Little Johnny was out in his backyard. He had his baseball cap, his baseball knickers, and his socks pulled up to his kneecaps. He had his plastic bat and plastic ball. His mother overheard him as he announced, “I am the greatest hitter in the world.”
He threw the ball up in the air, swung the bat, and missed the ball completely. He said aloud, “Strike one.”
He picked the ball up and said a little louder, “I am the greatest hitter in the world.”
He threw the ball up again, swung, and again, missed the ball. He said, “Strike two.”
He stopped to examine his bat. Satisfied there was no hole in it , he retrieved the ball and said with determination, “I am the greatest hitter in the world.”
He threw the ball up a little higher than before, got set, and then swung the bat with all his might. He missed. “Strike three,” he said, and then added, “I am the greatest pitcher in the world.”
I played baseball when I was a kid. I never was very good, but I did almost hit a home run. Double instead. If I hadn’t just been standing there praying that it would make it over the wall, it may have been a triple.
I also recall trying other sports and various hobbies. There was guitar. That lasted about two lessons. And water painting, but it only came out looking like something if it was a paint-by-numbers. If I tried to take Bob Ross’s advice and turn my mistakes into trees, then I would have 100s of paintings of forests.
Eventually some of these activities stick, but unless you’re a prodigy, even those take a lot of time and much practice. To become one of the greats, you must give your life.
Part of the problem as to why we don’t always make it is that before we begin we sort of get these romantic ideas in our heads about something and we build this world up in our minds around those ideas, but then reality meets those romantic ideas. For example, we decide to learn to play guitar and we think how much fun it will be. I could be like Eddie Van Halen or Chuck Berry. We get these romantic ideas in our head of the fans going wild. We go out and buy the guitar and strum it a few times, thinking how cool we are and then the practicing begins. It’s then, and perhaps only after a few lessons, and we still don’t sound as good as Chet Atkins, that we realize we are the ones who will be playing air guitar for the rest of our lives. We can experience this shift in any area of our lives.
I think I was in the seventh grade when I was assigned to read Gone with the Wind. I thought I would never get through such a long book. I couldn’t put it down. Truly remarkable. At the time, I probably didn’t fully understand all that I was reading, but it certainly made an impression.
I remember the opening chapters and the Southern aspect of it all. I remember Scarlett, of course, but I also remember the talk of the possibility of war and all the romantic ideas they had regarding it. There was whooping and hollering. There was joy. “The Troop” was practicing. When word came that the war had finally arrived, there was all this talk about how they were going to beat them in less than a month. Four years and 620,000 deaths later, it was over and they had lost.
At one point, Scarlett was having a conversation with Ashley, the man she was trying to marry. Following the war, Ashley had experienced all of the horrors and expressed his fear, what he saw as cowardice. Scarlett asked him what he was afraid of.
“Oh, nameless things,” he said. “Things which sound very silly when they are put into words. Mostly of having life suddenly become too real, of being brought into personal, too personal, contact with some of the simple facts of life. It isn’t that I mind splitting logs here in the mud, but I do mind what it stands for. I do mind, very much, the loss of the beauty of the old life I loved. Scarlett, before the war, life was beautiful. There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art… And now it is gone and I am out of place in this new life, and I am afraid. Now, I know that in the old days it was a shadow show I watched. I avoided everything which was not shadowy, people and situations which were too real, too vital. I resented their intrusion. I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams.”
Real life intruded into his shadow show and real life could no longer be kept at a distance. It could no longer be avoided and those romantic ideas didn’t just come tumbling down, they disintegrated.
You may have noticed that I’ve covered a lot of ground this morning and still haven’t mentioned Jesus. Well, I don’t know about you, but I needed some point of reference, some background before I could fully understand what Jesus was saying in our Gospel. You must hate mother, father, children, siblings, and even life. You must carry your cross. The two parables about starting a building job or a war, followed by giving up all your possessions. That’s a bit different than “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The reading began with, “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate…’” What has been happening? We’ve been reading about it the last few weeks. Jesus has been healing and teaching and the crowds are amazed. Remember the line that Luke included: All of Jesus’ “opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” They were following because they knew that Jesus was the one. This is the one who is finally going to make all our dreams come true. We’re going to kick the Romans out. We’re going to restore true religion. We’re going to get rid of these oppressive religious leaders. Isn’t it wonderful!
Jesus had done all these amazing things. Spoken all these wonderful words. And the people had begun to build these romantic ideas up in their heads about how great things were now going to be, but what they were envisioning was nothing more than a shadow show, an illusion and Jesus needed to stamp it out quickly.
He asked them, if you decide to build a house, with all these big plans of vaulted ceilings and Italian floors so that you can impress the neighbors, don’t you first count the cost and figure out if you can afford to finish it? Before someone goes to war, don’t you think they need to recognize the fact that it’s not about victory parades, but is instead about mud and blood and death? He was saying to them, before you follow me, you must understand that it is not always about healing the sick or sitting on a green hillside listening to beautiful words and eating your fill. You need to understand that it is not always easy, and in fact, can be very difficult, to the point of carrying a cross, the instrument of your own death.
When Jesus says, you must hate – and this is not telling you to truly hate, it is a figure of speech – but you must hate mother, father, brother sister… everyone and everything, when he says this, he is saying you must count the cost of following me, because it is not cheap, it comes with a price. He is saying, to become one of the greats, to become my disciple, you must be prepared to give your life. And what will you receive in return? The very Kingdom of God.
Irving Stone wrote a good bit of historical fiction. In order to portray those he was writing about – greats such as Vincent van Gogh, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin – he would dive into their lives, studying every aspect of who they were as a person. An interviewer asked him if there was something in common with them all. What made them great? Irving said, “I write about people who sometime in their life have a vision or dream of something that should be accomplished and they go to work.
“They are beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified and for years they get nowhere. But every time they’re knocked down they stand up. You cannot destroy these people. And at the end of their lives they’ve accomplished some modest part of what they set out to do.”
Our Gospel is not telling us that we must abandon our family and responsibilities, but it is telling us that we must have a vision, a dream, and an unshakeable commitment to following Jesus. It is telling us that in the process, we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves.
Our Gospel today really leaves us with a question. One we must all consider: are you satisfied with your life in Christ or would you like to become one of the greats?
Let us pray: Loving Father, faith in Your Word is the way to wisdom. Help us to think about Your Divine Plan that we may grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may help us share in the life of Jesus. Give us the grace to live the example of the love of Jesus, which we celebrate in the Eucharist and see in the Gospel. Form in us the likeness of Your Son and deepen His Life within us. Amen.