This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on January 31, 2021 on the forty-sixth week of Coronatide.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn on in the United States now for almost a year, many industries have been hit especially hard, including the “church industry.” Once changing at a glacial pace, we now struggle to keep up with the needs and desires of a scattered flock. There has been one industry, though, which was uniquely prepared to weather the destruction of this virus.
In mid-March of last year, as we were all told to stay at home to flatten the upward climb of infections, one industry was prepared to cash in. See, as we all were forced to spend time inside the four walls of our family dwellings, many of us decided we really were not happy with how things looked. For years, we had all been too busy outside our home to give much notice to what was inside. Our bathrooms and kitchens needed a remodel from their 1970s pink tile and pressed wood, sure. But that was a project for an unspecified later time.
That later time had come. So, Americans logged on to Lowes and Home Depot to place pickup orders for all the things that would make their house, once just a functional resting place, into a true sanctuary that could provide homely comfort.
As many industries have cut back their advertising on television, regional contractors for home remodeling have been running ads at every commercial break. One contractor after another promises that you’ll be happy with your new windows. You’ll love preparing meals in your new kitchen. And this new bathroom will change your life. “Pay nothing now, we have installment plans!” they boast.
This is surely a positive thing for the home improvement industry, but it’s also been a positive thing for us at the church. One of the bright spots of this past year has been that the work crew has almost finished not just one or two, but four different major projects since we have all been away! Their diligence and forward-thinking with the church’s property is inspiring, and they are just one concrete way that we are building back better.
Even more encouraging has been the response to Rev. Tina’s messages about self-examination. We heard a couple weeks ago about the positive spiritual changes you all are making in this new year. It’s awesome to hear how the seeds of God’s word are growing and bearing fruit in so many lives.
All of that talk about self-examination and the important internal work we all need to do got me thinking about this construction parable from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a parable that still makes sense to us on the surface, as it did for its first hearers––dig deeper and build your house on the rock so your house doesn’t collapse in a storm. It fits with what Rev. Tina has been saying about looking underneath the surface, because one has to dig below the sand and soft soil to hit the bedrock below.
It also seems like a good, American truism that would fit well with one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one that on its surface seems to be all about our individual human effort, teaching the wisdom of self-reliance.
The trouble is, when we read this parable––and the entire Gospel––through the lens of our American Protestant Work Ethic, we miss the point and we lose the Gospel. How many of you who engaged in pandemic “nesting,” DIY home improvement, or hiring a contractor did so relying on God through prayer?
Maybe there are some of you who prayed about your home improvement projects. But usually building, constructing, remodeling, and improving our homes are things we do ourselves with our own effort and our own resources. We can do it foolishly or wisely, but it is we who are doing the work. This picture of improvement, in stark contrast to Jesus’ parable, has nothing to do with God.
Since we view our home improvement as something resulting from our own effort, and Jesus uses a home improvement metaphor to think about self-improvement, we’re liable to think we can improve ourselves through our own effort too!
If anything, we only go to Jesus for help telling us how to rebuild and remodel ourselves. We pray to Jesus for wisdom and discernment and then do the rest with our own effort.
As we engage in this important work of self-improvement, Jesus is asking us now if we have really counted the cost. Have we figured out if we can really finish this work ourselves, as Jesus asks in Luke 14:28? Do we have the resources within us to remodel and rebuild ourselves from the ground up?
Are we even building in the right place?
As I wondered about what it means to build on the right foundation with this parable, I was drawn to the images of destruction and rebuilding after a hurricane. The images of destruction from 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina will forever be implanted in my memory. The houses flattened on their foundation. The Superdome, packed with 26,000 newly homeless people.
Invariably, whenever the hurricane was discussed in the years that followed, someone would ask, “why don’t they just move out of the hurricane zone?” As I researched this question on the internet this week, I found plenty of cynical responses that sounded familiar.
“Well, they won’t move because the insurance will pay for damages. They don’t want to give up their ocean views. The government enables them to live where they shouldn’t. And since they didn’t die, they’ll never learn.”
Again, in our cultural narrative, people don’t move out of a coastal area at risk of disaster because they’re stupid. They are, in the Benjamin Franklin wisdom reading of our parable this morning, the foolish builder. In our culture of individual effort, the parable is about building in the right place so as to avoid trouble. It’s about being self-righteous enough to put yourself out of harm’s way.
Here’s the problem, if we’re talking about literal houses: where in the US can you build a house that would be immune to natural disaster? Where can you build a place for you and your family that will not be threatened by wind, rain, fire, snow, and earthquakes? If you do know of such a place, I’m sure you’d save a lot of money on insurance if you moved there! But no such place exists. Everywhere you could build yourself a house has substantial risk of disaster coming in and leveling the place.
I can just imagine that there was some troublesome listener in Jesus’ audience who asked Jesus the same question. “Why don’t you just build your house away from the stream? Why don’t you build outside of the hurricane zone? Why don’t you tell these people to build somewhere safe?”
The answer that Jesus knows, and we should too, is that no such place exists.
We are, of course, not talking about physical houses or environmental storms at all. We are talking about the house of our bodies and the storm of Sin and death.
No matter how hard we try, we are incapable of picking up and moving to a place where Sin and death cannot strike us. We can’t move out of our frail bodies and become someone else instead. We can’t start over from scratch. In this work of self-awareness and self-improvement, we are stuck with ourselves. The best we can do is build back better in the same place with a better foundation.
Let’s go deeper into the parable. Jesus tells us about the sand and the rock where the builders set their foundations.
First, the sand.
Jesus is not telling his hearers not to build houses on the beach where they might be blown away by a hurricane. He is not telling us to build our houses far enough out from where a storm might strike––he knows there is no truly safe place in this world.
Throughout Scripture, sand is used as a metaphor for humanity. In Genesis, God promises Abraham as many descendents as there are grains of sand on the seashore. Isaiah counts the number of the sons of Israel to be as numerous as the sand of the sea, lamenting that only a remnant would be saved from the coming storm.
For many of us, this pandemic has revealed human selfishness like never before. We are unwilling to care for the most vulnerable among us. We are unable to follow the guidance of scientists. We are incapable of letting go of our desires for the safety of others. In the face of all of that, many of us are losing our faith in humanity.
To this, the Gospel says, good! Humanity is, after all, like the plentiful sand along the sea. To use a more well-known metaphor, humanity is but dust, and to the dust we will return. As Lent begins, we will put that metaphor directly on our foreheads.
Does sand seem like a smart material to build on? Of course not. Neither is humanity, our individual ego! If we engage the process of self-awareness and self-improvement to build on this sand of our humanity, we aren’t going to last long.
Let me say it plain: if you build the house of your life on the foundation of yourself, it is going to fall. Hard. Eventually, it will all wash away with the storms of trouble.
If we are going to follow the Gospel of Jesus, then the first step of our self-improvement will be the same as the first step of the Twelve Steps for all you friends of Bill: “we admitted we were powerless over _____––that our lives had become unmanageable.
Put another way, humanity is dust and to dust it will return. We are sand. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We ourselves are powerless over any number of things we might try to control in our lives.
That blank, the thing you are powerless over, may be any number of things. It could be one of any number of hurts, habits, or hang-ups. It may be drugs or alcohol, food, consumer goods, sex, gambling, work, or any number of other things. But when we have built a foundation on our own frail humanity, our own egos, our own self-sufficiency, our lives will become unmanageable.
Since we’re foolish humans, we often don’t acknowledge our own powerlessness and instead try to remodel and fix the “house” on top of the foundation. We remodel one area of our lives, maybe our nutrition and exercise or even our prayer and spiritual life, only so we can brag about how good of a builder we are! So we can brag about how much we’ve done! We find confidence in ourselves with the changes we’ve made, the success we’ve had, the artistic product we’ve produced. We pat ourselves on the back for all this hard work, only to find it all comes crashing to the ground when the rains come. (And the rains will come!)
To admit that we are sand is to declare the holy phrase, “I can’t!” There is nothing that will last that is built on the sand of our humanity. This is the radical truth of the Gospel and the truth about ourselves: all of us are sinners.
To not admit that we are sand is to live in denial and continue to perform building maintenance on a house that is condemned because of its cracking foundation.
No matter how hard we try, we will never transform our foundation of sand into a solid rock. No matter how hard we try to do maintenance on our condemned houses, the cracks will keep coming.
Since the storms are inevitable, what is going to happen to our foundation if it’s built on sand?
Our foundation will crack.
At first, the foundation built on the sand of ourselves will look new. It’ll even look good and righteous to all our Christian friends! Don’t you just love the look of freshly poured concrete? Everyone will marvel at us and our brand new foundation. Piece by piece, we’ll construct the house on top of that foundation, making it look just like we want it.
All the while, trouble is brewing underneath. See, even before the rains come down and the floods come up, that foundation built on sand is going to start cracking. We might not even notice it at first, since most of us don’t live in our basements. But cynicism, judgment, bad relationships and friendships, and unwanted feelings are going to start cracking that foundation. And through those cracks, the first signs of sin are going to trickle back in through the floor. Unwanted feelings and desires will turn to unwanted behaviors. The water will seep into our basements through our cracking foundation.
What do we do? We engage in behavior control as a concrete crack sealer. Put another way, we start playing whack-a-mole with sinful behaviors. We think, if we can just stop _____ (whatever it is) by our own personal effort, our foundation will be restored. We start trying to improve the “spiritual rooms” of the house of our bodies in hopes that our sacrifices will appease God.
As I’ve illustrated, we can engage in all sorts of Christian behaviors while the sand of self is our foundation. You can be “Christian” and have a foundation on sand. You can be a deacon or elder, a Pastor or professor and still have a foundation built on the sand of self. Trust me, I know from experience.
You can have a personal relationship with Jesus and have been saved at Bible camp and still have a foundation that is cracking on top of sand. You can be part of every weeknight Bible study group and have an accountability group and still be built on the sand of your own righteous effort.
As you think of yourself, you’re a basically good person. There are others who are basically irredeemably evil, and you’re better than them. So you’re okay! You know who the bad people are, and you do your best to not be like them. Except, you know, for all those cracks in your basement foundation. So all the while, you keep doing foundation crack repair. And the shame about your leaky cracked floor amplifies the trespass! You hide the cracks, and they keep multiplying. No one can know that you don’t have it all together! Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know! You have to keep up the show.
It’s exhausting! And if you let that go on long enough, your whole house is going to fall over. Again, I know from experience.
We can never transform our sand into a solid rock. We can never do more than damage repair on a foundation that is cracking.
The way to healing, the way to wholeness, the way out of the perpetual whack-a-mole is to admit the radical truth of the gospel and ourselves: all of us are sinners, none better than another. We cannot transform our sand into a stable foundation.
Until we get foundation on the stable ground, the solid rock, we’re completely powerless. Our own lives are unmanageable, to say nothing about trying to help anyone else.
If we don’t get the foundation right, we’re never going to be able to reach out to others or share the Gospel. Because all we will be able to share is our own fallible work, our own broken foundation atop sinking sand. Built on the sand, all of our works for Jesus will be either out of guilt or ego. We’ll help others so we can feel better about ourselves. We’ll give to the church just like we shop at Target. We’ll be part of a community out of a desire for control.
When we help others from a cracked foundation atop the sinking sand, we’ll say, “I saved myself, here, let me save you.” But no, we need the message that we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless! We are powerless. But we know the one who can save.
We need the rock.
The truth about ourselves is that all of us are sinners, incapable of managing our own lives, unable to save ourselves––we are sand. The good news of the Gospel is that recognizing ourselves for who we are is a good thing. Because when we admit that truth about ourselves, we come up against the radical grace of the Gospel.
Jesus didn’t die for the ones who have it all together, the ones who are self-sufficient. Jesus didn’t die for those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, as if such a thing was possible. Jesus died for the ungodly. Jesus died for we who are sand, dust in the wind.
God’s grace is sufficient because it works when we understand our weakness. We who are built on the rock cannot take any pride in being better than some other sinner because there is “no distinction.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:22ff)
This grace, this rock underneath our foundation is a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can do to get a fancier version of it. No amount of work will produce more of it. All of us are given the same solid place to build our lives when we recognize our powerlessness and rely on Jesus instead.
When we have exhausted all of our own resources, when all the sand of self-sufficiency washes away, we hit rock bottom. And it is there that the sand of the self comes up against the strength of the rock who is Jesus
On the rock, we find that our concrete foundation, freshly poured after the latest storm, isn’t developing so many cracks. We find that we don’t have to spend our whole day in the basement playing whack-a-mole with our sins and perceived flaws. On the rock, we have a safe, hospitable sanctuary to offer to others in need––and we’re not doing it for our own glory. On the rock, we recognize that church is not a consumer good that can be bought, but a community sustained by our recognition that all we have is a gift from God.
It is on this rock, Jesus Christ, that the church and our lives can be built when we surrender to God by grace through faith.
On the rock, we find that our spiritual disciplines are no longer tools to appease God, but rather life giving pipelines of God’s spirit. On the rock, we are much less concerned with the sins of others than we are with sharing the grace of the Gospel.
On the rock we have holy indifference about money, power, and material things and a holy passion for building up something that will last forever. On the rock we recognize that our body is a temple and we care about our food and exercise. because they are holy and set apart by God. On the rock we stop using other people to get our needs met and find ourselves in mutual relationships with each other for the very first time.
On the rock we create not for our glory, but for the glory of the one who saved us. On the rock we boast of our weakness, that others might be inspired through our story that yes, God can save even them.
In this season when COVID-19 has taken away so much with its fierce storm against our wellbeing, relationships, and security, we may be tempted to rebuild a new house on the same old sand of self-sufficiency. If we do, the cracks will re-form. Another storm will come along and knock us over yet again.
May we instead cease the ritual of building maintenance on a condemned dwelling. May we start from scratch, pouring a new concrete foundation of faith, hope, and love on the one who is the rock––Jesus Christ our Lord.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand
All other ground is sinking sand