Saturday, March 03, 2007

Not Worthy, Not Willing, but Faithful: a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

I’m preaching tomorrow (Second Lent) at a local church, supplying for a colleague who has a chance to be away. He called me earlier this week, asking me about the Gospel lesson. Specifically, he asked me whether I wanted the long version or the short version. This congregation is still using the Prayer Book lectionary, and in that lectionary there is an optional extension.

The required lesson is Luke 13:31-35:

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "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.'"

Now, there is plenty in that to preach on, I suppose. However, some of you may have figured out by now that my sermons are only completed at the end of the week (sometimes in the shower Sunday morning; sometimes later). So, when he asked me whether I wanted the extended Gospel, I had to say that yes, I did. Since I didn’t know what I would preach on, I didn’t know whether there would be something in the extension that I would find compelling.

The extension is Luke 13:22-30:

"Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as 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 evildoers!' 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."

Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked for the extension. Those verses might be particularly loaded these days. Much of the argument among Christians these days, including much of the argument among Episcopalians and Anglicans, centers on the “narrow door.” Just now narrow? Just how tall? Just what key? Conditioned perhaps by generations of reading Alice in Wonderland or seeing it on screen, we have this image of a large person at best struggling through, and at worst staring through, a door that appears normal save that it is entirely too small.

At the same time, while I could choose not to preach on it, I can’t choose not to think about it. If I believe Holy Scripture is the “Word of God,” and “contains all things necessary to salvation,” I can’t discard out of hand even those passages that I find difficult.

It isn’t made easier by Paul’s statement from Philippians. He calls on his readers to imitate him and those who follow his example, and warns about “enemies of the cross of Christ:” “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” It is an image distinctly unattractive and distinctly challenging.

Perhaps, though, the analysis we need is in the lessons we have. You see, the challenge and the call is to trust this to God’s standards. That’s not easy. We want to impose our own. We want to guard the narrow door, and manage who comes and goes. Now, I’m not speaking specifically to current issues, and I’m certainly not trying to say anyone is “right.” I think this is a normal human failing; and I think in this case we’re all “wrong.”

There is that famous jest of Groucho Marx that he wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him. In a sense, that’s our problem, too. That plays two ways. Sometimes we’re concerned that we’re not worthy, that our behavior hasn’t measured up. Sometimes like Groucho we’re all too ready to say, “I can’t come, Lord. I’m not worthy.”

On the other hand, sometimes we try to justify ourselves by finding someone else to point out, someone else whose sins we want to consider somehow worse than ours. We’re all too ready to say, “If that person doesn’t change, doesn’t turn around, that person won’t be worthy.”

But, once again, our call is to trust God, and let God operate the door to God’s standards. Look what Jesus said about this. He said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Well and good; we want to be wanted, to be gathered by Jesus. But Jesus is clear: being gathered is about his desire, God’s desire to gather us, not about our worthiness or willingness to be gathered. We need context here. Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Not willing! And he says it to “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Hardly worthy! And yet still Jesus would have gathered them.

And this is hardly a new standard for God. Remember Jesus’ comment about the “narrow door:” “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.” Now, I imagine this might have confused those who were listening. After all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the Patriarchs, the first heroes of belief in one God. At the same time, they weren’t heroes because of their moral rectitude. Both Abraham and Isaac offered their wives to other men, as if they were not wives but sisters, to secure their own safety. Indeed, Abraham did it twice! And Jacob – well, he stole his brother’s birthright by fraud and he stole his father-in-law’s flocks by sorcery, and he sent his wives and children ahead to meet Esau first, lest Esau still be bent revenge. The Patriarchs were hardly heroic in a moral sense.

What they were heroic about was trusting in God’s plan for them. In today’s Old Testament lesson we have a covenant ceremony between God and Abram, not yet renamed Abraham. The covenant is a striking ceremony, with animal sacrifice and powerful visions. But we get there because God willed it, and because Abram believed: “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abram believed the Lord even though the promise seemed preposterous, and God’s performance to that point seemed inadequate. Still, Abram believed; and for God that was righteousness enough.

Now, we may still fret. We are concerned with what is at best just, or at least fair. We know our sins all too well; and whether we choose to mourn them or to try to make someone else’s look worse, we know deep down that we’re not worthy and perhaps not willing. How can God take us in? How can we get through the narrow door?

Paul answers that question for us. He certainly talks about “enemies of the cross of Christ” in terms that sometimes apply even to us. But he also calls us to trust Christ’s desire and determination to gather us. “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” We can trust even our worthiness to Christ. He will fit us to the narrow door, if only we will believe and will trust him to do it.

So during this season of Lent, remember why we fast. Remember for whom we prepare. We don’t do it to make ourselves worthy. We can’t make ourselves worthy. We fast and prepare to call us again to faith in God in Christ. We fast and prepare to embrace and express our faith in his promise and his desire for us. He is prepared to gather us, to embrace and protect us like a mother hen, even though we’re not worthy, even though we’re not even willing. We are called to trust in God, to trust in what God has done for us in Christ; and if we will only trust, for God that will be the righteousness enough.

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