Texts: Luke 13:22-30 Psalm 46
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 21, 2016
Throughout my life I have had a recurring nightmare. I am almost embarrassed to speak of it because I have a fairly good idea of what it says about what is going on in my subconscious mind.
In this nightmare I am running down a path in the darkness of night. I sense someone is chasing me. I feel as though I am fleeing for my life. In the dream I come to a huge wall. It is so high I can't get over it. I feel trapped. I see a door. I run toward it. If I can get through and lock it behind me I will be safe. But the door is stuck. I can't get it open. Then just as I am about to be caught I wake up.
As the realization comes that it was only a dream, relief floods over me. The terror recedes back into my unconsciousness. I don't think I am alone in having such a nightmare. I have talked with many who have recounted a recurring dream that is similar.
I believe that in early Christianity there must have been people who had nightmares too. Today's Gospel shows this. Our Lord speaks of the end of the present age in a way that would give anyone nightmares. It reveals a scene of useless knocking on the door of a double nightmare. First of all, there is the nightmare of the many and the few. Many want to get in through the door, but only a few have the opportunity. Many pursue the goal, but only a few reach it.
Then there is the second nightmare of the first and the last: the many who are excluded not only have to see how very few are admitted, they also have to put up with looking on from afar while hosts of people stream past them toward the goal from which they are excluded.
There is no logical connection between the images of these two nightmares. The first is the image of the narrow door which makes entry into the kingdom of heaven difficult and the second being a picture of people streaming from afar, from all points of the compass, into the kingdom as though it had open frontiers.
Dreams are not logical. A nightmare of final failure may lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth, but not necessarily to coherent thought processes! I also understand our psychological natures well enough to know that such nightmares should not simply be relegated to the end of the age, they apply equally to us as individuals no matter what time or place we happen to live.
I am not surprised at how closely this nightmare from New Testament times is kept alive for us today by the jokes that we tell. I am sure we all have heard the story of the Episcopalian who died and went to heaven. He knocked at the gate. St. Peter opened the door and asked who he was. The man told him. St. Peter found his name in the Book of Life and let him in. As they walked through the streets to the place where the man would be staying, St. Peter explained that in heaven a person is able to do what had been denied on earth.
He pointed to the block that they just passed where people had been dancing in the streets. “Those are the Pentecostals,” St. Peter explained. “They were forbidden to dance on earth.” Ahead of them the man saw a street were all the people were sitting on their front steps of the mansions, smoking. “Who are they,” he asked? “They are the Baptists,” St. Peter replied. They went onto a street that were filled with English pubs. The man looked inquiringly at St. Peter. St. Peter nodded and said, “yes, these are the Methodists.” Finally, after walking a long while they came to a street where everyone looked glum. "What is this," the man asked in astonishment. “Why are they so sad?” “This,” St. Peter intoned, “is your new home.” “These are the Episcopalians, on earth you people get to do everything!”
Unlike this story most of the jokes we hear about heaven tell about the useless knocking at the gate.
People don't get in; they are sent away. We laugh, but uneasily. For all too often the story strikes a cord just beneath the surface, expressing for us, in one form or another, the worst nightmare of our lives. It might be the nightmare of failure to live up to the expectations of our parents, our teachers, our partners or worst of all, the failure to live up to the expectations of ourselves.
The second nightmare comes from the other image in today's Gospel. I suggest that it is Donald Trump’s nightmare. While it seems to us that we are failing to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, it also often seems that others are passing us by. It so often seems to us that they are making it easily, streaming past us from the north and south from east and west, through open borders. In our struggle we are tempted to lash out in anger, frustration and desperation. We feel trapped abandoned, isolated, and alone.
The picture today's gospel paints for us is grim. It is the picture of the quest to find meaning and fulfillment in life through our own efforts. It is a picture that can only end in failure.
If today's gospel diagnoses the problem pf our lives. Does it also offer the solution? It does, but only when taken in the larger context of Luke’s Gospel and the whole of the Bible. I turn our attention to today's psalm where the answer is explicit. The psalm begins by asserting that God is our refuge and our strength, our very timely help in time of trouble.
This assertion is based on an image that every Jew in Old Testament times would recognize instantly, the city of refuge. There were seven such cities in Israel. If a Jew got in trouble of any kind, he was to flee to one of those cities. Once inside the walls, he was protected from the law. It was from this practice that in the Christian tradition, a person can find sanctuary inside the walls of a church.
The Psalmist asserts that in the midst of natural calamities such as earthquakes, storms and fire, and in the midst of national crisis such as war God is our refuge and strength. He ends the psalm by revealing to us the means by which we can experience the reality of God's strength to us in the crisis of our lives. “Be still then, and know that I am God.”
In the midst of the chaos of our lives when we feel fragmented by all the pressures pulling at u from every side, if we quiet ourselves before God we will find ourselves as if in the eye of a hurricane, centered, calm, peaceful. There, like Peter who was sinking in the sea, we will find that can walk on water.
I have discovered that truth to be operative again and again in my life. I am sure that you have too. But it is good to be reminded of it from time to time. Now with the image of God as our refuge and or strength and of us standing in stillness before him, I want us to move back into the image of the first nightmare set forth in today's gospel. I want us to imagine in our minds eye that we have reached the gate of life and have knocked on the door. The door is opened and we ask to be let in to the feast of life.
But what if our nightmare is realized and the Lord says to us, “I don't know you.” What shall we say? We should say, “But you do know us. We bear God's image. Surely God recognizes His image?” But what if the Lord says a second time, as he does in today's text, I don't know you, I don't recognize God image in you when you spend your lives in self-injury and self-doubt.
If you hear the Lord say that you should not give up for you are on the threshold of life. Say rather, Lord, I see that I cannot persuade you to open the gate of life for me. Perhaps my place is rightly outside out-side the gate. But if I can't come to you, at least you can come to me. If I can't open the gate of life at least I can open the gate of my heart to you and let you in. If I can't by my own effort get through the gate which is to give me life, you can bring it near to me so that I recognize my image in it as in a mirror.
You, yourself, brought this remarkable story into the world, entering our lives- in Palestine a long time ago, and in difficult circumstances. It was impossible for us to recognize that you were God's image. At that time, you too, were excluded. You suffered outside the gate where I am now. So now I dare invite you to come to me out here. I open the gate of my heart to you in order that through you I may be changed into that hidden image that God has formed in me.
What then will the Lord do? He will say, as he did in John's vision: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” As long as we knock at the door of life we will always be uncertain whether it will open and we shall be admitted. But if we be still in the midst of the chaos of our lives, we will find the Lord knocking on the door of our hearts. If we open that door we will find he wants to enter and we can celebrate the feast of life with Him. Amen.