13th Sunday of the Year 1 Kings 19:16, 19–21; Galatians 5:1, 13–18; Luke 9:51–62
The man who wouldn’t look back The secret of not looking back is keeping our eyes on Jesus.
Eric Liddell was England’s fastest 100-meter runner in 1924. Everyone expected him to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Paris that year. But then came the bombshell.
When the Olympic schedule came out, the 100-meter event was slated to be run on Sunday. Eric’s strict interpretation of keeping the Lord’s Day holy did not permit him to run on Sundays. He was crestfallen.
When word got around that Eric would not run the 100-meter race, incredible pressure was put upon him. Even the Prince of Wales tried to get him to violate his conscience. When Eric absolutely refused, English newspapers called him a traitor. But Eric still refused to go against his beliefs.
Eric met with his coaches and suggested that a teammate run in his place in the 100-meter dash. He would then enter the 400-meter dash, even though he had never run this race in his entire life.
To make a long story short, not only did Eric win the gold medal in the 400-meter event, but his teammate also won the gold medal in the 100-meter event. Instead of winning just one gold medal, the English runners won two.
Afew years after the Olympics, Eric surprised the world by going to China as a missionary. Later the girl he loved joined him. They married and had three lovely children.
Then came World War II.
When Japan entered the war, Eric sent his wife and children to Canada. Shortly afterward, Japan invaded China. Eric was arrested and put into a Japanese concentration camp. There he continued his ministry, working with the other prisoners.
A few years later Eric Liddell died a heroic death in the camp.
After his death, his wife began receiving scores of letters describing Eric’s heroism in the camp. In separate letters two people told her that Eric was the only reason they didn’t commit suicide.
In 1980 someone got the idea to make a movie about Eric and the 1924 Olympics. When she heard about it, Eric’s wife, who was still living in Toronto at the time, said, “Who’d be interested in an event so long ago about a man who wouldn’t run on Sundays because of his Christian beliefs?’’
As it turned out, millions of people were tremendously interested. The movie, called Chariots of Fire, not only broke box office records but also won the 1982 Academy Award.
The story of Eric Liddell illustrates the positive side of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says: “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.”
Eric Liddell never looked back. Once he decided to follow Jesus, he kept looking forward. He never looked back, even in the face of tremendous public pressure. He never looked back, even in the face of being called a traitor to his country.
What was the secret behind Eric’s courage never to look back?
What was the secret behind his loyalty to Jesus, even in the face of overwhelming opposition?
The secret lies in a remark Eric’s widow made in an interview with the Toronto Star. Describing Eric, she said, “He always spent the first and very early hour of every day in Bible reading, prayer, and planning his day.’’
Here we have the secret behind Eric’s courage. Here we have the secret behind his loyalty to Jesus. Eric Liddell was a man of prayer. He was able to keep his hand to the plow and not look back because he met Jesus each morning in prayer.
In 1982, the same year Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award, an article appeared in the Reader’s Digest. It was about a Catholic advertising executive. In spite of her successful career, she felt an emptiness in her life.
One morning, during a breakfast meeting with her marketing consultant, she mentioned that emptiness. “Do you want to fill it?’’ her colleague asked. “Of course I do,’’ she said. He looked at her and replied, “Then start each day with an hour of prayer.’’
She looked at him and said, “Don, you’ve got to be kidding. If I tried that, I’d go off my rocker.’’ Her friend smiled and said, “That’s exactly what I said 20 years ago.’’ Then he said something else that really made her think. He said, “You’re trying to fit God into your life. Instead, you should be trying to fit your life around God.’’
The woman left the restaurant in turmoil. Begin each morning with prayer? Begin each morning with an hour of prayer? Absolutely out of the question!
Yet, the next morning the woman found herself doing exactly that. And she’s been doing it ever since.
The woman is the first to admit that it has not always been easy. There have been mornings when she was filled with great peace and joy. But there have been other mornings when she was filled with nothing but weariness. And it was on these weary mornings that she remembered something else that her marketing consultant said:
“There will be times when your mind just won’t go into God’s sanctuary. That’s when you spend your hour in God’s waiting room. Still, you’re there, and God appreciates your struggle to stay there. What’s important is the commitment.’’
The story of Eric Liddell and the story of the advertising executive challenge each one of us here. We can’t listen to stories like these and not feel the call of an inner voice to do something similar in our own lives.
If we’re having trouble keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, if we’re having trouble keeping our hand to the plow and not looking back, if we’re experiencing an emptiness in our life, maybe we should seriously consider making some daily commitment to Jesus.
What should that commitment be? No one can answer that question for us. We must answer it ourselves. But we should do something. As the marketing consultant said, “What’s important is the commitment.’’
Let’s close with a familiar prayer: “Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for reward, except to know that I am doing your will.’’
Series II 13th Sunday of the Year 1 Kings 19:16, 19–21; Galatians 5:1, 13–18; Luke 9:51–62
Wizard of Oz “Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.’’ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Wizard of Oz is about a young girl who lives in Kansas. One day, in a dream, she is carried off to a strange land.
At first she enjoys exploring the new land.But then the excitement wears off, and she gets homesick for Kansas. She asks for directions on how to get back. But the people tell her that only the wizard knows the way back.
“How can I find the wizard?’’ she asks. The people tell her, “Just follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. There you’ll find the wizard living in a magic castle.’’
And so Dorothy sets off down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.
On her way she meets a scarecrow. He’s depressed because he has no brains and can’t think. Dorothy suggests that he come with her. “Surely the wizard will give you brains,’’ she says. The scarecrow is delighted and sets off with her down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.
Soon they meet a tin man. He’s depressed because he has no heart and can’t love. “Come along with us,’’ says Dorothy. “Surely the wizard will give you a heart!’’ So he joins Dorothy and the scarecrow. Soon the three travelers meet a lion. He’s depressed because he has no courageand can’t be brave as lions ought to be. The travelers suggest that he join them. The lion is delighted, and they all set off together.
After a difficult journey, they arrive at the Emerald City. They find the magic castle and go in to see the wizard.
Then comes the big disappointment. The wizard won’t grant their requests until they capture the magic broomstick of a wicked witch and bring it to him.
To make a long story short, in the process of capturing the broomstick, the scarecrow discovers to his surprise that he does have brains and can think. The tin man discovers to his surprise that he does have a heart and can love. And the lion discovers to his surprise that he does have courage and can be brave.
The wise old wizard had merely helped each of Dorothy’s three friends discover what they already had.
The story of the wizard of Oz bears some similarity to the story of Jesus in today’s gospel.
What the wizard does for Dorothy’s three friends is similar to what Jesus does for the three people who want to follow him.
Jesus helps them discover that they have the ability to follow him. What they lack, however, is the motivation and determination to do it. It is not their number-one priority.
In one of his essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.’’
It was this service that the wizard performed for Dorothy’s three friends.
And it was this service that Jesus performed for the three people who wanted to follow him.
The wizard showed Dorothy’s three friends that they had the ability to do what they wanted to do. Their problem was that they lacked the motivation to do it.
Similarly, Jesus made it clear that the three people who wanted to follow him had the ability to do it. What they lacked was the motivation to make it their number-one priority in life.
And this brings us to the application of today’s gospel to our own personal lives.
What the wizard did and what Jesus did, we must also do for others.
In the words of Emerson, we must help them do what they are capable of doing.
Concretely, what does this mean? Consider an example. Jo Jo Starbuck is a well-known American woman skater. She said that when she was a youngster, struggling with her skating,she often came home depressed because her coach had screamed at her.
It was on these occasions that her mother would lift her spirits and give her encouragement. Jo Jo says and I quote:
“I’d come home and cry and want to quit. But my mother would constantly build me up. She’d tell me how beautiful and talented I was even though I wasn’t by any means. She kept telling me until my batteries were recharged.’’
What Jo Jo’s mother did for her is what Emerson said we must do for one another.
We must help one another do what we are capable of doing. We must encourage and support one another.
And let me say something important here that we tend to forget.
Children are not the only ones who need encouragement and support. We all do not only the 6 year olds but also the 46 year olds. And sometimes the 46-year-olds need it more than the 6 year olds do. And sometimes men need it more than women do.
What author Jane Lindstrom said of children can be said about adults as well. She said and I quote again:
“Children crave spoken assurances of love and approval. Love locked in our hearts doesn’t reach them; it is like a letter written and not sent.If they are to become emotionally secure, they must hear [us say]: I love you. I am glad you’re here. A soft voice, friendly eyes, and gentle words will convey the message even to a baby.’’
And this is the message that Jesus wants us to make a part of our lives. This is the message that he wants us to carry into our homes and into our world. This is the message that we celebrate in this liturgy.
Let us close with this reflection by Stephen Grellet. It sums up what we have been trying to say.
“I shall pass through life but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’’
Series III 13th Sunday of the Year 1 Kings 19: 16, 19–21; Galatians 5:1, 13–18; Luke 9:51–62
Don’t look back A mystery is stirring in my heart to follow Jesus more closely.
Jesus said . . . , “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Bela Karolyi was a legendary gymnastics coach. He lived in Rumania in the days of Communism and developed such Olympic stars as gold medalist Nadia Comenici.
His fame and his celebrity status won him a host of government favors and gifts, such things as a Mercedes unheard of in Communist countries.
In spite of all of these favors and gifts, Karolyi was not at peace fronting for a country that repressed millions of people.
He was one of the lucky ones, but did that give him a right to ignore the plight of the unlucky ones and continue to favorably advertise his repressive country by winning athletic honors for it?
He spent many an hour pondering his situation and wondering what he could do to express his disapproval of a repressive regime. Then in 1981 Karolyi decided to turn his back on Communism and defect to the West.
When the “zero hour” for leaving came, he did not second-guess his decision.
He did not look back at his state favors, his Mercedes, and his celebrity status. He simply walked straight ahead, taking with him only a small suitcase.
The story of Bela Karoli brings to mind the story of the three men in today’s Gospel. All three saw in Jesus something that attracted them at a deep level.
They were so moved by what they saw that they decided to take the first step in a spiritual journey to a whole new life.
Unlike Bela Karoli, however, at the last minute they looked back over their shoulder and wavered in their decision. That brief glance over their shoulder ended their spiritual journey before it got started. It recalled an episode that took place in 1954.
In that year Roger Bannister of England broke the four-minute mile. John Landy of Australia broke it shortly afterward.
This set the stage for a dream race between the two runners. Landy led throughout the entire race.
As they headed down the final stretch, Landy glanced over his shoulder briefly to see how close Bannister was.
Bannister, who was a step off the pace, seized the opportunity and darted past Landy to win the race.
To paraphrase the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:
“Anyone who starts to run in a race and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.”
This raises an important question: How might Jesus’ words apply to me personally at this moment in my life?
Consider a few possibilities.
Perhaps, like the three men in the Gospel, I may feel a stirring in my heart to follow Jesus more closely. So I sign up to go on a weekend retreat.
Then the night before the retreat I second-guess my earlier decision and cancel out at the last minute.
Consider an example. An elderly woman was standing on a curb, waiting for the light to change.
On the opposite curb was a teenaged girl. The woman noticed that she was crying. When the light changed, each started to cross the street.
Just as they were about to meet, the woman’s motherly instincts came rushing to the surface. She felt the desire to comfort that girl. But, at the last minute, the woman passed the girl by. She didn’t even greet her.
Hours later, the woman was still haunted by the crying girl. Over and over she said to herself, “Why didn’t I follow through on my first impulse to reach out to the girl?
“Why didn’t I say to her, ‘Honey, can I help?’ Sure, she might have rejected me. But, so what!
“Only a minute would’ve been lost, but that minute would’ve let her know that someone cared. Instead, I passed her by as if she didn’t even exist.”
Now contrast that story with one which we saw earlier (cf. Eight Sunday of the Year, page 67).
It referred to a letter quoted in Psychology Today by Dr. Robert Healy.
In it he told about a young man who entered therapy after a dangerously close brush with suicide.
The young man was driving to a bridge with the intention of leaping to his death. He stopped for a traffic light and happened to glance toward the sidewalk.
There on the curb was an elderly lady who had just stepped off the curb to cross the street. As she passed him she gave him the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen. Then the light changed. As the young man continued on his way, the beautiful smile of that elderly lady haunted him. By the time he got to the bridge, he had experienced a complete change of heart.
He said later that he had no idea who that woman was. All he knows is that he owes his life to her.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that almost daily we are given an opportunity to follow Jesus more closely.
We are presented with an opportunity to impact the life of another in a positive way.
Today’s Gospel also reminds us that we can miss these opportunities just as the three men missed their opportunity.
And this is a tragedy, for it is an axiom of psychology that every time we have a feeling to do something good and fail to act on it, the less likely we are to act on such a feeling in the future.
As a result, both we and the one who would have benefitted from our act are the poorer for our failure.