I spoke with my parents yesterday who asked how much church service was. Service- singular. One of the vestiges of a change in existence. Service? Try 8 services between Passion Sunday, Triduum, and Easter. Followed by the hour trek to the inlaws and then home to regroup. But of course today I was up to preach in my preaching Matthew class. And back to the grind of daily commuting and academics. A day of rest would be cool. But in truth, I enjoyed the preaching last week, the services of Holy Week and the three on Easter. It was not too cold in the cemetery, it was not windy and the sunrise among the beloved was great. So was the Easter Breakfast, although I passed on the pickled tongue. And oddly my sermon text for today is for Pentecost 3. Yet, as I spent this past week steeped in the traditions of a flock who struggle to envision the future, I ponder my sermon about identity. And I wonder about their future. Easter is a day that makes me ponder time. In another few weeks, my time in their midst will be done. So though it is early, here is the sermon I will not be preaching in their midst, but could:
One of the amusing stories in Russian history is about the ambition of a man named Grigory Potemkin, an adviser to Empress Catherine the Great in Russia in the 18th century, who was angling for a “closer” working relationship with her, if you know what I mean. Catherine and an entourage of foreign ambassadors were going on a cruise down the River on holiday, along the riverbanks of land she had conquered. Potemkin hatched a great idea to spruce up the drab, impoverished land of peasants. He had elaborate villages constructed along the river that would be seen from the boat- elaborate, but fake. Hollow facades complete with glowing fires in the evening, and flocks of sheep seen grazing. Painted screens of happy, robust peasants looked pretty real from out in the river. Everyone would be impressed and he could say, “ Look what I did for you.”
But, it was all one-dimensional. The same flock of sheep were moved from place to place down river, and a strong storm would have toppled it all. There was no “there” there. Simply boards propped up on the ground without a foundation. Appearances can be deceiving. No one wanted to see the plight of real people behind the facades, struggling to merely survive. Those in power looked on from afar, applauding themselves for their own good fortune.
As our lesson opens, Jesus has been teaching. There on the mountain, revealing God’s will. This time, those who listen are meeting God as He reveals the foundations of faithful living, contrasting the teaching and piety of the authorities with his own. Teaching that we need to build the right house- to live out God’s will.
There listening are those at the foot of the mountain hearing the teaching in real time, but also, those who first received this teaching in the written gospel of Matthew, sometime in the first century. A time of crisis about identity. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. People are asking, “How do we worship now?” “Where is God?” Tensions in churches started early. Jesus’ followers have split from the mainstream over these issues, and over the question of what it means to live a life in relationship to God.
The scribes have been the authorized teachers. Teaching structured, complex demands for purity, sacrifice and holiness which must be fully complied with to be in good standing. To better understand the scribes, we need to realize that they not just religious men, but also work together with Rome, to control the people and perpetuate mutual interests at the expense of the people, with traditions of sacrifice interpreted in ways bolstering the elite and teaching oriented toward personal gain for some, in the name of God. For the poor, the demands are impossible tasks; for the elite, it has become a show, an easy way to be righteous. “Look at me, I am giving money to this poor beggar.” “See me praying” “Did I mention I am fasting?” BUT “Pay no attention to what I do the rest of the time.” Deeds of self- promotion. Their synagogue probably looks great, and they sit with the right people, and they feel blessed in their prosperity and importance. They have what seems to be a “dream house.”
How do we worship? Where is God? What does it mean to live in relationship with God? Jesus uses the analogy of building a house. Jesus’ teaching serves as a blueprint to build the foundation for our own personal houses, and our house together as a community of believers. How do we build such a house? We are in Jesus’ audience- We ourselves ponder these questions still.
Jesus tells us “Don’t just focus on the house above ground and its appearance. Don’t just focus on looking like it is all “just right” or on “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t just show up and tell me about all of your ‘God-work’ to feel good.” While we all can get caught up in this, it is deceptive. The truth is, if all you have is appearance, when life’s storms hit you, you will fall as flat as the propped up board of the fake village, or that house on the sand. There will be no shelter there. If this is our only focus we have failed to comprehend living in faith.
Jesus’ teaching was and continues to be radically different. The scribes are “do as I say, not as I do” people. All around them people are weathering storms and they do not see beyond their personal piety schedule and self-interest. Jesus reorients us to living out the faith. So what is in Jesus’ blueprint? If we remember that this lesson comes as a conclusion to Jesus teaching, a good start is to look back at what we discussed last week in the Sermon on the Mount.
With this in mind, What will our house look like? Like a place where:
We will care for the poor, Got it. Volunteer at soup kitchen.
We will remember the widow. OK, visit shut-in.
We will keep our commitments, OK- even the ones we wish we hadn’t made- OH
We will be honest with each other and reconcile differences. Hmm
We will practice forgiveness, stop judging others, love and pray for our enemies…
This is what it means. And Jesus isn’t saying to us “Hear and walk on.” but “Listen and DO.” Maybe it would be easier to go back to our holiness and righteousness check lists. But if we are honest, the things Jesus asks us to do are the very things we seek for ourselves.
With a little creative license, maybe instead of a “house,” we should think, a “home.” I think about my own home of the last twenty years. My husband and I have celebrated all our of married life there- times of joys, and of testing; celebrating births, mourning deaths; passing milestones and balancing needs, wants and challenges. Our home is more than just a pile of sticks or a basic unit of society. It is a place where teaching happens, where people share a meal, and it’s a shelter. We love each other even when we would rather not. It’s a place where we don’t have to keep up appearances to be loved. Where faith sustains us. Where we think about ourselves together not as just individuals. But it isn’t easy- in fact it can be really hard work. Sometimes our homes don’t feel like this, but we sure wish we could find somewhere where it did.
If you take our home, it, together with a lot of others represents this congregation. Take our congregation and add it to the other Lutheran congregations, and the other places of worship around the world, and.. maybe we start to see that we are really just larger and larger clusters of God’s people not just in our little houses, but in God’s really big house- the kingdom. Places where people hope to be loved, and cared for, not judged. Places where we worship, where we seek God, and hopefully, where mission is revealed and mercy is encountered. Places that are shelters from the storms of life.
Jesus tells us God is not focused upon mere appearances. Not how you look, or how others look. Not what you do and whether it is more than or better than others. And it’s not about looking good at the expense of others. While we want to hear this for ourselves, we need to remember that we also need to hear it in our view of others. Others who also desperately hope that they really don’t have it all together to live in God’s house or who desperately need a hand in the storm.
We all know that life can give us all kinds of times where the ride is more than a little bumpy. Times when the pace on the hamster wheel is faster than we think we can stand. Times we are pulled between the needs of children and aging parents, mortgages and medications, work and family. Times it may seem like we will get swept away. And in our congregation, we struggle with the budget, with competing ideas about what it means to be faithful, about how we worship God rightly. Times we question, where is God? Times where we seek calm from the storm in this house- a sanctuary.
Today’s lesson is not seeking to convince us that we cannot succeed in building our houses, but that we can. Jesus says, “I tell you how to live because I want you here with me, all of you, today and always.” Jesus walked among us to reveal God, demonstrating that it is through Him that we encounter God’s saving presence.
It starts in the foundation of our hearts. Living not by seeking human approval, but with our new blueprint in mind. In houses where we seek to carry out Jesus’ commission; where as one writer suggests, the past and present are not the sum total of God, but where the door is open to God’s future. Houses open to all, not where some pick and choose who should be here. It will not always be easy, or popular. We will disagree about what it means to build and live in this house. There will be renovations and additions. God knows we will struggle. But with God’s help we can build houses-HOMES of love and integrity and faithful living in our lives and in this place.