Dead Horses and Excuses
July 1, 2007
Luke 9:51-62 / Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Nine young marines received a weekend pass after their first month of boot camp. Because the camp was in a rural part of Georgia, they all needed to take the bus to the nearest city, which was some thirty miles away. On Monday morning at roll call, none of the nine were present as they should have been. About mid-morning the first marine straggled back into camp and was immediately brought to the Commander.
“I’m sorry to be late, Sir,” he said. “But I was on a date and I lost track of time and because of that I missed the last bus back to camp. I knew I needed to be here so I hailed a cab. But about halfway back the cab broke down. So I went to the nearest farmhouse and borrowed a horse. But after a few miles the horse lay down and died. So I walked the last five miles on foot. But here I am.”
Now the Commander was highly suspicious of this involved story. But the cadet was young, and this was his first offense. So he gave him a lecture on the importance of punctuality and sent him back to training. But throughout the day the Commander’s suspicion grew even more intense, because the next seven marines who returned all told him the exact same story. About sundown the ninth marine came into camp and was brought before the Commander. He started like all the rest.
“I was on a date . . . lost track of time . . . missed the bus . . . hailed a cab . . .”
“Wait a minute,” said the Commander. “You’re not going to tell me that that cab broke down are you?”
“Not at all, Sir,” he said. “The cab was fine. But it was unable to get through all the dead horses on the road.”
Our excuses are like dead horses on the road to life. They prevent us from moving forward to the place where God wants us to be. This truth explains Jesus’ peculiar remarks in today’s gospel. In the gospel Jesus is unwilling to accept any excuse: not going home to bury your father; not saying farewell to your family. No excuse is acceptable. Now we could be distracted by debating the reasonableness of Jesus’ stance. But this is not the point of the gospel. The gospel challenges us to admit that our excuses hold us back from the place God wants us to be.
Most of the time, we know exactly what we need to do. We understand to what God is calling us. But then the excuses begin. “I’m not ready yet.” “I’m too tired.” “I’m not worthy.” “I’m too afraid.” Those excuses, much like those in the gospel, might well seem reasonable. But they are nevertheless preventing us from moving forward. If we build our life around excuses, we will end up going nowhere.
So how do we move beyond excuses? Not on our own. It takes more than our effort to convince us that we are ready, that we are not too tired, that we are worthy, that we are no longer afraid. The only way we can move through and beyond our excuses is to turn to Christ and ask for help. The way forward is not by depending more on ourselves, but trusting in the God who loves us.
Saint Paul says it beautifully in today’s second reading. “For freedom, Christ has set you free.” Paul is telling us that God loves us. If we claim that love, if we believe that God is with us, we can find the freedom to move through our excuses. We can be freed from our weakness, from our lethargy, from our unworthiness, from our fear. With Christ’s help we can find the courage to speak the truth to our spouse or to our boss. We can find the energy to meet our responsibilities. We can build God’s Kingdom. With Christ’s grace we can begin, even though we are not sure how we will finish. We can minister to others, even when we know that we are far from perfect.
Today, Christ is calling us to himself. He asks us to move forward to deeper satisfaction and a fuller life. We can always come up with reasons not to move, to stay exactly where we are. That is why we need to believe in God’s love and let that love free us. Let us then claim God’s presence in our life. Let us believe in God’s love for us so that through that love we can find the freedom to do God’s will—without excuses.
The Plow Keeps Moving
June 27, 2010
Not many of us here are farmers. The few of us who do some farming do so in a way that is very different from farming in the first century. In Galilee at the time of Jesus, the hills were covered with many small farms, and Jesus uses his observation of farming techniques in his teaching. This is why we have so many agricultural images in the New Testament: the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus is always talking about planting and watering and harvesting. In today’s gospel he uses the image of plowing. Now most of us who have seen old movies understand how plowing used to work. The plow was connected to a horse or a cow, which pulled it forward. The purpose of the plow was to turn over the hardened earth so that seed could be planted in the newly broken soil. The farmer needed to be attentive, because he directed the plow, and the straighter and the closer the rows were to one another, the more productive the field would be. If the farmer took his eye off the plow, if he looked back to the rows that had already been turned over, his work would suffer.
Knowing this, Jesus uses the example of plowing to talk about discipleship. He says, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” What Jesus is telling us is that, as his disciples, we must not look back at past mistakes or failures. Jesus says this because he knows that looking back will not only distract us, but possibly harm us. If we keep looking back to the past, we can damage our present work and our future. Just as a farmer who keeps looking back on the row he has just plowed endangers the straightness and the usefulness of the row he is plowing, Jesus knows that if we look back, worrying about the past, it can lessen our service.
We all have to admit that it is difficult not to look back, because our past mistakes and failures follow us. We regret previous relationships, perhaps even previous marriages that came to an end. We wish that we had one more chance to follow an opportunity that slipped through our fingers. We feel guilty about the way that we have hurt people or the things that we have said or the responsibilities that we have ignored. So we keep looking back, picking on the scabs of old mistakes, looking and lamenting over the failures that still haunt us.
Jesus tells us that this is no way to enter the kingdom of God. Because the good news is this: the plow is still moving forward, and it needs our attention. We cannot direct it, if we are looking backwards. We must face forward and guide it. Perhaps you realize now that you should have done some things differently when you raised your children. You can see the harm that still exists in the mistakes that you made. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to sharing your wisdom and love with your grandchildren and with others in your life today. Perhaps you realize how you have harmed others through selfishness or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Okay. But don’t look back. Recommit yourself to live in such a way that you foster generosity and sobriety. Perhaps you keep lamenting and wish that you had one more chance to make a relationship work, to take a job that was offered. Okay. But don’t look back. Give your attention to loving and working to the best of your abilities today.
The plow is moving forward. It continues to turn over new earth and new opportunities. Our life is to be found in those new possibilities. Looking back will only distract us.Give attention to the new earth that is being overturned today. It is there that you will find God’s love and your joy. That is why anyone who looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.
Being Wishy or Washy
June 30, 2013
Charles Schulz created a television special for the beginning of the New Year. It was called Happy New Year Charlie Brown! In that program Charlie Brown says to Lucy, “This year I am going to become a changed person!”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Lucy, “you’ll be nothing of the kind.“
“No, I mean it,” says Charlie Brown. “This year I am going to be strong and firm.”
“Forget it,” said Lucy, “you will always be wishy-washy.”
Charlie Brown thought for a moment then he said, “I see your point but maybe I could change just a little. Maybe I could be wishy one day and washy the next.”
Being wishy one day and washy the next is not really changing at all. It’s a word game to excuse ourselves from the challenge of acting. It is a diversion by which we exempt ourselves from the necessity of changing. We can become rather good at words games. We can convince ourselves that we can have it all. We can do everything. We don’t need to say no. We never need to put our foot down and say, “Stop, this has to end.”
To think this way is an illusion because not all things in life are of equal importance. The secret to a full life is learning to say “yes” to those things that are important and “no” to those things that are not. This is what Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel, and he uses dramatic language to make his point that there must be priorities.
Now of course we should bury our father. We should say farewell to those at home when we leave. But Jesus tells us we shouldn’t do any of those things because he wants to make the point that if it came to a choice between burying our father, saying goodbye, or doing God’s will, we would have to choose God’s will. God’s will is of the utmost importance. In a world where not everything is equal, God’s will is the top priority.
So Jesus’ words are important because they remind us that we need to commit ourselves to the things that are most important and be willing to say no to whatever hinders that commitment.
Sometimes we think, “You know, I have plenty of time to play golf, to surf the internet, to watch television, to cater to my hobbies and none of these things will impact my relationship with my spouse.” But when we see our relationship to our spouse begin to falter, it is no time to enter delusion. We need to act and say no to those things that are taking up our time so that the relationship that is most important can deepen and grow.
We can say to ourselves, “You know, I can eat and drink whatever I want, I can use drugs recreationally, and these things will not harm my life.” But when we begin to realize that we are losing focus and effectiveness, it is no time to be idle. We need to act and say no to those habits that are hindering our life so that we can continue to live.
We might say to ourselves, “You know I have so many good relationships, so many strong friendships. I don’t need to worry about that person who hurt me and whom I cannot forgive.” But when we begin to see that lack of forgiveness grinding us down and coloring our life with anger, it is no time to play games. We then need to give forgiveness the highest priority so we can regain freedom and joy.
Giving ourselves to lesser things will not bring us lasting joy. The fullness of life comes when we nurture and protect those things that are most important. So when we begin to lose sense of God’s will for us, when life begins to slip, it is no time to be wishy-washy. It is time to say no to those things that hinder us so that we can say yes to life.
The Call to Follow
June 26, 2016
As a teacher Jesus occasionally exaggerates to get his audience’s attention. He certainly is doing this today in the gospel. Jesus does not tell us not to bury our parents or to refrain from bidding farewell to our families. He uses these extreme commands to drive home the point that following him is not a casual commitment. As disciples, Jesus expects us to change the way that we live. He calls us to adjust our lives for the sake of the gospel, to act in a way that others see a witness to our connection to him. Jesus wants our time and our loyalty. He wants us to act in a way that others see that we belong to him. Giving such witness has power.
We certainly saw this this week as our city celebrated the Cavaliers’ NBA championship. Over a million people changed their schedules, canceled appointments, took off from work, got up early, and stood in the sun for hours because they wanted others to see the joy that they felt about what happened to our city. It wasn’t easy. It took effort. But people did it because they wanted other people to notice that what had happened to them was important, that it mattered.
Jesus challenges us to act in a way that others see that our connection to him matters. When we come to church, Jesus challenges us not simply to sit and daydream but to listen to the word that applies to our lives, to join in the prayer of the assembly, to open our mouths and sing. And if we say, “Well, I have so much on my mind. It is so difficult to focus. I really don’t have a good voice,” Jesus says, “Follow me.” When someone is struggling with a sickness or a heavy burden, Jesus challenges us to be his presence to that person, to reach out and try to help. And if we say, “I really don’t know that person that well. I am shy or introverted,” Jesus says, “Follow me.” When we recognize what is going on in our country, when we hear words that use fear and hatred to manipulate others, or when self interest is exalted instead of service, Jesus challenges us to speak out his message. His message is generosity, community, and justice. And if we say, “I am not that involved in politics. I don’t want to get involved. No one will listen anyway,” Jesus says, “Follow me.”
The most important thing we know about God is that God’s love for us is boundless. That is why Jesus asks us not to place limits on our willingness to announce that love to others. Jesus wants us as his disciples. So let us put comfort and fear aside and follow him.
Illusion and Reality
June 30, 2019
One way to define maturity is the ability to move from illusion to reality. In this understanding, every time we undertake a new endeavor there is a great deal of illusion that colors how we see ourselves and the world around us. Therefore, growth is the ability to set that illusion aside and accept what is real.
I know a wonderful, talented fourteen-year-old girl who is determined to be President of the United States. Now it would be wrong to tell her that is impossible. But it is very likely that some time from now, she will have to face the fact that such a goal was a childhood dream. Then she will have to set her life in another direction. There are many young men in our high schools and colleges that are wonderful athletes. Some of them hope to play in the NFL. It would be unfair to squelch those dreams. But most of them will one day have to admit that such a goal was an illusion. Then they will have to find something real to do with their lives.
Jesus seems to know this dynamic in today’s gospel. Someone runs up to him and wants to be his follower. The person is filled with wonderment and wide expectations, and says “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go.” The sky is the limit. Whatever it means to be a disciple, I am in! Now I am sure Jesus appreciated this person’s enthusiasm, but he conditions it. He says, “Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests but the son of man has nowhere to rest his head.” This is Jesus’ way of saying that being a disciple is not all glory and miracles. There is hardship and want. One must be able to give up the illusion of being a disciple and accept discipleship for what it really is.
You and I have to do the same thing. If we wish to mature as people. We must be able to identify what is illusion and replace it with what is real. When we discover that we do not have the skill or the stamina to attain a degree in civil engineering, maturity says that we open ourselves to new career possibilities. When we begin to realize that our spouse is not the perfect person we thought we married on our wedding day, maturity says that we must accept that such perfection is an illusion, and accept what is real in our marriage. Catholics often place priests and bishops on pedestals. But then we discover that some priests molest children and some bishops fail to protect our children from harm. We then realize that our church is not without serious flaws and its perfection is an illusion. If we intend to remain in the church, we must find something that is real and good to hold on to.
Now the difficulty in moving from illusion to reality is that illusion always appears to be something real. So when we discover that illusion is false, we at first think that we are losing something real. But we are actually coming closer to reality, because we are setting aside what is illusionary. It might seem that we are losing something that is essential, but we are simply recognizing something as a misperception or a false impression. Seeing an illusion as false might at first frighten us, because we imagine that the future is lost. We become afraid that there is no hope for our career, or our marriage, or our place in the church. But what is really happening is that we are beginning to see what our career, our marriage or our place in the church is meant to be.
And the good news is this. God is the one who leads us to maturity. God is the one who guides us from illusion to reality, because God has no part in misconception and false impressions. Therefore, however painful or frightening it might be to set illusions aside, whenever we do, it is a sure sign of grace. Because it is only in reality that we will find God. It is only in reality that we will gain salvation.