21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 21, 2016

This summer’s television season featured a very weird, quirky show about a pastor in a small, rural town. The show’s season finale ended with the pastor video-conferencing with God. (It’s too difficult to explain all the antecedents. As I said, the show was very weird.) During the video conference God assured all those gathered in the church building that they had gained eternal salvation.

The pastor began to have doubts about the provenance of the character sitting on God’s heavenly throne. It turned out that the creature sitting on the heavenly throne was not God, but rather an angel impersonating God. When caught in the lie, the angel confessed that he was impersonating God because God was missing.

The season ended with that cliff-hanger: no one in heaven knew where God had gone. The inference was that all the evil in the world, and all the uncertainty in people’s lives, resulted from God’s absence: there was no Captain at the wheel of the ship, and the sea was about to swallow all the passengers.

As I said, the show was weird and quirky. Nevertheless, the writers devised a compelling ending to the season. I’m definitely going to watch the next season. I can’t wait to learn where God has been while absent from heaven.

The preacher in the story grew suspicious when the God-impersonator assured him that he was saved. He wasn’t a model clergyman. In fact, he arrived at the point of having to video-conference with God because all of his church members considered him to be a fraud and a criminal (which, in fact, he was). Despite his many failings, however, the preacher recognized a proposition that was too good to be true. He knew that he was undeserving of salvation. Most of us, in fact, probably deserve a fate much less blessed than we desire.

Today’s first reading is one of the parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that looks forward to a time when all people will be offered the possibility of eternal salvation. Speaking on God’s behalf, the prophet said, “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; they shall come and see my glory.” (Isaiah 66:18) Jesus was completely convinced that the promise of universal salvation had been fulfilled in his preaching. (Luke 13:29)

What, then, are we to make of his warning that many will try to enter God’s Kingdom but be unable to do so? (Luke 13:24) I think the answer can be found within our own hearts, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.

Any person who possesses a moderate degree of responsibility is aware of the depth of their own failings. Any person with a little common sense is aware that they are flawed and prone to a culpable level of selfishness. Given the obvious limitations of human nature, anyone who presumes that they are saved is probably entirely lacking a conscience.

There is an obvious validity to Jesus’ warning, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Luke 13:24) There is also an obvious response to the warning: if one desires to be recognized and welcomed by God at the end of life, one needs to do everything possible to be found in God’s company throughout life.

The obvious solution to our lack of sufficient virtue, and the consequent uncertainty about our eternal disposition, is to live each day in God’s presence. If we live each and every day in God’s presence, then we will be found in God’s company on our last day.

I don’t know how the writers will address the ending of the first season of that very quirky television show. Given the bizarre and unpredictable nature of the show thus far, I wouldn’t even take a guess about how they will resolve God’s absence from heaven in Season One. I can, however, propose a practical answer for the real world, that is, for those who want to be welcomed into God’s presence in eternity.

Where is God? God is waiting to be found. God is waiting to be encountered in the events of our daily lives.

I can understand why one could think that God is absent. There is much too much suffering and injustice in the world; there are too many imperfections in the human heart. I am unwilling to suggest that God is absent from heaven, but if God seems absent, perhaps it is because God is waiting to be found here in the events of our daily lives.

Wherever God might be, God is also, always hoping to be encountered in our daily activities. Those who seek and find God today are the ones who will be recognized by God at the end of their lives. It will come as a surprise to no one if the opposite will also be true for those who do not seek God now. Jesus’ teaching is not merely good advice, it is trustworthy truth about salvation. “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13:24)