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The Calm Sea
An Ember Week Clericus Homily
Ember Week 2020
Mesilla Park, NM
“We put not our trust in anything we do”
Matthew 7 is not simple. The Sermon on the Mount is not simple, even if the thoughts are concise. Those who preached from Matthew 5 this last Sunday know this too well. As I was praying and thinking of how to approach these texts, the close of the Sermon on the Mount stayed with me, and our collect for Sexagesima formed my thought as we prepare for Lent:
"O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do: Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity." (BCP p.120)
With the collect for the week in mind, I would like to consider the verses 24-27.
We have two houses: one on a foundation of sand, and one on a foundation of rock.
Then we have a storm: rain, floods, and wind.
One house does not fall, because of the rock foundation, and the other, “when the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall”
What is the rain? These are all of the misfortunes of life that come from outside of us: lost jobs, financial setbacks, a bad fall, a health crisis, a broken relationship, a lost loved one, a car crash, a dysfunctional church, and all such external circumstances. All of these are unavoidable regardless of who you are.
"for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:45)
What is the house? This is our self. This is who we are in the process of constructing because of the words of Christ–the Sermon on the Mount specifically.
There is no ‘unchurched’ mentioned here. We only have people who have heard the words of Christ. These words present us our internal reality, irrespective of the storm: that adultery isn’t just an action but an attitude of the heart, that not everyone who does great works in His name – and here I would include include evangelism and discipleship – is actually in a real participatory relationship with Christ. This house is our self and all the work we put into who we are. It is our safety and security.
What is the rock? This feels straightforward, for verse 29 answers it: the rock is the authority of Christ as Sovereign. Our Psalm praises this: His word is firmly fixed in the heavens (verse 89), exceeds all of our concepts of perfection (96), is our source of wisdom (verses 98-100), and reveals reality such that we know what to hate (104). To be connected to–to be built on–this rock is to have an authentic relationship with Christ. We see what such relationship looks like through the preceding verses and chapters.
What is the sand?
This one was interesting:
Jesus is preaching near the sea of Galilee. From one commentary I consulted, I learned that in this area, the temptation to build on sand was not as far-fetched as one might think.
This region has a top layer of alluvial sand, which is hard on the surface during the summer. When winter rain came, the Jordan river would cause the banks on the Sea of Galilee to overflow, and so soften the hard top layer at near the banks of the sea.
To find the foundation in this setting, a builder would have to dig sometimes ten feet down to get to the bedrock, but such planning would make any structure resistant to this flooding.
In our hypothetical, we have two neighbors who are building in the same vicinity. Both want to construct a structure. They might even have the same architecturally approved plans for the house (if we can correlate such to the Words of Christ). One wants results now, perhaps because of his own seed falling on rocky soil (Mt 13:5), or because of the anxiety for want of things Houses usually provide: comfort and security. So he finds a place that looks good enough, on ground that appears hard enough, and gets started. There’s a chance it’ll be OK.
The other builder also wants the same house, and in a similar location. But in this other builder does not want to leave things to ‘good enough’ or to chance that it may be OK.
The structure, if it should stand, should stand a long time. So he does the necessary excavation, even though it may push building into seasons more inclement. No doubt his neighbor with the head start will already be comfortable, when he might still be working.
I submit that the sand here is the unrighteousness of the soul, which is our predilection towards disobedience.
Excavating this is hard work, and often feels like there is plenty in life–especially in religious life–that is good enough to get the job done. It doesn’t always hold up when the world around us is a flood.
It is possible–and therefore tempting–to jump in front of the line and get to the ‘good stuff’ of prophesying, healing, and many great works in the name of Jesus, but what is done in his name is very often not what his words actually say. Proof of this is everywhere, whether politics or denominations.
Following Jesus commands–obeying his words–is more than doing what we think is best, or even what Jesus does: it is doing what Jesus would have us do.
Like digging for bedrock, much of this is not glamorous work. Daily lives of prayer, ascetical disciplines, unskilled worship. It is kindness towards others, especially those with whom we might disagree; generosity towards others, especially those from whom there may not be any gain.
When the world around us says to us “you are my enemy,” we should join with the early church and say “you are my neighbor.”
This is a more significant movement of the heart than any prophecy, and the growth of the early church attests to this model: bless those who curse you. The church grows from a few thousand to a few million. It also attests to the risks of such behavior: it grew through continual testing of this strategy, to the point of martyrdom.
But these words of Christ are the stuff of eternity; even if heaven and earth pass away, our foundation, if we build on such, is one that withstands even that. This is the reality of our selves revealed by obedience to Christ.
What we gain in this foundation is eternal security.
Now I don’t mean ‘eternal security’ in a Calvinistic sense, but a security amidst storms that has eternal scope.
St John Chrysostom writes on this passage that one who pursues this foundation can have stability and equilibrium that in such a storm, one of the kingdom experiences instead a ‘calm sea.’
— — —
Friends, the storm comes to us all, the just and the unjust; and it manifests in many different ways. But the words of Christ encourage us that our hard work is not in vain if we are anchoring our reality –our identity– in Him.
From all of this, what I found most challenging was this:
1. Do not lose heart. Good faithful, work yields its benefit best under testing, and that yield is seen only after the testing has finished.
2. This chastens my tendency towards comparison. We are all building our own house. Our passage, at verse 3,
“why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
and similarly in verse 20
“by their fruits you shall know them.”
Applied towards ministry (which perhaps applies to our churches, or our diocese just as well) I ought not look to whoever I think is living their ‘best life now’ but my own life and living vocation with the people the Lord has placed in my life. One church may be built on sand, and another on a foundation of rock, but only the Lord knows on what they have built, and the fruit only reveals itself when storms come.
Looking at our neighbor's house has nothing to do with what foundation–or lack thereof–we may have.
3. A good building inspection reveals that I have some sand. This is because I am–like all of us–a sinner with a predilection toward the same shortcuts as our ill-fated builder, whether in action or intention.
Internal renovation is the antidote to such illusory shortcuts.
We are in Ember week, and if any of this resonates, I have good news: Lent week is a perfect time to embark on a remodel that will better connect our houses to the bedrock which is Christ. Out of that, we can be better followers of Christ, better friends, better pastors, and better churches, able to weather the disappointments and hardships of life with joy, as a ‘calm sea.’