Proper 16C 2004, 22 August 2004, "The Narrow Gate ", Luke 13:22-30
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Proper 16C 2004 Luke 13:22-30
One winter afternoon in Russia, a young Russian-American named Alex walked along a canal in Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad),
looking for the palace where the monk Rasputin had been killed during the reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Saint Petersburg
winter days are often short and grim: the sun rises late in the morning and sets early in the afternoon. The brief weak and
wintry daylight filters through a dark haze. It’s a narrow door of light to be searching for something in Saint Petersburg
Alex didn't understand that what he was seeking was what he would find there. He thought he was looking for the place where
some Russian nobles had poisoned, shot, and finally drowned Rasputin. But God had a different idea.
When Alex finally found the palace he wandered through the grounds, peeking through this door and that trying to catch the
flavor of the place the way it was when they had killed him.
That's when he found out that God has something else in mind. Over a small portico on the palace grounds he saw these Latin
words, "Deus Omnia Conservat" -- "God takes care of everything." What a thing to find in a palace used for decades as Soviet
offices the word "Deus" – God carved in stone declaring Deus Omnia Conservat." "God takes care of everything." (1)
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has his face still set toward Jerusalem and the death he knows that awaits him. The
shadow of the Cross now lies heavily on his journey. Jesus has preached and taught the Good News but most people still don’t
get it. The conservative religious people of the day, particularly the Pharisees, especially didn’t get it.
One commentator has noted that “the Pharisees in Jesus' day were specialists of the narrow door. They really promoted
narrow door living, preaching the 613 prescriptions of the Mosaic Law as the answer to all life's problems. "Hold fast to
these," they said, "and then God will love you." They did not have the faintest notion that God takes care of everything,
the 613 prescriptions notwithstanding.” (2) Their door was narrow and their God was in the box the Law had built.
They could quote the Summary of the Law but they couldn’t think about what it meant outside the box of 613 rigid rules.
It was a comfortable rigidity and narrowness.
Such pharisaism is still alive and well today. It is still alive and well in the church that Jesus founded. In Friday’s
Times Dispatch there was an Associated Press news report about an eight year old girl who had her first Holy Communion declared
invalid because the rice flour wafer she was given by a sympathetic priest in another parish contained no wheat. Eight year
old Haley Waldman has celiac sprue disease. People who have this disease cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat and
other grains. It damages the lining of the small intestine, blocking nutrient absorption and leading to vitamin deficiencies,
bone thinning, and sometimes gastrointestinal cancer.
Roman dogma on this subject holds that Communion wafers, like the bread served at the Last Supper, must contain some unleavened
wheat flour. ”This is not an issue to be decided at the diocesan or parish level but has already been decided for the
Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican authority,” said Trenton Bishop John M. Smith in a statement.
I would like to think that we Episcopalians were not like this, but recent experience suggests otherwise – and perhaps
it has always been that way. I hear too many sour notes of pharisaic self righteous judgmentalism from both left and right.
On the Sabbath before Jesus spoke about the narrow door, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. A woman crippled and
bent over for eighteen years entered and when Jesus saw her he called out, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,”
laid his hands on her, and cured her. She began to praise God for this miracle. But the leader of the synagogue kept saying
over and over to the crowd, from the Fourth Commandment, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on
those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” He just didn’t get it; did not understand that Jesus was
God in Christ, did not understand the Good News of love and hope, did not have the faintest idea of what the Summary of the
Law actually meant. His door was too narrow and he couldn’t escape from the box..
One commentator noted that for centuries leaders of synagogues had been telling people, "You can come to God only by the narrow
door of the Sabbath and its laws." Little did they know that God has no need or use for such a narrow door, as God –
Jesus – showed that day by healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Our God is too great for any narrow door or rigid
set of rules humankind can construct to control access to the healing power of God. There’s a wideness in God’s
mercy, like the wideness of the sea, goes a lovely hymn world. But even a comparison to the sea is too narrow a door for God.
God knows no limits except those that God chooses to know.. God has no narrow door.
"Go ahead," said Jesus, "try it. See if you can sneak into the kingdom of God by a narrow door. You can’t get there
that way." (4)
Although Jesus was fully divine he was also fully human. And he understood humanity well. He understood how comfortable
we are behind our narrow doors, safe in our little box of rules. "You can't be healed on the Sabbath, so come another day;"
"God will not accept you if you continue this behavior"; "Smile, or God won't love you." If you love Jesus, honk. If you
love God send this message to 10 other people… If you really love God, send $50.00 in care of this station to further
our ministry. And so on.
We humans are adept at building narrow doors. It helps us believe we can control how God can act, and move, and stir his
Holy Spirit among us. Narrow doors restrict, repress and block the flow of life. Narrow door people prefer to keep God in
a box so that they can pick the rules that they prefer instead of having to think about it. Narrow doors into the box where
we keep God lets us feel an undeserved superiority and leads to a narrow judgmentalism. But God really doesn’t live
in our boxes, peering out through our narrow doors.
God usually has other ideas. "Deus Omnia Conservat" -- "God takes care of everything." We Christians believe that Jesus
himself is the householder who rises and shuts the narrow door of death. In his resurrection he closed the door of all human
efforts to restrict and control the mercy of God. He cleared all narrow doors that tried and still try to restrict wideness
of God's mercy.
The narrow door is not God's door at all. It’s ours. And the key out of it, the key through it, the key to being
among those people who will come from east and west, from north and south, from outside the box and outside the narrow door
– that key is this: Jesus said, This is the first and greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with
all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is like it: You shall
love your neighbor like yourself. There is no other commandment than these.
1. John G Lynch, “The Narrow Gate”, in TROUBLED JOURNEY, CSS Publishing Company, 1994, eSermons, adapted.
3. Richmond Times Dispatch, Friday, 29 August 2004, p. A2.
4. Lynch, op. cit.