Let us pray: Oh Lord, my God, take my mind and think through it. Take my lips and speak through them. Take all our hearts and set them on fire with a love for your Gospel. Amen.
Good afternoon, church! I come to you from my wee cottage on Rehoboth Bay in Delaware – a place known throughout the state as LSD, or Lower, Slower Delaware.
I’m a child of the 60s, so you’ll forgive me when I tell you that I just love saying that I have moved from life in the NE Corridor to life on LSD. If you remember the 60s you know what I’m talking about.
Then again, it is said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.
I see some of you smiling a hazy kind of smile. It’s okay. We’re all sinners here.
When I got off the train at NY Penn Station and got out onto 7th Ave and 32nd St., I immediately felt a ‘natural high’. Actually, I felt a bit like Jacob, from whom we heard in the first lesson (Genesis 28:10-17), awaking from a dream.
And then, to come into this pulpit this afternoon, which has been graced by so many powerful preachers, I could only echo the words of Jacob when he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
I want to thank your Priest, Berto, for inviting me into the privilege of preaching from this esteemed pulpit on the occasion of your ‘Homecoming Service’.
Now, I say this as a sister-in-Christ with nothing but admiration and affection in my heart for my brother, but I have to tell you that when I first read the gospel he chose for today. . .well. . . .let me just say that I didn’t have a whole lot of admiration and affection in my heart.
It’s ‘Homecoming’, right? And, his choice for the gospel is the one about the ‘narrow gate’? The narrow gate!?! On ‘Homecoming Sunday’!?! Are you kidding me?
Here’s what Jesus says, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ((Matthew 7:13-14, 24-25)
Nice going, Berto. Great message of welcome and inclusion.
After I prayed on the scriptures for a bit, I realized that Berto, like Jesus – and like St. Francis, whose Feast Day we celebrate tomorrow – was going for paradox. Now, let me explain.
A paradox is a true statement – or group of statements – that leads to a contradiction which defies intuition. And yet, it is, in itself, true. We humans are a living, breathing example of paradox.
For example: both of these statements are true: We must breathe in. We must breathe out.
These two opposites truths together, form the truth that in order to sustain life, we must live and breathe the paradox which is at the core of human existence - breath. We can’t live without holding these two opposite truths in our bodies.
If we deny either truth – or stop either one – we die.
Jesus loved to teach in parables which were often about paradox: camels leaping through the eye of the needle and mountains being tossed into the sea. The tiny mustard seed becoming the largest tree in the vineyard and the last being the first and the first being the last. Wolves lying down with lambs and the meek inheriting the earth.
Homecoming in the church is the paradox of the narrow gate of our culture. Let me explain.
We live in a country of cultural paradox. This nation prides itself on our great cultural diversity. Most – but not all – of our great grandparents and grandparents - our parents and, indeed, some of us – came to this country from many different lands. The legacy of slavery has left an indelible stain on our history.
Many – but certainly not all – of our ancestors and relatives came here, reading and being inspired by the words on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
And yet, even as this monument was being dedicated on October 28, 1886 – 124 years ago – exclusion ruled the day. The general public was not permitted on the island during the ceremony. Invitations were for dignitaries, only.
Only two women were allowed to be present – the wives of dignitaries. The restriction offended area suffragists, who chartered a boat and got as close as they could to the island. The group's leaders made speeches applauding the embodiment of Liberty as a woman and advocating women's right to vote.
Indeed, the inscription on the Statue of Lady Liberty is from a poem by a woman, one Emma Lazarus – who did not enjoy the civil liberty of voting.
Shortly after the dedication, the Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper, suggested that the statue's torch not be lit until the United States became a free nation "in reality". The editors wrote:
"Liberty enlightening the world", indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It cannot or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being "ku-kluxed", perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the "liberty" of this country "enlightening the world", or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme."And yet . . . and yet, Lady Liberty stands silently in the harbor welcoming and watching the paradox of her welcome lived out in the land where you have to be brave in order to be free.
We live in a culture which continues to divide in order to conquer - the haves from the have- nots. The light skinned from the dark. The ‘established’ from the immigrant. The male from the female. The so-called ‘gay’ from the so-called ‘straight’.
But, Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”(Mt 11:28). Sounds like Emma Lazarus had been reading the teachings of Jesus before she wrote her inscription for the Statue of Liberty and took them to heart. “E pluribus unum” – out of many, one – is our nation’s motto.
Pity we haven’t all been so inspired to realize, as John Buchanan points out, that “the republic is stronger when the pluribus is respected as well as the unum.”
In the first letter, attributed to St. Peter (1 Peter 2:1-5,9-10), which was our second lesson, he exhorts and encourages the members of the ancient, infant church in the northern part of Asia Minor, who were undergoing persecutions with these words: “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander.”
The author of that letter writes, “Come to him (Jesus) to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus.”
Here’s the paradox: we are the living stones that build the narrow gate that leads to the Kingdom of God. Our lives. You and me. Hopeful children who survived the Great Depression and WWII. Revolutionary children of the 50s and 60s. Rebellious children of the 70s and 80’s. The technological children of the 90s, and all the children of the new millennium.
All God’s children.
We are, each one of us, living, breathing stones come to Jesus on this ‘Homecoming Sunday’, rejected by some, rejecting the cultural norm of rejection based on color, class, gender, sexual orientation, educational background, and physical, intellectual or mental ability.
We are living stones who listen to the words of Jesus who said, “And I, when I am lifted on the cross, will draw all to me” (John 12:32). That’s ALL. Not some. ALL.
As Bishop Tutu says, “All. all . . . all . . .rich, poor, educated, uneducated, beautiful, not-so-beautiful, white, black, gay, lesbian, so-called straight, on, on, on to all, all, ALL -- there will be no outsiders, even sinners, all, all are precious to this God, for it is this God whose will it is to bring ALL to a unity in Jesus Christ, ALL!”
Every last living stone of us.
And yet, not all of us in the church heed the words of Jesus. Sometimes, even in the church, our gates become barriers until Jesus comes to batter them down or move them with His love.
There is a story about four soldiers who fought in WWI. There may not be atheists in foxholes, but neither are there Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims – only friends who are willing to lay down their lives for others. One of the four soldiers was killed in battle in a little town outside of Paris. His friends knew that he didn’t have any relatives back home, so they went to the local priest to have him buried in the cemetery by the church.
The priest asked if the man had been baptized. The men said, “We didn’t know a lot about him. We know he was a good man who believed in God, but we have no idea if he was baptized.” The priest informed them that, without this information, the man could not be buried in the Church cemetery. However, moved by their persistence and the circumstances of the war, the priest allowed their friend to be buried outside the gate of the cemetery.
Five years later, after the war had ended, the three men decided to return to France to visit their friend at his gravesite. When they arrived, they were horrified to discover that the grave was missing. Outraged, they went immediately to the priest to ask where he had moved their friend. The priest, a man who loved Jesus, smiled and said, “I did not move your friend. I moved the gate.”
That my friends, is the church at its best. We are the living , breathing stones whose hearts of stone must be broken open so that all . .all . . .ALL may enter through Gates of Love and Hope.
The paradox of this is that, in opening wide the gates of the church – in welcoming everyone in through those gates – our culture will take a narrow view of us. Who wants to be part of a bunch of losers? Who wants to be a member of an organization that accepts anyone and everyone?
Well, I do. Do you? Okay, let me see some hands. Do you? And you? Now, turn to your neighbor in Christ – the person sitting next to you - and say “Welcome home.”
The ultimate paradox is that when Jesus opened his arms wide upon the cross, he became the narrow gate of our culture. And we, as his living, breathing Body, can do no less.
I want to be part of a church like Intercession which has a ministry that has the oldest active Girl Scout Troup in Manhattan along with a Gay Men's AA Group.
I want to be part of a church like Intercession with a Senior’s Reading program with primary school children and an Episcopal Church Women’s group who feed the homeless after Sunday Eucharist in Marcus Garvey Park.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church with an At Risk Youth Program as well as one that houses a Native American Children’s Museum?
And, how many churches would have programs written in English AND Spanish so that ALL can participate in the liturgy?
Those are just the highlights of what I know. God knows what you do to live out your lives of faith outside the church. God knows. And, God loves you for opening the gates of your hearts to others.
In the words of Jacob after he wrestled with the angel: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-17)
God has fashioned the paradox of human lives as living stones to build that narrow gate that opens wide to new way of life, a new way to love, a new way of being in Christ.
St. Augustine says, "God, without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot."
What an Incredible God we worship! Without us, God will not. We, without God, cannot.
We, with God, can find the narrow gate that opens wide to life in Christ, because the paradox is that WE ARE the living stones who have become that narrow gate. In order to enter, we must breathe in the Truth of Jesus and exhale “. . . all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander,” and say to absolutely everyone, “Welcome. Welcome through the narrow gate that is open to all. Welcome home! Welcome home!”