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The sentences were few and simple but it was only later that night that their significance began to well up in his heart overflowing into his body and mind. It was as though knowledge or perhaps truth or whatever it is that words can carry actually had weight to it. It pressed him down on the rustled sheets of his bed. Then as though his nose were too heavy to be held upright his head slowly fell to his left and turned towards the window where he caught the light the moon. The moonlight held his gaze and he lay there motionless drifting away from what he was coming to realize. A slight kink in his neck broke the trance and he tilted his head slightly to stretch it out. With his head now facing the window at a new angle the moon somehow looked different. Willem sat up in bed and broke the silence by something between a laugh and sigh. The window was open at an angle and the moon that he saw was only a reflection. . . . The moon was not there. He took heart and almost allowed a smile. What he thought he had was no longer his. His life was not his own. His life was at the mercy of . . . what? He wondered what exactly was holding him together? What Willem “heard” that day could be any number of things. It could be the loss of a job or life’s savings. It could be the knowledge of his wife leaving him for someone else. It could be finding out that his parents had just died in car accident. Perhaps a doctor told him he had a year to live or that he could no longer do what he was passionate about. The glue that was holding Willem’s world together came undone. He was left with the sense that he was at the mercy of something behind or beyond the passing images that he had trusted in. He was still intact, but by what? You would think after centuries of human civilization we would come to accept what must be thrust on all of us at some time. Our life is not our own. Whatever else we might dispute about the Bible’s theology I am not sure that we can get around this concept. The Bible begins and ends assuming this to be true. The Bible continually asks us, “How will you lose your life?” Jesus makes the statement concise in Matthew 16:25, For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. In either case we must at some point experience the loss of life. That we will lose our life is not an option, what we are offered is the opportunity of how and when. 1
As I was getting into this sermon it started to feel more and more morbid or bleak. Okay everyone lets talk about how we need to put our worldly lives to death and then we can go enjoy this beautiful afternoon. I am convinced, however, that many of our feelings about this sort of death come from the contrast it has with our culture. We continue to worship at the shrine of youth, strength and beauty. We are obsessed with stopping the effects of aging. We have continued and intensified our quest for the Holy Grail. Scientists receive huge grants and funding for their research into extending human longevity. Already in his mid-fifties scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil stated in an interview his belief that the science of immortality will be developed within his lifetime. In a perceptive response to Kurzweil biologist Lee Silver states that even if the technology of immortality were available the motivation behind its development and distribution would doom its ever being accessible to humanity at large. Silver states that the motivation behind this technology is self-preservation. Control of this technology would likely result in more fighting and deaths than lives it would save. Knowing how to keep a heart beating is much different than knowing how to save a life. Now Jesus’s life and message certainly do not carry any latent suicidal tendencies. This is not a message of despair or escape. Ironically, in light of Jesus’s words suicide is not even about someone losing a life. Rather it can be viewed as another attempt to take back control of our life when we feel that it has been lost too far in the chaos around us. This could well have been one of Willem’s responses in the opening scene that I read. Jesus is not talking about a response to how we feel about life. Jesus is trying to tell us about what our life actually is. Our life is not our own. This idea was already the basis of our other reading this morning from Deuteronomy 30:15-20. After all of the laws, promises and curses are laid out in 2
Deuteronomy Moses tells the people that they now have the opportunity to choose life or death. Life was not the prize they received for following all the laws that Moses gave them. Rather the laws and the way they lived were a response to recognizing where their life came from. Listen to how Moses begins the renewal of the people’s covenant with God,
Your eyes have seen all that the LORD did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. . . . During the forty years that I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the LORD your God. It was as the people were going to cross the river Jordan and enter the land of Israel that God had promised them that God called them to choose a life that reflected how they were treated in the desert. In the desert the people’s life was not their own, it was at the mercy of God, fully and daily. Moses even warns them that this covenant will be something completely different if they do not trust God and put their trust in other things. He says that “when such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’” To this one who is trying to save their life Moses says disaster will come. This is why the New Testament can still affirm the Old Testament because it was always based in trust and not in works. This is why Moses can tell the people in this same section,
What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. . . . No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
Then as the section concludes in Deuteronomy 30:20 Moses concludes, Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life. 3
There is only one life to choose and it is not your own. For the LORD is your life. God carried them in the desert for 40 years to show them that their life is not their own. God was now sending them to live among the nations as a people who understood that their life came from God and not only that their life came from God but that God was their life. So how is it that Willem can move from his feelings of despair and confusion into new life? Jesus says that the small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and with some sting he adds at the end and few find it. I would like to say that life doesn’t have to be hard to find this path but the imagery does not allow many other readings. Speaking last week with a couple who have been married for 60 years they affirm that they could think of nothing good that did not come with hardships. Again, we have to be clear that this not about seeking misfortune or persecution as some people or theologies endorse. To seek trouble is again an expression, strange as it is, of our desire to control our life. Seeking to lose our life for God is not about seeking misfortunes but about knowing that it is the narrow gate that must be passed through. When you hear Jesus’s words, “enter through the narrow gate” what is the image that comes to mind. Stop for a moment and take a look at the gate that is in your head. Get closer to it . . . walk around it . . . try to get through it. What does the gate look like? What is it made of? What is it like getting through it? As I stopped to think about my own image I discovered that entering the narrow gate was like squeezing between two metal bars. The space was tight but the bars were straight and smooth. This image would have been foreign to both Jesus and his audience. It is difficult to know exactly what the gate Jesus had in mind was like but it is helpful to think more of a crack in stone wall that is rough and irregular. The image is certainly not 4
of an accommodating entrance. You don’t simply push through as you would between two smooth bars. Rather you work your way through feeling out the contours, edges and openings. You get stuck a few times before you figure where to make progress. This is where the translation of “the straight and narrow” can be misleading. The image is not clean and clinical. The image is messy. They should evoke feelings of being constricted. Some believe that this actually refers to a type of mountain ascent where the final city of God is believed to be located as in Isaiah 2. Here sections of the path would be tight and difficult to pass. The word in verse 14 that describes the road is often used to describe oppression, affliction or distress. It might be better to translate it saying that the gate is constricted and the road closes in around you that leads to life. There is simply no room for both your life and God’s life to fit through. Our conference resource materials for this service suggested having a “one-way” street sign on display. I was uncomfortable with using that type of imagery because of how it as well as the phrase “following the straight and narrow” re-enforce establishing absolute moral codes. What this thinking tends to create is a system of power and surveillance around maintaining and enforcing those codes. There is a strange irony is this approach to the passage. When a community accepts and enforces a single gate and “road” that people must travel then the gate ceases to be narrow and constricted. The gate is widened as all people are now expected to be herded through. The result is creating a culture of exclusion enforced by peer pressure. A glaring example of this is found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In this story Hester Prynne comes to a small Puritan community set in the 1600s. She becomes pregnant and gives birth before he husband arrives in the town. She is subsequently charged with committing adultery and sentenced to where a scarlet letter 5
“A” on her chest as a public reminder of her sin and shame. This sentence results in consolidating the town’s sense of self-righteousness. They always have before them an image of what they are not, a confirmation that they are on the straight and narrow path. As a reader you begin to see how the townspeople in fact begin traveling down the wide path of destruction as they trust in their own righteousness. The effect of this sentence on Hester is, however, quite different. Hawthorne reveals that slowly a new selfconsciousness emerged in Hester. Hawthrone writes of Hester’s decision to stay in the town,
Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her punishment; and so perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saintlike, because the result of martyrdom. It is Hester who loses her life and begins to find restoration in a new one not of her own making. Hester travels the slow journey of shedding the power of people’s perception of her and also of her own negative self-perception. She enters a tight and restrictive space and allows all those things to be shed that will not fit through. The two paths described by Jesus are not about moral legalism but neither are they about moral relativity. They are about seeking with honesty and integrity spaces in our lives where God is the only thing that will fit with you. We must continually cultivate a sensitivity to the life we seek to preserve. There is no room in the narrow gate for pride, envy, greed and conceit. You will not fit through with those companions. However, there are other companions that will not fit. There is no place in narrow gate for shame. There is no place in the narrow gate for self-hatred. There is no place in the narrow gate for fear. There is no place in the narrow for the anxieties of this world.
Entering through the narrow gate is the desire, belief and trust that God is good and desires an abundant life for you. This is a vision of something greater on the other side of the narrow way. This was the hope of the mystics of the early church. They desired to be unrelenting in losing their life for God and so daily they took up their spiritual disciplines. The medieval mystic St. John of the Cross wrote,
in taking the narrow way . . . there is room only for self-denial, and the Cross, which is the staff by which one may reach one’s goal, and whereby the road is greatly lightened and made easy. . . . For if anyone resolves to submit themselves to carrying this cross – that is to say, if they resolve to desire in truth to meet trials and to bear them in all things for God’s sake, they will find in them all great relief and sweetness that they may travel upon this road, detached from all things and desiring nothing. However, if they desire to possess anything – whether it come from God or from any other source – with any feeling of attachment, they have not stripped and denied themselves in all things; and thus they will be unable to walk along this narrow path.” Like Moses in the Old Testament we often think that these mystics and monks were only concerned with following strict and rigorous laws. Following their disciplines was extremely important, however, listen to how John of the Cross clarifies staying on the path. I would then convince spiritual persons that this road to God consists not in a multiplicity of meditations nor in ways or methods of such . . . but that it consists only in the one thing that is needful, which is the ability to deny oneself truly, according to that which is without and that which is within. Fittingly he goes on to quote Jesus in the Gospel of John who says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” The question again is not whether you can keep your life it is about how you will lose it. We must trust and live in trust after we have seen that the life we have created, like Willem’s moon in the window, is just a reflection. Whether we have laid down our life or had it taken from us like Willem or Hester we must be able to recognize the narrow gate and see that we are now able to pass through it.
And so we enter the tight and constricted space with the jagged pressures of distress and chaos. But once inside there is the promise of transformation, the sweetness of the Cross described above. And in time our breathing that was once anxious and short in this tight space will grow deeper and more relaxed and the space that felt so confining will take on the smooth and supportive contours of a mother’s womb waiting to birth new life.
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