Back in December of 2005, New York City Firefighter Matt Long was assigned as the fitness instructor at Randalls Island, the place where new recruits (probies) are trained to become one of New York’s “Bravest.” It was probably the best job for Long because he was the epitome of an athlete. Earlier in 2005, he had completed his 30th triathlon (yes, you heard that correctly THIRTIETH Triathlon!) – and if you’re not sure what a triathlon is, to give you an idea, the last one included swimming two and a half miles, biking 112 miles (!!!) followed by running 26.2 miles. You could say the man was in phenomenal shape.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – August 21, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
On this cold December morning in 2005, there was a transit bus workers’ strike going on which had effectively crippled New York City. There were restrictions placed on people, forbidding them to drive into the city. Firefighter Long decided he would bike it to work. Sure it was cold out, but he figured it was only 3 or 4 miles anyway. He got up at 5 am and started to make his way to work.
As he was en route, a bus that was hired by a local company to bring employees to work, made a wrong turn and crashed into him. This 40,000-pound vehicle pinned him and his bicycle in a mid-town intersection. The critical injuries were so bad that he was initially given a 1 percent chance of survival and if somehow he were to survive, they never expected him to walk again.
In those first days, he had 3 emergency surgeries, received more than 60 pints of blood, and was transferred to NY Presbyterian Hospital where doctors spent days just trying to keep the man alive. That would be followed by over 40 more operations, months in the hospital, therapy, lawsuits, and more physical therapy.
In an interview, Matt Long shared that at one of his lowest moments he wrote to a man who had suffered a similar catastrophic injury and said, “I need your help because I don’t want to live anymore.” But the man wrote back to him saying, “Things have gotten better for me. If you work hard, they will get better for you.”
After crying in anguish over what had become of his life, thinking of all the things that he had wanted or planned for – all of his dreams and goals that seemed to have been crushed – Matt says that something finally snapped inside of him and he started saying, “I will run again.”
Less than three years later, Matt Long ran in the New York City Marathon. It took him 7 hours and 21 minutes, more than double the time it took him prior to the accident, for him to complete the 26 miles, but it wasn’t about the time it took. It was a victory to all those people at the finish line, from his surgeons, to family and friends, fellow firefighters – everyone who all stood by Matt and, each in their own way had said, I’m not giving up on you.
It could’ve been easy for him to have just given up. He barely survived, allowed himself to hear the pessimistic expectations, and allowed this horrific day, horrific accident to completely redefine his life and existence in so many negative ways. 15 years later, Long has written a book called “The Long Run” a motivational speaker, sharing how he overcame his fear, despair, and loneliness in overcoming the physical and psychological trauma he experienced.
That story came to mind in reading today’s Gospel. I don’t know how many times I read these readings this week, and with all my assorted notes the one word that it came down to, the one word that seemed to jump off the page – strive. But let’s back up a moment, this whole Gospel scene is a bit abrupt as a Sunday reading, particularly for us on a lazy hazy Sunday in August. We read this account of how Jesus is walking through towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem. And just to clarify, he’s not going on a vacation or just for a visit. He’s heading there to face his Passion and Death on the Cross. Out of the blue “someone” St Luke tells us sees Jesus and just asks “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” How’s that for a random question? As random as it is, this unidentified person asks a question that people have always been curious about. “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” In recent decades a number of Catholic and other Christian preachers seem to emphasize that we have to believe that there’s a hell, but we don’t have to believe anyone is actually in hell. Or those who are even anxious in hearing the word “hell” uttered might spin it saying “we can have a reasonable belief that everyone will be saved in the end.”
That is a nice thought – you can even say it’s something good to hope for and yeah, we absolutely should be praying for one another’s salvation. But it isn’t biblically based or sound Christian teaching to say that everyone will be saved. That’s why Jesus is talking about it being a narrow gate and is clear that for some who claim that they are followers, Jesus will turn to them and say He doesn’t know them because nothing from their lives reflected being in relation with Him.
But in that moment when that thought begins to register in our minds, when our thoughts start going off in a whole lot of different directions, like trying to imagine who that might be… what is so key is how instantly Jesus arrests those thoughts. He tells us that the number one thing for us to be focused on isn’t what everyone else is doing, but what are we doing.
Are we striving to enter through the narrow gate?
Are we making efforts to live a life that reflects we are disciples of Jesus Christ? What does that mean?
Are we struggling against sin? Are we resisting temptations the moment we’re aware of them? Are we fighting against the worldly spirit that tries to dampen our faith and convictions, especially in our world when we’re confronted by bullying voices demanding that you accept everything from redefining what marriage is, to when life begins, or where a person’s identity comes from? Are we fighting internally that impulse that prioritizes our wants, needs, and desires- rather than making God first by making time and space for Him in our prayer, and in helping others – financially and even more valuable by extending our time and offering our personal care, attention to helping others?
No doubt, it can be overwhelming when we itemize all that is expected, needed, and necessary for us as followers of Jesus Christ who are living in an increasingly secularized if not downright anti-Christian world right now. And it’s easy to fall into the comparison game and try to position ourselves as doing far better than this person or that one. None of that is helpful. Jesus doesn’t want us to get distracted by any of it.
This is why I was captivated by the word “strive.” Jesus isn’t saying that it will be easy, that we’ll do it perfectly, that we’ll always at all times in every way achieve that goal of getting through that “narrow gate.” Jesus being fully God was there at the dawn of creation and saw every setback that came. Jesus being fully human knew how manipulative the devil is in his temptations to con us into settling, compromising, or even giving up pursuing the life of faith. Every human being will fail at some point in resisting sin. It happens as we read to even the most faithful revered of men and women in scriptures, or canonized Saints (except the Blessed Virgin Mary) have all at some time fallen.
But do we stay there? Do we give up and give in? Or do we get back up and strive? Do we trust that His love is greater than our failures? Do we put our confidence in His mercy as we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confess our sins, and receive His forgiveness?
Do we strive to enter the narrow gate?
That’s what makes Firefighter Matthew Long’s story such a dramatic one. We hear of someone who was crushed. A man whose world had disappeared. A man who thought he had no future and could’ve chosen to stay in that mindset. Yet, that voice from within made him say, “This isn’t the end.” And so he runs again.
What will be our story? Despite all the challenges, the negativity, and the countless examples that come at us to discourage or depress us in our life of faith, that levels unhelpful comparisons or make us think its impossible, Jesus tells us following Him is possible – Holiness is achievable – and it begins when we stop letting all that external noise in and start listening to Him confidently calling us simply to strive.