1 Corinthians 3:1-14
Most of us grew up making sand castles at one time or another. These days the buckets and spades are plastic, but children still make the sand castles of their childhood dreams. Sand castles, of course, are about much more than just children with a bucket and spade. At Brighton, and Weymouth, and at Weston-super-mare, and probably many other places too, you can see amazing sculptures made from sand. Except for those few privileged sand artists, our creations on the beach are gone as the tide comes in and sweeps all away. Is this not like some aspects of life? Some things we build in life will collapse with time. Do we not sometimes find joy that comes from brief moments of pleasure?
As well as sand castles, there are stone castles, which last not for six hours but for centuries. Think of the Tower of London, begun a thousand years ago, or Westminster Abbey, even older, with intricate carving showing its beauty for centuries. If it’s going to last for centuries, it must be made of rock. Isn’t this also about life? Do we not sometimes find joy in being part of something which is much larger and longer that ourselves and our immediate pleasures? We can be a small part of a grand design.
It is with these images that we approach the Gospel story for today. Perhaps this parable reflects Jesus’ occupation of being a carpenter and builder of houses? It’s a story that stands without further explanation. The meaning is obvious. I think this was also what Paul was getting at in our reading from the first letter to the church in Corinth, when he talked about their beginning on milk, and moving on to solid food. We all intuitively know the need for good foundations for anything to last.
And what is the good foundation? Paul went on, in our reading, to say that the foundation is Jesus Christ. Let me give you some examples of what I think this is all about.
Suppose you’ve been having some medical problems and go to the doctor, and are referred to the best specialist available, and he or she diagnoses your illness, and prescribes a combination of medication, some kind of therapy, and surgery. What if you hear your respected doctor, but don’t do what he or she tells you? Or do only part of what you are told to do? How wise would that be? We tend to listen to medical specialists and do all what they suggest.
Or, let’s say that you are having back trouble and you visit a physiotherapist who’s had much success in treating similar problems. He or she gives you a series of six exercises that will take twenty minutes every day, saying that if you put these exercises into daily practice, your back will be much improved. What if you hear these instructions but don’t do them? Or only do half of them, half of the time? How wise would that be?
Or, let’s say that you want to build a house on the Bishop’s Meadow in Farnham. Everyone who knows the town tells you that the meadow floods sometimes in the winter. Will you listen to their advice? How wise would that be?
Jesus, of course, was a builder and carpenter. In today’s gospel reading he’s been giving us an architectural design for life, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of worshipping God, by telling us the story of the wise man building his house on the rock, not the sand. It’s advice we’d be wise to follow, like good advice from a medical expert, like helpful advice from a physiotherapist, like advice from locals who know where the river floods.
Another way of looking at this is that Jesus is advising us not to cheat on the foundations. I think I’ve told you before about the church hall in my first church. It was built in 1935, times were hard in the thirties, and village nonconformists were as hard up as everyone else. This hall was somewhat infamous because it was built with foundations just one brick deep, on a bed of gravel, with a stream running through it. We were advised by a structural engineer that all that was holding it together was the weight of the roof.
Roads are much the same. There’s a stretch on the road out to Elstead where there are so many pot holes that they’ve joined together in one half mile long pot hole, with bits of original road surface sticking up through it. On the Blackwater Valley Road some pot holes have been there so long that white lines have been painted through them, as long as I can remember. I’m told that one reason our glorious Surrey roads have so many potholes is that they were constructed on the cheap, without proper foundations.
Jesus is advising us not to cheat on the spiritual foundations of our life: things like reading the Bible, prayer, attending worship, and regularly receiving Communion.
It’s more than just a personal thing, though. Our culture and nation need a strong foundation, based upon God and his. Like stone castles, if a nation or culture is to last, it must be built on a strong foundation of rock, something that will last through the ages. If you go to Westminster Abbey, its beauty has stood for centuries, and inside that great church is a monument to our history, with poet’s corner, statues of heroes like Wilberforce, and the reminders of centuries of coronations. In our own tradition, the Westminster Confession of Faith was written in the Jerusalem Chamber.
We also need good foundations for our church as well as ourselves and our nation. I don’t mean the level of bricks under our spire, but do we know why we exist? Do we know the story of why our ancestors were thrown out of the Church of England, and struggled under persecution until they had freedom to worship and take their part in public life? Do we know why the word Reformed in the title of our church matters, and what it stands for?
Jesus didn’t say we needed the foundations “if” the storms come, but “when” the storms come. We need our good foundations, as individuals, as a church, as a nation, for the storms that inevitably come upon us. When the storms of life come, our houses will be able to stand, if they are built on good foundations. Stone castles and sand castles. There’s pleasure to both, but one far outlasts the other.