Monday, September 02, 2013

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: Hearers and Doers," Matthew 7:21-29

Sermon 9/1/13
Matthew 7:21-29

Sermon on the Mount: Hearers and Doers


            Today we finish up our series on the Sermon on the Mount, as we examine Jesus’ largest chunk of teaching in the gospel of Matthew. Last week Pastor Aaron talked about fruit – good trees and good fruit, how we’re known by our fruit. Today’s passage continues directly on from there. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom, Jesus says. “Only the one who does will of God.” He continues, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
            Then Jesus tells a parable about two people who build houses. The wise man builds his house on rock, and the foolish man builds his house on the sand. Storms comes, rain and flood and wind beats on both houses. But the house built on rock stands, while the house built on sand falls, and Jesus says, “great was its fall.” Jesus says that the man who builds on sand is like one who hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t act on them, while the man who builds on rock is like one who hears and acts on what Jesus has said. When he finishes, we hear that the crowds who have gathered during these three chapters of teaching are astounded at his teaching, because of the authority with which he teaches.
            In some ways, this passage seems straightforward. Build our lives on a good foundation of rock, rather than the squishy, unreliable sand foundation. That just makes common sense, right? We might even guess that Jesus himself is the rock, that God is meant to be the foundation of our life, the solid ground. But – what does Jesus mean about acting on “these words of his” – does he mean all of his words? Or the words he just spoke? And what about those people who say, “Lord, Lord,” that won’t enter the kingdom of God. What people are those? Jesus describes them as people who prophesy in the name of Jesus, cast out demons in the name of Jesus, do deeds of power in the name of Jesus. How can those people not be fit for the kingdom? Yet, Jesus says to them he will say, “I never knew you. Go away from me, you evildoers.” Suddenly it seems a bit more confusing, as we try to figure out whether we fall into the category of those who have built our houses on rock, or whether it turns out we accidentally laid our foundation in sand after all.
            I’m drawn back to the phrase, “I never knew you,” the words Jesus speaks to those who say, “Lord, Lord.” At first I read them as angry words, words where Jesus denies that he knows these people at all. But then I thought about where else I’ve heard these words. “I never knew you.” You say these words not when you are trying to disown someone, write them off, but when your heart is breaking with loss and pain because you realize someone you thought you knew well is not actually what they were pretending to be after all. “It turns out, I never really knew you.” That’s what you might say in reaction to the pain of betrayal when someone has failed to keep promises, or someone has been pretending to be something, when someone has claimed to love you but acted in ways that are quite contrary. You say, “I never knew you,” because their current hurtful behavior taints all the good memories from the past, doesn’t it? If one spouse finds out the other spouse was unfaithful to the marriage, it taints the way one looks at all the years of marriage that felt happy. If a leader turns out to be corrupt, has been abusing their power or embezzling money – it taints the years of seemingly good leadership they provided. “I never knew you.”
            I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, “I never knew you.” He’s talking to people who have had the right words perhaps, even the right actions in some ways – doing deeds of power, casting out demons – but really they’re false prophets, producing bad fruit. They’re not who they say they are. They’re fakes. They’re not who they were pretending to be to Jesus after all. William Sloan Coffin Jr. once wrote, “I think disguise is the essence of evil,” and Jesus seems to agree. Suddenly, I find myself wondering how I measure up. Am I just one of the people who is saying “Lord, Lord?” What will Jesus say to me? “Beth, I never really knew you.”
            I remember coming across the term “Imposter Syndrome” when I was taking some psychology classes in college. Listen to this description: “Have you ever had something amazing happen, like a promotion or an invitation to be a part of a coveted group, only to have your excitement give way to fearful thoughts almost immediately? Have you ever thought: They made a mistake and actually confused me with someone else much more qualified? Or had the feeling that even if they meant you, it will only be a matter of time before they realize you are a fraud? If you can relate to this scenario, then you have experienced moments of [the] psychological phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome, in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. That is, fearing it has all been a mistake and that someone will wake up soon to the fact that you really know nothing.” (1) In other words, we all feel like fakes sometimes. We feel like people will realize that we really aren’t skilled or smart or capable or likeable or lovable after all. If they knew the real us, they wouldn’t like what they saw.
            But here’s the thing. The jig is up. God already knows you. God already knows who you are. And what God wants is for you to be honest with yourself, and with others, about who that is. We’re not imposters who Jesus will disown when we’re less than perfect. We’re not imposters who are foolishly building on sand when we don’t always act in ways that we’re proud of. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that we’re broken. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that we struggle. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that sometimes we feel like we’re imposters! Because when we act like this, when we build up these false personas, we’re making ourselves, and not even our true selves, but our put-together, best-foot-forward, hope-no-one-looks-too-closely selves, we’re making our imposter selves the foundation of our spiritual houses, and trying to build on that. When we try to hide who we really are from God and each other, we are building our lives on sand. And friends, great will be the fall of our houses.
            I’ve lived in my own home for a little over a year now, and my list of things that I want to fix and improve and repair only seems to get longer, as I add two new things for every task I complete. But I’m happy with my home. I looked at a lot of houses before I bought the one I did. I remember one particular home that was lovely – I really liked it. And it had a lot of work done recently. And the realtor was eager to sell. But, when I walked through the kitchen, over the beautiful new floors, I noticed that occasionally things felt a little squishy under my feet. The outside looked pretty nice. But I had my suspicions about what was really underneath. In my home, I may have some work to do to make things look nicer. But my basement is dry. The foundation is good. I’m on solid ground. A good foundation is so much more important than the most beautiful interior decorating.
            Jesus wants us to hear what he says and act on it, doing the will of God. Sometimes, we’ll screw that up in the worst ways. But better to try and screw up than to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out. God’s not buying that anyway. And when we do that, we’re not building on the solid foundation of Christ whom we follow. We’re putting our own faulty selves down as foundation. When the storms come, and they always do, we’ll never withstand it. 
            Two weeks ago we sang one of my favorite hymns: “My Hope is Built.” The refrain goes, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; All other ground is sinking sand.” Whatever else you’ve been building on – the ground is surely sinking beneath your feet. Where do you stand? Where are you building? ‘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!’” Amen.


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