Monday, August 26, 2013

Where is Grace?

(Trying the video thing once again.  For those who wish to simply read, continue below.)

    During my senior year of college, my roommate and I went camping in Perdernales Falls State Park.  We enjoyed a couple of days of hiking around and enjoying the hill country scenery.  On the second morning of our stay, we hiked around one of the “mountain” trails–actually, it was more of a hill.  As we hiked along the main trail, I saw a narrow pathway heading toward the woods.  On a whim, I took this branch.  My roommate wasn’t exactly thrilled about getting off the main trail, but I said, “Let’s just see where this leads.”

    We walked around a few cedar trees and came upon a small creek.  As this creek made its way down the hill, it had eroded into three small waterfalls.  The falls had eaten into the rock and formed three pools a couple of feet deep each.  The clear, cold, spring water had turned various shades of green, blue, and dark blue.  The red and white of the rock added further color to this sight.  The color and chuckling of the water made the place overwhelmingly peaceful, and we sat there for several minutes before carrying on.  We actually traveled up the creek, and in about 75 yards, we intersected the main trail once again.

    At this point, I wondered to myself, “Why is it the main trail diverges so far away from this little piece of heaven?  Why isn’t that little side trail marked on the map?  Aren’t people being deprived of seeing this little piece of beauty–especially if they simply stick to the main path?”

    I mean, I know there is something to be said for staying on the main path–taking the same road everyone takes–following where the crowd has gone before.  For the most part, it’s safe.  For the most part, there are others traveling along the way who can help you out if you get in trouble.  For the most part, the path is usually the easiest to follow as it is well marked and generally avoids the most troublesome spots.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with following the well marked path.

    But the marked path does not always lead you to the places of utmost beauty.  The marked path does not always lead you to the places of tranquility and peace.  The marked path may get you to the end faster, but it does not always guarantee you arriving in the state which is best for you.

    Jesus makes no bones about the fact that Christians are not called to walk on the main path.  We are not called to go through the wide door.  We are to intentionally seek out and find the more narrow paths–the more narrow doors as we grow in faith and seek to serve God.

    In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is asked, “Will just a few be saved?”

    Jesus responds, “24‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25When 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.” 26Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” 27But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” 28There 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. 29Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’”

    In some ways, this teaching is very troublesome for certain people.  Jesus here makes no bones about the fact that some people will be left outside the door knocking and begging to come in.  There will be some people seeing the great saints in the Kingdom of God, and they will weep and gnash their teeth while seeing them.  Even more frustrating to those who are left outside is the fact that they knew the Lord.  “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!”

    And the Lord’s reply is curt and cuts to the bone, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!”

    Now, the temptation here is to try and label those who are the evildoers.  The temptation here is to find a group that fits that description.  And of course, when we label that group, it will not include us.  It will be them and those people who have the problem.  It will be that group that has to worry about what Jesus is saying.  It certainly can’t be us–no, not at all.

    I would caution us very strongly against doing such a thing.  Because whenever we label ourselves as the “in” group and those others as the “out” group, we find ourselves butting up against Jesus’ next statement, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”  And listen to this, “Indeed some who are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

    Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.  Whenever we start labeling such things and putting ourselves first, we might just find ourselves bringing up the rear.  We might just find ourselves on the outside looking in.  We might just find ourselves weeping and gnashing our teeth.  It’s not a pleasant thought.  Not at all.

    At this point, at least with me, the question then becomes–what is the narrow door?  What does it mean to seek out the narrow door?  How is it possible to enter through that door, and where is grace in this whole process?

    I believe the concept of grace is important here–very important. I think we must remember that Jesus didn’t speak these words in a vacuum.  In fact, these words are surrounded by others which I think help shed some important light on this teaching and help us understand it much, much better.

    I would like to invite you to turn in your Bibles again this morning to Luke chapter 14.  In our gospel lesson, Jesus ends with those who will be eating in the Kingdom of God, and just a few verses later, He fleshes that out more fully.  Let’s begin reading Luke 14 verse 7

    7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
    12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

    Notice the humility Jesus calls his followers to display.  Notice the narrow door He sends them through.  No one would have thought to act in this manner during the time Jesus spoke these words.  Everyone wanted prestige and self-aggrandizement, but Jesus says, don’t seek it.  Instead, be humble.

    This is a consequence of grace.  For if we believe that God is responsible for our salvation–that it does not come from anything we do–then we do not become self-righteous.  We do not think that we have all the answers.  We do not think we are above everyone else.  We do not think we have any sort of special privilege because we know Jesus.  Because Christianity isn’t necessarily about knowing Jesus–those left out of the door knew Jesus–Christianity is about being known by Jesus.  And those who are known by Jesus do not point to themselves and the way they act or behave.  Instead, they point to Jesus.  Because it is in Jesus that we find Grace.  It is in Jesus that we find mercy.  It is in Jesus that we find the narrow path and the narrow door.  Amen.

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