Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seek to enter through the narrow gate

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel imagery of the narrow gate reminds me of time I spent in seminary in Jerusalem. In the fall of 2000, I spent three and a half months there. It was a really cool experience, in part because of where we lived. There are two parts of modern-day Jerusalem separated by a 15-20 foot tall city wall. The new city is all outside the walls and is all built since 1960. The old city, which would be nearly impossible to navigate for people with claustrophobia, was packed inside the protection of the walls. As you walked through the gates, the streets seemed to get smaller and smaller until you reached the center of the Old City. In the place we stayed, there were two gates. The first was a larger gate that three or four people could walk through at once. This gate stayed open almost all the time. But, when fighting broke out, this gate could be shut and a much smaller door could be opened within this gate that only one person could walk through at any time.

One night, three of my classmates decided that they needed to get out and consume some adult beverages and watch the Minnesota Vikings play on Monday Night Football. These classmates decided that they would close the bar down that night, which turned out to be a really bad idea since the custom in Israel is that the bar remains open as long as there are customers there. My job that night was to make it possible for them to get back in. You see, because there was violence between Palestinians and Israelis, we had started locking the smaller gate. Several times in the night, I snuck out and opened the small gate only to have someone else sneak out and lock it back up. Finally, at three thirty, I was too tired to continue so I opened the gate for the last time and went to bed. Unfortunately, this was not only the exact time the guys left the bar but also the last time our director, Fr. Pat, checked the gate to make sure it was locked.

When my classmates arrived home, they approached the gate and, unsuccessfully, tried to open it. I’m not sure what possessed them to make the next move; exhaustion, frustration or the stupidity that comes from having one or two too many beers, but they decided to help the skinniest of them up and over the fifteen foot high wall so that he could unlock the door for the other two. Even though they failed to wake me, they did wake Fr. Pat. He heard the loud crash of a body ramming against the gate, climbing to the top, clumsily falling over the 15 feet, unlocking the gate, as well as the sounds of three adult males laughing like tee-peeing teenagers all the while. Needless to say, Fr. Pat was not happy. Let’s just say that he somewhat forcefully reminded them that they needed to be invited into the narrow gate.

In a sense, Fr. Pat was acting like a prophet that night. We 21st Century Americans tend to confuse prophets with psychics. Psychics claim to predict the future. A prophet’s job, on the other hand, is first and foremost to live, speak, breathe, taste, and even fight for the Kingdom of God. A prophet is one who sees injustice and is compelled to correct it because it goes against God’s will. A prophet is one who warns sinners to return to God before the narrow gate is shut and the people are locked out. In the Old Testament, there are specific people who operate as prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and others. All of these prophets warned Israel that they were falling away from God and told them that they need to follow closer. Isaiah, in our first reading today, warned them that the exclusive right that the Isralites had to God had been revoked and that others would be admitted to worship of the one true God.

This was a foreshadowing to Jesus’ role in salvation. Himself a prophet, Jesus came to open the doors and help all people learn to follow God. Nonetheless, in gospel today, he cautions us about being lazy in regard to the Kingdom of God. In a sense, Jesus calls all believers to have a prophetic role of spirit-filled leadership within our communities. He tells us that we must listen carefully to the Spirit breathing its teaching into our hearts or we may find ourselves, like my classmates, staring at a locked narrow door. Only, unlike my classmates, we won’t be able to limb the wall to get in.

In our times, it has become rather fashionable to believe that everyone will be saved, everyone will go to heaven. We don’t like to believe in hell because it sounds so mean and God is nice. I have yet to go to a funeral where the departed isn’t put into heaven, where mourners don’t say something like, “I know I will see Aunt Margaret in heaven some day.” We declare saints faster than the Catholic church does. Yet, Jesus doesn’t refer to the gates of the kingdom of heaven as narrow simply because we’re all going to have wait in line and take our time, like heaven is a really popular amusement park ride. What we are doing now is, in part, preparing us for the Kingdom of God. We must live our lives not as though we are entitled to go to heaven but as though we must prove to God that we deserve to be there. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”