We are in the middle of a string of Sunday Gospel readings that have a more urgent tone. Jesus’ words to his followers and his detractors are sharper, clearer, more challenging. He is describing how the humbled will someday be exalted and vice versa, that gaining eternal life is like trying to fit through a narrow gate, the idea that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, and the reality that there is grave risk if we don’t recognize the poor and suffering amongst us.
These are some serious lessons and Jesus doesn’t mince words when he distinguishes between those who find themselves on the comfortable inside versus those who are on the harsh outside.
I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be on the inside. And on the outside.
Obviously, the inside is where you want to be.
Inside we got a place to hang your hat and a place to rest your head. You can take a load off and get a good and warm meal. On the inside, we have GPS, Netflix and Disney +, fast internet, and the latest in digital entertainment. You can get four-wheel drive, hard wood floors, an Apple Watch, an above average Sauvignon Blanc, and you can grab a double decaf venti skim latte nearly any time you want. Yes, inside is definitely the place to be.
I was on the inside pretty good sometime around 50 years ago… on a little league baseball team called the Orioles. It was a team that never lost, not even one time. I have great memories of sitting on the bench, laughing with my best friends, Dave and Timmy, usually when we were winning 12 to nothing and believing that none of us could ever do anything wrong and that our perfect season would last for the rest of our lives. On that bench, about two or three feet away, sat John. John was on the outside. He didn’t get to play much, only at the end of a game which we had essentially already won. When the ball was hit to him, he didn’t catch it. And when he went to bat, he always struck out. We didn’t talk much to John and he never talked much to us.
I remember the final game of that perfect season. John went up to hit. After the third pitch smacked the catcher’s mitt and the umpire yelled, “strike three”, John started to cry. In his heaving sobs, he proclaimed, “I never got a hit all year.” It was dramatic and awkward and incredibly sad. The coach handed John a baseball and told him that he’d have better luck next year.
A few minutes later, we all piled into the back of Mrs. Dowd’s station wagon to join the rest of the team at Brigham’s for ice cream sundaes and I saw John walk away from the field, holding his new baseball. I distinctly remember wanting to run out of that car and up to him and to say that he should come inside with us, go to Brigham’s… and that I wanted to be his friend. But Mrs. Dowd had started the car and then again, what might Dave and Timmy say?
I didn’t see John again until 15 years later. I was driving near that same baseball field and I saw him walk by. My heart started racing. This was my chance. I could ask him about his life, tell him I was sorry… and say that I wanted to get to know him. I slowed the car and thought about this. But it all felt incredibly awkward. I wondered if my gesture might backfire, if it might cause more harm than good. Plus, I had to get to work anyways. So, for the second time, I watched John walk away.
For years, I hoped I would see him again. When I was in that area, I would search for him as I drove by. I even rehearsed a few lines I would feel comfortable saying if I did see him. But, I never saw the John from the perfect season ever again.
I think about him a lot. Still.
Once, though, it occurred to me that I actually do see John here and there. I remember seeing John at my old job, in Ben. Ben was a staffer who had such a horrible self-image that he acted as though he never could do anything right.
And I’m sure I saw John in Deandra who came into to the health center where I once worked. Deandra had been abandoned and rejected by everybody she had ever known and was dying from AIDS. She had absolutely no one she could turn to for support and love.
Do you know John? Or Ben? Or Deandra? Or are you one of them yourself?
For those of us on the inside, Jesus is calling us, urging us actually, to think about those who are on the outside… and how we might help them.
For those of us on the outside, Jesus is reassuring us, telling us that like the one lost sheep, he is coming to find us. And that he will always find us.