Remember back when this sermon began – no, not my sermon, but Jesus’ sermon? Remember how Jesus had decided to get away from the crowds that had been coming from as far away as Syria in the north and Judea in the South to hear him speak and maybe be healed? He took his disciples up on the mountain so he could teach them about God’s realm in peace and quiet. As you remember, he began with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are meek or are merciful, and so on. At least from the way Matthew seems to tell it, you’d assume that just Jesus and the disciples have gathered on that mountain. But as we come to the end of Jesus’ sermon, the group dynamics have changed. Without so much as a head’s up we hear that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teachings . . .” Where did the crowds come from? How did this small group bible study or ministry staff meeting become a convention?
1. Wise and Foolish Builders
Now that the audience has grown from a few dozen into the hundreds, we find Jesus closing out his sermon with a parable about two kinds of builders: wise ones and foolish ones. I don’t know about you, but if I were going to build a house, I’d want to choose the right builder; one who not only had the right credentials, but understood the lay of the land. After all, none of us want to watch as our house gets washed away by the storm.
When it comes to rain, you may have heard the song that claims that “it never rains in Southern California.” In case you’ve never been to California and think that it’s sunny all the time, I can attest to the fact that it does rain, and when it rains in Southern California, it pours. And, when it rains, especially if there have been fires, which are common in Southern California, there likely will be mud slides as well. That means, that if you have live in a house on a hill overlooking the ocean, you had better hope that you’ve hired a wise builder, or your house might end up in the ocean!
So, wisdom is a necessary quality in a builder, and a wise builder will not only know how to build a house, but the builder also will know where to build it, taking into consideration such things as climate, soil, bedrock, and plate tectonics. Then, when the rain comes, that house won’t fall into the ocean.
2. Two Types of Foundations
This parable has two main elements. The first element is the quality of the builder, but the second element has to do with the foundation, and as we think about the foundation upon which we build our own spiritual lives, I’d like to switch the metaphor from floods to earthquakes. Being from the West Coast, I’ve experienced a few earthquakes and I’ve seen the destruction that they can bring.
Although I wasn’t there when that 6.0 earthquake hit my hometown of Klamath Falls in 1993, I think that it illustrates Jesus’ point very well. That quake, which hit just a few days after we returned home from a visit with my Mother, was pretty good-sized, especially when you consider that quakes don’t hit Klamath Falls very often, and so they weren’t all that prepared for it. Quite a number of buildings were damaged, including the venerable Court House, which had sat for many years on reclaimed lake bed. When the quake hit, it essentially liquefied the soil, and that seemingly well-built stone building collapsed. Ironically, just down the street sits the Baldwin Hotel, which is the oldest building in town. I don’t know how well this unreinforced brick building from the late 19th century was built, but it didn’t suffer any damage at all. In fact, not one thing even moved during that very large and destructive quake, not even a picture sitting on the mantle of the fireplace. You see that builder very wisely built the hotel on solid bedrock. This was a very “firm foundation.”
The Court House was well-built, but it was built on sand, while the rickety old hotel was built on bedrock – two very different foundations, with very different outcomes.
3. Acting on the Word of Jesus
The wise builder builds on a firm foundation, and with this word in mind, we hear Jesus say that “everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” and not on sand – like the foolish builder.
As I reflected on these words after I returned home from yesterday’s Elders Meeting, where Alex led the Elders in a team building exercise to help us reflect on our call to be a missional church, my thoughts went immediately to the scripture that Alex asked us to reflect on from the Letter of James. In this letter we find the words: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22ff). According to James, if we simply hear the Word of God, but don’t act upon it, then we’re like the person who looks in a mirror and then goes off and forgets what they look like. When we’re hearers only and not doers, then we fail to practice a religion that is pure and undefiled before God, a religion that involves not just religious acts, but more importantly involves caring for the orphan and widow in their distress.
With this word from James in mind, we hear the word of Jesus who also tells his disciples that if they’re to enter the realm of God, then they must be doers and not just hearers, for that wouldn’t be a wise choice. And, as for what Jesus wants us to not only hear but do, the path forward is revealed throughout his sermon, which we’ve been pondering these past several weeks. And as we’ve been discovering as we’ve been on this journey, this isn’t an easy path to take. There have been many who’ve started out on the journey, only to turn back, but we do have few guides for the journey – people like St. Francis tried and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And there’s Gandhi who found great inspiration in these words, even if he didn’t find much inspirations from the lives of Jesus’ followers.
The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to enter the Realm of God. Jesus describes what it means to live under the reign of God, not just in heaven, but on earth as well. But that means living our lives differently, which is what I think James means when he calls on the church to “keep ourselves unstained from the world.” This is also what it means to pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. In praying this prayer, we pledge our allegiance to God, so that we might live our lives in such a way that we’ll be salt and light in the world; that we won’t act out of anger or commit adultery; we’ll keep our word without needing to take an oath; and we won’t retaliate against those who hurt us. And, while the Law tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we will also love our enemies and not make a show of our piety. As for our treasure, we will deposit it in a heavenly bank and not worry about tomorrow, which will take care of itself. If we’re living under the reign of God, we’ll leave the job of judging others to God and not profane that which is holy. To live under the reign of God means doing for others, as we would have them do for us.
The way of the kingdom means taking the narrow path, which is difficult for us to navigate, at least on our own. We could decide, as some have, to simply file this sermon (of Jesus) under the heading – “Not for Earthly Lives – Heaven Only.” I think this would alleviate a lot of guilt, but I wonder if that is what Jesus had in mind. After all, when he contrasted the wise and foolish builders, Jesus seemed to suggest that now is the time to not only hear his words, but to act upon them. This, he says, is to be like the wise builder.
Jesus’ closing words find an echo in a book I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago. In his book Falling Upward, Fr. Richard Rohr asks his readers whether they’ve laid a solid foundation for their lives in Jesus Christ, so that the Spirit might help them build upon this foundation and embrace God’s future for their lives, for the church and for the world. This is, he suggests, the path to spiritual maturity, a path that is very much like the one Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount. Like Jesus, Rohr invites us to live a life of wisdom, one that is based on a firm foundation in Jesus Christ, so that we might embrace the mission of God.
It isn’t an easy path, but as our closing hymn declares, having laid a foundation in God’s excellent word, then we can find our strength for the journey in God’s unwavering love, which leads us to declare this word of faith as we sing the final stanza of this great hymn of the faith:
The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,I’ll never, no never, no never forsake. (How Firm a Foundation)
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Sixth Sunday of Lent
April 10, 2011