When Excuses Fall Short
“Amidst the racket and ridicule of people my prayer rises toward You, O my King and my Kingdom. Prayer is incense, that ceaselessly censes my soul and raises it toward You, and draws You toward her. Stoop down, my King, so that I may whisper to You my most precious secret, my most secret prayer, my most prayerful desire. You are the object of all my prayers, all my searching. I seek nothing except You, truly, only You.” ~ A Prayer by St. Nikolai Velimirovich
Hunger is the word that describes the saints. Their souls ache with hunger for God. In his book, Prayers by the Lake, St. Nikolai gives us a glimpse into this state of relentless hunger. Nothing will satisfy him short of God. Meanwhile, I find myself more interested in biting into that bacon cheeseburger. My thoughts are continually pulled away towards all the noise. The racket of day to day life gets us so distracted. How can we become more like saints?
“Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come’” (Luke 14:16-20).
What keeps people from the Kingdom of God? All the ordinary, practical parts of life. There is something troubling about this passage. Did you catch it? Why did the people decline God’s invitation to heaven? They were not bad people, in the way the world understands it. They were not murderers or partiers. They were simply ordinary people going about ordinary lives. In fact, everything they said sounds so reasonable. They have good excuses. Listen to them again:
“I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.”
You do not get more reasonable than that. In modern life, this would be like saying: “I can’t come to Church on Sunday. I just got a job, and have to show up for orientation,” or “I won’t make it for Pascha. I have to be away for a business trip.” Perhaps, “It’s the Super Bowl and our family has its annual barbecue.”
The final excuse is the most striking: “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” If anyone should get off the hook, this is the one. Life happens. We get busy. Yet, the train took off, and they were not on it. They were too busy, too busy doing good and important things, and they missed the Kingdom of God.
Christianity cannot be comfortable. Salvation requires sacrifice. The gate to heaven is narrow. Imagine a huge, beautiful city, the glimmering Jerusalem. It is surrounded by a magnificent wall, and in that wall, there is a small door. You cannot fit through with all your baggage. You cannot squeeze in without an effort to throw away, to cut off, to trim down, and finally, by crawling through on your knees. Our Gospel challenges us today to take seriously the excuses that we make, which prevent us from walking with God.
Consider tithing. The Church asks all of us tithe. You cannot get around it. The Old Testament and the very words of Christ ask us to give ten percent of our income, in the least. It is a way of life, and a challenging one. When I first started tithing, it felt like I was cutting off a limb. “I just worked so hard for that, and I have so many bills to pay.” It can hurt. Yet, tithing is the spiritual principle that teaches us to let go and trust. The irony is, the people who tithe the most are the ones who are most at peace about their finances.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis gives this wonderful advice about charity:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we [Christians] ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
Is this not right? We Christians cannot be as comfortable as those around us. Our faith must pinch and hamper our lifestyles. Sacrifice is needed, in order to have a soul that is free.
Now consider time. Time is far more precious than money. Devotion to God must mean a sacrifice in our schedule.
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
Last week, I talked about the importance of monasticism. I want to begin by emphasizing what I did not mean. We are not all called to be monks. Some are called to be mothers, and will occasionally miss Mass because they are up all night nursing a sick baby. Others are nurses or police officers. They are keeping the world safe while we pray in their absence. Each person has a different vocation. Each of us has a different life to live, with different jobs and responsibilities.
All the same, we should always remember our Lord’s warning.
‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it…I have bought five yoke oxen, and I am going to try them out…I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come’” (Luke 14:16-20).
The good excuses, the most reasonable and ordinary justifications, these are precisely what most easily suffocate the soul. The Kingdom of God requires sacrifice.
What keeps people from the Kingdom of God? Everything when it takes priority over God.
“So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:21-23).
Only the poor in heart inherit the Kingdom. Only those who are willing to let go, and crawl on their knees, are able to fit through the door.
In his prayers, St. Nikolai Velimirovich stresses the vanity of the world, and begs God to free his heart:
“The shortsighted see only this life, and say: ‘This is the only life there is, and we shall make it immortal by means of our deeds among men.” Does this not sound like the world we live in. St. Nikolai continues: “I tell them: ‘So, you intend to establish your immortality among mortals? Try starting a fire in water!’ But when they look death in the face, they are left speechless, and torment seizes their heart…[when] they feel the icy wind of death breathing down their necks too, and they fall down on their knees and bow their heads over their toppled pride, and pray to You: ‘Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!’”
In the end, our excuses all fall short. Everything is vanity, unless it leads us to God. Life is passing and time is running out. Everything we do and love here will turn to dust. All along, God is waiting to give us Himself. God, who is pleasure, who is paradise, offers all that he is in eternity. May God free our hearts so that we can hunger for Him.