Not just the ones that look like us,

act like us or form relationships like us.

A sermon by The Rev. Susan Russell

THE TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST: Proper 16c
St. Peter's, San Pedro ~ August 26, 2001

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

 

 

Many of you know that I work with an ecumenical website which offers sermon resources as well as opportunities for theological dialogue. It also offers lots of what I euphemistically refer to as "opportunities for growth."
There are weeks when I run into folks whose ideas are diametrically opposed to mine, whose interpretations are so different from mine that it's sometimes hard to believe we're talking about the same Jesus ... much less reading the same Bible!

Well, this has been one of those weeks. For lo, it has come to pass that in the three year lectionary cycle of Gospel readings, it is once more "Narrow Door Sunday" ... and I've found that for many of my cyber-colleagues, the answer to the question "will only a few be saved?" turns out to be "Yes ... and I will be one of them. And now, let me give you a list of who WON'T BE."

Those conversations brought to mind the Sunday I heard this text preached nearly 20 years ago ... when I was the parish secretary at St. Paul's, Ventura. It was the early 80's and we were still fighting about women's ordination and "the new prayerbook" ... and just really getting warmed up on questions of inclusion and sexuality. The rector and vestry were all away on retreat ... and so a retired priest had been brought in to preach and celebrate: Father Wilson. Well, turns out Fr. Wilson was VERY clear who wou ldn't make it through the narrow gate. Not the revisionists or the feminists; not those trying to "make peace with the Pope" or those trying to build bridges to the Baptists. Not those bringing (shudder!) guitars into church and singing (horrors!) "Praise Music" and certainly not Adam and Steve the first time I ever heard that example used! Nope ... those going to be saved were few indeed ... and it was looking like only straight, white Episcopal men ... and a few obedient women ... as long as they sang the "right" music.

I remember it well because (thankfully!) it was such an anomaly in my experience of this church of my birth. I also remember it because a few months later, Fr. Wilson skipped town: left his wife and ran off with his 23 year old "counselee." That was the end of his preaching career ... at least in the Episcopal Church and at least one sermon too late, as far as I was concerned.

But that sermon -- those events -- stuck with me and became kind of an icon of hypocrisy ... a window into the narrowness of human judgment which has nothing to do with the wideness of God's mercy and everything to do with why we face such an uphill battle in proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus to a jaded American culture.

 

Ionic, isn't it, that the Collect for the Day this morning prayed "that you Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples." Yet it seems to me that every time I pick up the paper, there's yet another story about "the church" doing anything BUT "showing forth God's power among all peopl es." Mostly, I fear, we show forth how good we are at fighting and arguing with each other! At least those are the stories that make the LA Times. I can't think of a single denomination that hasn't had its turn at bat with the headlines screaming, "Church Schism Threatened by "fill-in-the-blank-with-the-controversy-du-jour.""

The Romans seem to be "leading the league" at the moment. Between the married Archbishop and the Pope calling the nun on the carpet for advocating women's ordination, they've had more than their share of media attention. But Lord knows we Episcopalians have plenty of "runs batted in" -- most recently with the controversy over the efforts of a Maryland congregation to call a rector over the objection of their bishop ... and the messy "property settlement" arguments between folks who have decided to "divorce" the Episcopal Church and set up their own shop as the Anglican Mission in America. As the larger culture eavesdrops on our ecclesial wrangling, I'm sure there are a variety of responses. But I guarantee you one of them ISN'T "See how those Christians love one another!"

 

Yet the essence of the Gospel is love. The Good News we have to offer this broken world is the invitation of the God who loved us enough to become one of us -- who died for us that we might live. That's the message we are called to proclaim ... loud enough that can be heard over the voices of contention and division that dominate so much of our common discourse -- inside and outside the church.

 

"Walk in love, as Christ loved us" we say in the offertory sentence ... the words that invite us to offer all of who are and have been and are yet to be to the one who gave it all to us to begin with as we gather around the altar for the Eucharistic Feast. "Walk in love" ... not "walk in agreement with all 39 Articles of Religion." Not "walk in compliance with the Ausburg Confession, the Lambeth Conference, or the Athanasian Creed." Walk in love. Not that presume to say that I DO it all the time, mind you -- but at least I presume to know what the goal is. As a friend of mine used to say , "If you don't have a target, you can't miss." Seems clear enough to me -- but, coming back to my week on the website, not to one of my cyber-colleagues. "Vague and flowery ... subject to all kinds of interpretation" he wrote in answer to my "walk in love" response to his "who's in and who's out" list. "There have to standards," he said. "'Love' isn't enough. What about biblical values? What about the biblical norm"

 

"Which one?" I thought ... and it was there that I found my "opportunity for growth" -- as our discussion took me in a whole direction in my reflections on just what this "narrow door" stuff is about just what norm were expected to follow.

 

My dictionary tells me that a "norm" is "a standard or pattern." As Christians, I believe our Lord has given us that standard in the words of the new commandment he gave to love each other as he has loved us; building on the foundation of the summary of the Law ... love the Lord your God with everything you've got and your neighbor as yourself: on these two hang all the law and the prophets. That's the standard ... and Jesus himself was the pattern we're called to follow as we walk in love as he loved us.

 

The problem I see is that we get "majority" or "customary" confused with "normative" when we start talking about Biblical norms and standards. It wasn't all that long ago that "maleness" was considered "normative" ... remember all the conversations about using the word "man" or "mankind" and assuming that "woman" was included in that? (Unless, of course, we were talking about the canons on ordination! :) Or discussions on issues of diversity which began with an anglo-centric perspective ... everyone ELSE was "ethnic" -- "we" were just, well, "normal." Ouch! The same, I believe is with heterosexism. The presumption that because one is either the dominant (anglo culture) or the majority (heterosexuals) one is "normative" allows those who fall outside "the norm" to be marginalized, exploited and diminshed.

 

Jesus calls us to a higher standard than that, to remember that in our baptismal vows we promise to "respect the dignity of every human being." Not just the ones that look like us, act like us or form relationships like us.

It's not about all being "the same" but celebratin g the differences that make us unique. Men and women are gloriously different ... but the church has labored for centuries with tweaked theology based on bad biology (see Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica!) assuming that women were "lesser creatures." As an institution, we still have work to do to overcome that systemic injustice.

 

God created each of us to be exactly who and how we are --and that "the Kingdom" is about recognizing that in ourselves and each other ... and then striving to live up to the "Jesus norm" of love. The challenge is to me is to allow Jesus to set that "norm" rather than insist on doing it myself. For if I presume that my experience is normative ... and yours turns out to be different than mine ... then one of us has to be deviating from "the norm" -- and I'm going to spend a lot of time & energy making sure that YOU'RE the one who's "other", who's "deviant", who's ... well, WRONG because it's certainly not going to be me!!

 

But if I start out with the "Jesus norm", all of a sudden our experiences have the potential to have equal integrity ... if we've each lived up to the standard of loving God first and each other as we've been loved.

No wonder Jesus said the door was "narrow." If we're going to live up to that standard ... follow that "norm" ... there's a lot of our baggage that won't fit through ... and most of it is chock full of lists of who's in and who's out ...who's first and who's last. Who's "on the list" and who's not. We've got to leave all that behind if we're going to truly walk in love ... if we're going to fit through the narrow door. And we're going to have to leave room for God to let through a lot of folks we'd be keeping out if it were up to us. Which it isn't. Who's in and who's out is God's job. Walking in love is ours.

 

Anne McConney has some wonderful things to say about "love" in the current issue of Episcopal Life: "Hell" is separation from God -- and the relentless logic of a theology that insists on free will requires us to believe in a hell that is entirely within our power to choose. Hell is a choice ... hell is many choices. Heaven is only one ... the choice is love. We may choose between love and hatred, love and anger, love and greed, love and lust ... and the list could go on and on. Anything that turns away from love is the choice of hell. Of course, we do not always succeed in loving; human nature provides few perfect enterprises. We falter, we stray, we fail. But there is a difference, wide as heaven itself between failure and rejection, between losing our way and refusing to walk the road at all."

"Wide as heaven itself" is the wideness of God's mercy: thanks be to God!

 

There's a wideness in God's mercy, Like the wideness of the sea There is kindness in God's justice, Which is more than liberty If our love were but more faithful, We should take him at his word And our lives would be thanksgiving, For the goodness of the Lord.

 

Can we take him at his word? Can we strive to enter through the narrow door -- leaving our baggage behind as we love our neighbors as ourselves ... in response to the God who loved us first? When we can do that, even for a brief shining moment, our lives become thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

 

May God give us the grace to be that kind of people ... to be that kind of church ... "that being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, we may show forth Gods power among all peoples."

 

Amen


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