Rock vs. Sand

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a set of parables, the last of which we read today..

He starts with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-16)… blessed are the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. These are all things Jesus happens to be.

We could contrast these as a devotional did with the  anti-Beatitudes. Blessed are the callous rich who hurt their workers, those who cause others to mourn, the violent, those who hunger and thirst for injustice, who show no mercy, the warmakers, and those who are never persecuted, who never rock the boat on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.[1]

Jesus then calls the listeners salt and light. He talks about how he comes not to overturn but to fulfill the law and prophets (5:17-20). He then goes through and makes the law harder (5:21-48). You have heard it said… but I say unto you. Jesus really ups the ante with these. “You have heard it said, do not murder but I tell you don’t even get angry. You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say turn the other cheek. You have heard it said love your neighbor, but I tell you to love your enemy.” No one else in the New Testament even touches that last one. Not Paul. Not Peter. No one in the Acts of the Apostles. Not Hebrews. Jesus is the only one who teaches us to love our enemy. Another way to say it is I guess we only love Jesus as much as the person we love the least.

Jesus then teaches everyone to practice discipleship in secret (6:1-18). He talks about possessions and people (6:19-7:11). He gives us the Golden Rule as the entire summation of the law and prophets (7:12). Then there’s a little triplet of twos. Two ways, two trees, two foundations (7:13-27).

Jesus says there’s a wide gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction but small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, but only a few find it.

There’s the good tree that bears good fruit and the bad tree that bears bad fruit. That’s how we can tell if someone is a true teacher or a false prophet by the fruits they produce.

Then the two builders. The one who builds on rock and the one who builds on sand.

We have a great contrast in this parable:
doing/not doing
not fall/fall.

Jesus doesn’t just want us to intellectually know these teachings of his. He wants us to build a life with them. Everything that comes before is to be known and lived. This rabbinic tradition contrasts simply knowing the Torah vs. living the Torah. Wisdom is always found with both knowing and doing.[2] As the Letter of James says, “Be doers of the word, not simply hearers.” (James 1:22-25).

Yet there’s some caution. The way isn’t always easy to tell for the gate is small and only a few find it. There are false prophets who are wolves in sheep’s’ clothing. Outwardly they look great, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

It’s not easy to tell if you’re building on rock or sand. It’s good to note that Jesus is in a desert. Everything is sand! In that day in Palestine, if a house was built in the dry season, it would seem secure. Yet when the rains come, the wadis start to flow. Wadis are dry creek beds where the waters run. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re on a wadi or not. You could very well have built on rock but you’re still in the path of the river when the rains come wash your house away. When I was visiting Egypt, we were on this new highway. The driver remarked how he was glad it wasn’t March because this was a 3 mile wide wadi and we’d be under twelve feet of water.

To make sure you were building on rock, you would have to have knowledge of the place before you build. You’d have to ask around and get advice from people who live there. Knowing where to build isn’t always obvious.

At Ohio University in Athens, sometimes East Green’s streets flood. The University rerouted the Hocking River that ran through campus in the 1970s, yet if we got enough rain, the streets would still flood and we’d wade in the streets.

They also built on a floodplain. After re-routing the Hocking River, they built a whole bunch of ugly dorms. The first level was storage and laundry, and then the rooms started on the second floor. The buildings were connected by catwalks. So even when we know where the rocks are, we can still build on sand.

Many of you know how we go back every year for homecoming in October. I love seeing the ol’ haunts. Yet I can’t see two out of the three dorms I lived in because they’ve been demolished. OU finally acknowledged they’d built on sand.

I’ve mentioned how I felt called to be married and a husband. Having watched my parents and maternal grandparents divorce, I really felt the need to build on rock and not sand. Kate and I attended a weekend Engaged Encounter. We journaled. We talked. We listened to others who had been married a long time. It was a great weekend.

One couple said, “You live and die by positive communication.” This couple stressed the importance of building your relationship on the rock of gratitude for one another. God has given you one another, the universe thought it was a good idea that y’all should meet and a spark happened. You fan the flames and fuel the fire with gratitude and kindness. Turns out, this is not just good advice but scientifically proven.

John and Julie Gottman found in their research on marriage that successful couples average 5 compliments to every one critique. Divorce doesn’t happen when the number of conflicts increase, it happens when the number of positive things drawing you together decrease. What drives couples apart are things like contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottmanns found that what keeps couples together is gratitude and kindness.[3]

This is good advice for any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Of course we want to be around people who treat us with 5 parts gratitude and kindness to 1 part criticism. It’s so easy! Any idiot knows that. Well… how do you feel after watching the news? How do you feel after watching an endless stream of commercials telling you you’re not naturally beautiful enough so you need this shampoo, make-up, brand of workout clothes, hair product, hair growth serum, and thousand dollar shoes?

I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot worse about myself. Blessed are the meek.

Or doomscrolling on social media. You hop on to see what’s going on, and then you feel sad that you’re not in Fiji like your cool world-traveling friends. Or you go to message someone but then you start looking at Reels, these short little videos and then suddenly it’s Tuesday! The message is never sent, and you feel bad for wasting two days.

You would think we would be better at building on stone.

Let’s get political. I remind you that here we talk politics, not partisanship. Partisan is one party over another. Politics is how we live together. You’d think after two world wars and the immensity of human suffering, we’d beat our swords into plowshares and not learn war anymore. But war is a good business. How would we make money? So we send our brave young folk to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan. The combat veterans in the room can tell you that war is hell. Anyone of us could volunteer at the VA and see how traumatic war is. How wars don’t end once the peace treaty is signed, they live on in the hearts and minds of those who experienced it. I am not against the military at all. I’m against war. I’m against chicken hawks who callously send people to die.

It seems like a really simple parable. Build on the rock of Jesus’ teaching. Everything else is sand. Yet we’re still building on sand. The sand of what Jesus was tempted with in the desert: wealth, prestige, and power. The sand of violence and war. The sand of all the -isms: racism, ablism, sexism, homophobia and more. Sand. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers after all.

This parable has a lot of layers doesn’t it? That’s the trick of parables. AJ Levine a Jewish scholar of the New Testament who we will be listening to on Wednesdays in Lent writes, “What makes the parables mysterious or difficult is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge… Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that,’ or worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”

Lent is a time to take something on or give something up. Clear out some sand and find some solid rock to build on. Take time with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Listen to what Jesus teaches, spend some time in your bible this week. Then prayerfully consider what to give up or what to take on.

For me… and I mention this not to be fawned over or for egotistical reasons but for accountability reasons… I’m giving up alcohol and having a dry Lent. We host two AA groups here. We’re a dry campus. In our work with Hope Recovery Center and Serenite Restaurant we know how addiction can creep into lives and become sinking sand and wash away what so many have built. I have realized that I started looking forward to a night cap a little too eagerly. If that’s your story too… maybe give that up.

Or give up doom scrolling. Give up the 24-hour news cycle and only watch for an hour a day. Maybe it’s a clean diet: less sugar and carbs. Maybe it’s working for peace and getting involved in a local project or mission that you’ll take on. Maybe you take on reading the UCC Daily Devotionals each morning as you start your day. Take on working out three times a week, or yoga or meditation three times a week. Maybe you take on reading the books we have set to check out in the spring. Rob Bell’s How to Be Here, Ram Das Be Here Now, and Wild Hope by Donna Ashworth.

May you consider. May you pray. May you listen to the teachings of Jesus… and start building something in your life. For his teachings are rock and they can be trusted. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] Following the Call: Living the sermon on the mount together. Edited by Charles E. Moore. Pages 20-21.

[2] The New Interpreters Bible, Volume VIII. Page 218.

[3] David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life. Pages 178-179.

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