“A Solid Foundation”

Scripture:  Matthew 7:21-29 

Sinking Foundation

I remember hearing a story about a college library that is sinking, each year, by a fraction of an inch.  The reason that the library is sinking is because of an incompetent architect, who failed to account for the weight of the books that would be loaded onto the shelves when the building was finished.  Somehow, nobody took notice of this flaw at any point during the construction, and now they are forced to leave an entire floor empty of books in order to slow the sinking of the building.

When I went to research this story for my sermon, I couldn’t find the original story that I had heard.  Instead, I found that this story isn’t only told about one college library – there are at least 6 college campuses in the United States where the students tell this story.  It turns out that each one of the stories has been proven false, and there is no known library, anywhere in the world, suffering from the weight of too many books.

I find it fascinating that, even though it is really easy to disprove these stories, the urban legends continue to be passed around.  I wonder what it is about that story that is so appealing to people who hear it, that it continues to be repeated?  I suspect it is because we find it so entertaining that somebody so smart could miss something so obvious.  I mean, I’m no architect, but I can tell you that a solid and sturdy foundation is important for a building, especially one that is supposed to hold hundreds of thousands of pounds of books.  When we hear this legend - or we find out that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is leaning because its foundation is only twelve feet deep in unstable soil – suddenly, we all become armchair architects.

Foundations of Our Lives

We all know enough about foundations to at least know that they are complicated things, and they need to be carefully thought out and planned.  A foundation that is too shallow can cause the building to topple.  A foundation in soft ground can sink.  If the ground is too unstable, something needs to be done in order to stabilize the ground so that it will support the weight of the structure.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus seems to expect his audience to have at least a basic understanding of architecture.  In a style that we might expect, Jesus ends his long sermon with a parable about two people and the houses that they chose to build.  Though the houses may look identical, the house built on rock by the wise builder withstands the trials and stresses of the weather, while the house built on sand by the foolish builder quickly buckles under the pressure.

Of course, the parable isn’t really about Jesus offering advice about how to build a house.   Instead, Jesus seems to be saying to his listeners, “Each of you would put so much thought and care and effort into building your house with a strong foundation…  If you would build your house with such a strong foundation, why would you not put the same amount of energy into building a solid foundation for your life?”

A Solid Foundation

The main difference that Jesus highlights between those disciples with a firm foundation and those with a weak foundation is that whether they only hear his words, or if they also do his words.  Placed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling his listeners that it is not enough to simply hear the Sermon – they must also change their lives and live out this message that they have received.

That sounds simple enough.  After all, the point of any sermon isn’t just to hear it and walk away unchanged.  As a preacher myself, I hope that my words will spark something in your hearts that brings about a change, rather than just being a fleeting thought on a Sunday morning.

But living out the message of Christ gets pretty tough when you look at everything Jesus includes within it – in fact, my sermons over the past 5 weeks have barely even scratched the surface of all of the teachings that Jesus offered in the Sermon.  And that’s just the beginning of Jesus’ teachings contained within the gospels.

Building a foundation based on the word of Christ is difficult, requiring vulnerability and sacrifice.  It would require us to do things like…

·      …love, serve, and bless those who are typically rejected by society

·      …live by God’s will rather than our own needs and desires

·      …seek reconciliation with, rather than simply ignore, those who we have disagreements with

·      …pluck out the eye that causes us to lust, or the hand that causes us to steal

·      …turn the other cheek in the face of physical harm, and offer our shirt when somebody takes our coat

·      …let go of our desire to try to control the future

The rigorous expectations that Jesus has for us seem to exceed our own moral capacity – or at least our determination and energy level.[1]  We love to hold the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount up as an ideal to seek, but struggle to see it as a discipline to hold ourselves accountable to.  Oliver Wendell Holmes is attributed with saying, “Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.”

But Jesus expects more from his followers.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.  It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock.”

Throughout this sermon, Jesus has been giving us an architectural design for life; a way of living in the world strengthened to move toward the Kingdom of God; blueprints for truly living, loving, and worshipping God.  All we have to do is take those blueprints and build upon them, trusting them, and diligently holding ourselves to the high expectations of Christ.

In Our Hands

There is a story of a wealthy businessman who gave a set of blueprints to his secretary and said to her, “I’m going to be gone for the next six months, but while I’m gone, I want you to have a house built for me on my property above the lake.  Here are the plans and funds that should more than cover the building costs.”

The secretary saw this as a chance to pocket some extra cash.  She hired a budget contractor, employed unskilled labor whenever possible, and put the cheapest materials into the building.  Since she saved money on the construction, she kept the rest of the money entrusted to her for herself.  When the house was finished, it looked magnificent – and only the secretary knew that it was really just a cheap, flimsy, shell of a building. 

When the businessman returned, he went with the secretary to see the house, which looked beautiful on the hill overlooking the lake.  He turned to the woman and asked, “What do you think of it?”

“I think it’s wonderful,” she replied.

“Well, I’m glad you liked it,” the man said.  “Because I’m retiring next month and selling the business.  You have served me faithfully for many years, and it’s time for you to retire in comfort as well.  I want you to have a nice house for your retirement – so this house is all yours.”[2]

Like the woman in that story, what we choose to do with the foundation materials that we have received from Christ is up to each one of us.  We can choose to build upon solid rock, with lives strong and steady to withstand the trials and tribulations that we will face in life.  Or we can choose to cut corners and build on shifting sand instead, hearing the message but not putting it into practice.  And don’t forget – you must live in the house that you build.  It’s your life and no one else’s life. 

[1] Greg Carey, “Matthew 7:21-29: Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), 429.

[2] Story told by A. Robert Cook in his sermon, “Building Codes.”  Accessed online at http://www.umcchrist.org/sermons/06-01-08_Sermon.html.