Two reporters had an interesting conversation on the ledge of the 37th floor of a building under construction. They had been invited there by the company’s marketing team to cover the progress of a new skyscraper. It was to connect to a building across the street. The reporters stood on an open air platform next to the I-beam that would join the two buildings.
One reporter said, “Could you imagine crawling across that?” The other one shook his head. “No way,” he said, looking at the fall of several hundred feet to the pavement below: Then the first asked “Would you crawl across that beam for $10,000?” “Absolutely not” he said. What about for $100,000? Still absolutely not! Then he asked, “Would you cross that beam if your child was in trouble on the other side and needed you and that was the only way to get to them?” He looked at the other reporter who could tell without him saying a word that, yes, he would.
The difference, of course, is what he kept his eyes and heart focused on. He would do it for his child.
Today’s Gospel offers us the image of a Jesus who would cross that I-beam. And he names the cost of discipleship in hard terms. “I have come to set the earth on fire -literally – to ‘throw down fire upon the earth. I have a baptism to receive – how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” This is not the warm and cuddly Jesus here. Rather, this is the Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, focused in on the world in danger on the other side of the I-beam – knowing that there are hard choices to be made and a price to be paid for walking into the fire. You see, there is always a price to be paid for setting the earth on fire, and for walking into that flame. We try to push it aside, cover it up with fancy words or the consoling passages of the gentle Jesus – but every time we come into a church and see the cross – we are reminded of the price of setting a fire on the earth. The price of fire is always sacrificial love. And we’ll never receive our baptism unless WE are willing to walk into the fire.
But today’s scriptures also speak to HOW we are to do just that. Our second reading tells us: “… let us persevere in running this race, with our eyes fixed on Jesus.” We do it by keeping our eyes fixed on the right thing. That reporter would do it for his child. Jesus did it for us. And when we keep our eyes fixed on what is needed for love, when we keep our hearts focused on the needs of the other, we can walk into that blaze as well.
Many of you begin the adventure called college tomorrow. Some of you are returning for your second or third or fourth year or for what we call at UMSL – your victory lap years. There are many things that beckon these college days – things that would/could pull you out on to that I-beam of life – without much support – suspended between life and death, both figuratively and literally. Yet there is also so much to be excited about – so many possibilities. How will you make the journey of discipleship?
Sometimes, it can feel so lonely. Why am I the sober one at this gathering? Why am I choosing to honor the gift of my body that I want to give pure to my future husband or wife? Why am I not passing off someone else’s work as my own? Why am I volunteering my Saturday morning in service when everyone else is hung over in bed? Most of the time, we don’t get cheered for doing the right thing.
And when the cost of discipleship is great, when we would rather skip the price of walking into the fire, the author of Hebrews adds this encouragement: “There is a great cloud of witnesses who spurs us on,” an unseen loving presence of all of our loved who have gone before us… the saints… who kept their eyes focused on others, who did what was needed for love, who walked into the fire ahead of us.. They pray for us, believe in us, encourage us, and spur us on. Their witness invites us to keep our eyes focused rightly…
Perhaps you know the story of a woman who came across Mother Theresa as she was in the gutter, picking maggots out of a dying man’s body. The woman said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Theresa responded, “Neither would I.” She did it because she knew that man was a beloved child of God… She kept her eyes fixed on Jesus, who dwelled in that man, the Jesus who shows up as she called it “in all his distressing disguises.” When we keep our eyes on others in their need, we are ourselves keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Most of us will never have to walk across an i-beam suspended on the thirty seventh floor. But today’s scriptures won’t let us forget that there is always a price to pay for doing what is right…a price for setting the world on fire with the love of our savior. And like that reporter who would go across that i-beam bridged chasm for his child, we too can cross the journey of college and life – when our eyes are fixed on Jesus.