Sunday, March 22, 2015

Learning Obedience from What We Suffer

Stuart Scott

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 22, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2015]

Stuart Scott was a sportscaster and anchor on the ESPN television network.  He was definitely a familiar face to anybody who watched SportsCenter on a regular basis during the last decade.

In 2007, he had what was supposed to be routine surgery to remove his appendix.  However later on, when the doctors tested the tissue they had removed during the operation, they discovered that it was cancerous.  For the next seven years Scott battled the disease courageously, and for the most part he continued to work at ESPN—however, on January 4th of this year he passed away from cancer at the young age of 49, leaving behind a wife and two children.

But before he died he wrote a book—a book that was co-authored by a man named Larry Plath.  The book is entitled (appropriately enough), “Every Day I Fight.”

Now the reason I mention this today is because I saw Larry Plath interviewed last week on television, and one of the things he said about Stuart Scott during that interview really struck me.  You know, it always strengthens my faith when I hear people in a secular environment echoing the truths of the Bible and our Catholic religion (especially when they do it without realizing that they’re doing it!).

And so it was here. 

In today’s second reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Well Larry Plath said something very similar about Stuart Scott with respect to his battle with cancer.  In fact Scott also said it himself.  He said that his suffering had taught him some very important lessons that he might not otherwise have learned in his life.

Let me quote now Larry Plath’s words in the interview.  He said:

"There was an element of wisdom that came [to Stuart Scott].  He learned patience as a result of cancer.  I mean, that’s the paradox—right?  [Stuart] says in the book that the paradox is that cancer just might make you the man you always wanted to be."

The sportscaster who was interviewing Larry Plath responded to that remark by saying, “Unbelievable.”  I think he said that because he was well aware of the fact that many people in our world today just get angry and bitter when they experience a cross like cancer.  They rebel against God in the face of their pain, such that they actually end up learning “disobedience from what they suffer!”

And even when people do respond positively to their sufferings with a greater obedience to God, that obedience sometimes comes after a period of disobedience.  For example, how often have you seen people come back to the practice of their Catholic faith after somebody in their family dies?

It happens all the time.  These men and women are living lives of disobedience to God, but suddenly their suffering “wakes them up” (so to speak) spiritually.

And that’s great!  Praise God that they’ve seen the light.  They’ve learned obedience to the Third Commandment (“Keep holy the sabbath day”) through their suffering—and that’s wonderful!  We should rejoice whenever that kind of learning takes place.  Better late than never! 

But this is where we differ from Jesus.  When we sinful human beings learn obedience from what we suffer, we often learn it after some disobedience; whereas Jesus, because he was perfect, learned obedience through obedience—always!  In other words, in every situation of suffering in which he found himself (like the Garden of Gethsemane), he said the same thing: “Thy will be done.”

He never said, “My will be done.”

We see this illustrated beautifully in today’s gospel text when Jesus says (in reference to his upcoming passion and death), “I am troubled now.  Yet what should I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

“He learned obedience from what he suffered.”

What have you learned through your suffering?

That’s a good question to reflect on during this last full week of Lent.

I did that myself in preparation for this homily, and I came to realize that I’ve learned a lot of things—a lot of good things—through my experience of having Parkinson’s Disease.  That doesn’t mean I’m happy that I’ve got it!  (Don’t misunderstand me here!)  It just means that I am aware of certain blessings that I’ve experienced in the midst of it all.  For example:

  • ·         I’ve learned to be more empathetic (and hopefully more compassionate) in dealing with the sick and the elderly.
  • ·         I’ve learned to rely on God more.
  • ·         I’ve learned to put more trust in him.
  • ·         I’ve learned to take the power of prayer more seriously (since I believe that I’m doing as well as I’m doing in large part because so many people—even some people I don’t know—are praying for me every day!).
  • ·         I’ve learned how important it is to focus on what I have, not what I don’t have; and I’ve learned to be more grateful for the health and abilities that I do still possess.
  • ·         I’ve learned once again not to put all my hopes in this earthly life, because this mortal life is very fragile (a lot more fragile than you think it is when you’re young and healthy).
  • ·         And I’ve learned that God is in control, and that I am not (even in those areas of life where I always thought I was in control).

Those are just some of the positive lessons I’ve learned from the otherwise negative experience of having this disease.  And that has made me more obedient to the Lord.

At least sometimes it has.  Unfortunately I have had those moments when I’ve allowed things like anger and frustration and impatience to get in the way of my obedience.  Usually that happens when I’m trying to do something “really difficult” like buttoning a shirt or turning the page of a book or cutting a piece of meat at dinner—all those fine motor activities that you never give a second thought to when you’re healthy, but which become really big issues when you have a neuro-muscular disorder like Parkinson’s.

My point in sharing this with you today is that learning obedience through suffering is an ongoing process—for all of us.

But it’s worth the effort.

As Stuart Scott made clear, the sufferings of this life do have the potential of changing us for the better.  They can make us, as he said, into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

For a Christian, that means they have the potential to help us become what Matthew Kelly calls, “the best possible versions of ourselves.”

Or, as the Church would say, “Saints.”