Forgiving Others

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A); 9-17-17

Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-4,9-12; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.

 

            Last week’s readings spoke of reconciliation. This week we consider the same theme, but from the perspective of forgiveness. We all know how difficult it is to swallow our pride and to say that we’re sorry when we have offended another. But, it may be even harder to forgive when we have been offended personally or as a nation as we remember 9-11.   And yet, we pledge to do exactly this everyday when we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Some would say that forgiveness is the distinguishing feature of Christianity. But, today’s reaching from Sirach shows that may not be true. Jesus admonition to forgive others comes from his Jewish tradition which is based on mercy: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice: then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven…Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sir 28:2,4).

Sirach knew that wrath and vengeance can erode the spirit of the one harboring them. When we’ve been deeply hurt, when trust has been broken, when expectations have been dashed, when someone failed to come to our help or defense, when we’ve been abandoned, when our reputation has been assaulted, anger may be the starting point as we seek to forgive others. This anger may express itself in an explosive reaction: it can plan some form of revenge.   This anger may express itself in a seething reaction: it can go underground and hold its breath and become calcified in the form of resentment. It can transform into more complex emotions of anxiety, stress, or depression which we try to escape through various kinds of obsessions and addictions; many engage in self-medication, resulting in drug or alcohol dependency. It can make it very difficult to have healthy relationships with anyone. Unchecked, it can effect our bio-psycho-social-spiritual makeup, which makes it very difficult to be genuinely present to others.

If we do not forgive those who have hurt us, then we are allowing ourselves to be possessed by an inner tyrant of rage. Failure to say, “I forgive you” holds us frozen in the past. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, described those in Hell as being frozen for all eternity. An old Chinese proverb says that if a person cannot forgive, and opts for revenge, he should dig two graves—one for the offender and one for himself.

An incredible model of forgiveness is given by Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and Aicha el-Wafi, whose son was convicted for his rolel in planning the attacks. The two women met when Aicha el-Wafi came to the United States for her son’s indictment and asked to meet family members of the victims. She connected immediately with Phyllis, the only mother in the group. They both had lost a son; they both were suffering. Walking through her grief, Phyllis came to see that “forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible. I don’t forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way he has is part of the process of forgiving.” To this day, the two women together speak out against violence and speak of understanding and tolerance.

Instead of denial/repression and anger/resentment, Jesus offers us the Third Way. From the Christian perspective, emotional and spiritual health is found in a different kind of attitude: the movement “toward people,” who are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. This entails forgiveness as necessary and reconciliation if possible. It is making a choice today based upon a past grievance, so that I can have a future relationship with the offending person. This Way, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a movement towards quality relationships that are mirrored in Trinitarian love of giving and receiving.   Brothers and sisters, I believe that we can’t enjoy quality relationships with anyone, if we’re stuck in a relationship in which we are embittered, resentful, and unforgiving.

But how does one forgive a pedophile whose behavior robs children of their innocence, possibly their faith in God, and undermines their chances for healthy intimacy? How does one forgive a murderer who has snuffed out the life of a loved one? And, will we ever be able to forgive the terrorists who blow up innocent people?

Left to ourselves, we can’t.   The bottom line is that we need to pray for the courage and grace to engage in the process of forgiving someone who has hurt us. The healing act of forgiveness is not possible without the saving grace of the Risen Christ. His love prevents us from falling into the chasm of the darkness of stunted emotional death, or the raging fire of unresolved anger and hatred. So, we go to Him and ask for the strength and courage to pray for the ones we need to forgive. As we abide in Christ, our prayer changes our hearts.

Our Lord Jesus, Whom we are about to receive in the Eucharist, describes himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:5-6). He challenges us to the way of forgiveness, the truth of repentance, and the life or reconciliation. We need to do so for our well-being and that of our society. An act of forgiveness is immediately an act of compassion for ourselves and for the one who has harmed us.   Even the world of science and medicine are discovering the therapeutic benefit of people making peace where there has been hurt and resentment. As the People of God at St. John the Baptist, let us pray that we live out the deep riches and wisdom of this Way of Jesus, the Way of forgiveness. Amen.

 

 

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The Cost of Discipleship

23rd Sunday in O.T. (C); September 4, 2016

Wis 9:13-18b   Ps 90   Phlm 9-10,12-17   Lk 14:25-33

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

Luke tells us that great crowds were following Jesus; he was a very popular man, a fascinating figure. If Jesus were physically with us today, he’d be all over the Internet, the focus of blogosphere scrutiny. He’d be a YouTube sensation with millions upon millions of views. One reason that the crowds were probably drawn to him is that they hoped to get something out of him because of his healing powers. Sensing this Jesus feels the need to articulate the cost of discipleship.

Listen to Jesus’ words: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). These words stop us in our tracks, and we want to respond, “Jesus, you surely can’t mean what you’ve just said.” The majority of parents love their children so much that they’d throw themselves under the bus if their child was endangered. And, Jesus wants us to hate our children if we are to follow him! These are extremely harsh words to hear then and now. But, they were probably more difficult to hear then because the Jewish culture was a kinfolk society—the whole society was organized around the family and clan. Loyalty to wife, children, parents was extremely important. Jesus just doesn’t say He wants us to prefer him to them, but he says unless we hate them, we can’t be His disciple. What does our Lord mean?

In a typically exaggerated Jewish way of making a point, I believe Jesus means that we can’t make our family more central than Jesus and his kingdom. We can’t make our beloved spouse or young children the highest value or the center of our life. Jesus is the center of our life: Jesus is the One, because he is Life itself. He is God among us. Brothers, God alone ultimately matters and everything else must find its place around this Ultimate Concern. Yes, even something as important as our family, let alone prison associations, must be of secondary importance.

Do you see how Jesus’ challenge runs counter to our privatized, conventional beliefs? I’ve got all my concerns lined up: parole hearing, what am I going to do once I get released, can I make it on the outside? If a release date is not in the offing due to our punitive prison system, then we continually try to re-arrange the furniture in this prison culture so that I can survive. On top of all of this, one of my many concerns is religion which is o.k. as long as it doesn’t make too many demands. My religious practice is comforting, provides stability, and, hey, offers the promise of eternal life. That’s a good deal, isn’t it?!

Folks, that doesn’t work because it means that we are not following Jesus. If our family, if our prison associations occupy a higher priority amongst our concerns than Jesus, then we are not his follower.

If that wasn’t harsh enough, Jesus takes it further when he says that unless we hate our own life, we cannot be His disciple. Now our life is being turned upside down. Jesus wants us to hate everything we do to enhance our lives. Inside we squirm; is there any wiggle room here? Can’t I follow Jesus on my terms in which I remain in control?

A prayer refrain from the Liturgy of the Hours offers us insight into what Jesus may mean: “Lord, your love is worth more than my physical life.” Sit with that. Does it resonate with you?   If so, everything in our lives has got to be kicked out of the central place—even our very life. Are we ready for that kind of commitment? Are we ready for everything to give way for the Kingdom of God?

St. Augustine understood well what Jesus meant when Augustine said, “Love God for his own sake. Love everything else for the sake of God.” Such wisdom! That’s the right perspective; that’s it! We don’t let go of family, friends, ambitions, etc., but we don’t love them for their own sake. Instead we love them as gifts from God. And it is God alone whom we love with all our whole heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our strength.

Didn’t Jesus put it succinctly when he said, “Seek you first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and the rest will be given to you,” which means the rest of our lives will find their place around our central concern which is Jesus and his Kingdom.

People of God at Folsom Prison, as the saying goes, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” Jesus’ invitation to follow him will always take total dedication, trusting in him and entrusting ourselves to him. Let us pray for the grace to be His disciple and follow him unconditionally.

 

 

 

Discipleship–We’re All Unworthy

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C); 2-7-16

Is 6:1-8   Ps 138   1 Cor 15:1-11   Lk 5:1-11

Deacon Jim McFadden; Folsom Prison

 

            One of my spiritual heroes is the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who once wrote that Christianity without discipleship is cheap grace. He walked the talk as he sacrificed his life in his resistance to the Nazi regime during WWII. Bonhoeffer did so because he understood that the essence of Christian spirituality is discipleship: that is, a positive response to the call of Jesus. Remarkably, what all three of our readings remind us that this call is given despite or even because of our personal unworthiness. Today’s readings came help our community at Folsom Prison understand the dynamics of discipleship, while recognizing and accepting our unworthiness, and accepting the call to share in the mission of Jesus.

In the first reading we have the majestic vision of Isaiah, who finds himself in the presence of the Lord. Isaiah is overcome by great awe and a profound sense of his unworthiness. But a seraph, which is a kind of angel, purifies his lips with a burning coal and wipes away his sin. What happens next? Isaiah is “good to go!” Feeling ready to respond to God’s call, Isaiah exclaims, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!” (Is 6:8).

This same succession of feelings is found in our Gospel in the episode of the miraculous catch of fish. Asked by Jesus to cast their nets although they had caught nothing during the night, Simon Peter trusts in Jesus, and he and the other disciples obtain a superabundant catch.

Notice Peter’s reaction, which is similar to that of Isaiah. “When Peter saw this, he fell to his knee and said ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). Peter’s reaction may seem strange at first. We might have expected a simple, “Wow! Do you believe what just happened?” But, he says, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the face of God’s miraculous action and the presence of God in the flesh in Jesus, Peter acknowledges his own sinfulness and unworthiness to become a follower of Jesus. Well, so what?! That is a given—we’ve all done bad things; we’re all sinners in this chapel. Peter has to just get over it. Brothers, none of us are worthy to be a follower of Jesus. We’re all sinners but it is just this kind of people that are called to be disciples.

Look at the second reading. Paul remembers that he had been a persecutor of the Church. Indeed, he wanted to destroy it. He acknowledges that he is unworthy to be called an apostle, that he is least among all the disciples. Yet, despite his unworthiness and maybe because of it, he recognized that the grace of God had worked wonders in him and despite his limitations, God had entrusted him with the task and honor of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. It is through Paul that Christianity became a universal religion.

So, brothers, I hope you are getting the message. Discipleship is entrusted to weak, limited people like you and me—the only kind of people that there are.

Brothers, notice where Peter encountered the transcendent Christ. In the midst of his fishing. IN HIS ORDINARY EXPERIENCE! People of God at Folsom Prison, we experience God at that everyday, workday level, where we spend our waking hours. God calls us where were are and that means in the fishing, in the unique movement of prison life. That is where you will do your discipleship and sanctify your lives. That is where you will encounter God. And, in so doing, you will recognize your own poverty and inadequacy, your own limitations, your own sinfulness. Yet, in spite of our weakness and brokenness, the Lord, rich in mercy and forgiveness transforms our lives and calls us to follow him.

I encourage you to revisit the humility shown by Isaiah, Paul, and Peter. They have received the gift of a divine vocation and so have you. If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been initiated into the Church, the Body of Christ which means you share in the Mission of Christ. But, I beg you not to focus on your limitations or what you have done in the past. Rather, keep your gaze on the Lord Jesus and on his amazing mercy that he has for each and everyone of us. As you receive his love, your heart will be converted and that you too will do what Peter joyfully did: “to leave everything and follow him” (v. 11).

Let go of your baggage, brothers. Keep in mind that the Lord does not look at what is important to human beings. When Jesus gazes upon you, he does not see an inmate with a number. He sees his beloved brother. “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). That’s what makes people who are poor and weak, but have faith in Jesus to be fearless disciples and heralds of the Good News. Amen.