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Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C

 

Children

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.

Adult

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.