A couple of years ago, an author visited our campus to speak about his new book. Just the title was intriguing - “The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the making of a Navy Seal.” The author, Eric Greitens had studied at some prestigious institutions like Duke and Oxford, became a Rhodes Scholar, spent time outside of the classroom on mission experiences that brought to places of great need like Rwanda and Croatia and then decided he wanted to become a member of one of the most specialized military forces – the United States Navy Seal. He gave such an incredible presentation that even though I have a pile of books that have collected dust and not been opened, it just seemed to be a “must” read.
One thing that has always fascinated me – whether it’s the SEALS or the Marines or some other elite military group – is what these individuals endure physically and mentally to complete their training. To have whatever it takes to become a SEAL. They go from some minimum goals like having to complete a mile and a half run in 11 minutes to doing some seemingly impossible, grueling and increasingly difficult challenges for 12 weeks of training, culminating in the appropriately named “Hell Week” in order to become this warrior.
It’s something few will succeed at. I think Mr. Greitens said that his class started with 200 candidates -- in the end only 21 would graduate. And Greitens was able to pinpoint the major reason, the difference between those who would make it and those who wouldn’t. While obviously a person needs to be in good physical shape, one of the essential components is the guy’s head. The thoughts of the candidate would determine if they had the mindset to go all the way.
He shared an example from “Hell Week.” That week – it is make or break time - the instructors work the recruits non-stop. They get something like 3 hours of sleep the entire week - while undergoing all kinds of tests: Running, swimming, experience terrible extremes in weather. They endure a “Drown Proofing” exercise where their feet are tied together, their hands are tied behind their backs - and they are expected to swim fifty meters like that, retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with their teeth, and bob up and down a bunch of times.
Throughout this entire week, they can quit at any time - which is something their instructors remind them of all the time. There’s a bell out where they candidates are training, visible throughout this entire experience that at any moment, they can just go and ring it. Mr. Greitens shared that at one point, they had just finished one of these torturous exercises. The men were exhausted and struggled to remain standing at attention. At that, the instructors said to them, “OK the next thing we’re going to do is have a nice 5 mile run, so go grab your gear, and lets move out.”
At that, Mr. Greitens said you heard “DING” – one guy quit; and then another “DING” - and then several more “DING’s”. That would be the moment where they lost the most guys at one time than at any other time that week. Moments after the last guy quit, the instructor looked at the remaining candidates and said “Just kidding, let’s go have lunch.”
Can you imagine? I know, that would’ve been me - one of the dings would’ve been me (probably a lot sooner than that if I’m really honest). It sounded just so cruel. But Greitens said that was an essential part of this whole test. It’s part of this process... those guys at that moment they showed they didn’t have the mindset of a SEAL. Because the thing that made the difference was that those who quit at that point weren’t even willing to take one step – weren’t even willing to give it a try. They had made that decision completely in their minds that they couldn’t, they wouldn’t even attempt to go any further. Once they had done that, there wasn’t anything else that could be done.
It’s just another example that - What you think; how you think; is one of the most important factors in determining who you are. That’s not just a truth in becoming a Navy Seal, or in our personal lives, but it’s a truth in the spiritual life as well.
In today’s Gospel, let’s look at this parable Jesus gives us. This landowner has given the tenants use of his land. And it’s good land - it’s been cared for, maintained. All the tools necessary for good produce are there. The tenants who’ve leased this land, benefitted from it, enjoyed all that was right at their disposal. And what happens? they don’t simply refuse to pay the owner what was owed him. They mistreat, they kill those who were sent to remind them of their obligations. They go even further and kill the owner’s son.
How does that happen? What sorts of thinking went into that? There were self-centered thoughts that turned into thoughts of jealousy, envy and entitlement. They had thoughts trying to justify themselves and attempting to excuse themselves from the legitimate obligations simply by their refusing to fulfill them. And when messengers arrived to remind them this isn’t your land, you owe the landowner something - the tenants thoughts turned vicious, killing those messengers. Once you’ve believed your own lies, it becomes easier to believe even more delusional ones. Which we see in this parable when these fools actually convince themselves that they could eliminate the son and that the owner will just go away and they could carry on as they pleased. All of these self-centered thoughts led them to believe they could do whatever they wished and helped determine who they were- a murderous, wretched group of people.
It’s providential that Jesus gives us this parable at the start of FOCUS staff training to trigger some introspection: What are we thinking at the start of training? No doubt over the last few weeks, or months even you’ve had a variety of thoughts. Some tempting you to give into disbelief, give into fear and attempting to steal the joy you experienced when you first heard that call from Jesus Christ to serve him in this particular way as a FOCUS missionary and thought about the excitement that comes from knowing what you’re being called to do and doing it.
But - Praise God - all of you are here... you made that choice not to give into those thoughts of despair, and made it here to Florida to begin this time of training. But it’s so crucial in our following the Lord, not just today, not just as a FOCUS missionary, but to be his lifelong disciple to let Jesus continue to probe our hearts and minds. Asking us what are we thinking? Do we recognize the gifts, the talents, the abilities He has blessed us with? Do we know that even though we are living “simply” – as you missionaries are engaging in the daunting task of fundraising your salaries (which for many of your peers seems impossible), even with those minimal financial resources, do we recognize how incredibly fortunate we are in comparison with others around the world that live in dire need and abject poverty? Do we look at even something like the gift of time – that we’re given 1,440 minutes a day and ask ourselves what do we do with that gift each day?
Do we see all of these things as blessings that we’ve been given – not something that any of us were entitled to or manufactured on our own – these and many other things were gifts given from our loving, generous landowner who desires us, invites us to make incredible vineyards.
Because left on our own, we can become just as delusional as the wretched crew in the parable. We can believe the lies of the world that feeds this mentality that, if they even acknowledge God, dismiss him as a disinterested bystander.
Jesus shatters that theory, not just in this parable, but even more, on the cross. In the cross, Jesus puts aside arguments, debates, words, miracles and in that act makes a final appeal to the closed minds and hearts of humanity. Like the men training for the Navy Seals, the decision rests on us though. Will we throw in the towel, ring the bell and decide we can go no further, quit and go off on our own? Or are we willing to go all the way with Christ? Knowing that becoming Jesus faithful disciple starts with a decision in our minds to continue to follow Him, wherever he asks to go, and allow Him to transform our lives?