Fred Craddock, a renowned homiletics professor was addressing a group of clergy. "To give my life for Christ appears glorious," he said. "To pour myself out for others, to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom, I'll do it. I'm ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a thousand dollar bill and laying it on the table. 'Here's my life, Lord. I'm giving it all.' But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the thousand for quarters. We go through life putting out a quarter here and fifty cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid's troubles instead of saying, 'Get lost.' Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn't glorious. It's done in all those little acts of love, twenty-five cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it's harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul."
And yet that is exactly what we are called to do. And what is more, God equips us so that we can. That is what I see in the readings for this Sunday. First of all there is the story of Noah and the great flood. It is a story we all know so well, a timeless story that speaks to us of a God of love. Flood stories are found in many cultures. The plot of the story is very much like other folk stories found in the ancient Near East, except for one big, important difference. While other flood stories show the gods to be capricious, our God is just and merciful. Our God makes promises and then fulfills them. Our God cares for and preserves those who live faithfully.
Consider the story! God sees that the earth is in a sorry state. God acts and causes the destruction of the world, but because Noah is faithful, he is to build an ark before God destroys all other living creatures.
God promises never again to curse the earth. We might think it is because the hearts of humanity have been changed, that people have turned back to God and that creation has been redeemed. That isn't what is behind God’s promise. God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." Drowning hasn't done any good. The people who survived didn’t take long to go right back to their old ways. Sin survived. God accepts it as part of human nature. Not that God is giving up on humanity! Far from it! Even when we are not faithful to God, God is faithful to creation. And so God establishes a covenant with all living things, the earth and its people. God looks for another way to transform creation.
There is a similar theme running through the gospel reading as well. Jesus uses a parable to illustrate an important point. A wise man builds his house on a rock while a foolish man builds on the sand. When the rainy season comes the water rises. The wise man's house built on the solid foundation weathers the storm. The wise man prepares for what is to come. The foolish man on the other hand takes the easy way out. His house is destroyed.
Faithfulness to God means building our faith, our spiritual life, on the right foundations. So often we build our lives on shaky ground. We can profess Christian faith all our lives, but until we understand the implications of God's grace it isn't making any difference in our lives. Our Christian faith needs to transform us. We are deluding ourselves about our commitment to the faith if we worship God on Sunday and then live quite another way for the rest of the week.
Not that Jesus is suggesting that we do not need to do good things! It is just that doing good things does not make us right with God. If we are right with God, we will want to do what is right. When we do things that we know are wrong, we will ask for forgiveness. We will allow ourselves to be transformed by God's grace. We need a change in our life that embraces our Lord's will as well as his life and salvation. We need experiences that change our relationship to the world, to our possessions, to the poor and dispossessed, to violence in our society, and to the idols of our society.
The parable of the wise man follows the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd including the disciples. He is warning them about those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. "There are people," he says, "seemingly good people, faithful people, even people who perform miracles, but they do what they do without any compassion. They are not being faithful to the gospel. Such people," Jesus says, "can expect to be held accountable for their actions."
Throughout our Christian life we are building on our foundations. The problem is that it is so easy to build on the wrong foundations. We can build on pretty shaky ground. We can profess Christian faith without living it. We can faithfully attend church but never let the message of the gospel influence our daily lives. Our Christian faith needs to transform us. We are living under delusions if we go to church every Sunday to worship God but refuse to let it inform our daily lives. It is so important to let Christ work in our lives, to see Christ in others, and to let them see Christ in us.
The foundation of our faith is the life of Christ. He is the rock on which we need to build. If we do not intend to live that kind of life we are deluding ourselves to say we are his. It is easy to talk about what should be done for the poor, the homeless, the drug users. It is comforting to be counseled about our problems. But somewhere along the line we have to stop talking about our faith and start living it.
American Senator, Mark Hatfield tells of touring Calcutta with Mother Teresa and visiting the “House of Dying,” where sick children are cared for in their last days, and the dispensary, where the poor line up by the hundreds to receive medical attention. Watching Mother Teresa minister to these people, feeding and nursing those left by others to die, Hatfield was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the suffering she and her co-workers face daily. “How can you bear the load without being crushed by it?” he asked. Mother Teresa replied, “My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.”[i]
We too are called to be faithful. We are called to build on good, solid foundations. We are called to weather the storms of life. What counts ultimately is the life of compassion for others, not the one that is solely devoted to Jesus, but the one that lives compassion for the sake of the people who need it. It is, after all, about spending that thousand dollars, quarter by quarter.
[i] Beyond Hunger, Beals