We’re so conditioned to seeing and reading things on the internet that are trending, that go viral that are in fact vile that it’s refreshing when the opposite occurs- where people share stories that are uplifting, heartwarming and inspirational. A few have popped up in the last weeks that caught my attention: Like this story of a 14 year old’s first week of school. Caleb texted his big sister about his first day at Reidsville Senior High School in North Carolina, saying: “I sat alone at lunch and got lost three times.” He explained further that he had no friends and was being bullied because he was too short according to those who were picking on him. His older sister Leah, away at college, took to twitter and posted a picture of her brother with a screen shot of their text message conversation with an appeal: “Retweet to let my baby brother know he is cool…” While it was nice that the tweet was liked and retweeted thousands of times – what was even more meaningful was when an upperclassman named Timothy got a group of Seniors to sit with the lonely freshman at lunch and befriended him the next day. The smile on Caleb’s face – and the joy from his sister responding that she didn’t even know these kids from her time at school, but was incredibly grateful for kindness and attention given to her younger brother that has helped make that transition into high school much smoother. [you can see the story HERE ]
Hi everyone! This is my homily for September 15, 2019 – 24th 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 great 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
-or how about this one – a week ago, CNN did a feature on a chess tournament that is specifically for children with disabilities. It opened with Anna Miller, an 11 year old with a maturity beyond her years, speaking of her disability. She has a condition of brittle bones that results in her experiencing breaks several times a year. This illness prevents her from many games and activities most children are used to experiencing. But you won’t hear her sounding disappointed at the limitations, or focused on what she’s not able to do. Instead, she very passionately talks about chess, explaining “even though I look small and innocent, I really can unleash everything! I don’t let them underestimate me. I want them to be afraid of me on that board.” She added that she didn’t let her disability limit her, saying “I don’t let that define who I am. I let my mind and what I can do define who I am.” This tournament features 16 children from 8 countries with a variety of disabilities or illnesses. But that wasn’t the focus – rather it was their abilities and smarts. One competitor who has cerebral palsy cannot sit in a chair or at a table, she has to be basically held by her mother. Her sister explains that “at home she’s not able to do a lot of things, so she has a lot of time to think. And chess just opened the door to another world.” To many observers, it would appear that many of these kids are limited – people have unfairly judged them to have something wrong with their brains – that they couldn’t be intelligent people. But the director of the tournament pointed out, “That’s so far from the truth.” With just some attention and assistance, you see these kids thriving in ways that their families hadn’t witnessed before as they are able to play amazing games and become some of the best chess players in the world. [you can watch this story HERE )
– one final one… there was this story of a man named Nicholas Winton who, as a young man back in 1939, on the eve of World War II, risked his life by providing safe passage for children from Czechoslovakia to Britain. It was an unknown story, as 50 years had passed and he never spoke of it. But in the late 1980’s, his wife found in their attic an old scrapbook with pictures, documents of the children that he saved. A British television network, learning of this story, invited him to be a member of the audience, for their program called That’s life. Unbeknownst to him, he was the life they were highlighting that evening. The host explained what Nicholas had done, how he had basically been responsible for saving over 600 children. She highlighted in his scrapbook the name of one child, Vera Gissing and surprised Nicholas saying “she’s with us here tonight” and in fact was sitting right next to him. You could see the shock on his face as tears streamed down it, recognizing one of the children he helped save. But they weren’t done, he had barely composed himself when the announcer asked, ‘Is there anyone else here tonight that owes their life to Nicholas Winton?” and at that this whole section of the audience who were seated surrounding Nicholas and his wife stood up – revealing over 20 other people he helped save. (I’m not crying you’re crying…) [you can see this story HERE ]
In the internet world/ twitter-verse which is usually defined by how outrageous, guttural people can be towards one another these stories stood out like oases or mirages from the non-stop streams of negativity. As I looked and saw how these heart-warming stories were shared thousands of times, it made me wonder how or why they broke through in such a challenging medium as “social media?”
What makes them special, and what grabs the attention of so many people as they scroll through their feeds, makes them stop and watch and listen to these stories is that they speak to universal desires: to be noticed, to be acknowledged, to be cared for, to be worthy of love. Real love – love that costs something… Love that is sacrificial. Love that is offered not with the desire or expectation of repayment, but offered freely, given out of complete selflessness – genuinely putting the other person before oneself. That was the common theme between all of the stories – whether it was a group of kids helping a freshman adjust to school, individuals who made en effort to help find a way for disabled children to experience genuine connection, or the heroism and courage of one man saving hundreds of people’s lives – all of them demonstrated the power of the gift of love in very varied and dramatic ways. But viewing them, you could appreciate how important every one of these gestures, every one of these experiences were for those who received this gift of love. They were transformed by that gift of love.
It strikes me that to many, this experience of love seems to be viewed as a rare thing. That people view these stories as happening to a few fortunate people. So much so that these stories seem so unique that when they occur – they go viral and trend, like people are saying: “look at this person who just won a powerball lotto jackpot of half a billion dollars.” But honestly, I don’t believe that they’re rare – it’s just that we’ve become conditioned not to see them as we sift through avalanches of stories of negativity. Not that those things aren’t real – but we’re used to focusing on all that’s wrong in the world and all that’s wrong in our own worlds that we can forget the potential for goodness each and every person is capable of, we can take for granted and miss the examples of love that people offer us on a regular basis.
Worse yet, is how this eclipse of love has warped people’s understanding of God. Maybe because we’ve heard, seen and experienced so much negativity in the Church that it can obscure what is so essential to what it means to be a Christian. Which is why this Gospel in some ways stands out in such a dramatic way – like one of those viral stories from the internet. Because what’s at the heart of this, most beautiful of Gospel passages? That in Jesus Christ, each and everyone of us experiences how God sees us. Jesus makes it clear: You are noticed. You are acknowledged. You are cared for. You are worthy of love. That’s what’s so moving about this passage. I get the sense that Jesus is almost frustrated in trying to explain to his first listeners how it is that our Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – looks at each and every one of us. Jesus uses these metaphors where he’s trying to explain it to us – say there are 100 sheep and one gets lost that the shepherd is so anxious, so worried that he leaves the 99 in search of the one … Or say there are 10 coins and a woman loses one, she’s so mindful of that one that she turns her house upside down to find it. Jesus’ is so excited saying ‘You’re that sheep… You’re that coin…’ – you’re that important, you’re that much on God’s heart and mind he doesn’t stop searching.
But it’s like Jesus is thinking to himself “that doesn’t quite capture it…” Sheep aren’t rational logical beings; coins are inanimate objects – they can’t be blamed for becoming lost. So he goes a step further – even if we are ungrateful, inconsiderate, self-centered… even when we take advantage of God’s goodness, His generosity, His mercy. When it would be understandable to think that’s it – we’ve exhausted His patience – we’ve tapped out our favors – it’s completely our fault that we’re lost… we’ve maxed out on excuses and opportunities. Jesus responds to those negative thoughts with the misnamed story “the prodigal son” when in fact it’s “the loving father. The Loving Father doesn’t ever believe we’re done. The Loving Father knows how we’ve screwed up – maybe many, many times – to the point of complete embarrassment and shame. The Loving Father sees that heaviness in our hearts – the negativity that we beat ourselves up with. And The Loving Father is anxiously waiting for us to make that turn towards Him. That even when we feel that we’re “a long way off” as soon as the Father catches sight of our returning to Him – He is filled with compassion and He can’t wait, He runs towards us… He so knows us, we can’t even finish our words of apology He’s already excitedly forgiven us and embraced us.
Jesus’ original listeners included people who did not think this was possible. They too were conditioned into negativity in the world and their own worlds. What prompts Jesus’ descriptions of God’s love for His creation is the Pharisees complaining that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. They don’t even refer to Him by name, calling Jesus “this man.” In their criticism – in their objections as they zero in on their negative judgments of others, they’ve allowed the love of God to be eclipsed in their own lives. They deny that they, too, are sinners and need God’s Mercy. And so their experience of true love – how transformative it is in their lives is also eclipsed. They will refuse to receive this good news…and sadly for some of them, that hardness of heart will make them members of a murderous mob demanding Jesus’ death
Jesus’ resurrection vindicates for all eternity that the love of God is more powerful than the darkest, evil designs that any soul or demon can design. And as we come forward to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist – that has to sink into the deepest core of ourselves. He has been actively searching for you like that shepherd for that one sheep…. He hasn’t stopped trying to find you, like that woman turning her house upside down for that one coin…. He hasn’t stopped looking for you, longing for you, anxiously waiting for you to return as the Father embraces that wayward son. May we allow that truth to embrace us. May that transformative love, change us. May we receive Jesus and become Him to a world in desperate need of Him.