Sunday, March 13, 2011

A sermon

The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk
March 3, 2011
Deuteronomy 5:1-22, 2 Corinthians 12:11-21, Matthew 7:13-21

Enter ye in at the straight gate…because straight is the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

This way which leads to life is what Christ came to show us. In another gospel passage he said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. The nature of this Life can only be alluded to, but if one is to see a reason to follow this narrow path, one must know something about what one is aiming toward. The Life in Christ is a life inspired by Love, the Love that drives out fears and subjection to passions; a Love that knows that one is made in the image of God, and Love that can only come from being loved as a Son, though undeserving. A Love that knows that all others are also made in the image of God, and sees itself reflected in them.

How are we to interpret the straight gate and the narrow path? What about the way that leads to life is hard to find? I'm reminded of Little Red Riding hood, as she's portrayed in the musical "Into the Woods."

"Into the woods, the path is straight;
no reason then to hesitate…"

I think the narrow path is not so difficult to find per se, but rather is it difficult to remain on. It doesn't take long before the wolf, clothed in the wool, or perhaps simply the nice words of a sheep, appears to lead us to the side. And the side is nice. Those of you who were with me in Boston two weekends ago will recall every time we passed across the "straight way" leading toward Trinity Church, the wind picked up terribly. Going aside from the path provides shelter, and interesting things to see. Until trained, our minds and passions are easily distractible.

"Mother said not to stray,
still I suppose a small delay…
Granny might like a fresh bouquet…"

The commandments given in the first reading are the beginning of training the will to focus. The image of the wind blowing down the path is similar to a saying of Amma Theodora, one of the desert mothers. "Amma Theodora said, 'let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as trees, if they have not stood before the winter's storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.'"

How are we to respond to these trials and temptations, in a way to bear fruit after the winter winds? Verse 12, which precedes today’s passage says, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them." That is indeed a rough wind to withstand.

Here we can pivot to the image Christ gives of the fruit-bearing trees. Those false prophets who would lead us from the straight path, offering us shelter from wind, seducing us with Christian words and good promises – how are we to know them? They aren't necessarily obvious, for Christ warns: "Take heed." He answers that we shall know them by their fruit. Not by their words, "For not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’": but by their deeds. And not, furthermore, by those deeds which are easily feigned: for even an evil tree can fast, or give alms, or pray. These, the "Sheep’s clothing", while proper to the sheep, are the very same adopted by the wolves to mislead. We see this in those "religious" people the media loves to show, and who would sow doubts in us, claiming that their difficult path is thus the narrow one, or seek to sway our rulers to divert our attention from the path. Rather what the discerning eye should look for is the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of a good tree, the traits of the true sheep that the wolf cannot emulate.
And so, we know some of what will seek to take us from the narrow path to the straight gate; and we know some of how to discern if others are a help or a hindrance on the path. How does one best stay on the path? By keeping one's sight fixed on the Christ. Many of you have probably experienced when driving that it's easiest to run onto the shoulder when looking to either side; but focusing on a distant landmark helps keep you driving straight Although in today’s Gospel he says that the way that leads to life is hard; yet in another place he says that his burden is easy and his yoke light. St. John Chrysostom reconciles these by saying that a soldier doesn't mind his injuries when serving his prince, and so our burden is light when struggling toward the city where our Lord resides.

One final interpretation is provided by Alan Watts. In his "Myth & Ritual in Christianity," he sees the narrowness of the gate as being the present. And certainly, Now is the only time we have to meet our God. As the liturgy repeats throughout the seasons: Now is high time to awake out of sleep: for Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. A great and wondrous mystery is made known to us this day. Arise, shine, for your light is come. Behold, Now is the acceptable time. This is the day that the Lord hath made... In his view, the broad way to either side is awaiting a future that is not yet here – (Tomorrow will bring its own worries) or dwelling in a past that no longer ought to have power – (I have brought you out of Egypt.) This way of looking at it is supported by the fact that Jesus says the way is narrow that leads to Life, – not to "eternal life." "The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day."

No matter how far we may stray, though, our Lord is always ready to help us back to the path. Little Red Riding-Hood fell victim to the wolf, straying off the straight path; but even having been consumed by the wolf, she was not beyond redemption by the Woodcutter. And so she then sang,

"So take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers;
And though scary is exciting:
Nice is different than Good."

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