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St. Jude Catholic Church, 2130 Pemberton Drive, Fort Wayne, IN 46805 (219) 484-6609

 

 

 

"Forgiveness"

St. Jude Church
Lenten Series – 3th night
March 5, 2002

Fr. Tom Shoemaker

A priest is sometimes expected to have superhuman insights and wisdom. People sometimes just assume that a priest has something wise ready to say. (I’m speaking in generalities, of course. Those who know me very well don’t have any such delusions.)

But in general, people seem to expect great wisdom from priests.

The morning of September 11, I had a commitment to celebrate a Mass for a retreat group at the cathedral. When I finished the Mass, a reporter with a live news program was waiting in the back of the cathedral and he asked to interview me. Why me? I didn’t know anything about the events of the day other than what I had heard on TV. I didn’t have any great insights. But a priest dresses funny, uses a funny title, so surely he must have something wise to say. This reporter seemed to think that the city of Fort Wayne would want to know what I had to say about the attacks. I remember standing on the sidewalk in front of the cathedral for the interview, feeling goofy and wondering if I could say something intelligent when the cameras started to roll. As the reporter counted down the seconds until I was to go on the air live, he stopped and said, "Wait a minute. Hold on. The president is going to make a statement. We’re going to have to wait." I was bumped by the president. The city of Fort Wayne would just have to wait to hear my wisdom. The president wanted to speak first.

As the day rolled on, two reporters called on the phone and wanted to talk to me. They wanted to know if we were having a parish prayer service at St. Jude. And they wanted to know what I would say. What would I have to say to the people? I wear funny clothes and use a funny title. Surely I would have insightful answers for a people in need. Surely I would speak for Christ.

I didn’t have any great words of wisdom. I was just as confused and dazed and angry as anyone else.

But, you know, Christ has a way of speaking for himself. Over the next few days, Jesus himself gave us an earful. And it wasn’t in a subtle whisper. He spoke right out loud.

Those who came to daily Mass that week will surely remember the series of readings that came up in the following days. The readings came from our liturgical calendar: the readings we always read during the twenty third week of ordinary time. But you cannot convince me that the readings were coincidence. Jesus had something to say.

The Gospel reading for September 12, the morning after the attack, was Luke, chapter 6. "Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven."

Words we needed right then. God would be with us. Even in our worst hour. Even in the pain of our loss. Even in our fear. As our world seemed so insecure, God would be with us. The loss here wasn’t the ultimate loss. God has something in store. Even for those who lost their lives: Jesus promises a kingdom to come.

Do not give up. Do not lose faith. Do not despair. God will take care of us.

The words I think we needed to hear: the things that matter most in life, no terrorist can take from us.

And God had more in store for us. The next day? The ultimate challenge began. You may remember: we began a series of Gospel readings at Mass about forgiveness. The Gospel on September 13 was the next line in Luke: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well…. Love your enemies and do good to them… then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

 

Now, these are words that we all know. We have heard them a hundred times. But they came as a shock on the morning of September 13. I remember walking up to the pulpit and wondering if anyone would throw something at me when I read these words.

"Love your enemy." A beautiful command I had known all my life. But you know, I had never really had an enemy before. It’s not so easy when you really do have an enemy. When someone has just committed a horrible act of violence, when we have relatives or friends of relatives or relatives of friends who have just been senselessly killed, how do you turn the other cheek? And yet, there they were. The words of Christ. Staring us in the face.

And the Lord didn’t let up on us. The next several days offered readings about mercy and about accepting suffering. All of it was leading up to our Sunday liturgy, of course, where we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. Our greatest parable about forgiveness.

First the Lord had words of consolation. And then, he began to hammer us with his challenge. We have to forgive. We have to turn the other cheek. More than forgive—we have to love those who are out to destroy us.

In an abstract kind of way, we know that is the thing to do. We know that to be one of Jesus’ greatest teachings. And we know his example. From the cross, he could look down on the same crowd that had yelled, "Crucify him, crucify him"… the same crowd that had mocked him… the same soldiers who had just pounded the nails. And he could say, "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing." And that simply seems so right. Such a perfect example. But that was then and this is now. That was the Son of God and I am not. It doesn’t somehow seem quite so right now.

How can we even dream of turning the other cheek when these terrorists are promising to do more? When they laugh about what has happened so far and threaten far worse, how can we even think about forgiveness? About loving them? Can we just ignore what has happened? Of course not.

I think it is important here that we make a distinction. There is a difference between crying out for vengeance and crying out for justice. What is the difference? In vengeance, we do harm to get back at someone. We wipe out populations of innocent civilians. We try to humiliate. We make sure that the enemy has suffered more than we have. That is vengeance. And that is not a Christian response.

But justice is a Christian response. What is justice? Finding the guilty parties. Making sure that those who have committed crimes are singled out. Making sure that they are prevented from committing such crimes again. And making sure that they are humanely punished for their crimes. That is justice, and that is completely consistent with the Gospel. In fact, Jesus calls out for justice again and again.

 

It doesn’t take much reflection to find the folly in looking for vengeance. Look at the newspapers over the past week. On Tuesday, six Israeli soldiers killed in an ambush. On Wednesday, 17 Palestinians, mostly police officers killed. On Friday morning a Palestinian suicide bomber is shot to death. On Friday afternoon an Israeli is shot and killed in his car. On Sunday Palestinian man and his pregnant daughter are shot and killed in a car. On Monday, an Israeli man and his pregnant wife are shot and killed in a car. Where does it end? When one side is exterminated? And who has won? Is that an answer?

It is a human gut response. And it is a gut response that has been more familiar in history than any other we can think of. How many wars have raged on and on… sometimes the initial offense is long forgotten, but two nations in their pride have to have the last word. Have to win. Where does the destruction end?

Finding the terrorists… bringing them to trial… locking them up for life…. This is completely consistent with the Gospel. We should have a strong drive for this. But vengeance… no.

And maybe now we are ready to move on to the next step: forgiveness. Let’s go back for a moment to the Prodigal Son. We remember the father who was so quick to forgive. But think for a moment about the older brother. The brother who didn’t want to forgive. He saw his younger brother, the one who had run away and squandered the family money, and he was bitter. He wasn’t about to forgive: he relished in his bitterness.

Just as vengeance can destroy us, so can bitterness also destroy us.

I once knew two elderly sisters (both have now died.) For thirty years, they didn’t speak to each other. They lived two blocks apart, but they never visited, they didn’t allow their children to play together, never acknowledged each other. Nobody else really knew what the problem was. But they couldn’t let go. The bitterness and the anger consumed them and broke a family.

And what does a vengeful, angry and bitter outlook do to us? It destroys us. The saddest funeral I ever had was for a woman who was consumed by bitterness and anger. She alienated her family and she had no friends. The handful of mourners who came to the funeral had little to say. Her life had been consumed in bitterness. And that must be the greatest of tragedies. I have no idea what led her to such bitterness, but I do know that it destroyed her.

If our reaction to terrorists causes us to be an angry and bitter people, the terrorists have destroyed far more than they counted on. They have destroyed us.

So, how do we move on? How do we route out the drive for vengeance? How do we get rid of our bitterness? And how do we replace them with a drive for honest justice? And with a healthy anger that turns not to bitterness but to conviction? How do form our own attitudes?

Now, I’m not in a position to criticize God, but I might suggest that God was pretty quick in dropping that "Love your enemy" reading on us. How do you love your enemy when you are under attack? How do you love your enemy when loved ones are ruthlessly killed and you are holding your breath to see when the next plane might crash?

Jesus could do this. He did it on the cross. But I’m not sure that any of us are ready for that.

Realistically, I think that most of us need time. My heart has softened with passing of five months. I am still outraged. I am still crying out for justice. But the anger subsides. I can think of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen as human beings once again. Human beings who have done a monstrous evil, but human beings. Time helps. I am not as angry or as bitter as I was five months ago.

I think that it helps too to remember that we are sinners. A message Christ often gives: we need to forgive others as we are forgiven. We have offended plenty of people. We have committed violence. Our sins against others haven’t been as horrible as Osama’s, but we are in the same humanity nevertheless.

Most importantly, I think that we need to turn to God. We must make the decision that love and forgiveness are God’s way. And then, we must call upon Him to help us. That quick gut reaction, "let’s get them back": I think that that is a base natural instinct. But the way of God is far above that. God’s way involves justice. God’s way involves forgiveness. God’s way involves love. It is more than the natural human reaction. It is the response of a human graced by God. We need him.

Our country has been attacked and we have lost loved ones. We have lost security, we have had our economy damaged, we have lost our national peace.

We cry out for justice. The perpetrators must be found, must be punished, and must never commit such evil again. But we cannot cry out for vengeance. Vengeance destroys our enemy and just as surely destroys us.

And we pray that God will turn our anger not into bitterness, but into forgiveness. That is the way of Christ. That is the way that gives life… both to our enemies and to ourselves.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker

 


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