March 23, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: FAITH
It’s a wonder I’m here at all this morning. I went for my early run outside. I could have been hit by a meteor, an airplane, or more likely, a car. I ate breakfast, not knowing for sure whether my oatmeal had been poisoned. I got in my car and turned the key. I saw a movie once where somebody did that and his car blew up. On the way to church, I drove over at least one bridge. It could have collapsed. I got here and risked having an earthquake bring this building down right on top of me.
I risked my life to preach this sermon! It would have been safer to just stay in bed and sleep in. Though I suppose I still would have been susceptible to a falling meteor, a crashing airplane, or a car that might have driven right through my bedroom wall.
There are so many bad things that could possibly happen. But we have faith that they won’t. Without faith, we would be paralyzed. We couldn’t do a thing. You wouldn’t be here either if you didn’t have faith, because the bad things that could have happened to me could have happened to you, too! But we have faith that they won’t. And so we can live our lives.
Even people who don’t believe in God have faith. You have to. You can’t check out in advance the safety of everything you do. Everyone who lives, lives by faith. And Jesus tells us that those who live by faith in God are those who truly live.
There are some wonderful sayings about faith. “Faith means trusting in advance what only makes sense in reverse” (Phillip Yancey). “Faith is not about how we feel, it’s about how we live” (Anne Lamott). “Faith is more a response to love than an acceptance of dogma” (Kathleen Norris). “Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our reach” (Frederick Buechner).
There are many times in life when we must step into the unknown. One such time is when we make that transition from being a child to being an adult. It’s a hard transition, and sometimes harder for those whose parents spoiled them while they were children.
I have a clear memory that goes back over 40 years. I had left home. I was a freshman at WillametteUniversity. I was running one day in Salem’s spacious BushPark. I was on a path with many twists and turns. And I thought to myself that this path was like my life right then. I had no way of seeing around the corner. No way of knowing what was waiting for me up ahead. All I could do was keep going in faith. In faith that I did not need to fear the unknown beyond those twists and turns. In faith that God was with me on my journey and that therefore I could run with confidence.
The mystic, Thomas Merton wrote this prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not
see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where
it will end. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you
will never leave me to face my perils alone.
God is faithful. That’s why faith in God is such a good idea. It’s also a good idea to have faith in people. We can’t get along without faith in them either. But, let’s face it, people are not always faithful. People are not always trustworthy. People will let us down. Just as we will let other people down. We just need to be realistic about that. But God is rock-solid dependable. Which brings us to our scripture for today.
Someone builds a house on rock. Someone else builds a house on sand. Preachers often save their best illustrations for the end of their sermons. That’s what Jesus is doing here. This scripture comes at the end of his Sermon of the Mount. So to capture the essence of this greatest sermon ever preached, he leaves us with this word picture.
Two houses. The only difference is what they are built on. The same rain and floods and wind come to both of them. One of them stands. The other one falls.
Those who were listening to Jesus were aware of houses that had been destroyed in much this same way. It was not uncommon for people to build in the summer and to build without realizing that the dry ground on which they were building was dry in summer only. They were building on a sandy gulley. And winter was sure to come with gulley washers. Even back then, I’m quite sure homeowner policies did not cover damage due to floods.
I live in a neighborhood that still has a number of vacant lots. New homes are under construction all around us. The work involved in building a single home is mind-boggling. I sometimes hear of people who build their own home. I mean literally, building it themselves. Doing all the work. There are 1000’s of hours of work that go into the building of a home. Every part of the construction process is important. Sub-standard work is impossible to hide at any stage. But of all the work there is to be done, there is one stage where the work had better be done right because all the rest of the work depends on it. You’d better get it right when you lay the foundation. A great home built on a bad foundation is a bad home. And so I drive by homes that are just underway, and I notice that great care goes into the laying of the foundation. You can re-do a lot of construction mistakes. But you’d better get the foundation right the first time.
The foundation of our lives is faith. If we don’t get that right, it doesn’t matter much what else we get right. The foundation is faith, but not just any faith. I could build my life, I suppose on faith in my cat. My whole world could revolve around my cat. I could worship my cat. Didn’t they worship cats in ancient Egypt? My faith in my cat could be strong but my faith wouldn’t do me much good, because a cat is not a worthy object for faith. I apologize to you cat lovers. I could say the same thing about dogs. It doesn’t matter how strong our faith is. Strong faith built on a foundation that is weak and my house of faith will still come crashing down.
So we need a strong faith and we need a strong foundation. God is that strong foundation. God is that rock. Build your life on God and the rains and floods and winds of life, strong though they are, strong though they inevitably will be, they will be no match for the strength of the foundation on which you have built your life.
The word “faith” is not mentioned once in this story Jesus told about the two houses. But fast forward nine chapters. Matthew 16. Here we have Jesus with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. He asked that question we all have to answer eventually. “Who am I?”
Who is Jesus? What does Jesus mean to you? They were having a hard time answering it. They were stumbling and stammering, telling Jesus what other people were saying about him. And then Jesus sharpened the question. “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter was the only one with an answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Do you remember what Jesus said next? “On this rock I will build my church.” Now the name Peter meant “rock”, so we have something of a double entendre going on here, but I think what Jesus meant is clear enough. Peter had faith. Faith that Jesus was God’s Son. Faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And that faith was a rock. A rock solid enough to serve as the foundation for the church.
Faith is a rock. But not just any faith. Faith is a rock when the object of our faith is a rock. And that rock is Jesus.
I want you to notice something the story of the two houses says about faith. It doesn’t use the word “faith”. But it has a lot to tell us about the nature of faith. Notice the very first verse we read. “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them . . . ” Jesus has just preached a great sermon. The greatest sermon ever. And he ends by warning that just listening to what he said, liking what he said, agreeing with what he said, is not enough. You’ve got to do something about what Jesus said. So don’t just have faith, in the sense of nodding your head in agreement. Do something with your faith. Put your faith into action. Then and only then are you building your life on the rock that is solid.
Like Anne Lamott said: “Faith is not about how we feel; it’s about how we live.” Faith is not just deciding that God is faithful. Faith is stepping out. Faith is betting our lives on the faithfulness of God.
Some of you know Mark Hewes. He is the Director of Media at the Cathedral of the Rockies. He designed our church website for us a few years ago. He did a great job. He and his wife, Kelly, are extremely talented. They are living a comfortable, upper middle class life in Boise, Idaho. Life is good for them. So why mess it up? Well, I got a call from Mark the other day. I learned that they are quitting their jobs and going on a mission through Mission Aviation Fellowship. Why? Because faith for them is not just deciding that God is faithful. Faith for them is stepping out in faith. It is betting their lives on the faithfulness of God.
I don’t know how you feel when you hear a story like that. I’ll tell you how I feel. Two things. One is I wish I had a faith that strong. Here I am a pastor and I’m confessing that to you. But the second thing is this: I’m inspired to take my faith, such as it is right now, and put it into action for Jesus Christ.
I don’t think I’m the only one who would like to have a stronger faith. I talk to a lot of people. A lot of people open up to me about the state of their faith, so I know a lot of people struggle with this. And I don’t think this is something new. I’m pretty sure most people struggled with faith while Jesus walked the earth. In fact, I think that’s the reason for his teaching about the mustard seed.
Remember that one? It comes in the very next chapter after Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was where Peter confessed his faith in Jesus and where Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.” Well, it didn’t take long and this faith was looking pretty pathetic.
A boy with epilepsy was brought to the disciples. Not to Jesus, but to the disciples. The father of the boy had faith that Peter and the other disciples could heal just as Jesus could heal. Except they couldn’t. They tried. They failed. So Jesus had to do the healing for them. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately. They said, “Why couldn’t we do it? What’s wrong with us? Didn’t we have enough faith?”
Jesus answered them in two ways. First, he agreed with them. They were right. They didn’t have enough faith. But second — this is the key — he told them that it doesn’t take a lot of faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed — by the way, that’s really small! — faith the size of a mustard seed is plenty big enough to heal the sick. In fact, faith the size of a mustard seed is plenty big enough to move mountains. And then he sums it all up: If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, “nothing will be impossible to you” (Matthew 17:21).
It doesn’t take a lot of faith. What it does take is using the faith that you have. Because faith is not about us. Faith is about God. It’s not about our faithfulness. It’s about God’s faithfulness. And when we can go one step past just believing God is faithful, when we can step out in faith and bet our lives on the faithfulness of God, then the impossible becomes possible.
Here’s one way to look at it. You have to cross a river. You are on foot. It’s a raging river. The only way across is on a log that has fallen across that river. There are two logs to choose from. One rotten. It will not support your weight. The next time a chipmunk crosses that log it is going to give way and crash into the water. The other log is strong. The wood is solid. It could carry many times your weight.
So which log do you choose? Obviously the strong one. You wouldn’t choose the weak one unless you had a death wish.
But here’s the complication: You don’t trust the strong log. You do trust the weak one. In other words, you have strong faith in the rotten log, and you have weak faith — mustard seed size faith — in the strong log. So which log do you choose, now?
Are you with me? Your faith, whether it’s weak or strong, is not the determining factor. It’s the strength of the log that matters. And in the same way, your faith in God, whether it’s weak or strong, is not the determining factor. It’s the object of your faith that matters. It’s the faithfulness of God that matters. And God is rock-solid dependable.
So why build the house that is your life on any other foundation? The rains will fall and the floods will come and the wind will blow. Under all that, a lot of houses will come crashing down. But the house built on the rock will still be standing.
We thank you God that you are the foundation of our lives. You are rock-solid dependable. We are so grateful that you honor our faith in you, even when it’s mustard seed sized faith. Because it’s not about us. It’s about you. So help us now to take that next step with our faith. Help us to step out in faith. Trusting you. Trying things we couldn’t possibly do without you. Betting our lives on your faithfulness. Finding out for ourselves that Jesus was right when he said that nothing is impossible for those who have faith. In His name, Amen.