Easter Sermon, 2017, Matthew 7:24-27
When our youngest child was younger, we used to say to him—cute wore off two and a half kids ago. It usually happened when he had done something just to see if he could get away with it. And he would smile at us with that look that said, “Yes, but I’m cute and so I get away with it.” And we’d say, “Cute wore off two and a half kids ago.” Knowing that siblings often seek ammunition to use against their brothers and sisters, I’m guessing he blamed the older ones for overplaying the cute card and ruining it for him. We started using that phrase before he could really do math. If he had done the subtraction he would have realized that two and a half kids ago wasn’t after the first two kids, but at the beginning of our raising our first child. We realized that if we allowed Children’s cuteness to guide us, we would squander our role as parents. Lori and I never verbalized it to each other. We didn’t read it in a book. We didn’t hear it in a seminar. And I’m sure there were some negative consequences with our choice. But somehow intuitively we decided, cute wasn’t going to be the criteria we used to assess our children’s behaviors. There is a lot of cuteness with Easter. Cute Easter dresses and cut little boy outfits. Cute Easter bunnies and cute Easter chickens. Cute little flowers and cute Easter bows. And cute little Easter eggs. Even a grumpy man like me, I have a cute new tie for today. But more and more I sense that people looking for something else.
Jesus anticipated a time when he would say—cuteness wore out two and a half Disciples ago. The parable Jesus told of the wise and foolish builders concludes the great Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7. It comes close to the beginning of the Gospel in the narrative sequence. It is the first of five major sections of teachings in the structure of the Gospel of Matthew. Most biblical scholars agree that the sermon was not something Jesus delivered from beginning to end at one time. Rather, it was a composition of Matthew—the Gospel writer—who pulled together these teachings and organized them into a comprehensive whole. Jesus was at the beginning edge of his popularity in terms of the story Matthew was telling. And if Jesus wanted to make his movement work, he could have benefitted from better marketing. Because early on—Jesus seemed to suggest that cuteness wasn’t really his thing.
Which, by the way, is a lousy thing to do if you’re out to start a religion. In 2005, Bob Henderson crafted a satirical response to a Kansas Board of Education decision to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in Public school biology classes. Henderson proposed a new religion the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It became an internet sensation. There are books like the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and adherents who call themselves Pastafarians. There are pictures and t-shirts and lots of cute paraphernalia. It’s taken off. If you’re going to start a religion—start cute. Here’s the thing– Jesus really never intended to start a religion. I know that’s the most ironic thing to say on THE MOST RELIGIOUS SUNDAY of the YEAR for Christ’s followers. But if you look at what Jesus came to do according to his own words, he came to usher in the Kingdom of God.
Matthew included Jesus’s teaching—many will come in that day and say, “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus will say—it’s not the ones who parrot the right words but the one who does the will of God. And others will say—but look at all the cute things we did—signs, wonders, casting out demons, Jesus will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Jesus anticipated a time when the throng of followers would—one by one—need to make a choice to either take him seriously or go and find a new fad to follow. Jesus ruled out being cute as the basis for evaluating his Disciples’ lives.
He declared the rule and reign of God over and above the rule and reign of any other. He declared that God’s way of governing the world was to use power for building people up rather than keeping people down. And the moral legislation to which Jesus subscribed points to something bigger than religion. There’s a part of all religions that’s just about the cuteness—about the differentiation of one’s self from the culture in which one lives. Religions teach people to Dress a certain way, modify eating habits, set the calendar for Holy Days and provide guidance for liturgies and rituals. Jesus practiced a religion—it’s called Judaism. He observed the days, maintained kosher—to a point, he certain embraced the narrative of God at work in Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Hannah and Samuel, David and Isaiah. And he accepted that the religion would be a part of his followers’ lives but he wanted depth of sincere belief. He wanted something other than cuteness.
It seems that Many Christians have decided the cuteness has worn off. Religious observance is down. Religious devotion is down. A few weeks ago, Family Christian Stores—the largest retailer of Christian Merchandise—announced that it would be closing all of its 240 locations. After 85 years in business, Christian merchandise has been set aside. This means a job loss for 3000 employees. Last year, Lifeway Christian stores—which is the rebranded Baptist Bookstores from decades past—announced that it would close the three locations it operated on Baptist Seminary Campuses. Imagine that, the Baptist Bookstore can’t keep its doors open on Baptist Seminary campuses. And I’m not knocking on Baptist. Disciples never tried opening bookstores. The struggles of Christian merchandising doesn’t signal the end of Christianity. People can still shop for Christian books online. And that’s what’s caused the closing of a number of retail bookselling stores. But, along with selling Christian devotional and educational literature these places sold the cute things that go with religion—like Testamints—the breathe mints meant to evoke the Old and New Testament.
Cute Christianity was all the rage in the 1980s. Often called attractional evangelism, seeker sensitive churches like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in California emerged as a cultural force. These churches grew exponential by eschewing things like church buildings, traditional programming, too many religious symbols drained of meaning, archaic language, inaccessible music, etc. etc. It’s hard to believe that the church growth movement has been with us so long that over a decade ago one of the founders of the Church growth movement—Bill Hybels was getting ready to retire. He decided that in order to assess the fruits of his labors, Willow Creek would commission a study of how they had actually done in creating true followers of Jesus Christ. He commissioned a study. His study included comparison respondents from other churches around the Chicago area where Hybels and Willow Creek are located. They hired a professional research company to conduct the survey. They set up the matrices of what to look at—faithful prayer life, Christian service, financial support of congregation. When the results came in, Hybels was shocked to discover that far from being the revolutionary movement that produced real Christians by the droves, pound for pound, the medium sized Lutheran Church down the road was measuring up to his own measures better than he was. To his credit Hybels did not sweep these findings under the rug. Quite the contrary he was incredibly open and public about sharing these results in 2005.
The loss of Chrstianity’s cuteness frightens a number of us. It’s certainly scary to people like me who make our living on people buying into and contributing to the ministries of the established church. But, I’m not sure that Jesus cared so much. Jesus’s concluding parable does not say the Wise Man built his house with cute trim and pretty furnishings and nice curb appeal. But the foolish man built his house with drab paint and discount furnishings and unattractive curb appeal. The wise and foolish builders differ in the material they use for their foundation.
I’ve been there when people poured foundation. I was a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and got a call—we need help. I put on the knee high boots, they gave me a long pole spreader and the big truck came and started pouring concrete into the form and my roles was to take the spreader and help spread the concrete around. Simple right? I was in my twenties. I thought it would be a piece of cake. They started pouring and I started spreading. Within about 45 minutes my back was hurting, my hands had blisters, and my legs ached. It’s not what Jesus meant. What he did mean is that foundation work is hard. It is messy. And it can be painful. It’s not cute. In a little bit we will sing the chorus from a hymn I love, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand.” But it’s important to say that a generic and ascent to believing things about Jesus are true is not the same thing as putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice. It involves working—doing the work of daily training your mind and heart to follow in the way of Christ through prayer and study. Doing the work of faithfully serving in meaningful ways. Progressively allowing Christ to influence every part of your life. It’s not easy work. The authority for Jesus to say that putting into action the things that he commands comes from the resurrection. The surest evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the continued presence of people who faithfully live according to the teaching of Christ.
Once there was a home builder who made the best homes. She paid careful attention to every detail. She measured twice, She cut once. She used the strongest, most durable materials. She studied the plans. The nails and screws were put in at the appropriate angles. She had a daughter. The daughter was her apprentice. Her daughter knew the demands her mother placed on building to exact specifications and following plans to the letter. Using the best materials. The Mother called Her daughter to her one day and explained—I have to leave for a few months, but there is a very nice house I need you to build. I want you to build it like you have been taught. Use the highest-grade material. Cut to exact specifications. She left the daughter a large sum of money to complete the project and then she left. With the Mother away, the daughter started taking shortcuts. She used materials that would look adequate but cost far less. The home owners, he said, will not know the difference until we are out of sight and out of mind. She took the money he saved and spent it on herself. She also cut corners with precision. She didn’t measure twice and cut once. If She guessed wrong and came up short, she’d find a way to make things fit. Sure, she thought, as things settle, or when the storms hit, the home owners would run into problems, but by then they’d be out of sight and out of mind. This went on until the house was complete. By all external appearances, the house measured up to the mother’s exacting standards. But the daughter had learned to mimic good workmanship so that he could pocket the extra money and use the time he saved on herself. When Her mother came back. The daughter handed her the keys. Her mother replied, “Daughter, keep the keys yourself. This home you have been building is my wedding present to you. It is yours.”
Whose house are you building? The wise man built his house upon the rock and the foolish man built his house. Jesus was clear—the wise man was building his house. Whose house are you building. Living by the teachings of Christ reorients our lives to the Christian hope. If you are willing to do the hard work to build your life’s house