22nd Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 20:7–9; Romans 12:1–2; Matthew 16:21–27
Skinny Eugene Crosses often turnout to be blessings in disguise.
If your name was Eugene Orowitz, you’d better have something going for you. With a name like that you need to have something going for you.
Unfortunately, the real Eugene Orowitz didn’t have anything going for him. He was a skinny, 100-pound sophomore at Collingswood High in Collingswood, N.J.
One afternoon the gym coach held classes in the middle of the track infield. He wanted to show the kids how to throw a javelin.
After the coach finished his instruction, he let the kids try their hand at it. One by one, they threw a six-foot-long spear. The longest throw was 30 yards.
When everyone but Eugene had tried, the coach looked over at him and said, You want to try to throw it too, Orowitz? Eugene nodded. Well, go ahead, he said impatiently.
The other kids laughed at Eugene. Hey, Ugly, can you lift it? someone shouted. Careful! You’ll stab yourself, shouted another.
A strange feeling came over Eugene as he stood there holding the long spear. He pictured himself as a young warrior about to battle the enemy. He raised the javelin over his head, took six quick steps, and let it fly. It soared 20, 30, 40, 50 yards. Then it crashed into the empty bleachers. Eugene’s throw went twice as far as the others.
When Eugene retrieved the javelin, he saw the tip had broken as a result of its crash against the bleachers.
The coach looked at it and said, What the heck, Orowitz, you broke the thing. You might as well take it home with you. It’s no good to the school any longer.
That summer Eugene began throwing the javelin in a vacant lot. Some days he spent six hours throwing it. By the end of his senior year, Eugene threw the javelin 211 feet farther than any other high schooler in the nation.
Eugene was given an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. He began dreaming of the Olympics. Then one day he didn’t warm up properly, and he tore the ligaments in his shoulder. That put an end to javelin throwing, his scholarship, and his dreams.
All his hard work went down the drain. It was as if God had slapped him in the face after he had performed a minor miracle with his puny 100-pound body. Eugene dropped out of college and took a job in a warehouse.
The tragic story of Eugene Orowitz raises a vexing question. Why does God let misfortune wreck the lives of so many good people? Why does he let suffering bring tears to the eyes of so many fine individuals? For example, why did God let a good man like Jeremiah be ridiculed, as we saw in the first reading? Why did God let tragedy tear the prize from the hand of Eugene Orowitz, after he had worked so hard to win it?
Perhaps you saw the musical South Pacific. Or maybe you recall its show-stopping song, “Some Enchanted Evening.” Referring to the mystery of love, the song says that fools can give the reasons, but wise men don’t even try.
The same is true of the mystery of suffering: Fools can give the reasons, but wise men don’t even try.
But, being a fool, let me suggest one reason. Jesus hints at it in today’s gospel when he says, Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What Jesus is saying is incredible, even insane, to someone who doesn’t have faith. He is saying, in effect, Whoever accepts suffering and misfortune for my sake will find a whole new life. And it will not be only in a world to come. It will be right here in this world, as well. And Jesus suggests it will be a far richer life than the one lost by tragedy.
In other words, God can use tragedy to guide people into newer and better lives. Take the case of Eugene Orowitz. We left him working in a warehouse.
One day he met a struggling actor who asked him to help him with his lines. Eugene got interested in acting himself and enrolled in an acting school. His big break came when he was cast as Little Joe Cartwright in “Bonanza.” That show ran on TV for 14 years. Later he got the lead in another long-run TV show, “Little House on the Prairie.”
You guessed it, Eugene Orowitz became Michael Landon. And Michael Landon often said the best thing that ever happened to him was the day he tore ligaments in his shoulder. What seemed an incredible tragedy turned out to be an incredible blessing. It guided him into a new life that surpassed, by far, the dreams of his old life.
How do we apply this to our own lives?
If we are a young person who dreamed of making the basketball team but got cut, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He can lead us to a far richer life, as he did Michael Landon.
If we are an older person who dreamed of being a success in business, of having the world’s greatest family, or of having the world’s greatest marriage, but ended up having none of these, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He can mend our broken dreams and lead us to a renewed appreciation of life that we never dreamed possible.
All this, however, still doesn’t explain the mystery of misfortune. In the end, all we may be able to do when it strikes is trust in Jesus who says, Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
We may never understand the mystery of misfortune in this world, but this is certain. We will understand it in heaven.
There’s an old poem by an unknown author. It’s called “The Folded Page.” Here’s a paraphrase of it:
Up in the attic of an old house, as raindrops pattered down on the roof, I sat paging through my old schoolbook.
I came to a page that was folded down. Across it was written in my own childish hand: “The teacher says we should leave this for now. It’s too hard to understand.”
I unfolded the page and read it. Then I smiled and nodded my head and said, “The teacher was right; now I understand.”
There are many pages in the book of life that are hard to understand. All we can do is fold them down and write, “The Master says to leave this for now. It’s too hard to understand.”
Then, someday in heaven, we’ll unfold the pages, reread them, and say, “The Master was right; now I understand.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Series II 22nd Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 20:7–9; Romans 12:1–2; Matthew 16:21–27
Marc Chagall If we pick up our cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, he will lead us to life. Some art critics call Marc Chagall the greatest artist of the 20th century. He worked in practically every medium. And his work is found in cathedrals, opera houses, and synagogues from New York to Paris.
In his autobiography, Chagall tells how he grew up in a poor Jewish family of ten in a small town in Russia.
His interest in art was aroused one day as he watched a classmate copy a picture from a magazine.
Shortly afterward, when his mother was baking bread, he touched her flour-smeared elbow and said, “Mama, I want to be an artist someday.”
His dream eventually took him to Paris, where he won worldwide acclaim.
Chagall never forgot the poverty of his youth. In fact, he was grateful for it. He maintained to the end that it was one of the things that gave his work its delicate beauty and sensitivity.
The story of Marc Chagall illustrates three important points in today’s readings.
The first point is that the cross will always be a part of life.
For Chagall, that cross was being born poor. For some of us, it’s being born handicapped. For others of us, it’s some tragedy, such as suffering the death of a loved one. For still others, it’s suffering rejection by someone with whom we have spent a big part of our life.
Regardless of who we are, the shadow of the cross is never far from us. Plan as we may, try as we may, the shadow of the cross will fall on all of us at some point in our life. Even Jesus, the only Son of God, was not spared the cross in his life.
And so the first point in today’s readings is that the cross will always be a part of life. This brings us to the second point.
When it comes to the cross in our life, we have the choice either to accept it or to reject it.
Either we can pick up our cross and carry it, or we can turn away from it and refuse to carry it.
Marc Chagall accepted his cross of poverty. He did not turn away from it. He did what Jesus says to do in today’s gospel. He picked up his cross and carried it.
People born with a handicap, or people suffering from a tragedy in life, have the same choice that Chagall had.
Either they can accept their situation, or they can reject it. Either they can pick up their cross and carry it, or they can turn away from it and refuse to carry it.
They have the same choice that Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane. Either they can drink the cup of suffering that has been poured out for them, or they can refuse to drink it. Of course, this is not easy. Even Jesus, the Son of God, flinched at the thought of carrying his cross. He flinched at the thought of drinking the cup of suffering that had been poured out for him, saying, “Father, if you will, take this cup of suffering away from me.” Luke 22:42 But then he quickly added, “Not my will, however, but your will be done.”
And so the second point in today’s readings is this: We have a choice either to accept the cross in our life or to reject it. Either we can pick it up and carry it, or we can turn away from it and refuse to carry it.
This brings us to the third and most important part.
In today’s gospel, Jesus promises that if we pick up our cross and follow in his footsteps, he will lead us to life.
And the life Jesus promises is not only life eternal in the next world but also life, right now, in this world.
That’s the same point that the story of Marc Chagall makes. Chagall accepted his poverty and did not let it embitter or destroy him. As a result, that poverty gave to his art its unique sensitivity and beauty.
Without the experience of poverty, Chagall would have been just another artist. Far from being a cross or a stumbling block, poverty was for Chagall a blessing and a stepping-stone to greater things.
The same can be true for us.
If we pick up our cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, as Chagall did, our cross can also become a blessing and a stepping-stone to greater things.
Rather than serve as an agent of death for us, our cross can serve as an agent of life, just as the cross of Jesus served as an agent of life for all the world.
And so the message of today’s readings comes down to these three points.
First, the cross will always be a part of life. Try as we may to avoid it, the shadow of the cross will touch all of us at some time in our life.
Second, when it comes to the cross, each of us has a choice. Either we can turn away from it and refuse to carry it, or we can pick it up and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus promises us that if we pick up our cross and follow him, he will lead us to life not only to everlasting life in the next world but also to fullness of life in this world.
This is the promise of Jesus himself. This is the word of the Lord. This is the good news that we have come together to celebrate today.
Let’s close with a moving testimony to the truth of Jesus’ promise that he will give life to those who pick up their cross and follow him. This prayer, written in the form of a poem, was found in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier: I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. . . .
I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. . . .
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. . . .
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. . . .
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.
Series III 22nd Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 20:7–9; Romans 12:1–2; Matthew 16:21–27
Life’s purpose If you lose your life for my sake you will find it.
Will you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life. Matthew 16:26
At about 3 o’clock on the morning of August 17, 1999, one of the worst earthquakes occurred in the history of Turkey. It leveled hundreds of buildings and killed thousands of people.
When the earthquake hit, a 40-year-old Turkish accountant, Yuksel Er, was just returning from his bathroom on the third floor of a six-floor apartment building.
Suddenly, everything began flying apart. He felt himself spinning and being sucked downward in a cascade of falling debris. For the next 45 seconds a deafening roar filled his ears.
Then, just as suddenly, there was a ghostly silence.
When Yuksel regained consciousness, he found himself trapped in total darkness under debris.
It was a space so small that he could neither sit up nor roll over. All he could do was lie there.
On top of him and all around him was the six-floor apartment building in complete collapse. The thought came to him that the world was coming to an end. But then he heard muffled voices in the distance and he realized it was something else.
For the next four days, he had nothing to eat or drink. He spent the time praying to God, thinking about life, and wondering what life after death was like.
At first, he shouted to attract attention. But he quickly gave this up in order to conserve energy.
His thoughts turned to his family and, especially, to his own 13-year-old son, whom he had scolded angrily, just hours before the quake because he was monopolizing the family computer.
Then on the fourth day, about one o’clock in the morning, he heard familiar voices. Within minutes, he recognized them as the voices of his cousin and of his 13-year-old son. They were digging him out. When his son pulled him free of the debris, the first thing he said was, “Dad, I’ll never make you angry again.” Yuksel replied, “It doesn’t matter now, because now everything will be different.”
Later, from a hospital bed, Yuksel told his family and friends: “This is the beginning of my second life. I’m going to try to make the most of it.” Then he began to cry. It was like the cry of a newborn baby, emerging from its mother’s womb.
Before the quake, Yuksel lived by priorities and goals not much different from our own. After his experience, they changed dramatically.
This brings us to today’s Gospel. There we find Jesus saying, “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.”
There we also find Jesus warning his disciples about about the folly of gaining the world, but losing the most important thing of all: eternal life in the world to come.
Finally, there we find Jesus saying: “The Son will reward each one according to his deeds.” Let’s return to the story of Yuksel. What began as an enormous cross ended up as an enormous blessing.
It taught him and motivated him to live the remaining time allotted to him in a way in tune with God and with the thinking of God, rather than that of Satan.
Just as the earthquake turned Yuksel’s life upside down, so today’s Gospel is intended to have a similar effect on us at least for some of us. Perhaps, like Peter, our way of thinking about life has become dangerously closer to being more in harmony with the thinking of the ways of Satan, rather than the ways of God.
Perhaps, like Peter, we are losing sight of our purpose of life. It is not to live totally for pleasure and avoid as many crosses as possible.
Rather, it is to live it in such a way so as to merit the reward of eternal life. It’s about living our few years in this life in a way that will reap for us the reward of eternal life in the next life.
More concretely, it’s about picking up our crosses daily and accepting them in the same spirit that Jesus accepted his own cross.
And here’s the remarkable part. Once we begin living as Jesus taught us to live, we will discover what Yuksel did. It will turn everything upside down, and, suddenly, what seemed to be an enormous cross, will turn out to be in the light of this world and the next world an enormous blessing.
Let’s close with a story that illustrates what we have been trying to say:
Some years ago, Gene Stallings coached the University of Alabama to a 22-game winning streak and a number-two rating in college football. But it was not this event—but another one that had the greatest impact on his life. It was the birth of his son, Johnny.
When the doctor told Stallings that Johnny had Down’s syndrome and would probably not live beyond the age of four, Stallings fainted.
Thirty years later Johnny still had Down’s syndrome and was still living. Describing the impact Johnny has had on his life, Stallings said:
“He’s special! All his love is unconditional. He doesn’t keep score. He’s totally unselfish.”
On many, many occasions, Stallings has said that if he could reverse things and start over with a child who didn’t have Down’s syndrome, he would not do it. “I feel very blessed,” he says.
What Stallings thought would be an enormous cross in his life turned out to be an enormous blessing both in the light of this world and, even more so, in the light of eternity.
This is the Good News of today’s Gospel. This is the Good News that we celebrate in this liturgy.
It is the Good News that picking up our cross and following Jesus may turn our life upside down. But it will bring a peace and blessing we could never imagine or hope for or even imagined.