But the sinner hugs them tight

Twenty-two years ago, on Saturday, January 12, 2002, I walked into that confessional at the back of our church and asked God for his forgiveness and mercy. It had then been some thirty-five years since my last “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

Just a few hours before I had been an unrepentant, self-centered, egotistical, cantankerous, agnostic fool, recently new to Reno, on my way to the grocery store. But God, had other plans. Somehow, I know not how, I ended up here, at St. Albert’s. Never been here, never heard of St. Albert’s before, yet here I was, sitting in an empty parking lot, wondering where I was and more importantly, why? As I told the gentleman with whom I spoke for a few hours, I do not know why I am here, but only that God told me emphatically to “Go to church, you fool!” So, there I was, and today, here I am.

After my first confession in so many years, that gentleman with whom I had spoken—turned out to be the pastor, Father Bob Simpson—he said to me, “Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” I felt so light I had to hold onto the back of the pew to keep from floating away. During the 4:00 o’clock Mass that followed, at the communion rite, my body shook (it still does) when we pray: “Lord, I am not worthy … but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Today’s readings speak to us of God’s eagerness to forgive should we but repent and ask for his mercy. The first reading is from the Book of Sirach, written between 200 and 175 B.C. and in chapter 27, verse 30 it tells us that “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Wrath and anger eat at your soul like a cancer until there is nothing left. It imprisons and tortures the soul, just as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel of the wicked servant who, in anger, had his fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. How, exactly, was he to do that while rotting away in prison? That, my dear friends, “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

There is a deep and abiding relationship between forgiveness and love. When we refuse to forgive those who have wronged us, we are, in truth, refusing to love. And it is never acceptable not to love, for Christ has commanded us to love one another just as we love ourselves. The same holds true of forgiveness, for in truth, we must forgive one another just as we must forgive ourselves.

The second reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 14, verses 7-9. To better understand what we have just heard, let us consider what comes before and after. St. Paul, somewhat humorously, writes in verses 1-6, “Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. Whoever observes the day observes it for the Lord. Also, whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God” Paul then concludes with this admonition: “Why then do you judge your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. So, then each of us shall give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:1-7, 10, 12).

Too often we are consumed with anger, consumed by hatred for perceived injustices, real or imagined. Refusing to forgive, by its very nature, locks us into a vicious cycle: refusing to pardon others blocks us from experiencing our own pardon and peace. When we harden our heart, the heart grows cold, and darkness tortures and kills the spirit. Refusing to forgive, saying “I will never forgive,” locks us away, a prisoner in self-imposed hellish solitary confinement. Unforgiveness is a rejection of love. When we refuse to forgive, we make it impossible to love or receive love.

Here I now draw upon two of the greatest saints, theologians, and doctors of the Church: Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. They are my superheroes as they should be for every member of the Body of Christ. On the Gospel for today, Saint Augustine says, “The Lord puts the parable of the unforgiving debtor before us that we may learn from it. He has no desire for us to die, so he warns us: ‘This is how your heavenly Father will deal with you if you, any of you, fail to forgive your brother or sister from your heart.'” And Saint Thomas Aquinas argues that forgiveness is a gift, and a gift must be free: freely given and freely received. God always freely gives His mercy, but we do not always freely accept it. It is our unbelief and pride that makes us refuse to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, rather than the gravity of any sins we have committed, that renders us “unworthy” of His mercy. “Unworthy” does not mean “undeserving”, for we are all undeserving! It means “incapable of receiving” mercy and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a journey that leads us to love, a journey on which we are invited to look deep, not only at those we would forgive, but into ourselves. Forgiveness becomes real only when we discover that the sins of our brothers and sisters are alive in us. Forgiveness cannot be measured, counted, or rationed; it is not a single heroic act, but an on-going journey of redemption that begins in the heart of God.

That January day, twenty-two years ago, God called me the fool and taunted me to repent; I fell to my knees and asked for his forgiveness. His forgiveness lifted my soul and altered the course of my life. It was in that moment that I came to realize just how infinite His love is and how generous His mercy.

Twelve years ago, on Saturday, September 17, 2011, I undeservedly responded to Christ’s call to serve Him in a new and surprising way, as a deacon in his Church, this Church, St. Albert the Great. To a man, my fellow deacons believed we were unworthy, but we were reminded often that all saints were once sinners before they became saints through God’s mercy and forgiveness. None of the apostles were saints when Jesus called them to follow him. St. Paul, a sinner, saved by Christ, said in Second Corinthians Chapter 12, verse 7, “that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” I too have been blessed by several thorns in the flesh that the Lord has given me, for each has been in answer to my prayers for forgiveness.

Recently, I rediscovered something very precious. For when I found myself no longer in the sanctuary but once again in the pew, I came once again face-to-face with my Lord and Savior, there—before us—Christ crucified—with a renewed knowing of his excruciating pain and unbearable suffering. And it was in those moments that I rediscovered the meaning of true forgiveness, recalling ten of his last words, while dying on that cruel cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If he, the Son of God, could forgive, what could possibly keep us from doing likewise?

I am often reminded of a song I heard long ago. It is one we have sung many times. It is the refrain that keeps singing in my heart: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Along with the thorns, our Lord has blessed me with an overabundance of roses, and they sit in front of me at every Mass. I have felt and continue to feel as though I am floating on an ocean of prayer, and I confess to being utterly surprised, deeply humbled, and warmly comforted by your incredible kindness, thoughtfulness, and prayers. I have been told by my oncologist that I am in remission; for the moment, the cancer has been put to rest. Only God knows the future; I am at peace and grateful for the many blessings I have so undeservedly received. Know that my prayers are for you, my dear and precious family. With God’s grace I will continue to serve you as best I can for as long as it is His will. I remain your faithful servant in Christ, a sinner forever in your debt. Any debts owed me have long been marked paid in full. If I have sinned against you, I humbly beg for your forgiveness, not seven times, nor seventy-seven times, just once. Your prayers and love are more than I deserve.

Homily #186
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Sirach 27:30 – 28:7
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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