C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating book called The Great Divorce. In it passengers take an omnibus from the outreaches of hell for an excursion to Heaven. They can stay in heaven if they want, but almost no one does. They all choose to go back to hell, for one reason or another.
Heaven, when the tour bus arrives, seems too bright and too real for the passengers as they step off the bus. The grass is diamond hard, and it pierces the feet of the ghostly figures who take their first steps, exploring this strange new place.
One of the passengers, described as a big man, is met by a former employee, who, during his life committed murder. The murderer has been sent to guide the big man into heaven.
But the big man sees his former underling, and is appalled that heaven is populated by people of such low character. The big man balks at being led by somebody he’s sure doesn’t belong in heaven. He’s certain that he deserves to be in heaven, while the murderer clearly doesn’t.
The big man says, ”You don’t suppose I’d go with you?”
“Don’t refuse. You will never get there alone. And I am the one who was sent to you.”
“So that’s the trick, is it?” shouted the Ghost [of the big man], outwardly bitter, and yet I thought there was a kind of triumph in its voice. [He] had been entreated: [he] could make a refusal: and this seemed to it a kind of advantage. “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go sniveling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home.”
[The big man] was almost happy now that [he] could, in a sense, threaten. “That’s what I’ll do,” [he] repeated, “I’ll go home. I didn’t come here to be treated like a dog. I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you…”
It struck me as I was reading our Gospel for this morning that the disciples were only trying to do a little editing of the guest list—who deserves to be there and who doesn’t. Their intentions were good. They saw somebody casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they rolled up their sleeves and headed out onto the dance floor to make certain the unauthorized exorcist understood that his behavior was going to be a problem. So, you know, if you don’t mind, dial it back a bit. You’re really not welcome here.
Good security work, right? Making sure that only those folks wearing the proper wrist band get in, and that once the crowd is in place, everybody behaves. If they have to start pushing people around for Jesus to make that happen, then that’s just the price of doing business.
But Jesus says, “Hey guys, I didn’t ask you to work security for me. Okay? I don’t want you to worry about who you think ought to be welcome here. If there are folks out there doing good things in my name, your job isn’t to set them straight; your job is to get out of the way and let the good things happen. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
But let’s be honest. We can understand the disciples’ concern, can’t we? You let just anyone roam the dance floor doing stuff in your name, and you’re probably going to run into problems. If they’re not part of the guest list, it’s going to be a lot easier for the security staff to keep them on the other side of the rope-line.
But Jesus is every Secret Service agent’s worst nightmare. He says, “Take the rope-line down, and let everyone in. Your job in this whole crazy reign-of-God-thing isn’t to keep people out. Your job is to figure out how to let people know that, as far as I’m concerned, where God is, there is no rope-line; there are no special wrist bands you have to present to be admitted.”
And you can imagine their shock and disbelief. “Come on, Jesus. We’re really good at rope-lines. We know how to make guest lists. We’d like to have a little more control over who gets into the party, and a say in who shouldn’t have been on the guest list in the first place. Because, if you let just anybody in, you’re begging for trouble. Trust us on this. We can spot an undesirable at 50 paces.”
Boy howdy! We sure have seen a lot of rope-line surveillance lately, haven’t we? Folks all over the place wanting to make sure everybody knows who’s welcome and who’s just going to have to stay outside.
From the anti-immigrant xenophobia that has recently passed for political reflection to folks sporting Confederate flags as a not-so-subtle signal about who’s really invited to the fiesta.
Oh, and we Christian folks haven’t been a whole lot better about it, really. Believe me, there are any number of people lining up for a chance to work the security detail for Jesus.
Over the past few months, I’ve heard Christians (famous and not so famous) cast their ballot about who God really cares about, and about who else ought to get comfortable standing outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Who’s not invited, according to these earnest Christian bouncers?” you ask.
Well, let me put it this way, the Muslims don’t fare well. Neither do LGBTQ folks and their allies (Christian or otherwise). The Pro-Choice people are in trouble, too. Progressives and those who believe we ought to have to make some sacrifice on behalf of folks who don’t have what they need to flourish shouldn’t get too comfortable at the punch table either. Women have had an especially bad time of it, especially at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee this past week.
And you want to know why all this conspicuous unneighborliness, this attempt to silence those doing good works in Jesus’ name is a huge problem in Jesus’ eyes? Apart from the general problem of inhospitality, of thinking you have a handle on the divine guest list, walking around with a clip board and a taser in an attempt to maintain ideological purity risks keeping out exactly the wrong people.
The disciples venture out on a clandestine mission, doing a little opposition research, cutting off their opponents at the knees. They’re actually pretty proud of their shrewdness, and they want Jesus to know. “We found some posers out there in the outback. Don’t worry, though. We took care of them.”
So, Jesus puts his face once again in his palm and says, “All right. If you’re worried about keeping track of who’s on the guest list, here’s what you can do. You can make sure you don’t act in ways that make the little people, the non-red-carpet-walking-folks feel unwelcome. That’d be a start.”
You know, like for instance, telling a woman who’s come forward to talk about how she’s been sexually assaulted that she seems like a nice lady and all, but she’s obviously mistaken because powerful men never hurt vulnerable women. How can we any longer look past a cozy patriarchal arrangement in which violent men receive the benefit of the doubt, while women on the margins have to swallow their dignity to catch the attention of those who sit in judgment on whether women’s stories are worth hearing?
One of the ways we can act like Jesus is by believing women.
“Look,” Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in to the sea.”
The disciples are all stealing glances at one another, trying to see if anybody else knows what the heck Jesus is talking about.
“In other words, in your enthusiasm to weed out the folks you don’t think deserve to be allowed entry into the party, you’re communicating exactly the opposite of what I’m here to announce. In the reign of God, everyone’s invited to the party. If you want to follow me, if you’re committed to living the way I’m calling you to live, your job is to be greeters . . . not bouncers.
“Because here’s the irony, your mad dash to throw up a rope-line is keeping out the people I’ve said will be first in line to get in—the last, the least, and the lost. And I can’t have that.”
The disciples are still shrugging their shoulders, making it clear they’re not quite tracking what Jesus is getting at.
Jesus sees the dopey looks his disciples are giving him, and he shakes his head and says, “Let me put it this way, in the reign of God not only do I want everyone included, I want it so badly that I don’t want anything to stand in the way. I don’t want your need to have final approval on God’s guest list to be an obstacle to them knowing they’re welcome to the party.
“Moreover, I don’t want your zeal to scare off the people who’ve spent so much time convinced that they’re not welcome at any party—let alone one thrown by God. And, just so you know, your judgmentalism isn’t helping. It’s scaring off the people I’m most interested to see have a seat at the head table.
“And lastly, I want you there, my friends, my disciples. Unfortunately, the way you’re going right now, you think that your opinion about who should be let in makes some kind of difference. But when you find out how ridiculously haphazard I plan to be with the invitations, you risk cutting yourself off from the party. Don’t you see? I want everybody on the inside. As far as I’m concerned, there is no outside.
“There probably will be, of course, since there are always folks who don’t want to be at a party if they know those people are going to be there. But just remember this: Hell is being determined to stand by the valet station outside of the greatest party in the world, while the host keeps sending people out to lead you into the party, pleading with you ceaselessly to come inside and have a drink. It’s an open bar, and the house is paying the tab.”
A few years ago, Pope Francis visited the United States. After landing in Philadelphia, as his car was leaving the airport, he saw a boy with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, Michael Keating. He ordered the car to stop. The Pope got out, walked up to the boy in the wheelchair, and blessed him.
One of the little ones it would have been just as easy to drive past on the way to doing God’s work. But in stopping to bless Michael Keating, Pope Francis redefined what God’s work really is. He redrew the lines to include someone who’d been left his whole life on the outside. He knocked down the rope-line and told the melon thumpers to take a break.
Michael’s mother said she couldn’t understand what the Pope was saying. But she knew love when she saw it.
She said, “His hands were so soft. When he kissed my son, it was wonderful.”
But, I mean, come on, let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to push people around for Jesus when your hands are that soft and love is the first emotion people sense when they’re in your presence.
I suspect that if I’m anything like right, that would make Jesus happy.