This summer, I’m filling is as the pastor at Uptown Lutheran Church. This will give me a couple months of experience preaching, presiding and providing pastoral care to a small congregation (I will be working at the church three days a week doing pastoral care).
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God Builds Our Lives on the Rock of Christ
It was a warm and beautiful autumn day in mid-October of 1989. I was studying and working San Francisco State University, running the journalism department’s computer lab in the evenings, helping other students with problems and making sure things worked the way they were supposed to.
It was a little after five in the afternoon, and I’d just gotten to work when the building started shaking. Now, I’d grown up in California and had been through my share of small earthquakes – they are a usual feature of life there. You never quite get used to it, the earth shaking, the bed lurching across the floor, the house creaking, even though you know such a thing is always possible. There had been a number of smaller quakes that summer, quakes that were strong enough to shake the building and wake you up from a sound sleep, but not strong enough or long enough to do any serious damage. The earthquake that October started out that way, just another “typical little” earthquake that would last a few seconds and then it would be done. So I braced myself as best I could and waited.
But that day was going to be different. After a few seconds of “mild” shaking, it felt – I don’t know how else to describe it – as if something deep in the earth just snapped. And then the ground really started moving, back and forth, from side to side. The building creaked, things fell of shelves, the lights swayed, chairs and tables slid, big tree branches outside shook violently. I stood in my office doorway – it’s what you’re told to do so often that it’s a kind-of instinctive reaction – and waited for the shaking to stop. After 15 seconds – 15 seconds which felt a lot longer than that – it finally did.
Some of you might remember this earthquake. It happened just as the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants were warming up to play the third game of the World Series that year. The damage to Candelstick Park, at the time the Giants’ home field, was bad enough that the third game was delayed for ten days, a delay due mostly to the ABC television network’s difficulties in getting its broadcast facilities up and running. (For the record: Oakland swept the series in four games.)
But there was other more signficant damage: a long stretch of elevated freeway through a poor neighborhood in Oakland collaped, a chunk fell out of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, 31 historic buildings in downtown Santa Cruz were so badly damaged they had to be demolished, and a large portion of the Marina District along the north shore of San Francisco was reducded to ruins. Nearly 4,000 people were injured, and 67 died, in that 15 seconds of shaking.
At San Francisco State, the building I worked in cracked and buckled. Working for the university newspaper the following day, when no one else was on campus, I got a chance to look at some of the damage – science labs filled with the shattered glass of fallen test tubes and pyrex dishes, cracks in buildings, ruined equipment. The city lost power for about 24 hours. But there was no serious damage on the western side of San Francisco where the university was and where Jennifer and I lived.
Many of those places where the damage was the worst – the Marina District, central Oakland – were built not on rock but on sand. The Marina District was a very posh neighborhood built atop what had once been a lagoon filled up with rubble and debris, a kind-of manmade sand, most of it dumped there after the 1906 earthquake. When you build in places where earthquakes are likely, it’s important that a foundation be anchored in the ground; a building has to be able to move and sway, but the foundation must stay put. Rocky soil is very stable, and anchors foundations well, but sand does not. When the earth shakes, the particles of sand shake more than normal dirt would, sand itself begins to act like a liquid, and the foundation begins to slide around too. This is why you can’t really build anything lasting on sand.
Jesus doesn’t speak of earthquakes in our gospel reading – he talks, instead, about rain, flood and wind, because there was no building for earthquakes in Jesus’ time – but he does talk about building on rock and the stability it represents, the protection from the elements and the unpredictability of nature. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock . … And everyone who hears these of mine but does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” These words of mine? What words is he talking about?
Today’s Gospel reading comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus gives us a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, those who make peace, who are the pure of heart, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Jesus then goes on to effectively give a new law, a much harder law than God ever gave to Moses. He tells us that it is not enough to not murder, for even the anger of our hearts makes us liable to judgment. The lust of our hearts is the same as actual adultery! And when we are insulted, robbed, compelled to go a mile, we are to give the other cheek, hand over our coat, walk a second mile. We are asked to love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, give to whoever asks, and share with the poor but in a way so that our left hand has no idea what our right hand is doing. Finally, we are not to judge, not criticize the flaws in our sisters and brothers without also seeing and correcting our own.
It’s hard stuff. Hard to hear. Who can do this? Which of us hasn’t been angry, or lusted, or wanted revenge for some wrong we’ve suffered at the hands of another? Who of us haven’t judged those around us, without holding ourselves to the same standards, without seeing the huge logs in our own eyes? Which of us hasn’t said to ourselves, “I’m better than my neighbor, who drinks and fools around and cheats on his taxes. I don’t do those things. My house is built on rock, while his is built on sand”?
Paul says in today’s epistle reading that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that none of us can boast in any of the things we do ourselves. Our salvation, he adds, is a gift, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are reconciled to God. And I think that helps us understand a little the first part of today’s Gospel reading.
See, I found it a little puzzling when I first read this passage. Jesus is talking about building on rock so that the storms won’t knock your house down. That seem to me to be something anyone can surely boast of. “I have built my house on rock, and that’s why it survived the earthquake. All those who built on sand, well, shame on them. They weren’t listening.” But at the beginning of this passage, Jesus clearly says that merely because we say “Lord, Lord” or have done the very things Jesus did – cast out demons, prophesying and other mighty works – doesn’t mean we’re actually disciples of Jesus. It’s not about our works, not about our deeds or action, not about our claims and profession, not even about us doing what Jesus has done. Building on rock is not something we do. We certainly cannot lord that over others, and say “look at us, we built on rock! We cast out demons! We have done mighty works in the name of God! Our left hand knows exactly what our right hand is doing!”
No, it doesn’t work that way. Because it’s about what Jesus does and who Jesus is – the son of God who makes the Kingdom of Heaven a reality. He fulfills the law, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to live in God’s remarkable kingdom, a kingdom we make apparent in this world when we “hear and do,” when we love our enemies and accept that Christ will change our hearts and make us the kind of people who don’t walk away from our sisters and brothers in anger, who settle with our accusers and who don’t lust after others, seeing them only as objects for our pleasure or use. It’s a Kingdom where we are forgiven when we fall short of these things. And we become the kind of people who realize we are forgiven, who forgive each other, and who live with each other — and with the world — in peace.
This is not a matter of will, of trying to become better individual human beings. None of us can do this, and we certainly cannot do it by ourselves. We can only become a forgiven and forgiving people as a community, as the church, as a people called by Jesus to be his followers. An important thing to note in today’s Gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t merely say “build his house on rock” as if all we are doing is scraping away the dirt to find the bedrock so we can pound steel piles and pour concrete. Jesus speaks about building on “the rock.” He uses a similar phrase one other place in Matthew, in the 16th chapter, when he asks his disciples who people say he is. When Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the “Son of God,” Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed because the spirit has revealed this to him, and adds that upon “this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The rock, πετρα in Greek, sounds a lot like Peter’s name (indeed, it’s where Peter’s name comes from), but the rock, I think, is also this very encounter, this open declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Upon that realization, that declaration, Christ has built his church — us. It is we who are built upon this rock. Jesus builds us on this rock, the rock of his church, the rock of the faith he gives us as his gift, and through his grace gives us the power to be and live the Kingdom of Heaven, to be God’s people. Because of that, flood and earthquake and even hell itself are no match for us.
A few weeks ago, there apparently was an earthquake in the southern part of Illinois that was felt all the way up here in Chicago. I say apparently because while it was big news that day, Jennifer and I slept right through it — it simply wasn’t big enough to wake us up. It came as shock to many, as few associate “Illinois” and earthquakes. But they have happened here and will happen again. As disciples of Jesus, we are ready to face an uncertain world with joy and hope because we are built on the rock, on Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. He is our builder, he is our foundation, and he is the kingdom in which we live and hope.