The Narrow Door – 01.10.2021 [Luke 13]

            Today is the start of a brand new sermon series called “Counting the Cost” – we are picking up our year long study of the book of Luke with part four of Journey with Jesus. We’re going to begin with Chapter 13, we’re officially halfway through the book of Luke – if you’ve been following this series from the beginning. And you probably remember me saying this before, but I’ll say again and again – Luke writes long chapters that are chock full of information and wisdom. I can’t cover it all in a simple sermon on a Sunday morning – so the challenge with this sermon series is that you have to take it home, read it for yourself. Five to ten verses a day, you’ll read the whole chapter in a week no problem – but everyday you will learn something new. There’s a lot in there. So let’s dive in

            [read v.1]. Now, I already have to stop because we’ve stumbled into a very strange story, and I have no idea what’s going on. Apparently, there was a group of Galileans who went to the temple to offer a sacrifice. Now here’s the thing – Jews and Galileans didn’t get along that well. Jewish people sort of looked down on Galileans. While they were there offering their sacrifice, the governor Pilate has them killed. So their blood is mixed with the sacrifice’s blood. It was like a news story of a Galilean massacre. Basically it’s like coming to Jesus with hot gossip about a terrible thing that happened to someone they don’t like. Jesus did you hear about what happened to those people over there – they deserved it. But Jesus has the most curious response, he says, [read v.2-3]. And then he adds another story in verse 4, [read v.4-5]. There is no other record of the tower of Siloam in any ancient sources that I know of. Jesus just sort of throws out this story, but it seems like it was well known to the people he’s talking to. It’s like they must have been building a tower, and there was some kind of an accident, and people died. And Jesus is taking these stories of construction accident and government slaughter and asking the question – do you think they were worse people because bad things happen to them?

As we start out a new year this is actually a very important place to begin. Coming out of 2020 we need to know – If bad things happen to you, it doesn’t mean you are worse than other people. If good things happen to you, it doesn’t mean your better than other people. Jesus took these news stories from his time period – the Galilean massacre and the tower of Siloam and said, Do you think because they had a tragedy that they are worse than you? No, we all need to repent. We all come to Jesus in the same way – broken, and in need of healing. There was a lot of politics in the news last week. I don’t know if you saw this – but there was a runoff election in Georgia and then congress did a thing on Wednesday with lots of protests – and a lot of people felt like what happened was a really big deal. And I don’t want to diminish it, politics is an important part of our social structure – but I want you to understand: Victory or loss in politics makes no difference to our status with God. We all still need to repent or perish. Victory in voting, loss in voting – doesn’t change anything – we still need Jesus more than anything politics can offer us. Jesus talked about the Galileans, but I’m going to use our political language. I’m gonna update the quote from Jesus, “Do you think because the republicans suffered in this way that they are worse sinners than the democrats?” or if it was reversed, “do you think that because the democrats suffered in this way that they are worse sinners than the republicans?” Jesus says No, I tell you, unless you repent you will perish. Winning or losing in the world has nothing to do with the fact that God loves you and wants you to repent and flourish in the year of 2021 and for eternity.

            Verse 6 [read 6-9]. This story from Jesus has a pretty simple but vital importance to us all. We are the fig tree, and some of us in our lives have no fruit. Our branches are bare and we have not grown. Ephesians tells us the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Another fruit of the kingdom is bringing people you know into a relationship with Jesus, spreading God’s love into the world. So ask yourself, does you life bear the fruit of kindness, of self-control, joy, spreading God’s love? Is there fruit in your life, or are your branches bare?  The owner says, “for years I have come looking for fruit, and have found none – cut it down.” But then the gardener intervenes – let me have one more year. I’ll dig up the soil, I’ll put some manure in – give it one more year to bear fruit. Tie it to our lives – 2020 was a hard year to bear fruit. The rains didn’t come very often, the soil was dry and sparse on nutrients. But we have a gift in 2021. A new year to grow some fruit. So ask yourself – what manure does your spiritual life need to help you grow? I know it’s silly, but seriously – what can you add to the soil of your life, so your life will bear fruit? We’ll come back to that.

            Then we move into a very familiar story. And I say familiar, because Jesus did this exact same thing back in chapter 6. In chapter six it was man with a withered hand who was healed on the sabbath, but in our scripture for today it’s a woman with a crippled spine. 18 years she struggled with this ailment, and Jesus finds her on the sabbath. Verse 12, [read it 12-14]. Jesus Christ came into this woman’s life and miraculously healed her, and the temple leaders are all, “you should have done that during the official office hours.” I mean, come on! They have witnessed a miracle. A life has been transformed. Something so incredible it should have caused them to fall on their faces in worship and reverence, and all they can come up with – “that’s not how we usually do things.” And what I see here is the religious institution reacting to the power of God. God doesn’t fit inside the box and the leaders are grumpy about it. And then I think about this last year. And all the things we have had to do differently, and I can’t help but wonder if we are a little bit like the Pharisees. Rather than praising God because lives are being transformed, we’re indignant and grumping in the corner because it’s different than what we expected. I know I had those moments this past year. Losing in person Christmas Eve was hard. I really struggled with that decision. But it was a beautiful Christmas Eve, I loved those stay at home kits we had, and this year I want our church to prioritize transformation over institutional comfort. As long as lives are being changed, people are being healed, and Jesus is being honored and glorified – I don’t even care about the rest. The unexpected gift of 2020 was that it shook up the institution, and gave us the opportunity to focus on revival instead. And Jesus calls them on it, he calls them hypocrites and then he says, [read v.16-17]. If ever there was a moment in his ministry where Jesus crowd-surfed, this was probably it.

            And then he hits us with two very short, but very famous parables. [Read v.18-21]. The message is obvious – what should I compare the kingdom of God to? A mustard seed, or yeast in a mix bread dough. The kingdom of God is designed to grow. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a small thing, a good thing, sowed in the garden. Cultivated. Helped to grow. Plant the mustard seed. Revive the fig tree. Watch the bread dough rise. Small things. Good things. Planted in the world. Tended and cared for – and they will grow. This is the kingdom of God. And I know, after a bummer of a year like last year, a lot of us want to set huge goals and do big things for 2021. And we will. But first let’s just plant the seed. Sow the small good things into our world, and watch them grow. A lot of 2021 is going to be rebuilding. We have friendships to heal, businesses to support, children to guide and a community to share the light with. So let’s start with the first small thing – plant the tiny mustard seed.

            What I want to show you this morning is the framework for chapter 13. This chapter is all about growth and barriers to growth. The chapter opened up talking about the Galilean massacre and the tower of Siloam, and we saw that a barrier to growth is thinking that other people are better or worse than you. That’s a mentality that keeps you from growing. Then the parable of the fig tree showed us that we have been given a gift of more time to produce fruit, put manure in the soil and start to grow again. Then with the story of the woman who was healed on the sabbath, we see the second barrier to growth – where we care about the institution than the power of God. The pharisees were more concerned with doing things the way they always did them, and it blinded them to the miracle that happened right in front of their eyes. Do you see the framework? The whole chapter is about how to grow in God, and then exploring common barriers for growth.

            Verse 22 the story continues, [read v.22-24]. Hold up, what? Is he talking about heaven? Jesus just said, “many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” and I got all kind of red flags going off in my head. What do you mean “I’ll try to get in and not be able?” A narrow door? Not everybody is going to heaven? And in the next couple verses he uses this metaphor of a house that is locked [read v.25-27]. And I struggled with these words this past week. Why doesn’t he know who they are? And I realized that Jesus is describing the next barrier to growth. Sometimes people use the Christian label on the surface, but they don’t let Jesus actually get into their heart. Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and that kind of size invites imposters – people who will use the labels and power of the institution for personal gain. But Jesus wants more than our labels and institutions – he wants you to know him. It is not enough to simply slap a bumper sticker on your car, buy a churchy t-shirt and call yourself a Christian. You need to know and to be known by Jesus. Have you ever heard the expression “sitting in a church doesn’t make you a Christian, just like sitting a garage doesn’t make you a car”? I think what’s going on here is that Jesus is urging us to seek the real thing, and it’s a narrow door. Pursue the truth about who Jesus is and what he can do with your life – and you will grow.

The first barrier to growth is thinking you are better than other people. The second barrier to growth in putting institutional comfort over the power of God. And the third barrier to growth is settling for superficial Christianity, it’s stopping at outward labels and not letting Jesus transform your heart. But listen to the end of it, [read c.29-30]. Those who grab the labels without knowing Jesus will be left out, but those who know Jesus will be gathered from every corner of the world to eat in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus finishes the chapter with one final barrier to growth. He cries out about how terrible Jerusalem is, and one line sticks out in particular. Listen to the end of the chapter, verse 34 he says, [read v.34-35]. How often I have desired to gather you together, but your house is left to you. Jesus desires to gather us together, to bring us home, to reconnect us with God – but our choices are our own. Your house is left to you. The final barrier to growth is your own choices. God does not force us to love him. Even though he longs to gather us together, He gives us free will and so we have to choose him. Every day we wake up and use the label Christian, we must choose to follow God. We choose to walk a righteous path, to allow the Holy Spirit to work on our heart and make us Christ-like. We choose to live a holy life, submitting to God’s authority, rather than our own authority. It’s funny – our choices are both a barrier, and also an opportunity for growth. Your house is left to you.

            The good news this morning is that God, uh.. gardens? us. God gardens us? That doesn’t sound quite right. God grows you? Nope, that still sounds weird – but what I’m trying to say is that we come to God as we are, and he helps us grow into who he created us to be. We come as we are, but we never stay that way. They talked about fig trees and manure, and honestly? Sometimes we come to God as we are, covered in… uh, poop, and God turns it into manure to help us bloom. I’m really leaning into the cheesy metaphors today – but you get it, right? God helps us become who we can be. He loves us as we are, but doesn’t leave us as we are.

God helps us grow, and that is VERY good news. So our response is to let God transform your life. Grow in God. Let that mustard seed sprout, let that yeast do its work. Take the fig tree, pour on the manure – get it back to growing. When we know that God is helping us grow and become who we should be – we can renew our efforts to bear fruit with our life. Take heed of the barriers to growth, avoid them, send your roots into the good soil, fertilize your life with good practices – and grow.

            I have two quick pieces of application for you and then we’re done. First, your house is left to you – so strive for the narrow door. Let me say that again, your house is left to you, so strive for the narrow door. Your choices in the new year will determine whether you grow and produce fruit in your life, or whether your branches remain bare. Every day you wake up in this new year, make the choice to let God transform your life. The first step is the will. The first step is the resolve. Your house is left to you – choose to grow.

            The second part of that, and the final piece of application for today, is “cut the poop, and add manure to your fig tree.” [laugh] I have way too much fun with biblical imagery. Think about the gardener, the owner wants to cut down the tree because it’s not producing any fruit – the gardener comes in and says, “hang on, give me a year – let me help this tree grow.” The gardener adds manure to help the fig tree grow, so after you have made the choice in your house to step closer to God – the only question left is what can you add to your life (or take out of your life) to help you grow? What can you do to get the Holy Spirit to transform your life so that 2021 produces more fruit than you’ve ever had? Rick Warren used to talk about God’s power like the ocean. We cannot control the ocean, we cannot control the Holy Spirit. We can’t create the waves, but we CAN learn to identify them, we can learn to ride the waves of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Actually, it’s the same thing John Wesley used to say 400 years ago. In our Methodist tradition, we have something called the “means of grace.” We can’t create the Holy Spirit’s transformation in our hearts, but there are practices, things we can do, habits of holiness that we can cultivate that help us grow. Manure on the fig tree, with the goal of bearing fruit in our life. We usually split them into two categories: piety and mercy. I use the cross to remember them. Piety is the vertical and mercy is the horizontal. Another way to phrase it is “love God, love your neighbor” (point up and point sideways). Acts of piety are things you can do to help your spirit develop, and become more Christ-like. I’m talking about reading the bible, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living and sharing your faith with others. That’s Acts of Piety. Acts of Mercy, is the horizontal, love of neighbor – stuff like visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, giving generously to those in need, doing good works. Acts of piety, acts of mercy – these things are the manure you can add to your life to help you grow.

Now you might be thinking, “I don’t have time for that, and I don’t know how to do that in this new Post-Covid world.” That’s why I said “cut the poop, add manure to your fig tree.” Sometimes to grow closer to God means we have to step back from some other things. Cut out things that are not helping us grow closer to God. Maybe we’re spending too much time in front of a screen – social media, streaming services, “news” sites, binge watching. What if we gave up an hour of streaming or facebook scrolling every day and spent that time in prayer, studying the word, volunteering, taking care of the poor, the lonely, the oppressed. Put the nutrients back in the soil of your life. And if you don’t know how – that’s okay too. That’s one of the most important functions of the church – training its people on the how. One of the things we are going to commit to here at Flushing UMC in 2021 is training people. If you want to learn how to run the sound board, we’ll train you. If you want to learn how the technology works so you can run a Life Group over zoom – we’ll train you. If you want help with the effort to reduce poverty in our community – we’ll train you.

But your house in your own. You have to make the choice to step forward. Make the choice to grow, and then take the steps, add the manure to your fig tree. If you do this, you will grow, and your life will bear fruit. Amen.

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