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Weekly Message 09-21-08: Sunday after Exaltation of the Cross

As I was preparing for today’s homily, I ran across this story, and found it appropriate to share with you, for I believe the message it contains is quite timely and appropriate for all of us gathered here this morning.

It is the story of Eugene Orowitz, a skinny, scrawny, 100-pound sophomore at Collingswood High School in South Jersey in the 1950s. One day in gym class, the coach was teaching everyone how to throw a javelin. One by one, the students threw the six-foot-long spear. The longest throw was 30 yards. Finally, the coach looked over to Eugene and said, “You want to try, Orowitz?” Eugene nodded, and the other kids laughed. Some said, “You think you can lift it?” or “Careful, you might stab yourself.” But as he stood there, a strange feeling came over Eugene. Holding the javelin, he imagined himself as a young warrior about to enter into a battle. He raised the javelin, took six quick steps and let it fly. It soared and soared eventually crashing into the empty bleachers; twice as far as anyone else.

When Eugene retrieved the javelin, he saw that the tip had broken in the crash. The coach looked at it and said, “Well, Orowitz, you broke the thing. It’s no good to us now. You might as well take it home.” That summer Eugene spent most of his time throwing the javelin in a vacant lot. By the end of his senior year in high school, Eugene threw the javelin 211 feet – farther than any other high school athlete in the nation. He was given an academic scholarship to college and began to dream of the Olympics. Then one day, he didn’t warm up properly, and while throwing, tore the ligaments in his shoulder. That put an end to his javelin throwing, his scholarship, and his dreams. In a quick moment all his hard work went down the drain. It was as if God had slapped him in the face after he had performed a minor miracle. Eugene dropped out of college and took a job at a warehouse.

This tragic story of Eugene Orowitz raises a vexing question, one that is asked by people in times of mourning and distress time and again:  Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does He let suffering touch the lives of fine people who don’t deserve it?

Why did God let tragedy tear the prize from the hands of Eugene Orowitz after he had worked so hard to win it? Jesus gives us a hint of the answer to that question in today’s Gospel, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What Jesus is saying is hard to believe, even a bit crazy to someone who doesn’t have faith. “Whoever accepts suffering and misfortune for my sake, will find a whole new life.” And Jesus suggests that it will be a far richer life than the one lost by tragedy. Another way to understand this is to realize that God doesn’t cause tragedy; He doesn’t harm us; or cause harm in the world. These horrible things aren’t God’s will; in fact they are the opposite of what God wills for us. Why do bad things happen? We can’t answer that question. But, in the midst of tragedy, God can use even those challenging situations to guide us to newer and better lives.

Take the case of Eugene Orowitz. We left him working in a warehouse. Well, one day, Eugene met a struggling actor who asked him for some help with his lines. Eugene got interested in acting himself and enrolled in an acting class. His big break came when, at age 22, he was cast as Little Joe in the popular TV western “Bonanza” which ran for 14 years. Later, he got the leading role in other long-running TV shows, “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Highway to Heaven.” Eugene Orowitz is better known as Michael Landon, and he came to realize that the most important thing that happened in his life was the day he tore those ligaments in his shoulder. What seemed like the worst tragedy of his life at the time was in fact one that led to incredible blessings; a life that far surpassed the dreams he once held.

How do we apply this to our own lives? All we can do is follow the advice of Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me,” and leave the rest in His hands. And so, if we are a young person who dreamed of making the team, but got cut, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He will lead us to a better life. If we are an older person who dreamed of being a success in business, or having the world’s greatest family, or greatest marriage, but ended up with none of these, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He will mend our broken dreams and lead us to a renewed appreciation of life that we never dreamed possible.

All of this, however, still doesn’t explain the mystery of suffering and misfortune. In the end, all we may be able to do when it strikes is trust in Jesus who says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We may never understand the mystery of suffering, but we can find comfort and direction, we can find the very presence of God in its midst.

There is an old poem by an unknown author called “The Folded Page.” It reads as follows:


Up in the attic of an old house,

As raindrops pattered down on the roof,

I sat paging through my old schoolbook.

I came to a page that was folded down.

Across it was written in my old childish hand:

‘The teacher says we should leave this for now.

It’s too hard to understand.’

I unfolded the page and read it.

Then I smiled and nodded my head and said,

‘The teacher was right; now I understand.’

There are many pages in the book of life

that are hard to understand.

All we can do is fold them down and write:

‘The Master says to leave this for now.

It’s too hard to understand.’

Then, someday in heaven,

we’ll unfold the pages, re-read them and say,

‘The Master was right; now I understand.’

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Think and pray over this, my brothers and sisters, as we continue our journey as Disciples of Christ.  Amen.

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