What Is The House That You Would Build For Me?
July 5, 2020
Isaiah 66.1-4, Matthew 7.21-27
Chrissy and I bought our first home – or at least, we started paying the bank for it – in the fall of 2013. We did our due diligence and had the property inspected, and everything turned out to be in good shape, except there was a little bit of mold growth on one of the beams in the crawl space. The inspector assured us that we could get rid of it by scrubbing it down with some bleach and, not knowing any better, we didn’t think much of it and went ahead with the purchase.
We knew that continued exposure to mold could potentially cause health problems, so one of the first things I did once we were in the house was head down to the crawl space to try to get rid of it. However, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the mold had spread throughout the entire foundation. Without first educating ourselves properly, we hired a number of different people to try to take care of the problem, and each of them cleaned the mold that was there but failed to address the environment that was allowing it to continue growing. Three companies and over $6000 later, we finally found a mold remediation company that fixed the problem and taught us what they were doing and why they were doing it. It was definitely a learning experience for Chrissy and I as new homeowners, and while we were frustrated to realize we had
spent a lot of money without really knowing exactly what we were spending it on or why, we were happy to have come out of it with the knowledge of how to go forward monitoring the crawl space environment in an effective way and keeping a clean foundation.
The author of today’s text from Isaiah has God addressing a people who have returned from captivity in Babylon to a devastated homeland. The community is struggling with its own sinfulness and injustice while they engage in the difficult work of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. After declaring, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool,” God asks, “What is the house that you would build for me?” Now, I detect a hint of sarcasm here. Directly before this passage, at the end of Isaiah 65, God describes the new heavens and new earth that God will create, a peaceable kingdom reminiscent of the idyllic Garden of Eden, where even “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” God, the ultimate Creator of all who has heaven as throne and earth as footstool, is promising a new creation of universal peace and redemption. So, what physical house built by the hands of mere mortals could ever possibly be worthy of God’s satisfaction? How arrogant to think that any walls we put up could ever contain God! No house is worthy of God, and neither are any sacrifices or offerings, without the proper attitude toward God. “This is the one to whom I will look,” God says, “to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” God
has no need of any of our human offerings, but only takes pleasure in them if they are accompanied by the sincere desire to follow and act upon God’s word. A humble, repentant, and pure heart is the house God asks each one of us to build and maintain.
Jesus has a similar message for his disciples when he teaches about the wise and foolish builders. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers this teaching as a closing to the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), which begins with the Beatitudes (5:3-12) and includes teachings on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (6:1-18) as well as the way of righteousness (7:7-23). Immediately before the parable, Jesus echoes God’s admonition from Isaiah regarding acts that are all show without substance, saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God in heaven.” He further explains by providing the images of the two builders. Only obedience to Jesus’ teachings – the will of God – allows for the building of a house that is secure from its very foundation and can withstand the storms that are sure to rage in the process of bringing about the kingdom of heaven.
But why would Jesus use this particular image of building a foundation on rock when even Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he’d build his church (Mt. 16:18), crumbled when it mattered most in denying Jesus before his trial and crucifixion (Mt. 26:69-74)? Acting upon Jesus’ words necessarily requires an attitude of repentance. In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus undergoes a baptism of repentance. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins his Galilean ministry with a proclamation of repentance, and Luke emphasizes repentance more than any other New Testament author. The Greek verb for “repent” – “μετανοέω” – can also be translated as “to perceive afterwards” or “to change one’s mind or purpose.” Peter immediately perceived what he had done after his denial of Jesus and as he “wept bitterly,” he changed his mind (Mt. 26:75). Even though Peter’s personal foundation was faulty, in him, Jesus saw a humble and repentant heart that could serve as the rock upon which he would establish his church. While each of us may have mold in the crawl space or cracks in our foundation that need to be addressed, we honor God and follow Jesus by keeping humble and repentant hearts and continually monitoring our foundations.
For this summer’s book study at College Park, we’ve been reading The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by presidential biographer Jon Meacham. Overall, I’ve found it to be incredibly enlightening. I’ve always loved American history, and while I recall learning in school about many of the people and events included in this book, I find myself taking quite a long time to get through each chapter, because I’m constantly stopping to look up the issues addressed and realizing how skewed much of my education was growing up. I had a similar experience when I first encountered postcolonialism while at Wake Div, which is essentially the study of the aftermath of Western colonialism and imperialism and its consequences upon colonized people and lands. It’s jarring now to perceive after the fact that even in relatively liberal Connecticut, high school history (and really, the entire public school system) was set up and taught from a colonialist, white supremacist perspective. We all know that history is written by the winners, but how often do we stop to think how deeply this has rooted white supremacy in our national and also in our personal narratives?
In our summer book study small discussion groups, it’s been interesting to hear about how different everyone’s early lives and educational experiences were based on where they grew up. Many of us have begun to understand in new ways how deeply these early experiences have affected our foundational beliefs and ways of being, with particular regard to the concept of race. In one of my recent small-group conversations, one of our middle-aged white, cisgender male members commented, “Growing up, I never woke up and thought about what the experience of being Black must be like and being hated simply for the color of my skin. I was never encouraged to do that until maybe in the last 5 or 6 years, and it’s completely changed my life.” I’m sure it’s been uncomfortable for each of us but also promising to see a community with individuals of all ages and from various geographic backgrounds reckoning with the many ways in which we have been and continue to be complicit in the white supremacist structure of this country. Reexamining our national history has forced each of us to rethink our personal narratives and consider the ways in which our faulty foundations continue to affect us.
For the past several years, and particularly in response to the recent publicized wave of police brutality against Black bodies and lives, many white people across the country are finally waking up to perceive the foundational and ongoing national sin of white supremacy in which we’re all complicit. Thankfully, many are finally beginning to understand the need to repent on a national level and go in a different direction. We’ve seen this in the push to rename military bases and tear down statues and monuments glorifying not only Confederate soldiers, but also other powerful political figures from our past with racist ideologies. We’ve seen it in the long-overdue removal of Confederate symbols from state facilities and flags, including Mississippi’s just this past week. We’ve seen it in the movement to restructure and rethink the way we do policing in our communities. We’ve seen it in the way people of all colors continue to show up at protests across the country, calling for structural change in the ways we treat Black lives. There is hope that we may be at a moment where enough hearts and minds are finally changing to bring about shifts in policy that actually begin to effectively address this country’s rampant racial injustice on a systemic level.
In his sermon last week, Michael elaborated on a number of ways that he, and really all of us who are white, cannot possibly understand what it must be like to live as a person of color in this country while also highlighting the need for us to wrestle with and hold ourselves accountable for that which we don’t know. As we become more educated and address the faults in our personal foundations, truly humble and repentant hearts will move those of us who are white to hold ourselves accountable and move beyond simply acting as “performative allies” in the ongoing struggle for racial justice. Going online to post opinions, quotes, pictures, hashtags, or even songs we’ve written amounts to simply calling out, “Lord, Lord!” while taking delight in empty temple sacrifices and offerings if these acts simply function to make us feel good about ourselves and increase our own social capital. If we are to follow the liberating Christ, white repentance calls us to go further. As we individually begin to clean out and repair our personal foundations, we must be prepared to face the occasional light showers that will result from putting our white privilege on the line as compared to the destructive storm that’s been raging over the Black community throughout this nation’s history. We must move beyond white guilt and actually change our purpose by continuing to educate ourselves through reading, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries, TV shows, and films that focus on the Black experience; we can donate to organizations that work toward the betterment of Black lives; we can speak up when we have the chance and seek out opportunities to do so; we can shop at Black-owned businesses and become more aware in general of where the dollars we spend end up. We must continually be intentional about centering Black lives and voices.
In our staff meeting this past week, I appreciated James reminding us that it’s not only white repentance that’s needed, but people of all colors in this country still have work to do in order to decolonize our minds. Womanist author and activist bell hooks writes about this in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, when she says, “The will to dominate knows no color. Every citizen in a dominator culture has been socialized to believe that domination is the foundation of all human relations.” But she also offers us the hopeful message that we can move toward repairing this “dominator culture” foundation and change individuals and structures by sharing knowledge “in a way that reinforces mutual partnerships.” She suggests, “Thought patterns and actions that help perpetuate and maintain white supremacy can be easily unlearned… Love will always move us away from domination in all its forms. Love will always challenge and change us.”
Chrissy and I were uncomfortably surprised, angered, and disappointed to find out how serious the mold problem was in our crawl space. But once we took the steps needed to effectively educate ourselves, remediate the problem, and monitor it going forward, we felt a certain sense of empowerment. Now, we make sure the environment stays safe and healthy by checking our digital hygrometer often and looking in the crawl space regularly to make sure there’s no water coming in. With an attitude of humility and repentance, we can act upon the words of Christ by continually monitoring our foundations and maintaining a healthy environment upon which we can build a house that’s worthy of God – a house where all are welcome, where Black Lives Matter, and where love is extended to people of every color and nation. And we can take action to work toward this kind of transformation in our local community by supporting the racial justice work already being done by organizations like Equality NC, Greensboro Rising, Guilford for All, the Guilford Anti-Racism Alliance, and WE ARE NC. If you haven’t already gotten involved with these organizations, links to each of their websites are provided in this week’s worship and devotion guide and also in the YouTube video description below. Let’s build this house together. Amen.