Sermon by: Dr. Robert Zielinski
Leo Durocher was a baseball player and later a manager, infamous for his, shall we say, “fiery” manner on the field. When asked why he never backed off a trait that did not exactly endear him to his fellow competitors, he is reputed to have said, because “nice guys finish last.”
Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and whose name now graces the trophy awarded to the Super Bowl winner each year (those of us from Buffalo may not realize this, but trust me), is said to have once quipped “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Not exactly the messages we want our youth to remember when they take to the fields of sport and games. We try, or at least we say we try, to teach adages like, “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” or “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
Or my personal favorite, spoken to me by my oldest brother a thousand times, “you win some, you lose some, and some are rained out. But you always get dressed for the game.”
Now, my big brother is about as good an example of the Christian life as I know, but I’m sure he was not trying to teach Jesus with that line. But as I reflect on today’s Gospel, it seems to me that what Jesus is trying to teach is discipleship, and my brother’s quote works surprisingly well for exactly that.
The apostles at this point have absolutely no idea what being a disciple of Jesus really means. In Mark’s Gospel just before this, Peter has pronounced his belief that Jesus is Messiah, and then, in the very next verses, failed to grasp the need for that Messiah to suffer and die. OK, tough concept that one, so maybe we can cut him some slack for the first time he hears it. But as we read on in Mark, we find that they then see the Transfiguration, watch Jesus heal a convulsing child that no one else (including them) could help, and twice more hear him speak of his coming fate.
And they are touched by none of it, and we get to today’s reading, where instead they are caught arguing over which of them is the greatest. They are full on board with Misters Durocher and Lombardi….they want to “win” and aren’t nice or subtle about it.
They are too caught up in their plans for what they want, and what they want out of Jesus, to see what is really happening in front of their eyes. In the next chapter of Mark, James and John still are asking about being the best most favored of the group.
You see, this is a good example of how a great strength can be a great weakness in a different setting. Confidence becomes arrogance. Discipline becomes stubbornness.
I can sympathize with the apostles, because I am really prone to the tunnel vision kind of thinking they have in missing the discipleship boat because it doesn’t fit with their idea of following Jesus. I can make a plan and stick to it, which can be a great attribute at times. But it can also be a horrible handicap, because as the late great John Lennon once said, “life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” Failing to see this, sticking relentlessly to your own plan all the time can be the ultimate of selfishness. It says that I know best what the right thing to do is, and the rest of the world should stop trying to distract me. It’s putting yourself first.
My wife gets this. She’s not so good at sticking to a plan, which can drive me crazy, but her willingness to put aside our plans because our granddaughter called and wants to come over is a great attribute. She knows this not an inconvenience, it is an opportunity, and she rarely hesitates to jump on it. I, on the other hand, left to my own devices would probably miss out, and one day wake up and say “Marygrace is getting married? Where did the years go?”
OK, we’ll probably still say that together, but at least those years will have been filled with a hundred times more memories from a hundred times more opportunities taken because Linda was ready when I wasn’t.
It isn’t until much later that the disciples get this, that they actually become disciples. It begins with Pentecost.
Pentecost is that day, after the Resurrection, when the Spirit comes over them all like a wind, and tongues of fire appear over them, and all of a sudden, all that Jesus said and taught begins to shine through with a blinding clarity. They all begin to preach, and the various foreign visitors each hear them in their own language. From that day on, they stopped worrying about themselves and their own fate. They stopped keeping score in their lives, and put the message first.
When ever I have moments of doubt about my faith, and we all have them, it’s OK to admit it….I try to remember this transformation. These uneducated men who were fearful and cowering behind locked doors, from this day forward, got out there and spoke the Word in a way that changed the world forever. They each went to their grave, nearly all of them martyred for their faith, never backing down again. They are unique among religious figures in this sense. An individual, like Mohammed, or Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon faith), or even Jesus himself, could be passed off by doubters as deluded. And the many who continue to die for their faith up to today, they do it on faith, with no real way of knowing for sure if it is true.
But not our disciples. Not one person but a dozen, more really when you count those live witnesses to the Resurrection added in those early days. All of them in a position to know for absolute certain if the Resurrection and the living Jesus they preached was true or not….and not a one of them ever changed their minds and backed down. They all died rather than deny him again.
People don’t do that for a lie. They just don’t.
From that day forward, they had no choice. The Pentecost gave them their uniforms, and from that day, they always got dressed for the game.
Yes, they made plans, and they won some. The faith grew by leaps and bounds under their guidance. But they lost some, too; there were many who remained unconvinced. And no matter how hard they tried, sometimes their plans got derailed by things out of their control; they got “rained out”.
But now, they got it, and they saw these moments for what they were…..opportunities for discipleship. Toss Paul in prison, he’ll teach the guards! The opportunities were different from what they planned, perhaps, but opportunities none the less. And with the right attitude, with the Holy Spirit, post-Pentecost attitude, they were ready. They were dressed for the game, and they took advantage of the circumstances as presented.
I think Jesus would tell Leo Durocher, that nice guys might finish last, but his disciples volunteer to finish last so that others can get ahead. Last week, Randy described discipleship as “holding the door for others, so they can go through.” And I think he would tell Vince Lombardi that winning might indeed be the only thing, but his disciples know that winning and losing has nothing to do with the score kept on a football field.
And I think he would tell us just what my big brother told me, and what I now tell Marygrace and my other grandchildren.
You win some, you lose some and some are rained out.
But you always get dressed for the game.
So this week, let’s try to be ready. Because your next discipleship opportunity is coming, right around the corner, and probably not where you think. It may turn out great, and it may end tragically bad, but if you aren’t dressed and ready, it will surely pass you right by, and that would be far more tragic.