Sunday, June 01, 2008

Building on a Strong Foundation

Third Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 4)
Deuteronomy 11:18-21,26-28; Psalm 31:1-5,19-24; Romans 3:21-25a,28; Matthew 7:21-27
Sunday, June 4, 2008 (8:00 am) – St. Alban’s, Westwood

To be honest, I have been struggling with the imagery Jesus uses in today’s Gospel lesson. I have no problems with the imagery of a house built on sand not withstanding a storm. That is obvious. What I struggle with is the imagery that a house built on rock, on a solid foundation, will withstand a storm. What does this imagery say to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as they look at row after row of homes and businesses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina? Their homes were built on solid foundations, yet did not bear up against a mighty storm. What does this imagery say to the people of Parsons, Kansas, my family’s home town, as they witness the devastation of 800 homes and the destruction of downtown when a tornado ripped through town on April 19, 2000? Their homes were built on solid foundations, yet did not withstand a mighty storm. Or closer to home – what does this imagery say to those of us in Southern California who have witnessed terrible destruction caused by such natural events as the Northridge Earthquake in 1994? Homes and businesses destroyed, freeway bridges collapsed. The homes destroyed in that earthquake were built on solid foundations, yet did not hold up under the assault of natural disaster.

How can we expect such imagery to be of comfort and consolation to the thousands upon thousands of people who every year in this country have their lives literally turned upside down by storms and other natural disasters? To say nothing of the millions worldwide who experience similar tragedies, such as recently occurred with the cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. For such people, this imagery of the safety and comfort of a home, of a life, built on a solid foundation is itself consolation that is built on sand. It does not hold up to real-life experience.

Now, to be fair to Jesus, this parable, which comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, is, strictly speaking, about the Last Judgment. He is letting us know what will be expected at that time. He is saying that to truly be his followers, for us to be admitted to the kingdom, we need to truly have lived a life of faith. Saying the words are not enough. We have to truly mean what we say, and demonstrate that in the way we live. Hearing the will of God is not enough. We must do the will God. For this to happen, we need a solid foundation, built on Christ.

So while the parable is really meant to be a guideline regarding what we can expect at the Last Judgment, it also gives us something to work on in this life, before the Last Judgment, in preparation for the Last Judgment. It’s like having a sneak-peak at what is going to be on the final exam so we know what we need to study, what we need to concentrate our efforts on.

I think this is little more evident in today’s Old Testament lesson. The lesson from Deuteronomy essentially says the same thing that the Gospel lesson does, only using different words. Deuteronomy tells us that we must put the word of God in our hearts and souls, binding it on our hands and on our foreheads. We must make the world of God part of who we are, not only within us, but on us, in a visible manner, for all the world to see. While this lesson conveys the same general message as the Gospel, it differs in its sense of timing. It places the timing not in the future at the Last Judgment, but in the present. This is not something we need to do eventually before the Last Judgment. It is something we need to do now. We need to be living the word of God, doing the will of God, now. In so doing, we are at work helping to build the foundation that will support us in the future.

There is also one other subtle difference between Deuteronomy and the Gospel lesson that is important to note. That is the result of our work. The Gospel tells us that a house built on rock, on a solid foundation, will withstand the storm, while the house build on sand, a less than solid foundation, will not withstand the storm. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, places the results, the consequences, in terms of blessing and curse. In this passage, God says, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today.” I think this an important distinction. I think it is a more expansive distinction. The Gospel account of the consequences are personal – our house will stand or fall, depending on the foundation we chose to build on. The Old Testament account expands the potential impact. There will be blessing or curse, depending on what we choose to do. The way I read this, the blessing or curse will certainly accrue to us individually. But our actions can also be a blessing or curse to others.

Maybe an example will help pull it all together.

About a week ago, I was in a meeting of the Friday Pilgrims’ Way group in the Upper Lounge. One of the members had to leave the room to take a phone call. A couple minutes later, there was a loud, urgent pounding on the doors leading out to the patio. I thought the person may have gone outside to take the call and got locked out. I got up to go let her in. It turned out not to be our group member, but a homeless man. Before I could say anything, he said, “Please, you’ve got to help me! You’re my last hope.” Now I must confess, I was not exactly in the best of moods. But this guy sounded almost panicked. So I stepped outside, offered him a seat on the bench by the door, sat down, and asked him to tell me what was wrong.

He proceeded to tell me that he had an opportunity to turn his life around. He had a lead on a job, but needed to get cleaned up before this woman would hire him. All he needed was a little money so he could buy a razor and some toiletries, get a haircut, and go to Goodwill to get a new set of clothes. And if he got this job, he would be able to find a place to live and get off the streets. He was not asking for a handout. He was willing to do any type of work to earn the money. As he told me his story, I found my heart softening a bit. I sensed great sincerity in what he was telling me. Of course, I’ve been suckered before. People telling me sob stories, promising that they would return the money when they got on their feet, and never seeing them again. So, I was still a little skeptical.

He went on to tell me how his faith in humanity had been shattered. How he had been mistreated, verbally and physically, just because he’s homeless. This abuse had slowly destroyed his faith in other people. But he still had his faith in God, and that had helped him get through the rough times. Until that morning. He told me how earlier that day, he approached someone and asked her for help. She proceeded to tell him homeless people would be better off dead. That comment was the fatal blow to this man’s self-esteem and to his faith. How could one person say something like that to another? He had never done anything to her. She didn’t even know him. As a result of an insensitive comment, he had completely lost faith in humanity and was starting to think maybe she was right. Because of this, he was even questioning his faith in God and in the Church. He knew he was a child of God, but what if that woman was right? By this point, he was crying. He had been deeply wounded. His validity and worth as a human being had been called into question. His faith, the one thing he truly had, was crumbling before his eyes.

As I listened to David talk, I realized several things. First, that what Deuteronomy says is true. How we live our lives can be a blessing or a curse, not only to ourselves but to others. In his case, someone had not obeyed the commandments of the Lord, resulting in a curse. Not necessarily a curse on herself – only God can decide that. But it had certainly resulted in a curse on David – one that had demoralized him and caused him to call his worthiness into question, one that was calling his very faith into question. The second thing I realized was that all was not lost. There was hope. David still had a foundation. The house built upon it had fallen, but the foundation still seemed to be intact – maybe with a few cracks, but I could see hints that it was still intact, still salvageable.

In that moment, I realized that maybe David was right. Maybe I was his last hope. Now I don’t like thinking of myself in such absolute terms, in such grandiose terms. But I decided that I needed to do something to help this man. He was obviously in pain – emotional pain and spiritual pain. I had to try to do something to save him from spiraling deeper into despair. I told him to stay put and went to my office. I returned a minute later with a $20 bill. I sat down, took his hand, but the money into his hand and held it tightly in mine. I told him it wasn’t much, but it would help. I told him that he was a beloved child of God who deserved a chance, who deserved to be treated as a human being. I told him to get himself cleaned up, to get that job, and to prove that woman wrong. By this time, David was crying again. They were not tears of despair, but rather tears of hope, tears of gratitude that someone had a little faith in him.

He said he didn’t know if or when he would be able to repay me. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I told him the best thing he could do would be just to come back after he had gotten his life turned around and let me know how it all turned out. And if he could repay me, great. If not, at some point in the future, to remember this and to do something to help someone else in need. As he got ready to leave, I gave him a hug. One of the last things he said to me was that my faith in him helped restore his faith in humanity and his faith in himself. His foundation was indeed still intact. And he had already started to rebuild his house on it.

To some, David was a curse. But to me, he was a blessing. David was a living reminder that just because we have a solid foundation does not necessarily mean that negative things will not happen in our lives. As the people of New Orleans, Parsons, Northridge, Myanmar, or China will tell you, even with the most solid of foundations, something unexpected can happen to knock down your house, or at least cause it a little storm damage. But more importantly, David reminded me of a valuable insight – one that has been shown by the people of New Orleans, Parsons, and Northridge, as I have seen in the lives of many of you – that no matter what happens, as long as the foundation is strong, as long as the foundation remains, you can always rebuild.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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