March 27, 2011

"2 Roads, 2 Trees, 2 Houses"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’ Vision for a New World

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-29

Several years ago, a man boarded a bus in New York City with the clear intention of going to Detroit.  However, when he had finished his long journey and stepped from the bus, he found himself not in Detroit but in Kansas City.

When he landed in Kansas City he had a hard time believing he was not in Detroit.  He stepped from the bus and asked the way to Woodward Avenue.  When he was told there was no Woodward Avenue he grew angry.  Only after some time did it sink in that despite his intentions, he was not in Detroit.  He had taken the wrong bus.1

There is something universally familiar about this story.  And it has nothing to do with men’s failure to ask for directions and ending up in the wrong place.  It has to do with how many of us start out with good goals and right desires - happiness, a good family life, competence in our work, the respect of friends, and a life of service that will make the world a better place - we start out with the best of intentions, but when we reach our destination, we discover we’re in the wrong place.  And we can’t believe it.  “This can't be happening!” we say to ourselves, “This can’t be true!”  Turns out we have taken the wrong bus to get where we wanted to go and didn’t even know it.

The Prodigal Son did not start out for a pig pen.  His desire was happiness, freedom, independence, adventure - all good goals.  But the means he chose in order to reach his goals landed him somewhere else altogether.

The critical question for us this morning is:  Are we on the road that leads where we want to go?  Do our day-by-day choices and decisions match our desired destination?  Are we on the right bus?

Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount with three images: roads, trees, and houses.  Every one of them involves a stark contrast designed to force people to choose.  And it all comes down to this: Will you be wholly devoted to Jesus with all of your heart and life or will you not?  Will you follow Jesus or just admire him? 

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount spouting forth blessing: “Blessed are you.  Blessed are you.  Blessed are you.”  Even if you thought you were a million miles away from God, blessing is yours if you want it.  Throughout the Sermon he describes the life of blessing.  Then at the end he says, “If you want this life, here is how you obtain it:

2 ROADS (7.13-14)

Enter in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and only a few find it.

The broad way through the wide gate is the way of the crowd, the path of least of resistance, drifting along, admiring Jesus perhaps, but reserving for yourself the right to do whatever is most convenient.  This easy, self-serving way is the road to destruction.  It is the harder way that brings life as you live it.  Actor Tom Hanks, speaking of both art and life, said, “The hard is what makes it great.”

Now, if the narrow way leads to the life that we all want, why don’t more people take it?  And if the broad way leads to the destruction that we want to avoid, why do so many of us take that path?

Is it just because its hard?  I’m not so sure.  I think perhaps we avoid the narrow way because on that road Jesus calls us to give up our lives.  Before there is a “yes” to this kind of life, there is a “no” to another kind of life.  Throughout the Sermon, Jesus has been talking about becoming a certain kind of person.  And to become a person of intention means that one “yes” means a thousand “no’s - no to revenge, gossip, slander, hoarding, etc. 

Flannery O’Connor said, “Vocation implies limitation.”  I will write this, not that; do this, not that; take this path, not that one; choose this mate and not another.  Those who set out to be singers, athletes, artists, even spouses - such a life requires intention; saying no to certain behaviors and paths.

The narrow road is a life of limitation.  Christian spirituality requires boundaries, restrictions, confinement, and most of us don’t want that; we resist it.  But it is only within limits that anything meaningful can happen.  People mistakenly think that happiness comes from removing all limits.  But we are called to live abundantly within the inherent limits and boundaries of our lives.2

Why is this narrow gate the harder way?  Well, hear it described throughout the Sermon.  It is the way of:

the poor in spirit
those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
the merciful
the pure in heart
the peacemakers 

It is the way of:

healing words
trustworthy speech
faithful relationships
love of enemy
trust in God
freedom from possessions
refusing to judge others

Can we live this narrow way?  Not apart from the One who taught these words.  And if we admit such and ask for Christ’s help, we have begun the path, the path which begins with the first words of the Sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” - those who know their need of God.  This narrow road is the way of Christ, with Christ, in Christ.

And it is a path we are invited to take in the company of those who are walking in the way of Jesus with us.  We need each other more than we could ever know.

Every life has a fork in the road and we have to choose.  The road is narrow and tough because it takes us to those places where we must make some painful and difficult choices - to love the enemy, to be peacemakers, to embrace persecution if need be.  We have to choose which path we will take. 

A lecturer with an engagement to speak in a certain city arrived on a plane that was late.  He jumped from the plane into a taxi and said to the chauffeur, “Drive fast, step on it!”  And the taxi driver did.  He stepped on it.  After some fifteen minutes, speeding through the streets and skidding around corners, the lecturer said, “Aren’t we about there?”  The taxi driver said, “I don’t know, sir.  You never told me where we were to go.”

Richard Rohr says that decisiveness is crucial to faith.  That unless there is an organizing principle, unless one is Lord, we will be lost in our own small world of preferences, interpretations, and cultural moods.3

True freedom is not freedom from limitation.  True freedom is freedom to become our authentic self.  In order for the self to grow and flourish requires limitation and choice.

2 TREES (7.15-23)

We want the self, our lives, to bear good fruit.

Jesus talks here about fruit in terms of how to tell a true teacher from a false teacher.  We all need guides along the narrow way.  But we need to be careful who we follow.  You cannot tell true teachers from false teachers by their orthodoxy, their right belief, or their beautiful words.  Nor is it by their success or effectiveness.  Rather, it is by the fruit of their lives.  True teachers live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.  The fruit is the life Jesus has just described in his Sermon.  Teachers will not always perfectly bear this fruit, but it will dominate the nature of their lives.  True teachers and true disciples have a relationship of faithful intimacy with God that creates inner transformation.

The hope is that led by these Spirit fruit-bearing guides we all will bear the fruit of the Spirit. Because, Jesus says, “Not everyone who makes a confession of faith in Jesus as Lord enters the kingdom of God; only the one who does the will of my Abba who is in heaven.”  Jesus is not that concerned about what you say you believe.  He’s concerned about what you do, how you act.

In order to be the kind of tree that bears good fruit requires us to make a conscious decision every single day to be rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s Spirit.  Psalm 1 says the blessed are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.”  Glen Stassen talks about this in terms of the unity of inward roots and outward fruits.4

2 HOUSES (7.24-27)

So there’s a narrow road lined with trees that bear the fruit of the Spirit, leading to a house built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teachings.

Imagine two houses, Jesus said - one built on rock, the other built on sand.  He says the difference in the two is in the doing of the builder.  Both builders hear the words of Jesus.  But only the one who acts on the words of Jesus has their house built on rock.

Think about mobile homes.  They offer mobility.  They can be moved around; you can live in the same house but in several different places.  Sounds nice.  Why don’t more of us have them?  Because when a storm comes, mobile homes are the most likely to be tossed around, turned over, and destroyed.  It’s the cost of mobility; too much freedom can lead to destruction.  You can’t build your house on sand or wheels.

Hearing the words of Jesus and putting them into practice is building your life on rock.  That means your life cannot be ruled by anger, lust or deception, retaliation, hoarding or judging others.  You can only build a solid life on honesty, reconciliation, generosity, prayer.  The one difference between the foolish and the wise is not the level of your education, but what you do with the words of Jesus. Scripture says to us, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only.”

Because storms will come to us all.  Everyone of us will struggle.  Sometimes the winds will blow in your life in ways you do not want.  That’s when the foundation of your life will be tested.  What will you lean on for strength and wisdom on the worst day you ever have?  Are you building the house of your life on rock or are you building on sand?  What is the foundation of your life?

CONCLUSION: Admirers of Jesus or Followers of Jesus (7.28-29)

To find joy and meaning, Jesus says you have choose: this narrow road leads to life, this broad road leads to destruction.  The most important question is not, What will I have to give up to follow Jesus? but rather, What will I never get to experience if I choose not to follow Jesus?  The answer is: we will forfeit the chance to live a good and beautiful life.5

Jesus concludes the Sermon in this way hoping to move us from being part of the crowd to being a disciple.  At the beginning of the Sermon we are told that the audience is a crowd and the disciples.  At the end we read that the crowds are amazed at his teaching and authority.  But Jesus doesn’t want admirers.  He is beckoning us from the crowd to be a disciple, a follower, to choose his way, to act on his words.

It is possible to hear these words of Jesus and not be changed.  You can’t just hear the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve got to pray it.  Pray asking the Spirit to move these words into your heart and mind so you can live them.

We have to be honest about where we are.  It may be you may need to acknowledge, like the man who boarded the wrong bus, that so far your goal has been to get to Kansas City, but you are really in Detroit, and you need to stop trying to convince yourself that you’re somewhere you are not.

It’s so easy to catch the wrong bus.  We do it when we do not mean to.  We get on it without realizing we are there, all the while thinking, like that man going to Detroit, that we are headed where we want to go, when we’re really going somewhere else.

Some of you may have gotten on the wrong bus and fear it’s too late to get off.  You think you’ve messed up so badly and things are so bad you do not think anything can make a difference anymore.  You fear that once you’ve gotten on the wrong track, you can’t get back on the right one.  But if you are on the wrong bus, there’s time to make a change.  Today this sanctuary can be a bus stop where you get off the wrong bus and get on the right one.

Jesus ends his sermon with an altar call.  The choice is ours to make.  The choice between the broad way that leads to destruction and the narrow way that leads to life.  It is a choice God has always set before God’s people.  God said to the children of Israel:

See, I have set before you today life and death.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, following his commandments, then you shall live.

(Do you think Jesus had this text in mind when he said, “Narrow is the way that leads to life”?)

But, God says, if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led away to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.

(You hear Jesus again?  “But broad is the way that leads to destruction.”)
(God then says to them, urges them),

      Choose life!

(And with the command “Choose life,” there is always the promise, “I will be your help.”)

The way that leads to life is offered to us in Jesus Christ.  And God is not as interested in what you’ve done as in what you become.  Your becoming can begin anew today.

Now the hard work of the Sermon on the Mount begins.  We’re done with the series, but the series is not done with us.

Throughout this journey through the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve been thinking about my own life and how much I hear and speak Jesus’ words but fail to act on them.  I have been convicted over these past three months to work on the foundation of my life and build my house more firmly on the rock of acting on Jesus’ words.

What work has God’s Spirit been doing in you as you’ve listened to these words of Jesus?

I’ve also been thinking about our church and how often we get bogged down in conversation about ourselves or what we think we ought to be doing, how we’ll read books about all sorts of things, but when it comes to the doing we don’t often get there.  We drift along the broad road as admirers of Jesus or even believers in Jesus and fall short of being devoted followers of Jesus.

The road to life is narrow and difficult.  All trees need God’s help to grow.  As the psalmist says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain.”  There is help for the road ahead.

Wendell Berry’s poem “To the Holy Spirit” closes: “By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate.”6  The narrow way is difficult but it has been fashioned by the wide grace of God.  You walk through the narrow gate and grace takes you by the hand and leads you home to true life.

I imagine this house near the beach, close to the sand but built on rock.  There are beautiful trees all around, and a gate that leads down the road to the house.  From the gate to the house the ocean is in full view.  The ocean is the wide mercy of God.  It’s the only way we can walk through the gate.  It’s the only way the trees can bear good fruit.  It’s the only way the house can stand when the storms come.  The wide mercy of God.  The grace that is greater than all our sin.  The love that keeps this world.

Will you enter that narrow gate opening up into the wide mercy of God where life and blessing grow and flourish like a fruit-bearing tree of righteousness, where we can live at home with God in a house that no storm can destroy?  Anybody ready to walk through the narrow gate and take the narrow road?  Let’s enter it together.  It is the road less traveled, as in Robert Frost’s memorable poetic line: “I took the road less traveled by / and that has made all the difference.”

Do we always know the way?  Can we always know the way?  Or know that we are on the way?  No, not always.  Sometimes we know but do not have it in us to follow.  But we can orient our lives around the desire to follow the way and trust God to be with us.  It is what Thomas Merton prayed in his great prayer put to music and sang so beautifully by Kate Campbell.  May it be our prayer as we listen and move toward the silence.

(Play over the sound system Kate Campbell, “Prayer of Thomas Merton”):  O Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and that fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire to please You.  And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.7

1. Harry Emerson Fosdick, “On Catching the Wrong Bus,” Riverside Sermons, Harper and Brothers, 1958, 38
2. David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence, Ulysses, 2002, 90
3. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan of a New World, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996,  168
4. Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, Jossey Bass, 2006,  56
5. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life, Intervarsity Press, 2009, 31
6. Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, North Point Press, 1984, 209
7. “Prayer of Thomas Merton,” Words by Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978, 103.  Music by Kate Campbell, Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham, For the Living of These Days (CD), 2006, Large River Music (BMI)