23rd Sunday of the Year
Wisdom 9:13–18; Philemon 9–10, 12–17; Luke 14:25–33
I am third
We should put God first in our life and live out that choice daily.
Gale Sayers, who played with the Chicago Bears back in the 1960s, ranks among the greatest running backs in the history of professional football. Around his neck he always wore a gold medal about the size of a half-dollar. On it were inscribed three words: I Am Third.
Those three words became the title of his best-selling autobiography. The book explains why the words meant
so much to Gale. They were the motto of his track coach,
Bill Easton, back at the University of Kansas.
Coach Easton kept the words on a little sign on his desk.
One day Gale asked him what they meant. Easton replied, “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.’’
From that day on, Gale made those words his own philosophy of life.
In his second year with the Bears, Gale decided he wanted to wear something meaningful around his neck, like a religious medal. So he bought a gold medal and had the words I Am Third engraved on it.
In his autobiography Gale says, “I try to live by the saying
on my medal. I don’t always succeed, but having the saying around my neck keeps me from straying from it too far.’’ (paraphrased)
The story of Gale Sayers illustrates the point Jesus makes
in the first half of today’s gospel, when he says:
“Whoever comes to me cannot be my disciple unless he loves me more than he loves his father and his mother. . . .”
In other words, we must give top priority in our lives to Jesus and to his heavenly Father.
And that brings us to the second point that Jesus makes
in the second half of the gospel:
“If one of you is planning to build a tower, he sits down first and figures out what it will cost to see if he has enough money to finish the job.”
In other words, it’s not enough to give top priority to God.
We must also live out that priority once we’ve made it.
Of course, that’s the hard part.
As Gale Sayers indicates so clearly: “It’s one thing to put
God first in your life. It’s quite another thing to live out
That’s why Gale kept the medal around his neck: to remind him to live out his priority. Let’s repeat his words:
“I try to live by the saying on my medal. I don’t always succeed, but having the saying around my neck keeps
me from straying from it too far.’’
Some time ago the Los Angeles Times carried a moving story by reporter Dave Smith. It was about another modern Christian who, like Sayers, puts God first in his life, other people second, and himself third. His name is Charlie DeLeo.
He grew up as a “tough kid on New York’s Lower East Side.’’
After returning from Vietnam, he got a job as maintenance man at the Statue of Liberty.
Charlie told the reporter that part of his job is to take care of the torch in the statue’s hand and the crown on the statue’s head.
He has to make sure that the sodium vapor lights are always working and that the 200 glass windows in the torch and the crown are always clean.
Pointing to the torch, Charlie said proudly, “That’s my chapel.
I dedicated it to the Lord, and I go up there and meditate on my breaks.’’
But Charlie does other things for the Lord, as well.
He received a commendation from the Red Cross after donating his 65th pint of blood.
And since hearing of the work of Mother Teresa in India,
he has given over $12,000 to her and to people like her.
Charlie said that when Pope John Paul II spoke at Battery Park, a mile and a half away from the statue, he stood on
the catwalk that circles the torch and listened to the Holy Father’s talk. From that same catwalk Charlie also prayed fervently for the success of the pope’s visit to the United States.
Charlie told the Los Angeles Times reporter:
“I don’t socialize much, don’t have fancy clothes, but I have fun. The thing is, however, I don’t have enough money to get married. I don’t keep any of my money. After I got my job, I sponsored six orphans through those children’s organizations.
Charlie ended by telling the reporter that he calls himself the “Keeper of the Flame’’ of the Statue of Liberty. Later a park guide told the reporter:
“Everybody knows Charlie is special. When he first gave himself that title, people smiled. But we all take it seriously now. To us, he’s exactly what he says: ‘Keeper of the Flame.’ ’
Charlie DeLeo began his life as a tough kid on New York’s Lower East Side. But then, like Gale Sayers, he decided to put God first in his life, other people second, and himself third.
That decision changed his life forever.
Charlie is a living illustration of the two points Jesus makes in today’s gospel: the decision to put God first in one’s life, and the decision to live out that choice.
Charlie is also a living inspiration for us to do what he did:
to give top priority to God and, with God’s help, to live out that priority as courageously as we can.
This is the message of today’s readings. This is the invitation God holds out to each one of us here at this Eucharist.
Let’s close with a prayer that Charlie DeLeo wrote. It sums up the challenge of today’s Scripture readings:
O Lord, I don’t ever expect to have the faith of Abraham,
Nor do I, O Lord, ever expect to have the leadership of Moses,
Nor the strength of Samson, nor the courage of David . . . nor the wisdom of Solomon. . . .
But what I do expect, O Lord, is your calling on me some day.
What is your will, I shall do, what is your command shall be my joy. . . .
And I shall not fail you, O Lord, for you are all I seek to serve.’ (slightly paraphrased)
23rd Sunday of the Year
Wisdom 9:13–18; Philemon 9–10, 12–17; Luke 14:25–33
It’s one thing to make a commitment; it’s another thing to live it out.
Some time ago the Christopher News Notes carried three stories of three people.
The first story concerned a youth minister in California.
He built an extra hour or two into his weekly shopping schedule to rap with his young flock at the town’s mall.
When asked about his “mall ministry,’’ the youth minister said:
“Jesus went where the people were, and that’s where I must go, too. The kids are at the mall, so that’s where I must go.’’
The second story concerned a woman in Minneapolis.
She ran a downtown shelter for the city’s homeless and abandoned.
When asked about her “shelter ministry,’’ she said:
“I’m simply trying to do what Jesus said to do. He said we should love everyone, especially those most in need.’’
The third and final story concerned a group of Harvard law students. They were scheduled for graduation. And a group
of the nation’s most prestigious law firms had invited them
to a plush banquet in a plush downtown hotel.
After receiving the invitation, the students made this request to the law firms: “Could you hold the banquet in a more modest hotel and serve a more modest meal?’’
When asked about this unusual request, the students simply said, “We’d like the money saved to be given to the poor.’’
These three stories illustrate in a dramatic way the first point that Jesus makes in today’s gospel. He says:
“Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children,
brothers and sisters, and themselves as well.”
These words of Jesus are simply a provocative way of saying
that our priority in life must be to Jesus and to his work of completing God’s kingdom on earth.
They are simply a provocative way of saying that as followers of Jesus, our responsibility extends beyond our flesh-and-blood family to the entire human family.
They are simply a provocative way of saying that if we want to follow Jesus, we must follow him not only into church on Sunday morning but also into the marketplace on Monday morning.
And this brings us to the second point that Jesus makes in today’s gospel. He says:
“If one of you is planning to build a tower, you sit down first and figure out what it will cost, to see if you have enough money
to finish the job.”
These words of Jesus are also a provocative way of saying
that it is not enough to give top priority to God’s kingdom.
We must also live out that priority no matter the cost no matter the inconvenience.
They are simply a way of saying that unless we are willing
to take up our cross and follow Jesus into the marketplace
on Monday morning, we cannot be his disciples.
They are simply a way of saying that we must be committed
to Jesus and to his work.
Television’s Phil Donahue says that commitment is made up of three stages.
First, there is the fun stage. That’s when we go out and say,
“I love doing this. Why didn’t I get involved sooner?’’
Second, there is the intolerant stage. That’s when we go out and say, “Anyone who doesn’t get involved isn’t really a true Christian.’’
Finally, there is the reality stage. That’s when we suddenly realize that our involvement is going to make only a microscopic dent in the problems of our world. And that’s
the stage at which saints are made.
The stories of the youth minister in California, the woman in Minneapolis, and the law students at Harvard are stories of people who have arrived at the third stage of commitment.
They are people who realize that they are going to make only a microscopic dent in the problems of our world. But they are also people who realize that the worse evil is to do nothing
because they can only do little.
They are people who have committed themselves to Jesus and to his work, and are living it out.
They are people whose commitment makes us ask ourselves,
What have I done for Jesus in the past? What am I doing for Jesus in the present? What ought I to do for Jesus in the future?
These are the questions that the Church sets before us in today’s readings. These are the questions that Jesus invites
us to answer in today’s liturgy.
Let’s close with a poem. Perhaps you are familiar with it.
It sums up the message and the invitation of today’s liturgy.
It compares our commitment to Jesus and to his work to two people riding on a tandem bicycle. The poem goes something like this:
“At first, I sat in front; Jesus in the rear. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. I could feel his help when the road got steep.
“Then, one day, Jesus changed seats with me. Suddenly everything went topsy-turvy.
When I was in control, the ride was predictable even boring.
But when Jesus took over, it got wild! I could hardly hold on.
‘This is madness!’ I cried out. But Jesus just smiled and said, ‘Pedal!’
“And so I learned to shut up and pedal and trust my bike companion. Oh, there are still times when I get scared and I’m ready to give up. But then Jesus turns around, touches
my hand, smiles, and says, ‘Pedal!’ ’’
23rd Sunday of the Year
Wisdom 9, 13–18; Philemon 9–10, 12–17; Luke 14, 25–33
To be a disciple means to give God and God’s Kingdom top priority in one’s life.
Jesus said . . . , “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Four years after Columbus set sail for America, Leonardo da Vinci began painting The Last Supper.
It was destined to become a masterpiece. Done in oil on a convent wall in Milan, Italy, it measures 15 by 28 feet.
Shortly after da Vinci completed the painting, the plaster on the wall got water-soaked and damaged.
The greatest damage to the painting, however, came centuries later during the terrible air raids of World War II.
A bomb destroyed the roof of the building, exposing the painting to the weather for three years until the war ended.
In 1979 an artist, Mrs. Bambilla, was asked to undertake
the enormous job of cleaning and restoring the painting.
She realized, at once, the enormity and the difficulty of the undertaking. It meant committing the rest of her life to the project.
It meant giving up a life of original personal painting for a life of preserving another’s painting, even if it was a masterpiece
by a great painter.
Mrs. Bambilla thought about it, prayed over it, and eventually decided to do it.
Since 1979 she has worked an estimated 40,000 hours on the project.
Peering through a huge magnifying glass, she cleans and restores paint scales the size of a grain of rice.
By the year 2000 Mrs. Bambilla had finished cleaning
and restoring about three-fourths of the painting.
The price to her personal health has been enormous.
Her eyesight is now permanently altered. She also suffers from chronic body pains.
Mrs. Bambilla’s commitment gives a new perspective
to the issue at stake in today’s Gospel.
In it, Jesus enters into conversation with three men about the cost involved in following him.
He does not minimize what a commitment to God and God’s Kingdom involves.
To the first man Jesus says in effect:
“Are you willing to pick up your cross and follow me, day in and day out, with the kind of fidelity that Mrs. Bambilla has shown now for nearly 25 years?”
To the second man Jesus asks in effect:
“Are you prepared to makeGod and God’s Kingdom your top priority in life?
“Are you willing to let it take precedence over everything,
even your own family as Mrs. Bambilla has been doing now
for nearly 25 years?”
To the third man Jesus asks in effect:
“Are you willing to commit yourself to the work of God’s Kingdom for the rest of your life without looking back or
going back on your original commitment?”
By his blunt talk, Jesus is saying plainly to those who wish to follow him:
“Be clear on what is involved in giving top priority to God and God’s Kingdom.
“Be clear on the cost involved and whether you are willing
to pay the price involved.”
It is this challenge and perspective that Jesus sets before us in today’s Gospel.
That brings us back to the story of Mrs. Bambilla and her commitment.
When she was asked to commit her life to the restoration
of da Vinci’s painting, she had to be clear on what she was being asked to do.
It meant making it the top priority of both her personal and her professional life.
It meant suffering through lonely hours of tedium and severe physical suffering.
It meant giving up the opportunity for the fame and financial gain of a personal career in painting.
It meant giving her life over to restoring a masterpiece
so that future generations might benefit from it and be inspired by it.
That brings us to ourselves in this church today. Each of us
has felt in our hearts the inner call to follow Jesus.
Each of us has felt in our hearts the inner call to commit ourselves to the work of God and God’s Kingdom that others might enjoy the presence of God for all eternity.
We have understood the challenge, pondered it, and made God and God’s Kingdom our top priority in life.
And that is why we are here together at this Mass. That is why we continue to come together each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist.
We do it to support one another and to ask God to help us
open our hearts to the grace and generosity we need to remain faithful to our commitment the rest of our lives.
This is the kind of commitment that we now ask Jesus to bless
and strengthen as we prepare to partake in the banquet of eternal life, of which the Eucharist is a preparation and a foretaste.