Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let Go - Homily from September 11, 2011

          Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town South Africa, was walking through a construction site on a sidewalk that was only wide enough for one person to pass. A white man was approaching from the other direction, and when he met up with Archbishop Tutu he said, “I don’t step aside for gorillas.” Archbishop Tutu stepped aside; he made a sweeping gesture with his arm and said, “Well, it’s a good thing that I do.” Archbishop Tutu didn't get angry; he didn't hold a grudge. He simply let him go. And letting go is what forgiveness is all about.

          Today’s Gospel falls into the category of Bible passages that we almost know by heart. Peter thought he was being so generous when he suggested that we should forgive a sinner 7 times because in Biblical terms, that would be considered perfect forgiveness. Then, as usual, Jesus ups the ante. He tells Peter that seven times isn't enough. We must forgive 77 times. Jesus is introducing us to God’s definition of perfect forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is “beyond all calculation,”[1] and we Christians have no right to put limits on it.[2] In fact, Jesus calls us to imitate both the frequency and the depth of God’s mercy. That’s because we've already received, and we continue to receive God’s forgiveness of the unpayable debt of our sin through the sacrifice of his only Son. Christ suffered and died for everyone, saints and sinners alike. So as God’s Church we must witness to God’s infinite mercy by showing mercy to all, even those who hurt us.

          There’s a reason why God calls us to forgive: it’s for our own good. Our first reading puts it all in context: Can we “nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” (Sirach 28:3) In other words, how can we be open to God’s healing and forgiveness with our fists clenched in anger? Holding onto anger puts us in grave danger. It’s like the Monkey Trap. The Monkey Trap involves putting a piece of candy in a small hole carved in a heavy coconut. The monkey slips his hand in, grabs the candy, and then finds that he can’t pull his hand out of the small opening with a clenched fist. The monkey wants the candy so badly that he won’t let go. With the heavy coconut on his arm, he can’t run or climb. So he ends up suffering a much worse fate than if he had just let go. Holding onto anger drags us down; it stops us from living. Failure to forgive is to hold onto an injury and remain a victim. Buddha is credited with saying that “holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal waiting to throw it at the person who offended you. You’re the one who gets burned.”

          God wants us to let it go. Let go of the candy; drop the hot coal. Let it go. And that’s not always easy. Let’s face it, we don’t want to forgive people who don’t deserve it – people who haven’t even asked for our forgiveness. We’re afraid that we’ll look weak or that we’ll be hurt or taken advantage of again. But we have to appreciate that forgiveness is really an act of loving humility. “Loving humility is wonderfully strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing like it.”[3] Forgiveness is a balm that heals us; it opens us up to God’s healing grace so we don’t waste our lives waiting for an apology that may never come. Forgiveness makes us stronger and much happier. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.

          Let’s talk for a minute about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not indifference to sin. It does not obviate the need for justice. Forgiveness also is not forgetting. Forgiveness won’t displace memories of past hurts because we’re hard-wired to remember – it’s a defense mechanism.[4] And Christianity is all about remembering. But of course, there’s always a kicker with Christianity: Whenever we remember, we’re called to forgive again. That’s what the 77 times thing is all about.

          So now we have to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Today is September 11th – the tenth anniversary of the worst attack on American soil – the day that nearly three thousand innocent people lost their lives, and countless people lost their loved ones. I was working in Washington, DC on September 11, 2001. I saw the Pentagon explode before my eyes. My family and I were unharmed, and none of my friends or relatives was directly touched by the tragedy. So who am I to ask people who suffered so much at the hands of ruthless killers to forgive? How can I ask the family and friends of the innocent victims to let go of the throats of the men who killed their loved ones?

          I didn't want to preach about forgiveness on September 11th. But the Holy Spirit thought otherwise. You know the Church didn't pick today’s readings especially for the 9/11 Anniversary. Today’s readings are the assigned reading for Year A of the 24th Sunday in Ordinary time, whenever it may fall. These readings were designated for this day some 40 years ago. The Holy Spirit decided that we needed to hear these readings today, and that I had to preach about it.

          So I offer these few poor words that I can only hope will bring some comfort on this difficult day: First, I am so sorry for the loss and suffering that so many have endured; my prayers and the prayers of this whole community are with everyone touched by this tragedy and with the men and women who stepped up to do the Lord’s work in its aftermath. If any of you ever need to talk, I’m here to listen. Second, I hope you understand that forgiveness is a journey. God doesn't expect us to forgive instantaneously. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. God calls us to journey toward forgiveness, to pray about it and be open to it. If we do that, we've already begun to forgive. And lastly, God doesn't intend the call to forgiveness to be a burden; He calls us to forgive to ease the burden of our pain so that we can truly live again. God wants to take the burden away from us. That’s why God calls us to let go.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII at 380.
[2] The Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament at 889.
[3] Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov (Shelton, The Easton Press, 1979) at 244.
[4] Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003) at 133.

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