Striving

LK 13:22-30

8/26/07

A couple of weeks ago I preached about the “steadfastness” of God. Last week I spoke about “choosing.” This morning I am going to talk about “striving.” In each of these homilies I am examining what it means to be a Christian. I am looking at our existential situations as men and women whose hearts are restless until they rest in God, to paraphrase St. Augustine.

St. Luke tells us that as Jesus approached Jerusalem and His Passion His remarks became increasingly challenging (which is part of His prophetic calling). While going through one village after another, Jesus is asked if “only a few will be saved?” He answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” He then tells of a householder who refused to admit the town’s folk. They were kith and kin, dinner companions. The householder replies, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evil doers!” Jesus comments that many will want to join the patriarchs in the Kingdom of God and at the heavenly banquet. Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.”

Now scholars have wrestled with the issues of universalism v.s. particularism, predestination and Palagianism (works’ righteousness). Some of those issues are latent in Luke’s story. But the thrust of the story is to proclaim that salvation is no longer confined to a specific race. It is open to people from the east, west, north and south. With the life and Passion of Jesus matters of faith and belief include not only hearing the prophets and embracing the law, but also recognizing and accepting God’s action in Jesus Christ. To enter the door of salvation is to recognize one’s own vulnerability, to set aside our attitudes of entitlement and to be open to the living power of Jesus Christ and His atonement for our sins.

What catches my eye and ear in today’s’ passage is the injunction, “strive.” I find in talking to people that issues of faith cut across the whole population. They are not just issues, which are germane to our parishioners or members of other congregations and denominations. Many, many people are striving to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling.” They yearn for a closer relationship to God and to a great extent are discouraged and have almost given up trying or “striving.” That is sad, because although meaningful insights do come from time to time in epiphanies or in unguarded moments, seldom do they come without some serious previous work or preparation, i.e. “striving.” To paraphrase Thomas Edison, “Genius is ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration.” The good news is that I believe that most people (at least in this country) know a lot more about the Christian faith than they think they do. For example, most people can’t tell you what the Beatitudes are, but they do have some clue as to what happens at Christmas, at Easter and on Sunday morning in a church.

In thinking about Jesus’ injunction to “strive,” I was struck by three “vignettes” that occurred while I have been on vacation. I am going to tell you about those three episodes and then conclude with a familiar story.

A friend of mine recently died. He was Jewish and his wife Christian. Neither of them practiced their faith nor did they rear their son or daughter in any kind of Judeo-Christian tradition. Because of the conflicts between the various strains of Judaism and the divisions between Christian denominations, my friend and his wife were dissuaded from dealing directly with issues of faith. Their hearts strained to hear the word of God, but they were blocked by the cacophony of religious traditions. As a result, when my friend died there was no foundation or basis to which to turn when it came to dealing with his death and funeral. They were outside a community of faith. They had a community of friends, from whom they drew solace and strength, but it was the friends who were faith-based who were supplying much that was needed. The bereaved family had no minister, no rabbi and nowhere to have a funeral. The family, individually and as a group, sought to make sense and meaning out of my friend’s life and death, but the best they could do was to try to be “spiritual” without being “religious.” They were striving to enter through a narrow door, and having a very hard time of it. Their pain “broke my heart.”

Tuesday night a young woman said to me, “I wish my husband would go to church with me, but he doesn’t want to. He says that he believes in God, believes in Jesus and prays. However, he does not “want to sit there and listen to someone tell him what he ought to believe.” He wants someone to listen to what he does believe and help him grow in his faith. This couple had been members of an Episcopal parish, which has recently joined the African Anglican group that is seeking to throw the Episcopal Church USA out of the Anglican Communion. My couple has found a more main-line Episcopal parish, but the husband was badly burned by the earlier experience. I tried to explain that the strength of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for me is the liturgy and the sacraments. Personally, I don’t care what the preacher says. I go to be fed and nourished, to be bound up in the fellowship of the communion of saints and to participate with others in the body of Christ. The wife agreed with me, but she was profoundly hurt that her husband had been so totally disillusioned. They were striving, but were discouraged, wondering if it was really worth the effort. Again, my heart was broken by someone else’s pain.

Wednesday night the Yankees lost and I flipped the channel to one where the programming was done by the Roman Catholic Church. A priest, Fr. John Halloran, was billed as a former Episcopal priest. He was telling about his journey of faith. Now ever since John Henry Newman, and before, Anglican priests have been jumping over the fence into the Roman Catholic Garden of Eden, and vice versa. The good father said that one of the attractions of Catholicism for him was its authority and the magisterium. When asked about papal infallibility, he replied that it was better to have one person making the decisions than for individuals to work out their own salvation and deal with their own experience of truth. My wife, when she heard this, snorted, “That’s fascism.” Having been reared in the Catholic Church, she suffers from Catholic guilt and “the heart break of Catholicism.”

Now, I like Catholic theology and have read some in it. The idea that individuals should not make their own decisions and judgments regarding matters of faith has long been a strain in Catholic thought and is not just some “post modernism” fall out from the age of rationalism and secularism, as I’ve heard some of our conservative, orthodox fundamentalists claim. What pains my heart is that like it or not, people do struggle with what they think and believe, and they strive either openly or privately with issues of faith. Many, many people whom I meet want to enter through the narrow door and can’t do it on the ticket or pass that someone else has printed.

My third vignette regarding “striving” is this: Mary, a year older than I, died recently from cancer. She was a maiden lady and reared Roman Catholic. She taught in a tough urban school and devoted her self to helping minority children. I always thought of her as a “lay nun.” Her sister told me that for twenty-five years Mary had not gone to church nor received communion. Mary told her sister that she could not go to church because she disagreed with many of the church’s teachings. She had been taught that she had to accept it all or nothing at all. Mary had been told, in effect, “You are either for us or against us.” Salvation is within the Roman Catholic Church, period. As she was dying, her estrangement from the Catholic Church bothered her. She just could not swallow the whole thing whole. Her brother, “the jerk,” was one of those “angels in disguise” that pop up every once in a while. He had a friend from college who became a Roman Catholic priest. He was compassionate and nonjudgmental. The priest met with Mary, heard her out and told her that the Church cares for her, loves her and that Christ not only understands but also shares her pain. The Church and Christ, he told her, values her doubt, her struggle and her as an individual. Her striving, her own journey of faith, counted. Mary received communion, the body and blood of Christ, from the priest and resumed attending services. She died striving but also in peace.

Now for my final, familiar story, a favorite of Owen Brissett and John Svagr. My mother was the daughter of Swedish immigrants and grew up in a wealthy household where her mother was the cook. Born in 1903, mother went to college and eventually had her own successful business. She was refined, loving and purposeful. She and Dad lived in Old Greenwich. Each week during the summer of 1973 she would drive down the Post Road to a Phillips 66 gas station to fill up the family Pontiac. She went there because they were running a promotion. For each fill-up you received a glass and a coupon. After ten coupons you also received a large pitcher. Mother had her eye on the set of glasses cum pitcher. I was riding with her late in August when she gassed-up at the station. As she paid the attendant, she presented her ten coupons and said, “I would like my pitcher, please.” The attendant said, “Oh that promotion is over.” Mother asked to speak to the manager, who explained that they had no pitchers. Mother replied that she had been coming there for eleven weeks, earning her coupons for the pitcher. “I want my pitcher,” she growled. The manager shook his head. Mother beckoned him closer to the driver’s window, reached out, grabbed his tie and pulled his head into the passenger compartment. “Work on it,” she barked. She let go of his tie and drove off. Flabbergasted, all I could think to say was, “Mother, you haven’t lost your touch.” Two weeks later my wife and I had Sunday dinner at her house and there was a large pitcher of ice tea on the table. “Where did you get the pitcher?” I asked. “Why, that nice man at the gas station got it for me,” mother replied.

Jesus Christ exhorts you and me to strive to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We are encouraged not to give up, to consciously through prayer, worship, study and charity prepare our hearts to receive and better understand what it means to be a Christian. Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to strive. Or to quote mother, “Work on it!” Amen.