August 26, 2007 Proper 16 C
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.