Rock and Water, Bread and Wine
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
June 1, 2008
Matthew 7:21-29 Psalm 46
I’m guessing that just about everyone here has built a sandcastle at some point in their lives. Yes? Part of the wonder of building sandcastles is their impermanence. The tide comes in and starts lapping at the moat we built and the ramparts, and then one good wave comes through—and everything is gone.
So this passage makes sense to us. It’s pretty obvious that rock is the better choice for a foundation if we don’t want tide and wind to destroy everything we’ve built. And we’ve got all those great songs about building on our rock. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” “Rock of ages.” “Who trusts in God’s unchanging love / Builds on the rock that naught can move.” Ah, this verse is not so hard!
But when Jesus’ words aren’t hard, then we’re not looking deep enough.
Let’s go back and look at them again. “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. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
It’s a little scary to think that a modern interpretation of that might have Jesus rejecting folks like us: folks who have been to worship every Sunday, invited people to church, visited the sick, prayed faithfully … even the ones who’ve gotten into the pulpit and prophesied in God’s name.
Who is it again who will enter the kingdom of heaven? “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Okay, so what does that involve?
We need to look at where this passage falls within the book of Matthew—it’s the end of the Sermon on the Mount. So when Jesus says, “Whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them,” he’s talking about all those words in that sermon. Words like these:
§ “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
§ “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and … if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
§ “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
§ “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
§ “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Oh, those words. But those words are well-nigh impossible! How the heck are we supposed to be perfect—as perfect as God?
There’s a challenge, eh?
If you can manage to meet this “impossible” challenge, then you’ll be as a person who’s built her house on rock.
So does that mean that we’re all stuck with houses built on sand? What kind of a lousy trick would that be, eh? Does that mean that none of us will ever be secure, ever be safe?
There are two parts of the answer to that question. The first is that on our own, no, we can’t meet the impossible challenges of the Sermon on the Mount. Even if we could manage to work really hard to never be angry at each other, to never allow any part of ourselves to sin, and always to turn the other cheek, we’d still never manage to be perfect as God is perfect. But God doesn’t ask us to do it all on our own. Look at the psalm we read this morning, Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. … The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter. … The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
And when this psalm says, “Be still,” it’s really saying “Cease and desist. Stop all your running around. Stop all your worrying, and know that I am God.” So the first part of the answer to the impossible challenge of hearing and acting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount is that we can’t do it by ourselves.
And the second part of the answer to the question of whether we can be as people who have built their houses on rock has to do with how we choose the rock we’re building on.
I heard a story this week about a man who, during the Vietnam War, was in the navy. Because his ship was to be sailing for weeks in dreadfully hot weather, the brass decided it should be equipped with air conditioners. Thirteen great big machines. He was part of the crew that installed the air conditioners … and part of the crew that had to take them apart when they completely slowed to a stop after two weeks. And what they discovered was that the inner workings of the air conditioners were covered with barnacles. “You know what barnacles are, right?” this man wrote. “They are little animals, distantly related to crabs and lobsters, but instead of moving around, they grab onto a rock and spend their whole lives there. There are 1200 different species of barnacles, and at least one of those species can’t tell the difference between the outside of a rock and the inside of an air conditioner. The air conditioners used salt water to cool themselves down; the barnacles moved in and clogged up the system.”
We can be like those barnacles, looking desperately for a rock to cling to—and end up choosing the wrong one. We live in a culture that teaches us that a lot of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount is just completely crazy. A culture that teaches us that rather than follow Jesus’ turn-the-cheek policy we should work on the premise that the best defense is a good offense. A culture that teaches us that if our right hand causes us to sin, we should re-think our idea of sin and “if it feels good, do it.” A culture that teaches us that the best church is the one with the nicest music, the most entertaining sermons and the biggest congregations. All those teachings are rocks on which we can build our lives … but they’re not the rock that Jesus was talking about.
And sometimes we grasp the rock—we comprehend the rock—in a way that makes sense for us at a particular point in our lives, and then we’re unwilling to ever let go. A few years ago I knew a man named Bill who grew up with a very fundamentalist understanding of God. At some point in his life he’d found that understanding to be limited—and limiting—and he recognized that God was a whole lot bigger than he’d thought. His brother Joe, though, was still clinging to that childhood understanding of God. An understanding that said that if Joe didn’t toe the line, he wasn’t going to make it to heaven. An understanding that said that the line to be toed was very narrow. When Joe’s teenaged son announced that he was gay, Joe “knew” that wasn’t acceptable to God, and he threw the kid out of the house. Wouldn’t speak to his son.
Joe wasn’t a happy man. And one day he said to his brother Bill, my friend, “It feels like I’m in the middle of a rushing river, and I’m clinging as hard as I can to the rock—to God—but the river is getting stronger and stronger.”
And Bill said an amazing thing: “Have you ever considered that God is not the rock but the river?”
Perhaps God is the river. The river whose streams make glad the city of
Water that is turned into wine. Come to the table, my friends, and celebrate God’s being the foundation beneath your feet and the host of the table beside you—the push behind you to grow and the pull in front of you to worship.
 Don Hoffman. “Draft – Like a Bunch of Barnacles.” PRCL-L.