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Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
There are so many of them . . . and they all are so cute. 4,000 dogs, all beagles, produced in a lab that provides animals for testing, each one looking like the other. But here they were, so many of them jumping around, and all of them up for adoption. Of course, we don’t know what dogs exactly feel, but leaving an environment that was totally made up of creatures like you, for another environment when you are alone, would be quite a shift for these puppies. It’s comfortable to stay among our own.
Staying among our own is one of the larger temptations in life. The whole strain of children leaving the home is our version of this: the teens that won’t stay home after they have a driver’s license, to the graduate who wants to move as far as possible from home. College in Florida or California, a job in New York or Boston. Leaving home is a sign of grown-up independence.
At various times in history, religion has seemed to prefer harmonious groups, even to the extent of fearing and even condemning other groups. I’m not the only one who was taught as a child that it was a serious sin to even enter a Protestant church building. We only have to think of the stress in the early Church between Jewish converts to Christianity and Gentile converts. Didn’t they have to be Jewish before becoming Christians? Didn’t they have to become like us?
Jesus tells his audience that it’s hard to enter through the narrow gate; many will want to enter but will not be able to. We should ask ourselves what is the “narrow gate” that Jesus is talking about. The biggest clue is at the end of the Gospel when he says that many will come from east and west, from north and south. They will have a place at the heaven banquet. The narrow gate means that we see the vastness of God’s love and invitation.
Indeed, in the first reading, we learn that the very scattering of the Jewish people among so many pagan nations will end up being a blessing. Why? Because faith in the God of the Jews will grow. Foreigners will even become priests and Levites who serve God. We believe that this has happened because of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon humankind. God does not have one favorite, closed, chosen group. God is choosing everyone to hear God’s call.
The scriptures challenge the narrowness of our own view of God and God’s action in the world. It’s too easy to think that only Catholics, or only Lutherans, or only Jews, or only Muslims, are chosen by God and receive salvation. God doesn’t want a little party for the precious; God wants a huge banquet for as many as can attend. God chooses people and groups so that others can see that they are chosen as well.
God is not about generating pure breeds that stand apart. God is about transforming the breadth of human reality, all the diversity God has created. Enter through the narrow gate, that is, that special insight into divine love that shows us how broad and full God’s vision is, that shows us what a privilege we have to invite many others to the banquet.
A young man decided he wanted to be a boxer. He decided to take private lessons. He found a boxing coach at a nearby gym who agreed to give him twenty-six weekly sessions. As part of his instruction, the young man was required to spar with other aspiring pugilists at the gym.
After the first session, he was sore and swollen. He didn’t realize that it would be this difficult. The battered youth had some questions for his coach.
“You say there are twenty-six lessons in this course?”
“That’s right,” answered the teacher.
“And the rest of them are going to be like today?”
“That’s right,” the coach replied.”
Scratching his head, the student asked, “Well, sir, I was wondering if I could take the other twenty-five lessons by correspondence?”
One of the lessons of life you and I have probably learned is that you can’t take the course of hard knocks by correspondence. You’ve got to hang in there and learn your lessons the hard way.
Today’s text from Hebrews is about discipline. It’s an important lesson for many reasons.
FOR ONE THING, DISCIPLINE IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF A SUCCESSFUL LIFE. Some of us rebel against the idea of discipline.
In the children’s book Frog and Toad Together, Frog bakes a batch of cookies.
“We ought to stop eating,” he and Toad say, as they keep eating.
“We must stop,” they resolve, as they eat some more.
“We need willpower,” Frog finally says, grabbing another cookie.
“What is willpower?” asks Toad, swallowing another mouthful.
“Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much,” Frog says.
Frog discusses a variety of ways to help with willpower–for example, putting the cookies in a box, tying the box shut, putting it high up in a tree–but Toad points out (in between bites) that this won’t work. They could still climb the tree and untie the box.
In desperation, Frog finally dumps the remaining cookies outside on the ground: “Hey, birds!” he calls. “Here’s cookies!”
“Now we have no more cookies,” says Toad sadly.
“Yes,” says Frog, “but we have lots and lots of willpower.”
“You may keep it all,” Toad replies. “I’m going home to bake a cake.” (1)
Most of us can relate. Willpower is tough. We know we ought to be more disciplined, but our hearts are not in it.
Some of you keep a messy desk at your office. You know it makes you less efficient, but somehow you resent the extra time it takes each day to put everything in its place.
If it makes you feel any better, our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was notoriously disorganized; he even had a file in his law office labeled, “If you can’t find it anywhere else, try looking here.” (2)
I agree with the person who said, “Those who keep an orderly desk never know the thrill of finding something they thought was irretrievably lost.”
Personal discipline is one of the keys to success in life. But that’s not the kind of discipline the writer of Hebrews is talking about. He is using the word discipline much as we might when we say “we discipline our children.”
We could have some fun right now if we stopped for a moment and shared with our neighbor how we were disciplined as children. Some of us had harsh discipline; some of us had less. And, of course, each generation thinks the other was a little misguided in their discipline.
Older members of our congregation will relate to one person’s observation of the modern family, “A modern home is one where everything but the kids can be controlled by a switch.” Some of you perhaps grew up in homes where a switch did control you and your siblings. I wonder if some of us were more lenient in the way we raised our kids than we were raised ourselves. I know those of you who have grandkids are probably more lenient with them than you were with your children.
Some people, when they think of discipline, immediately think of punishment. Maybe this is why we resist discipline so much–we associate it with another proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
If you focus on discipline as punishment, you will miss what the writer is saying. What is the aim of discipline? The aim of discipline is to help us grow into mature responsible adults. Our goal is to help our child develop the strength and discipline needed to be a successful adult. Keep this goal in mind as we read this passage from Hebrews.
The writer begins by quoting Proverbs 3:11‑12, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
That’s a mouthful right there. “The Lord disciplines those he loves.” Here is where the difference between punishment and discipline is important. You may punish a child you do not love, but you will not discipline a child you do not love. Do you see the difference? It’s too much work, too much stress, to seek to discipline a child you do not love. You may spank them, out of anger. But that’s not discipline. That’s a way of venting your frustration; it has no real goal of helping the child learn and grow. It’s a lot easier to ignore a child than it is to lovingly help that child grow into a responsible human being. Discipline is a means of helping a child be all he or she can be.
The writer continues: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
THE WRITER IS FOCUSING ON ENDURING HARDSHIP. He is dealing with the question why bad things sometimes happen to good people. He is helping us see that not all hardship is bad. What is it we sometimes say, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”? That’s often true, but it’s a hard lesson of life.
The writer is not saying that hard times come directly from God. So many people have been damaged by the notion that God plays havoc with our lives, rewarding us when we are good and punishing us when we are naughty. That’s not what the writer is saying.
John Jewell tells about a conversation he had with a woman who was a victim of domestic violence. Her husband frequently brutalized her. She was a committed Christian person, and tried everything to be the kind of wife a husband would love and cherish.
One Sunday, her pastor preached a sermon on forgiveness and emphasized Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If you forgive others their trespasses against you, your heavenly Father will forgive your trespasses. But, if you do not forgive others their trespasses against you . . . neither will your heavenly Father forgive you!”
The woman went to talk to her pastor about her situation at home and how she struggled with the issue of forgiveness. How could she forgive someone who abused her?
Something terrible happened as the conversation between the woman and her pastor progressed, says John Jewell. “You must remember,” the pastor said, “That Jesus forgave the people who brutalized Him while He was hanging on a cross. Do you remember how he said, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” Her heart sank as he continued, “Maybe the Lord has called you to be an abused wife!” (3)
May God have mercy on that pastor’s soul. If anybody in this room thinks that God has called you to be an abused wife, or an abused husband, please come by my study this week.
This is a hard world. But that does not mean that God has picked us out specifically to endure pain and suffering. Some of our problems we bring on ourselves through undisciplined living. But there are many tragedies in life that just happen. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps we inherited a defective gene, and all the clean living in the world would not have kept it from causing us problems. Perhaps someone else acted irresponsibly and we suffered because of it. But God has not picked us out to punish us. Jesus ended that controversy for all time when he said, “God sends his rain on the just and the unjust.”
WHAT THE WRITER IS SAYING IS THAT, WITH GOD’S HELP WE CAN LEARN FROM OUR HARDSHIP. The writer is helping us re-frame our painful experiences. Look at hardship not as something sent to destroy you. Rather look at it as a means of becoming a stronger person.
Could God remove hardship from us? Yes, in the same way he could have taken the cup of suffering from Jesus on the night he was betrayed or the thorn of the flesh that vexed St. Paul. Could God produce souls worthy to share eternity with Him without our having to face challenges that strain our every resource? Perhaps not.
C. S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.” (4) The truth of the matter is that all of us learn things best the hard way.
Nancy Guthrie begins her book HOLDING ON TO HOPE with these words:
“Two weeks after the neighbor’s house burned down, I gave birth to a daughter we named Hope . . .” Hope was born with a fatal genetic disorder. She lived slightly more than six months.
The experience was devastating for Nancy and her husband. Guthrie writes, “Early on in my journey, I said to God, ‘Okay, if I have to go through this, then give me everything. Teach me everything you want to teach me through this. Don’t let this incredible pain be wasted in my life!’”
She continues, “God allows good and bad into our lives and we can trust him with both. Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness–this is the kind of faith God values most of all.” (5)
She’s right. This is the kind of experience that produces spiritual giants. Be careful when you thank God for never giving you a burden to bear. Sometimes those burdens produce blessings.
Larry Julian is author of a book titled GOD IS MY SUCCESS. One of the chapters in the book is on “Overcoming Pain.” Julian lists Seven Hidden Blessings in pain. Blessing #1–Pain motivates us to seek God, with the possible outcome of growing closer to God. Blessing #2–Pain clarifies our motives, driving us to take inventory of what is truly important to us and why, with the possible outcome of gaining greater clarity of purpose. Blessing #3–Pain refines like a testing fire with the possible outcome of getting our egos out of the way so we’re prepared to serve a greater good. Blessing #4–Pain defines us with the possible outcome of developing character that reflects Jesus Christ. Blessing #5–Pain teaches us what we need to learn, increasing our wisdom and understanding. Blessing #6–Pain makes our lives richer as we experience the outcome of living fuller lives in appreciation of God’s gifts. Blessing #7–Pain helps us develop compassion and understanding for others experiencing pain or loss. (6)
If you’re battling with a terrible hardship right now, whatever it might be, here’s what I want you to pray. “Lord I know you’re with me, and that you won’t leave me. If possible, I would like this cup taken from me, but, if not, then help me learn from it. Make me a stronger person because of it. Help it ultimately to make me more like Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.”
Remember, God didn’t cause your pain, but God can use your pain. If you let Him, God will help you be all God has called you to be. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time,” says our scripture for the day, “but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” That is the goal. Then our hardship will not have been in vain.
- Ortberg, John, The Life You’ve Always Wanted( Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
- “The Doormat Syndrome,” John Jewel, http://www.lectionarysermons.com/june_8_2003.htm.
- “The Problem of Pain.”
- Holding On to Hope, Tyndale, 2002.
- Larry Julian, God Is My Success(New York: Warner Faith, 2005).
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Object: A folding chair.
Good morning, boys and girls. Today I have a story to tell you about one of my favorite friends. His name is Charley, and I want you to know that Charley is a really good friend. It hasn’t always been easy for Charley, because, you see, Charley is a folding chair. (Show them a folding chair.) How many of you have ever sat on a chair like Charley? (Let them answer.) Aren’t they great? You can take a friend like Charley almost anywhere and sit on him. I have had Charley in the yard, in different rooms of the house, and all over the church. Charley certainly is a good friend.
Now let me tell you why it hasn’t always been easy for Charley. When people are through with Charley, they fold him up and put him away. Many times, I guess almost all of the time, Charley is on the bottom of the stack. All of the other folding chairs are on top of him, and you can imagine how that must feel. It isn’t too bad if they stack the other chairs right, but when they are put down on him the wrong way, it really hurts. But the worst part of all is that Charley is always the last folding chair to be used.
I tried to tell Charley that this wasn’t so bad, but he didn’t agree. I told him that he would not wear out so fast, but Charley likes to be used and sat on, since that is the reason why he was made. Charley really felt bad. But then one day that all changed.
He was still at the bottom, and that meant that he was the last chair used, but he was put up at the far end of a big hall. He heard it was going to be a very big dinner, and he was glad that they had to use all of the chairs, because it meant that he would be used also. When Charley was finally set up, he noticed that he was all alone at a very beautiful table. He was glad to be used, but now he was all alone and that made him sad. But he wasn’t sad for long. Because into the hall came the president of our country, and he was taken to the front where the beautiful table was set. Then after everyone had clapped their hands until they hurt, the president sat down on Charley, and Charley felt good all over. Here he was – the president’s chair. What a wonderful day for Charley.
That is a good lesson for all of us who sometimes feel unnoticed and not very important. Jesus told us that his kingdom is going to be made up of the people who may not have been very important in this world, and who, most of the time, felt that they were the last. But Jesus said that the last will be first in his world, and the first in this world will be last. The most important thing is to be loving and to want to be used like Charley the folding chair. Then some day you will have the most important place in the world, a place called the Kingdom of God.
It’s a jarring teaser on the radio. You hear Martin Luther King’s voice say: I have a dream. Then you hear George Wallace’s voice say: Segregation now. It continues. I have a dream. Segregation tomorrow. I have a dream. Segregation forever. . . . As we come to the 50th anniversary—50 years already!—of the famous ”I have a dream speech,” it’s jarring to remember how dominant the word “segregation” was back in the 50s and 60s. Of course, there still is segregation, but it’s rarely deliberate, it’s rarely the policy of government. Even apartheid was toppled in South Africa. The concept of segregation was one of separation: keep us away from them; keep them away from us.
Strange things happen when you are only in your own group. You begin to think that your own group is the whole world. You have trouble questioning the assumptions. Your world narrows down. You come to demonize what looks different. You live in fear of the “other” that your own fences have created.
The first reading is showing the positive side of something that was terrible, the exile of the Jews in Babylon, the scattering of the Chosen people across non-Jewish, pagan lands, the denial of worship, the life blood of the Jewish spirit. Yet here, at the very end of the book of Isaiah, we hear him sing of something wonderful, something totally unexpected: through their exile, the Jewish people have touched the non-Jews, bringing “the nations” faith and values, vision and dreams. Isaiah even suggests that some of “them”—the non-Jews—will become priests and Levites, that is, part of the inner life of the Jews.
Of course, we Christians smugly read passages like this and say—yes, Isaiah’s dream has come about in us. We are the gentiles for whom Isaiah’s lines were sung. We are now the chosen people. We have no borders, no boundaries. We are a Church universal, Catholic by definition. Our very breadth proves our place in God’s eyes.
Then we hear Jesus say, when the disciples ask him the question that every generation seems to ask, “Will many be saved?”—we hear Jesus say to enter through the narrow gate. Many will attempt to enter, but they will be unable. But then Jesus continues on, talking about people coming from east and west, north and south, to even take the place of the chosen. What’s going on here? Is the Kingdom a small club or a vast nation?
Jesus is pointing out the basic problem with thinking we are chosen. We start to assume things. On the one hand we get comfortable with ourselves because we have the right label; on the other hand, we stop seeing what God is mysteriously doing in the hearts of all. The narrow gate that Jesus invites us to enter is one by which we see both the intensity we need in following Jesus, but also vastness of the work of the Spirit.
We cannot presume that we can coast into the Kingdom because the sheer unlimited love of God can never be fully captured, even by the greatest saint. Only Jesus captures and shares that love. But we cannot presume that others are not being touched by divine grace. If we are chosen, we are chosen not for ourselves, but for the world, for the greatest expansion of divine love among the most people who can receive it. Doesn’t love always involve mission?
The door to having a rich, fulfilling life is always a narrow one. Consider that thought for a moment and you will know it to be true. Many come to life’s open doors but only a few make it through.
Thousands upon thousands of young boys and girls grow up bouncing basketballs and dreaming of life as a professional basketball player. But only a handful are chosen each year. Woe be unto the young man or young woman who is talented at sports but neglects his or her education. It is probably your education that will define your future. The door is narrow.
Thousands upon thousands of new businesses are started each year, but only a small number of people in our society become super successful in material terms. The higher you go up the scale, the smaller the numbers become.
Thousands upon thousands of young couples each year stand at the altars of churches like this one and pledge their love to one another, but half that number of marriages will end in divorce. Many will stay together for convenience or appearance or for the children. Only an estimated 10% will find true fulfillment in their marriages. The door to a rich and fulfilling life is a narrow one. Life is a continual challenge.
Why then should we be surprised that Jesus, when asked, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” answered, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”
This teaching is a little disturbing. It says to me that I do you no favor as your pastor if I try to portray the Christian life as an easy path.
Living a rich and fulfilling life requires dedication and sacrifice. Common sense tells us that. A rich and meaningful life of any kind requires dedication and sacrifice. How can Christian faith demand any less? People who are successful in any worthwhile endeavor pay a price.
Some of you will remember the name John Wooden. Wooden was one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time. He led his U.C.L.A. basketball team to 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years—a feat that will probably never be duplicated.
Wooden disciplined his players on all the fundamentals of the sport. According to one source he even showed his players how to put on their socks. “No basketball player is better than his feet,” he once wrote. “If they hurt, if his shoes don’t fit, or if he has blisters, he can’t play the game. It is amazing how few players know how to put on a pair of socks properly. I don’t want blisters, so each year I give in minute detail a step-by-step demonstration as to precisely how I want them to put on their socks every time.” Now that is an emphasis on doing things right. But people who really make life work do things the right way. (2)
One of the most demanding challenges in sports is the Tour de France bicycle race. One committed cyclist Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle once wrote an article for the National Geographic magazine titled, “An Annual Madness,” in which he described this arduous experience. He writes, “The bicycle race is a strenuous test, including some of France’s most difficult, mountainous terrain. Physical needs such as eating and drinking are done on the run. Temperature extremes add to the cyclists’ challenges. Lassalle indicated he rode his bicycle 2,000 miles a year to train for the event. That’s nearly 60 miles a day, every day.
“What kind of trophy and cash prize motivates a cycler to train so rigorously and then endure such hardship and pain? The prize is a special winner’s jersey.” That’s it. That’s the grand prize. That and the thrill of sweeping through the Arc de Triomphe on the last day and therefore being able to say you finished the Tour de France. (3)
Obviously only a few people in the world are able to motivate themselves to endure such an ordeal. But we need to realize that anything truly worthwhile in life requires dedication and sacrifice. That’s true in athletics. It’s also true in business.
A very successful businessman—the head of a large corporation—was speaking at a banquet given in his honor. He said to the great throng, “Success is easy and most people can achieve it overnight.” Then he cleared his throat and said, “Of course that will be the longest night of your life.”
He’s saying that success in business requires commitment. The philosopher Goethe once said, “Everyone wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.”
He is right. We want gain without pain. Triumph without really trying. But life does not work that way. The door is narrow. That is true in sports, in business, in family life. Having a rich, fulfilling life requires commitment.
This is to say that having what we might characterize as a successful life requires making hard choices. You can’t abuse your body with tobacco or alcohol or illegal drugs or too much sugar or too little exercise and still be in great shape. You have to choose. You can’t be an effective sales person and sit in Starbucks sipping coffee all morning unless, of course, you have customers who like to sit around and sip coffee too. You can’t build a lasting relationship with your spouse and compromise your wedding vows. Successful living requires making hard choices.
The newspapers carried a story about a woman who was divorcing her husband after discovering that he had two other wives and several children by each of them. His explanation: He couldn’t bear the thought of hurting any of them, so he had married all three. He was a traveling salesman, so he was able to carry out this farce for several years.
Many of us do not want to make the hard choices that life requires of us. Psychologists tell us that is why so many of us procrastinate. We want to put off facing the pain of making choices. That is a sure formula for failure.
Successful people recognize that making hard choices is a key to a rich, fulfilling life. Even Jesus had to make a hard choice. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” As he prayed, sweat rolled off of his body like great drops of blood. I am confident that if Jesus had turned his back at that moment on the mission his Father had given him, we would never have heard of him again. That is the way life is. He could have gone back to Joseph’s shop and spent his life as a simple carpenter. That would have been the easy way out; but if he was going to save the world, he was going to have to give his life’s blood. Literally! No pain. No gain.
Some people try to live in two worlds. St. Paul called them the world of flesh and the world of the spirit. But listen, the door isn’t wide enough for you to get through carting two worlds at once. You must choose. If you are going to walk with Jesus, there are some things you will need to leave behind.
It appears to me that there is a great temptation today to settle for a sentimental, sloppy religion that soothes us, caresses us, and requires nothing of us. We forget that the symbol of Christian faith is not a cushioned pew but a cross. Living a rich and fulfilling life requires dedication and sacrifice. Living a rich and fulfilling life requires making hard choices.
But listen to a paradox: the door is narrow, but it is wide enough for all who truly want to enter. Nobody has to be excluded. It makes no difference what your past has been. It makes no difference who you are or what you have or have not accomplished. This door is big enough for you, by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
That, of course, is the meaning of grace. It breaks God’s heart when we make a mess of our lives as we are all prone to do sometimes. God will never force us against our will to change directions, but we need to know if we ever want to come home, the door is wide open. It was open for the prodigal son, it was open for the woman at the well who had five husbands and was living with a man out of wedlock.
One lost sheep was out on the hillside and the Good Shepherd left the 99 sheep who were safely in his care and went to retrieve the one that was lost. However, there is a difference between a sheep and a human being. God has given us the ability to decide our own destiny. It is up to us to choose to enter that narrow door, but if we choose to do so, by His grace, it is open wide.
Sometime back a cartoon appeared on the editorial pages of many newspapers around the country. The occasion was the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The cartoon showed a humble log cabin. Above the log cabin was a ladder. At the top of that ladder was a drawing of the White House. Underneath the cartoon was this caption, “The ladder is still there.” (4)
That is my closing word to you this morning. The ladder of grace is still there. The door is still open. It’s still wide enough to admit all who would enter.
How about you? Will you open your heart to him today?
This anniversary of the famous 1963 speech can help us recall that Martin Luther King was not a sectarian, fighting only for his own people. He saw his people as instances of a broader injustice that touched most people and all races. His dream, like Isaiah’s, is still largely unfilled. But so too is Jesus’ dream, a Kingdom where there will be no people who are “last” because we have come to see that we all should be “first” in the eyes of God—and of each other as well.