Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 25th, 2019 11:00 AM
Saint Anthony’s Cathedral, Detroit, MI
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 66:18-21 | Psalm 117:1-2
Hebrews 12:5-7;11-13 | Luke 13:22-30
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
From nineteen sixty-eight to nineteen seventy, I was a student at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I grew up. At that school, there was a clique of socially adept people, some intelligent, some not, some talented, some not, and some athletic, some not. What they had in common was they were popular with other students. Others not part of their group looked to them for leadership. This clique consisted of those who won student elections of all kinds regardless of any objective competence for the task for which they were chosen. They were popular. People liked them. Being liked was important to them and to the people who liked them. They were the “in-crowd”.
Greenwich High School was but a microcosm of Greenwich Connecticut itself, populated by leaders in Corporate America, the Political System, Professional Athletes, and Entertainers. But Greenwich it is not the only community in the United States that’s like that. If you want a local example in your own backyard, try Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Look around you, and you will see that the United States is dominated by an elite group. I’m talking about people with high income and wealth who attended Ivy League universities, hang out at country clubs, and are featured in the news as politicians and business leaders.
The prevailing notion at Greenwich High School was that the elite clique would eventually join the big-picture in-crowd. The big surprise, however, is that most of them did not. After high school graduation, most, if not all of them, went on to lead rather ordinary lives when compared to the larger population. They went to college, pursued careers, raised families, and presently, they enjoy retirement and grandchildren. And of course, some have died.
What happened to the elite at Greenwich High School after they graduated was a Great Reversal. Suddenly, they were no longer above everyone else. Great Reversals are a fact of human history. Once-companies successful fail. Look at Sears Roebuck, now in bankruptcy. Same for Toys-R-Us, Howard Johnson Restaurants, Kodak Film, Enron Energy, and Blockbuster Videos. Empires fall. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union are no more, and the British Empire is a fraction of what it formerly was. No one stays on top forever. And eventually, a Great Reversal will eventually happen to the United States, which will no longer be the strongest nation on earth, sometime before the end of the present century.
A Great Reversal is akin to what Jesus prophesized in today’s Gospel, where those who thought they “had it made” into the Kingdom of God by virtue of their social and economic relationships in the religious community. The Great Reversal is an ongoing theme in the Gospels. In the beginning of Luke, we encounter the Song of Mary, commonly known as “The Magnificat,” wherein Our Lady proclaims the mighty will be put down from their seat, the humble and meek exalted, and hungry people will be filled with good food while the rich go hungry. Or take the story of poor Lazarus and rich Dives, where Lazarus scrounged table scraps while Dives dined sumptuously, only to find in the next life their positions reversed, with Dives in Hell while Lazarus reclined in Abraham’s bosom. We see it in the unexpected parallels of the Beatitudes: the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit; mourners comforted; meek rather than bold people will inherit the earth; peacemakers, not warriors will be called God’s children; and those who endure persecution will be rewarded, to name just a few situations where what we expect on human and earthly terms will be reversed when God finally reigns on earth. That is what the Kingdom of God looks like, the Kingdom that is on the other side of the narrow gate which is the subject of today’s Gospel.
However, we are not going to get through that gate on worldly terms. There is a great temptation to think that churches do not operate on worldly terms. The fact is, they do. Churches, like every human institution, have their in-crowds, both lay and clerical. So to chase after status and be part of the “in crowd” at your church is a fruitless endeavor in God’s eyes because it is simply human social characteristics clothed in robes. Bishops and archbishops and others prominent in the Church will not necessarily rule in the Kingdom of Heaven. The fact is, large and powerful ecclesiastical institutions are composed of mortal human persons who do not live forever.
What causes the powerful to fall? Arrogant behavior! In the church context, look at closed communion, restricting ordination to men, and other denials of the sacraments, all of which exist to maintain or affirm the power of the ecclesiastical elite. A Church which proclaims itself as an in-crowd, as the only place with a sure ticket to heaven in the afterlife, is not what God had in mind in today’s readings. Eventually, every large and powerful ecclesiastical institution will, eventually, in time, come crashing down to earth. It’s already happening bit by bit with the thousands of churches that are Catholic, but not Roman, like yours and like mine, finding and filling needs not otherwise met. The Catholic world is undergoing a great migration from Rome to independent Catholicism. Julie Byrne, in her book “The Other Catholics”, tells us that the number of Catholics outside the Roman Church in the United States is nearly as large as the Roman Catholic Church itself! The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is an institution whose time is passing away, undergoing a slow but sure Great Reversal.
Why is that? Jesus had much a different view than that of today’s established churches on the issue of who will enjoy Kingdom of God. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God will encompass people from everywhere, instead of just an elite few who thought they “had it made.” That theme is prefigured in today’s First Reading from the very last chapter of Third Isaiah. That portion of Isaiah describes and proclaims the resettlement of the Israelites in Jerusalem after their return from exile in Babylon. The prophet proclaims that not just the Israelites will inhabit Jerusalem, but all of the nations of the known world as well, even those who had never experienced God’s glory the same way the Israelites had.
The Jerusalem of the Old Testament prefigures the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Today’s Gospel tells us, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” but doesn’t that contradict the notion of universality mentioned later on in the Gospel and in the First Reading? Not really. Here’s what Jesus meant when he referred to the “narrow gate.” Jerusalem was a walled City. The “narrow gate”, was the door to the side of the large doors of the City of Jerusalem. The gate was designed to allow one person through at a time. The gate was for protection, so that one person cannot carry harmful excess baggage that can harm other people into the city.
The concept of the narrow gate is key to the Great Reversal. Those who don’t truly understand the universal nature of the Kingdom of God are those who don’t fit into the narrow gate. Those who don’t fit through the narrow gate are those whose egos are too wide to fit, those who display and live an arrogated sense of their self-importance, be they in Church, or life in general. Simply put, they commit the deadly sin of pride.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where the climax of his earthly ministry will occur by way of his death and resurrection. His journey was itself a ministry; Jesus teaches and heals as he goes. Just like Jesus, we are committed to a goal, ministering to others as we go. The Gospel uses the word, “Strive” a translation of the Greek word, agonizesthe,which is “strive” in the sense of “struggle”, like what an athlete does to win a race or otherwise contend for a prize.
An athlete engages in disciplined training to succeed. The same is true for us as Christians, when we see the world not as a place to succeed on its terms, but as a place that disciplines us to improve who and what we are so that we facilitate the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Those who oppose us were put here by God for a reason. They discipline us by sharpening our commitment to Jesus. Experiencing evil reminds us that our values are the opposite of that garbage. Encountering such garbage sharpens our skills to do what’s necessary to banish and drive away those strange and erroneous doctrines, like the unholy trinity of racism, sexism, and homophobia, which are contrary to God’s word. Put another way, our experiences discipline us by providing feedback about what we’re doing right or wrong and how we can improve our chances of fitting through the narrow gate.
That sense of self-discipline is the opposite of the sense of entitlement displayed by members of an in-crowd, who think they “have it made”, in the Church or in secular life and see no need for the discipline of faith in God. The narrow gate is meant to filter out those types of folks.
The way for us to get through the narrow gate is to do as today’s Gospel commands us, to strive, not rest on our laurels. What does striving look like? It means believing in Jesus, meaning, having faith in Jesus through our committed loyalty to Jesus. The purpose of faith, our commitment to God, is self-discipline, as part of getting to the Kingdom of God. It means putting Jesus first, not only in what we say, but in what we do. It means taking Jesus seriously. How we do that is many-faceted, but can be summarized in the Two Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. To do that, you must get rid of the excess baggage in your life that will not fit through the narrow gate to the Kingdom of God.
A narrow gate has no room for those carrying excess baggage. What do I mean by excess baggage? Here are some examples.
Making the preservation of your ego your number one priority.
Allowing your fear of people who are different than you are to dominate your thinking and actions.
Not being open to alternative ideas and behaviors to improve yourself.
Advancing yourself by stepping on other people.
Promoting unrealistic expectations of yourself and others.
Putting your own interests ahead of those of others.
Slavery to rules rather than showing compassion and empathy for others.
Not sharing what you have with those in need.
That is but a partial list of those things that hinder us from going through the narrow gate to the Kingdom of Heaven. That kind of excess baggage is untenable on a long term basis and will eventually lead to a Great Reversal in your life. You can only carry excess baggage for so long before fatigue overtakes you. Not being able to fit through the narrow gate with that all that stuff when you try to enter God’s Kingdom is God telling us we are us too bloated for the demands of the gospel; it is a wake-up call, telling you to change, to reverse the course of your life, to enter God’s kingdom on the other side of that door, that Kingdom of the Great Reversal. What is that kingdom like?
A kingdom of justice that belongs to the poor in spirit;
A kingdom where the lowly will inherit the earth;
A kingdom where the hungry will be fed;
And a Kingdom where mercy will reign everywhere.
Today’s Gospel gives us a prophetic warning on who will enter the kingdom of God: those who will fit through the narrow gate. The narrow gate is taking the difficult road. We are called to enter through that narrow gate – not the “wide gate” that comes from living on automatic pilot and just going along with the bias and prejudice of our culture or particular ethnic or racial community, overindulgence on a self-centered life.
Solidarity with all of humanity is what gets you through that narrow door, not just solidarity with your elite group. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, male and female, people of all races and all orientations. We live in societies of different cultures and religions, but we are all, in the final analysis, sisters and brothers to one another.
Racial pride and nationalism won’t fit through the narrow door.
Racial pride and nationalism destroy human solidarity, and, are therefore, counterproductive.
As Pope Francis said a few years ago, “Solidarity is a good word hidden by our culture, as if it were a bad word. But solidarity and fraternity are what make our society truly human.”
We are one race, the human race.
We have more in common than different.
We are all created in God’s image, no matter what our race, or nationality, or gender or sexual orientation.
Christianity is based on solidarity with others. You can’t be a Christian all by yourself. We are all one in Christ Jesus, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.
Commitment to ministry with Jesus is the commitment to do what’s necessary to fit through the narrow door to God’s Kingdom. Jesus told us what the Kingdom of God is like and what we have to do to get there. It’s all there for us in the corporal works of mercy.
Together, we will feed the hungry.
Together, we will give drink to the thirsty.
Together, we will clothe the naked.
Together, we will shelter travelers.
Together, we will visit the sick.
Together, we will visit the imprisoned,
And together, we will bury the dead.
Together, we will get through the narrow door. AMEN.