24th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 50:4–9; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35
Bitter or Better? “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor the person perfected without trials.” Confucius
In a book called This I Believe there’s a series of essays by famous people. They describe episodes from their lives that affected them deeply.
For example James Du Pont of the Du Pont Company recalls an episode that happened to him when he was seven years old.
One midnight he awoke out of a dead sleep. His mother was sobbing loudly. It was the first time he’d ever heard her cry. He describes the incident this way:
“My dad’s voice was low and troubled as he tried to comfort mother—and in their anguish they both forgot about the nearness of my bedroom. I overheard them.”
Then he adds:
“While their problem . . . has long since been solved and forgotten, the big discovery I made that night is still right with me.”
Du Pont’s discover was this: “Life is not all hearts and flowers. It’s hard and cruel . . . much of the time.”
I’m sure all of us can relate to that seven-year-old boy lying in bed, listening to mother cry.
We too remember hearing our mother cry. We too remember the impact it had on us. We too remember how it made us aware, perhaps for the first time, that life is not all hearts and flowers. It’s sometimes cruel and hard.
And so we can relate to the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, when he says,
“If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.”
In other words, suffering and sorrow are like hurricanes and floods. They are a part of life. There’s no way we can escape them.
But then Jesus goes on to say something remarkable. He says, “If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.” Mark 8:35
In other words, Jesus says the important thing in life isn’t the sorrow and suffering that befall us. The important thing is how we respond to them. The important thing is what we do about them.
Maybe we can’t avoid sorrow and suffering, but we can do something with them. We can turn them into something constructive, not destructive. We can turn them into something that is life-giving, not death-dealing. We can turn them into something that makes us better, not bitter.
Let me illustrate.
Take the case of Eugene O’Neill. Until the age of 25, O’Neill was a failure. His life was without purpose, without discipline, without direction.
Then one day he took seriously ill and was taken to a hospital. It was during his long stay in the hospital that he got a chance to do something he had never done before. He got a chance to think about his life and where it was headed. It was also in the hospital that he discovered that he had a talent for writing plays.
Eventually Eugene O’Neill recovered, took up a writing career, and went on to revolutionalize American drama. It all happened because O’Neill reacted to sorrow and suffering in a constructive way. He responded to them in a life-giving way. Take also the case of Golda Meir. As a young person, Golda Meir felt depressed because she was not beautiful. She wrote:
“It was only much later that I realized that not being beautiful was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to develop inner resources. I came to understand that women who can’t lean on their beauty . . . [have to work hard and, therefore,] have the advantage.”
In other words, Golda Meir accepted her cross. She didn’t cry out against it. She didn’t fret over it or resent it. She acknowledged it, picked it up, and carried it courageously.
Golda Meir went on to become the first woman prime minister of Israel.
Finally, take the case of Oscar Wilde. At the height of his writing career, he was convicted of a morals charge. After he returned from prison, he could no longer write superficial comedies. He no longer had a heart for the frivolous.
Wilde wrote, in what has to be one of the most beautiful lines of poetry ever written, “Where sorrow is, there is holy ground.” And in another beautiful line, he wrote, “How else but through the broken heart May the Lord Christ enter in?”
Oscar Wilde used his humiliating experience as an occasion to grow and become better. In the spirit of today’s gospel, he turned it into an experience that was life-giving, not death-dealing.
The stories of Eugene O’Neill, Golda Meir, and Oscar Wilde illustrate that the important thing in life is not the sorrow and suffering that befall us. The important thing is how we respond to them.
If we refuse to accept sorrow and suffering, if we refuse to pick up these crosses and carry them, we end up losing our life.
On the other hand, if we pick them up and carry them courageously, as Jesus did, we can turn them into something positive. We can turn them into something life-giving, just as Eugene O’Neill, Golda Meir, and Oscar Wilde did.
And so, by way of summary, like the seven-year-old in our opening story, sooner or later we discover that life is not all hearts and flowers. It’s often cruel and hard.
But we discover something else. Sooner or later we also discover that sorrow and suffering are not necessarily death-dealing. Thanks to Jesus and the Gospel, they can be life-giving.
God often uses sorrow and suffering to fashion us into better people—warmer people, humbler people, more compassionate people, more understanding people.
Sorrow and suffering can open our eyes to a richer, more beautiful life than we ever dreamed possible.
The poet Robert Browning Hamilton sums up the spirit of today’s gospel in these words:
“I walked a mile with Pleasure, She chattered all the way, But left me none the wiser For all she had to say.
“I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she; But, oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me!” “Along the Road”
Series II 24th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 50:4–9; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35
God Knows Best “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’
Jewish tradition preserves a story about Rabbi Asher. He lived in Europe in medieval times.
During that period in history, hoards of barbarians roamed Europe. They attacked caravans. And sometimes they attacked whole villages, killing the villagers and making off with their cattle and valuables.
One day Rabbi Asher had to make a long journey, traveling by himself. He knew it would be dangerous, but he had no choice. So he set out, taking with him only three things: a rooster, a donkey, and a small oil lamp.
The rabbi took the rooster to wake him up each morning because he was a notoriously heavy sleeper. He took the donkey because the roads were bad and he might fall, hurt himself, and need the donkey to carry him. Finally, he took the oil lamp so that he could read the Bible each night before he retired.
One evening the rabbi came to a village, hoping to stay there for the night. But the villagers were suspicious of him and drove him away. The rabbi didn’t become angry. He simply said to himself, “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’ And so the rabbi camped out under the stars near a stream outside the village. There he lit his lamp to read his Bible before retiring. But the wind kept blowing out the lamp. The rabbi finally gave up and said to himself, “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’
About midnight the rabbi woke with a start. He discovered that a thief had stolen his donkey. He also discovered that a wild animal had killed his rooster. The rabbi did not grow angry. He simply said to himself, “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’
The next day the rabbi learned that during the night a band of barbarians had attacked the village, killed the villagers, and taken their cattle and valuables. Had the rabbi stayed in the village, the barbarians would have killed him too.
The rabbi also learned that the barbarians had come to the stream looking for travelers. Had they seen him reading by his lamp or heard his rooster crow or his donkey bray, they would have killed him and taken what little he had.
That night when the rabbi knelt to say his prayers, he looked up to heaven and said, “Lord, you know best; you always have your reasons.’’
That story is still told and retold by Jews. It reminds them of something they tend to forget.
It reminds them that they should look upon everything with the eyes of faith. It reminds them of what Rabbi Asher said: “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’ This is especially true of the kind of pain and suffering that Isaiah talks about in today’s first reading. And it’s also true of the kind of pain and suffering that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel.
The greatest act of faith that we can make is to say to God, “I don’t know the reason for the cross
that you sent me, but I will pick it up and carry it anyway, simply because your Son, Jesus, said I should.’’
Almost anyone can carry a cross if he or she can see the reason for it. But it takes people of great love and faith to carry a cross if they can’t see the reason for it.
It takes people of great love and faith to pick up a cross and to say what Rabbi Asher said: “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’
Years ago a young man was studying for the priesthood at St. Mary’s of the Lake Seminary in Chicago. A year before ordination he contracted a fatal disease. Shortly before his death he wrote to a friend:
“Every so often we have showdowns in our lives by which we are challenged . . . to grow in our faith or to lose it. I feel that this experience is that kind of a challenge. . . . If we really are the Christians we claim to be, we have to believe that every part of our lives has value, including an illness like this.’’
That young man was living by faith. He was doing what Jesus said to do. He was picking up his cross and carrying it.
He was living by faith, in the finest sense of the word. He was saying that everything happens for a purpose. He was saying what the rabbi said: “God knows best; he always has his reasons.’’
Suffering and sorrow are like birth and death. They are a part of life. There’s no way we can escape them. They will seek us out and find us, no matter who we are or where we go.
The important thing isn’t the suffering and sorrow that come our way.
The important thing is how we respond to them. The important thing is how we accept them. The important thing is how we use them.
We can’t avoid suffering and sorrow, but with God’s help we can use them. We can turn them into something that is constructive, not destructive. We can turn them into something that is life-giving, not death-dealing. We can turn them into something that will draw us closer to God instead of driving us farther away.
Today’s gospel reading is a call to faith.
It’s a call to do what Jesus himself did. It’s a call to do what Rabbi Asher did. It’s a call to do what the young seminarian did. It’s a call to pick up our cross and carry it.
And if we do this, if we heed this call, we will discover what Jesus did, we will discover what Rabbi Asher did, and we will discover what the seminarian did. We will discover that the reverse side of every cross contains a blessing far greater than the cross itself.
This is the mystery we celebrate in this liturgy. This is the good news that Jesus wishes to share with us today.
Let’s close with Paul’s words to the Romans. They speak of suffering and sorrow in a faith way. Paul writes, “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him.” Romans 8:28
And again, he writes, “Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times. . . . Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.” Romans 12:12, 21
Finally, he writes, “I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18
Series III 24th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 50:5–9a, James 2:14–18, Mark 8:27–35
Jesus How do I experience Jesus; how does Jesus experience me?
Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” Mark 8:27
Keith Miller was a Texas businessman who underwent a conversion from being a nominal Christian to being a deeply committed Christian. He describes it in his book A Taste of New Wine.
The seed of the conversion was planted in his first year in college, when he had a serious car accident on a remote stretch of highway. He lay by the side of the road for a full hour and a half with a broken neck, waiting for an ambulance. He writes:
I remember lying beside the highway and praying very simply. I was very much awake. As I prayed I had a strange feeling of peace. . . . I thought to myself, “What a shame to find out so late in life that this kind of peace is a reality.”
Like so many things that begin as tragedies or crosses in life, that accident eventually became a great blessing for Keith. He writes: I realized at that moment that even in this tragedy which might be the end of my life there was Something very personal, very real, which was more important than anything else I had ever known.
Once Keith recovered, however, he resumed life pretty much the way it was before his roadside experience. But the seed had been planted and was germinating.
Some years after graduation from college, the seed began to sprout. Keith’s job took him regularly across a long stretch of Texas desert. He writes:
I came to love the silence, the stillness, and the vastness very much. I became fascinated by the changes in the desert. . . .
The magnificent sunsets hinted at something wonderful and very real beyond the horizon. . . .
I began to sense something of the majesty of God in the world. There awoke in me a realization that I must somehow learn more about God and find out about Jesus Christ. . . .
This restlessness grew until one night at home in the middle of the night I woke up my wife and said, “Honey, I’ve got to go back to school to find out about God and [Jesus Christ].” A Taste of New Wine
To make a long story short, these two episodes launched Keith on a journey that led to a conversion that profoundly enriched not only his life but also the lives of many others.
Two points stand out in his story. They are the very same two points that stand out in today’s Gospel.
The first is the importance of answering the question Jesus put to Peter: “Who do you say I am?” Mark 8:29 It’s a question that everyone who has read or heard about Jesus must answer.
Another way to put this same question is, How do I experience Jesus in my life? For example, do I experience him as Keith did as he lay by the side of the highway?
Do I experience him as someone very personal and very real, more real and more important than anything or anyone I have ever known? If not, how do I experience Jesus?
And so the first point in today’s Gospel is the importance of answering the most important question of our lives: Who is Jesus?
The second point the Gospel makes is—in some sense—equally important.
If I answer the first question as Peter and Keith did, what is my answer to the second question, namely, Am I willing to pay the price it will cost me to follow Jesus? Jesus put it this way:
“If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me. For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it. Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life?” Mark 8:34–36
In other words, how willing am I to step out in faith, as Keith Miller did? How willing am I to pay whatever price it might cost me to get to know Jesus better? How willing am I to pick up my cross and follow Jesus every day of the week—and not just on Sundays?
To put the second point in another way: How does Jesus experience me?
Does he experience me the way he experienced Keith: as someone who truly wants to follow him? In other words, does Jesus experience me as a follower?
Or does Jesus experience me only as an admirer or fan? Does he experience me only as someone who sits on the curb and applauds as he stumbles by carrying his cross alone?
These are the two important questions the Gospel puts before each of us today: How do I experience Jesus? and How does Jesus experience me?
No one can answer these two questions for us. We must answer them ourselves.
And the way we answer them will make all the difference in the world. By that we mean that—as in the case of Peter and of Keith Miller—our answer will profoundly affect not only our lives but also the lives of those around us, especially our families.
This is the challenge Jesus sets before each one of us in today’s Gospel.
Let us close with a reflection by James Carroll in his book Prayer from Where You Are.
It sums up in ordinary terms the challenge of today’s Gospel and goes something like this:
Years ago, before the advent of television, every Sunday newspaper carried a large puzzle page.
A favorite puzzle was the drawing of a scene—like a family picnic.
Under it were the words: “Can you find the hidden person in this scene?”
You look and look and see nothing. You rotate the paper this way and that way to get a different view. Still nothing! Then, suddenly, in a cloud you see an eye. Then in a tree branch you see a mouth. Eventually, you see the entire face.
It is that way in our own lives. We Christians know, by faith, that there’s a man hidden away in every scene of our lives. And that man’s name is Jesus.
Once we find him and meet him up close and personal, no scene in life will ever be the same again. It will always be special.