March 22, 2015
At first glance, it seems like there’s not a lot of good news in today’s readings. Narrow gate, trees getting cut down, houses built on sand. We did not enjoy talking about this last portion of the Sermon on the Mount at Bible study on Wednesday. But I forget that I know another way to read the Bible sometimes, and the way I’ve heard it interpreted throughout my lifetime pops up first—do your best to enter heaven through the narrow gate. The road to hell is going to be crowded. But I know that’s what the Pharisees and teachers of the law already believed, so that must not be what Jesus is saying. Let’s see if we can find a stream of logic in Jesus’ message that will lead us to abundant life in this world. First let’s close hell and say that it’s not an option. I believe that God’s extraordinary love and forgiveness trumps anything we can do—that’s what grace means. And let’s put heaven on hold. This is the life that we have some control over and Jesus teaches practical ways to live abundantly in the gift of this life.
First the narrow door. My mother used to drag out this age-old adage, which turns out to be a Zen koan, every time I wanted to do something others in my crowd were doing: “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you join them?” Which translates: Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s smart. How many of you heard something similar? I may have been asking to go to a party where there was no adult supervision or to go to a movie downtown with another teenager—pretty innocuous stuff, although fraught with some danger. But consider the consequences of the banking panics of 1930 and 1931. Or consider, in more recent history, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 2001 that killed 2, 996 people and caused $10 billion in damage to property and the infrastructure. I was with a group of newly ordained United Methodist clergy in Mexico in the days leading up to the war. Scores of Mexican citizens told us that Americans were crazy and offered similar advice to my mother’s. How many members of Congress and ordinary American citizens followed the Bush administration into two ill-advised wars that we are still fighting at an accumulated cost of $814.6 billion in Iran and $685.6 billion in Afghanistan according to the Congressional Research Service? Over 57,600 Americans have lost their lives or been wounded. The cost to Iraq and Afghanistan have been greater. Surely there was a narrow gate in response to 9/11 and we missed it and the loss of lives and resources and the wounds of war will haunt us for a very long time. Jesus says the narrow gate leads to abundant life for all of us, the wide path sometimes leads to ruin.
How can we recognize wise leaders that can help us discern the narrow gate? Jesus says that we will know them by their fruit. That’s just plain common sense. Ideology can be deceptive, but fruit tells the story. In Jesus’ day, you could tell the difference between temple leaders, whose observance of ritual purity and strict obedience to the law only added to their sense of self-importance, and someone who would stop and help you. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this point. Remember, hell is closed, so no one is going to be thrown into the fire, but every person in Jesus’ audience knew that you get figs from a fig tree and thorns from brambles. Don’t be naïve. You will know the people of God by the good fruit that they produce. Pay attention to the fruit! Just as a good gardener would not waste time and resources on a fruit tree that was not bearing, do not waste your time following or give your allegiance to those who do not bear fruit, or whose fruit is hate, greed, and self-serving judgment. Remove leaders who are unfaithful in their leadership. Rise up and demand better leadership. The saying is true in all parts of our lives. We can examine our own prejudices and biases by looking for evidence of fruit in other people and systems.
We can also examine our own lives for fruit to determine if our actions are adding to the abundance of the Kingdom of God here and now for all of God’s creatures or not. Jesus warns us away from being self-deceptive. Adhering to a system of beliefs is so much easier that confining our actions to the teachings of Jesus. There is a profound difference between faith in Jesus and living Jesus’ faith—or living as Jesus lived. Being co-creators in the Kingdom of God is lived out in our everyday choices, not in a moment of “being saved.” Our beliefs don’t matter as much as our actions. I had a congregant once come to me concerned that her uncle did not believe in Jesus and was not “saved.” I asked her to tell me about her uncle. She said he was a kind man who was always helping others. He helped everyone in his neighborhood. He loved his wife and his children. He was her favorite uncle because he was such a good man, but he did not go to church. What could she do to save his soul? “Why does he need to go to church?” I asked. “He is already following Jesus’ teachings, whether he knows it or not.” Like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, her uncle loved his neighbor as himself, which is the most tangible way of loving God. I may say that I love God, but if my actions to not show it, according to the apostle Paul, I am “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The little choices we make each day can lead to peace in our homes, or discord; freedom in our communities or oppression; dignity for our neighbors or prejudice and bias; fair governance or partisanship; feeding our world or famine; war among nations or peace. We build the home, community and world we want to live in one choice at a time. Each choice adds to the Kingdom of God or detracts from it. I want the choices I make to create a healthier world.
I want to build on the solid rock of Jesus’ teaching. If there’s anything we know from living along the coast of Washington, it’s the difference between building on rock and sand. We know the damage storms can do when we build precariously or unwisely. We know the heart-ache of mudslides. As followers of Jesus, we build not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors as well. So let us build wise lives that honor one another choice by choice, action by action, always choosing love, as co-creators in the Kingdom of God.