This has been a tough sermon for me to write. That’s not unusual; sometimes sermons come easily but most of the time they are a struggle, to one degree or another. There are a few challenges with this sermon in particular though, a couple that were probably common to all of my colleagues throughout this series and one that is more particular to me.
One of the challenges that I think each of us faced on the sermons that we’ve preached in this series on The Sermon on the Mount is that there is just so much stuff here to preach on. The narrow gate and the wide gate. The hard road and the easy road. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do God’s will. The house built on a rock versus the house built on sand. There are two or three or four sermons in each of those sections of scripture. That’s twenty or so different sermons that could be preached on our Gospel reading this morning. It’s impossible to do justice to each of those themes, and I think that’s something that each of us have had to work through as we considered what God wanted us to say on Sunday morning.
The second thing that’s probably common to all of us is that we have lives aside from our sermons. When I was a full-time pastor I could spend days and weeks thinking about a sermon, polishing it, adjusting it, sometimes tweaking a little here or there and sometimes starting over. It’s not that way anymore. I have one or two shots to get it done, and if it isn’t coming together I have to figure out with God’s help how to make it work.
That’s been a special challenge this past week or two with the sickness and death of my friend Dave Carroll in Ohio. That’s weighed on my mind and has kept me from thinking about this morning as much as I might have. While my colleagues may not have had a death like I did, they all have lives outside of here and all have challenges and events in those lives, large and small, that will sometimes distract them from preparing for Sunday morning.
The one challenge that is totally unique to me is that this is the last sermon in the series. This series was a good idea. I’ve really enjoyed reading and learning from Nate and Jenn and Micah and seeing how we have built upon one another’s thoughts and insights. I don’t want to say that this is the sermon that puts it all together; no sermon can do that, but this is the last sermon and so I think ideally there needs to be some kind of summing up of the whole thing.
Jenn started us off six weeks ago by comparing the Sermon on the Mount to the Constitution. It’s kind of the Christian Constitution, the framework for our lives together that guides us in our relationships with one another and with the world. The Sermon on the Mount sets some boundaries, offers some instructions, and lets us know ideally who we are to be and how we are to act as Christians.
The Sermon on the Mount itself concludes with a passage that really does sum it all up, a passage that in some ways brings together everything that Jesus has said in the last three chapters and talks about its application in our everyday lives. Let me read it again. Matthew 7:24-27 – “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!”
These words, the Sermon on the Mount, are the foundation of our lives as Christians. They are indeed like a constitution, something imposed from above that provides order and direction and guidance. They are also like a foundation, something underneath us that provides a base of support for the structure of our lives.
There’s something about foundations. Ideally, you build them before you need them. When I was a kid we moved five or so times, and almost always to houses that were built new on land carved out from the family farm. I know that the ground had to be tested to be sure of its stability. They had to do percolation tests, since we were in the country, to see if the soil was suitable for a septic field. I watched as they graded the land, both before and after laying the foundation, so the water would run off in the right way. I remember watching the workers lay the blocks, and pour the slab, and only after all that preparation was done did they start to frame and build the house. When we built our houses, the ground was prepared and the foundations were laid before the builders did anything else.
It is difficult to prepare the ground and lay the foundation if you wait until the storm hits. Is it impossible? No, I suppose not. But who wants to do all that stuff, and then build a house to boot, in a storm? Have you ever tried carrying a piece of plywood in high winds?
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man.” “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man.” Acting on Jesus’ words, acting on Jesus’ commands, acting on our faith in Jesus is what marks the difference between the wise and the foolish. Taking everything we’ve heard these past six weeks – not just from the sermons we’ve preached standing here but from the Sermon on the Mount, from Jesus’ sermon – taking everything we’ve heard these past six weeks and acting on it is the key. Not acting on it when we feel like we’re ready, not acting on it when we think we need it, not acting on it when the storm comes, but acting on it now. Every day. In all parts of our lives.
I’m not saying that we have to be able to put all of this into practice tomorrow. We can’t. None of us can. Whoever is the most spiritually mature and wise person in this congregation can’t ever live up to all of this. But we can start wherever we are. We can begin, even with baby steps, to try to put into action what it is that Jesus has commanded us to do. We can start, even if all we have is a plastic kindergarten scissors and a little rubber hammer or something, we can start to build a foundation. The storms will come, as they do for everyone. We will not be fully prepared – no one ever is. Our houses are never completed. For some of us, our foundations may never be completely done. But we can start where we are, and support one another, and move forward a brick at a time, and lay foundations of solid stone that will support us and keep us safe when the storms come.
And if we don’t have our foundations and houses ready when the storm hits? That’s okay – you can come and stay in my house. Or maybe I can come and stay in yours. Will you let me rely on you? Will you let me seek the shelter of your house, which may be better built than mine? Can I stay in your basement, as your foundation is further along than mine is? That’s a part of why we are the church. That’s a part of what we do for one another, and of what we do for the world outside the four walls of this building and even outside the four walls of our lives.
Then we have the last verse of this passage. This verse isn’t actually part of the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s included because it sums up the crowd’s reaction to what they have just heard. Verses 28 and 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.” I like the way Clarence Jordan puts it in the Cotton Patch Gospels: “When Jesus finished speaking, the people were simply amazed at his ideas, for he was teaching them like he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t sound like their preachers.”
Over these past six weeks, have we sounded like we know what we’re talking about? I hope we have, at least a little bit. None of us can ever fully live out of the Sermon on the Mount, no matter how much effort we put into it. None of us can ever keep lustful or hateful thoughts from our minds. None of us can always turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile. We’re sinful people. We’re not perfect. None of us can do that.
But what we can do is try to speak and live with integrity about what we are called to. If I were to talk to you this morning about the benefits of a vegan diet and how that was something that all Christians are called to do, you might be astounded – and not in a good way. You might wonder about my credibility. Sure, you might make some allowances because no one is perfect in all things all the time, but you’d say to yourself, “Huh. I remember at Ad Council meetings he always brought meat and cheese and stuff, and when we had that pizza he liked the one with the pulled pork on it. And didn’t I see some Wendy’s bags on the floor of the car when I walked by it this morning? And a wrapper from a McGriddle? I’m not sure that Jeff is the guy to be talking to me about how I need to adopt a vegan lifestyle.”
You’d be right. You’d be right to be astounded, and to doubt me and to kind of give the side-eye to the advice I was giving. If I’m not able to live out of what I say others should do, even if I am saying good things and making good recommendations, it casts doubt on my credibility and it makes you wonder if I really mean what I am saying. It makes you question my authority to speak.
The crowds were astounded in a good way, because Jesus spoke as one with authority. Jesus was gaining a reputation as someone who backed up his words with his actions. He didn’t encourage people to do things that he would not do. He did not hold people to standards that he was not willing to meet. His foundation was strong and firm, his house was sturdy and complete and ready for the storms that were to come. That is what astounded people about Jesus and his teaching.
Are people astounded at what we say? Are they astounded at what we do? If so, in what way are they astounded? People should be astounded, if we are living lives of integrity, if we are doers of the word and not just hearers.People should be astounded, if we are making the Kingdom of God real in our lives and in the lives of those around us. People should be astounded when we live lives of justice, of mercy, of compassion, of holiness, and of grace. People should be astounded when we bear the cross, love the sinner, and stand up to the rulers of this world in all their power.
People should be astounded at us. If we have built the foundation of our lives on the solid rock of Jesus’ teaching, on the firm foundation of the risen Savior, of the truth and reality of God’s’ Kingdom as shown in the Sermon on the Mount, they will be astounded. And then once they get over it, they will begin to live that way too. Amen.