Safe as Houses

Sunday 29th May 2005
Year A, The First Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22-28
Matthew 7:21-29

Almost 20 years ago when Margaret and I were getting ready to buy our house, the only question we had to answer was which endowment mortgage would we go for. There was no doubt that it would be an endowment mortgage as these were thought to be far superior to the old fashioned repayment mortgage. Yes, endowments were, in the old cliché, as safe as houses.

After the stock market falls of 2001-2 we began to receive unpleasant-looking forms asking us whether we would like to top up the insurance policy payments which were part of the endowment package: we could choose the very safe, very expensive option; the not so safe, not so expensive option; or the rather shaky cheap option. Being very brave, we went for the middle option; after all, as the insurance payments went up, the mortgage payments came down. Still, our house didn't feel as safe as houses after all. Then our financial broker brought round his lap top and crunched a load of numbers as told us that we would be far better off if we ditched our endowment mortgage and went for one of those old fashioned repayment mortgages; so, of course, we took his advice and, here we are. I still wonder whether we were mis-sold our original endowment mortgage package but I will never know. Our money is sent all over the planet by people we will never meet; and it is all a bit mysterious and frightening.

So I am not so dismissive as I used to be about this man in the Gospel for today who built his house on sand; in a financial sense I came very close to doing just the same thing. And for all of us there are areas of activity where we take risks but dress them up as clever thinking. But it doesn't matter how clever the thinking is, our lives can be completely overturned by events beyond our own control: a car crash; a virus attack; a sudden commodity price rise or fall; a change in fashion; a change of government; a change in the weather; nothing changing. All sorts of things happen or don't happen, totally beyond our control, which change our lives; things that dwarf what we think of as our cleverness.

It is a strange paradox, then, that Jesus contrasts all this earthly uncertainty, all this sand, with the rock of faith in God. Strange because even the most faithful of us find difficulty with the idea of faith. We find it so difficult that we all live with doubt. Let us, then, try to look at our faith and see how it can be the rock on which we build our lives, the rock which keeps us anchored to our true purpose as creatures of our Creator Father and which puts the shifting of earthly sand into perspective.

Jesus' story of the house builder loses most of its effect if it isn't read in context as part of the grand finale of the Sermon on the Mount. If you rehearse in your mind what kind of people are going to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven - the meek, the peace makers, the pure in heart, the reviled, the merciful, among others - you will see that this faith is tough stuff; the way to the Kingdom of Heaven is through selflessness. Then, in the central part of the Sermon, Jesus says that if we have this faith, if we seek the kingdom, it isn't good enough to have inward purity; we are the light of the world and we are not to hide our light, we must let it shine. So we are to have faith but this must be lived in humility and it will involve suffering. Looked at this way, the idea of faith is much more familiar, much more tangible, than really knowing what we are talking about when we say the Creed.

For we are not to mistake faith for doctrine. Since Jesus died His Church on Earth has tried desperately hard to put into words the meaning of our Father Creator, His Son the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. But everything that the Church says, including its most authoritative pronouncements, such as the Creeds, are provisional, they are the best we can do with our human language to describe the meaning of God. Relating to doctrine is always going to be difficult simply because it all completes the sentence "God is ...,, the most impossible sentence we can ever be asked to complete. It is important to try to understand God because He gave us the means to try to understand; He made us so that we might worship Him and love Him; and part of that worship and love arises from our very being as thinking, creative human beings; but I say again, doctrine, the words of the formulae we use to try to capture God in human language, doctrine is not the same thing as faith.

Faith is our ability to empty ourselves of ourselves; the more room we have in ourselves for God and the more we recognise that we are what we are by virtue of being the creatures of God, the greater the degree that we live in faith. That is somewhat complicated and I will come back to it in a minute after saying a few words about the reading from Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The passage chosen for today is the most controversial in the whole of the Bible. It was this passage on justification by faith rather than works, to use theological jargon, which split the Christian Church at the Reformation and triggered political and military struggles which killed hundreds of thousands of people, notably in the 30-Years War in continental Europe between 1618-48. What Paul was supposed to have meant was that if you had absolute Faith in the redeeming death of Jesus, your human conduct was not relevant. Clearly, this was just too easy to be true and it led, in the words of the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to 'Cheap Grace'.

What Paul actually meant was this; and here is where I want to try to use very simple language for a very difficult idea about faith. I am walking down the road in a hurry to watch the European Cup Final; but I see an elderly person trip and fall. In a split second I weigh up all the factors and help him, as in the story of the Good Samaritan. I call for an ambulance and am told that in case of a fracture I am not to move the person; so I borrow a blanket from a neighbouring house; and then I call his daughter to tell her what is going on; and I wait until he is put into the ambulance; and I miss all three of Liverpool's goals.

But I feel so good, so virtuous, so pleased with myself.

Faith is being pleased with myself because God has performed this kindness through me, it is not me that is the origin of this goodness, it is God's Grace working in me. That is what faith is, it isn't the stuff in the theological textbooks, it is the absolute self denial in the course of doing good. That is what Paul meant when he put the emphasis on faith rather than on good works; it was not that he did not think it proper, as a creature of god, for us to behave as closely as we can in accordance with the life of Jesus, it is that this goodness is not our own, it works through us. Faith is knowing that as the creatures of our Creator, we owe our goodness to Him and not to something in ourselves.

That is the rock on which we must build our lives; the rock of the certainty of God's Grace working through us, much more reliable than a belief in human cleverness and kindness. This is deceptively simple but also horribly difficult. It is so hard to make the sacrifices that we do and not be allowed to take the credit; it is so hard to generate love and care and get nothing back from our neighbours; it is so hard to abandon our ideas about reciprocal arrangements and social contracts.

And yet, that is what we have to do. In order to build on the rock we have to sweep away all the human sand; we have to build our house with faith in our God and God alone; we have to put ourselves in His hands. This might seem difficult until we ask ourselves the questions: what do we really know? What can we really rely on? What do we really control? The answer to all three is, of course, not very much. Deep in our hearts we know from experience that our human endeavours are futile in the face of God; but knowing is not enough, we have to believe. Then we can build our house on the rock.