(a sermon for November 8, 2015, the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Deuteronomy 11:18-28 and Matthew 7:21-28)
By all accounts, it was the classic representation of the American dream: beautiful homes, tree-lined streets with happy children out playing, barking dogs and a real feeling of community. But then, in one nightmarish instant back in August 1993 Hurricane Andrew came to town, and the dream lay in ruins; as a result of that storm hundreds of homes in what was a very fashionable Florida neighborhood were totally demolished.
This was twenty-plus years ago; but I still remember the so-called “raw” news footage of what was left in Andrew’s wake: acre upon acre of rubble with very little left standing; no real reminders at all of the community that was there only a few days before! What I remember most of all was that those who had returned were simply wandering around; looking in silence for anything that they might be able to salvage and coming to grips with everything that had been lost in the storm. There were those who spoke of rebuilding; but mostly, there was sadness… and also a fair amount of anger, as illustrated by one distraught homeowner who had just begun raging at the situation: not, as you might expect, at the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew, but rather at inferior materials and the cheap, careless, shoddy construction of what was once his home. I’ll never forget it: “Look at this!” he said. “You can see it now: sheets of plywood with nails that missed the trusses; complete sections of roof trusses lying on the ground.” They should never come loose if they’re attached properly, he went on to say, “but they weren’t and we didn’t know it, because it didn’t show… until the storm came.”
As Jesus might have said it, and did in a different circumstance: “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!”
Actually, it’s all pretty much common sense, isn’t it? Having lived on the coast of Maine, I can tell you that’s pretty much rule number one: build a house on the beach and eventually the tides and nor’easters will do their damage; so you’d best see that your house is constructed securely and well, because sooner or later a storm is going to hit! And it’s no different in South Florida; and yet it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t until after 1998 – a full five years after Hurricane Andrew – that the state of Florida realized that its building codes were not being enforced, and house after substandard house was being built only to be destroyed with the next round of devastating weather. As it turns out, common sense is only common when it’s actually applied!
Jesus, of course, wasn’t talking in our reading this morning about the inherent dangers of tropical storms, but he was speaking about the kinds of storms that you don’t see coming on Doppler radar; the ones that come on suddenly in our lives and threaten to reduce everything we know to shambles. It might be some kind of unforeseen tragedy, a devastating diagnosis from your doctor, or the onset of a difficult family situation that now you’ve got no choice but to weather through; or maybe it’s simply the culmination of all the trials and trouble that just keeps “piling on” in the midst of daily life. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: a sudden and violent storm hits that has the capacity to quite possibly wipe you out!
Now, there’s no question that in every life, sooner or later, there are going to be some storms; that’s just the reality of things. But at the heart of this little parable of Jesus we’ve shared this morning comes a simple but crucial question: how will you stand in the midst of those storms? How will you live when the rains fall, and the streams rise, and the winds blow, and the foundations of your life are shaken? And the answer, according to Jesus, comes down to where and how you have built up this house that is your life and your faith; the building materials being no less than God’s own Word that comes from Jesus himself.
Like that wise carpenter who builds his house on solid rock, those who would build their spiritual houses on that which is as firm and unshaken as Jesus’ own words will find themselves in a place that’s strong and secure no matter what kind of storm is raging outside. But by the same token, if you’re content to follow the lead of the foolish carpenter by building a spiritual house on whatever shifting sands seem attractive at the moment; well, then, you’re apt to find yourself in more trouble than you ever anticipated, because that kind of dwelling can’t ever hold up in the midst of a storm: sooner or later it’ll collapse “like a house of cards.” [The Message] That’s how it is, you see, with a spiritual life that isn’t built upon Jesus Christ.
And the thing is, as people of faith we really should know this! It’s pretty much common sense thinking for us as Christians; basic Sunday School teaching (!) that building our lives and our faith on something other than Jesus who is the solid rock is fraught with disaster. In fact, if you’ll pardon the pun, such is the “bedrock” nature of this parable that it would be very tempting indeed to end the sermon right here…
…except that as it turns out, this isn’t the primary point that Jesus is making in this parable!
This particular passage from Matthew, you see, comes at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; which of course, constitutes several chapters’ worth of Jesus’ teachings regarding true faith and the ways of God’s kingdom. This is where we find the beatitudes; where there are beautiful words about the act and attitude of worship and prayer; along with admonitions to love your enemies, care for the needy and to strive to enter God’s kingdom by the narrow gate. But then, after all these inspiring, albeit challenging teachings, Jesus points his finger squarely in the faces of his followers and says, be aware, because “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And as if that’s not jarring enough, Jesus then goes on to say that when the Kingdom comes, there are most certainly going to be those who will immediately come up to him and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” And to this, says Jesus, I will simply say, “I never knew you. Go away from me, you evildoers!”
Compared to everything that’s come before in this “sermon on the mount,” this represents a pretty harsh shift in Jesus’ tone; but understand that it’s precisely from this sharp word of judgment that Jesus then goes on to tell this story about the wise man building his house on the rock! So then… turns out that this business of building our spiritual houses upon the rock rather than upon the sand amounts to more than a daily affirmation; it is in fact the hard truth that you and I need to be putting God’s word into practice; that more than engaging in some empty routine of devotion we should be living what we believe. Simply put, it’s all about faith with integrity!
This is actually another one of those passages of the gospels where it’s very tempting to dismiss it as something directed at the Scribes and Pharisees, that is, the religious establishment of Jesus’ time; and yes, when Jesus was talking about hypocrisy and about one’s actions not matching up to one’s pious words, you can be sure he had them in mind. But the truth is that these scribes and Pharisees by no means cornered the market on spiritual hypocrisy, either back then or even now!
I’ve actually been thinking about this since last week’s sermon, when as you might remember, we were talking about Jesus’ words to another scribe about the two most important commandments – to love God and to love neighbor – and how adherence to those two primary commandments brings us “not far” from the kingdom of God. And quite honestly – and I remember thinking this to myself as I was writing that sermon – what can any of us say to this except, “Absolutely!” Who would ever argue over the absolute necessity of love, both in the world and in our lives; I mean, when I’m preaching a sermon on that particular subject I can be pretty safe in assuming that on that one Sunday at least, I’m not going to stir up a lot of controversy out there in the pews!
And yet… there’s also this very real tendency we have to take this radical stance to love that’s been given us by God himself and then to reshape it; to reduce it to little more than a nice world-view and a warm fuzzy philosophy. There’s a reason that when in worship we join together to confess our sins to almighty God, chief among them is the admission that we have not always loved God with heart, soul, mind and strength; and that we have not always loved our neighbors as ourselves; and that’s because we don’t always make God’s love real in the ways that we govern ourselves and our lives: truth be told, love of God and love of neighbor is not always at the center of what we say and what we do; how we relate to one another and in what we intend for the world around us. And while that might not necessarily fall to the level of hypocrisy on our parts, it certainly warrants a reminder of Jesus about our own integrity where faith is concerned.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “humanly speaking, it is possible to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. But Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience – not interpreting or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his words. He does not mean for us to discuss it as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.” In other words, living what we believe is just that crucial, and Jesus’ warning to those who would approach him in those final moments, only to be rejected as “evildoers” could just as easily apply to you and me if we don’t start “walking the walk” where our own faith is concerned.
You know, I love how Eugene Peterson has translated this particular passage in The Message. “I can see it now,” Jesus says in this version. “At the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-Sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’”
The point here is that true faith – real discipleship and a life that is truly, as the hymn puts it, “safe and secure from all alarms”– ultimately that has very little to do with the things we say and do merely for the sake of religion; but it has everything to do with heeding the words of Jesus! To quote Jesus in The Message once again: “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.” You see, friends, I don’t know about you, but I for one want my spiritual house to be “fixed to the rock;” I want my faith and life to have integrity that will not only bring me near to the kingdom of God, but will lead that very kingdom to blossom and grow within me!
And that begins, if I might draw a phrase from Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, by recognizing that “it’s not all about me,” or might I add, about you either; but in fact, it’s about God. Without God – without God’s love, God’s providence, and God’s salvation in Jesus Christ – our lives and living make no sense; but with God, we have purpose and meaning, truth and integrity, and what’s more, we have hope and strength – and dare I say it – even joy amidst the storms.
Because make no mistake, there’s a storm coming. There’s always a storm coming, beloved; and we need a strong spiritual house in which to live.
Thanks be to God who give us a solid rock on which we stand.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry