Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
July 3, 2022
Scripture: Matthew 7:13–14
Karen Barstad selected the reading for todays services as part of the “Command to Preach” series, in which the congregation suggests the scripture. Karen writes:
This text was selected for my confirmation class when we confirmed at Zion Lutheran Church in Buffalo, MN, on September 27, 1970. Why I remember the text is beyond me, but maybe that is a sign I need to pay attention to it. The message that I took from the text at age 15 was that a Christian had to believe and act a certain way in order to enter God’s kingdom. That is quite exclusionary, and it seems contrary to Jesus’ message of God’s expansive love.
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.
I was looking forward to a backyard gathering with some friends, particularly following the long days of isolation when such events were not happening. As I walked around the house, directed by the sound of voices and laughter, I was stymied by a gate. Apparently all gates are not created equally, because I struggled to unlatch and open my friend’s gate. The more I fiddled with the mechanism the more frustrated I became. My friend, hearing my muttering and the clanking of the latch that wouldn’t open, came to my rescue. “What is the deal with your gate?” I asked, still miffed that I couldn’t figure it out. Without missing a beat she said, “Well, Beth, you just need to be smarter than the gate. Or you need to make a whole lot of noise so someone will notice.”
I have thought about my friend’s complicated gate since I randomly pulled Karen’s Command to Preach text. My friend’s comments, along with the recent travesties in the world, have provided a new perspective on these two verses from the Gospel of Matthew.
These verses of scripture are part of several chapters in the book of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount. The timing is early in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized by John and issued the decree that all should repent (literally translated as “turn around”) in order to know God. He has called his first disciples and has begun to travel about teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people. Already he was causing a ruckus with the empire. By this time, Jesus had gathered quite a following, and so he climbed a mountain, brought the crowd together, and began to preach. I promise my sermon today won’t be as long as his.
The Sermon on the Mount lasts for three chapters and is a description of what Jesus wanted his followers to be and to do. It illustrates what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God rather than human-made law. The sermon provides a value system for believers—an ethical standard, a religious devotion, an attitude towards money, ambition, relationship, lifestyle. The Sermon on the Mount presents life in the kin-dom of God, a fully human life lived out under the divine rule. It imagines a symbolic world in which disciples are to live and by which they are to see and understand, derive direction and, make meaning of their lives. Many of the verses in these three chapters read like a proverb and could stand alone for a preaching text. Our verses today are an example of this. The verse right before the two we just read is the Golden Rule—“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”—and before that, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”
Karen noted that she chose verses 13–14 because they were a part of her Confirmation Day in 1970 at the Lutheran Church her family attended. And she remembers these words as admonishment rather than encouragement: Choose the right gate in life or else you will be damned. Or in other words, the gate that leads to life is Jesus Christ, and unless you accept Jesus as Savior, you have no chance to go to heaven. This is a common interpretation of these two verses, particularly for our more evangelical churches. And Karen is right, this understanding supports an exclusionary gospel, which I believe is contrary to Jesus’ intent. Jesus’ mission was to expand the kin-dom of God, not limit it. And the Sermon on the Mount is not a set of rules but rather an invitation to covenant with one another on how to live life in community centered in God.
I have always read the two verses about the narrow gate and the wide gate as a lifting up of the power of choice. Every day we make thousands of choices. Some choices require no thought and have little consequence. Other decisions require a pause and more than a moment to discern which point of entry leads to an affirmation of life. We have all suffered from the result of a bad decision—a choice made in haste or out of selfish interest. And we have all wrestled with choices to make in which the path was less clear, the best outcome uncertain. And we sweat and we stew as we agonize about what to do. Or maybe that is just me. Jesus provides some counsel for our decisions in this text: There is always an easy choice, yet often the easiest path is not the best one. It is the more challenging path that results in life-affirming, positive, constructive change. As people of faith, Jesus says, we must be thoughtful to discern which is which. The wider gate implies an easier way. If Jesus were to elaborate (couldn’t he, for once, elaborate???) on this gate analogy, I imagine he would invite us to consider, in our gate choices, which point of entry leads us towards God, and which gate leads us away. The road that is easy and leads to destruction as scripture says, is similar to my best understanding of sin—that which separates us from God. What might happen if we placed God into our choice-making? What if within our discernment we wondered which gate, path, choice leads us into kin-dom living and which gate, path, choice steers us away?
There is much power in choice, which is ever the more realized when that choice is taken away. I was scheduled to preach on this text and specifically chose this title “Point of Entry: The Power of Choice” for June 19. And yes, on that day I planned to speak to the fear and anxiety being felt by anyone with a uterus regarding reproductive rights being threatened by the Supreme Court. During the week preceding June 19, your clergy made the decision to offer the statements we made at the Leadership Council regarding the summer embroidery as our message/sermon for the morning of June 19. It was the right choice. And I knew then that I would preach from this Command to Preach text today and would weave into my message my thoughts about the necessity of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and the power to choose.
And then, on June 24, the Supreme Court reversed Roe vs. Wade. And as we grieve and mourn, we may wonder how this morning’s scripture might speak a word of grace or hope into such a travesty. The gate that leads to reproductive freedom has been slammed shut. The road to abortion rights, which no person travels lightly, callously, or unburdened, has become even narrower and may grow to non-existent. A church member sent me a social media meme that has now gone viral: “Fourth of July has been cancelled due to a lack of independence. Signed, Women.” The stark truth of this may cause us to harrumph in amusement while also making our hearts break. And we must remember that this is not only about women, but this revoking of bodily rights affects our non-binary and transgender siblings—anyone with a uterus—and the partners who love and support them in their discernment for what is best for their body, mind, and spirit. And if this reversal was really about the preservation of life, there would be exquisite health care, insurance, child care, and familial support programs . . . of which there are not. Oh yes, this gate has been slammed shut, and so I hearken back to my friend’s words when I struggled with the gate in her back yard: If you can’t get the gate open, then you must make a lot of noise so someone notices.
Friends, now is the time to shake hard the rails of the gate that leads to reproductive choice, to make a whole lot of noise so that our point of entry re-opens and we can all travel freely the road towards bodily autonomy, just reproductive health care, and the power to make our own damn decision about what happens to our bodies. May we use our voice—individually and collectively—to reclaim our choice. This is a matter of life and death.
I know that Karen is not alone in hearing an interpretation of the gate verses that suggests there is only one way to know God and to secure salvation. I am grateful that Plymouth is such a beloved community that steers clear of that kind of exclusionary theology. These verses, however, can still hold much relevance in our lives. What kind of discernment are you doing in your life? Have you considered your choices from a faith perspective? From a Divine invitation? From that which will lead to abundant life, even when it is the more difficult choice? Jesus reminds us that all choice involves risk; each decision holds consequence. The Sermon on the Mount prompts us that kin-dom living is about what is best for all, not just some. And when we direct our choices to that which lifts up, empowers, embraces the other—individually and collectively—we are, indeed, on the road that leads to love and to life.