Sandcastles & Stone Castles

Sandcastles & Stone Castles

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Matthew 7:24-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

OK, since Amy didn’t do it, I guess I’m the one who has to sing the Sunday school song that you learned about this parable, way back when..
…. “The wise man built his house upon the rock
The wise man built his house upon the rock
The wise man built his house upon the rock
And the rains came tumbling down

The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
And the house on the rock stood firm

The foolish man built his house upon the sand
The foolish man built his house upon the sand
The foolish man built his house upon the sand
And the rains came tumbling down
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
And the house on the sand went smash.”

(Sorry if I didn’t get all of the hand motions right.)

My guess is that this Bible passage is as well-known as just about any other. And though it’s a lesson as easily taught on flannel-graph as with a coloring book, or even a backyard project with a Lego house, a sandbox & a garden hose, (very well demonstrated by Lee & Henry Warnack, if I may say), it’s a lesson that bears repeating & reinforcement over & over in life. Also, as with pretty much all of Jesus’ parables, there’s more than meets the ear than we are normally aware.
The placement of this parable in Matthew’s Gospel signals something important in and of itself. This comparison of sand and rock is placed as the culmination of the entire Sermon on the Mount; the most famous of Jesus’ speeches, perhaps the most important of his teachings. Matthew spends two full chapters devoted to Jesus’ most memorable and vital words, including the Lord’s Prayer, and then sums it all up with this unforgettable picture message.

Build your house on rock, not sand, says Jesus. Hear these words and act on them, or else the house that you build, the life you live, will be washed away when storms come. And it’s not ‘if’, but ‘when’….

The rock that Jesus refers to is his own words, or more accurately, doing what those words say instead of just hearing them.

So let’s begin with what we know, first about sand and rock. We might have played with sand before rocks. Maybe you had a sandbox with your Matchbox cars, or maybe you loved to make sand bucket castles at the beach, or the shore, or down the ocean, however you want to call it. Sand is malleable and you can do a million things with it. With the right kind of beach sand people make huge castles and sculptures, incredible works of art that I’m sure you’ve seen in pictures. But there are things you can’t do with sand, like make something permanent. Whether it’s the tides that rise, a rushing river, or simply the weight of the structure upon it, sand is not a reliable foundation for anything meant to last.

Yet still, there is joy in sand, and it does have its purposes. Can you make an hour glass without sand? It’s fun to make sand castles, even if they don’t last. Joy comes in brief moments of creativity during the time given to each of us on this earth.

There is pleasure is in the momentary creation of something. A perfect composition of music doesn’t last forever, or else it becomes intolerable- and thus, imperfect. Things that don’t last are just not made to, and that’s the way it is.

Rock is another matter entirely, literally. You really can’t do much with it, except build upon it. I remember that on the open lot next to the house I grew up in, there were a couple of big boulders of red rock that we played on. I remember chipping away at it for hours, with a hammer & screwdriver, trying make racetracks for my matchbox cars. It would take a good days’ work just to carve out a footlong pathway, but that’s what I did as a kid, especially through the hot days of summer.

If I had chosen to, I guess, I could have used one of those stone slabs for the foundation of a clubhouse or something. Anything built on it would have lasted.

There is pleasure in working with something that lasts. And stone is one of those things. Had the Pandemic not come upon us, last month I was scheduled to be in Great Britain & Ireland, where I surely would have seen dozens of castles built of stone, dating back centuries. They have weathered much through the ages, wind, rain, some battles & years and years of weathering, but there they stand, for tourists from all over the world to gawk at. The hard work it took to create them, ages ago, is hard for us to appreciate these days. But the goal of the builders was clear; to build something that would last for ages. And they built upon that which would get the job done.

There was most likely an element of satisfaction, and even joy from those who worked building those castles (along with a lot of blisters & backaches, too.) Being part of something much bigger and longer lasting than yourself is something we can take deep appreciation in, and that’s just the way it is.

So that’s a start in helping us to understand what Jesus was getting at with his pithy words. But there’s more. We likely miss much of what his first hearers would have heard behind his dramatic picture-language; but two things in particular come to mind.

First, not far away from where Jesus sat on that hillside where he talked, just ninety miles or so away in Jerusalem, Herod’s men were continuing to restore the Temple from its ransacking by the Roman General Pompey 70 years before. The Temple was spoken of as God’s House, built upon the rock, impervious to wind, weather and storms of all kinds. Yet even as the Temple was built upon rock, Jesus warned that the Temple itself would come crashing down, which it did, in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans, once more. That’s the first image.

The second is more relational, more personal, and even more lasting…

Halfway through the gospel, in a dramatic and unexpected moment, after Jesus quizzes the disciples on who they say he is, Peter’s confession of faith ’You are the Messiah!’, is rewarded with Jesus’ giving him a nickname, the Rock. (Aha!) And Peter’s confession; his realization of who Jesus is in his life, becomes a transformational event, not just for him, but for all who follow Jesus as Lord. It is then upon Peter’s later actions, as Matthew well knows, that the church will be modeled.

Matthew knows far more about Peter’s story than he tells in his gospel. There are some key things about Peter, as the Rock, that will transform the very nature of the body of the people who gather in Christ’s name. And it’s in the Book of Acts, in chapters 9 & 10, that the ‘Rocklike’ nature of Peter comes to life. In just a couple quick stories we are given something tangible from Jesus’ words that we can continue to build upon, even now. It’s not based on brick or mortar, but flesh and blood, love and understanding and a gift of community beyond what we as humans might strive for on our own initiative alone. Peter has two encounters that transform his life and have transformed ours, too. First, he has a vision of a huge sheet filled with ‘unclean animals’- things he should never eat because of dietary laws, and then he hears a heavenly voice asking him to do just that, to change his diet and eat food that was once forbidden. Dietary laws are gone, and the table is open to everyone. Peter is a Rock that changes, adapts, and grows in acceptance, understanding, grace, and appetite, too!

Secondly, Peter encounters Cornelius, a Centurion of the Roman Guard- welcomes into the fellowship, and begins a streak of evangelizing Gentiles (non-Jews), which means us! So the church begins to move beyond Palestine and spreads through the Mediterranean Sea basin, and far beyond.

It was upon this living Rock, Peter, that the church we claim continued to grow and thrive, energized by one who first had his doubts, but was gradually coaxed, convinced, & compelled to react in increasingly welcoming, inclusive and expansive ways.

Peter becomes the embodiment of what Jesus founded the church upon. Someone who had doubts but grew, someone who was full of reluctance but went anyway. Peter, “Cephas” in Greek, the ‘Rock’ of flesh and bone, compassion and caring, is how I’ve been understanding Jesus’ words anew in this parable; and this meaning of his message lasts, encourages and inspires.

This makes a whole lot of sense, given what Peter and the other first followers encountered, and maybe for us too. These days we are facing an unknown future, which is a challenge for all of us. It may in fact feel like the earth is shifting underneath your feet. Some people are feeling unsettled in ways they never have before in life, and it manifests itself in different ways. So the way I see it is that Jesus of Nazareth is asking us, along with Peter, to join him in sharing his peace, his generosity of spirit, sharing his word and his way, so that the storms of life don’t wash away our hopes & dreams. To use the vocabulary of Jesus, it is better to build your life on rock rather than sand, to build on a solid foundation instead of what is unstable and temporary.

And I think of this in light of what we have to do & share this morning- as we come to the table and receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

What we do is simple. What it means is something remarkably profound. For this is in many ways the foundation of our faith. We follow Christ’s command. We follow his example, and in doing this- taking bread and cup, combining our prayers together in Christ’s name, and sharing this event together, we trust God to be here, with us- between us, and for us. We trust that the One who invites us to this meal, joins with us, and in our sharing this simple act we align our souls with the One who made all things and cares for and loves us too.

By sharing this meal given us by this Jesus- who lived and taught and shared of God like no other, we claim him as Lord of our lives, and with him, continue to build a foundation of faith and trust in God and in one another, as Christ’s people, wherever we may be…

So,
Build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ,
Build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ,
Build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ,
And the storms won’t knock you down. Amen