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. (Im speaking in
generalities, of course. Those who know me very well dont have any such
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 didnt
know anything about the events of the day other than what I had heard on TV. I didnt
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. Were 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 didnt 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 wasnt in a subtle whisper. He spoke right out
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
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 wasnt 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. Its 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
And the Lord didnt 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
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 forgivewe
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"
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 doesnt 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
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 doesnt 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
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
. This is completely consistent with the Gospel. We should have a strong drive
for this. But vengeance
And maybe now we are ready to move on to the next step: forgiveness. Lets 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 didnt want to forgive.
He saw his younger brother, the one who had run away and squandered the family money, and
he was bitter. He wasnt 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
didnt speak to each other. They lived two blocks apart, but they never visited, they
didnt allow their children to play together, never acknowledged each other. Nobody
else really knew what the problem was. But they couldnt 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
Now, Im 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 Im 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 havent been as horrible as
Osamas, 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 Gods way. And then, we must call upon Him to help us. That
quick gut reaction, "lets get them back": I think that that is a base
natural instinct. But the way of God is far above that. Gods way involves justice.
Gods way involves forgiveness. Gods 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
Fr. Tom Shoemaker