Strive for Faithfulness Rather Than Success

The biblical text for this sermon is Mark 10:35-45.

This is the fourth in a sermon series using the themes of Tattoos on the Heart, by The Rev. G. Boyle

James and John don’t come off looking that great in this lesson.  This kind of raw grab for power, prestige and recognition is just not done, not in the day of Jesus and not in our day either. Even the gospel writers are embarrassed by this story.  Luke retells something like 80% of Mark’s stories, but does not tell this one.   Matthew retells the story, but adds James and John’s mother as the one who tries to secure a good spot for her sons.

I get what’s going on in James and John’s head.  They are success oriented.  When we are success oriented, we have in our mind a desired outcome then create a plan to get us there.  These guys believed they were following the Messiah, a Jewish King sent by God to restore the Jewish people to greatness.  They figured when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, he is going to be crowned king through the power of God.  Their goal wasn’t to be king, but to have the best seats next to the king.

What offends us isn’t the goal as much as the way they are trying to get there.  You get rewarded for that kind of honor, you don’t ask for it, especially out of ear shot of the other disciples. When we start focusing on a dreamed up goal, we start asking different questions about our actions.  It is more important that they lead us to success rather than whether they are honorable and good.

I suspect all of us have a vision of success for our life, what outcome we could arrive at that would allow us to say yes, I made it.  The problem is that if our life becomes a journey towards that place, than the destination, not the journey becomes the purpose for our life.  We justify all sorts of bad behavior as a necessary evil to arrive at our good goal.

Father Boyle tells the story of a 19 year old mother, LaShady, who stops him on the road when he was late for an important meeting.  LaShady with her baby bouncing on her hips didn’t care about his goal or the good work he was trying to do. She wants to tell him about a dream she had last night and she wants to do it now and she is not getting out of the road until he listens.

Showing his displeasure, he sighs and tells her okay, but indicating by his reaction that he needs to her to be quick about it.  Her dream is in the church, with Father Boyle in full vestments by a tiny casket.  He motions her to come forward and she doesn’t want to because she is scared.  He tells her it will be alright and encourages her to come to the casket.  Terrified, she looks in the casket and out flies a white dove.  What does the dream mean, she asks?

Father Boyle, just trying to get out of there gives her a short, boilerplate pastor answer. Obviously the white dove is a symbol of peace. God is telling you to make peace with your enemies.  He prepares to leave, then stops and looks at her.  Really, looks at her for the first time since she stood in front of his car.  He sees her for who she is, a scared 19 year old with a baby whom she loves with all her heart.  He adds it really doesn’t matter what I think the dream means, how does the dream make you feel?

She cries, it made me scared because I thought God was telling me my baby was going to die and I don’t know what I would do then.  But when I looked into that casket and the bird flew out I only felt peace and love in my heart.

Father Boyle smiled at her and said, LaShady, God only wants you to feel those things. You’re okay. She reached into his car and nearly strangled him with the biggest hug he had ever received.  She was sobbing as she held him.  Three hours later, she was killed in a backseat of a car.

Father Boyle had a vision of what success looked like that day.  He created a schedule that would get him there. At first he saw LaShady as an obstacle to overcome.  If he had not stopped and been truly present with her, he would have never been able to bring her the hope, the peace she needed on that day of all days, her last.

Father Boyle writes that he is trying to give up pursuing success and instead following Mother Theresa’s advice.  She writes, “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”  He worries that salivating for success will keep him from being faithful, because it keeps him from seeing the person sitting in front him.  When we focus on success, we see others as either obstacles to our goal, or important rungs on the ladder that we must pay attention.  We stop seeing them as people; humans like LaShady that God brings to us and hopes we will serve.  Stay faithful and let God worry about success, Boyle writes.

Throw the destinations out the window.  Purge our mind of visions of crowns waiting for us in Jerusalem.  Instead, just focus each day, every day, on being faithful and see where the journey takes us.  Sometimes, our heart will be broken at the tragedy or failure at the end of the road that day, like Boyle at his important meeting when he heard LaShady was killed. If we are faithful, though, we may just remember the hug, tears, and the peace that we left with her hours before.

This morning, I will let Father Boyle have the last word with a story of heart breaking failure and the faithful sign of grace that is still more powerful.  These are victories that can go unnoticed in our constant longing for success, but are celebrated in realm of heaven.

Story of Soledad, adapted with some unmarked editing from the end of Chapter 8 Success of Tattoos On the Heart, by G Boyle.

The owner of a vast, expansive heart and among the most heroic women I know is Soledad, the mother of four.  I met her second oldest, Ronnie, when he was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School.  I suspect he began working at our office, after school, shortly after his brother Angel started to work at our silkscreen factory.  Angel was from a gang and two years older than Ronnie, who was never from any barrio.

Shortly after 9/11, Ronnie got his diploma (didn’t even graduate on stage) and joined the marines.  Once, he and Soledad visited me so I could give a special blessing to Ronnie, who was headed to some secret location (which turned out to be Afghanistan).  Sometime later, Ronnie was home on leave and walking back to the house after a midnight run to Jack in the Box.

Soledad can hear from the bedroom the most dreaded question in the barrio:  someone is “hitting up” Ronnie.  “Where you from?”

If you are not from a gang, you say, “I ain’t from nowhere.”

She strains to hear what he says.  He might have laughed or even said, “the marines.”  She needs no straining to hear the shots that follow.  Ronnie dies in her arms outside their kitchen door.  He is shot four times in the back and twice in the head.  They shot his hand off.  Ronnie was given a full military burial.  Soledad was handed a folded flag.

For the next six months, there was no consoling Soledad.  She quit her job and rarely left the house.  She dressed in black every day, bathed infrequently, didn’t bother with hair or makeup.

Her oldest son, Angel sits his mother down on a Sunday morning, six months after Ronnie’s death.

“Look,” he says to Soledad, “you have to stop this.  You have three kids left, and we need you.  So I want you to go throw these black clothes away, take a bath, do your hair, and put some makeup on.  It’s time.”

Soledad’s firstborn breaks through the solid mass of grief that had encased her soul and left her heart immobile for all this time.  So she does.  Bathes, wears something with color in it, fixes her hair, and puts on makeup.  She emerges from her room, and she is radiant.  Angel cups her face in his hands, “You look gorgeous.”  He doesn’t hesitate to add, “It’s about time.”

That afternoon, Angel is sitting on his front porch, eating a sandwich, and there is a commotion down the block.  There is a kid running with all his might.  He is from Angel’s barrio.  He is being chased by two enemies.  When they catch up to him, the kid is able to disappear from their sight.  This leaves the two panting in front of Angel’s front porch.  He knows enough to scramble wildly toward his front door.  The shooting begins, and Soledad runs to the source of the sound.  She would say later that she wished the shooters hadn’t left until they had also killed her.

It being Sunday, I was celebrating Mass in the varied detentions facilities, so I came late to the news of Angel’s death.  By the time I reach Soledad’s living room later that day, she is huddled in a corner.  Forget Kleenex.  Forget handkerchief.  Soledad is sobbing into a huge bath towel.  And the few of us there found our arms too short to wrap around this kind of pain.

Two years after the death of her second son, I see Soledad in front of the office and we hug.

“How ya doin, kiddo?”

Soledad grabs my arm and thinks and considers her words.

“You know, I love the two kids that I have.  I hurt for the two that are gone.”  She begins to cry and shows the slightest embarrassment at the size of her honesty.

“The hurt wins…the hurt wins.”

Two months later, Soledad is taken to the hospital for an irregular heartbeat and chest pain.  I visit her in her room, and she tells me what happened the night she came to the emergency room.  They have her on a gurney in White Memorial’s ER.  The doctors are tending to her with EKGs and the like, when there is a rush of activity at the entrance.  With a flurry of bodies and medical staff moving into their proscribed roles, a teenage gang member is rushed to the vacant space right next to Soledad.  The kid is covered in blood from multiple gunshot wounds and they begin cutting off his clothes.  The wounds are too serious to waste time pulling the curtain that separate Soledad from this kid fighting for his life.  People are pounding on his chest and inserting IVs.  Soledad turns and sees him.  She recognizes him as a kid from the gang that most certainly robbed her of her sons.

“As I saw this kid,” she tells me, “I just kept thinking of what my friends might say if they were here with me  They’d say, ‘Pray that he dies.” But she just looked at this tiny kid, struggling to sidestep the fate of her sons, as the doctors work and scream, “WE’RE LOSING HIM.  WE’RE LOSING HIM.”

“And I began to cry as I have never cried before and started to pray the hardest I’ve ever prayed.  ‘Please…don’t…let him die.  I don’t want his mom to go through what I have.”

And the kid lived.  Sometimes, it only seems that the hurt wins.

In the end, effective outcomes and a piling of success stories aren’t the things we reach for.  Though, who am I kidding, I prefer them to abject failure and decades of death.  But on most days, if I’m true to myself, I just want to share my life with the poor, regardless of result.  I want to learn the challenge of intractable problems with as tender a heart as I can locate, knowing that there is some divine ingenuity here, “the slow work of God,” that gets done if we’re faithful.  Maybe there are things you can’t reach or change.  But you can stretch your arm across a gurney and forgive and heal. Sometimes, it only seems that the hurt wins.

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