1999 Covenant Conference
Morning Worship, November 5, 1999
The Narrow Door
Jon M. Walton
Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church
A few summers ago I was in Europe and as all tourists do, I visited several of those innumerable castles that are there. But after awhile one castle starts to look like another, no matter what country you’re in or what period the castle was built.
There was one in particular, however, that I remember very well. It was the one with the maze.
Whoever built the castle thought that as a protective device as well as an entertainment he would build a very complicated labyrinth of hedges, a puzzle that has been carefully tended and meticulously groomed all through the centuries. Over time the hedges have grown to about eight or nine feet high, tall enough to prevent you from getting your bearings once inside.
I thought I could probably knock off that maze in about five minutes, and I said as much to the attendant at the entrance as I went in. He was European, stuffy, and not amused. From his look I suspected he had seen my kind go in that maze and never come out again.
The first part wasn’t too hard, a left here, a right there. It was going rather well, I thought. Except of course, I kept hitting blind allies. Soon I found I was passing people in both directions who looked vaguely familiar to me.
I began to get a little concerned after about a half an hour or so when I heard voices on the other side of the hedges that seemed to come and then go.
It became more and more frustrating the longer I searched. I started to imagine that nightfall would come and I would still be there, trying to make my way by moonlight.
At last the attendant from the entrance came up to me doing what must have been one of his hourly sweeps of the lost. “Having trouble are we?” he asked trying to keep his face straight. “Just follow me,” he said. “It’s by the narrow way.”
And sure enough there was a kind of gap in the hedges that served as the narrow door to the last row leading to the exit. And standing sideways you could make it through and be on your way. But for those unaccustomed to mazes, or to risking a slightly different way of solving the puzzle it proved too difficult to resolve.
It was as I was leaving the maze that I discovered the attendant was a Christian as he paraphrased Jesus, “Don’t feel bad,” he said smugly, “many have tried, few are able.”
I cannot help but think of that castle and of that maze when I hear Jesus’ words, “Strive to enter by the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”
The teaching comes in response to a question posed by someone along the way as Jesus traveled through one town and village after another. It was an earnest question. Not hostile, but seeking. “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
What a great question! And wouldn’t we like to know! John Calvin loved this one. It led him into those magnificent statements about the sovereignty of God, and on to his theology about predestination, and picking up speed to double predestination, until finally at warp speed he went right into a brick wall as free will and God’s sovereignty collided.
“Lord, will only a few be saved?” What a good question. We are still asking it. The minimalists and new age folks of our spiritual reawakening in this country smear it all around saying, “Oh it doesn’t make any difference what you believe. We’re all going to the same place.” They seem to say, “All will be saved.” But is it that simple?
Some in our culture dismiss the question of salvation by suggesting that it’s essentially irrelevant. God is like some all-permeating gas in the universe, they say, impersonal and distant, unknowable. With an impersonal God, who needs salvation?
Still others are looking for a form of salvation in a bottle or at the end of a needle or in a powder up the nose. An expedient and sensory answer to an eternal and spiritual yearning. There is no salvation there, at least no salvation in the Hebrew sense of wholeness, health, oneness, and peace with God.
“Lord, will only a few be saved?” A simple yes or no would do. But instead, Jesus answers quizzically, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”
So how do we get to it, to that narrow door of salvation which many strive to enter, but few are able?
Is the narrow door asceticism, the monastic life? Do you have to take vows to find it? Must you live a life like Mother Theresa? Endure martyrdom like Martin Luther King, Jr.? How do we get to the narrow door, and once there, enter?
Maybe this is all easier than we make it with our discussions of determinism and free will and grace. Maybe we all know where that narrow door is. Maybe we’ve always known. After all, there are certain well traveled routes that just about all of us on the theological spectrum, whether Coalition people or Covenant people or “normal” people in between, can affirm.
Paul told the Ephesians and us how to do it: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4: 1-3). Somewhere at the end of that kind of journey there is a door worth entering.
Maybe you get to the narrow door by simply leading a life of Christian discipline. You know, trying to live the Christian life as best you can, nothing too fancy about it.
You pray every day and you read your Bible. You go to church, get your children baptized. You keep the Ten Commandments in your heart and in your life as well as you are able. You treat people with respect, and attempt in some imperfect way to love one another as Christ has loved us. You become race- and colorblind and start to see others with the delight with which God has made all of us, so different. You care for the poor, and work for justice in this world of injustice.
You make solemn vows to the person you love and try with all your heart not to avert your eyes. And if you have made no such promises, you try with all your heart to be responsible in your living, not to squander your love or your body, but to use it wisely and carefully knowing that the heart is a fragile thing, and our bodies are given to us imprinted with the very image of God on them and in them, something to be treasured and honored in its keeping.
You do all those things trying to find your way to the narrow door, and all the time knowing that nothing you ever do earns you the right of passage once you get there. Surprise of surprises, it is always and only by the love and grace of God that any of us ever find the door, or enter through it. And as often as not somebody has to come and rescue us and take us there when we are lost and giving up hope of finding it.
Just about all of us in this church of ours, or better said, this church of Jesus Christ’s, hold those things in common; and would that it could take us all the way home.
But somehow it does not, and we are left divided by our disparate understandings of how gracious is God’s grace and how inclusive is God’s welcome. God help us, our enmity over 6.0106b is so strong that it tends to make friends enemies, which only makes the journey to that narrow door longer and lonelier.
It has gotten so bad that some are saying we do not even share a common faith anymore in our church, which if it were true, would be the greatest tragedy of all.
We do know that the trials are mounting in the church as in the Synod of the Northeast, and this is causing sessions and PNCs to inquire about bedroom behavior and whether our sexual expression is faithful or unfaithful, active or inactive, self-acknowledged or self-denying, frequent or infrequent. I feel more and more anxious about all this, not because I have so much incriminating evidence to report, but so little.
We are, as a denomination, right now hell bent on getting to some narrow way, so narrow, I fear that none of us may make it. I find myself wondering with the psalmist, “O Lord, if thou shoulds’t mark iniquities (as do my brothers and sisters in the church), O Lord, who shall stand?”
I think I am most concerned about the idea that the narrow way to salvation leads us to love the sinner while we hate the sin.
The problem is that none of us is very good at loving sinners and hating their sins at the same time. Hate has a way of enveloping everything, and so Matthew Shepherd is tied to a Wyoming fence rail and left to die like a trophy animal in the winter cold. And Barry Winchell, 21 years old, an Army private, is murdered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky this past summer, bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat while he lay sleeping by fellow soldiers yelling, “faggot!” I think we have enough already of loving the sinner and hating the sin!
In the passage today, there is a surprising reversal that takes place, and one that puts us all on warning.
People arrive at the door and it is night. God, who is thinly veiled as the householder in the story, is roused from sleep, and comes down to answer.
But he is not quick to open. “How do I know you?” he asks.
“We ate and drank with you. You taught in our streets,” they say. “We talked about you all the time. We prayed, we tithed, we contributed to the building fund, we taught in the church school. We did everything the way you’d have wanted it.
“We kept folks out that didn’t belong in the church. the tax collectors and prostitutes, the drug addicts, the radical feminists, the gays and lesbians. Those people from east and west and north and south, the Gentiles, the great unwashed. We kept them out. We forbade them office. We did it for you, master. We did it for you.”
But the master, unimpressed by the claims, responds from behind the closed door, “I do not know where you come from.”
Fred Craddock says of this reversal of expectations that “added to the pain of sitting before a closed door will be the sight of large numbers who are admitted [who are] the unexpected Gentiles who heard and believed,” the ones everybody knew could not enter the kingdom.
What Jesus wants us to know, and we are loathe to get, is that in the kingdom of heaven God alone is arbiter of who will be called to serve and who will not, who is in and and who will be left outside pounding on the door. To assume that place of judgment that is God’s place is a terrible mistake. And it cuts both ways.
What we all need to understand is that in the kingdom of heaven we will be sitting with folks we did not expect would be there. The place cards will be surprising. You know, John Buchanan next to Jerry Andrews. Joanna Adams next to Roberta Hestenes. Chris Glaser next to Clayton Bell. And if I get in I get to sit next to that elder in my church who for all these years just hasn’t gotten it, the one who always wants to tighten things up.
But, you know, it’ll be all right. It will be wonderful to be there together. Because at last we will understand even as we have been fully understood.
Someday we are going to understand that gay and straight alike, we all want essentially the same things in life. Not promiscuity but constancy. Not faithlessness but faithfulness. Not to waste our lives on something of the moment, but to give ourselves to something of eternity.
Don’t we all want to build a home with light shining through the windows so brightly that many a friend and sometimes a stranger may find a welcome there. To know that another’s heart beats for us somewhere. To live knowing that God has made us and delights in us just as we are. To believe that in this vast universe we have a place here, and that we belong, and that God means for us good. Don’t we all want to believe that Jesus includes us when he says, “Anyone who comes to me, I will in no wise cast out.”
Fred Buechner says that “salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second” (Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 84). It is the experience of losing yourself and by doing so, finding yourself. It is loving God and getting lost in that love so deeply, that in it you are found.
It comes down to this Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, which I find myself quoting all the time anymore, remembers a moment that had a touch of eternity in it when the narrow door opened and she watched two friends enter in. It is the story of a member of her church named Ranola and of a man with AIDS named Ken. Lamott writes:
Shortly after [Ken] started coming [to church], his partner died of the disease. A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil. He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
Lamott says Ranola, a large beautiful black woman kept her distance from Ken, always looked at him with confusion when she looked at him at all. She was raised in the South by Baptists, and she had been taught that Ken’s way of life – that Ken was an abomination.
On one particular Sunday just before he died, Ken was very weak, he had had a stroke and his face was more lopsided than ever. But he came to church and during the prayers of the people, he spoke joyously of his life and decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he felt nonetheless.
The first hymn that day was “Jacob’s Ladder.” “Every rung goes higher, higher,” the congregation sang. And Ken, who had not the strength to stand, sat and sang anyway, with the hymnal in his lap.
And then they sang, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” And Anne Lamott says, that Ken remained seated, too weak to stand on his own while the congregation stood around him:
“Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” [the congregation sang] Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me. (Traveling Mercies, New York: Pantheon Books, 1999. p.64-65.)
Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. It is loving God and getting lost in that love so deeply that in it you are found, and in it we find one another.
Strive, then to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try and will not be able.