Gospel Text: Matthew 7:13-29
One of the many popular home improvement shows on cable TV is the HGTV network program called “Fixer Upper.” The show’s two stars are Chip and Joanna Gaines, a real-life married couple who own and operate the business “Magnolia Homes,” located in Waco, Texas. I have to admit that I find the show interesting and fun to watch as Chip and Joanna themselves seem to be having fun as they do the work of transforming run-down houses, playfully banter with each other, and involve their cute little children with them on the show. As Chip manages the major construction work and Joanna does the job of the lead designer they turn dilapidated houses into remarkably beautiful homes. At the end of almost every episode, when the remodeled home is finally revealed, the new owners exclaim, “I can’t believe it!!!” As the description of the show puts it, Chip and Joanna “act as part-time counselors to clients who can’t see a structure’s beauty beyond the blemishes. They save homes that look hopeless, renovating the imperfect and revealing them for what they were always intended to be.”
Like Chip and Joanna, all of us are builders. But there is much more at stake than remodeling a house with what we are building. For the construction we build is that of our own lives. With God’s help we are about the spiritual work of renovating our imperfect selves and revealing lives for what they were always intended to be. When we get to the end of our life’s episode on this earth, hopefully, like the homeowners on “Fixer Upper,” we will look back on the lives that we built with the happy words, “I can’t believe it!!!” That is the intent of Jesus when he teaches and models for his followers what it means to build a life. In our gospel lesson, Jesus compares and contrasts those who are wise builders and those who are foolish builders. At least two points of difference between the wise and foolish builders are suggested.
First, the wise builder looks beyond today and considers the future. In contrast, the foolish builder is shortsighted and fails to consider the importance of how the house would withstand the storms ahead. This illustration used by Jesus always reminds me of the first time that Carla and I went camping together. We had arrived at South Dakota Custer State Park campgrounds after a very long car ride. It was almost too dark to pitch a tent. Actually, looking back later we realized that it WAS too dark to pitch a tent! While things looked fine when we crawled into our sleeping bags around 10 p.m., we did not check the weather forecast and had no idea what was in store for our night ahead. About 4 o’clock the next morning we awoke in our tent to the sound of pouring rain and high winds and with sleeping bags soaked and almost floating in several inches of water. We soon discovered that we had set up our tent alongside a creek bed that was dry when we arrived, but that quickly filled with running water during storms. To make a long story short, we learned what the wise man in our gospel lesson already knew: what looks fine today may not look so good tomorrow.
This was a lesson the crowds of Palestine could easily understand. While during the summer many of their rivers dried up and left a sandy river bed with no standing water, during the winter, after the fall rains, the river beds became raging streams. The audience of Jesus could envision how foolish it would have been to build a house on the dry, sandy soil of the summer without considering the future rivers of winter. They understood the wisdom of looking ahead and building on a solid foundation. So Jesus instructs us to be wise builders: to consider not just the present but to build our lives with a view toward the future.
But what, in practice, does this mean? Does looking toward the future mean that we spend our lives anxiously anticipating every possible life storm that might come our way? Clearly not, if you heard last Sunday’s message on learning to trust in God. So how does trusting in God and building our lives with a view toward the future go hand in hand? As Leah put it so well last week, “It’s about time we imagine the future that we believe God is calling us to, and work towards it with all of our might as Jesus did.”
Just one example. All of us are aging. And many of us are assisting aging spouses or parents who depend on us for care and support. It would be foolish to build our lives or to care for others without regard to future hard realities. Living in denial would be like the foolish builder who failed to acknowledge or prepare for the inevitable storms ahead. At the same time, rather than being overwhelmed with anxiety, we can, with God’s help, imagine how we, and those we care for, want to live with dignity as we are aging. Just as Jesus shared his Lenten journey with his disciples, we can walk together and have honest conversations about our hopes and our fears. Being vulnerable and supporting each other within our faith community is one way we face the future without, on the one hand, being consumed by anxiety, or, on the other hand, living irresponsibly and foolishly in denial. Building our lives together, through such open conversations and caring support, affirms our trust in God and in each others’ basic humanity.
Having this kind of honesty and openness as we build our lives runs counter to much of what our world teaches today. Our culture doesn’t just tend to deny death; it does its best to ignore all forms of suffering and oppression. Even much of Christian preaching and teaching echoes this denial with a prosperity-centered gospel of present-day blessings flowing from cars, houses and clothes. “Trust in God, grow rich in material things, and live for today” replaces “trust in God, grow in love and invest in building a community of peace and justice.” Such a marketplace value system is not the foundation needed to build the abundant life or the beloved community that Jesus calls us to help build. Living only for today is what Jesus describes as “the road that is easy and that leads to destruction and there are many on that road.” In contrast, Jesus tells us that it is the less traveled road, the road that is hard, that leads to life.
But looking beyond today is not the only difference between the wise and foolish builders. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me: ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Jesus goes on to say that “everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on rock.” Jesus wanted more than followers who simply heard his message and agreed with it. He was looking for people who were willing to build their lives on his teachings – to be doers of his words and not hearers only.
As Brian McClaren puts it in his book, We Make the Road by Walking, “There are two builders building two houses, one on sand, and one on rock. They both represent people who hear Jesus’ message. They both experience falling rain, rising floodwaters, and buffeting winds. The big difference? The person who builds on the solid foundation, whose structure withstands the storm, doesn’t just hear Jesus’ message; they translate it into action.”
The importance of building our lives by putting our faith into action is a principle that I learned as a college student from my favorite professor, Bill Carlson. Bill taught more than the course content of history and political science. He challenged his students and modeled for them what it means to put faith and knowledge into action. Bill taught me what I came to call “the other side of the gospel.” As a child in the Baptist church I had been taught the content of the Bible, memorizing the order of the books in the Bible along with hundreds of Bible verses and learning all the stories of the Old and New Testaments. I also was taught the importance of daily prayer and Bible reading. What I wasn’t taught was what I learned from my wise professor: that a life of learning is to lead to a life of service and work to create a more just community.
Bill played this out in his own life when he served for ten years on the St. Paul School Board and was active in many other ways in the city and on the state level. Bill was a tireless advocate for persons who are often invisible and marginalized in our world and he was an articulate and passionate voice for justice not just in the classroom but out in the greater community. He taught and modeled for me and countless other students what it means to be a person of faith: to be not only a hearer of the word but a doer, also.
I regularly discover similar examples of putting faith into action as I am privileged to work as one of your pastors. Just Friday when I was visiting with one of our members he shared with me how often he has heard praise about one of you who is devoted in your work with young people in our community. I had no idea of the impact that this one unsung hero in our congregation was making outside of these walls. But, it did not really surprise me in that so many times when I am out in the community I either see or hear about members of First United Methodist Church, all of you unsung heroes, who are putting your faith into action through practical service that lift up the lives of our neighbors or through working for social changes that build a better community and a more sustainable world. Your examples give living witness to the mission of Christ and of our church – to make disciples of Jesus in order to transform the world.
Translating what Jesus has taught us into our daily lives is the foundation, the rock upon which we build our lives. This season of Lent we have been reading about and preaching about the teachings of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew called the “The Sermon on the Mount.” Anyone can read and hear about the words of Jesus. What makes us Christians, what helps us to build a life that honors that name which we bear, is when we put the words of Jesus into action each and every day of our lives. This is how we build a life; this is how we build community. This is how we answer God’s call to live out the prayer we pray each Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.