Four months ago, the wicked wind and water of Hurricane Michael blew ashore. It was the most intense storm ever recorded on the Florida Panhandle. The town of Mexico Beach received a direct and sustained hit. The winds roared at 155 miles an hour. A powerful surge of water knocked structures from their foundations. When the storm was over, everything had changed. There was hardly a shelter to be found. Houses and businesses were gone. Not damaged. Not partially torn apart. Not waiting for repair. Gone.
But in the midst of all that devastation, one house stood majestically. The Sand Palace is just off the beach yet was virtually unscathed. It received a little water damage and one shower window cracked.
The two owners built the Sand Palace to be a lasting shelter. The house is elevated on high pilings to keep it above the surge of seawater that accompanies powerful hurricanes. It is constructed of poured concrete, reinforced by steel cables and rebar, with additional concrete bolstering the corners of the house. The space under the roof is minimized so wind cannot sneak in and lift it off.
One owner said they built the house to endure in a changing world. He told the New York Times, “I believe the planet’s getting warmer and the storms are getting stronger.” His friend added that they wanted to build a house that would survive for generations.
We’d like a shelter like that. Perhaps not on the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps not even an actual house. But a place of shelter that will endure for generations. We see the changes in the world. We can almost feel the earth shifting beneath our feet, hear the winds howling around us, feel the foaming waters splash up around us.
Jesus of Nazareth knew about change. He knew about fast-moving, rising waters, and shifting sands. So, at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells a parable about two builders whose shelters go through a storm of change.
Change was the reality of the people to whom Jesus first told this parable. The Jewish people were living through the political, economic and cultural changes brought about by the occupying forces of Rome. Even the Jewish faith being blown in new directions.
The gospel writer Matthew recorded this parable for a community that was living through a storm of changes. The violence between Jews and Rome was mounting. the Christian community was increasing separated from the rest of the Judaism and beginning to experience its own persecution.
Jesus is telling the parable to us, also. We live in an age of incredible change. This fourth industrial revolution is moving faster and will displace more workers than any before it. So many of the things that used to provide foundation and security in our lives have changed. Standards of civility and respect are shifting. Expectations of ethical standards are being blown apart. How we connect, where we connect, whether we are connected – all of that is changing and so our relationships.
Great change is real for the church as well. Denominational loyalty has all but been swept away. Of greater impact is the loss of participation in church. The epidemic of empty buildings, dwindling resources, means every congregation is in a swirl of churning change. We are much more like the church of Matthew’s time, than the church in America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
And we change. Oh, perhaps not our values or our personality. But our bodies. Our minds. Our abilities. We are swept along by the incessant storm of aging, from infancy, all the way – if we are careful, lucky and have good genes – to old age. And – oh the storms of changes at that time. Until we confront the inevitably of the rising waters of death.
The whole of the sermon on the mount points to the end of time. Right before the parable of the two builders, which closes the sermon, Jesus says, “On that day, not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
We wonder how does one prepare for the final end of time? How will we be secure when all around us the waters rise and the winds blow and we ourselves are changing? How will we find enduring shelter, a firm foundation?
Jesus says, “Those who hear my words and act on them build on rock.” Compressed into three chapters of Matthew – 5, 6 and 7 – are Jesus’ teachings about how to live. He is telling us, “Pay attention to this. Live like this. I am teaching you to live in a way that will shelter you, not just now, but in the time to come.” The sermon on the mount is a solid rock. A solid rock on which to build a life.
Take a look at the whole of it. Note what is familiar and well used by you. There are teachings of Jesus that already help you hold fast in this changing world.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world
Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find
Your heavenly father knows your needs
Then look again. There are teachings of Jesus that challenge us all. Do we ignore them? Toss them over our spiritual shoulder pretending we don’t need that particular shelter?
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
Do not worry. Do not judge.
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.
Enter through the narrow gate.
As Jesus says, this is not easy. It comes at a cost to us.
The owners of the Sand Palace say they wanted to build for the “big one”. They just didn’t know how soon it would come. Building to withstand a category five storm with no damage doubled the cost of their structure.
Building a shelter that endures is costly. Jesus tells us it is worth it. He teaches us that building on his words will see us through the storms of change.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come to the end of time and cry, “Lord, Lord! I heard your words. I tried to act on them. I did my best. I built my life on the solid rock of the sermon on the mount. Now, oh Jesus, my rock and my redeemer, be my shelter always.”