Scripture | Matthew 7:13-17, 24-29
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house – but it didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. When the rain fell, the floods rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, it fell with a mighty crash.”
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like the teachers of religious law.
* * * * *
I’ve had funerals on my mind this week – there have been so many of them. Friday was Aretha Franklin’s at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit – a ten-hour concert/worship service/festival/tribute. I don’t even know what you’d call it, but it was big. Thursday was the service for John McCain at North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona, and yesterday the funeral at the National Cathedral. His graveside service is today. And yesterday was the memorial service here for Bob Wong, a lifelong Presbyterian, beloved friend, colleague, father and grandfather.
It may seem strange to lump the three of them together, such very different lives, simply because of the coincidence of the timing of their services. And they were clearly very different. Two internationally known, one simply known and loved among his family and community. One an African-American woman, one a white man, and one an Asian-Canadian-American. One a musician, one a statesman and war hero, and one an engineer. Such very different people, such very different lives.
But as I was working on our passage for today from the Sermon on the Mount, it struck me that they all had one thing in common: for each of them, their life of faith informed – and formed – their lives. Their decisions, their values, their commitments, and their tenacity. Each of them was a force to be reckoned with in his or her own way, and that force was deeply rooted in their faith. Their lives were built on bedrock.
In this ending passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes one thing clear. It’s not enough just to listen to him. That part’s easy. You can nod your head in agreement with his words, you can take comfort in them, you can even memorize them. But unless you put them into practice, build your life on them, it doesn’t matter much. Nothing will have changed. And when the winds of life come bearing down, or the floods start rising up, you’ll find yourself swept away by it all. Or you’ll face a choice between an easy, self-serving decision, and a hard one that demands integrity, and you’ll choose the one that lets you off the hook.
As one writer puts it, “[Jesus is] pretty clear that calling him “Lord” isn’t enough… It isn’t what you say about Jesus that makes you a disciple or ushers you into the kingdom of heaven, but if you actually do God’s will.“[i]
In one of the commentaries I read on this passage, the author tells a story about Mark Twain. Apparently Twain was talking with a man he knew in Boston, who liked to talk about his faith but was predatory in his business practice. The man told Twain, “Before I die, I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud.” To which Twain replied, “Why don’t you just stay right at home in Boston and keep them?”[ii]
Whatever you thought of John McCain’s politics – and I don’t know anybody who didn’t disagree with something he said or did - he was a man of integrity. Listening to the eulogies about his life, that becomes abundantly clear. Irreverent, yes. Headstrong, yes. Volatile, yes. But he had an unwavering compass, and that compass was his Christian faith.
I knew that John McCain was a man of faith, but what I didn’t know was the role his faith played when he was a POW at the so-called “Hanoi Hilton.” I had heard about the deprivations, the torture, the humiliations. I had heard of his extraordinary sacrifice, that he chose to stay with his comrades until all of them were released, declining to take advantage of his privileged standing and be freed. What I didn’t know was that he served as de-facto chaplain to his fellow prisoners. His faith not only kept him on bedrock, it strengthened the others with him so they could withstand the torment.
The Sermon on the Mount, Tom Long says, is not about how to be religious, it’s about how to be fully human. [iii] That’s what faith is for. Not to make us pious or holier-than-thou. To make us human, in the full, rich, strong, tenacious way God intended us to be.
In his commentary on Matthew, Long talks about how hard it is to live this narrow way.
Christian love is not merely a matter of smiling and being nice. Sometimes Christian love calls for nonresistance and submission, but in other circumstances love invokes the voice of protest, calls for taking a firm stand.
And our faith doesn’t give us a roadmap, either. There’s no blueprint to follow, no recipe. As Long puts it,
There are no clear compass readings to signal which way to turn; disciples have to make hard choices in the midst of ambiguous circumstances. The kingdom road has beautiful scenery – peace, joy, hope, forgiveness – but the road itself is long, hard and rough. [iv]
Clearly some people have to face harder challenges than others. I don’t know a lot about what Aretha Franklin had to face, but I know there were parts of the road of her life that were long and rough. And it was her faith that sustained her. It truly came from her soul, and when she sang, it fed our souls, too. She drew deeply from the well.
And surely there are more factors than our faith that come into play that lead us to make decisions about what we say and do. And I don’t mean to imply that a person needs to be a Christian to do the right thing. Hardly. There are examples of heroes in every religion, and those with no religion at all. But Jesus is offering us food for the soul, strength for the heart, wisdom for the mind. Why would we not take it? This faith can sustain us, guide us, form us, shape us, help us endure and thrive.
It did John McCain. And Aretha Franklin. And Bob Wong.
It was a joy to hear about Bob’s life yesterday as his family and friends gave eulogies. There was plenty of laughter and there were many, many tears, as people remembered his tenacity and firm convictions, his value of pursing knowledge and of serious accomplishments. He did not let people off lightly, especially his children. He thought they could do a lot, and he expected it of him.
But the truth is, Jesus doesn’t let us off lightly, either. He expects a lot of us. To be not just hearers of the word, but doers.
Of course it takes work. It is the harder, narrower way. As one writer says of this passage,
Why shouldn’t the way be hard? [People] will discipline themselves, adjusting their living habits and directing their ambitions for years, to make a football team or play the violin. Can the deepest concerns of life require less?[v]
After Bob Wong’s service, his family served a feast. It was in memory of Bob, and all the beautiful feasts he and Faith held for family and friends, meals that gave pleasure to the senses, nourished the souls, and knit together a community.
And as I watched people eat together this meal they had prepared, I found myself thinking, it’s a foretaste of the joyful feast of the people of God, the one we will share in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus offers us so much. A way of life. Fullness of being. Wisdom for the journey. Strength for the challenges. These words are for us, for our sake. Not so we can somehow be pious, but so we can be human. Fully human, awake and alive, for all the days we have on earth.
Thanks be to him.
[i] Rebekah Simon-Peter, “When Belief Isn’t Enough,” Ministry Matters, December 5, 2016. https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7867/when-belief-isnt-enough, accessed 8-30-18
[ii] Roger L. Shinn, The Sermon on the Mount: A Guide to Jesus’ Most Famous Sermon, (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1962), 89
[iii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 84
[iv] Long, 83
[v] Shinn, 82