21st Sunday of Ordinary Time–Are You Someone’s Angel?

This was my homily for Sunday, August 22, 2010.  Sorry for the late posting.

You and I are bombarded every day with information.  We have hundreds of stations on cable and satellite TV.  Having to fill all that TV time, networks dredge up every possible bit of “news” whether it’s really worthy of or attention or not.  Networks like CNN and Fox not only offer 24 hours of sound and pictures, they even scroll continuous news as text across the bottom of the screen.  During the day, they add stock prices to the screen.  It’s almost impossible to keep up.

Movie theaters demand quantity rather than quality to keep their ten-screen megaplexes full while HBO and Showtime wait to get their piece of the pie from the same movies when they’ve run their course on the big screens, often in a matter of weeks.  Blockbuster and Netflix also have to satisfy their customers.  Some of us remember when a new movie would come out at one of the big movie houses downtown or on Grand Avenue.  After several weeks they would move to the second-run theaters for a few more weeks.  Then after six months or even a year, they would show up on network TV.

There were a lot fewer new movies then, but the quality was much better.

Then there’s the Internet.  As I was getting this homily ready Friday (last) night, the tornado siren went off.  With a couple of clicks I was able to look at the radar on my computer screen and read the tornado warning.  Jan was at a movie so I sent her a text message.  That’s modern technology.

There’s Facebook and MySpace, Twitter and YouTube so we can keep in constant contact with our friends  and total strangers who we call friends because we’re connected over the web.  I hear daily from people in England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and all over the United States, some of whom I’ve actually met and some I’ve never met and probably never will.  But I can tell you what’s going on with them and they know what’s going on with me.

There are blogs and podcasts and online forums on just about any subject you can think of and a lot that you would never think of.  It’s all out there.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love using the web to stay in contact with these people.  My granddaughter in Huntsville, AL is just two weeks old but Jan and I have been able to see her on live video three times already.  We’ll get to meet her in person in a couple of weeks, but the video chat is much better than waiting for still pictures to come in the mail.  In fact, we already have more than a hundred pictures of her that her mom and dad have sent us online.

Plus theres regular TV and the radio, newspapers and magazines, and good old fashioned US Mail to keep us informed.  Sometimes, it’s just too much!  We try so hard to stay on top of all this information that sometimes we forget the things that are really important, like family and friends, spiritual reading, prayer, and old-fashioned peace and quiet.

One thing I’ve noticed about all this stuff, is that family values and spiritual values are hardly ever mentioned.  Christianity is a taboo subject unless someone wants to make fun of it.  It’s not politically correct to talk about Jesus, or the Ten Commandments, unless the story is about some atheist suing some town council to get a Nativity scene removed from some public place.  It’s OK for the Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, but a Christian church in the same neighborhood, that was there before 911 can’t get permission to rebuild.

One thing I’ve noticed in this flood of words and pictures is that no one ever mentions hell.  We’re being sold on the idea that the place just doesn’t exist anymore.  Live, drink, and be merry.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.  There’s no need to worry about the consequences of our actions.  Personal responsibility is a thing of the past.

On the other hand, there is a heaven.  But we don’t have to live a good life, or even die to get there.  Drive the right car, drink the right brand of liquor, wear the right blue jeans, and take the right little pill and heaven is yours, right here on earth.

You and I know, deep in our hearts that none of this is true.  But when you’re bombarded with these messages hundreds of times a day, it’s hard to resist these promises.  None of us expects to die anytime soon so why not enjoy this life here and now and worry about the next life later?  A nice seven day cruise, maybe to the Caribbean, lots of Captain Morgan rum, a new wardrobe, all the food, fun, and hot bodies we can handle.  What could be wrong with that?  Or, like the commercial says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”  It’s the new “adult summer camp”, isn’t it.

Imagine how hard it must be for our brothers and sisters who don’t have a solid faith in Jesus.  After all, He was just a guy who lived half way around the world 2,000 years ago.  Why should I believe Him when all my friends are living la vida loca.

Here’s what you and I know for sure.  Jesus didn’t just speak the truth.  He is the truth.  As the Son of God, it’s impossible for Him to lie.  In today’s Gospel, here’s what He said.  “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”  He goes on, “Depart from me, all you evildoers!  And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.”

I think that’s pretty clear, don’t you?  I love what Bishop Hermann wrote in this weeks Saint Louis Review.  Speaking of the “narrow gate” he said, “There are times when my ego, like a hot-air balloon, is too inflated to get through the narrow gate!  In that condition I will bump against the narrow gate again, and again, but I will not get through unless some of the hot air is removed from my ego.  In other words, it has to be deflated, and I assure you that Christ will do everything He can to see that this deflation takes place!”

That’s a great analogy.  What makes it ever better is that you will never meet a more humble man that Robert Hermann.  If he needs Christ’s help to get through the narrow gate, where does that leave you and me?

I had some experience with Jesus’ ego-deflating help just this week.  On Tuesday morning I took a train to Jefferson City and rode my bike back to Saint Charles on the Katy Trail.  Face it, I’m not the finest physical specimen you’ve ever met.  I’m about 20 pounds overweight and I’m just weeks away from getting my first Social Security check.  But with God’s help, I made the trip back in three days.  It’s 122.4 miles from the current state capitol to the first state capitol, but who’s counting?

Anyway, I was almost back, about ten miles from the finish line and I was feeling pretty good about myself.  I may not look like like much, but I could never done such a thing ten years ago, probably never in my life.  Thanks be to God, I was about to reach my goal.  I stopped in one of the few shady spots in the last twenty miles or so to rest for a minute and I met two young guys going the other way on the trail.  They were in the process of riding from Cleveland to California.  They’re riding 100 miles per day for almost two months!  So much for my inflated ego.

I firmly believe that God sends us angels to help us when we need it.  Those guys must have been my angels.  Like the Bishop said, “I assure you that Christ will do everything He can to see that this deflation (of our egos) takes place.”

I have to tell you about another person who may be a personal angel for me.  I ride two or three times a week on Grant’s Trail.  Every single time I ride, I see this guy.  I don’t ride every day, but every time I do ride I see him, so he must ride every day.  He obviously has lost the use of his legs.  He has a recumbent bike that he pedals with his arms.

I’ve seen him get ready to ride.  He gets out of his car into a wheel chair.  He wheels himself to the back of his car where he gets the bike off the rack, chains his wheel chair to the back of his car, then heads off down the trail.  The effort it takes him just to get ready to ride would be too much for me.  But there he is, every day, doing his thing.

That’s discipline.  Seeing his determination makes whatever I accomplish with two arms and two legs pale by comparison.  Talk about discipline.

It’s like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says in our second reading, “for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  He tells us that God treats us as sons.  “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for job, but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

Jesus tells us we have to be strong to get into heaven.  To be strong you must have discipline.  Jesus is the source of our discipline and our strength.  In spite of what some people think, in spite of what society would have us believe, there’s no free lunch.  We have to work hard, endure the trials, whether they’re from outside, or self-inflicted like my bike trip.

Some people are blessed with great natural gifts.  Some of us, not so much.  But with proper discipline, we’ll all be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us, and we’ll welcome the discipline He gives us, knowing that it will make us stronger; make us more able to enter through that narrow gate.

Bishop Hermann ends his column in the Review by saying, “As for those in our midst who do not seem to be headed for the kingdom, the first thing we should do is to pray and fast for them, and the last thing we should do is to judge them.  When we fast from judging them and we offer up this fast, we are interceding for them.  When we invite the Lord to show us in our lives the same faults we see in their lives, and then ask the Lord to forgive us those faults, we intercede for them.  When we pray for them, we are filled with hope.  Hope is what they and we both need?”

It Wasn’t 40 Days but It’s a Start

As promised, here’s a post-mortum on my grand adventure on 2 wheels from Jefferson City, MO to Saint Charles. It was definitely an interesting trip.  Some of it was about what I expected but there were some surprises too.

Kirkwood, MO Amtrak Station

I left Saint Louis (actually Kirkwood, a suburb) at 9:00 am Tuesday.  The ticket said 8:59, go figure.  Like they could really be that specific?  Anyway, the Amtrak train was the first surprise.  I haven’t been on a train since I was a teenager  so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  It was very nice.  The train itself was clean and pleasant.  There was a cafe car with drinks and snacks.  The seats are comfortable and the ride as smooth as glass.  It was a short two-hour ride.

One thing I remember from my last train ride to the state capitol, as a Cub Scout, was the steep hill from the Amtrak station to the capitol building.  It’s still there!  So I started my trip, at least the first two blocks, walking the bike.  I might mention that the weight of all the stuff I took

Missouri State Capitol

along made the bike very unstable.  Rather than roll backwards down the hill and into the Missouri River, I decided that it would be best to start my actual ride on level ground.  This part didn’t count anyway.  I zeroed my odometer when I was standing in front of the actual capitol.


After a very good cheeseburger at the Downtown Diner, the actual ride started a little after noon.

I ran into the first problem less than a mile into the ride.  The bike lane on the Missouri River bridge was closed.  Fortunately, the workers who had the lane closed were eating lunch and I was able to navigate around their giant crane, avoiding the life-threatening possibility of crossing the bridge in traffic.

Off to a great start

It’s a little over 2 miles from Jeff to the actual trail.  Once I got to the trail, I felt a lot like the Maytag repairman.  For the first 80 miles or so, I saw three people.  I saw two girls riding about ten minutes into the trail and one gentleman in a dress shirt riding a balloon-tired Schwinn on Wednesday, apparently a local.  Otherwise, it was just God, me, and the frogs.

Just me and the frogs

That was another strange thing.  I expected to see some wildlife, especially since there were no other people.  But the only animals I really saw were a lot of frogs hopping across the trail.

That first day was uneventful, except for breaking a spoke.  As per my master plan, or dumb luck with some help from the Holy Spirit, I made it to a small town called Bluffton around 4:00 where I planned to spend the night at the Steamboat Junction Campground.

Steamboat Junction Campground

Let me tell you about the Steamboat Junction Campground. First, it’s very nice.  Everything was clean, the sites were nice, and there wasn’t a soul in the place.  No other campers.  No owners.  Just me.  There’s a box where you put your camping fee.  There’s a refrigerator stocked with soda, water, and some snacks.  Again, you put your money in the slot.

I have to say, I’ve camped many a night in my life, but never completely alone.  Trust me, I was zipped up in my tent before it got dark.  It’s amazing how many noises there are in the woods when you’re the only one there.

Dinner Tuesday night was a celophane-wrapped sub sandwich from the honor-system fridge, some beef jerky, and a granola bar.

I survived the night, enjoyed more beef jerky and another granola bar for breakfast and headed out for day 2.

The highlight of day 2, at least the first half of day 2, was lunch in Hermann, MO.

Rivertown Restaurant, Hermann, MO

Hermann is a town of German heritage which is known for its wineries, about two miles off the Katy Trail.  Since it was before noon and since an unstable rider and an unstable ride is a bad combination, I settled for a barbecued pork steak, took some pictures, and was on my way.

The Katy Trail is a combination of wooded scenery, magnificent views of the Missouri River, sometimes just a few feet away, high bluffs, and a lot of small towns that have seen better days.  The trail is the former right-of-way of the MKT Railroad.  In the railroads’ hey day, small towns sprang up along its path.  When the railroad left, so did the people leaving in their wake some sad little towns.  I’m sure trail users generate a little revenue, mostly on the weekends, but there’s really not much going on there.

Missouri River

I had hoped I might be able to find a daily mass along the trail, but churches are few and far between.  So, the conversations I had with God were one-on-one.  But, you can’t look at a hundred-foot-high bluff that was carved by just water, or the mighty Missouri River making it’s way to it’s meeting with the Mississippi, to realize the might and power of God.  Then a butterfly landed on my hand at one point and stayed there for several minutes.  God’s existence is all around us in the biggest and the smallest things.

Jim's Bar & Grill, Tebbetts, MO

I had planned on spending Wednesday night in the town of Marthasville.  Unfortunately, the campground where I planned on staying is now an overgrown field.  Plan B was a nearby bed and breakfast.  Good news-it’s still open.  Bad news-there was no one there.

I stopped and enjoyed an ice cream sundae, the highlight of the second half of the day, sitting in the shade.  Lovely!

But time marches on, so I got out my trusty Katy Trail guide and saw that the next possible camping site was in Augusta, another eleven miles.  Oh well, more miles Wednesday meant fewer miles Thursday.

Klondike Park, Augusta, MO

Klondike Park in Augusta is a beautiful spot.  It’s a rarity in these parts, a campground in a county park.  Again, it was almost deserted.  There was another couple camped there, but I didn’t run into them until Thursday morning.  It was another honor-system facility with nice sites and an excellent shower/bathroom building right across the road from where I camped.

There wasn’t even a vending machine here so Wednesday dinner and Thursday breakfast were my new favorite beef jerky/granola bar combo plate, washed down with warm water.  Yum!  I may start a franchise.

Heading into the home stretch now with a short day thanks to my overly-long Wednesday ride of more than 55 miles (the longest I’ve ever ridden in one day), I was anxious to get this thing over with.  The only stop along the way was a biker bar (not the pedaling kind of biker, the Harley kind) in Defiance, where I enjoyed probably the best diet cola I’ve ever had along with a large ice water in the air conditioning.  The nice lady behind the bar filled my soda bottle with water and gave me a cup of ice for the final leg of the journey.

Defiance is the former home of Daniel Boone and a side trip was an option.  But, the air conditioned bar won out.  I can drive out to Defiance some other day.

As it turned out, Thursday was the hottest day of the trip and the stretch of the trail

The Home Stretch

from Defiance to Saint Charles is mostly in the sun, so in spite of being the shortest leg of the trip, the combination of the heat and my worn out body made it the toughest.  But the end was in sight and there was no way I wasn’t going to finish.

There were actually other people riding on this stretch of the trail.  In fact, I met two young men who were on their way from Cleveland, OH to California.  They were planning to average 100 miles per day.  Just what California needs, two more crazy people!  Seriously, I can’t imagine the conditioning and the stamina it must take to ride a bicycle that long and that far.

Just as I was beginning to feel pretty good about myself, these young men reminded me that we all do what’s within our capabilities and not to get an inflated ego over my “accomplishment”.  We don’t do anything by ourselves, whether it’s some kind of physical effort, mental effort, of spiritual effort.  I’ll never be able to do what those young guys are doing, mostly because I’m not young anymore.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did this week when I was their age either.  As my wife pointed out to me yesterday at breakfast, I’m no great physical specimen but I’m in better shape now than I was in my twenties.  We all have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Missouri's First Capitol (Notice bike in lower left corner)

End of the Trail

I’d say that’s the number one lesson I learned this week.  Here are the others, in no particular order.

1. ALWAYS CALL AHEAD. The campground that was open last year may be a vacant lot this year.

2. Everything weighs more than you think it does. Everything is farther than you think it is. Everything takes longer than you think it will.

3. Never, never, never take ice water for granted.

4. Everything is possible with God’s help.

If you’re interested, I’ve posted all my trip pix on my Facebook page.

There are a number of good resources if you’d like to consider a Katy Trail trip. Probably the most useful is RideKatyTrail.com. Brett Dufur’s Katy Trail Guide Book is also well worth looking into.

Final numbers

Day 1  38.0 miles, 3 hrs 22 min

Day 2  55.4 miles, 5 hrs 05 min

Day 3  30.0 miles 2 hrs 20 min

Total  122.4 miles  10 hrs 56 min

A Capitol Adventure

In today’s gospel, the young man went away sad because he had many possessions and he didn’t want to give them up to follow Jesus.  That’s something I think we can all sympathize with.  It’s not easy to give up our material goods, even temporarily.  This week I’m going to give it a try in my own unworthy way.  Granted, I’m not going to give up everything, but for the next three days I’m going to live with just the few things I can carry on my bicycle.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to board the Amtrak train for Jefferson City, MO.  Then I’m going to ride back to Saint Louis, or at least to Saint Charles, MO on my bike.  According to my Internet research it’s about 110 miles.  I plan to stop and smell the roses along the way and to commune with God as much as possible.  I plan on taking three days.

Given my large fingers and the small keyboard on my Android phone, I won’t be blogging this week, but I do plan to make short posts on Facebook along the way.  You can follow me, if you’re so inclined on my Facebook page.

When I return I’ll be posting a more in-depth journal here on the blog.  I’m calling it a “capitol” trip because I’ll be riding from the current Missouri capitol building in Jeff City to our first state capitol in Saint Charles.

Your prayers would be greatly appreciated.