Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trouble at the Gate (Luke 13:22-30)

Trouble at the Gate

August 25, 2012 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading 1 Isaiah 66:18-21
Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

Gospel Luke 13:22-30
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

= = = = = 

Trouble at the Gate

Our gospel today contains a parable that is all about disappointment and frustration. At the end of the story, many people in Jesus’ parable are frustrated and disappointed because they expected something, and it turned out not to happen. The exact opposite occurred. What makes the frustration—the gnashing of teeth and weeping—even more disappointing is the fact that others are receiving what people thought they were going to receive.

We are no strangers to frustration in our modern world, but this is an even great reality to consider.

These days, there is nothing more frustrating, nothing more disappointing—routinely disappointing—than airline travel. There is nothing that makes me gnash my teeth more than getting right up to the jet way after you land, only to have the pilot announce, “well, we have some gate problems.” It’s usually right after the flight attendant announces, “we’re glad to announce that we have landed on time today.”

Well, Jesus is talking about a different kind of gate problem today. A much more serious kind. More than a simple delay in plans and schedule, this is a change in our permanent destination. Some important lessons as we travel through life.

So, let’s sit back, listen to the teaching of Jesus, DO NOT use your electronic devices, do not adjust your seat, and do not gather your belongings until you hear the ding and we have reached the terminal…..I mean, the Creed.

A few things to notice as we unpack this story…

The people say, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

People sure like to talk about issues of heaven and hell in the collective, impersonal, don’t they? I mean, don’t we?

Folks like talking about this a lot. This has lots of forms and variants…”what about the poor people in Africa?”, “what about the guy on the deserted island?”, “what about Oakland Raiders fans?”…and our vision of hell is as different as our age. Most young people are said to believe in a hell where nobody goes, or like many other obligations, they somehow are conferred a magical exemption because they have good self-esteem and deserve it, doggone it. Many others, perhaps adults, think there is a hell largely populated by enemies—mainly their former bosses, a few dictators, and the guy who invented the DH. And among the old are believers who nervously wonder if hell might be populated by the likes of themselves. They, like St. Paul at some moments, consider the question of their salvation “in fear and trembling.”

Jesus says there’s a problem with this approach.

He says, “Let’s not talk about other folks. Let’s talk about you, because you may be scheduled for some gate trouble.”

It seems a bit confusing, but it’s not a problem of language. He says clearly, before he tells this parable, that “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” The original language for “strong” simply denotes ability—a better way to translate these words of Jesus would be, “Many will attempt to enter but will not be able to.” Not a question of physical strength, but of desire, determination, effort, and personal responsibility.

He takes this generic discussion about other people and makes it extremely personal—as if he is talking only to you and to me.

But this is even more confusing to us.
I mean, God loves everyone, right?
God gave His Son for the whole world, right?
Even people whose only connection with Christianity is the John 3:16 sign in the Invesco Mile High stadium end zone know that!

Even in the first reading today from Isaiah, you get this sense that God is going far beyond the borders of Israel for the expectation of salvation. Isaiah says

. . . and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.

Where are they coming from?
Tarshish, Put, Lud, Mosoch, Tobal, Javan….I mean, we are talking the 4 corners of the ancient near east…He says further, Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

So God loves the entire world.
Jesus died for the entire world.
Even the Old Testament should guide us to never expect that there is only one clan or race or color or nation to be so blessed.

So why do we have this parable about gate trouble? About many trying to and not being able to make it?

Well, it’s a paradox.

It’s open for all.
It’s purely by God’s grace.
There’s no way to earn it.
Nothing we can ever do to deserve it.

But Jesus says that, despite all of this, people are going to have gate trouble.

Not just a few people.
A lot of people.
He says “many, I tell you, will attempt to enter and won’t make it.”

What’s going on here? Why is it that there is going to be gate trouble?

1)    People confuse belief with effort.
We have had this false dilemma between faith and works, between divine and human agency, and I believe it has really diverted us from something that every Christian who has earnestly sought to follow God knows deep inside—it takes effort. Not to earn forgiveness, but to keep going, to become mature in our faith. Faith and response cannot be separated, and if anyone tries to tell you that a faith-powered response isn’t necessary to the gospel, they are grievously wrong about both faith and the right response to faith. As the bible says, “faith without works is dead.”
2)    People confuse “some effort” with “every effort.”
Obviously, these people made some effort, they were familiar with the story of Jesus, they knew where to hear about him, and could go to listen if they wanted. Going to church does not make you a Christian, just like going to McDonald's does not make you a hamburger. It’s not a seasonal commitment, it’s a total commitment. It’s a life, a relationship, a commitment. It shows in the way you treat people, not just in your media choices. These people had the right media, but apparently they never responded to the message.
3)    People are still trying to book their travel on the group charter plan.
The frustration Jesus describes is when Abraham, Isaac, all their heroes are in the kingdom, and they aren’t. They forgot that it is a narrow gate, and you have to board your flight one at a time. I guess they wanted the Chosen People’s Frequent Flier Program, they wanted the Abraham’s Affinity Red Carpet Club, they wanted to use dad’s miles, mom’s points, aunt Margaret’s commitment and example, but Jesus says this is all on you.

It’s about effort, and it’s about love. It’s about a personal relationship with Christ, and how you treat people. All of the law and the prophets hang on these two things. Love God with all your heart, love others the way Christ has loved you.
Maybe another parable, another story best illustrates this as we close today…

There was a man who died and in the afterlife his dog met him (we don’t have time to develop the theology of dogs in the afterlife, but it’s in there. Trust me. It’s in the Greek. Definitely for dogs, not sure about cats). Anyway, the man and his reunited dog romped and bounded together just like old times. Upon reaching the first gate a man came out and said: “Welcome to heaven. But you can’t bring that dog in here.”

The dog growled and barked at the gatekeeper. Dejected, the man said, “Well, if he can’t come, then I guess I can’t go either. I can’t imagine that God wouldn’t allow him in.” And he went away saddened by this.

A bit more up the road, he found a second gate. And a smiling young man came to the gate and greeted him and the dog wagged his tail and the young man came over and gave him a pat on the head and a belly rub and some doggy treats that he had in his pocket.

He reached out his arms to the man and embraced him and said, “Welcome to heaven!”

Surprised the man said, “But I was just at another gate and that guy told me THAT was heaven. But he wouldn’t let my dog come in with me. So I left that gate and was sad that I’d never get to see God.”

The young man said, “Oh, by the way, I’m St. Peter. And that last gate was hell. They only take people in who are willing to abandon their best friend.”

May God bless us as we make every effort, and love all the people around us. Amen.

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