21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – August 21, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117:1-2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
Difficult Goal? Better Have A Plan
A couple of years ago, ESPN and Netflix put out a documentary series called “The Last Dance,” a documentary on the life and career of Michael Jordan. And it was very popular. People loved getting an inside look into the life of Jordan, and were in awe at the extreme dedication he had to basketball, to greatness, to the workouts and diets and schedules and routine. And there are several of those documentaries coming out: Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter. People love getting the inside scoop into the extreme dedication these athletes have to greatness, to the pursuit of greatness. They have this difficult goal in front of them, and they go to extreme lengths to achieve this goal. They have a plan, and they are relentless in sticking to the plan.
And it’s not just athletes that do this. The U.S. Military has the task of getting guys ready to serve as the most elite military on the planet. And so there is a very specific plan for breaking guys down, breaking down bad habits and instilling new habits. There is an extreme dedication to the plan. And what I hear a lot of people who were in the military say is how grateful they are for the discipline and work ethic it engrained in them. They say a few other things, but I’m not allowed to repeat that from the pulpit.
Playing a musical instrument well is hard work. Lot’s of hours, practice every day, sticking to the plan.
Becoming a priest—I know it seems like they pulled me out of high school and dropped me here—but there was actually a long and rigorous process to becoming a priest. There was an intense schedule each day, a rigorous schedule of prayer and study and service and formation and evaluation.
A lot of you are teachers or have worked in education. What is essential for effective learning? Classroom management! No kid is going to tell you that they want structure and discipline in their classroom, but you know that it is essential for them to learn! They thrive on it!
Consistency, discipline, extreme dedication to a goal, having a plan—on and on and on. You know that if there is a goal you want to accomplish, a difficult goal you want to achieve, it’s going to take these things. No one disagrees with this! No one disagrees when you say, “In order to be great, it takes hard work, dedication, and discipline.” No one.
Until following Jesus is brought up. And that’s why these things Jesus says today can sound strange to our ears.
Jesus’ Call to Enter the Narrow Gate
Have you ever seen those memes of #ThingsJesusNeverSaid? Pretty hilarious. It’s just a picture of Jesus and a quote followed by #ThingsJesusNeverSaid. Like, “You’re perfect just the way you are.” Or, “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as deep down you’re a good person.” “Do what makes you happy. Just be kind.” We have all these things we say, that we attribute to Jesus, that we assume he would say if he were alive today. But then we get readings like the Gospel today (or the Gospel last week) and it’s just a bunch of #ThingsJesusActuallySaid…and we’re like, “Whoa. That’s weird. Let’s just skip that bit.” But no! We can’t!
Today, Jesus lays down more hard sayings! “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” That’s hard. “You will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’” Ouch. What’s going on?
A big study was done back in 2005. And what it revealed is that most people (who would now be between the ages of 30 and 50 years old) who call themselves Christians or Catholics believe the following:
- A God exists who started the the big bang and now He watches over humanity.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.
- God isn’t involved in your life, except when He is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
What do you think? Sound good? Sound about right? I can tell you, this is what I hear every day.
a) The study found is that as a Christian, as a Catholic, the key to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means: being nice, kind, respectful, and responsible; working on improving yourself; taking care of your health; and doing your best to be successful. Sound good? b) Being a Christian then means feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace. It is about achieving well-being, and being able to solve your own problems; being friends and with other people; going to church when it makes you feel better. Sound right? c) And God created the world, and defines what is right and wrong, but He is not personally involved in your life. Or if He is, He gets involved by helping you find $20 on the street when you really need it; or by helping you get a good deal on a new pair of shoes.
That is what most people between 30 and 50 believe this is all about—if they believe it’s about something at all. And when that is what you believe this is all about, then your response is pretty predictable. Your response is to try to live a life that makes you happy, be kind to others, and be grateful to this “God” when things go the way you want them. And as long as you do that, you get to go to heaven when you die!
But then we get to readings like today…and we don’t know what to do with them. “A narrow gate? People are going to be shut out of the kingdom? What??”
The Rule of Life
Following Jesus Christ, being his disciple, being a faithful Christian, experiencing the joys of his Kingdom—all of this doesn’t happen by accident! This is what Jesus is trying to get at.
One of my friends who is a priest down in Wichita told me a story that he was encouraging a guy to go to Mass more often. And this guy said, “I like Jesus and church. Sometimes I feel good when I go. But Father, I’m not one of those ‘fanatics’ that goes every Sunday.” Maybe we’re supposed to be a little more on the fanatic side of things. Maybe there is a real dedication, maybe even an extreme dedication to following him that Jesus is asking of us.
This means getting really practical. You get calendars from school, make your plans around whatever the school tells you to do, you move mountains to show up to practices and games for your kid’s sports. You make sure you show up to work on time, put in extra time for a raise, make time to go to the gym. But what about the most important thing in your life? The most important thing in your children’s lives? “Eh, we’ll get to it if we have time.”
This time of the year, as school begins, I always think back to when I was growing up, and my parents would have us all sit down for a family meeting and we would set up the “Rule” for the family that coming year. A “Rule of Life.” In a monastery (with monks or nuns), there is a rule of life which guides the house. St. Benedict would say that the rule is what allows a house to become a “school in the Lord’s service.” So a rule of life is like a trellis, you know, like what vines grow on? Just like a trellis guides the growth of a vine, our rule of life was meant to guide the growth of our family, to become a house that was a “school in the Lord’s service.”
And so in our house, our little monastery, our little domestic church—we had a rule. And it was simple, yet profound. Each day and each week and each year was structured around: prayer, the Mass (so the Word of God and the Eucharist), and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our life. We would wake up, go to Mass at 7:00am, pray before eating breakfast, pray before school, do school, pray before lunch, do more school or other work or play in the afternoon, pray before dinner, have dinner as a family talking about the day and what had struck us (where God might have been speaking to us), have time after dinner to read and get ready for bed, pray the rosary as a family (every night), and then bedtime for the younger kids and more reading or watching some TV for the older kids until bed. Sunday Mass was the central part of the week; Sundays were a day for family and rest. And then each year was structured around the major feasts of the year: Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas. And notice! The extreme dedication, the discipline of all of this, the “narrow gate,” was all because my parents had a specific goal in mind: they want us to be saints, to be heroic disciples of Jesus Christ, to find true happiness by following him. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child? Don’t you want that for your kids?
“Go out to all the world and tell the good news.”
And my parents didn’t do this in some selfish way, or trying to shelter their kids from the world, no! Like our readings point out, especially our Psalm: the point isn’t hide in fear and avoid the world—but to be prepared to go out into the world! The Psalm said, “Go out to all the world and tell the good news!” And again, this is a huge credit to my parents—but look at what their children do. My oldest brother is a university professor that teaches seminarians, future priests—and has his own domestic church now, his wife and two kids. My oldest sister and her husband have a little domestic church with five kids, and she also works a lot in education. My older brother works as a surgeon—and he and his wife are raising two kids, one on the way, in their domestic church. My older sister is an artist, helping people to encounter Beauty, the transcendent through music. I’m a priest. My sister is a nun. My younger brother is in seminary but has also worked as a missionary in the inner city. My younger brother is about to start his family and domestic church. And my two youngest sisters both posses a deep love for Christ, and have already begun to do beautiful things.
So you see: the purpose was never to hide us in a cave and never let us out into the world. The purpose was to prepare us, to form us as faithful disciples of Christ, and then send us out to proclaim the Good News in all of the different ways God has called us to do so. Do you think this happened because my parents said, “Follow your dreams and just do what makes you happy”? No. There was a rule, a narrow gate, a discipline, an extreme dedication to the goal.
Each one of us needs to begin to get very practical in our faith. Perhaps you need to write out a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule. Begin to literally schedule time to pray throughout the day. Begin to literally plan times for your family to eat dinner together. Put Sunday Mass on your calendar first and then fit everything else in around it. I handed out that Simple Sabotage Field Guide last week with many ideas. One of the many beauties of the Church is that it gives us these things, it builds this rhythm into our life.
What it comes down to is this. Maybe Christ is asking us to make a more concerted effort to follow him. Maybe this won’t happen accidentally, but through our dedication to it. And maybe there is a greater joy, a greater happiness, a more real and authentic experience of faith waiting for you as you enter through this narrow gate.