Sunday, August 22, 2004

Proper 16 C

Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 46; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; Luke 13:22-30

Until a few months ago, I had absolutely no idea how easy it is to say, "Because I’m Mommy and I said so." At 3 ½, our son Charlie is a pretty good guy, but he’s finally figured out his mommy and daddy stay awake after he has gone to bed, and lately he’s been quite concerned that he might be missing out on some serious fun.

I remember getting out of bed at night when I was little, tiptoeing down the stairs, and peaking around the door into the living room where my parents were watching TV. They always knew I was there, which I thought must be magic, but now I know it's because they could see my reflection in the window beside the sofa. We catch Charlie that way now.

"But why do I have to go to bed?" he always asks as we walk back to his room. And at first we crafted imaginative replies about the sun going down and stars playing in the sky, about resting our bodies and dreaming happy dreams. But a few weeks into this pattern.... "But why...." our answers shrank with our patience, and we would simply tell him, "Charlie, because it’s night time and you need to sleep."

One night, after the fourth or fifth escort back to bed, he asked as always, "Why do I have to go to sleep?" And I couldn’t believe the words as they were coming out of my mouth.... "Because I’m Mommy and I said so...."

We’ve learned that the less we say when we tuck him back in, the less likely we are to catch his reflection in the window later on. So we save the stories about stars and dreams for before bed, and keep our late-night answers short and to the point.

When we read this morning’s gospel passage at senior high bible study this week, we agreed that it sure would be nice if Jesus could just give a straight answer once in a while. A simple yes or no, and get on with it.

Lord, will only a few be saved? If he could just say, "As a matter of fact, yes," or "I’ve got to say, no." Short and to the point. And if anyone asked why, he could say, "Because I’m God and I said so."

But it seems Jesus was more inclined to the stars and dreams approach, to long, winding answers filled with images, encoded in parables. His teachings often twist and turn, so that by the end of his answer, we are left with more questions than we started with.

Lord, will only a few be saved? And Jesus takes a deep breath and answers, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. Many will try but few will make it. When the door is shut it is shut, and you will not be able to get in no matter what you say. And you will watch all sorts of folks come from north and south and east and west to eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

Uh-huh. So, Jesus, is that a yes or a no? Will only a few be saved?

Jesus’ stars and dreams response, which I think begins with a yes but ends with a glorious no - no, not only a few people but people from north and south and east and west....his response is, I think, less an answer to the question and more a statement about the question itself.

You see, Little Charlie’s question makes some sense, at least the first few hundred times he asks it...."Why do I have to go to bed?" He’s only just discovered that it’s possible to stay awake later than he usually does. But the question in this morning’s gospel...well it doesn’t really make any sense. So many of the questions Jesus fields in the gospels don’t make any sense, not any more. It’s just that the folks asking them don’t realize that yet.

The folks asking Jesus questions, most of the time, were faithful Jews living under an increasingly rigid observance of Torah. Keeping God’s law was the only way they were able to preserve their identity as God’s people, the only way they were able to remember that their true covenant was with Yahweh, and not with the Roman governments and gods whose power was a constant threat to them.

And then here comes Jesus, healing on the Sabbath, touching unclean people, eating in the homes of sinners, taking tax collectors as disciples. He broke the law. I suppose Jesus didn’t make much sense to those who were trying the only way they knew how to be faithful to God. They didn’t yet realize that in Jesus, God was showing them a new way.

I have to trust that there is wisdom in the way our lectionary is put together, but I’m not sure I understand why we are reading this morning’s passage without having read the two parables that precede it. Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God, comparing it first to a tiny mustard seed that, once planted in the garden, is filled with life and grows into an enormous tree that becomes a refuge for many birds of the air. Do you hear echoes of our tale of a tiny, narrow door becoming a table that seats many?

The second parable Jesus tells, just before today’s text begins, is that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. It’s less familiar to us than the mustard seed, but Episcopal priest, theologian, and amateur baker Robert Farrar Capon suggests it is one of the most remarkable things Jesus ever said. Capon writes, "Just as yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved into the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all - just as there is not a moment of the dough’s existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened dough - so this parable insists that the kingdom [of God] enters the world at its creation and that there is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world."

There is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world.

Lord, will only a few be saved? The question doesn’t make any sense, because we are, all of us - you, me, the people we like most and the people we like least - we are all of us already saved. Jesus has made certain of that - he gave his life to make certain of that.

Lord, will only a few be saved? CS Lewis wrote something to the effect of, "It’s like asking what color is the number three?" What kind of answer can you give to a question that doesn’t make any sense?

Jesus’ answer seems to suggest that the deeper question, the real question, the honest question is this: Who might I have to sit beside at the table?

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. The door is not an image for salvation - we are all already saved. The door is our willingness to live like it, to live as though Jesus died for us and for all sinners everywhere, to love the world that much, to engage the world that deeply. The door is narrow because it squeezes out of us every ounce of how the world tells us to live, in judgement, in competition, in self-preservation, in fear. By the world’s standards it doesn’t make sense - when we try to walk through alone, believing we have earned access to the table and others have not, we cannot fit through the narrow opening. But when we walk through hand in hand, side by side, believing that God’s grace has set a place for everyone, there is somehow more than enough room.

Jesus asks us to live in the world right now as though we were all already eating together at that banquet table on the last day. If someone is hungry and needs a second helping of bread, by all means pass it. If someone is sick and weak and having trouble cutting their roast beef, by all means help them cut it. If someone is weary and fumbling with words to a prayer, by all means help them pray it.

One of our stars and dreams attempts to keep Little Charlie in bed at night was a story about the moon watching over him and keeping him safe. We thought it had done the trick, but he soon wandered back out to the living room, worried that the moon was going to get him. Our long-winded answer kept him up at night.

Jesus’ long-winded answer keep us up at night, too. It doesn’t make much sense. We are all already saved, and the door is wide open for us all to join him at the table. But we might not make it to the feast. Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, "Some may find themselves shut out from Jesus’ table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited."

The answer is simple, but it is not easy. And so we are first nourished at this table, where we come together from just a little bit north, south, east, and west to feast on grace, to be filled with the One whose love saw beyond the boundaries we place between ourselves. May we go out from this place hand in hand and swing our doors wide open, and begin to reveal to the world the kingdom already in its midst. Amen.

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