Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
I want to recommend a new movie, a very Christian movie, even though it never talks about God directly. It’s called “Sugar” and it’s about a young man from the Dominican Republic, a pitcher, who comes to the United States to play baseball.
He starts in the minor leagues in Arizona and Iowa, and he has great success at first. He strikes out a lot of people. He’s starting to make a name for himself.
They call him Sugar because his curve is so sweet.
But then he has an injury and has to miss a few games, and when he comes back, he’s lost something. He’s just not as good anymore. Other young pitchers start to edge him out, and he begins to feel a lot of pressure, and he’s been homesick all along.
You know how the standard sports story goes: hero works hard, hero experiences adiversity, hero wins big in a blaze of glory. The end. What’s so great about this movie is that it doesn’t follow that story. It follows reality, and in following reality, it becomes Christian, deeply Christian.
One day, depressed and despairing, Sugar walks away from the team and takes a bus to New York to look for a friend. He finds the Dominican and Spanish-speaking community in New York, he gets a job washing dishes, he meets new people, and he works, too, in a carpenter’s shop and finds a mentor in an older man from Puerto Rico. He’s failing in a way. He’s becoming just like everybody else. A nobody.
Except that in doing the dishes and working as a carpenter, in simply living his life, Sugar is finally happy. Not deliriously happy, not wildly happy. Quietly happy.
Free. At peace.
In the end he starts playing baseball again with other men who were once recruited and exploited, he starts playing just for fun, on a ragged field in the Bronx with a few aluminum bleachers. The sun is shining and everyone is laughing. When someone makes a mistake it’s no big deal. And as he starts throwing his fastball again, and then his change up, and then his curve, Sugar starts to really love the game again, for its own sake. He doesn’t care about being famous anymore. He’s just playing the game. Being in the moment.
In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoffer talks about what it really means to follow the way of the cross. “If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship,” he says,
if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary, everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.
Jesus doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory. He is executed, he fails, and Bonhoffer is saying that we shouldn’t explain that away. This is the moment we all have to face, this is the way life is--because of our bodies, because they are temporary and mortal; because of the pressures and stresses that come to all of us, no matter who we are.
The question is how we respond to these inevitable limitations. Do we ignore them, taking refuge in some fantasy of glory or privilege? Do we become angry or bitter? Or do we do what Jesus did? Do we embrace the darkness? Do we open ourselves up?
I was driving down the street the other morning and I realized that I’d been feeling a little guilty since our friend Sue died--guilty because I’m still alive, because I’m still happy and doing my work. It’s the way I felt for a while after my Mom died, too. I think we all have that feeling when a loved one dies.
But then I thought, wait a minute. That’s crazy. When I die the world will go on without me. Everyone I love won’t just give up. They won’t die, too. The world will go on and all the work will get done, and there will always be people living and dying and others taking their places and carrying on the business of things, and that’s wonderful and freeing, really, if you stop and think about it.
The only thing to feel guilty about is why we’re so worried and distracted. I was, driving down that street. I was preoccupied with all the stuff I was in charge of that day, or thought I was, with all the ways I thought I could assert myself and be approved of.
All the people I thought I could strike out.
I wasn’t paying attention to what really mattered. To the rainy asphalt. To Barb sitting next to me. To the coffee steaming in our cupholders. I was blind to that.
“The Christ-suffering which every person must experience,” Bonhoffer says, “is the call to abandon the attachment of this world.”
And later: “The call of Christ . . . sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin.” Every day the Christian “encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake.”
The temptations, I think, are to power and to fantasies of power, to glory and fantasies of glory. The temptations are to avoid thinking about the mundane and the everyday. This was Sugar’s problem in the beginning. He was cocky, he was full of himself. He an only becomes a hero, a true hero, in the end, when he’s been humbled and accepts that he has been. When he calls for help. When he reaches out.
And it’s only then he can be happy. “We can of course shake off the burden which is laid upon us,” Bonhoffer says, but then we find that “we have a still heavier burden to carry--a yoke of our own choosing, the yoke of our self.” Our fantasies are a heavy burden, and Jesus invites us to put them down and to take on his burden instead. His yoke. And his yoke is easy and his burden light.
It’s just a game, a lovely game, and all we have to do it is play it.
Blind Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus, and that’s what we must do.
Throw off our cloaks: our false self. Our fantasy self.
And then we can see.