Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Forgiving Amy (Homily)

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18:21-35

Last year I had this student in my Bible as Literature course. Let’s call her Amy. She skipped a lot of classes and often came late. Her papers missed the point. She was smart, but she wasn’t trying very hard, and in the end I gave her a D for the term, which I thought was fair, and still do.

But she didn’t, and she wrote me a nasty email, and then another, calling me names and accusing me of all kinds of things, from sexism to Catholic bias to incompetence. She thought she deserved an A, or a B at least. And the more patient I tried to be, the nastier she got. She took it to the chair. She took it to the dean. She wouldn’t let it go.

And I wouldn’t let it go either, I have to admit. The emails hurt my feelings and made me mad, and I kept wanting to strike back, to convince Amy that I wasn’t biased or arbitrary.

And that’s where I sinned.

It’s not that Amy’s charges were justified. The D was fair. Now and then I’m actually right--not very often, but now and then--and this was one of those times. This was one of those rare situations in which my call wasn’t to change my own behavior but to forgive someone else for hurting me.

And that’s where my sinfulness came in. Because I couldn’t do it at first.

I mean, I was such a good teacher in that class. I was such a good guy. I learned everybody’s names. I invited the class to my house for a party. I gave everybody a chance to revise and I told all these good jokes, gave all these good lectures. How could anyone fail to appreciate my brilliance? How could anyone fail to like me? Why did I have to suffer even the little bit of humiliation that Amy was making me suffer? Why wasn’t I getting my way? Why wasn’t reality bending to my will?
*

I don’t understand the whole dynamic of forgiveness. I’m not sure how to talk about it. I think that the challenge to forgive is one of the greatest mysteries of faith. But in this particular situation, with Amy, this much is clear to me: that my failure to forgive was a sign of my arrogance. That my failure to forgive was a sign of my need to be in control. That my failure to forgive was proof once again that I’m always trying to be God instead of obey God.

I keep thinking that I’ve died to myself and surrendered my will. But then a student sends me an email and I can’t even die to that.

It’s a failure to be realistic in a way, to accept the way life really is. Christianity is deeply realistic. We keep wanting to play the numbers game with faith, as if the Bible is just a code and we have only to crack it. But we ignore the real numbers. If we go by the gospels, for example, 1 in 12 people in our lives will betray us--and the other 11 won’t be all that great a lot of the time. If that’s true for Jesus, why wouldn’t it be true for us? And how did he react? What did he do? He died for them, he died for them all, even for Judas.

The reason that Jesus says we should forgive 77 times is that that’s how often we have to forgive--because even for believers, even for people who are trying hard and doing the best they can, things don’t always go right and people aren’t always persuaded, and we just have to live with that, over and over again. That’s 77 emails. That’s 77 times I have to forgive Amy and every other student who wrongs me, 77 times I have to forgive every friend and member of my family who wrongs me, 77 times I have to forgive every rude sales clerk and every slow waitress and every angry tailgater on the freeway. That’s a whole lot of forgiving. That would pretty much take up all of my time the whole rest of my life--if I took this passage literally.

Though come to think of it, what would be wrong with that?
*

The other day I was accused of preaching New Age ideas, of talking about my own liberal views up here. But I don’t know. I think I’m just trying to understand what the Gospel is saying.

It’s funny what we choose to focus on and what we choose not to. Why not take this passage as our guide for living? It’s the one the Church has given us for today. Why not focus on this gospel for a while as we make our decisions?

What should we do? If someone has sinned against us, how should we respond? Well, unless we’ve forgiven that person 77 times already--and that’s really pretty doubtful--shouldn’t we forgive them some more? Shouldn’t we just keep on counting?

You tell me. Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?

Sure that’s New Age. It’s the New Age inaugurated by Jesus 2000 years ago, an age that we have really yet to enter.
*

Of course, on today’s date, on September 11th, this challenge and this mystery are even greater, even more difficult. I can’t figure this out. Can you? What does it mean, with all the world’s Amys, to forgive and move on? What does it mean for America, now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with all the suffering and incompetence we see around us? Or think about the Church right now, in 2005: what does it mean with all the Amys of the Church to forgive and move on?

And we are all Amy. I am. You are.
*

Certainly it’s true that we are helpless without grace, that we can’t forgive without the forgiveness that comes to us first, from God, through Jesus Christ.

But we have to be open to that grace. We have to submit to it. We have to let God do all the judging that needs to be done and start paying more attention to our own salvation.
*

At least let me pass along a practical suggestion for handling some of the smaller struggles in our lives. It comes from a very wise woman I know, and it’s been helping me quite a bit.

It’s a little metaphor and a little prayer.

The metaphor is of a conduit. Think of yourself in every moment of your life as a conduit for a power or an energy greater than your own. When you do something creative and compassionate and good, that’s the grace and love of God flowing through your body and out into the world. It’s not your doing.

But the same is true from the other direction. When you feel the poison and anger and negative energy coming at you from some bitter, unhappy person, don’t absorb it. Don’t keep it in your body, in your shoulders or the small of your back, where we usually store tension. Think of that negative energy flowing through you, too, out of your body and out the top of your head and out into the universe, into the air. Be a conduit for the anger and the hurt, but conduct it backwards, back towards God, into his arms and into his hands, because it’s only God who can heal the hurt, only God who can answer the anger.

The prayer, then, is this: into your hands, Lord, I commend Amy. Or Lorna, or Wayne, or Matt.

Whenever you feel the jab, the cut, the sharp pain of injustice, say this prayer. Into your hands, Lord, I commend the tailgater. Into your hands I commend the sales clerk. Into your hands I commend my own spirit and the spirit of everyone else I come into contact with, everyone who hurts and betrays me, if they do and when they do, because just as my spirit can find its home and its fulfillment only in you, so also with the spirit of everyone else on the planet. Only in you, Lord. Only in you.

For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.


Into your hands, Lord, we commend Amy, and Lorna and Wayne and Angie and Matt and Diane and Bob. Into your hands we commend everyone.

Into your hands, Lord, we commend ourselves--all of us here, all of us, every moment of our lives.

And may the New Age come. May it begin right now.