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Lenten sermon at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, March 4, 2007

Sermon at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, 3/4/07

Good morning. It's great to be back from the wonderful sabbatical you gave me, and able to meet and get to know so many new people here. Today's assigned reading comes from the

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, verses two 2-35

Here begins the reading: Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching. He made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then in reply he will say to you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'

But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evil-doers!' There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.

Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."' Here ends the reading

In the name of God, our creator, our redeemer, and our friend along the way. Amen.

I think this heartbreaking, yet hopeful and very beautiful passage in which Jesus laments the fate of Jerusalem, and warns us there is a risk we might be shut out of Paradise if we don't shape up, is appropriate for us to be thinking about at this time in our liturgical year. This is because we are in the season of Lent. As most of you know, Lent is the season set aside for us to slow down, reflect on our lives, repent our misdeeds, and try to make a fresh start, before the joyful season of Easter begins. Indeed, said Jesus in this Gospel, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. Several verses later he adds Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell  you, will try to enter and will not be able. ... The response Jesus makes to Herod here, and laments over Jerusalem makes plain Jesus' resolution to carry out the purpose for which God sent Him, despite the obstacles put before him. This passage is sad, but at the same time hopeful and encouraging, because Jesus points us in a direction to follow. I think it is his way of trying to get us to recognize the path to lives which are right and true.

Living with the Jesus whom we know walked the streets of Jerusalem, means living in ways which often fight against our cultural and very human ways. We could do so much better. It would please God, and take only a little effort. For example, I think of the incredible waste and piles of trash of mostly non-biodegradable plastic, generated by the Nursing Home in which I live; the excessive and unnecessary driving so many of us do, and countless other things we could do, which would make our world a better place to live, such as recycle more, and use more energy efficient appliances.

This passage also speaks of Jesus' ultimate and unconditional love. How wonderful it would be to be sheltered beneath God's protective wings like a brood of chicks.

What Jesus has to say about us not recognizing the way and him, in this context is really important too. Even though it was said for the benefit of the Jewish people living in Jerusalem, it applies equally to us who are living today.

One of the difficulties the Jews of Jesus' day had with the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was that their lot didn't seem to change. For example, they were still under Roman dominion. There was no room in their thinking for the Incarnation, for they already had a very set preconceived notion of what God's reign was going to look like. It didn't leave room forsomeone who looked or acted like Jesus. He was one who was a servant. He must have been a party animal too, because he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. His friends were the wrong kind of people too. They were prostitutes and sinners, and all sorts of riff raff. He was one who was willing to suffer, and also one who was willing to be the ultimate sacrifice for the wrongs done by people. He was not the conquering king of many of the Psalms and some of the prophets, but the suffering servant of Isaiah. This was a BIG change from what was expected of the Messiah, and has profound implications for what or who we are supposed to look like in our everyday lives today.

This applies to whatever settings we find ourselves in, individually and as the Body of Christ. It has consequences for us too, if we wish to be God's partners in ushering in God's reign here. It becomes clear if we want to see who Jesus is and what God's ways are.

In John Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS, there is a passage where Christian comes at daybreak to the end of what has been a harrowing journey through the night. As he looks behind him, he sees the narrow path. And on either side terrible pits, snares, rocks, and other horrors, including body parts of various unfortunate travelers who missed the trail. He realizes that he has been spared, that he has been guided one careful step at a time all the way along, and avoided the pitfalls. Bunyan goes on quite at length to write about the guidance and light afforded by Scripture, and by others of strong faith and good heart and moral courage. They are also spared by God's grace. They are making the journey with us. We all have to do that. The choice is to accept grace, love and guidance and God's transformative power because of the work Jesus did here, or we can say no. It is a choice and it is a pilgrimage and a process, and Jesus makes that very clear in this passage.

The other big piece of this is the difference grace makes, visible from this side of the crucifixion. It is wrapped in how we respond to God and what our primary motivation for responding to God becomes in light of that grace. We move from doing right things out of duty to doing right things out of love. These are the lives we as disciples of Jesus and participants in the Kingdom of Heaven are meant to live. For example, practical implications for me, come when I choose to be kind and tactful to some of my nurses, when they persist on doing things, which really annoy me, like leave my bathroom light on unnecessarily. I also choose to be pleasant when an elderly man or woman, who might be lost, strays in to my room, uninvited. I laugh when the nurses make rude, and sometimes insensitive personal remarks about me, because we both know they are only pulling my leg. Even so, sometimes I have my feelings hurt, and it's a challenge to rise above it. While I'm on this tangent, another thing which is very hard for me, living at Bishop White Lodge is dealing with so much death. Many of my table mates have died, and so many other residents whom I greet every day, and have grown quite fond of have died too. I didn't think it would bother me so much when I first moved in, but it is incredibly draining. My admiration for all of the nurses who deal with this in a much closer and more personal way than I do is absolutely boundless. ... Oh! How I wish all of you knew my favorite resident, Elsie Stillmonk! She is over 100, and rather deaf, but we've developed quite a friendship, and wave to each other rather gaily, coming and going to meals, six times a day.

OKAY, my side track is over. Back to Jesus and this Gospel. . . Let me try to say what I'm saying in a different way. During World War 11, United States and British POWs were forced to construct a bridge over the river Kwai. A deep chasm separated the two sides. The bridge was clearly sturdy enough to take their weight and wide enough for them to safely walk across, yet some stood in fear, knowing that a misstep in either direction would result in death. This story can be used as a metaphor to illustrate the daily challenge of living the kind of life we are called to, and keeping a morally balanced worldview ... The path represents the Christian life. The bridge represents the Moral way to approach issues of wrong doing in our lives, and the chasm represents what people fall into if they err on either side of the Moral position. The problem facing us as the body of Christ is that Christians have the tendency of falling off one side or the other. We often overcompensate for an error we have seen or experienced and go plunging into the abyss of the OTHER side of the bridge. On the one side is the erroneous response of legalism. This view says that if we simply make enough rules and hold people to them, they will not do wrong. On the other side there is the erroneous response of unlimited liberty. This says that since the Law can do nothing to restrain behavior, and since we are saved by grace anyway, then it really does not matter what we do with our bodies or any of our material goods ...

Somewhere in the middle is the balanced view which understands that the Law, or the religious establishment, cannot restrain us. Yet we are not free to do whatever we want. This is why we need Christ. It is this middle place that is the most difficult to maintain. It is easy to fall off a bridge - and many in the Church do not even know that the Moral middle exists. The folks plunging off one side of the bridge look at folks plunging off the other side point their fingers and say, 'See how wrong you are!' Neither group is able to see the ground rushing up at them.

Let us consider the difference Grace has made because of Jesus' sacrifice. And how we are now not motivated by law but by love. That makes a huge difference. I struggle with this a lot, because sometimes my faith in God feels so weak as to be non existent, and I think I must have been a fool to have chosen this vocation. But, even when I know I am falling short, and the way ahead is not clear, I still do my best to go through the narrow door. I think this is the best that any of us can do.

Come, let us pray:

Merciful and loving God, we thank you first of all for our many blessings, for our families, our friends, this church, and the earth, our island home. We thank you for Jesus, and giving us this passage in the season of Lent, when he encourages us to do better. Be with us on our journey. Support us when we falter. Hold our hand when we are afraid. Shelter us under your protective wings, like a brood of chicks. Give us the courage to persevere.

Be with our troops who are abroad. Fill us with your shalom, and guide us as we struggle to follow you through the door.

In your name we pray. Amen.