March 4, 2010

2 Chronicles 20:1-22

Luke 13:22-31

One of the difficulties of being a lectionary preacher is that from time to time you must read texts like the one assigned for today, 2 Chronicles 20:1-22.

If you share my predilections regarding the wideness of God’s mercy and a general negativity regarding Zionism in all its forms, this text is difficult to swallow. Although I am not a ‘pure water’ pacifist, I do get uneasy when anyone supposes to believe that God is on their side in an armed conflict.

It is helpful to do that, to assign God’s support to your cause. It is helpful because, after all, the morale of the troops can easily be bolstered, the generosity of the people to the war effort can be stimulated, and a sense of responsibility to participate in this endeavor can be easily invoked if the clarion cry is made, “Who Is On the Lord’s Side?”

It is ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ and all the rest of those battle hymns that get the blood flowing and the feet moving. If your ‘Foe’ is the heathen who are over and against God, then you simply must have a strong sense that you are on God’s side. You do not need to be a Muslim to define and defend the boundaries of faithfulness.

Jihad, the Crusades, are no different, one from the other except the allegiances involved. Exclusion via identification of the other, the outsider, the ‘auslander’, has a long religious history. This is a process of defining borders, who is in and who is out. It is not about identifying the ‘center.’

Christians frequently point toward two verses in this text from Luke chapter 13, as a further clarification of God’s adoption of a particular people, for the purpose of sustaining and supporting them. It is the narrow door text. Many people see this text, also, as a refining of who is in and who is out.

Father Richard Rohr, one of my favorite heretics, writes:

Less than a block from my house in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the morning sun. A few days ago, I saw new graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement. It touched me so profoundly that I immediately went home and wrote it in my journal. It said, “I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing, thereby keeping us out. Truly God is hated here.” I can only guess at what kind of person wrote such wisdom, but I heard a paraphrase of Jesus in my mind: “The people of the sidewalk might well be at the Center, and the people in their houses might well be on the circumference.”

Rohr adds,

If the circumferences of our lives were evil, they would be easier to moralize about. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, too often needy of defense and decoration…People who have learned to live from their Center where God reigns know which boundaries are worth maintaining and which can be surrendered. Both reflect an obedience. If you want a litmus test for truly centered people, that’s it: they are always free to obey a voice outside themselves.

When the people ask Jesus, “Will the number of the saved be few?” he replies in a strange way. He said, “You’ll see me. You’ll see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob within the kingdom of God and you’ll be missing from it. And you will say, ‘Well, you taught in our streets, you ate and drank with us.’” But it was not enough just to be a part of the group. What was necessary was to desire, to long to be with Jesus. That was what was required. And so the people were offended by that as we are sometimes offended when the suggestion is made that it is not always clear who is among the elect when we fall victim to the ancient human tendency to surround ourselves with people like us. It is a very short walk from there to the faulty assumption that only people like us will be saved. Very easy for us to think that we can tell, tell by looking, tell by natural affinity or pleasing appearance, who is among the blessed of God. But God, Jesus says all the time, over and over again, does not count membership as the first thing to be concerned with, does not count who you are or what you are, but rather counts what you do. He says, “Did you feed the naked? Did you give water to the thirsty? Did you take care of the poor?” And when we say, “Well, actually no, I didn’t do any of those things. I was busy avoiding things. I avoided people who were sinful. I was too busy doing that to actually do anything, but mostly what I have done is remain away and clean.”

Verses twenty nine and thirty, describe a host of people coming from every direction, sitting at God’s table, surprised by who is there and who isn’t. See, we are not talking about a uniformity, a cookie cutter replication, we are talking about a wide way, yet a centeredness upon God that directs us home. This is not about prescriptions for a circumference, or boundary line. Nor is it about building a wall along the border to keep “those people out.” It is about managing to regulate the course of those whose center of life and hope directs them to this narrow chute. It is about getting this rangy and mangy hoard in the door.

Particularly today, I am reminded that as we gather together as an ecumenical community this is really a story Luke is telling about hospitality. How will it be that we are able to herd such a gloriously different people toward this narrow door?

A cyber colleague of mine, Rev. Brian Merritt, has declared today “Don’t Talk, Do, Wednesday.”  He is encouraging people to offer one another acts of charity and kindness as Jesus would have done, instead of engaging in any talk about Christ.  This exercise, and the text from Luke, remind me why I love to work with you, to strive to serve Christ with you, through things like the Shepherding Ministries, or the Food Bank, or the clinic over at St. Dan’s. Look, to do these things we have to set aside all those things that divide us, that define boundaries, and focus on the center, on a Christ who calls us to love one another as I have loved you.

If the beginnings are small and the ending is great, will a few be saved or many? The answer is strange, The door is narrow: the owner will turn away those who assume they are invited, but at last many will come from far and wide.

This is the good news of the Gospel.