21st Sunday of the Year
Joshua 24:1–2, 15–17, 18; Ephesians 5:21–32; John 6:60–69
When Darkness Comes
The way to survive in life is not to focus on our problems,
but to focus on Jesus.
ASoviet fishing boat was docked alongside an American Coast Guard cutter, just off the New England coast.
Inside the Soviet vessel, American and Russian officials
were trying to settle a long-standing dispute over fishing practices in the North Atlantic. The conference was going well.
That night, however, something unexpected threatened the talks. A sailor named Simas Kudirka leaped from the deck of the Soviet ship, across ten feet of water, to the deck of the American ship.
Kudirka pleaded with the Americans for political asylum.
But the U.S. commander refused, a decision for which his superiors later rebuked him.
The disillusioned sailor was handed back to Soviet authorities.
He was returned to Russia and sent to prison.
Kudirka’s imprisonment brought him face to face with despair. In the midst of his ordeal, another prisoner taught him the words to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, the British poet.
Kudirka said later that those words sustained him in the years ahead. An excerpt from the poem reads:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two imposters just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things
you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up
with worn-out tools . . .
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ . . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Time after time Kudirka recited those words,
and time after time they gave him the strength to hold on.
To make a long story short, Kudirka survived his imprisonment and is now a free man.
Kudirka attributes his survival to the spirit of Kipling’s poem. It gave him the strength to hold on when there was nothing in him except the will that said, “Hold on.”
That story dramatizes an important point found in today’s gospel. The point is this:
There are times in life when we are pushed to the wall.
There are times in life when we are ready to quit.
There are times in life when we need something to hold on to.
We see this in today’s gospel. The disciples of Jesus are pushed to the wall. Their faith in Jesus is challenged severely
by what Jesus said earlier about giving them his body to eat.
The disciples respond to the challenge in two ways.
One group finds Jesus’ words too hard to take. They part company with Jesus and no longer walk with him.
The second group meets the challenge successfully and remains faithful to Jesus.
Why did the first group fail the challenge and the second group succeed?
The gospel doesn’t really answer that question, but it does leave us a clue. It is this:
When Jesus asks the second group, “Would you also like to leave?” Peter answers for them, saying, “Lord, to whom would we go? You nave the words that give eternal life.
And now we believe and know that you are the Holy One who has come from God.”
When pushed to the wall, they kept their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. They didn’t get distracted by the problem posed by what Jesus said. When pushed to the wall,
they fell back on their personal faith in Jesus.
On the other hand, the group that failed did just the opposite.
They fixed all their attention on the problem:
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” John 6:52
In short, they took their eyes off Jesus.
The difference between fixing attention on Jesus and fixing attention on the problem stands out clearly in another episode involving Jesus and Peter.
One night when the Apostles were out on the lake, a great storm blew up. When it was at its peak, Jesus appeared, walking on the waves.
“[The Apostles] were terrified. It’s a ghost!” they said,
and screamed with fear. Jesus spoke to them at once. ‘Courage!’ he said. ‘It is I. Don’t be afraid!’
“Then Peter spoke up. ‘Lord, if it is really you,
order me to come out on the water to you.’
‘Come!’ answered Jesus. So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink. . . .
‘Save me, Lord!’ he cried.
“At once Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him and said,
‘What little faith you have! Why did you doubt?’” Matthew 14:26–31
The point is this: As long as Peter kept his eyes fixed on Jesus,
he was all right. But when he took his eyes off Jesus and began to focus on his problem, that’s when he began to sink.
This leads us to a practical conclusion.
We are all like Peter in the storm. There are times in life
when some storm threatens to destroy us. There are times in life when we find ourselves sinking, as Peter did.
When these times come—and they will—let’s not make the same mistake Peter made. Let’s not fix our attention on the storm, that is, on our problem. Rather, let’s fix our attention on Jesus, standing in the boat and encouraging us.
Or we may think of it in terms of today’s gospel,
when Jesus tells his disciples about Eucharist.
There’ll be times in life when our faith will be challenged too, as theirs was. We may even be tempted to part company with Jesus and walk with him no more.
When these times come, let’s not make the same mistake some of the disciples made.
Let’s not fix our attention on the problem.
Let’s fix our attention on the person: Jesus.
Let’s reaffirm our faith in Jesus, as Peter did, and say:
“Lord . . .
You have the words that give eternal life. . . .
We believe . . .
that you are the Holy One who has come from God.” John 6:68–69
21st Sunday of the Year
Joshua 24:1–2, 15–17, 18; Ephesians 5:21–32; John 6:60–69
Our commitments to others can have an impact far beyond anything
we ever dreamed of.
At the Olympic games in Paris in 1924, the sport of canoe racing was added to the list of international competitions for the first time.
The favorite team in the four-man canoe race was the United States team. One member of the U.S. team was a young man by the name of Bill Havens.
As the time for the Olympics neared, it became clear that Bill’s wife would give birth to their first child about the time that Bill would be competing in the Paris games.
In 1924 there were no jet airliners from Paris to the United States, only slow-moving, oceangoing ships.
And so Bill found himself in a dilemma. Should he go to Paris
and risk not being at his wife’s side when their first child was born? Or should he withdraw from the team and remain behind?
Bill’s wife insisted that he go to Paris. After all, he had been working toward this for all these years. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Clearly, the decision was not easy for Bill to make.
Finally, after much soul-searching,
Bill decided to withdraw from the competition and remain behind with his wife so that he could be with her when their first child arrived.
Bill considered being at her side a higher priority than going to Paris to fulfill a lifelong dream. To make a long story short,
the United States four-man canoe team won the gold medal at the Paris Olympics. And Bill’s wife was late in giving birth to her first child. She was so late that Bill could have competed in the event and returned home in time to be with his wife. People said, “What a shame!’’
But Bill said he had no regrets. After all, his commitment to his wife was more important then, and it still was now.
The story of Bill Havens is a story of how one man paid a high price to fulfill a commitment to someone he loved.
It makes an especially fitting introduction to today’s Scripture readings. For each of those three readings deals with the subject of commitment.
The first reading deals with the commitment of the people of Israel to God and the difficulty they found living it out.
The gospel reading deals with the commitment of the disciples to Jesus and the difficulty they had living it out.
Finally, the second reading deals with the commitment of two people in marriage and the difficulty they encountered living it out. And the story of Bill Havens fits in here best.
But Bill’s story does more than make a fitting introduction
to the subject of commitment. It reveals something important about commitment.
The temptation we most frequently face in our commitments
is not to break them or fail to fulfill them. Rather, it is the temptation not to live them out as fully as we could.
In other words, we keep our commitments but live them out only 50 to 70 percent, instead of 100 percent.
The story of Bill Havens is the story of a person who lived out his commitment 100 percent.
And that’s why the story of Bill Havens does more than just make a fitting introduction to today’s readings. It also inspires us to live out our commitments as generously as he lived out his.
There’s a sequel to the story of Bill Havens. And the sequel reveals a second important point about commitments.
The generosity with which we live out our commitments
will have a powerful impact not only on the one to whom we are committed but also on those around us—and often on people we don’t even know.
The child eventually born to Bill and his wife was a boy, whom they named Frank.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1952, Bill received a cablegram from Frank. It was sent from Helsinki, Finland,
where the 1952 Olympics were being held. The cablegram read, and I quote it exactly:
“Dad, I won. I’m bringing home the gold medal you lost
while waiting for me to be born.’’
Frank Havens had just won the gold medal for the United States in the canoe-racing event, a medal his father had dreamed of winning but never did.
That’s a beautiful conclusion to a beautiful story.
Bill Havens’s commitment, 28 years earlier,
became the inspiration for his son. Frank made it the model
for a commitment of his own: to show his deep appreciation to his dad for his generous commitment to his mother and to himself.
And that’s an important point that parents often don’t think about. The generosity with which they live out their commitment to one another is carefully observed by their children.
And their children will often use it as the model for their own commitments in life.
And so Bill Havens’ decision to live out his commitment 100 percent impacted his relationship with his wife in a profound way.
But it also impacted his relationship with his son in a profound way. Bill became a model for his son to follow.
But the impact of Bill’s decision didn’t stop here. It went much further. It has also impacted the lives of everyone who has ever heard his story.
The point of all this is clear.
When we make a decision to commit ourselves generously to God, to Christ, or to another person, that decision does far more than just impact the lives of our loved ones. It also impacts the lives of people we don’t even know.
We might compare our commitment to a stone thrown into a lake. It does more than impact the lake at the point of entry.
It ripples out and impacts the lake far beyond the point of entry—sometimes even to distant parts of the lake. Only God knows the full impact that our actions have on others.
And so when we come to die, and appear before God in judgment, we will be amazed at the far-reaching impact of our actions—just as Bill Havens would be amazed at the
far-reaching impact that his commitment to his wife has had,
inspiring hundreds of thousands of people he never knew.
21st Sunday of the Year
Joshua 24:1–2a, 15–17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21–32; John 6:60–69
The role and importance of prayer in the faith process.
Listen! I stand at the door and knock.” Revelation 3:20
Fulton Oursler was a senior editor of Reader’s Digest during the years when it was the most widely read magazine in the world.
In his youth, Fulton Oursler had searched in vain for a satisfying answer to the question, Is there really a God?
He said he couldn’t understand why other people were not as concerned about that question as he was.
His search continued in his adult years. But no answer came.
He was at an impasse. He writes:
I could not, as an intelligent man,
command myself to believe. . . .
The most I could do was to say that I wished—with all my heart—that I could believe.
One day, in sheer desperation, he walked into St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City.
He knelt down and prayed earnestly for the gift of faith.
His prayer went something like this:
Ten minutes from now I may change my mind and scoff at what I am now doing. Pay no attention to me then. Right now I am in my right mind and heart. This is my best—take it. If you’re there, help me.
That desperate prayer was answered with a certitude beyond anything Oursler could have hoped for. All doubts and questions vanished. He was left with only a deep-down,
unshakable conviction that God is real.
That dramatic moment was the beginning of a new life for him. He writes:
I learned that prayer is not only the way to come to the knowledge that God is real, but also the way to the knowledge that God is our Father and our friend.
This brings us to today’s Gospel. It describes how the disciples of Jesus faced a question not unlike the one Fulton Oursler faced.
They had to answer a question just as critical and difficult. It was this: Could Jesus really give them his flesh and blood as food and drink?
But today’s Gospel raises a further question—perhaps an even more important one for us. It is this:
What enabled some disciples to accept Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist while others were not able to accept it?
And that bring us right back to Fulton Oursler.
What enabled him to resolve his doubts and questions about God when other intellectuals, like him, were unable to do so?
Oursler’s own answer to that question comes down to one word: Prayer! Prayer made all the difference in the world.
Commenting on the importance of prayer in the faith process and the reluctance of intellectuals to pray, Oursler writes:
It is precisely when it comes to prayer that intellectuals turn away in scorn. I can’t figure out why they won’t pray.
For example, why won’t they, personally, put prayer to the test in their own lives?
The Greek philosopher Plato taught that there are three valid sources of knowledge.
The first is our five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound,
and smell. We share them with the animal kingdom.
The second source is reason. It sets us apart from the animal kingdom.
The third source is what Plato called “divine madness,” namely, that divine beings communicate with human beings.
This third source of knowledge corresponds closely to our own Christian belief, namely, that God has given us two incredible gifts for the purpose of communicating with us.
The first is the gift of revelation, by which God in the person of Jesus came among us and taught us what is for our happiness in this world and in the world to come.
The second is the gift of faith, by which God gives us the grace to believe and accept what Jesus taught us.
take the gospel episode in which Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is.
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.” [Jesus replied:]
“Good for you, Simon son of John! . . .
For this truth did not come to you from any human being,
but it was given to you directly by my Father in heaven.”
And this brings us back to the key question:
Why did some disciples accept Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist while others rejected it?
It is because God does not force his way into our hearts
and make us believe. The only way God can enter our hearts
is if we open our hearts to him in prayer, as Fulton Oursler did.
Even more important, it means staying in touch with God
through prayer on a daily basis, as Oursler did.
Why is it even more important to stay in touch with God on a daily basis?
I like the way Jamie Buckingham answers that important question in his book Power for Living. He writes:
I often drive from my home in Melbourne, on the east coast of Florida, to the central Florida city of Orlando—about seventy miles away. . . .
We have an excellent Christian radio station in Melbourne, and I enjoy listening to its music on my car radio.
However, as I drive away from Melbourne I begin to lose the station on my radio. . . .
The station back in Melbourne is still broadcasting.
My radio is still working. The trouble is I have moved too far away to get clear reception.
This simple example illustrates why heartfelt prayer,
on a daily basis, made from the heart, is so important.
It keeps us within range of God’s voice.
Only by keeping within range of God’s voice can we hear God
knocking at the door of our hearts, seeking entrance,
that he may be with us, personally.
Jesus puts it this way in the third chapter of the Book of Revelation:
“Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them,
and they will eat with me.” Revelation 3:20