Monday, December 3, 2007

A prayer for Advent

Lord Jesus,

Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.

We who have so much to do
seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.

We who are anxious over many things
look forward to your coming among us.

We who are blessed in so many ways
long for the complete joy of your kingdom.

We whose hearts are heavy
seek the joy of your presence.

We are your people,
walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.

To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus!"


~Henri J. M. Nouwen

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost

The Last Sunday after Pentecost
The Feast of Christ the King
November 25, 2007

“Once upon a time, in a far away kingdom, there lived a king… and after a series of amazing adventures and heroic rescues, the handsome king and the beautiful princess were married and lived happily ever after.”

For many of us who grew up with fairy tales, such stories of handsome and heroic kings and beautiful and often downtrodden princesses, and most of all, ‘happily ever after’ endings shaped our view of royalty. As a small child my imagination was fed by such tales, and reinforced by real events chronicled in the Life and Look magazines that arrived in the mail each week: the fairy tale marriage of Grace Kelly to the Prince of Monaco, stories about Queen Elizabeth and her growing family, about the marriage of Princess Margaret, and then years later, the marriage of Diana to Prince Charles. Royalty meant beauty and glitz and fairy tale images of palaces and coaches and crowns.

Of course, those of us who grew up with those images also came to realize how shallow they were, how insubstantial and fleeting the storybook ‘happily ever after’ turned out to be. Kings and queens and princesses have feet of clay, just like the rest of us, or so it seems--ordinary people cloaked in extraordinary surrounds, whose real day to day lives cannot live up to our fairy tale expectations.

I wonder if it didn’t feel a little like this for Jesus’ followers in today’s gospel. Their leader, the one who had preached and taught and healed, the one who proclaimed the coming of a new kingdom, the one Pilate had asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” now hung on a cross, subjected to a degrading form of punishment reserved for the lowest members of society, hung there in the midst of two common criminals to die a slow and painful death. Was he after all, they must have wondered, just another human with clay feet pretending to be more than he was? If he was really the messiah, the anointed one, wouldn’t he save himself from such an end?

Of course the answer to those ponderings, the truth of Jesus’ message, of his identity would be fully revealed a few days hence when his tomb was found empty. But today as we end our liturgical year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and our gospel focuses not on the resurrection, but on the crucifixion. So we must ask ourselves, “What does this story about Jesus on the cross reveal to us about his kingship?”

From the very beginnings of his ministry, Jesus defied all expectations of what a “messiah”, an anointed one should be like. In a world in which the Roman Empire reigned supreme, a world in which the fate of the people of Israel, the chosen people of God, seemed to hang precariously on the whims of various puppet kings working in league with the empire, hopes were high for a messiah, a king anointed as David had been who would liberate them, set them free and restore their land and their fortunes and their status. There were of course, many who claimed to be that one, and there were minor rebellions and uprisings, all quickly squashed by the Romans. So when this simple man Jesus emerged out of the wilderness to preach and teach and heal and proclaim the coming kingdom of God, he made an unlikely figure to fulfill the hopes of the people.

His teaching and his actions were persuasive, however, and he attracted throngs everywhere he went. He challenged his followers not to revolt militarily, but rather to live counter culturally—to love God and love neighbor as the highest virtues, to place little value on earthly goods and earthly honors but to strive to enter the kingdom of God. He preached a radical gospel that called his followers to turn the other cheek, to give up not only their cloaks but also their inner garments, to feed the hungry and care for the prisoner. He consorted with those proper society shunned—tax collectors, Samaritans, women. He called his followers to repent—to turn away from the powers that controlled their lives and to take up a new way.

In all this, Jesus, the unlikely messiah, attracted enough attention to worry the powers-that-be. Certainly he was of no real threat—he had no armies, he incited no revolt. But his message asked those who heard him to rethink the lives they were living, to resist the powers in a more subtle and ultimately more potent way, and that could not be tolerated.

And so we find Jesus on the cross, mocked as the King of the Jews, degraded and dishonored and left to die. “You saved others, now save yourself” one of the evildoers along side him called out. But just as Jesus resisted the temptation in the wilderness to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple to show his invulnerability to death, so too did he resist the temptation to save himself from death on the cross. In accepting that death, that ignominious and untimely death, Jesus showed his true kingship. His power broke the earthly powers that shackled him and shackled the people of God. And he broke the earthly powers that shackle us as well.

We celebrate the feast of Christ the King, our king, in recognition that since that moment of his death we have been living in a new world. No longer can the powers and principalities hold us in the same way if—and this is a big if—we are willing to follow the way Jesus laid out for us. Counter cultural today as it was then, radical, and demanding. A way that calls us to give up those things—power, wealth, prestige, conceit, honor, status, violence, aggression, vengeance, all those things, whatever they are—that make us complicit with powers and principalities and separate us from God.

We celebrate the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday in Pentecost, the last Sunday in our church year. Next week, the first Sunday in Advent, we begin a new year. We look forward to the birth of the Christ Child, we celebrate his ministry, we live through his death and glorious resurrection, and in all that we seek to reshape our lives so that we can better realize the Kingdom of God that Jesus’ death on the cross ushered in. On this new year’s eve, I wonder if we might, as we do for the secular new year, think about our hopes for the coming year. What might our world look like a year from now if we began to live more fully the way Jesus calls us to live? How might our lives be more fully transformed if we really took seriously Jesus’ new way?

We often say that only in fairy tales do people live happily ever after. But in truth, happily ever after is what God’s kingdom is really all about. Not the happily ever after of princesses and castles and crowns, but the happily ever after of a world in which no one goes hungry, no one is shunned or cast out, a world in which violence is laid to rest and peace reigns. It’s not living in a fairy tale to imagine such a world, because that is the kingdom God promises us. That is the kingdom Jesus died on a cross for. That is the kingdom that is here but not yet fully realized. That is the kingdom we can work for, if only we will. That is the Kingdom of Christ the King.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 27 C November 11, 2007

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another (Job 19:25-27)

Perhaps it’s my age. Perhaps it’s the state of the world, or at least my take on the state of the world. Perhaps it’s just that I wake up every morning to the sound of the news—bad news more often than not. Normally I tend to be a bit idealistic; I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. But it seems to me these days that ‘hope’ is a commodity in short supply. Hope for peace in the world. Hope for the environment. Hope for relief from disease and hunger and suffering for the world’s poor—none of these seem very real right now and it’s all too easy to slip into a state of despair, to wonder what is going to become of us. And that makes it very easy to identify with Job, the main character of our Old Testament reading.

The book of Job tells the story of an upstanding, righteous man who has remained faithful to God, and yet a man who loses everything—his family, his life’s work, all gone for no explicable reason. Job loudly laments this state of affairs, crying out to God, proclaiming his innocence, only to have three of his friends tell him in turn that it must be his fault, that he must’ve done something wrong, that he must deserve his bad fortune, because such bad luck can be nothing but punishment from God. Job, however, rejects the counsel of his friends and continues to maintain his innocence and to rail against God—a God who seems to him to be indifferent to his suffering. It is in the midst of this suffering that we hear Job’s cry:

O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; (Job 19: 23-25)

For I know that my Redeemer lives. These words resonate deeply with us, but who was it that Job meant by his ‘redeemer’? In fact, scholars differ on what they think Job intended in this cry. The Hebrew word used here is “go’el” which connotes an avenger or vindicator as well as a redeemer. Go’el is sometimes understood to refer to the God who led Israel out of Egypt, but it also has a legal connotation for one who is responsible for avenging the unjust death of a family member. Job of course had no family members left at this point, but there is also little reason to believe that Job would see God as his redeemer in the midst of his cries AGAINST God.

For me, however, no matter to whom that cry was directed, those words speak of a deep hope, of a great faith. Job is in the depths of despond. His suffering is unrelenting, his friends offer no solace and his God seems to be indifferent to his plight. But in the midst of all that, Job still hopes, still believes that at some point, some how, he will be redeemed—if not by God by some kind of human intervention. The word that we most often hear used to describe Job is patient. But in fact, I’m not sure patience is the best word for this situation. What carried Job through this crisis was not patience so much as it was steadfastness—steadfastness in his faith. Job’s was a deep faith, the kind of faith that sustains in the dark times, and it is this faith that serves as an example for us.

Job continues with his lament, and finally God speaks to Job from a whirlwind—but not to apologize, not to console, not to explain, not to give the answers Job has longed for, but rather to proclaim again God’s power and majesty. But even without answers, this meeting with God is transformative for Job who ultimately says:

I know that You can do everything,
That nothing you propose is impossible for You.

I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes. (Job 42:2, 5-6, Tanakh translation)

In the end Job gets no answers, but he is nonetheless redeemed and he is redeemed by the very God he railed against. What he has learned perhaps is that true redemption can take place only in the presence of God. For whatever reasons, Job knew of God before his trials, but now he KNOWS God, and in that knowing came the difference

Job has struggled through the darkness, and he has come out on the other side. Job’s witness, his certainty both that he has not brought his suffering on himself and that at the end he would be redeemed can give us hope in our own times of darkness. Like Job, we struggle with understanding why we—and others—must suffer. Like Job we reject the notion that God is the cause of the suffering, but we too may sometimes wonder where God is in our suffering, if God is indifferent to our suffering. The story of Job assures us that God is not indifferent even as it warns us that we may never understand completely why suffering must occur.

I know that my Redeemer lives. That phrase takes on new resonance for us as Christians because we trust that Jesus Christ our Redeemer does live, and in Jesus we have a new life and a new hope—that same hope we hear echoed in today’s gospel (Luke 20:27-38). When the Sadducees set Jesus up by asking him about the resurrection—and it is a set up, because the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection—Jesus not only gives them a straight answer—in the resurrection such earthly matters as which husband gets the wife just don’t matter—he also and perhaps more importantly reaffirms that there is a resurrection, and grounds this affirmation in Hebrew scripture.

In his affirmation of the resurrection, Jesus holds out for us an eschatological hope—hope for the end times when we too will be living with God. That is good news for us, but it doesn’t stop there. We live in a time of realized eschatology—an “already-not yet” world. The kingdom of God is already here and the kingdom of God is not yet fully realized. God is with us –our redeemer lives—now and in the last day.

It is in living firmly in this hope of God—a God who loves us and is with us, who redeems us both now and in the world to come that we can go on in a world that sometimes seems hopeless. I’m not one who believes that God has a plan for everything, or that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe with all my heart and all my soul that the God who loves us can work through us and with us to redeem any situation, to find life and hope no matter how grim things seem. And believing that we keep on, working to follow Jesus’ imperatives to love God and care for one another, to be Christ’s body in the world.

I know that my Redeemer lives.


Monday, November 5, 2007

Suffering, evil and God

My last year in seminary I took a wonderful class on suffering and evil. I say wonderful, but the class was in fact excruciating--some of the readings we did were wrenching, and though we read many theories on theodicy, there really were no satisfactory answers. In a semester in which most of us were stressed out from the job quest and our approaching graduations and ordinations, it seemed all the more intense.

It was, nonetheless, a great class in the way it made me think and stretch my theology. So this book review in the New York Times caught my eye. The authors of the books reviewed are a study in contrasts--one a biblical scholar whose work contributed to his loss of faith, the other a philosopher who spent much of his career writing as an atheist but who came to faith later in life. Neither of them can answer the question of why God allows evil in the world, why a good God lets the people God loves suffer, but it is interesting to me how these unanswerable questions affected their beliefs.

As for me, at the end of my class I had no more answers about evil and suffering than I had when I started. What I concluded, however, was that how we respond to evil and suffering matters more than understanding why it exists. If we can resist evil, if we can show mercy and work for justice, if we can respond to suffering with the kind of love and compassion God models for us, perhaps that's the best we can hope for.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For all the saints

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.

But lo there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way;
Alleluia, alleluia.

All Saints' Day is one of my favorite days in the church year. We always celebrated Hallowe'en with witches and ghosts and pumpkins and candy when I was a kid, but I remember very early learning that Hallowe'en meant "All Hallows' Eve, " and that All Hallows was a time remember and celebrate all the saints. I grew up pretty low church Episcopalian, so there weren't a lot of saints mentioned besides the 12 disciples; nonetheless, the notion of a vast throng of saints was planted in me early.

No doubt that was reinforced when I joined the junior choir and learned that venerable All Saints' hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God:

I sing a song of the saints of God
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen
and one was a shepherdess on the gree.
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping to be one, too.

I loved this hymn and I still do. I think what appealed to me, even if I wasn't aware of it at the time, was the notion that saints are not just "holy people," not just biblical figures or story book characters, but real people--like me! Everyday people who struggle to live lives of integrity, to live the lives to which God calls us. Saints are the people we meet on the subway or in the coffeeshop or at work or at school--wherever we go about our life and work.

I've been blessed by the presence of saints in my life--those who touched me in various ways, who loved me, nurtured me, accepted me and yet called me to be more the person God created me to be. Today I remember the saints in my life, especially my father and my beloved mother-in-law, both of whom died too soon. And remember those saints whom I never met, but whose lives nevertheless shaped my. And I give thanks for all the saints.

Who are the saints in your life?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Children and worship part 1

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of church. The Episcopal church my family attended when I was a small child was full of children, and the way I remember it, friendly to children, too. Of course there were rules and boundaries. We had to be quiet. We had to sit and stand and kneel. We had to wear our Sunday best. Going into the area behind the altar rail was strictly verboten (we had to go inside the rail for the Christmas pageant one year, and it seemed sort of scary). But despite all this, I always felt at home there.

When my older kids were young we went to a church that was (from my perspective at least) child welcoming. The kids went to church--church school was beforehand--and they participated, even if they didn't pay attention ALL the time. They were part of what was going on.

I am puzzled and dismayed whenever I come across the attitude that kids shouldn't be in church, or can only be there when their behavior is perfect or very nearly so. I want children to be in church. And how on earth can we expect them to feel any connection to worship, to liturgy, to church when they are older if we don't welcome there from the beginning?

So how do we incorporate kids into the worship life of the congregation? It's something I've been thinking a great deal about lately. A few weeks ago I attended a workshop about children in worship, and I found myself disagreeing with some of the ideas presented there. This workshop started with the premise that we should "throw out the prayerbook." For me, a cradle Episcopalian, this is an automatic non-starter. Adapt the prayerbook--sure. Make the liturgy a bit more kid friendly--okay. But make it watered down, less authentic--um, no.

I'm thinking of how I might design a service that would be "child-friendly" or "family oriented" and I'll write more about it as time goes on. But for now, do you have ideas? Experienced good liturgies which welcomed children and youth? Share them with me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 C Luke 16:19-31

“In all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

You would have had to be secreted on a deserted island somewhere this week to miss that fact that the Episcopal Church was once again in the news. Whether you turned to NPR or BBC or the Boston Globe or the New York Times, the Episcopal Church was right there, as the House of Bishops met, in part to discuss the demands made by the Primates of the Anglican Communion a few months ago, demands that center on issues of sexuality. As you may have gleaned from the many (and sometimes contradictory) news accounts, the House of Bishops issued a statement reaffirming the resolutions passed at General Convention 2006 which stated that restraint would be exercised in consecrating bishops who might be a challenge to the rest of the communion and that no official rites for blessing same sex unions would be authorized at this time. That this is a consensus statement arrived at after much hard work is witnessed by the fact that no one outside the House of Bishops is really happy with it—neither the Primates and the conservatives who think it did not go far enough to conform to their demands, nor those who believe that it did not go far enough to affirm the place of gay and lesbian persons in the church.

In the midst of this I began to think about today’s sermon, and what first crossed my mind as I read and reread the gospel was the stark contrast between the message we’ve been hearing Jesus emphasize recently—discipleship in general and wealth in particular—and what the Primates seem most fixated upon—power in general and sexuality in particular. But as I continued to read and ponder, I began to see a thread in today’s gospel that might, just might, pertain to both.

This week’s gospel is another one of those hard messages. The parable Jesus tells is a rich one—no pun intended—with many layers to pull apart, but its meaning—its surface meaning at least—is immediately clear. There is a very wealthy man—we know he’s wealthy because he wears purple and linen, expensive commodities in those times, and lives in a gated home—a man who passes by the beggar Lazarus whenever he sets off through his gates. Lazarus is destitute—he’s looking just for the crumbs from the table, the meagerest of the leftovers. He’s so destitute that he’s covered in sores, and cannot keep the wild dogs that roam the city away. Eventually Lazarus and the rich man both die; Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man languishes, tormented in she’ol, the place of the dead. The rich man begs Abraham for relief, and then for a message to be sent to his brothers so that they might avoid his fate. His requests are for naught, however, and Abraham reminds him of the chasm that separates them, a chasm so wide and so deep that it cannot be crossed.

If we’ve been following the gospel of Luke closely we shouldn’t be surprised to hear this story. Jesus begins his ministry in this gospel by standing in the synagogue and reading a passage from Isaiah, which says,

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)

Later in the sermon on the plain Jesus preaches,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."
(Luke 6:20, 24)

And in recent weeks’ gospels we’ve heard Jesus say things like,

“You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 16:13)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34)

Jesus’ message is consistent; devotion to money and devotion to God are antithetical. It’s not that having money per se is bad, it’s what you do with that money, and what that money does to your relationship with others and with God that is the problem. And in this week’s gospel we see the consequences of allowing wealth to be foremost—a separation from God, a separation so deep and wide that it cannot be breached.

Think about this: we don’t know that the rich man was a bad person; we don’t even know if he was generous in other ways. Perhaps he was a good employer and a kind person and gave alms to the poor—we just don’t know. What we do know that he walked past a beggar, someone who was invisible to him in his poverty—every single day. Lazarus was a non-entity to him, inconsequential, nothing. Lazarus was the invisible other.

We don’t know much about Lazarus either, beyond the facts of his destitution. Was he a good person—kind and loving and devoted to God? It’s impossible to say. But God’s love and mercy for Lazarus reached across that chasm—the chasm that Lazarus himself did not have the power to bridge—to enfold him, to cradle him in the bosom of Abraham.

It might be enough to say that today’s story of the rich man who failed to use his wealth to reach out to the poor at his gate is another stark reminder that God calls us to hold onto our money lightly, that God calls us to share the abundance that is entrusted to us and to share it joyfully and generously. That message is certainly here for us to heed and it is an important one. But I think if we go a bit deeper we can reach that thread that connects this story to the Primates and the House of Bishops.

If we look more closely we can see that there’s more than wealth involved here. The rich man had wealth to be sure, but he also had power—the power to see beyond a filthy, dirty man covered with sores, the power to see the humanity of Lazarus and to reach out to him as another child of God. The chasm that separated Lazarus and the rich man did not open only after their deaths; that chasm was dug during their lifetimes. It deepened every time that the rich man walked past Lazarus, oblivious to his need. It widened every time the rich man relegated Lazarus to the ranks of the unseen and unwanted. It grew as the rich man forgot God’s commandment to love neighbor as self.

We in the church are called to be generous with our wealth to be sure. But we are also called to see those who are often invisible in society, to see the image of God in all our sisters and brothers—no matter how different from us they may seem, no matter if they are dressed in rags or the finest clothes, no matter if their skin is white or pink or brown or ebony black, no matter whether they are gay or straight or male or female or young or old—to see them and to include them fully. Jesus is really clear that this is our call, but let’s be honest here: the church has a really poor track record in following that call. All too often the church has put up walls, yes, has allowed chasms to open between the people like us, those on the inside, those with the power, and others who are perceived to be different, the ones we’d like to exclude. The irony of course is that today’s gospel tells us that the ones who ultimately will be excluded are the ones who allow the chasms to open.

It’s only been in the last 40 years or so that the church, and specifically the Episcopal Church, has begun to recognize those chasms and to work to close them, close them so that all of God’s children—especially people of color and women and gay and lesbian persons—can be fully included in the life and work of the church. It’s hard work and it’s radical work, and it’s controversial work, just like the gospel. And it’s necessary work if we truly want to build the kingdom of God.

The Episcopal Church faces a difficult task now—the task of balancing what it sees as its prophetic witness to ALL of God’s children with the demands of church leaders who see things differently. The statement from the House of Bishops this week, no matter what you think of it, is an attempt to do this, and we have to live with it for now. But that does not change God’s call to us to close those chasms, to really see and to really include all of God’s children as full and equal members in the church, in the body of Christ.

Like the rich man and his brothers we have Moses and the prophets, and we have the one who has risen from the dead, Jesus our savior who reminds us again and again that there is no one outside the bounds of God’s love. Will we hear this message? Will we—finally—heed this call? Will we work to close the chasm that keeps out the other so that we may all be enfolded in God’s love, cradled in the bosom of Abraham?

I pray that it may be so.


The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2007 Proper 16 C
Luke 13:22-30

Many of you know that I’ve just returned from two weeks of vacation in Maine. This vacation was not the “sit quietly on the beach and read” sort of vacation; no indeed, it was more the “start early in the morning and go all day long” kind—full of fun activities of all sorts. And so it was that one bright and sunny day last week we decided to take part in a truly quintessential New England end of the summer ritual—we went to the fair. It was a wonderful fair, complete with a dazzling array of midway rides and games, 4-H’ers showing their cows and sheep, a whole barn full of prize chickens, the mouthwatering smells of cotton candy, funnel cake, fried dough, pizza, barbeque and hot dogs wafting from colorful concession stands—there were sights and sounds and smells to delight folks of all ages.

Tucked in the midst of a row of food stands we came across a small booth that didn’t quite fit in with all the rest. There were no flashing lights, no enticing smells, no hawking proprietor. Instead there was a table holding two boxes. One of them said, “Look inside to see why Jesus died” and the other, which had three doors, said “See three things God cannot do!” Beside the table a woman and several teenage girls were handing out literature. “Do you know Jesus?” it asked. “Are you saved?”

Are you saved? For many (although not all) Christians, this question about salvation is THE question. For some it is an intensely personal question: Am I saved? For others, like the proprietors of the booth at the fair, it is a matter of evangelism: Are you saved? And if not, let me tell you what you need to do. But always it seems to be a question aimed at dividing people—those who are in and those who are out—and a matter of affirming one’s own status as part of the in-group.

Of course, this question of salvation is not a new one; in fact, we hear the roots of it in today’s gospel. In our reading from Luke, Jesus is continuing his long and winding journey to Jerusalem, teaching along the way, when someone asks him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" In his typical way, Jesus doesn’t give a completely direct answer. “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many will try to enter and not be able.”

At first glance, Jesus’ answer might seem to imply that salvation is an exclusionary affair, available only for the select few who are able to “enter through the narrow door.” And in some ways, this may be the answer the crowd was looking for. Over the course of his travels, Jesus has been teaching about discipleship, about the kingdom of God, and those with him may have been looking for affirmation that they indeed were part of the in-group, the select. But if affirmation of their status was what they were looking for, the rest of his answer was sure to disappoint. Even those who had shared table fellowship, those who ate and drank with Jesus, might be turned away while others who come from east and west and north and south are included in God’s banquet. This sounds bad enough, but if you understand that eating together, sharing table fellowship with someone was an important marker of identity, of belonging in 1st century Palestine, you can begin to see why this answer might have shaken up some of the crowd.

What is it then that Jesus is trying to tell his followers? Perhaps the message is not that just a few will be saved, but rather that the desire to define and be part of an exclusive group is misguided. And in fact, all our efforts to define in-groups and out-groups, to say who will be saved and who won’t are likewise misguided. Because ultimately it is not up to us to determine: it is completely and entirely up to God.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about salvation, about our faith, and how we live, that what we do doesn’t matter? I don’t think so. Jesus clearly teaches about what it means to be a disciple, about what we are called to do—it’s what he’s been teaching about all along his journey to Jerusalem. When he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door” he is likely encouraging his followers to live a life of discipleship, with all that entails, as difficult and challenging as it may be.

But if we want to be succinct, I think we can boil it down to this: Jesus calls us to a radical love. Jesus calls us to love God and he calls us to love one another—completely, fully, without reservation, as we would love ourselves. And if we do that, truly, completely and without reservation, then we should no longer be interested in creating in-groups and out-groups. Instead we should want our neighbors—all our neighbors—to share fully in the kingdom of God with us-the kingdom we experience in the here and now and the kingdom that is to come.

That sounds so simple, so easy at first. But in fact, our radical call to love isn’t easy. In a sense, that narrow door that Jesus urges us to strive to enter is the door of that radical love. It’s a challenge to us, as it was to Jesus’ followers, to really truly include EVERYONE—people who are dirty, people who are homeless, people who are different from us, people with whom we disagree, people whom we don’t even like, people with whom we would just as soon not associate. If we can love that way and if we are really interested in salvation, we should want it just as badly for all those others as we do for ourselves.

I said that my vacation was not a “sit on the beach and read” kind of vacation, but I did read some while I was away. One of the things I read was a memoir (1) written by Kate Braestrup, a woman who after undergoing a life-changing tragedy becomes a Unitarian Universalist minister and a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. It’s a story about her experiences in dealing with tragedy in her life and in her work, but more than that it’s a reflection on love—the radical kind of love that God calls us to.

At one point, Braestrup is talking with her 13-year-old son, Zach, who having been raised as a Unitarian, doesn’t know much about Jesus. She tells him some of the gospel stories she’s been learning about in seminary and talks abut what she sees as Jesus’ radical call to love. After listening thoughtfully for a while, Zach says to his mother, “So, Mom…. [let’s say…] I die, and because I’m a Christian, I get to go to heaven instead of hell.”


“If I really take Jesus seriously, if I really am willing to give up everything I am and everything I have in the service of love, if I am really a Christian…it seems to me I would have to give my place in heaven to someone else, someone who otherwise wouldn’t get to go.”

“I’d have to go to hell, so this other person could be in heaven. Right, Mom?” (p. 134)


I don’t really know the motivation of the women with the Jesus booth at the fair; perhaps, like Zach, they would be willing to give up their place in heaven for the salvation of another. But I am sure of this: God’s love is big enough for all of us, and Jesus calls us to live fully into that love. If we do so, we don’t have to worry about who is in and who is out, who will be saved and who won’t; we can give that over to God. And when we do that—live fully into God’s love and let God shoulder the rest—wonderful things will be in store for us and for that we give thanks to God.


(1) Here If You Need Me, (2007). Kate Braestrup: Little Brown and Co.