturdy and stable and steady and dependable in a time of such rapid change?

Jesus knew about how quickly things could change.  He knew about storms and rising waters and shifting sands.  There had been political upheaval brought about by the Roman occupation of Palestine.  It was a time when corruption in high places and competing religious and political factions made life disjointed and conflicted and just plain messy.  It was a time when many people lived at a subsistence level - one injury, one illness, one emergency away from disaster. 

Jesus speaks to people who have come out to hear him, people who want to follow him.  These are people facing difficult times, living hard lives, and Jesus speaks to them of how to live in such difficult times.

And then if we think about the community to whom Matthew was writing, some years later, the same was true.  They had seen many changes, and at times it seemed like the storms were blowing furiously.  They had seen the growing separation of the followers of Jesus from the rest of the Jewish community.  They saw growing violence in the land as people tried to rise up against the Roman occupation.  And they had started to experience persecution at the hands of those who rejected their religious beliefs and opposed their choice to follow Jesus.

When you are facing difficult times, the foundation is crucial, says Jesus.  You have to build your lives on that which is solid and dependable.

Jesus suggests a very firm and solid foundation here - the rock of faith, the rock of hope, the rock of love.  He says, “Anyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the person who built his house on the rock.”

What words is Jesus talking about?

Well, remember, this comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount.  We read that the people marveled, saying that he spoke as one with authority.  These weren’t just words for Jesus.  This was authentic, this was real, this was from the heart.  He wasn’t just talking about God; he had a deep connection to God.

Jesus had just spoken a lot of words.  Powerful words.   But he concludes by saying that words are not what matter the most.

I’ve got a question for you: Five frogs were on a log.  Four decided to jump off.  How many were left?  Answer: Five -- because there’s a big difference between deciding to do something and actually doing it.

“Everyone who hears my words and acts on them will be like the wise person who built on the rock.”

Earlier in chapter 7, Jesus speaks of those who will call out “Lord, Lord” but are not interested in actually doing God’s will.  Having the religious lingo down is not what matters.  Jesus is not talking here about having the correct beliefs, about getting the doctrine exactly right.  Having a trove of religious knowledge is not what really counts.  Winning at Bible Trivia is great, but it’s not something to build your life on.

Being a decent and respectable person is admirable – I mean it is better than being an indecent and unrespectable person, right?  But that will not carry us through the storms of life.  

“Everyone who hears my words and acts on them will be like the wise person who built on the rock.”  Listening to Jesus’ words and acting on them.

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson, who died last fall, translated the Bible into contemporary and everyday English – his translation is called The Message.  I love the way he translates this verse:

These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living.  They are foundational words, words to build a life on.  If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock…

But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach.  When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.

I love that translation because it has a kick to it – it gets at the urgency of what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is part of a long tradition in scripture, because building references abound in the Bible.  The Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain.”  The Church is referred to by Paul as “God’s building,” and Hebrews speaks of God as “the builder of all things.”  Jesus himself is called the cornerstone.  And speaking of death, Paul says, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, eternal in the heavens, not built by human hands.”

“Building” is an image we may use to talk about faith.  We all know that when it comes to building, the foundation is crucial.  Mess up the foundation and you have a real problem. 

Even before the beautiful bell tower in Pisa, which we know as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was completed, it was obvious there were problems.  The soft, sandy soil wasn’t stable enough, and foundation was too shallow for the height of the tower.  They have worked to stabilize it for centuries, most recently by pumping concrete into the ground, but it would have been a whole lot easier to just build a good foundation right from the start.

How do we build our foundation of faith?  It starts at the beginning.  I am thankful for those who work with children in our church.  I am thankful for those who teach and guide us and are examples and mentors for us.  I’m thankful for all who have a part in helping us construct a foundation of faith. 

But the metaphor breaks down at some point.  They can’t go back and rebuild the foundation for the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  But we can continue to lay the foundation for our lives.  It’s never too late and we’re never really finished.

We have been thinking about all of this in an individual sort of way.  Jesus talked about the wise person.  The smart carpenter.  But building our faith is not is not something we do completely by ourselves.  It’s more like a Habitat for Humanity build, with a whole bunch of workers who give of themselves to see that the house is built.

We lived in an Amish area before moving to Ames.  In Amish communities, building is very communal.  They will have barn raisings.  It is a community event.  Everyone turns out.  Men and boys are building, women are cooking.  Everyone works together to build a new barn, and it is a wonderful social occasion for the community.

Building our faith – building our lives – is like building a Habitat House.  It’s like a barn raising.  It involves the community.  It involves all of us.  It takes a church.

Now just to look at a couple of houses, you wouldn’t necessarily know which one had a good, solid foundation.  In Jesus’ parable, the strength of the foundation was seen only when the storms came and the waters rose.

So often, that is the case.  We only know how strong our foundation of faith is when we are tested.  I have known people who had to endure heartache and tragedy and difficulties in life that seem almost overwhelming, folks who have been called upon to meet enormous challenges, and who were able to do so with a strength they themselves may not have even known they had.  The strength of their foundation was seen in the midst of the storms of life.

How do we weather the storms of life?  When illness comes, or heartache, or divorce, or betrayal, or when we lose our job, or when our children are in trouble, or when we are just plain scared, what do we hold on to?  The foundation we have built our lives on does matter.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise person who built their house on rock.”  And what are Jesus’ words?  What is the message he has been proclaiming?

God blesses those whom the world does not consider blessed.  God loves us and wants our words and actions to honor each other as fellow children of God.  God wants us to engage in acts of mercy and worship not so people will notice us and be impressed but simply because that is who we are.  God desires that we help each other rather than judge each other. And God wants us to see that the best way to love God is to love each other.

Jesus starts out on this mountain teaching his disciples – both then and now - what it means to be human, what it means to be children of God.

Blessed are the merciful.  Turn the other cheek.  Be reconciled to your brother or sister.  Love your enemies.  Beware of practicing your piety before others.  Forgive one another.  Don’t store up treasures for yourselves on earth.  Do not worry about tomorrow.  Do not judge others.  Ask, and it will be given unto you.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The foundation, the rock on which to build our lives, is Christ.  Not just knowing Jesus’ words, but living Jesus’ way.  Living in the love of God is the foundation that will see us through the storms of live.  May it be so.  Amen.

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