Notre Dame Football & The Parable of the Mustard Seed

(Sermon given at St.Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf, MD July 26, 2020)

[Daniel and Notre Dame]

Daniel grew up in a blue collar family in Joliet, IL in the 60s and 70s. His dad worked in a steel mill and his mother stayed at home and took care of the household and Daniel’s brothers. The family attended the neighborhood Catholic Church. From the time Daniel was just a little kid, and all through high school, he had one dream; to play football for Notre Dame.

He played high school football for Joliet Catholic Academy. Well, let’s say he was on the team anyway.

You see, Daniel wasn’t the biggest kid ever to go to high school. He was in fact, shorter than average. He was much shorter than the average football player he ever might have faced and he had little athletic talent. The reality for Daniel was he never really got to do much more than practice.

But that did not stop him from pursuing his dream to play for Notre Dame.

Daniel had another challenge in his aspired collegiate athletic career… his grades. His grades just were not good enough to be admitted to the university of Notre Dame.

After high school, Daniel went to work at the steel mill with his father, his older brothers, and his best friend Pete. On his 21st birthday, Daniel confesses to Pete that he is saving up his money to actually pursue his dream of going to Notre Dame… and playing football there.

Not long after this, Daniel’s best friend Pete was killed in an accident at the steel mill and Daniel decided it was now or never. He packed his bags and took a Greyhound bus to South Bend, Indiana.

It took the influence of a priest at the school to get Daniel enrolled at Holy Cross College, a liberal arts institution adjacent to Notre Dame. Not really the dream, but Daniel started college at 21 years old.

It took him a couple of years of hard work and sacrifice, and repeated rejections from Notre Dame. But finally, as a junior, he gains admission to Notre Dame. But, remember that is only half of the dream. The other half is to play football there.

That summer, as a walk-on, Daniel tries out for the team. His dream, fueled by his passion and love for Notre Dame and football, coupled with what talent he has, earns him a spot on the team… on the practice squad, not the real team that plays each Saturday.

And, for his junior and senior year, Daniel shows up. Never misses a practice. He gets battered and beaten week after week by bigger, stronger, quicker, more talented athletes. And, despite all of his hard work, his spirit and support of the team and the program, and his love of Notre Dame Football, Daniel never makes it to the team that dresses for the games.

Senior year, last practice before the last game and Daniel goes to the locker room to prepare for practice. Always the day of the last practice before a game, the list goes up on the locker room door of the players selected to dress for the game; to be on the team that will play the game.

And, as Daniel checks for his name… again, it’s not there. 

It was his last chance to dress as a member of the playing team. 

It was his last chance to realize a dream that he has harbored since he was a child playing football with his brothers and neighborhood boys.

It was his last chance to run out of the tunnel onto into the stadium of 81,000 cheering fans as a member of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

It was his last chance.

 – – – – –

[Jesus and his parables]

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks often in parables. The definition of a parable is this:

A simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson

This morning, we hear five such parables all about one topic, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are going to focus specifically on three of them.

Parable number one…

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.

The mustard seed is one of the smallest of seeds. Yet, it produces a plant that can grow to eight or nine feet in height. Something very small turning into something quite large, as Matthew tells us, “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Parable number two…

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour.

What happens when you mix yeast and flour? The mixture cures and it get bigger. The mixture, the dough, rises. 

Those who bake know that sometimes in the recipes when you are using yeast and flour, when the dough rises, you punch it down and let it rise again. I don’t know, perhaps even a third or fourth time. And, each time you punch it down, it comes back.

Parable number three…

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.

It goes on to say that when they drew in the net and took it ashore, they sorted out the good fish and the bad. The parable compares this to the end of the age when angels will separate the evil from the righteous.

And then, what does Jesus say? He says this…

“Have you understood all of this?”

And they say, “Yes.”

Parables are not always easy. If you are like me, you might have a tendency to over-think them. These were no exception to that, you think I would learn.

You see, I began thinking about these a couple of weeks ago. I searched for deep meaning or some life lesson.or coping skill even. I was able to come up with quite the list of theories and interpretations. Some of them seemed fairly reasonable and accurate and others were a little bit of a stretch.

But Daniel helps us see these in an everyday way, a way more easy to understand.

– – – – –

It was his last chance.

It was Daniel’s last chance at his dream to play football for Notre Dame.

Daniel’s full name was Daniel Eugene Ruettiger but he was more familiarly known as “Rudy”. His story is true. A movie was made about his story in 1993.

And friends, his story is an illustration of these parables we just discussed.

His dream to play football for Notre Dame at a very young age was not like an average kid’s aspiration even though it was treated that way through his childhood and adolescence.

The priests at Joliet Catholic Academy took the chances to often remind Rudy that his grades were not good enough.

His high school teammates pointed out that his athletic skills and size were just not good enough.

His brothers, especially his next older brother, picked on him and his dream, and never hesitated to point out that he is just not good enough.

But in spite of all of this, Rudy is not deterred. He keeps on the journey. His attitude and determination keep him focused on fulfilling his dream.

It was his last chance.

Rudy touched countless numbers of lives in his journey to Notre Dame. Friends, priests, parents, brothers, a tutor he had at Holy Cross, classmates, coaches, and the players he faced every single practice field who, while they out-sized him and out skilled him, could not break his spirit and enthusiasm, and love for the Notre Dame football program.

Rudy, like the mustard seed, grew into a large tree spreading his branches and becoming an icon for his spirit and love.

Rudy, like the yeast in the flour; every time he was pushed down, he rose again.

And, Rudy, like the net full of fish, was able in his life to sort out the good from the bad. 

And, so it is in the the love of Jesus Christ. We take the seed of Christ’s love and plant it in ourselves. We water the seed and feed the soil. And Jesus’ love grows in us, as long as we let it, so that we can live in that love and share that love in the world.

The strength that Jesus bestows on us as faithful followers is like the yeast lifting us when we fall and giving us the strength and the drive to rise again to continue the journey. 

And lastly, Jesus has given us all a mind and a heart to be able to discern the good from the bad and to cast out the bad and live the good life of a life in Jesus Christ.

Rudy got to dress and run out of the tunnel into Notre Dame stadium. And, he got to play the final two plays of the game. His dedication and love, his spirit and how he lived, was key to his pursuit of his dream. He inspired a deep admiration and love from his teammates and at the conclusion of the game on that cold November afternoon in 1975, Rudy was carried off the field by his teammates, an honor not afforded to another player for 20 years. 

This is your time. This is your time to plant your mustard seed and water and feed it to grow into a large tree of God’s love. When you need strength to get back up and try again, all you have to is ask, it will be given to you. Sort the good and the bad like the net full of fish.

Like Rudy, we are called to play like champions. We are called to give it our every effort. And, we are called to the Rudy-level of passion and love.

For our God.

And, for each other.

Amen.

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