April 7, 2019: The Fifth Sunday of Lent
It is almost hard to believe, but the season of Lent is nearly behind us. These forty days, which mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry, have hopefully prepared us to journey through Holy Week and receive the glory of Easter morning. As so many have done before us, we’ve spent the season of Lent studying the Scriptures, in particular The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve focused our study using two question: what does The Sermon on The Mount tell us about God and what does it teach us about being even more faithful followers of Jesus? In The Sermon on The Mount, Jesus has laid before us the blueprint of God’s kingdom. It is a place where the lowly are lifted up, where the followers of Jesus bring light and flavoring to the world. It is a place where judgement is put away and mercy and forgiveness are taken up. In God’s kingdom, prayer is a direct line to God and God gives us freedom to give up anything and everything that hinders our relationship with God.
All of this comes to bear on how we follow Jesus Christ because God’s kingdom is a wide and open and generous place. There is a place for us all in God’s kingdom and that is tremendously good news. There is also plenty of room for even more to come and find their place and we have the tools to welcome them on in. The blueprint Jesus has shown us these past weeks confirms that we are neither doorkeepers to God’s kingdom, nor are we bouncers—we welcome and include and share and forgive and show grace…God does the rest. As much as we might want to control how God’s kingdom invades this world, God is in the driver’s seat and God wants us to come along for the glorious ride. We have a choice, each and every day and every moment—will we get on board and work with God in the transformation of the world or will we continue in the old ways of fear and seclusion and death? To follow—to do the things Jesus taught us, to give up worry and anxiety, to pray and fast and be kind—this is life, and it is so abundant that nothing will ever be able to replace it or take it away.
Today we come to the end of The Sermon on the Mount, and like any good sermon Jesus rounds it out with a call to action. Actually, he offers a warning and then a call to action. The warning Jesus offers has to do with the balance between faith and action. First, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” This is to say that even if you say all the right things, even if you have all the theology and the doctrines right, if you can’t back up the words with actions, you’ll have a hard time entering God’s eternal kingdom. Then Jesus says, “On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” This is to say that you can work your fingers to the bone doing the things of Jesus, but if your head and heart are not in the right place—if your faith is not in the right place—you’re going to have equally difficult time entering God’s eternal kingdom.
Jesus answers the great conundrum of finding the right balance of faith and actions with a call to action to build ourselves on the right foundation. The right foundation, he says, will support a house that can weather any storm. But the question I want to ask with you today is how do we find stability? How do we make our journey through life and still stay planted in and on the right foundation? What is a sturdy foundation when we live in a world where change is less like a river and more like treacherous and turbulent rapids?
Jesus knew about change, I really believe that. He knew about things moving very fast, about rising waters and about shifting sands. The people around Jesus also knew about change. Jesus and his early followers were people who saw sudden political shifts brought on by the occupying force of Rome that lorded over them. They were people who experienced religious shifts as many different religions began to grow in the fertile soil of the Middle East. They were people who knew that things could change in their own lives literally on a daily basis, endangering their ability to live. All the same can be said for the community that Matthew wrote his Gospel for—they had seen so many changes that I’m sure they felt like the rising waters would never recede. They witnessed the growing separation of the Christian community as it expanded and distinguished itself from the Jewish community. They saw growing violence as their fellow country folk rose up against the Roman occupation. They began to experience persecution as people who followed a different way, living in fear of what their belief in God might inspire others to do to them.
Into the raging waters that swirled around Jesus’ early followers, Jesus speaks a tailor-made parable. It is about two builders. The first builder is wise by Jesus’ assessment because he built his house on rock. When the rain fell and the floods came, and even though the winds blew and beat on that house, it did not fall. The first builder was wise because he knew about solid foundations. The second builder, Jesus says, was a fool. The second builder built his house on sand. When the rain fell and the floods came, and when the wind blew and beat on that house, it fell. And it did not just slowly topple over—Jesus says the fall was great. It came tumbling down because the foundation was wrong, the foundation was soft and malleable, it could not withstand the storm. The firm foundation, the foundation for navigating life’s rapids, the foundation for abundant life, is the word and love of God. Build on these things, Jesus says, and no storm or flood waters will ever topple you over.
This parable is tailor-made for us too, my friends. In fact, the parable speaks to us in a special way today as we know and experience change in fast and furious ways. We live in an age where many of the things that used to provide foundation and security are changing, being questioned, and reformed. There is no longer a standard and accepted narrative for our life as a culture and a society, sometimes because we’ve come to learn that our common narratives are wrong. The changes in morals and ethics as we move more and more into the digital neighborhood are deep and profound. Neither institutions nor leaders are accepted and trusted in the way they were just a few generations ago. Robert Putnam, a sociologist of religion, wrote a fascinating book in the early 2000s called Bowling Alone. In Bowling Alone, Putnam shares research that there are more people bowling in America right now than ever before. But while the number of bowlers is America is steadily rising, there are only half as many bowling leagues in America as 20 and 30 years ago. People are bowling, but not like they used to—we know this to be true of more than bowling, don’t we?
The change is real for the Church as well. Denominational loyalty is not what is used to be in part because denominations can be top heavy, slow-moving, and mired down in such awful partisanship. The Church is not the primary place society looks for direction. The Church today is more on the margins of society than it ever has been. We are much more in the position of seeking and searching rather than defining and dictating. But we should be clear in acknowledging that it is not so much that society has moved away from the Church as much as the Church hasn’t always done things that would draw society in. The fact that people can describe themselves as recovering Baptists, or recovering Catholics, or even recovering Presbyterians speaks about how far the church can fall from the high purposes of God. At the same time, though, skepticism has never been higher and there is no easier target for the skeptic than faith. The Enlightenment gave us a lot of good but it also wove into the fabric of humanity the idea that faith is for the weak, the stupid, the un-Enlightened.
It is all about foundations, the foundations that we build our social structures on, but more importantly the foundations we build ourselves on individually. I told you about a 12th-century monk way back on the first Sunday of Lent and I think his story is worth repeating today. He wrote, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I could not change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I could not change my town and so as an older man I tried to change my family. Now that I am even older, I realize that the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Then their impact could have changed the nation and maybe even the world.”
So instead of thinking primarily about how we can change society and culture, we must begin by thinking about how to change our own hearts, first. I believe, truly, that all of us here today can confidently answer that our faith and trust is in Jesus Christ. But I’m almost entirely certain, because this is true for me, that Jesus Christ is not the only thing we put our faith and trust in as we build our houses. We trust money, the economy, tradition and ritual, even the law, and while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, they all change, they are all soft and malleable, they shift when the waters rise. But Jesus does not. Our Lord and Savior is the same today, tomorrow, and forever. Our Lord made it clear through his life, death, and resurrection that we can have full confidence in his word and love. Like everything else we’ve learned from The Sermon on The Mount, it comes down to a choice—will we build on Jesus, or will be build on Jesus and the economy and the stock market and a poltical party and whatever else catches our eye?
The change begins, by brothers and sisters in Christ, when we hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The solid foundation Jesus provides for us in the midst of change comes fully into our possession when we hear his voice and respond. Today we have a perfect opportunity to listen to Jesus’ voice and then act on his words. There is no clearer or accurate picture of the kingdom of God than the communion table at which we will sit and dine later in today’s service. This table is set by Jesus—not by me or by any denomination, and because of that everyone is truly welcome to experience the love of God here. There are no walls around the communion table, no turnstiles, no requirements for entry, and there is no cover charge; the only requirement to come to the table is an honest desire to know the Lord Jesus. And not once in my years here as your pastor have we ever run out of bread or grape juice—we can attribute that to good planning, but it is a sure sign that in God’s kingdom there is always enough and so much more. All are welcome, all are fed, all go away satisfied.
The calling is clear when the meal is over: go and do likewise. To act on the words of Jesus that we hear at this table is to remember that we have neither the calling nor the blessing of God to push anyone out or away from the church. Instead, we have the calling and the blessing of God to welcome as many in as we can possibly fit around the table, and even more if we can. Our vocation as Jesus’ followers is not to make following Jesus harder by putting restrictions and rules on church membership or the sacraments, but to open the doors as widely as we can so that all people can taste and see that the Lord is good. The table of Jesus calls us to share because all of us have been blessed with an abundance beyond what we could possibly hope for or imagine. And I’m not just talking about money, though sharing that is so vital to faithfully following Jesus. I’m talking about sharing love, sharing concern and compassion, sharing a listening ear or an hour or two to scatter someone else’ loneliness. When we give, when we share the abundance God has given, we actually have more in the end that what we started with. That’s how the economy works in God’s kingdom.
These actions, though they are not always simple or easy or without complication, will lay for us a solid foundation on which to build. It will be a solid foundation because it is Jesus. We are Christians, my friends; that is the name we take on in baptism. The three little letters at the end of that name—ian—means, literally, ‘belonging to the party of Christ.’ We belong to the party of Christ, we are Christians, and as a Spanish theologian once said, “To believe in God is to desire God’s existence, and what is more, to act as though God existed.” I believe all us here today desire to feel and know the presence and power of God. Where we all have work to do, and I’m chief among the ‘we’ here today, is to live as though God’s presence and power is real. It is by acting in the way of Jesus that we build our faith, and it is in building our faith that we act more and more like Christ. All of it puts us on the solid foundation of Christ, and there is truly no storm or flood or gust of wind that will ever bring down the house.
We are, indeed, in the midst of great change—culturally, religiously, politically, personally. There are uncertain times, right now and ahead of us. There are and will be times when the rains fall and the flood waters rise, and the winds blow and beat. But, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are built on the solid rock that is Jesus Christ. We are built on the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love, nothing in heaven or on earth, above or below, no powers or rulers or principalities, and certainly no powers of hell. May the love of God guide us as we continue to build and may God’s love guide us as we move from in here to out there with the transforming good news of the Gospel. Thanks be to God! Amen.