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Make The Most Of Your Life

Sermon
Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle C
Once there was a wise king who died. His son, who was young and rather brash, came to the throne and after only two months ordered a review all of his father's appointments. He called in the royal secretary, the royal treasurer, and the viceroy for interviews. He found them all to be unworthy and sent them into exile with only the shirts on their backs. Next he decided to interview the local bishop. A courier was sent to the bishop's residence with this message: "You are to report to the palace and answer the following three questions: 1) What direction does God face? 2) What am I worth? and 3) What am I thinking? If you fail to answer all these questions correctly you will be banished from the kingdom."

The bishop, in total frustration, threw his hands in the air and exclaimed to his wife, "I have no idea how to answer these questions. I am doomed to spend the rest of my days as a pauper and a beggar." His wife responded, "No, I will go to the king and answer the questions for you." "The king will know you are not the bishop," he responded. "He has never met you," said his wife. "If I wrap myself in your cloak, cover my head with the hood, and lower my voice, he will never know." The bishop was desperate and, thus, he allowed his wife to go is his place.

When the bishop's wife arrived at the palace, she was ushered into the king's throne room. He began his interrogation immediately and in a brusque manner. "Which direction does God face?" She picked up a lighted candle and asked the king, "What direction does the light of this candle point?" "All directions," responded the king. "Thus, it is with the direction that God faces. God is the light of the world and faces in all directions." An astute answer, thought the king, but he continued, "What am I worth?" "Twenty-nine pieces of silver," came the immediate response. The king began to laugh: "I have houses full of silver and gold and thousands of acres of fertile fields." The bishop's wife responded, "The Gospels tell us that Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver. Certainly you do not think that you are more important than our Lord. Since you are Christ's regent here on earth, I subtracted one piece of silver to determine your worth." The king was amazed at the response and accepted it. Nevertheless, he pressed on with the third question: "What am I thinking?" "You are thinking that I am the bishop, but in fact I am not. I am his wife." She then removed the hood and her long hair fell past her shoulders. The king was shocked and then he began to laugh. "You are truly a wise and intelligent woman," said the king. "Tell your husband that he will remain the bishop but then return to the palace. We can use a person of your intelligence and wisdom in the government."1

This Irish folktale shows how a clever woman outsmarted a brash and immature king, but it also demonstrates how one person made the most of a difficult situation. The king placed the bishop in what he perceived to be a "no win" situation. The prelate's solution to the dilemma was to "throw in the towel," surrender, and give up. He figured he had been defeated, so why continue the struggle. But the bishop's wife held a very different attitude, for she saw the possibilities that the challenge presented, and not only did she make the most of the situation for her disheartened husband, but she won the esteem of the king for herself as well. This story illustrates an important message, both in today's First Lesson and life in general, namely that we need to make the most of life, whatever God sends our way today.

Jeremiah, as we heard in today's reading, wrote to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, informing them of the Lord's message. God, through the prophet, tells the people to build homes and live in them, to plant gardens, and to eat the produce from them. The people are told to marry and raise families. In short, the Hebrews are instructed to seek the welfare of the city where they presently live; they are to make the most of a difficult situation.

The prophet's words are both hopeful and pragmatic. The situation for the Hebrews was not the best, at least this is what might be the view from an external perspective. The people, for the most part, had been physically moved from their homeland, creating a sense of loss and uncertainty. Having observed the destruction of their northern neighbor, Israel, some 150 years earlier, many may have thought that this present situation was the end for Judah and, therefore, the Hebrews. One too many transgressions had led God finally to destroy the people, as the Lord had threatened since the time of the exodus, when the people fell into idol worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35). With such thoughts prominent in the minds of many, Jeremiah's words proclaiming God's message to live today, to build, plant, harvest, and raise families, had to be received with joy and generate a sense of hope. The people must have concluded that their relationship with God, although severely damaged, had not ended. God had not abandoned the people, but rather, had sent a message of hope to encourage the Hebrews to make the most of a less than desirable situation.

Jeremiah's message was also practical, telling the people the need to take advantage of the opportunities that the exilic situation provided. The tendency of the Hebrews in the past was to hang their heads, beat their breasts, and seek forgiveness from God, with the hope that the Lord would once again take them back, rebellious people that they were. But Jeremiah's message suggests that people must hold their heads high and not wring their hands, and proceed to live full lives under the conditions in which they now find themselves. God, through the prophet, is saying in essence, "This is the life I have given you today; make the most of it. Do not waste time; do not give up. Rather, be profitable for a brighter day will come."

Adversity, the unexpected, obstacles, and detours are all endemic parts of the human condition and form part of the lived experience of every human person. These less-than-ideal conditions may come to pass because of our own laziness, inadequate effort, refusal to cooperate, or sinfulness. Like the Hebrews, many of the conditions or situations of our lives come to pass because of what we have done or failed to do. We must be honest and accept the incompleteness of our own life, not in resignation, but with an eye to making the most of the situation. There are numerous circumstances in life, however, that come to pass through no omission or commission on our part, but rather, become reality through the actions or inactions of others or occurrences beyond human control, such as natural disasters which happen through the dynamism of our world. When adverse conditions strike us, we have two basic options. We can, if we wish, be like the bishop in the story, concede defeat, throw in the towel, and retire to our bed, figuring that the situation is too extreme or obstacles too high to negotiate. The Christian, however, must not follow this route, for the acceptance of defeat is truly inconsistent with Jesus' message: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-25). Hardship, pain, and difficulty are certainly not to be sought, but they cannot be avoided as well. We recall the popular line by British essayist G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in 1910, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." Yes, it is true, there will be much dying on the way to the Father.

The true Christian is the person who, when given the opportunity to make the most of a given situation, takes up the challenge and produces good and abundant fruit. In sports this message was dramatically demonstrated in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Billy Mills, a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, was a good runner, but he wasn't a world class runner -- at least that is what everyone thought. In 1964 the United States Olympic track and field team was selected through a series of trials with three athletes chosen for each event. Originally Billy Mills was not a member of the team, but an injury to one member of the 10,000 meter squad gave Lieutenant Mills a chance for glory.

Atypical to most Olympic track events, the 10,000 meters in 1964 did not require a qualifying race to narrow the field. Thirty-eight runners entered the grueling 6.2 miles, 25 laps around the newly-constructed red clay track in the Olympic stadium. All would run together, the world class and the unknown.

The race, run on October 14, 1964, had some of the best runners in the world entered, including the 1960 Olympic champion Peter Bolotnikov of the Soviet Union, Ron Clarke, the world record holder from New Zealand, and Gerry Lindgren, the American hopeful, who was a student at Washington State University. After fifteen laps of the race only four of the 38 competitors had any chance of winning. A little known Tunisian runner, Mohammed Gamudi, Clarke, Bolotnikov, and Billy Mills were ahead of the field running in a tight pack. As an unknown in the sports world, no one ever gave Mills a thought in this race, yet there he was in a position possibly to win the coveted gold medal. The four lead runners jockeyed for position on the track, still damp from an early morning rain. The final lap of the race approached, the gun was sounded indicating the stretch run, and the leaders began an all-out sprint. Bolotnikov, whose energy was spent, fell back. With 300 meters to go, Gamudi forged ahead of Clarke and Mills. As the final straight approached Billy Mills was ten meters behind, but somehow his adrenalin kicked in and he surged ahead, crossed the finish line, and eclipsed the Olympic record by eight seconds, in one of the most stunning upsets in track and field history. Billy Mills was given a chance; he made good on the opportunity.

In the story of the bishop and his wife, the prelate was lost, but his wife saw possibilities and used the situation to return respect to her husband and bring herself to a position of special recognition. Similarly, Billy Mills was given a great opportunity and made the most of it. The Hebrews had trammeled God's law and because of their actions had been exiled to Babylon, but through it all the Lord had not abandoned them. Rather, a message of hope was sent through the prophet Jeremiah that the people must make the most of a difficult situation and do what they can to flourish. Likewise, we must not become disheartened when events, however they come to pass, place us in a situation less than desirable. On the contrary, today's lesson beckons us to put our best foot forward, as suggested in the Pastoral Epistles (2 Timothy 4:7), so we can fight the good fight and win the race. In this way we can find joy today and the eternal presence of God tomorrow.


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1. Paraphrased from "The Bishop's Wife," in William R. White, ed. Stories for the Gathering (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 146-147.
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