Sunday, August 21, 2016

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Luke 13:22-30

Preached a Grace United Methodist Church, Baltimore Maryland

This seems to happen all the time in the Gospels:
someone comes to Jesus with a clear-cut, yes-or-no question—
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—
and rather than simply answering the question
Jesus launches into a lengthy discourse
(or even, God forbid, a parable)
that occasions more confusion than clarification.
All the person wants is some information—
salvation: many or few?—
and suddenly Jesus is talking about narrow doors
and homeowners who won’t answer when you knock;
then, inexplicably, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob put in an appearance,
and along with them (just for good measure) all the prophets
and then there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
and a geographically diverse crowd at a banquet,
and finally, just to drive home the point
that he really isn’t going to answer the question
he says cryptically, “some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
Writing in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria
noted, with a bit of understatement,
“This reply may seem perhaps to wander
from the scope of the question” (Homily 99 on Luke).

But maybe Jesus has his reasons
for answering simple and direct questions
with such complexity and indirectness.
In this particular case,
perhaps he wants to show us
that asking about the salvation of others
may simply be a way of avoiding the question
of what my standing is before God.
We turn our gaze to the fate of others
so we do not have to look at ourselves.

This was certainly the view of St. Cyril,
who goes on to say:
“The man wanted to know
whether there would be few who are saved,
but [Jesus] explained to him the way
whereby he might be saved himself….
It was a necessary and valuable thing
to know how one may obtain salvation.
[Jesus] is purposely silent
to the [man’s] useless question.” (Homily 99 on Luke).
In other words,
the question of few or many
is of no use to anyone;
it is a question motivated by mere curiosity.
What is of use is the knowledge of
whether I am aiming for a door that is narrow,
whether I must strive at all times to enter that door,
whether I can let my salvation rest
on simply having been in the proximity of Jesus,
of having heard his teaching,
or whether I must seek to be his disciple
in a deeper and truer sense.

Now to Catholics and Methodists like us
this might sound pretty OK:
our traditions place a premium on holy living.
We think that justification
must be completed by sanctification
and that this sanctification must be lived out
in a concrete and visible way,
whether this is Benedictine monasticism
or the Wesley Class Meeting.
John Wesley’s views on grace
were close enough to the teachings
of the Council of Trent
that he was accused by some
of secretly being a Jesuit.
From the early Christian reform of Roman morals,
to St. Francis’s embrace of Lady Poverty,
to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,
to participation in the Civil Rights Movement,
the Catholic and Methodist traditions
have embodied the conviction
that being a disciple of Jesus involves more
than simply being in the near proximity of Jesus,
more than simply having shared a meal with him
or having heard him teach.
One might say that, theologically speaking,
Catholicism and Methodism
are “strenuous” forms of Christianity.
If I am to be a disciple of Jesus,
then I must strive with every muscle, nerve, and bone
to enter the narrow door by living a Christ-like life,
a life of integrity and justice and peace-making.

But we should beware of thinking
that, by hearing in it a call
to a life of strenuous discipleship,
we have fully grasped the meaning of
Jesus’ lengthy, baffling, complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question.
We should beware of thinking
that Jesus is telling us
that our strenuous discipleship
somehow ensures our salvation.
Just when we think
that we have got the thing wrapped up—
that we know what Jesus’ requirements are,
that we know what it means to strive,
that we know where that narrow door is located—
Jesus unravels it.
For he tells us that the door may be narrow,
but it is widely accessible:
in the wideness of God’s mercy
it welcomes those coming from the east or the west,
from the north or the south.
He tells us that we must strive to enter,
but striving is no guarantee of preferred treatment:
many who have through their striving
arrived at the door first
will suddenly find themselves at the back of the line,
while the slacker disciples who didn’t strive very hard
and arrived at the last minute
will suddenly find themselves at the front of the line.
“Some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Imagine the scene:
you have spent your life in strenuous discipleship,
faithfully attending church on Sundays
and a prayer group during the week,
volunteering at a homeless shelter
and taking in foster children,
passing up the higher-paying job
to spend more time with your family and volunteering,
scrupulously voting for candidates who best embody
what you think is the Gospel message,
treating everyone fairly and equally,
striving to enter that narrow door.
And on the day of judgment
you discover that, despite all your striving,
you have somehow ended up at the back of the line.
Not only that, but as you look ahead of you in line
you are shocked to see those you recognize as
liars and adulterers,
murderers and thieves,
gangbangers and whores,
bullies and racists,
terrorists and tyrants,
all those who clearly did not strive,
as you did,
to enter the narrow door.
These sinners are entering into the kingdom
ahead of you,
sitting down to join in the banquet,
while you stand outside
like some D-list celebrity
waiting and hoping
to get into the hottest club in town
before it fills up.

Does your heart fall
as you see the unfairness of it all?
Do you cry out in the name of justice
and recount all you did
in your strenuous life of discipleship,
all the striving that surely must have won you
a higher place in line?

Or does your heart leap for joy
because all of those wretched sinners ahead of you
were somehow touched by God’s grace,
somehow transformed by God’s Spirit,
so as to now share in the joy of the kingdom?
Do you cry out in praise of grace,
thankful for God’s mercy shown to those sinners
and thankful for the mercy shown to you
despite your confidence in your own striving,
despite your arrogance in thinking
that even the most strenuous discipleship
could ever make you deserving
of a place in God’s kingdom.

As we ponder Jesus’ lengthy, baffling,
complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question
we might come to see
that we should strive to enter the narrow door,
to live a life of strenuous discipleship,
to practice our faith in Jesus Christ
to the greatest depth and breadth of our ability.
If you love Jesus, of course you will want to do this,
for what lover would not do everything possible
to be with his or her beloved,
to do and love what the beloved does and loves.
But, as Bernard of Clairvaux asked,
“when the soul has poured out her whole being in love,
what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent”
that is the source of our love,
the God who loved us first (Sermon 83)?

If you wish truly to know the joy of the kingdom,
if you wish truly to feast
with patriarchs and prophets,
with people of all nations and tongues,
at the banquet of life,
never forget that in all your striving
God’s grace goes before you;
never forget that you too are saved
not by your own efforts
but by the same mercy that saves
the worst of sinners;
never forget that our hope is grounded
not in our strenuous discipleship
but in the mystery of divine love.