Friday, September 9, 2011

God's Mercy is not Ours to Keep; It Must Be Given Away.

When I was a boy growing up in Vincennes I loved to throw rocks in the lazy Wabash River. I loved to find the biggest rocks and hurl them as far as I could. But that was just half the fun. I wanted to see how big of a splash they would make and then, best of all, was watching the ripple effect of the stone breaking through the water and seeing just how far the ripples would extend.
In today’s gospel, then Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant. That story should disturb us. Let's look at this man. He was so quick to beg his master for mercy and forgiveness on his own behalf. And his master wiped his debt away, no questions asked, cancelled it completely. Yet as soon as the man was forgiven his debt and is set free and unburdened he finds someone who is below him and nearly chokes him to death, and demands that he pay back a small amount of money.

Who is this man? Is he not in some ways the man lurking within each of us? Have we not all played the role of hypocrite, played the double standard game? How many of us have people in our lives who we really do not want to forgive? (pause) Yes, that relative you’re thinking of, you have to forgive him or her. That neighbor who you’d wish would move, yes, you have to forgive him or her.

Mercy and Forgiveness is all part of our baptismal call!
God's mercy is not ours to keep; it must be given away.

All over the United States – and all over the world – this gospel is echoing forth from pulpits everywhere. This gospel was not picked to coincide with 9/11. No, this gospel is the gospel for the day. Indeed, this IS the Gospel Message for every day. Always. Mercy. Forgiveness. Compassion.

Just imagine the ripple of mercy and forgiveness if we were to live the gospel?!

Ten years ago 19 foreign men with a warped image of God and a grudge against our government decided to act in unison in a horrible way. Just think – if 19 men could change the world so quickly, what if only 19 of us decided to do something beautiful for God?

Soon after the 9/11 attacks all we could hear was Usama bin Laden's name. I decided that every time I heard his name, I would say the name of Jesus, and then pray for bin Laden and all our enemies. I wish I would have written about this and spoken about this following the attacks, but I did not. I regret this. But I did say Jesus every time I heard bin Laden's name.

I also prayed with my wife and sons every night that our enemies might have a change of heart.

But I also prayed that we as a nation might not regard every Muslim as a terrorist or regard every Afghani or Iraqi citizen as a member of Al-Queda. I pray that we might see them as fellow human beings, and not disregard their humanity, of which some have, regarding them as the enemy, terrorists, or worse.

Then back in May of this year I remember the night that President Obama announced that Usama bin Laden had been killed. I sat on the couch with my sons in a stunned silence. I was mortified by the giddiness of certain reporters and then I watched as hundreds and thousands of people began to celebrate in the streets of New York and Washington and other cities. I was grieved that so many people would rejoice so much in the death of one man.

If you will recall, it was a week after Easter, but did we see people dancing in the streets at the news of Christ's Resurrection from the death? It was also Mercy Sunday, yet did we find mercy in the streets that night? And Pope John Paul II had just been beatified that day as well. I wonder what Pope John Paul would have said?
Pope Benedict sent a message that we, as Christians, should never rejoice in the death of anyone, not even an enemy.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel writes: “God does not desire the death of the sinner, but that he turn to God and live.” No matter what bin Laden did or inspired others to do, we are called to forgive and pray for our enemies.

I cannot change the gospel. The gospel must change us.

This past week on September 9th we celebrated the memory of a different type of foreigner who came to the Americas with a plan to bring the love and compassion of God. His name? Peter Claver.
Peter Claver was a Spanish priest who understood that love of God is expressed through love of neighbor, in the distribution of medicine and food and most of all compassion.

The young Jesuit left his homeland forever in 1610 to be a missionary in the colonies of the New World. He sailed into Cartagena (now in Colombia), a rich port city along the Caribbean. The slave trade had already been established in the Americas for nearly 100 years, and Cartagena was the chief slave market. Ten thousand slaves poured into the port each year after crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul and inhuman that an estimated one-third of the passengers died in transit. Although the practice of slave-trading was condemned by Pope Paul III, it continued to flourish.

When Claver arrived he declared himself "the slave of the Negroes forever."

As soon as a slave ship entered the port, Peter Claver moved into its infested hold to minister to the ill-treated and exhausted passengers. After the slaves were herded out of the ship like chained animals and shut up in nearby yards to be gazed at by the crowds and put on the auction block, Peter Claver continued to assist them. With the help of interpreters he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God's saving love. During the 40 years of his ministry, Claver instructed and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves.

He became a moral voice against slavery and lodged with the slaves in their quarters.

He often said, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."

“He had a steady confidence that God would care for them and, not his least worry were the slave owners whom he did not deem beyond the mercy of God. They also had souls to be saved, no less than the slaves. To the masters and slave owners Claver appealed for physical and spiritual justice, for their own sakes no less than for that of their slaves.” (Leonard Foley, O.F.M.)

Whatever we do has a ripple effect, whether we toss a rock into the river, serve the poorest of the poor, or forgive an enemy. Everything we do has an eternal effect.

The good news is that you and I are the ones who have been forgiven … and we are to seek to not merely understand others, but accept others, while inviting them to a life of holiness. We are the ones we are waiting for... We are the ones who can bring peace to our troubled world, one person at a time, just like Peter Claver did.

Oh, would to God that we might live our faith and love, yes, love our enemies, then we would stop keeping a record of wrongs and counting how many times we have to forgive others. Can you imagine the hatred that Peter Claver could have had for the slave-traders and owners? Yes, his anger would have been justified, but he sought to win them over with his words and actions of love among the slaves and the slaveholders.

In today's gospel, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Forgiving someone seven times was very generous. Three times was the limit to forgiveness in Jesus’ day. So Peter figured that he’d multiply that by two and he’d be good, and just for good measure he added one more to make it a beautifully holy number of seven.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” 

This was not what Peter was expecting to hear.

Seventy-seven times? Imagine if we began to count the times we forgave others. And once we got to 77 times, then we might try for 7 X 70 times, or 490 times. I assure you, by the time you got to 490 times forgiving others, we would have likely stopped keeping count and forgiving would have become a habitual virtue.

Forgiveness, mercy, and peace begins with each one of us and we can change the world for the better.... beginning right here. And we will not be armed with box-cutters or bombs, but we must first allow ourselves to be disarmed by the love of God, our hands ever open, not clutching bricks of bigotry, rocks of racism, grenades of grudges, pistols of prejudice, or missiles or mayhem, but opening our hands and reaching out in forgiveness and mercy, where we will lose count of who we have forgiven and how many times.

May we throw our rocks and bricks of unforgiveness into the ocean of God’s love and allow the ripples of mercy to wash over us as we learn to forgive one another 77 times over and over and over again.

God's mercy is not ours to keep; it must be given away. Amen.

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