Strive to Enter the Narrow Gate

Strive to enter the narrow gate.  That sounds like a lot of work.  Actual effort.  I must confess that my early college career was not stellar by any sense of the word.  I can still hear my kindly German teacher, Frau Bluske, telling me in front of the entire class one afternoon after I had to admit that I hadn’t done my homework, “Herr Forney, wenn sie nicht studieren, sie will durchfallen.”  Translation:  “Mr. Forney, if you don’t study, you will flunk.”  The narrow door was a much more difficult operation than hanging with the guys the night before in the pool hall drinking a beer.  Enter the narrow gate, indeed!

And I still shudder when I remember that physics exam on electricity.  The only question I could answer with any certainty was the one that asked, “name.”  Not my finest moment.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t much better at pool.

The reality is, that if one’s Christian faith is to amount to anything, it takes a bit of doing.  Sometimes this Jesus stuff is downright hard. And the results are not always going to be what we had in mind.  There’s no guarantee of success.

It has not been that long ago that the Episcopal Church had a bit of a reputation for being the “party church.”  You’ve probably heard the line:  Where two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, there’s usually a fifth.  We have been a part of that “wide door” the world holds open.  Hopefully, that’s not so much the case anymore – back in the day when our church was known as the “status church” of the upper classes.

To the extent that we come to church “for solace only and not for renewal,” as the communion prayer puts it, we may be coming to just a party church.  Church as entertainment.  And all we will get is junk food religion.  Lots of sugar and calories but no nutrition.  As the grandma in the Wendy’s commercial demanded to know, “Where’s the beef?”

If we’re prone to take our ease in Zion, today we get a warning shot across the bow from our Lord.  When asked who would be saved, Jesus answers, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying ‘Lord, open to us.’  He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’”

That the road through the narrow door is difficult and the path ahead is unclear, is no excuse.  Jesus didn’t give up, and his narrow door led to the cross.  One friend said about extravagant discipleship, “There’s two possibilities.  There’s success and there’s a learning experience.” 

Now, some are wont to say upon hearing such dyspeptic talk, “Well, I don’t agree.  The real Jesus would never say anything like that.  I come to church for comfort, not to be riled up.”  I don’t remember Jesus promising comfort.

Don’t discount what Bonhoeffer calls “the cost of discipleship.”  And what was all this talk we had last week about Jesus bringing a sword.  Pretty tough stuff.  His message is sure to cause great consternation.  It asks of us something difficult like loving our enemies and forgiveness.  It is about struggle, it’s about spiritual warfare, if you will.  The ethic of the Jesus Movement is not the ethic of the world. 

My friend Wesley knows that he needs a big kick in the pants at times.  He needs challenge.  His frequent prayer upon entering the church door is, “Jesus, dropkick me through the goal posts of life.”  He wants the whole gospel, not fast food spirituality.  Where’s the narrow door.  Point me there, he asks of the preacher.

I suspect that Jesus was a pretty radical fellow who put his marker very far out there, knowing that we couldn’t possibly reach it in all likelihood.  But we would enter into life abundant in the trying.  We need such a holy goad because it’s so easy to get distracted by all the stuff out there which does not nourish.

Jesus might be sort of like my old chemistry professor.  She was a tough old bird who told us all on that first day of class in that huge lecture hall to look at the person on either side of us, because by the time the course had finished, one of us wouldn’t be there.  She was right.  Talk about the narrow door!

Now, she didn’t want people to flunk out, but she knew that for those folks who didn’t keep step, who idled in the pool hall, that they would soon fall by the wayside.  She was indeed right.  Far less than one half the class was left by the time the final rolled by.  I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth.

“Strive to enter at the narrow gate,” Jesus admonishes.  It’s easy to get lost.  Durchfallen doesn’t require much effort at all (remember Frau Bluske).  As Dante writes in the opening pages of the Inferno:

       Midway in the journey of our life

       I came to myself in a dark wood,

       For the straight way was lost…

       How I came there I cannot really tell,

       I was so full of sleep

       when I forsook the one true way.

That the “true way” could so easily be lost on the road to the pool hall, I’m here to tell you.  The world offers a plastic religion – all sorts of things that will make life worthwhile.  Indeed, there are a jillion things out there that promise life abundant.  If you only have the right car, the right trophy wife or husband, the right toothpaste, the right hair, or at my age, if you have any hair at all!  And so much of this hype is aimed right at our youth and young adults.

One of my friends had a Porsche, another had a chopped and souped up Olds.  The girl across the street got a new Thunderbird with those little porthole windows on the sides.  But I was in teenage agony.  I didn’t have a car.  I had a hand-me-down 1950 Studebaker!  You remember the ones of the early 50’s with the curved back window, so you really couldn’t tell whether the thing was going backwards or forwards.  It had a chrome bullet nose and was sort of a pukey dark green.  Even the name sounded horrible – like rutabaga, or cauliflower.  Bleah!  It’s a wonder they ever sold any of them.

My dad the dentist was the only one I ever knew who bought one, because it was cheap.  Cheep!  Not cool.  Cheep.  My dad didn’t understand cool.  I don’t think most dentists do.  Not another family in the entire neighborhood had one.  So, it was a miracle I ever got any dates at all with that car.  I was convinced that my whole career as a teenager was being severely stunted by this ugly car.  No telling how many years I might have to spend in therapy working through the psychic damage.  (Looking back on things, I did get a pretty good wife — but probably not because of the car.)

Now, as my hair has turned quite grey in my latter years (my wife says “white”), perhaps a bit of God’s wisdom has finally sunk in.  “Strive to enter at the narrow door,” says our Lord.  It will never be about the car, the toothpaste, or any of the rest of it.  It is about a tradition that nourishes.  It is about a God who redeems.  Yes, even through the difficult sayings and hard lessons of life – God redeems.  It is about a spirituality that is mature enough for the long haul.

Fortunately, I believe the party days are mostly bygone for our beloved Episcopal Church.  The period of cultural captivity of our church has been slowly coming to an end.  Reality check time.

When the church came out foursquare against the Vietnam War, it took on a tough issue.  Just as it had over slavery.  When the church came out for women’s ordination, it knew we would lose some folks.  The same as for LGBT inclusion.  Yes, God does love everyone!   When we elected our first woman bishop…well, can you imagine the uproar in some quarters.  And then a woman presiding bishop.  Yes, there was hate mail.

I can still remember my friend Bob up in Sitka one day announcing, “Well, I finally figured out why God wanted us to have women priests.”  Knowing Bob’s unrelenting opposition to women clergy, in amazement I asked, “Why’s that, Bob?”  “To show us that it couldn’t possibly ever work!”  he said, banging his fist on the desk.  Yes, we lost members.

When you drove or walked up to church this morning, you surely didn’t see any “Golden Arches.”  No junk food spirituality offered here. Here you get a meal here which lasts for the long haul.  It is this same rich and deep Anglican spirituality that has nourished so many faithful souls who have gone on before.  That’s what we’re about at St. Francis.

In the New York Times this week I came across an article about a nun, a doctor and a lawyer…now, now, I know.  You’re thinking that this is leading to some bar joke…a nun, a doctor and a lawyer walked into a bar…   Well, that’s not the case.  Actually, it’s all about the narrow door.

What these three stalwart people did was to walk right into the face of big pharma, Purdue Pharma, to be exact — in Pennington Gap, Virginia. This Catholic nun, this doctor and this lawyer were present at the beginning of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.  In sounding the alarm, these three entered through a narrow door they hoped would prevent a lot of misery.

They inspired “a burst of local activism against Purdue Pharma, Oxycontin’s maker, that the company ultimately crushed.[1] Their failed effort was a missed opportunity to stem the onslaught of addiction to opioids and the drugs they quickly led to — fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine.”

Sister Beth Davies had known an epidemic was on the way.  She witnessed it’s unfolding in their little town of nineteen hundred people in the southwest corner of Virginia.  The journalist covering the story, Berry Meier, had come to that part of Appalachia about twenty years ago.   Out of the activism of Sister Davis, Dr. Van Zee, and Ms. Kobak, Barry Meier also witnessed the inception of the scourge.  These three would become the central cast of the reporter’s book, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.[2]

Dr. Zee urged Purdue to change the way it was marketing OxyContin but to no avail.  He and the others launched a recall petition to the FDA to have the drug taken off the market.  Purdue countered by threatening to publish a full-page ad in the local paper attacking the recall drive, and offered $100,000 to the group to drop the recall drive.  They refused.

Things looked up when the Justice Department finally announced felony criminal indictments against Purdue Pharma and it’s three top executives.  The charge?  Deceptive marketing.  Purdue said the stuff was harmless.

Victory was short lived.  Department officials negotiated a plea deal under which the executives would cop to minor charges and no jail time.  There would be no right of discovery.  No chance to see all the emails documenting the nefarious plot to cover up the work of this addiction factory.

“In the years that followed, executives of other opioid makers and distributers kept shipping millions of addictive pain pills into towns like this one apparently without fear of serious penalties.”[3]  Dr. Zee is convinced that had the Justice Department not reversed course, the outcome would have been completely different.  Appalachia might have avoided so much needless death and misery.  The malefactors would have been in prison.

Recently, Dr. Van Zee and Ms. Sue Ella Kobak flew to Oklahoma to testify in its lawsuit against Purdue.  They continue the fight.  Sr. Beth, standing outside a courtroom in the rain, still remembers her bitter disappointment in the Justice Department’s settlement of the case against Purdue.  All three continue to insist that these pill-pushers face scrutiny and be held accountable for the untold lives they have ruined and the communities they have destroyed in Appalachia. 

These three activists indeed entered through the narrow door of our criminal justice system.  And though the door of justice was slammed in their faces, yet they persisted.  The tide is changing.  I hope they know the satisfaction of having alerted all of us to this disaster now facing America.  I’m sure our Lord is saying, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”  Indeed, strive to enter the reign of God through the narrow door.

When it comes time for me to lay my life down on God’s altar, I would like to be able to offer something like the work of those fearless Appalachian activists: Sr. Beth Davis, Counselor Sue Ella Kobak, and Dr. Van Zee.  Oh, that our lives might be laid upon God’s altar, if only as a pale likeness of their gift. 

That it might be said of each of us — as I believe the Lord must regard the unblemished gift of a nun, a doctor and a lawyer from Pennington Gap, Virginia — they have striven to enter at the narrow door, and it has made – it still does make — all the difference in the world.  Blessed are they indeed.  Amen.

[1] Barry Meier, “Ruling Lost Chances to Stem the Opioid Crisis They Saw Coming,” The New York Times, August 19, 2019, p. A13.

[2] Barry Meier, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic (NewYork: Random House, 2003).

[3] Barry Meier, New York Times. op.cit.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews12:18-29;

Luke 13:22-30

Proper 16, Year C, August 25, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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