Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
My grandparents were country folks. While they lived in the city my entire life, they were raised in rural Virginia – my grandfather was from Marshall in Fauquier County and my grandmother was from outside of Orange, Virginia. They were both survivors of the depression and as such, they were tight as ticks. My grandmother saved everything from milk bottles to safety pins. Plastic bags and tin foil were treasures to be reused seven or eight times, washed and used again. Margarine tubs were valued as multipurpose containers and no one ever used expensive Kleenex if they had a handkerchief handy. My grandparents were stingy with everything, everything except their love. For me their house was a haven, a home, a place where I received more love and concern than I could have asked for, and far more than I deserved. In particular, I remember so clearly that the door to their home was always unlocked. Like good country neighbors, their door was always open and everyone was invited to come inside. Moreover, the day that crime in the city grew to the point that they were forced to lock their doors was the day they gave me a key. I was only ten or eleven and I think it was the first key I ever had that actually opened something (besides the key to my G.I. Joe equipment locker). I couldn’t believe that they would give me – a little kid -the key to their home. It felt good to know that even though their door might be locked, I was never shut out. For me, that key became a metaphor of their love and their openness, a metaphor of their acceptance and inclusion of me.
In our gospel for today, Jesus is asked if only a few will be saved. In classic fashion, he does not answer this question directly but says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” Jesus does not comment on the number who will enter the kingdom of heaven, he gives no easy specifics, but he makes it clear that some will enter and some will not, he stresses that getting into the Kingdom will be hard and one day the door will be closed. We don’t know whether his questioner was someone who felt assured of salvation and so asked this question self-righteously, or whether his questioner was someone doubtful of his/her inclusion and so asked this of Jesus seeking some indication of God’s mercy. Whatever the case, everyone who heard his reply must have been shocked because of his blunt and troublesome response.
Two thousand years later, I too am troubled by our Lord’s reply. It rubs me the wrong way. It brings out in me feelings of anxiety, feelings that I need to perform better and try harder or I am going to be left out. It makes me wonder if I have what it takes to make it through the door, if I have what it takes to be let in by the master. Most of all, I am troubled because these words seem to fly in the face of what I believe most fundamentally about God – that God loves you and me unconditionally, forever and for always. How can God love us unconditionally and at the same time close the door? How can God love us and then say that some will be kept out of the Kingdom? Either God loves us unconditionally or he doesn’t. If God’s love is conditional and we fail to meet God’s conditions, well then, too bad for us. But, if God’s love is unconditional, (not based on something we do or don’t do) then how could God ever shut his door on us without also giving us a key? I don’t see how God can have it both ways.
In my own life, I was blessed to have a family whose love was deep and abiding and as a result, their doors were always open. There was never a time when I didn’t have the key, when I couldn’t come in and share in that love. If God loves me unconditionally, then I imagine his divine love must be infinitely greater than the human love my family gave me. Yet, how could the family door always be open and God’s door one day be closed? Closed doors, shutting people out, keeping folks away – these do not seem to be acts that resonate with unconditional love. They do not seem to be behaviors that ring true when we look at our Lord’s ministry, a ministry of inclusion – a ministry where prostitutes, tax collectors and notorious sinners were all included in the family of disciples. The definition of unconditional love, Agape love, says that you and I are loved for no other reason than because we exist. We are loved simply because we are, not because of anything we say or do. In fact, when love is unconditional it is offered in spite of what we do, in spite of who we are or who we are not.
In contrast, Jesus’ words today seem to be reflections of a conditional kind of love. They seem to reveal a love that says – “I love you to this point . . . I love you if you can do. . . I love you only while you are . . . . .” It is love with a catch, love on a contingency basis, love with strings attached. This can’t be God’s love.
So how can I have my cake and eat it too? How can I uphold the integrity of our scripture for today and at the same time hold onto my belief in the essential nature of God as the unconditional lover? Well, when I think about it, there was a time in my life when the door to my grandparent’s home was closed and locked. There was a time in my life when entering into that place of family love was too difficult, the way too narrow, the going too tough. I can remember being fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and wanting almost nothing to do with my family. I was in the midst of my own struggles, adolescent struggles. I felt alienated from almost everyone and everything, including myself. In typical adolescent fashion, I was wrestling with my identity, trying to understand myself apart from the influence of family. I can remember feeling that no one cared about me, that I was alone in the world. In truth, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t any less important to my family. I wasn’t loved any less. They had not closed the door; they had not taken away the key. I went away from them during my adolescence, but the door was no less open, I was just less inclined to walk through it. My key still worked in the lock; I just didn’t want to use it.
Maybe, just maybe the way I can make some sense of our gospel for this morning is to believe that the door to the Kingdom may be narrow, and the way may one day be closed – but I am the one who closes the door and I am the one who throws away the key. If God loves unconditionally, then God always wants what is best for you and me. If God loves unconditionally, then God always wants us with him. Perhaps Jesus was warning us that if one day we can’t fit through the door, it is not because the door is too narrow, it is because we are like overburdened business travelers who have a hard time checking their baggage at the gate. Maybe Jesus was warning us that regardless of how much God loves us, he still honors our freedom. We make the final choice whether or not to enter in. There is an old saying that the gates of hell are wide open. Maybe it isn’t God who condemns us, but we in fact condemn ourselves.
I admit that this way of understanding our Gospel for today is not perfect. There is still a tension here, a tension between God’s love and God’s judgment. But when I think about my pride, my ego, my need for control, I can see right away that I am carrying some very large pieces of luggage which might make it hard for me to walk through God’s narrow door. Perhaps you and I need to lighten our loads. Maybe what Jesus wants is not that we do more but that we cling to less, that we set down some of our ambitions, our selfish desires, our insecurities, and our obsessions so that we are freer for the journey, so that we can more easily concentrate on where we need to go. Maybe the challenge is to let go, to open up, and to get out of our own way. Because my gut tells me that the way isn’t blocked unless we block it, the door isn’t too narrow unless we cling to too much, and God’s love is only conditional if we want it that way. Amen.