The Locked Door
August 24, 2004
Luke 13:22 -30
Well this is a difficult passage. What does it mean when the Gospel tells us that we will come and knock upon the door of eternal life and find that it is locked? What does it mean that we will come seeking to enter in and be told that we are rejected? I thought that God was always willing to welcome us in. I thought that there would always be an open door when we came and knocked. Even a few chapters earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says this very thing. “Ask and you shall receive. Knock and it shall be opened to you.” So what does this passage mean that tells us that when we try to enter, we will be refused. When we seek come in, the door will be locked.
Well to answer that question let us start with what we know is true. God’s will is to save us; to save every person in this church; to save every person in the world. God is always willing and open to invite us in to eternal life. But salvation is a two way street. It requires our participation. God’s intention is not the only factor. God will never change in God’s desire to save us. But two things can change: our circumstances and our very selves. When these things change we can find that the door in fact is locked.
How can we explain this? There are many stories that have resulted from the tragic events of 9/11. But one of the most poignant for me was a story that I experienced on 9/12. As you know during that time many people came to church and spent time in prayer. I encountered a woman leaving church. I said to her, “I am glad you came today to pray. We all need prayers.” “Some more than others,” she said. “Do you want to know who I was praying for today?” “Sure,” I said. “I was praying for all the spouses of the people that died in those twin towers who left for work yesterday morning angry at their husband or wife. They always thought that there would be time to make peace. They always thought that there would be another opportunity to be reconciled. Yet there was not. They will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.”
Circumstances in our life change. What is possible today is not always possible tomorrow. The people with whom we need to be reconciled will not always be with us. The people we want to thank or tell them that we love them could be taken in an instant. When that happens the door is locked and we can no longer get it.
But it is not just the circumstances in our life that can change. We ourselves change depending upon our decisions. Every time we say no to an opportunity for life or growth it is easier to say no again. Every time we make a decision not to act we begin to build a habit that lessons our freedom. This can happen in a marriage or any deep relationship. The decision not to be honest moves us closer to living a lie. The decision not to be generous and forgiving begins to create a pattern of selfishness and inflexibility. Soon we can be living in a lifeless marriage, in a dead relationship. A similar thing can happen in dealing with addictions. Every time we pass up an opportunity to stop drinking, to stop using drugs, we feed the habit of the abuse that reduces our ability to live. Every time we say no to a good opportunity we reduce the chances of recognizing the next opportunity that comes along. God will never cease to provide opportunities. The grace of God will never dry up. But we can dry up. We can create a thick crust of insensitivity and habit that refuses to let the grace of God sink in. When that happens the door is locked and we are unable to enter.
This then is the warning of today’s Gospel. God will never change in God’s desire to save us. But our circumstances can change and we can change. God will never lock the door to shut us out. But the circumstances of our life can shut us out, and we can lose the desire to enter by the choices we refuse to make. The message of the Gospel, then, is carpe diem. It is a Latin phrase which means “seize the day.” The day is now. If there is an open door in your life, walk through it. If you need to forgive someone, do it. If you need to thank someone or tell someone that you love them, don’t wait until tomorrow. If there is an opportunity for change or growth, take it. God will never change, but our lives can change. So carpe diem. Seize the day. Today is the day of salvation.
Responsibility and Knowledge
August 26, 2007
There are two images in today’s gospel, and neither one of them is particularly encouraging. First there is the image of the narrow gate. Jesus says that to enter the kingdom we must enter through the narrow gate. Second, there is the image of the closed door. Jesus warns us to be careful lest we be locked out. Now how do these two images apply to our lives? They both point to an essential need. The narrow gate points to the need of personal responsibility, and the closed door points to the need for adequate knowledge.
The Church of the Nativity was built in Bethlehem during the Middle Ages over the site where people believe that Christ was born. It is not a particularly attractive church. It appears more like a fortress than a house of worship. Its stone is rough. Its proportions are uneven. Perhaps the most notable thing about the church is its doorway. It is very small, only about three feet wide and four feet high. The crusaders who built this church designed the doorway in that fashion because they wanted to assure that who ever would come to visit the place where Jesus was born, would have to make an individual and conscious choice to enter and at the same time would be forced to bow as they came into the holy place.
The small door of the Church of the Nativity, like the narrow gate in today’s gospel, reminds us that if we are going to enter into the presence of the holy, if we are going to enter into the kingdom of God, we must do so with a conscious and purposeful choice. We cannot stroll into the kingdom unaware. We cannot walk in as part of a large group of people, holding onto someone else’s coat tails. We cannot enter into the kingdom on someone else’s merit. One day, each one of us will have to stand before the Lord and give an accounting for the lives that we have lived, for the decisions that we made, for the opportunities that we missed, for the gifts that we used and the gifts that we squandered. It will be our life on the line. No one else can answer for it. We must assume personal responsibility. This is why Jesus says that those who enter will enter by the narrow gate.
Jesus also warns us about the closed door. This image reveals the need for adequate knowledge. Those in the gospel who are shut out are surprised, because they thought they knew what was required to enter into the kingdom of God. They were mistaken. They presumed that because they ate and drank in Jesus’ presence, that certainly they would be welcomed into the kingdom. They were wrong. They did not have sufficient knowledge of what was required of them, and more was required than they expected. Because of that lack of knowledge, they found themselves on the wrong side of the closed door.
So these two images in the gospel remind us that each one must claim personal responsibility for our entry into the kingdom. We must also have adequate knowledge of what that responsibility entails. So how do we assure that we have this sufficient knowledge? By committing ourselves to grow in our faith. Faith formation is a life-long process. At every stage of our life, we face new challenges, new decisions, new possibilities. It is important that we have sufficient knowledge of our faith to guide us along each of those steps of our lives. We all agree that children need to learn about their faith. But adults need to learn as well. Do we really think that what we learned in the fourth grade is sufficient for the adult challenges in our lives? Growing in our faith is a life-long process.
Now there is a commercial in today’s homily and here it comes. Several years ago, we initiated in our parish the Gift Program, an inner-generational effort of faith formation for the entire parish. This week you received information in the mail about this year’s Gift Program. As you know, Gift is for everyone. It is for children and adults, for the young and the old, for those married and single. Whoever is a part of the parish is welcome to Gift, because growing in our faith is for everyone. We have installed a new bulletin board between the narthex and the banquet center that outlines the eight sessions of Gift this year. Each one of them addresses a particular aspect of our faith in a way that is age appropriate to both adults and children. I believe that the topics for Gift are relevant. There is one this year about Islam, one about deepening your prayer at mass, one about living with difficult people, one about understanding the Trinity. Not only does Gift deepen your knowledge of the faith but it does so in an atmosphere where we can grow as a community. Now I think you could benefit to participate in all eight of the Gift sessions but I ask you to target at least one or two of these sessions as ways to grow in your own faith. Please consider doing that.
Of course, the important thing is that you do grow in your faith. That can happen in ways other than Gift. But Gift is one simple and accessible way that you can assure that you have sufficient knowledge of the faith which we treasure. And that is important, because having such knowledge is for each one of us a personal responsibility.
The Gift of Dirt
August 22, 2010
Human science has achieved remarkable advances during our lifetime. There are many serious diseases that have been conquered. Animals have been successfully cloned, and with the progress that is being made on the human genome project, scientists are coming close to being able to engineer and initiate life. So it is probably only a mild surprise that at a recent scientific conference, a resolution was passed to assert that God was no longer needed. The president of the society made an appointment with God to deliver the bad news. As he was ushered into God’s presence, he first recounted all the achievements that human ingenuity had accomplished.
He ended by saying, “God, I would like to thank you on behalf of humanity for all the centuries that you guided us and were involved in our lives. But the truth is, you are no longer needed. It’s time for you to go.”
God listened to this whole presentation very patiently. When it was over, he said, “Well, I understand your position. But I think that before we sever ties completely, it might be good for us to test whether you’re really able to make it on your own. So if you’re willing, I would propose a small contest. I’d like to see whether you would be able to create a human person as successfully as I have been able to do.”
“No problem,” said the scientist. “I’m confident that we can do it.”
“Now this won’t be easy,” said God, “because what I would ask you to do is to create someone just as I created Adam, out of the dust of the earth.”
“Well,” said the scientist, “we have not been able to do that yet, but I am sure that with a little bit of time we will succeed. So I confidently accept your wager.”
“Fine,” said God. “Go ahead. Start.”
So the scientist smiled and he stooped down and took a handful of dirt into his hands.
“Wait a minute,” said God, “Go find your own dirt!”
We are talented and good people. We have been able to accomplish many things because of our efforts and our abilities. But because of those very things it is easy for us to forget that all that we have and all that we have accomplished would be impossible had not God first blessed us—had not God first given us dirt. Because we are successful, it is easy for us to imagine that our ultimate union with God, our salvation, primarily rests upon our own good actions and works. We can forget that here, as in all things, we are totally dependent on God’s graciousness.
This is the idea we should keep in mind as we listen to today’s gospel, as we hear someone ask Jesus from the crowd, “Are there few who are going to be saved?” It is important to catch the implication of that question. The implication is this, “Are there only a few to be saved besides me?” You see the question is posed with confidence. The questioner is confident he is going to be saved, but he is wondering about everyone else. Why does he think he will be saved? Because he is a good person, because he’s a person of faith, because he is a part of God’s people. Jesus’ harsh response to this question, his insistence that we have to enter through the narrow gate, does not imply that salvation is rare or that God is stingy in granting it. It is meant to shock the confident questioner so that he remembers that his future and his salvation with God is totally dependent on God’s free choice.
This answer by Jesus is important for us as well, because we are good people. We say our prayers. We love our family and friends. Because of those good things which we rightfully and appropriately do, we sometimes forget that, despite all of our achievements, we are still radically dependent on what God has given us. Jesus’ command to enter through the narrow gate is not telling us we need to do more or we need to do something more difficult. It is calling us to a particular perspective, to a way of looking at our relationship to God. It is calling us to realize that everything we have, both our past, present and our future, depends on God’s free grace.
How much more richly would you and I live if we really adopted this perspective. When you wake up in the morning in a comfortable and secure house, you can feel some satisfaction that you are there because your hard work and savings have provided this place for you. But you also need to remember that it is only because God gave you life, abilities, and talents that you have been able to work. Therefore your house is dependent on God’s free gift. When you look at your children growing into responsible adults, you can feel pride that you sacrificed for them and guided them. But you also need to be grateful that somehow they made it through the dangers of high school and college and negotiated the temptations of society to live and to become the people that they are. That gift is totally dependent on God’s graciousness. When any of us look to the future, we can feel satisfaction that we have planned for retirement. We can look forward and feel secure because we are eating well and getting exercise. But whether we live another ten, twenty, or thirty years is not in our control. We are totally dependent on God’s will. Our future is in God’s hands.
Despite all of our efforts and achievements, we as believers must always live with gratitude. We must always claim our radical dependence on God’s goodness to us. To think that we are making it on our own is foolishness. It is like imagining we can make our own dirt.