Growing up the youngest of three sons, one of the things that many people often noticed about my brothers and I was how different each of us were. My oldest brother Chris was an excellent wrestler and his Senior year of High School was considered one of the best in the state of New Jersey. My brother Craig was an excellent student and was one of the most well-rounded people in his class doing well in sports, in music… For me as the youngest – it took awhile to kind of find my niche, what I was good at. And part of the reason was I would so often try to be like Chris or Craig rather than trying to be myself. I know how blessed I was to have a great family where my parents were attentive to each of our different needs, and support our gifts and talents. But even more to have some great teachers along the way who helped me to truly learn about myself.
Hi everyone. This is my homily for August 25, 2019 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings for today’s Mass can be found HERE Thanks as always for reading; sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it. Have a good week – God Bless – Fr Jim. AUDIO Also you can get the audios of the homilies from iTunes as a Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fr-jim-cherns-homilies/id1440618142?mt=2
One of those was my English Teacher, Mr. Epps. He was Robin Williams playing the Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society – years before that movie came out. He made a subject I wasn’t interested in and struggled with (and something that I still struggle with, as evidenced by grammatical mistakes in my homilies or postings on social media that he will correct from time to time) – one of my favorites in High School. He was creative and entertaining. But truth be told, it took awhile before I knew whether I even liked him or not. Because he knew how to zero in on each and every student like a heat-seeking missle.
Knowing how my brother Craig was one of Mr Epps best students and trying to live up to that reputation and impress Mr. Epps I put all this extra pressure on myself. We had this test on Chaucer’s Canteberry Tales. Those “tales’ were written in the 14th Century and the English language itself was still evolving. I hated it… Reading these poems in “modern” English was rough enough for me, but I still have nightmares where Mr Epps reading the introduction to us in “Middle English” [“Whan that Aprilll with his shoures soote…”] Anyway, he handed the test which had two sides to it. On the front was the multiple choice section of the test and the back side was all short answer responses. In my nervousness and anxiety as soon as the test landed on my desk, I didn’t even read the instructions that said for the Multiple Choice we were suppose to write the letter and answer out (I guess Mr. Epps had enough students try to make “D” and “B” look similar enough to try to argue an answer was marked incorrectly in the past). I think I was afraid whatever last minute cramming I had done would be forgotten if I didn’t just race through all those questions so I simply wrote whatever letter answer.
Anyway – when I got the test back, out of 20 questions, I got maybe 5 of those answers wrong. Not great, but not a disaster. But at the bottom of the page there was a note from Mr Epps: “Mr. Chern what sort of punishment do you propose for not following the instructions?” Then I turned to the other side, it looked like a red pen exploded on the page. It was a disaster. Almost every one of those answers was either wrong or I only received partial credit. At the bottom of all that was my total number of points for the exam… somewhere in the 50’s (out of a 100) with the letter “F” – with this short follow up from Mr. Epps from his previous comments saying “perhaps thats punishment enough.” It was a shock to my system. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. I was mortified, embarrassed, ashamed. And just wanted out of that classroom and out of the class. As the bell rang, he called out “Mr. Chern, stay back for a minute.” He took his glasses off and all he said was, very confidently “I know you can do better than that – and you know that you can too.” And that was a turning point for me. It was then that I recognized that yes he cared for me. Not because of my brother. But that he loved me for who I was. And he was pushing me to push myself. Which I did, asking for extra help, studying harder. Yeah, I could (and did, eventually) do better than that. But before that could happen, I had to stop comparing myself to my brother’s past successes. I had to do the best I could.
Knowing that we are loved for who we are and not letting ourselves get fixated comparing ourselves to others is essential not just in being able to succeed in school or in work… or even for our mental well being, but for our souls, for our spiritual lives. Because in all humility we need ro recognize and acknowledge that each of us can do better than we are doing right now. And that’s not said to be a negative thing but rather its something that’s said out of love. Calling us to truly be the beloved sons and daughters that God created us, calls us to be.
That’s important to remind ourselves of, because Jesus kind of levels a smack down in that Gospel reading. He doesn’t beat around the bush – following Jesus is hard work as evidenced by His telling us it’s a “narrow gate” that many attempt to enter but not many are strong enough. For good measure, Jesus points out that saying that because we know who Jesus is… that we have some understanding and recollection of his story, that we’re close in proximity to Him that isn’t enough.
But let’s back it up a bit. Remember what caused that smackdown: Some guy shouts out to Jesus a question – “Lord will only a few be saved?” Whoever the nameless individual is, if you think about it, what was his focus? Everyone else. The nameless individual, he’s been around – he’s showed up – he’s listening to Jesus – he’s seen and heard some things: Jesus healing people of diseases. Jesus casting out demons, performing miracles including raised people from the dead. So the question itself, the guy recognizes that Jesus has the ability to “save” people. But he himself remains somewhat distant. He’s an observer, not a follower. And while he recognizes there’s a need for people to be saved and that Jesus has that ability to save, he’s not fully invested or committed himself that he needs to do anything – or that its even open to him as he asks: “Lord will only a few be saved?”
Jesus’ answer though is brilliant because although he’s answering this one individual, as we read it, it’s also directed to us. Each of the answers is directed not just at this person but at us as we hear the word you . Think about the whole passage Jesus’ response is to you the listener, the reader as we heard him saying: I tell you… He will say to you… I do not know where you are from… And you will say… Then he will say to you. When we receive these responses, It’s jarring, it’s a shock to our systems that we didn’t expect.
But there’s a reason for it. Jesus doesn’t want us comparing ourselves to anyone else. Hedging our bets that if Jesus is truly the way, the truth and the life, that our knowing He said that will be enough to get us in if he turns out to truly be those things. Jesus wants us off the sidelines and not simply to be observers… to not simply listen to stories of who Jesus is and what He is able to do. He doesn’t want observers – but followers.
He wants us to pursue holiness. He wants us to want to become Saints. Yeah that’s a high bar, which is why He tells us that He wants us to strive to enter through the narrow gate. So we’re not to feel comfortable that we’re here and we see so many empty seats and think “we’re better than all those people not here… ”
We’re here hopefully to worship God. And in that, to recognize our need for Him. Because something in our hearts, in our souls knows that each of us can do better… and each of us wants to do better. Better at resisting temptation. Better at turning away from sin. Better at dealing with the sins we have committed by going to confession and receiving the forgiveness and healing we need and want. We know that every single one of us can do better at loving Jesus Christ. Better at loving Him in those we serve in the world. Better at listening to Him and receiving Him – in His words from scripture and in His Body and Blood that we receive in the Eucharist.
And we can hear all this, because its not said out of condemnation, but love. That was something St. Paul made beautifully clear in the second reading from Hebrews. Paul reminds … whom the Lord loves, he disciplines... At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
We live in a time and an age where there is little humility. It seems the general approach that many people in the public eye have adopted is to tell themselves and everyone else that they’re never wrong (or to never admit it) – to not accept responsibility. Make people prove that you’re wrong, and even then, just keep denying it and turn it around and point out what other people have done wrong. By comparing ourselves to others in the most negative light, we try to bolster ourselves… and then calling out other people’s faults not out of love but this age of “gotcha.” I can’t imagine how Mr. Epps would fare in a classroom today, how corrections on my paper today would be received. Would he be accused of bullying or for psychological abuse for using red ink in such an aggressive way? And we can see how the ripple effects as so many people are numbed into inaction. Buying into that idea that “hey I’m not as bad as that…” means I’m good enough.
Jesus looks at each of us who desires not to simply be an observer but dares to be a follower and says “I know you can do better than that and you know you can too.” Hoping that we receive that charge with the sincerity and love that’s contained in that to motivate us to strive through that narrow gate: to desire the holiness in this life to become one of his beloved Saints in the life to come.