Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 1, 2008

2008.06.01 “Foundational Truth”

Central United Methodist Church

“Foundational Truth”

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 7: 21 – 29

June 1st, 2008

          “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living.  They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit — but nothing moved that house.  It was fixed to the rock.

          “But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach.  When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”

          When Jesus concluded his address, the crowd burst into applause. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying — quite a contrast to their religion teachers! This was the best teaching they had ever heard.” – Matthew 7: 24 – 29, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

       We’ve come to that time of year when many youth and young adults conclude one chapter in their life, and begin a new one.  Students are (or soon will be) graduating from high school and college, and some will even leave home to begin college or careers. It’s a time of anticipation and anxiety for students and parents alike, as parents sit weeping with pride and joy while sons and daughters demonstrate their fine motor skills while walking, shaking hands, and receiving a diploma at the same time.  Oh, and parents, if you haven’t discovered this yet:  that stuff about the last check you’ll ever write – don’t believe it!

        Even though I’ve sat through a couple of graduations myself, it never registered with me why such ceremonies are called what they are called: “Commencement.” The point being that preparation for life and work is over: now real life and work begins.

        Some of us remember (as my daughter Becca used to call it) “the olden days”, when, in addition to the graduation ceremony, there was a separate, more religious, Baccalaureate Service, at which graduates got the highly anticipated joy of being preached to.  Now such services are blended into one, and although still formal are no longer religious, unless you count as religious “Pomp and Circumstance”.  Graduates still get the opportunity to be — if not preached to – addressed, by speakers with price-tags (at least in the big schools) upwards of $15,000. Although I understand Northwestern grads were not wild about “only” getting Mayor Richard M. Daley, just wait until graduation is over and they find their cars have all been towed . . . .

How many of you remember the speeches at your Commencements? How many of you remember your Commencements?  How many of you remember which school you graduated from?

        While not remembering graduation speeches might give commencement speakers pause, put yourself on the other side of the podium. If you were given the opportunity to address a group of graduates at any level, what would you say? One of my favorites, by the way, is writer Anne LaMott’s, “Let Us Commence,” which may be found in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

 

        Whatever you might say, it would be hard to find a more appropriate description of what you could say than the description used by Jesus of his teaching in today’s Gospel, in the conclusion of his famous Sermon on the Mount, especially as rendered by Eugene H. Peterson:

“These words I speak to you,” Jesus said, “are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on.” 

        Foundational Words.   Words To Build a Life On.  What might such words be?

        In every discipline, there are foundational truths, truths that must be mastered before you can progress. In the physical sciences, for example, you must master mathematics and basic science, such as the Periodic Table or the Laws of Thermodynamics.  In political science, foundational truth might include those thrilling words from the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights:  that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”   Foundational truths.

        But what are the foundational truths about life and about God, and where and how do you learn them?

Scholar of religion Huston Smith has called religions humanity’s “Wisdom Traditions,” the place where we have traditionally learned the foundational truths of life.  Among such truths would be answers to universal questions as “What is the meaning of life?”, “What is worth living and dying for?” “What is the meaning of pain and suffering?” and “What is virtue, the highest ideals by which we can live?”      

In today’s text, the stirring conclusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, Jesus has gone beyond the basics, laying foundational truths not just for a religious, but a Christian way of life.

–                      About how in God’s Kingdom it is not the strong and the affluent who are truly blessed in life, but the humble and the poor in spirit. 

–                      About how in God’s Kingdom it is not the war-makers but the peacemakers who shall be called the sons and daughters of God.

–                      About how in God’s Kingdom, not only are we to love our neighbors, but also our enemies, treating others (imagine this) the way we want to be treated. 

–                      About how in God’s Kingdom we are not to worry, but pray, in this way: Our Father . . . .” 

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are some of the most foundational words for living in the history of the human race, words such as Love, Give, Forgive, Pray, a spiritual vocabulary most of us are still learning, even today.

But the point of today’s text is not just that we know these words — which most of us do — but that we practice them in our lives.  Spiritual practices like loving, giving, forgiving, and praying are skills, which we only learn by doing. 

 And so, in time we discover that such skills we can’t learn from a book, not even the Bible; if that were the case we would all have been better Christians a long time ago.  You can’t learn about them, but that’s not the same as practicing them.  It’s not unlike the information we learned in high school or college, which, as is said, often goes from the notebook of the teacher to the notebook of the student without lodging in the mind of either.

In time we discover we don’t necessarily learn these skills in the Self-Help section of Borders, not that there are any lack of formulas or teachers proposing easy ways.  I like the way Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ warning about this, applicable in ancient and modern times: 

“Don’t look for shortcuts to God.  The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time.  Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do.  The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires full attention.”

        In time, we may even discover that we don’t necessarily learn such skills even from our pastors and preachers, unless, in fact, they are modeling it for us.   Again, Jesus, via Peterson:

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity.  Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other.  Don’t be impressed with charisma:  look for character.  Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.  A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.”

In a jibe at the Pharisees, that’s why Matthew says the crowd was so impressed with Jesus: It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying — quite a contrast to their religion teachers!”

      In case you haven’t yet gotten the point yet about the importance of living these things and not just knowing them, Jesus — the ex-carpenter — put it into terms everybody can understand: the parable of the two carpenters:

“If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit — but nothing moved that house.  It was fixed to the rock.  But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”

      The truth is, each of us is building a life, like a house, which we have to live.  And sooner or later, it will be tested, when the floods roll in, and they will roll in.  Surely we — the generation of Hurricane Katrina – don’t need further persuasion of this.  And finally, when the floods do roll in, well, honestly, “Collapsed like a House of Cards” is not an epitaph I would like on my tombstone.

      Whether the house of our life will stand, when the floods roll in, depends upon the foundational truth we are building it upon. So do we know all we need to know? I think so. It’s the next question that’s more difficult: “Are we living what we know?”

      There is a modern parable about a farmer who lived a long and fruitful life.  He was a pillar of his community, always there for others, always ready to give a helping hand, never saying no to a reasonable request, willing to go the extra mile. In the course of his life, the old farmer derived enormous spiritual satisfaction from serving.  But his time had come to enter the kingdom, so God sent an angel to him. “I can’t go right now,” he said to the startled angel.  “Some of my neighbors rely on me.  The harvest was late this year, and the Smiths need help gathering their crops. Please tell God that I am not being ungrateful; can I postpone entering the kingdom just for awhile?” So the angel departed.

      Several years later, the angel came back and reminded him it was time.  “It’s not possible for me to go now,” the farmer said.  “We had a flood here and I’m needed to help folks rebuild their homes, or they’ll freeze during the winter.  Please explain to God that I must stay here, at least for a while longer.”  The angel departed.

      Every year the angel returned, and every year, on the basis of his latest explanation, the man asked for and got a deferment.

      Finally, old age caught up with him, he’d done all he could do, and was ready for the angel to come for him. He prayed, “God, I suppose you think I’m ungrateful, and maybe you got the impression that I don’t want to be with you.  I do.  It’s just that there was always so much to do.  So, God, please send your angel; I’m ready.”

      The angel instantly appeared. “I’m ready to enter the Kingdom of God forever,” the old man said to the angel.

      The angel burst in laughter. “Where do you think you’ve been all these years?”

      “These words I speak to you,” said Jesus, “are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living.  They are foundational words, words to build a life on.”

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