11 September 2011

Repair, Ruin, or Re-run?

NB.  Slightly edited repost from 2005.  Sorry.  Had the 8am Mass, and the Holy Spirit just couldn't get my cooperation for a new homily. 

24th Sunday in OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford

Let's see. In the last month or so, we've been exhorted to correct one another fraternally. To love one another. To spend more time looking in a mirror and less time looking through binoculars. To serve God by serving one another. To be fresh wineskins for the New Wine of the Lord. And on and on and on. It’s getting to where here lately that it is difficult to hold a decent grudge, to point fingers at other peoples’ sins, or to justify a little self-righteous anger. Or to just wallow in a little self-pity! Don’t be vengeful. Let go of rebukes. Do not hate your neighbor. Overlook faults. Be merciful. Do not cherish wrath. Perhaps we are right to complain that the Lord is too demanding, too demanding of our obedience. Surely, it is easier to find refuge in the ruins than it is to help build a new city.

Case in point. Here we are at Mass again and we hear again another string of demands, perhaps the most demanding of demands: Forgive seven times seventy those who sin against you. We must forgive. This is not merely encouragement. Jesus doesn’t say, “I urge you to consider forgiving them.” He doesn’t say, “Ya know, wouldn’t it be better if you just forgave them?” He, in fact, says, “You wicked servant! Unless you forgive your brothers from your heart your heavenly Father will give you over to the Torturers.” That’s not a suggestion or a hint. That’s a threat. Plain and simple.

We're accustomed to consumerist religious language, language designed to be inoffensive and persuasive, so we’re not used to hearing about threats from God. But there it is. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.” God “settles accounts”?! In this case, the account that needs settling involves forgiveness, or rather the failure to forgive. Jesus' demand that we forgive seems odd given that forgiveness is generally thought of as something that must be given freely, willingly. Isn’t forgiveness one of those religiously things that we’re told to do but often fail to do precisely b/c we know Other People are supposed to do it too. I mean, of course, I know I’m supposed to forgive, but aren’t you supposed to forgive my failure to forgive you? Well, yes, but you don’t b/c I won’t forgive you and on and on and on, round and round we go, spinning into Hell, clinging to one another, teeth embedded, claws deep in the flesh; we fall, forever, together. We can't say we weren't warned. 

Forgive one another. How easily said. Forgive one another. Not so easily done. I wonder why? Why is it so hard for us to forgive? What problems do we run into when struggling with forgiving those who have hurt us? No doubt these problems are Legion. There is fear. Are we condoning the sin if we forgive? Are we saying that the forgiven sin won’t be a sin in the future. THAT sin is OK now? Maybe we fear becoming prey to bullies, becoming a victim to others’ wrath. To deny forgiveness to the bully is a sure way to guard our dignity, to be diligent against abuse. Along with fear, there is also wrathful anger. Maybe we like being indignant, the feeling of resentment, the grudge, the rancor of spitefully stroking every slight, every wound, counting up the injustices and hurts. We become the Devil’s Accountant and our denial of forgiveness, our disobedience to Christ, becomes a way of playing a very perverse version of God—refusing forgiveness to feel superior, righteous, holier than the offender. Here we are tempted to imitate Satan, the angel who went from being the glorious Morning Star to the Lord of the Damned b/c his envy of God, his need to be God, killed his love for God. If the Morning Star can fall, we must ask with Ben Sira, son of Eleazar, who wrote the Book of Sirach: “If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”

Perhaps we can look at this another way. The contemporary American poet, Eric Pankey, in a poem titled, “Prayer,” asks this question: “What do you love better: the ruin or its repair/Desire’s affliction or fire’s harsh sacrament?” The question of whether or not to forgive can be about whether or not to relinquish hurt and reach for healing. It can be about forgetting. It can also be about obedience and meeting the demands of your faith. But finally, forgiveness is about figuring out what you love more: the ruin of sin or the repair of forgiveness, self-destructive suffering or the hard, hard choice of burning away the slights, the injuries in the “fire’s harsh sacrament”? 

Paul writes to the Romans: “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Surely this is what we love best: that we are the Lord’s, we belong wholly—body, soul, spirit—to a loving God who has saved us from the need to be spiteful in the face of hurts, from the need to hold grudges, from the need to wallow in pity, wrath, and self-righteous anger. We are freed from the slavery of enmity, vengeance, death, and decay. Put the chains back on if you will, but consider: what do you love better: sin’s ruin or Christ’s repair? Your freedom or a wound to nurse?

Don’t be vengeful. Let go of rebukes. Do not hate your neighbor. Overlook faults. Be merciful. Do not cherish wrath. It is too much. It is too much if we go alone into the wilderness of holiness. Though it is easier to find refuge in the ruins than it is to help build a new city, we are promised to a God Who makes demands, Who wants our obedience, and expects us to live up to our end of the Covenant. Building His kingdom, the holy city, one soul at a time begins with the movement of love toward forgiveness. We can survive in the ruins. But we will flourish in the work of repair. And we will flourish more beautifully together than alone.

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  1. It is also, of course, September 11th. I suppose it was wise of you, an American in Oxford, to let that date go by unmentioned. My own experience is that it was the rare Dominican --American or especially from the Continent-- who was not under the impression that anti-Americanism was somehow embedded in the "justice and peace" teaching of the Church.

    As often as Europeans liked to lecture on the faith-driven ignorance of violent Americans, they seemed utterly blind to their centuries-long seemingly invincible arrogance and conceit.

    American blood having been spilled to get them out of their insane internecine wars twice in one century, I was at first stunned by this attitude. But then I remembered my grandmother's wisdom: Never do someone a favor that they cannot repay. They will hate you for the humiliation.

    Having lost their colonies, they now seek to assert their lost superiority by baseless ethical hectoring of people who actually matter in the world, take risks and pay the price for it. So glad my ancestors left.