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2nd Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:31-35

The Lessons of a Lost Cause

Don Quixote

The retired country gentleman lived with his niece and a housekeeper. He had an obsession with books of chivalry and a glaring weakness—he believed that every word of the fictional accounts to be true. The events may have been clearly impossible but to Alonso Quixano, they were to be taken as historical. Alonso willingly deprives himself of food and sleep to allow more time to read the stirring stories of the knights of legend. His obsession with fiction eventually causes his mind to drift into an existential dream world. Losing his grip with reality, he would argue with the local priest and the barber over which knight was the more gallant. He finally decides to embark on his own adventure. Eager to fight injustice, Alonso finds an old suit of armor and a makeshift helmet. He takes an old barn nag well past its prime and renames it Rocinante—work horse and then renames himself, “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”

The legend of Don Quixote is a story of a man's quest to right wrong and champion justice. Through distorted lenses he sees robbers as knights, peasant girls as distinguished ladies of court, and windmills as giants. The man of la Mancha's quest ends in a sad disillusioned death.

In a world of hurt and pain we may sometimes see ministry as a Quixote quest. We see people for who they can become but they our only willing to see themselves for who they are with predefined limitations, weaknesses and moral failures. Our encouragement is met with criticism and our affirmations with disdain. People take advantage of our noble deeds. They laugh and scorn at our values and beliefs. They wonder if we have lost our sense of reality and sometimes we wonder if we are pursuing a lost cause or maybe even falling at windmills. We have comfort in knowing that Jesus encountered the same ridicule and opposition.

This morning's Scripture passage is found in that critical section in which Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. Luke wants us to know that Jesus has set his course for the Holy City. The situations and events in this section did not necessarily occur in chronological order. Luke is more concerned with theological integrity rather than historical reality. His is presenting his story thematically, not with the precision of a news reporter.

The story begins with a group of Pharisees reporting that Herod is upset and wants to kill him. The scene is almost comical. Why would the Pharisees be concerned about Jesus' safety? Are they friendly to his cause, than why did Luke not add a complimentary adjective? More likely they are hoping that Jesus will leave Herod's district and return to Judea and closer to Jerusalem where they had more influence and control. They were luring Jesus. He was too popular in the northern sections of Israel but in the south, close to the capital city they could seize him more easily and without the intervention of his crowds of followers.

His response to the Pharisees and his journey to Jerusalem reveals several things about his character and his witness. Some might accuse him of chasing windmills or pursuing a lost cause. Herod would never bow down and worship even a spiritual king. The Pharisees would never admit that they had misunderstood the meaning of the Law. The priests would never relinquish their authority and share their financial prosperity. And the people were only interested in being fed. Some could have accused Jesus of pursuing a lost cause.

Lost causes are very frustrating and difficult. They can be the pursuit of a dream, a career, or a person. Teenagers go through phases and sometimes seem like lost causes. Jobs sometimes require endless hours with little reward. Politicians may begin with great dreams but quickly discover that the compromises required by politics shatter their Utopian dreams. William Wilberforce was one politician whose dream was nearly shattered by a seemingly lost cause.

Wilberforce entered Parliament in the House of Commons in 1780. He was a major supporter of programs for popular education, overseas missions, parliamentary reform, and religious liberty but he decided that God had called him to campaign for the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire.

He introduced his first anti-slavery motion in the House of Commons in 1788, in a three-and-a-half hour oration that concluded: "Sir, when we think of eternity and the future consequence of all human conduct, what is there in this life that shall make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice and the law of God!" The motion was defeated but Wilberforce was undaunted. He brought it up again every year for the next eighteen years. Wilberforce was not a very popular man in the England.

One year Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote a poem to commemorate the defeat of his bill. The poem opened with a admonition for him to give up his crusade:

CEASE, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!
Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!
The Preacher, Poet, Senator in vain
Has rattled in her sight the Negro's chain;

She continues with a review of his futile efforts to convince the English people that slavery was a moral transgression. Barbauld believes Wilberforce naïve to think that he could persuade the nation to give up a practice that they had come to depend upon. She concludes by encouraging him to give up his campaign for his is a lost cause

Your merit stands, no greater and no less,
Without, or with the varnish of success;
But seek no more to break a Nation's fall,
To shed a glory, and to fix a stain,

Tells how you strove, and that you strove in vain.

until the slave trade was finally abolished on 25 March 1806. However, another twenty-eight years would pass before Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British territories just four days before Wilberforce died. During those forty six years, Wilberforce must have thought that he was pursuing a lost cause but he continued to pursue his calling.

The story of Jesus, the story of William Wilberforce and of many others throughout history are stories of how lost causes revealed several qualities necessary in order for the men and women to accomplish their dream.

Reveals our true priorities

The temptation of Jesus did not end with Satan's three offers in the desert but continued throughout his ministry. Satan was constantly trying to distract Jesus by diverting him to secondary priorities. The people followed him into a barren region to listen all day to his teaching, when evening came they were without food. Jesus took the initiative and fed 5000. The next day they wanted to make him King. What would he do? How would he respond? He could have accepted the title with humility. He could have done great things but he would not have accomplished the goal that the Father had for him.

Such was the story of William Wilberforce. On a tour through Europe, he noticed a copy of William Law's book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. His friend told him that it was the best book he ever read. The two read the book on their journey together and it transformed Wilberforce. He started a regular discipline of setting aside Sundays and a period each morning for prayer and the regular reading of spiritual books. Through these disciplines his faith grew but then he was faced with a challenge—what would be the priority for his life? Would he pursue a career in politics or a calling to the ministry? How could the corrupt political arena be more noble than following a path into ministry?

Jesus refused to be distracted from his priority of traveling to Jerusalem. He knew that his destiny would not be complete until he arrived at the City of God. He was bent on a mission and neither Herod or the Pharisees could alter his course.

What are the priorities of your life? They may not be as grand as those chosen by Wilberforce but no less important to God. Are your priorities the ones that God would have you follow? It is easy to be confused. Many things need to be done but not all of them by you. God has given you certain gifts and abilities. He has placed a fire in your heart for certain needs. Are you focused on his priority or are you distracted by the priorities of everyone else?

Reveals our true motivations

Lost causes also reveal our true motivations. We can easily assume that we are doing something for a noble goal when in reality we have a purely selfish motive. Men and women who want to enter the ministry are now required to take a course entitled Clinical Pastoral Experience or CPE. It is usually offered in a hospital setting in which a candidate for ministry will encounter life and death issues. The students visit patients and their families and meet in small groups. During their small group sessions they discuss their motivations in ministry. They must ask themselves why are they doing what they are doing? Do they seek the affirmation of others? Do they just want to receive the love and attention that come with the role of pastor? Or are they doing it to be on center stage?

Most of us enjoy the compliments, thanks and praise that we receive when we do a good job on a project. We owe that to people who sacrifice their time to do ministry in a church setting. However, if that is your primary motive for volunteering than the moment the praises stop so will your time of service. There comes a point in everyone's life when the praises stop coming, complaints replace praise and argument become substitutes for thank-yous. That is when God tests us to find out if our motivations are to serve or to be served.

Reveals our love for others

Once we have stayed the course and plodded on after the praise and thank yous cease, our pursuit of a lost cause reveals our deep love for others. People do not want to know that they are a project or part of an experiment. They want to know that you love them because they are a person of worth, a person of value.

Jesus demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, he died for us. We were not his moral crusade. We were not just part of his efforts to bring about social change or correct an injustice. Having known us before time began, Jesus loved us and was willing to die for us.

A baby was born to Mary Teresa Hickey and her husband in 1945. The parents came from Cork, Ireland. The baby was a Down Syndrome boy. Mary Teresa held the baby tightly, saying, “He’s ours and we love him. He is God’s chosen one.”

The family lived in the Dorchester section of Boston. Their other boy was Jimmy. The dad died young of a heart attack, and Mary was left to raise the two boys, nine-year-old Jimmy and seven-year-old Danny. To pay the rent she scrubbed floors at a chronic care hospital.

Jimmy took good care of Danny. Dan felt at home with all the kids because no one told him he was different. Then one day, as they were boarding a trackless trolley, some strange kids shouted, “No morons on the bus!” That was the day Jimmy Hickey learned to fight. It was also the day Jimmy decided to be a priest. Little Danny attended the Kennedy school in Brighton and eventually obtained a job.

In 1991, Mary Teresa Hickey died at age ninety-one after showering her sons with unyielding love all their lives. Father Jim Hickey had been a priest for thirty years. In every parish to which he was assigned, Danny went along with him. The people were favored with both men.

In October 1997, Danny was in the hospital. His fifty-two year old body was failing. One night when ordinary people were eating supper, watching a ballgame or going to a movie, a simple story of brotherly love played itself out at the bedside of a man who never felt sorry for himself or thought he was different.

Father Jim held his brother and asked, “Do you trust me, Danny?”

“I trust you.”

 “You’re going to be OK.”

 “I be OK.”

 Eight hundred people stood in line at his wake. Parishioners packed the church for his funeral. They sang and cried and prayed. Later that day, Daniel Jeremiah Hickey was gently laid beside his parents at New Calvary cemetery. The granite headstone bore his name and the inscription: “God’s Chosen.”1

Lost causes are difficult, time consuming and frustrating but sometimes God calls us to pursue a lost cuase.

1Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Sermon: "God's Chosen" quoted by Brett Blair,, January 12, 2003

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