I don’t know about for you, but it seems to me that the booths in restaurants keep getting smaller and narrower all the time. It’s like someone comes in at night and squeezes them together. And, I’ll tell you, it makes me mad! Or, have you been in an airplane lately. This one is not an illusion. Many airlines really are squeezing the seats together to make room for more. If you are in a window or middle seat (God forbid) and you have to squeeze through, it can be very uncomfortable. Or what about a stadium, like War Memorial, where the numbers that mark the seats are like “this” far apart. Narrow spaces can sometimes be impossible to navigate.
In religion, when we think of the narrow way, there are many who see this through the lens of having to believe in a particular way and affirm a narrow and specific set of doctrines, with just the right language. That’s how we make it through. Often this is added with a call to conform to a particular and narrow image of what is deemed right and acceptable. This way of thinking can be attractive because it seduces us into an image of heaven where everyone is “like us.” It is a comfortable thought – to believe that the kingdom of God is this exclusive club and “we” – those like us -- know the secret password to get in.
We’ve got to get beyond this narrow way of seeing the narrow way. I love where John Wesley speaks of “narrowness of spirit.” It is not a good thing. He used this phrase “narrowness of spirit” in the same sentence with prejudice, bigotry, and party zeal, as he calls it. The narrow way that Jesus is talking about here is not about narrowing our spirits to the point where we are only comfortable in our own little world. John Wesley once said he would rather listen to a generous and kindhearted heathen than a Christian with a narrow soul. That’s a challenging word.
When Jesus invites us through the narrow way, he is not inviting us to “narrowness of spirit.” In fact, he is inviting us into the opposite. As Wesley makes clear in his sermon on this passage, the wide and easy way is the way of division, contention, and judgment, all born out of deep fear. That’s the way of the world. Along the wide way, we divide the world into “us” and “them.” We think in terms of scarcity, that there is only enough for some, and want to make sure that we are among those who have. Along the wide way, our spirit narrows and our hearts harden and we focus on our own protection. In other words, the wide way of the world leads to narrowness of spirit. On the other hand, the narrow way of Christ leads to wideness of spirit. This way leads to the blessings of being merciful and humble. This way calls us into peace-making and to love even our enemies. It is the way of God’s abundance where there is enough care and love and resources for all. We have been hearing about this narrow way all summer. It is the way that leads us into the wideness of God’s mercy.
But make no mistake, this way is not easy – not in this world of sin. In fact, this narrow way can be downright uncomfortable for us. This is illustrated in a story found later in the gospels, where Jesus speaks of a rich, young man who wants to know what good deed he needs to do to enter eternal life. Jesus enters into a conversation with this rich, young man about all of the commandments and this man says that he has kept them all. So, Jesus pushes him. “Then sell all you have,” he says, “and give the money to the poor and follow me.” This rich, young man can’t do it. And Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone like this to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were astounded. “Then who can be saved?” they asked. “If this person can’t make it, who can?” This man is an insider. He has it all. Wealth. Youth. He is a man. He enjoys all the privileges that would have made them say that he was truly blessed. At this point, Jesus looks at them and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-25).
And that’s the point. We don’t make it into the kingdom by our own merit. We make it – all of us – by the grace and power of God. The narrow way is the way of giving up all human claims to self-righteousness, supremacy and superiority, all attempts to protect our privilege and positions and power over and against others. We make it because of God’s abundant love. We make it because there is enough. It is a paradox. The narrow way – the way of Jesus – leads to the kingdom of God. The wide way of the world – the way of division, the way of protection because there is not enough, the way of building ourselves up over and against others – this wide way leads to death. It leads to nothing!
“Strive,” says Jesus, “to enter through the narrow gate.” The Greek word here is a direct root of our English word, “agonize.” That’s the call. It is not easy for us to enter into what is uncomfortable and hard. Last week, we had some children help us to pray together in all of our services. We heard from some of them afterwards that they were so nervous. It was so hard for them to stand up here and to use their voice to lead all of us in prayer, and yet they did it, and their voices opened up the way for all of us to experience God’s blessings. It was wonderful. That’s an example of striving to enter by the narrow gate. From this past week’s events, I also think of those who peacefully stood with others to give witness to God’s love for all in the face of harmful affirmations that some are superior to others and that we need to be divided. To stand up in that way can be risky and very uncomfortable, but it is so needed if we are to fulfill our calling to be “light to the world” in the midst of the wide and pervasive darkness that is trying to overtake the world … and take over our own hearts. I think of opportunities that you will have this week to make a connection with someone and to actually listen to them and build a relationship. The first step to that can be agonizing. But it leads to life! What can you do, this week, to stand on the side of goodness and grace?
All week, as I’ve been thinking about this text, the classic poem by Robert Frost has entered my mind. Here is the last stanza: “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Narrow souls follow the wide way of the world -- allowing party zeal, impatience, judgment, bigotry and bitterness to bring “disease” to the whole. Souls that are wide in love follow the narrow way, the “road less traveled,” and it makes all the difference. Strive/Agonize to enter God’s kingdom through the narrow way, through the way of God’s wide and eternal love. Amen.