Sunday, June 02, 2002

Built to Last

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 7:21-29

Come summer you may linger along the patio, late at night, to stare in wonder at the clear sky and the stars brilliant against the black. I covet for you such a minute, wrapped in a summer wind.

Come summer you may stand again along a great sea-coast, surf crashing and waves dancing and sand swirling. You will not want such a moment along such a vista even lightly disturbed.

Come summer you may feast again at the table of a sunrise coming up red and hot, as you drive along our Northeastern highways. The breath can catch and the heart leap before such a budding sun in such a world chockladen with possibility.

Come summer you may pause before a great horizon. I hope you do. It is before such an horizon that we stand in worship. Here it is not sky or surf or sun, but God. You come to worship to wonder at the stars and feel the ocean breeze and awake with the sunrise that is Almighty God. We come to worship, we come to such a boundary, such an experience. We are dying. We need make no apology for settling for nothing else than the awesome horizon of the real Bible the real Christ the living God.

People hunger for an experience of God as Fred Craddock in so many ways has so well reminded us over the years (of his story about characteristics needed for a new minister!) Margie Mayson's tape on the spiritual life offers such an experience for those with ears to hear.

About God and About 20 Minutes

Worship, Church, Scripture, Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount and, contrary to almost all earlier reading of it including your inherited thoughts the image of the wise man building on rock, is about God. The Gospel offers us the love of God, first. We presume so often that the action figures in the Gospel drama represent us that we miss Grace. Of course we shall be wise folk. Of course we shall build on rock. Of course we shall be prudent. Of course we shall respect the matter of foundation. We thus hear Matthew's stunning conclusion to the compendium that is the Sermon on the Mount, by mishearing it, to our harm.

This is the first memory I have of the Bible, and the biggest interpretative mistake I make in reading it, right here. I remember at age 4 playing in the sand in a hot driveway in Las Vegas, building a sand castle that collapsed, and a voice of recitation: "a wise man built…" And years and leagues later I still assume that this builder is human, maybe even me.

So you read the passage in the way I am attacking, decrying, imploding: expect two things, trouble and the need for foundations.

Bad Road

And what could be truer? Life is full of trouble. You will die, soon. Sooner you will bid farewell to loved ones. The world is not automatically spared nuclear holocaust. Every leader and commentator from Thomas Friedman to Donald Rumsfeld guarantees another terrorist attack. Community life is fraught with endless contention and intractable difference. Illness, accident, tragedy befall innocent and guilty alike. Trouble lies ahead. I guarantee it. As Job said, "man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." Rain, flood, wind, beating upon the house. We go to cinema to package and control trouble. We go to work to stave off trouble. We go to the theatre to escape trouble. We watch television to forget trouble. We come to church--to face it. That is the biblical horizon. Trouble. You are now or will be sometime soon in a heap of trouble. Expect it. And visit me in the drooling section of the nursing home.

And what could be truer? Troubles demand solid foundations, and their constant building, which is hard, and their frequent rebuilding, which is twice as hard. It's easier to bulldoze and build fresh than to rebuild. The time to build foundations is before you see floodwater rising. We have celebrated your foundations for a month of Sundays: music, mother, confirmation, memorial. The time to sing God's praise is while you breathe. The time to love mother is before she dies. The time to teach youth to memorize Scripture is while they have good memories. The time to honor the dead is before we forget them. We are prudent, careful, prophetic people. We build foundations. Look what this church has done in nearly 200 years. A religious community built to last. A church house built to last. A set of traditions built to last. An endowment and programmatic structure built to last. A set of habits and graces built to last. Adult classes built to last. Service ministries built to last. An alabaster altar built to last. Eternity, tragedy, history-trouble demands foundation. How are you coming, you hasty crew, in building foundations that will last? Yes the foundation must be physical and programmatic. All program and no space - Pittsford. All space and no program - Rochester City. Schools stumble too. Roosevelt needed both the WPA and the PWA, and he had humorous ways of saying so.

Yes, we have areas for growth, in welcoming and generosity and invitation. Susan Shafer's fine sermon last week helped us remember the importance of the values we exemplify, including tithing.

Later we will talk about what sort of physical foundation we will leave our children in this church. May a good process continue. May we move forward in concert with our mission. May we exemplify good stewardship. May we get started. May we gauge commitment.

It is going to rain hard, the floodwaters will rise and the wind is sure to blow. Your house will be further beaten upon. When will we ever learn to build foundations?

That is a fair sermon, one that we regularly impose upon this ancient and mystical passage. I commend it to you. Face trouble. Forge foundations. Now, could we pause to stand on the biblical horizon for a moment? On the cape, under the sky, at sunrise? I mean the horizon that church is meant for, the horizon we hunger for in worship, the horizon that smacks of our frail mortality like a lightening bolt hitting the neighbor's house? Could we listen to this passage as if it had the possibility, at least the remote dim hint of chance, to speak to us about God?

The Grateful Dead

What if the evangelist, call him Matthew, intends to offer us good news about God's love?

What if the "wise man" whom we will be like if we follow the teachings of the sermon on the mount is not a figure of human achievement, but a promise of divine presence?

Shall we read with tradition, "We should like the wise man do thus and so…? Or shall we read in Gospel: "God is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock." Imperative or indicative?

I admit today it is a long shot to try to preach a sermon about the lasting power of what God has built on God's rock. Who could possibly want to say or hear a word about the eternal nature of the church today? What fool would offer such an antiquated sentiment?

Every last generation, every last age cohort has a beef. For the "GI generation" the church is too international. For the "silent generation" the church is too idealistic. For the "boomer generation" the church is not idealistic enough. For generation x the church is too structured. For "millenials," the church is not structured enough, and, by the way, is too international… those age 21 are right in sync with those age 81. The beat goes on. To some degree all are accurate, too.

Why would you want to listen for such a Gospel in an epoch of institutional decline? Did you wince when I used the word institutional? How could such an archaism be a door to Gospel?

Furthermore. Look around. Read about priestly pedophilia. Weep with us to see Rembert Weakland so retired, so dismissed. Notice that the ministry has become a second career in several senses of the word second. Measure the loss of members in Methodism in the Northeast, 25% in 25 years. Experience the enduring clash of left and right. And I was going to say something about God?

Resurrection of the Body

The church will exist to the end of time because God has built the church on rock. For all its inhumanity, the church is not a human institution any more than marriage. Nor is the Gospel about human achievement any more than is the cross.

I wonder what Peter must have felt like, listening to this sermon, and realizing it was about him, the rock.

God is like a wise man. Not, a wise man is like God. God is like a wise man, and we become like God when we act like God, who is like a wise man. God builds foundation. God builds on the rock. God builds on the high ground not the wadi, not the riverbed, no matter how appealing it looks in the fall. God builds like a wise man - on rock.

In Teaching

Who else would have known Jesus well enough to summarize his various teachings? You know the ones I mean. How the poor and meek and peacemakers are blessed. That love is salt and light. That the law, as guide, stays. That anger is a man's worst friend. That adultery is a man's second worst friend. That swearing and harming hurt mostly the swearer and harmer. That love is real when it is love of the unlovely and unlovable. That generosity and fasting and devotion are private affairs. That the day's own troubles are sufficient for the day. That judging is like swearing and harming. That you know you are getting close when the gate is narrow and the way is hard. That you measure people by what they do not what they say.

In Community

Matthew makes so many improvements on Mark that it is easy to miss this Gospel move, Matthew 7:24. Oh, I know you know them well. Matthew is more complete. Matthew meets the needs of the church. Matthew explains the law. Matthew treats hard law cases. Matthew has the spirit of Christ. Matthew aims high - even to perfection. Matthew has a word about Israel. Matthew makes more space for the Old Testament. Matthew is an aggressive missionary. Matthew calls the church the kingdom of God. Matthew emphasizes leadership. Matthew honors both Jew and Gentile, both republican and democrat. He polishes Mark's Jesus, defends Mark's disciples, builds Mark's church, improves Mark's Greek. Matthew makes you believe in literary evolution.

The apostles' creed affirms the resurrection of the body, that the church has a future. Said Aquinas, "hope is that which is good, future, arduous and possible."

As we interpret the sermon on the mount, we do well to avoid some common pitfalls, long ago listed by Amos Wilder: don't oversimplify; don't spiritualize; don't forget the apocalyptic hour; don't miss the absence of social ethics; don't read into it other memories (like the three pigs earlier).

In other words, read carefully. Reading may be a dying art, too. I notice a great convergence of the sphere of people who read and the sphere of people who find meaning and truth in historic Christian worship. Yes, Methodism is dying for lack of preaching, visitation, reduced apportionment, leadership, missionary zeal, and good youth ministry. Our losses, though, also have some relation to the rising flood of functional illiteracy - not those who cannot read, but those who do not.

God is like a wise man who in building the church, the body of Christ, whose resurrection is continually promised in the confession of faith, has built on rock, a firm foundation.

And you are it. Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. With W. Blake, we shall not sleep until we have built Jerusalem!

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