Saturday, February 18, 2023

“AI and Real Faith” - February 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today, we gather to reflect on the remarkable event that occurred on the mountaintop as described in Matthew 17 – the Transfiguration of Jesus.  This is a significant event in the life of Jesus, and it offers a message that is relevant to our lives even today.  Let us take a moment to delve into this passage and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to us as Christians.

OK, the beginning to this sermon probably doesn’t sound quitelike me.  And there is a reason for that: I didn’t write it.  Have you heard about ChatGPT?  It is an artificial intelligience language chatbot, which basically is a robot you can have a conversation with on the internet.  It can report on whatever you ask it to.  Students can use ChatGPT to write essays and papers.  It has become such an issue that somebody has created a program that teachers can use to determine whether a paper was written by ChatGPT.  

There was a conversation about Artificial Intelligience and ChatGPT in an online pastors group that I’m a part of.  There was a question of what kind of sermon this would come up with.  

I had been thinking about that and I decided to find out for myself.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew 17:1-8.”  It took about 5 seconds for words to appear on the screen and they came at a fast rate than I could read them.

It was kind of amazing, and what was shocking about it is it was not a terrible sermon.  I mean, I have heard a lot worse.  But it was pretty – what’s the word?  Generic.  Humorless.  Pretty dry.  It was completely lacking in local context.  There weren’t any illustrations and there wasn’t any plot.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the purpose of an introduction to a sermon is simply to get people on the bus so that they will go along for the ride.  Well, I’m afraid this AI sermon would have a mostly empty bus.

But again, it wasn’t terrible.  So I tried again.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus with illustrations.”  It spat out a similar sermon with a few points, and then it would say, “To illustrate this point, think of a GPS system.  Just as a GPS guides us on our journey, so does Jesus guide us on our journey of faith.”

Again, it wasn’t a stirring or especially inspiring sermon, it was all kind of bland, but it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t offensive or have really weird theology.  But it felt like a student doing all of their research on Wikipedia the night before and coming up with a research paper.

I mention all of this because maybe because you have been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence - this is very much in the news.  But I also mention this because it may actually relate a bit to our scripture this morning.

Let me back up just a bit to the verses before our reading.  Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And there were a few answers, some thought he was like John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”

And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”  But Peter’s response, it turns out, was something like ChatGPT.  He was spitting out the answer but without context or real understanding.  This was simply the biggest response he could think of.  Because shortly after that, when Jesus starts talking about having to suffer, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, saying “God forbid, this can never happen to you!”  Basically he was saying, “Jesus, you can’t be that kind of messiah, I won’t allow it.”  And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

So there is a lot of tension in the air at the beginning of our reading.  And Jesus continues on the same theme.  “If any want to become my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Suffering and sacrifice are not only the road that Jesus is choosing; this is the road his disciples must follow as well.

Right from the very beginning, the world has taken offense - even Jesus’ closest followers have taken offense at the suffering of Christ.  Jesus in power and glory, wiping out evil can be a lot more appealing than Jesus overcoming through the power of sacrificial love.

This is where things stand with Jesus and the disciples.  They weren’t quite catching who he was, even if Peter had said the right words, and Jesus challenges them.  This is a complicated moment.  

It is really difficult for Peter and the other disciples – maybe including us – to conceive of Jesus in a way other than what we always have.  Peter and those around him understood that the Messiah was supposed to come in power and defeat the Roman oppressors.  It was really hard to think any other way.

Jesus teaches them otherwise, sets them straight.  But we all know that sometimes, words are not enough.  Words alone can’t always motivate us to change.

Look at how those around Jesus learn and grow.  He teaches them – but not simply through rote memorization or class lectures.  He’s not just disseminating information; he uses parables, stories, metaphors that grab their imagination.  

He teaches not only through his words but through his life.  He breaks social norms.  He confronts power brokers.  He is a person of absolute integrity.  He feeds the 5000.  He walks on water.  He turns water into wine.  These miracles are the sorts of things that break through preconceived ways of thinking.  

But even after all of this, the disciples still don’t quite get it.  Peter has the language but still does not fully understand.  And so Jesus takes James, John and Peter, kind of the inner circle of the disciples, with him up the mountain.  

Again and again, the mountains are a place to meet God.  Moses receives the Law on Mt. Sinai.  Elijah defeats the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.  The temple in Jerusalem is built on Mt. Zion.  Jesus goes to pray on the Mount of Olives.  He went up on the mountain to teach the people – we’ve just looked at the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus takes Peter up on the mountain and suddenly, Peter is confronted face to face with the depth of what he is dealing with.  There is a bright light and these disciples see visions of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, representing the Law and the prophets – these are the heroes of Hebrew faith.  They are star struck.  And it is almost too much. Peter feels like he needs to do something.

He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter wants to memorialize this moment.  We can just shake our heads at Peter, but we are exactly like him.  He wants to get out his phone and take selfies with Jesus and Moses and Elijah rather than simply experience the moment.  

The text is actually kind of funny.  It says, “While Peter was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them and there was a voice from the cloud.”  It’s like nobody even noticed that Peter was speaking.  And the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They fall to the ground.  Of course they are terrified.  And Jesus says, “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

There is a big difference between thinking about God or speculating about God, and actually having an experience of the Holy.  It’s like the difference between an AI generated sermon, kind of dry and rote and impersonal, and a personal experience of God’s presence.

I’m wondering – have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near?  

Such times can be very important for us – they are times when it is reinforced for us that our faith is not simply a collection of beliefs that we sign on the bottom line.  These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced, when faith is lived.  They grab us with the truth that faith is not just about the facts; it is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship.  

We need these Holy Moments – those times when we may experience God in a new way or a very real way and see a bigger world out there.

These moments may not necessarily be big and dramatic.  God may speak to us in a still, small voice.  For me, some of those mountaintop moments have actually been on a mountain, or in the woods, or along the ocean or at least far away from my normal routine.

Last summer Susan and I were in Minnesota, on Lake Superior.  I got up at 5 am to see the sunrise over the lake.  It was amazing.  And then I saw something in the lake.  It came closer, and an otter swam by.  It was just kind of goofing off, seemed to be enjoying itself as it swam past me.  It was one of those moments when I felt the power and the mystery and the beauty of God’s creation.

Sometimes this happens in worship – for me, it is often in a stirring hymn or choir anthem or cantata.

Holy moments may occur when we clear the distractions that are so much a part of our everyday lives and really have time for God.  It’s no accident that the Transfiguration took place on the mountain, a place where immediate worries and concerns could be set aside in order to focus on prayer.

But then again, sometimes it may happen in the midst of the everyday when we somehow are enabled to see things – to see one another, to see life, to see God – with new eyes.  It can happen even in some of the most difficult times of life as we are sustained by the love and care of God, often experienced through the love and compassion of others.

We cannot create or force these moments - they just happen.  Peter and James and John were not expecting this “brush with the holy.”  It was God’s doing.  Those mountaintop experiences are not up to us.

It is important that these mystical, mysterious stories are included in the scriptures because we can be tempted to give an overly rational explanation for faith.  Many of us in this university community can make faith largely about our heads.  We can be tempted to think of Christianity like we do trigonometry or algebra, as a largely intellectual enterprise in which these are the facts, these are the seven golden principles for living, and if we do “x” then God will respond with “y.”  But deep down, we know that faith doesn’t work that way.  

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  

I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Faith is not simply about the facts.  Following Jesus is not about believing certain things and taking certain positions.  In the words of that prayer, following Jesus is about having an inquiring and discerning heart, about having the courage to will and to persevere, about knowing and loving God, about finding joy and wonder in all of God’s works.

Now back to that ChatGPT sermon.  I typed in a response to it.  I wrote, “This is kind of stiff and humorless but surprisingly good.”

It responded,

Thank you for your feedback.  As an AI language model, my programming is focused on delivering informative and factual content.  However, I do understand that a sense of humor and warmth can add value to a sermon and make it more relatable to the audience.

It was a little bit frightening how OK that sermon was.  It made me think that given a little time, with machine learning and improvements, I could be replaced one day.  But I’m not too worried.  Because faith is not just facts and information.  It involves experience and relationship and commitment and care and it not just about our beliefs and not just about words, it is about our living.  

Let us pray: Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, spirits to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

“The Surprising Kingdom” - February 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 13:24-43

I’ve had some really good teachers over the years – in seminary, in college, in high school.  The ones I remember the most, whether it was Mr. Kirkman in high school chemistry or Dr. Beckman in college or Bill Leonard or Henlee Barnette in seminary, told stories – about the subject at hand or just about life.  They used humor and were engaging and encouraged you to think for yourself.

Telling stories seemed to be Jesus’ preferred method of teaching.  Lots of people are visual learners, and one way to teach visually was through sharing stories that allow the listener to create a picture in one’s mind, in one’s imagination.  And Jesus really couldn’t use PowerPoint slides or make a TikTok, right?  

Jesus teaches primarily through parables that a person can think about and chew on and supply the conclusion or determine the meaning for oneself.  That is not always easy.  I talked to somebody this week who said they were reading through the New Testament and they found some of Jesus’ parables indecipherable.  Well, that was pretty well the experience of his earliest followers.  And the way that he piles on stories, one after another, leaves it to the hearers – that would be us – to make sense of it all.  

Because we have to sit with the parables for awhile and think about them, we have some skin in the game, so to speak.  If we really chew on these stories, we will be invested in what they have to say to us.  It is a great teaching strategy.  

In this morning’s reading, we have three parables – similar and yet each unique.  And the question for us is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”

First, Jesus says that the kingdom is like somebody who sowed good seed in the field, but then found that there were weeds growing along with the wheat.  The field workers ask if they ought to pull up the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you would risk pulling up some of the good stuff at the same time.  Just wait till harvest and then we’ll sort it out.”

It is a ridiculous approach, of course.  It is the opposite of what you would actually want to do.  Most of us know from experience that if you don’t control the weeds in your garden, by the end of the summer you might not even be able to find your peppers and tomatoes for all of the weeds.

Jesus describes a terrible plan for farming.  This would be a recipe for disaster.  Is Jesus just a terrible farmer, or is he trying to make a point?

In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad.  There are weeds among the wheat.  That is painfully obvious.  The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  The tare refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures.  It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic.  It won’t kill you, but it can make you sick.  You definitely don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

We might be tempted to think of the wheat and the weeds as people.  That person is wheat and this person over here is a weed.  And I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally we think of ourselves as the wheat and others, whoever they may be, as the weeds.  How many of you read this and think of yourself as the wheat?  Of course.  And we wonder what to do about those weeds.

But that is way too easy.  We all have wheat and weed within us.  If this represents people, I think we are both.  We are all capable of great things and terrible things.  For me, it is not helpful to think of these people as wheat and those people as weeds.  Our world has got into all kinds of trouble with that kind of thinking.  This just leads us to demonize those who are different or with whom we disagree.  

It might be more helpful to think of the wheat and weeds being mixed up – in our world, in our community, in our church, even within ourselves.  It is all a mixed bag.  Martin Luther said that a Christian is both saint and sinner.

So this parable counsels patience.  In God’s kingdom, there will be accountability, but God is patient and forgiving toward us.  And here’s the thing: sometimes, what appears to us to be a weed is actually wheat.  What appears to be useless is actually a beautiful flower.  We can’t always make that determination.  

Chris Brundage, a pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic, who was 96.  Vic had no children.  Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life.  Vic’s wife had died several years earlier, and some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.

He also knew that, as a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career.  Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform.  He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life.  

Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral.  But more than 200 people showed up.  The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs.  People came from neighboring states.

Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral?  The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people.  His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol – he would have looked like a weed.  

We might recall our own history as Baptists.  Early on, we were considered among the weeds of the colonies.  Roger Williams fled from Massachusetts and established Rhode Island as a “refuge for persons distressed of conscience.”  Which meant that Rhode Island was where the religious misfits of the day – Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers - could live in peace.  Were they wheat or weeds?  The answer is probably yes.

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  It’s not about doing nothing,  Rather, I think it has something to say about the way we think of others, and maybe the potential of each person.  It asks for humility, and it is about leaving judgment to God.

Jesus then goes on to say that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.   So small you can hardly see it – it is unimpressive and unremarkable.  But it grows into – what? – a mustard bush.  To be honest, even all grown up, it is still not that impressive.  

We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into this impressive shrub, that we don’t catch what is going on.  If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something small and insignificant becomes great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?  But no, a little seed grows into a decent-sized shrub.  I know that the text says that is becomes the greatest of all shrubs, but this was either hyperbole or maybe sarcasm on Jesus’ part – because it just isn’t.

A mustard shrub is actually considered a weed.  For Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?  This seems like a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It refuses to die.  It grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

This is not simply a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is surprising and relentless and in the end unstoppable.  

The kingdom of heaven is not like the biggest tree in the forest.  It may not look all that impressive.  It may be seen as insignificant alongside the powers that shape the world and call the shots.  

The kingdom of heaven is completely unlike the kingdom of Rome, which ran that part of the world.  The kingdom of heaven is not powerful or dominant.  Signing up for the kingdom is not about glory and honor.  

But the kingdom of God is persistent.  And it becomes pervasive.  Even the principalities and powers of this world cannot stop it.  And in the long run it will outlast those kingdoms built on dominance and oppression and violence.

And then Jesus throws out one more parable for his followers to chew on.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.  That’s it, that’s the whole parable.  Just a simple little observation.

I don’t do a lot of baking.  I make pizza dough more than anything.  But that is absolutely the way yeast works.  Just a little yeast goes a long way.  I had some yeast that was past the due date on the package.  I thought it was probably OK and went ahead and used it.  That was a big mistake.  The dough would not rise and the pizza crust was terrible.

It takes just a little bit of yeast – but that little bit is so important.  The whole loaf rises or falls, if you will, on the yeast.

OK, that is all well and good.  The kingdom of God is like yeast that leavens the whole loaf.  The work of God may be something that seems small but has a great effect.  A little like the mustard seed, maybe.  

Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.  Yeast was not kosher – so at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so, yet again, this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  “The kingdom is like an unclean and unkosher symbol of corruption.”  That puts it in a somewhat different light.

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is surprising and may even be seen as scandalous.  It’s not always what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may seem hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed.  

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says:

the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.   

Let me say a brief word about the end of this passage.  It says that Jesus taught only in parables, to proclaim what had been hidden.  But then he turns around and explains the first parable, of the wheat and the weeds, to the disciples.  Jesus hardly ever does this and it doesn’t seem his style.  And it is almost over-explained, with each character, each part of the story representing something very specific.  Many scholars think that this is more the explanation that Matthew, writing 40+ years after Jesus’ death, gave for the sake of his readers in the early church.  This explanation ends with the weeds being burned.

It is easy to think of the weeds being burned as the evil people going to hell and the wheat being gathered as the good people going to heaven.  And you can interpret it that way, a lot of people have.  

But for me, that is way too easy.  And again, it easy to categorize individuals as wheat or weeds, good or bad.  We all have both wheat and weeds within us.  Fire is also a symbol of purifying, of refining.  You can do what you want with this, but I like the image of God working in our lives, refining and purifying so that we are more like Christ, more about love and hope and peace and justice and compassion, more like wheat and less like weeds.

What are we to make of these parables, taken together?  What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of heaven?

Life can be hard, as many of us well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that in this crazy, mixed up world in which goodness and evil, in which joy and misery, in which hope and despair can exist side by side, God is nevertheless at work – often in surprising and unnoticed and maybe even shocking and subversive ways.  

Like yeast working in dough, like wheat and weeds growing alongside one another, like an insignificant mustard plant that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is near us and among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

“The Foundation” - February 5, 2023

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

We are on our third Sunday looking at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  When Phyllis was our emergency pinch-hitter three weeks ago, she got us started.  She just picked out a scripture for Sunday morning the night before, focusing on "you are the light of the world," not knowing what I would be doing on the following Sundays.  That was definitely the work of the Spirit.   

The Sermon on the Mount is chock-full of teaching – much of Jesus’ important teaching to his followers is found in these three chapters of Matthew.  There are the Beatitudes, being salt and light, love your enemies, teaching about prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, consider the lilies of the field and do not worry – God will provide for you.

And then in our scripture this morning, there is so much.  Jesus speaks of not judging others but rather being able to be self-critical, being able to see our own flaws and failings – the log in our own eye.  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.

Our scripture this morning included what we know as the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It is a way of living that Jesus says is pretty well a summary of the law and the prophets.  If you can follow this teaching, you will be in good shape.

There is so much to be found in the Sermon on the Mount - this is really the core of Jesus’ teaching.  The way that Phyllis and I alternated verses in our scripture reading today was by design.  Each snippet was a teaching that could have been a sermon in and of itself.  We could have spent weeks in the Beatitudes and weeks on the Lord’s Prayer and we could probably spend a full year looking at the entire Sermon on the Mount if we wanted to.  

But we’re not, not this year.  This morning we are going to look at the last part of today’s reading.  Jesus gives all of this teaching to his disciples, some of the best known teaching in the Bible, and concludes with these take-home words.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine” – and he is talking here about the whole Sermon on the Mount – “everyone who hears these words 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 a faith that can survive hard times.  When those storms of life come, we need to be ready.  We need to be prepared.    

Jesus says that there are those who build their houses on sand.  When the storms come, the foundation will wash away.  And there are those who build their houses on rock.  Those houses are solid and will withstand the storms.

We know that when it comes to life, the storms will certainly come.  Storms can hit us suddenly and without warning.  There are also those storms that we can see coming on the horizon but can do nothing to stop.  

The theology class is discussing a video series about how religion has changed since 9/11.  It is amazing how much has changed in our world and in our society in the last 20 years.  One commentator 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 dependable in a time of such rapid change?

Jesus knew about rising waters and shifting sands of life.  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 about how to live in such difficult times.

The foundation is crucial, says Jesus.  You have to build your lives on that which is solid and dependable.

Last spring I noticed that some cracks had appeared in our basement wall.  We wound up having to have some foundation repair work done.  We started looking into it, got a couple of estimates, and we started noticing advertisements for foundation repair all over the place.  If you watch the local news at 6:00 or 10:00, every other commercial is for foundation repair.  Almost every day, I see a truck or van from some foundation repair company in a driveway.

Over times, houses can settle, and sometimes the soil was not compacted as well as it should have been when the house was built.  Foundation problems, it turns out, are very common.

Jesus knows this.  And he knows that building on sand is inviting disaster.  He suggests a very firm and solid foundation - 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.”  Living by Jesus’ words is something you can absolutely build your life on.

Jesus has been speaking to the crowds who had gathered.  And 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 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.  Having a trove of religious knowledge is not what really counts.  I mean, winning at Bible Trivia is great, but it’s not something to build your life on.

Being a decent and respectable person is admirable.  It is definitely better than being an indecent and unrespectable or disrespectful 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 translated the Bible into 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 following 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 the 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.  It would have been a whole lot easier to just build a good foundation right from the start.

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, 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 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.  God wants us to see that the best way to love God is to love each other.  

Jesus teaches his disciples – both then and now - what it means to be human, what it means to be children of God.

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