Sunday, November 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Upon Sand, Upon Rock"

(Note: Carrie and I will be jetting out of the country for two weeks to New Zealand for our long-belated honeymoon as well as for a much-needed vacation for the both of us.  I am purposely trying to unplug as much as possible during these two weeks, and so aside from perhaps posting some pictures, there will be radio silence here on the blog as well.  I plan on being back in action both in my congregation and here online starting the week of Monday the 17th.  As always, it is a joy to be able to write for you, and I look forward to getting back into both ministry and writing rested and renewed.  ~E.A.)

Luke 6:46-49

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say? 47 I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. 48 It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. 49 But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed.” (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Six

The scientist could have been summoned straight out of central casting: lanky, somewhat balding, thick-framed glasses, and a studious face that often appeared above a suit and tie, but his work was anything but stereotypical.  Almost singlehandedly, Jonas Salk changed the world by doing something that nobody else had managed to do in a cultural atmosphere of sheer panic: come up with a foolproof inoculation against the cause of that panic…polio.

It’s an instructive lesson for the present moment as well, considering how ape we have all collectively gone over ebola, because then with polio as now with ebola, public reaction was one of unadulterated fright when an epidemic of polio hit the United States in 1952.  But a bare three years later, in 1955, morale immediately reversed when the news of Salk’s polio vaccine proving successful hit the news wires.  And now, nearly 60 years after that first successful test, people are talking about a legitimate chance for humanity to one day eradicate polio the same way we did in the 1970s with the smallpox of old.

And while Salk’s success in the molten pressure of the crucible is preaching-worthy in and of itself, it is what he did after the vaccine’s success that makes him such a good springboard for today’s message.  Or, rather, it is what he didn’t do.  He refused to patent the vaccine, meaning that any pharmaceutical company could manufacture and distribute it.  And that is why I said he almost singlehandedly changed the world: with a patent, the polio vaccine would have taken much longer to eradicate the disease in entire swaths of the globe.

So when he was asked who in fact held the patent on the polio vaccine, Salk simply and famously replied, “There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?”  In other words, could you patent something that was almost universally good for humanity?  Salk couldn’t.  And that choice he made allowed humanity to build its defense against a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease upon a foundation of rock.  Salk could have been one of the biggest, richest grains of sand in the world, but he preferred to bequeath to that world a rock instead.  And so, in essence, a house of care and cure was built upon a rock.  And that kind of strength, rare though it might be, is what we look at today.

So I said at the beginning of this series that this was a new sermon series for the fall, and this series would take us all the way into November…well, here we are in November, and holy freaking cow.  I can’t believe it, can you?  Anyways, we have been spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  Last week, we arrived at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit, and today, the passage is a similarly summative sort of declaration by Jesus—that this is what people who live out His teachings look like—but with a far different metaphor.  Instead of trees and fruit, we have houses upon sand and upon rock, and one of them blows away.  All we need is the big bad wolf and the three little pigs and this would be a story I was read at bedtime every night.

(And no, for the record, that was emphatically not me saying that Jesus plagiarized from the fairy tales.  Jesus plagiarizes from the sing-a-longs, y’all.  Okay, I digress.)

But before we even get to the house-on-sand, house-on-rock metaphor, we have to deal with one of the most universal indictments Jesus offers against those who would do wrong—universal because it doesn’t begin with, say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.”  No, this “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I say?” bit is Jesus scolding His own followers.

And that’s a bit tougher for us to contemplate, isn’t it?  It’s easier to accept Jesus’ roughness with His criticism when said criticisms are leveled at anyone but us: scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, hipsters, mimes, Canadians…but it’s tougher when it’s aimed at us.  We may want Jesus to be all-loving and all-able-to-let-things-slide, but that is what WE want, not what God wants and certainly not at all who Jesus was.  The point of Jesus here was that there were things that He cannot let slide.

We Christians, though, have made a time-honored tradition out of calling Jesus Lord and then not doing a lick of what He actually says to do—everything that He has spent these past five weeks telling us to do in Luke 6.  And so we should not be so surprised when it feels like (not ‘if’, this is definitely a ‘when’) we live in that house made upon sand rather than the house made upon rock.

Now, the church itself, well, it has stood the test of nearly 2,000 years of time and it will certainly exist in some form or fashion for many more years to come, but our own individual churches, and even our own individual households, often feel like they are made upon sand and could blow away at a moment’s notice from a stiff wind.

In some ways, it makes the tornado we experienced here the other week rather prescient: it touched down right by our church building, and our facilities survived with no damage whatsoever.  Our church building has been a rock.  And we are, in part, built upon it and within it.

But we are also a congregation that is built upon sand, because even if a physical tornado might not destroy our building, a financial tornado very well could.  A moral or spiritual tornado is always a risk even for the biggest churches: just this week, the 15-site megachurch Mars Hill announced it would be disbanding effective January 1, 2015, after repeated scandals that plagued its lead pastor Mark Driscoll.

So the threat of seeing one’s own spiritual home being blown away is always very much real, even as Christianity itself as a spiritual home tends to continue plodding onward.

But I want to talk about your own homes as well—not just your church home, but your own household, where you live and eat and sleep.  We don’t need a show of hands here, but how many of you are worried about being the person whose house is about to be blown away by some sort of disaster?  How many of you are worried about not having the safety net of being built upon rock?

That fright is probably there to some degree for all of us who do not have the safety net of wealth, and it is in part because all of us do not do as Jesus would command.  God made the earth to be plenty for all of us, but when the wealthiest 1% of Americans control about one-third of our nation’s wealth, it isn’t difficult to read between the lines that many are going without whilst others have more than they know what to do with.

And that’s not me talking about the dreaded ‘s’ word, either—socialism.  I’m simply stating a factual reality.  Imagine how rich Jonas Salk could have gotten if he had patented his polio vaccine.  He chose not to do that and gave us a rock rather than making himself the richest grain of sand in the billions of grains of sand that live in the world.

We create houses built upon sand through our selfishness and greed—we create these sorts of fragile, dangerously weak houses that others have to live in.  But we also do it to ourselves as well: we all could, say, manage our money better.  We could all be more diligent at building our own personal safety nets.  But so many of us want things, and when we pay full price for them, that comes at the additional cost of not being able to solidify ourselves and our homes and our churches.

But this isn’t a sermon about frugality, it’s about spirituality.  It’s about being able to temper our own self-centeredness enough to see past ourselves and into the needs of the other person who, just like us, is living in a fragile, wispy house upon sand with no real foundation to speak of.  It’s about us being able to help build up a foundation for that other person, and about us being able to allow other people in to our lives so that they in turn can help build for us a rock to live upon.

So who in your life most needs a rock to build upon?  Who could most benefit from you inserting yourself into the picture and offering your own strength and solidity, even if you’re terrified that you don’t even have enough of it for yourself right now, let along somebody else?  Are you willing to take that sort of risk to put yourself out there for another person living right next door to you in a neighborhood full of sand-based homes?  Are you worried if you are even able to?

The whole thing about this entire sermon Jesus gives—and this entire series that I have given based on it—is that we shouldn’t be worried to.  We should be worried not to.  Because if we do indeed call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord,” then we are called and compelled to act upon that belief in Christ and that faith which we hold in our hearts for Him. 

We are called and compelled to be, as Saint Teresa of Avila famously said, the feet of the body of Christ that has no literal feet, the voice that Christ uses to teach, and the hands that He uses to bless. 

We are to be the architects of neighborhoods and towns and entire cities of homes that will be built upon the steadfast rock of Christ’s incredible, life-changing- world-upside-down-turning love.

We are to be the laborers of love, tirelessly striving under heat and rain and light and dark to create for one another what God began: a life that no longer knows need, and which only knows grace.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 2, 2014

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