St. John's, Canandaigua – 200th Anniversary
I recall sitting in the exit row of a plane once, when a very big person arrived to sit across the aisle from me. I really wondered if that person would physically be able to get through the exit. It made me reflect on the ways airlines prepare to deal with emergency evacuations – disabled people can’t sit in the exit row, but they still need to get out of the plane, so just how is that going to happen?
In recent years, lots of churches have been remodeling their exits and entrances to provide access to all, building ramps, widening doorways, and designing ways to access basements that have only had stairs.
Jesus invites us to think about wide and narrow gates, but he’s asking a slightly different question. He seems to say that it’s harder to get started on the way of life than it is to saunter down the road to destruction. It’s much more about choosing to take that pathway than it is about how wide the door is back there.
How did you first come to this place called St. John’s? Like others over the last two centuries, at least some of you must have been brought here as infants to be baptized in that font. At some point you made the decision to keep coming and involve yourselves more deeply in the life of this community. Yesterday I heard a wonderful story from an elderly woman, who said she didn’t like church as a young woman, but was dating an Episcopalian. When her grandmother heard they were engaged, she told her granddaughter that if she was going to marry a man who went to church every Sunday, then she’d better learn to enjoy it. The woman has been there more than 60 years, and she’s been a widow for quite a while. She told me she’d spent an hour that morning polishing the brass because she loves the community – and not just because she’s head of the altar guild.
How did you get here? Something drew you inside this door. Or someone invited you — somebody like King David, who couldn’t stop dancing for joy at the near presence of the holy in this place. Like him and his community, you know the blessing of prayer and feasting that is offered to all who enter here.
I met a group of Episcopalians in Michigan recently who were passing out bumper stickers that said, “The Episcopal Church invites you.” They wanted to tell me that saying “we invite you” is a whole lot more hospitable than simply saying “we welcome you.” I’m not sure – but it can certainly provoke a stimulating conversation. As a church we spent decades, centuries, even, just waiting for people to show up. I think we’re finally getting over that.
We’re beginning to re-learn that the door at the back of the church doesn’t just open inward. Its major purpose is to send us out into the world, as we’re dismissed at the end of the service with, “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” or “let us go forth in the power of the Spirit.” GO! seems like a much more powerful message than “we welcome you,” at least in the largely passive way we’ve tended to exercise that welcome.
That door opens both ways, and it is wide or narrow mostly as we respond to it. It can seem enormously challenging to begin to move out into the world to find God at work in new people and circumstances, to welcome and invite the conversation that brings discovery, and to build new and loving relationships with strangers. That doorway may indeed feel narrow at first, but it is the opening to abundant life.
In the same way, the passageway into this community can be as tight as a birth canal for those who have only heard or known Christians as moralizing purity freaks, or who assume that only those judged good are really welcome here. It begins to open wider when those who enter find grace-filled welcome and warm embrace, as well as the challenge to keep growing and going on the road to abundant life.
The narrowness is the crux or decision-point of choosing to engage the invitation God continues to offer – choose life, choose life abundant, choose in favor of yourself and your neighbor – all your neighbors.
Jesus goes on to note that deciding is like building your house on a rock, for traveling that road faithfully means we won’t be so easily diverted – not by the slings and arrows of misfortune or the winds of change or by showers of false praise or the temptation to load up on stuff. Making that choice, going through the narrow gate, lets us discover that in truth, the way opens into abundance, including an abundance of fellow-travelers.
This community has persisted and thrived for two centuries because it’s been well grounded in that reality. It will continue for years to come as it continues to be faithful. The signs are abundant – even if there is an overburden of knitted hats rather than prayer shawls right now. Not to worry – that’ll get sorted out. There is abundant opportunity in Simple Presence, and in ministry with young people. There is life in your consciousness about equal dedication to local and to global mission.
While your delegates were at Convention yesterday, I got to visit with folks involved with the Rural and Migrant Ministry. There is a whole lot of injustice going on out there, and there is also a growing movement of solidarity with the people who pick apples, milk cows, and tend grapevines. One of the congregations most deeply involved in this work of solidarity and justice-seeking apparently wasn’t so wild about the idea when it first came up. There was quite a lot of brandishing of guns and talk about which laws were most important until some relationships between different parts of the community began to develop. The door was darn near nailed shut until somebody began to see real human beings on the other side – and then that doorway opened wide enough to let a whole congregation walk through it. People once divided by suspicion, language, and culture now know a great deal more about true, living abundance – and real joy.
That’s what Peter’s getting at when he says, get rid of your crooked ways – insincerity, envy, slander, malice – don’t spread untruths about migrant workers or some group you don’t like, don’t exploit other human beings, don’t use people for your own ends. Instead, be like hungry children, who are grateful simply for being well loved and abundantly fed. That narrow door opens into abundance – and it leads to a community built up of enlightened people (who dwell in the light), well-grounded in the love of God for us all.
One of my favorite sweatshirt slogans says, “Jesus loves you” on the front. On the back it says, “but I’m his favorite.” The gate before us offers a choice. Is it going to be, ‘well I am certainly best-beloved, but that means you’re not.’ Or will we begin to discover that God actually keeps saying, ‘you’re my favorite, and you, and you, and you.’? Aren’t we all the well-favored, blessed, and beloved children of God?
That doorway back there is meant to be a revolving door, bringing people in and sending them out, with little to impede the journey, and lots of encouragement. It should probably be something more like an air curtain, with no visible barrier, and a boost of God-breathed Spirit on our way through. We may pause as we go through, knowing that blast of energy is coming, but then we step through in boldness. Go in peace – [and he breathed on them] – to love and serve the Lord.