Kingdom Parables: A Stable Kingdom
We’re back to the Gospel of Matthew this week as we round up four weeks in a row where we’ve been talking about the crazy idea Jesus liked to call the kingdom of God. Today’s passage will be familiar to you if you ever attended Bible School (especially last week at Calvary!), because there’s a very interactive song about this little passage.
This passage comes at the very end of the section of Matthew we know as the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5-7. Matthew says that Jesus was going about his business and a large crowd began to follow him. When he saw the crowd maybe he thought this wasn’t an opportunity he wanted to pass up, because he went up into the mountain and sat down, gathering the crowd around him. He gave them a sermon that day that was much longer than the one you will hear right now, if he did in fact say everything Matthew includes. The passage is famous—it includes familiar scripture like the Beatitudes, Jesus’ comparing his followers to salt and light, recommendations about how to pray, and a whole list of other directions one right after the other. At the very end of chapter seven, however, Jesus tells a parable . . . a kingdom parable, and that parable is our Gospel passage for today.
It’s a story about two men—builders. One Jesus called wise; he built his house on a rock—stable, secure, unmovable. The wind came and the rain poured and the floods rose, and that house got the worst of the elements . . . but it stood there secure, weathering the storm. And after the skies cleared and the sun came out again, all the hard work and investment that builder put into that house was still there. The other builder—the foolish one—built his house, not on a rock but rather on a bank of sand—a foundation that shifted and eroded and moved very easily. The wind and rain and floods beat against that house too, and the predictable happened—it was just swept away. And after the skies cleared and the sun came out again, all the hard work and investment that builder put into that house was gone.
We may be able to surmise from this parable that the kingdom quality Jesus is describing has to do with being thoughtful, wise, and measured when you make choices for your life. Some choices, though they seem expedient or especially attractive or provide instant gratification just may not be the wisest choices that lead to a healthy long term investment. On the other hand, there are choices we can make that, while they may initially appear tedious or even foolish in their inability to provide an immediate benefit, ultimately build our lives to glorify God.
For the past three weeks we’ve been looking at Jesus’ kingdom parables and asking some questions about their application to our individual lives. Are we willing to listen to Jesus’ descriptions of kingdom living and measure our own lives against the rigorous standards he’s describing? Hopefully the consideration we’ve been giving Jesus’ recommendations in worship these last weeks have stuck with us beyond the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday mornings, because it seems to me that living with the kingdom of God as the model for our individual lives is going to need to be something we take on as a regular practice.
But because Jesus is talking about building a structure—a house, specifically—in this kingdom parable, I thought today we might have a conversation that goes beyond the individual application of Jesus’ kingdom ideas and applies them in a corporate sense.
In other words, what if we were to take what Jesus said about the kingdom of God and apply his ideas beyond our own individual lives to our communities . . . uh, and what about even our , , , churches?
In the world of church growth theory—there really is a specialty in this area—there are certain tried and true strategies that insure church growth. You can probably guess some of them. For one thing, you need to keep your congregational demographic pretty homogeneous. I mean, the occasional minority is okay, but in general the churches that grow the fastest are churches in which the congregations predominantly look the same. Not only do they look the same physically and racially, they also share the same life situations—that is, they are all about the same age, all work in the same kind of work, all are similar in their economic bracket, all generally share the same political, theological, and ideological stances, and all have a similar family structure.
A second sure-fire way to get your congregation to grow very quickly is to offer services that people want. Because we live in a consumer society we’ve come to expect certain things offered or provided to us. In the world of church life this translates to structuring everything church so that no one is inconvenienced in the least. You choose service times based on the lifestyles of your target demographic, for example. You offer amenities that will attract people you hope to have in the congregation . . . some common offerings are a coffee bar, valet parking, or stadium seating. And you develop and market your programs so that your hoped-for demographic will like them: for example, parenting classes or speed dating or rock climbing.
A third approach to quick church growth, the experts will tell you, is to be very prescriptive in your teaching and worship. In other words, give people an easy how-to approach to faith, something they will find very accessible, a step-by-step approach. Sermons should always be structured with a very easy take-away three points; bulletins should have a printed outline so people can write down the steps the pastor gives to solving their problems; and pastors should never leave any lingering questions when they speak. People want answers, and studies show they will be more likely to come to church in higher numbers if they know they will hear a methodical, prescriptive treatment of their problems in Sunday School or from the pulpit.
What the church experts don’t tell you about these and other approaches to quick church growth is that they also tend to create a “revolving door” effect. That is, people will be attracted to a church for all the reasons I just listed, and they will start coming. For a little while. After a short time, however, the busy schedules of life will begin to intervene and the problems that drew them to church in the first place will resolve themselves and something else will catch their attention and demand their time, and out the door they will go.
This is extraordinarily interesting to me, and if you are a Calvary member it should be very interesting to you, too, because, in case you haven’t noticed: we are currently engaged in the process of growing a church ourselves. In fact, we’re currently in year three of a five year vision process in which we have set quarterly goals for ourselves in several different areas including growth of worship attendance and membership.
We’re making progress . . . each quarter we have met or exceeded our membership and worship growth goals. But we certainly don’t have an overcrowding problem. Some may take issue with what we’re doing, then and wonder, if we know what gets people to come to church, why don’t we have a coffee bar out in the narthex? And, why don’t we deal with the diversity problem we seem to have? In case you haven’t noticed, the last adjective you would ever use to describe our community is “homogeneous”.
The answer to that question comes, of course, whenever you sit through a lecture from me on what church membership means (let me know if you haven’t had the pleasure, or if you’d like a refresher).
In short, being a member means learning, along with the rest of us, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s less about what you might get out of being a church member, and more about the dedication and commitment of discipleship, characterized by such things as your regular presence in worship; regular and generous financial gifts; and the investment of your time and talent in the work of the community. All of these things, of course, can seem a little less exciting than, say, stadium seating. But putting our efforts and energy into building disciples rather than just increasing numbers is a different kind of strategy, one that hopefully will not result in a revolving door but rather in a thriving and invested community of Christ-followers whose lives are bringing about the kingdom of God right here and now.
The hope is that, by making wise, long-term investments in nurturing disciples, we are building a community that reflects this kingdom of God quality Jesus describes in his story of the wise and foolish builders . . . and that when our church is buffeted by the storms that inevitably come when people are serious about following Jesus, then our relationships and our community will stand strong, long into the whatever future God has planned for us.
Early this year a devastating earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti; all of us watched with horror as the Haitian people suffered. A mere seven weeks later, another massive earthquake hit the country of Chile—two devastating natural disasters one right after the other. Because they happened so close together, news organizations quickly began to compare the two quakes, and the comparisons were startling.
The quake in Chile measured 8.8 in magnitude and lasted approximately three minutes. Haiti’s quake was shorter and only a 7 magnitude. It released only a 500th of the energy as the quake in Chile. The Chilean quake was the fifth-strongest in recorded history, while Haiti’s earthquake isn’t even on the U.S. Geological Survey list.
Noting these differences, it’s stunning to also realize that, while the incredibly strong earthquake in Chile killed about 900 people, the Haitian government estimates that the lesser quake there killed over 220,000 people. In fact, Haiti’s quake is the third deadliest earthquake since 1900.
Both quakes were devastating, of course. But the disparity of these numbers is shocking. Why would the death toll in Haiti be so much higher if the magnitude of the quake was so much less? Part of the reason is that the emergency response infrastructure in Haiti, a much poorer country than Chile, is desperately inadequate, and general education of the public on how to respond to an earthquake is much more lacking in Haiti than in Chile.
But the major reason so many fewer people died in Chile even though the quake there was much more powerful was that most of the homes and offices in Chiles are built to specifically withstand earthquakes; their steel skeletons are designed to sway with seismic waves rather than resist them, and the Chilean government oversees specific required building code.
In Haiti, by contrast, there is no building code. One news report quotes Patrick Midy, a leading Haitian architect, as saying he knew of only three earthquake-resistant buildings in the entire country, the poorest country, by the way, in the entire Western Hemisphere. Because buildings in Haiti are not required to conform to any building codes, most are built primarily with cost and time effectiveness in mind—in other words, the cheapest and fastest way they can be built.
It’s clear to see, in the wake of these two tragedies, the end result of such building. What seemed like ease and expediency in the outset ended in death and destruction when the earthquakes hit.
The illustrations are sobering but the point is clear: as followers of Jesus we have choices and decisions to make about how we live our lives. Where do we invest our time, our money, our intention? Do we apply our commitment to things that are lasting, that bring about this kingdom Jesus about which tried so hard to teach us?
Because human life is full of storms, and believe me, the storms will come. The storms will come to threaten everything we believe about what God can and is doing in our world. It will storm so hard some days that we’ll want to just give up on this kingdom of God idea altogether, and let the walls of our faith crumble down around us.
But everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be the wise man built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.