Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sermon: August 26

As a child, having the last name of Huber always put me in the middle. I was never first nor was I last. The A names and the Z names either had it best or worst depending on what order the teacher started. There is something inside of us that wants to be first. My kids always, whenever there is line, jockey for position. I’m first, no me. All of you parents know what I am talking about…

I remember that line from a commercial with Bob Uecker, when the ushers come to him in the box seats, “must be in the front row” he says. And that is right about us. We like to be first, in the front row, on top. However you put it, its where we want to be… But like that commercial, Bob Uecker gets moved from those box seats to the bleachers and there is no front row for him, and so often we find ourselves in our lives envious of the front row, the first, as we sit way up, in the bleachers, and if you are at place like Fenway in Boston, you are probably behind a pillar too.

Jesus said, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." We have heard this phrase from Jesus before, it happens in the other Gospels but this time, it is in response to someone who asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" It is a question of worry, how many Lord, only a few, a set number? But why worry? Because we want to be in that number, the few, the proud, the saved.

But Jesus doesn’t give an easy answer. Jesus says, “strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Narrow door? What is he talking about? Let me get at this through another story.

A science professor had a no-nonsense method for assigning grades in his courses. A student’s final letter grade was based on how many points the student had accumulated throughout the semester. The points, in turn, could be earned in a variety of ways: daily quizzes, lab reports, a lengthy midterm, and a final exam. If, by the time of the final exam, you had already built up enough points for a B or C, and if you were content with that grade, you could skip the final. Or you could take it easy early on, skipping quizzes and lab reports, and hope that by cramming you could get the points you needed on one of the big tests.

The instructor, who also let it be known that he had no use for religious beliefs, had a way of introducing his points-system to his classes. “There is no Jesus factor in this course,” he would announce. A former student of this teacher, now a college professor himself, remembers: “I have often wished that I had asked him what he meant exactly by a ‘Jesus factor.’ But I think I have some idea. He wanted to eliminate all subjective factors in his grading. In his classroom, you got what your earned, and what it took was clearly spelled out . . . No excuses: Show me the points! In a word, there is no room for mercy in his system, and he was proud of it. “Actually, his system worked quite well. He may have been too rigid in his attitudes, but his total-points method was quite appropriate for a biology course. But I’m glad when it comes to dealing with the larger issues of life, there is indeed a Jesus Factor. Mercy is what the Gospel is really all about. If the Lord were simply to add up the points earned, we would all be miserable failures . . . I am glad that when we all face the real final test — the Last Judgment — God isn’t going to pass me or fail me on my ability to show the points. On that Day, the Jesus Factor will be my only hope.” [From Praying at the Burger King by Richard J. Mouw.]

The Jesus Factor is that narrow door we are to strive to enter, it is open to all who believe in Jesus. There are no points to be earned, its is not about the good we have done, the evil that we have avoided, nor the good we have failed to do, the evil we have done, none of which has anything to do with that door. That narrow door is the faith in Jesus Christ and it is by God’s grace it is open, we just believe and walk through it.

There are those old Smith Barney ads featuring actor John Houseman with his famous line: "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it." Or to translate it for this sermon, “we are saved the old fashioned way, we earn it.” But that’s the problem we do not earn salvation, it is a gift. A gift some will choose not to take, not to go through the narrow door, but the door is open. Salvation is not a transaction between God and us, that we have to offer God our worthiness, our good deeds, anything at all, as if salvation is a reward for the righteous. As Episcopal priest and Theologian Robert Farrar Capon puts it, understanding salvation is earned, “it becomes a transaction through which God deigns to reward the cooperative and excludes the unacceptable.” Then it would not be by God’s grace that salvation is feely offered to all.

Nor is that door solely opened by faith, as if we have enough faith then we can enter it, because faith then just becomes another transaction between us and God, like good works. It is open because God has it so, and if we desire to strive through it, even if we don’t always get it right, then we are indeed striving to enter that narrow door. But as I hear the parable that Jesus gives to explain it, the Jesus Factor is our following him. Lord, open the door to us,' then in reply he will say to you, `I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, `I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!' Its not just knowing who Jesus is or doing the right things.

As Robert Capon said, “And what is the narrow door the householder has still left open? Well, it is the remote possibility that, instead of nosily insisting on their own notions of living their way to salvation, they might just join him in the silence of his death and wait in faith for resurrection.” For Jesus is that narrow door and he invites us to come. Jesus turns our world upside down, upsetting things, the order we see is changed, first last, last first, indeed salvation is in God’s hands, it is more than a mere moment of one's life, it is the striving to enter the narrow door. As Frederick Buechner puts it, Salvation is a process not an event.

There is no interest in numbers, counting who will or will not be saved. There are no predestination games going on here. Salvation is open to all peoples. Jesus said, "Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God." One's birth, one's bloodline, family status, wealth or power are not part of the equation. We do not earn salvation, that is God's gift to us, an open narrow door, but we strive to enter through it as if our admission into the Kingdom, our salvation, depended on it but knowing in the end it depends on the grace of our loving and merciful God.

We are challenged to walk humbly with our God on that path to the narrow door and beyond, not worrying about numbers or salvation, not arrogantly trying to get others to follow us but to walk together in love and follow where Jesus has led the way. Amen.

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