Monday, August 22, 2016

Discipline to win at the highest level

Homily: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          You know, Fr. Clayton and I talked about making a bet about who would preach about the Olympics first.  We didn’t actually make a bet, but I feel pretty good that we both made it to the last day of the Olympics without preaching about it!  That, of course, is all going to end right now…
          I will admit that I am little more than a casual watcher of the Olympics.  I don’t have any particular Olympic sport that I follow, nor am I really rabid about seeing the USA win as many events as possible.  I enjoy what I watch; but, in general, I don’t feel a great need to watch.
          One of the reasons why I watch, however, is to marvel at the level of athleticism that these Olympic athletes have achieved.  Some of them (like many of the female gymnasts) are barely freshmen in high school, yet here they are performing incredible athletic feats, seemingly with ease!  Just thinking about what it would be like to do even 1% of what they do makes me realize just how much hard work must go into performing at the level that is necessary to compete at the Olympic Games.
          Because of the live coverage and because there are often long breaks in between events, the networks will pre-record segments documenting the backstory for some of the more popular athletes (or, perhaps, the athletes who have a unique story to tell).  These are great because you see just how many sacrifices both the athletes and their families and communities make so that this one person can compete on the world stage.  One of the things that I find most interesting is that the word that the athletes will most often use when describing their training and preparation is “discipline”.
          The word “discipline”, for most of us, probably connotes something negative: that is, being punished for something that you did wrong.  Discipline, therefore, is a corrective: suffering imposed on someone in order to correct an improper behavior.  For example, you discipline a child for coloring on the living room walls.  In other words, you make them feel bad in order to teach them that it is bad to color on the walls.
          Now, I’ve just touched on something that, I hope, will help us see that “discipline” is something more than just punishment.  You see, “discipline” shares the same root word as the word “disciple”; and what is a “disciple” but someone who learns from a master and tries to follow the master’s ways.  In other words, a “disciple” is one who learns and then applies that learning to his or her life.  “Discipline”, therefore, looked at in this way, is more than “punishment”; rather it is “teaching”.  And so “discipline” for Olympic athletes is not just a punishment that must be endured, but a way of teaching themselves how to achieve the level of skill that they will need in order to compete at the level of the Olympics.  Thus, almost every one of them will say that “you need a lot of discipline to compete at this level”; and we all hear that and say, “You’re right” (which is probably followed by a thought “and I don’t have it!”).
          In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is passing through towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem and somewhere along the way a man approaches him and asks this very sincere question: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”  Jesus, being who he is, is able to hear the “question behind the question” that the man is asking and his response reveals what that question might have been: “Lord, is it possible that I can be saved?”  And how does Jesus answer this question?  He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”  Now we don’t need to know what “narrow gate” Jesus is talking about: rather, it is enough to imagine a narrow gate that is difficult to get through and, thus, what it would take to squeeze through it.
          The word “strive”, itself, is heavy with meaning, because the Greek word that Luke, the Gospel writer, used is the same word from which we get the verb “to agonize”.  So, in a sense, Jesus is telling this man “to agonize to enter through the narrow gate”.  “Agony” is another word that has negative connotations.  “To agonize over” something is to suffer something unpleasant: for example, indecision at not knowing the correct choice to make in order to achieve something important.  Nevertheless, that “agonizing” often leads to a decision; and thus the suffering produced by the agony turns into a “discipline” that helps one achieve his or her goal.  Thus to strive—to agonize—to enter through the narrow gate is also to discipline yourself to enter through the narrow gate; thus, we see that Jesus was not talking only about exerting raw energy in your effort, but that he was also talking about disciplining yourself so that you can enter through the narrow gate: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter” Jesus said “but will not be strong enough.” /// “Lord, will only a few be saved?” the man asks…  “That depends” Jesus seems to say “on how many people truly strive for it.”
          Thus, we can see that making it to the Olympics and making it to heaven are not dissimilar things: both require discipline and effort.  There is one extremely important difference, however—a difference that makes the one nearly impossible for any of us to achieve and the other very possible for all of us to achieve—and that is this: in the Olympics you’re judged by your performance, whereas in salvation, you’re judged by your effort.  None of us would question that each athlete in the Olympics is putting forth his or her maximum effort towards “entering the narrow gate” and winning a gold medal.  Yet, only one athlete wins a gold medal, because his or her performance was better than all of the others.  Salvation does not depend on the perfection of our performance, however; rather it depends on whether or not we’ve given our maximum effort.
          Thus Jesus says “strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”  “Strive”—discipline yourself—make yourself strong so that you can give the maximum effort, because that is what it will take to enter through the narrow gate.  This, my brothers and sisters, is what we do when we pray daily, when we study the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, when we live the sacramental life (meaning primarily: regular confession and weekly participation in the Eucharist), and when we serve others through the works of mercy.  These disciplines are what prepare us to enter through the narrow gate.
          Those who are not strong enough are those who give up on one or more of these disciplines, believing that because they “know Jesus” that they will still be saved.  Jesus, however, disagrees.  Those who have given up on these disciplines, even though they know Jesus, will be like those locked out of the master’s house after he has locked the door and who cry out to the master who then replies “I do not know where you are from”.  We must know the master, yes, but we must also strive to enter; because once the door is locked it won’t be reopened.
          My brothers and sisters, it is a beautiful mercy of God that he does not expect perfection of us so that we can be saved.  Although his justice requires perfection, his mercy takes into account the effort that we put forth towards achieving it and, thus, he welcomes us, in spite of our flawed performances.  Therefore, taking the achievements of our Olympic athletes as our inspiration, let us rededicate ourselves to those disciplines of prayer, study, celebrating the sacraments, and doing the works of mercy so that the glory we achieve will be the kind that never fades, the glory of entering through the narrow gate to be seated at our master’s eternal wedding feast: the foretaste of which we enjoy even now, here in this Eucharist.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 21st, 2016

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