I remember so well singing the spiritual as a child:

I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes,
All God’s chill’un got shoes.
When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes,
Gonna shout all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven…
I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe…
I’ve got a crown, you’ve got a crown…

How hope-filled and assuring that verse is. There’s nothing to be concerned about. My place is assured and it’s just a simple matter of dying. And then the refrain begins:

Everybody talking ‘bout heaven
Ain’t going there, heaven, heaven

And there goes the proverbial rug from under those shouting feet. Now what? Am I in or am I out of the Kingdom? This is the big question. This was a question of one of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus was moving through villages and towns, preaching, teaching and healing. He had set his face towards Jerusalem where he would pay the ultimate price for everybody with his life. He had just healed a stooped woman on the Sabbath and had the audacity to do so in the synagogue. Of course, Jesus was once again challenged by the ruler of the synagogue. His miracles of healings and signs were often used as tools for teaching those who had assembled. But to Jesus and to us, the importance of all that he did – Sabbath or not — was to mirror God’s love and mercy.

Jesus had taught that the kingdom of God would be like the mustard seed. It would grow and become a tree, providing for birds of the air and shade for those on earth. And the kingdom of God would be like leaven, mixed with flour, yielding much bread. But these teachings and others aroused the curiosity of one who asked, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Now we want to know who’s in and who’s out. Exclusion is difficult to accept, it’s painful and it is not at all what we want to hear about the kingdom of God.

Anyone who has been excluded because of his or her sex, race, political or religious affiliations or whatever else may be another’s prejudice knows the hurt and the anger that it causes. If it were not so, the therapists would have no work. If it were not so, the violence against others would cease. Yet, we sometimes sit as judge and jury on who is acceptable in our communities as well as in our places of worship. And, like the Holy Wars, we often do so in the name of God. We can be so sure of God’s mind when it suits our purposes.

But that does not stop Jesus from telling his story of the owner of the house who closes his door and now those who are on the wrong side are left out in the cold to fend for themselves. The part that I would rather not hear is that these very people who ate and drank with the owner are not recognized by him and are sent away as those who are more interested in the ways of the world than in fellowship with God. No doubt this statement must have startled and left many in the crowd speechless.

These are somewhat radical words that Jesus is speaking to the gathering. Indeed, they have dined with him and followed him from place to place. Some have left lucrative businesses, families and homes. So, Jesus, what do you mean saying, ‘You don’t know us?’

At the time, many Jews believed that they would automatically enter the God’s kingdom — if not through lineage, then, certainly by strictly keeping the Law. Before the crowd could digest the thought of exclusion from the Kingdom of God, Jesus said the unthinkable. “People will come from North and South, East and West to gather and eat at the Table in God’s Kingdom.” The Jewish community of Jesus’ day would have been appalled at such a possibility. They were the chosen, the people who had endured with an on-again off-again relationship with God for generations and they were not admitting those unlike themselves to become a part of their closed community. And horror of horrors, Jesus was telling them that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, their revered ancestors, would be sitting at the heavenly Table with the simple and meek as well as those who had shared their wealth.

Does that sound familiar to us? How closed are our church communities and the communities in which we live? How closed are our hearts and minds to the reality that God has created the world and everyone who inhabits it? These are questions that Jesus raised with those who saw the road to the heavenly kingdom as theirs by right. They were “good people.” They worshiped regularly. They hadn’t done physical harm to anyone. What was the problem? Why was Jesus’ response sounding so negative?

He used the power of words to get the crowd’s attention and to get them to thinking. Jesus had been the obedient to God. He had walked faithfully among the people. They had witnessed His awesome power and no one could be compared to him. He wanted to remind them that more was required than being in his presence. There was work to be done, then and now that would require our total obedience to God’s will. Not our own. We even pray “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” – powerful words if we allow them to rule our lives.

To follow God’s will is to go through the narrow door of which Jesus speaks. To understand the image of the narrow door, we remember that the ancient cities were walled. There were large wooden gates by which the daily traffic of people coming and going could pass through. Tradesmen and the townspeople could go out to wells and to other towns and villages. But at night, the large gates were closed and bolted. To get into the walled town, one had to knock and be admitted by a gatekeeper through a much smaller door. That gate was small enough for only one person to enter at a time. Giving ample time for the gatekeeper to look them over.

Jesus used this familiar analogy so that his followers and we might comprehend the seriousness of what it means to be his follower. To get through the narrow door, we must leave the carts carrying the sins of prejudice and malice on the outside. We cannot enter the narrow door with bags on each shoulder weighted down with grudges for which we cannot even remember when or why they became a part of our life. We cannot come and go as we please through the narrow gate because of the gatekeeper is only admitting people who were well known and trustworthy.

Are we known for our faithfulness? Sometimes, relationships with God are great when life is going well. When life deals us a few hardships, we are ready and often turn our backs on God. But Christians are called to make a radical commitment to live as Christ taught. There come no guarantees that life will be trouble free or without pain and turmoil. But we do have a God who stands with us in the midst of it all and points the way to an inner peace — a peace that the world cannot give.

Christ himself entered through the narrow door. He knew even as he faced Jerusalem that a cross would be waiting. The narrow door meant no turning back for He had come into the world to save all sinners. The narrow door included his total obedience to God and the mission for which he had come to earth. But to enter the Kingdom, Jesus reminds us that we are going to have to do a little soul searching and clean up parts of our act.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela tells of going through his narrow gate, a place he came to during his 27 years in prison:

“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom for my own people became a hunger for freedom for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated as much as the oppressed. A man who takes away another person’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and oppressor alike are ribbed of their humanity.”

Dying to our own will and our way of living is difficult and may be a radical choice for many. But that is what a life lived as a follower of Jesus demands. The writer of Hebrews, in today’s lesson, speaks of the unshakable Kingdom, which is rock-solid. God requires our worship, which implies service to and acceptance of others. For those who had come to Mt. Zion were received with great celebration. And here is Jesus having the party for all. He has given His life for all and invites us to the celebration. When we arrive, we can, in the words of the spiritual, “shout all over God’s heaven.”

The invitation is open to all who are willing to risk to receive it; there are no exams to take; just bring an open and accepting heart to all of God’s people; a reverence for God and a faith that cannot be moved. AMEN.