Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I don't care if you like me, but I do care that you love me

By Father Perry D. Leiker

The good news today comes really quickly in the first reading: God forgets all our sins. Well, he doesn't really forget; God can't forget anything, but forgetting in God's terms is forgiving. It's kind of like when we forgive or forget a debt. Someone comes to us and they've been owing us $20 for months and months, and they come up again with another excuse: "Listen, I'll have it for you next week. I'm really sorry, but I'll have it." And you're so tired of it, you just say, "You know, forget it. Forget it." And you wipe the debt away because it's too much energy to keep doing it. Forget the debt.

God remembers everything, but he forgets our debts; he wipes them away. But he doesn't do it because we're repentant or because we do the right thing or the right formula. He says it in the word: "It is I, I who wipe out for my own sake your offenses. For my my sake I do it." Why for his sake? It's the very core identity of God. He is all merciful, and so he always wipes away our offense. Whether or not we know that ... they say Jews and Catholics love guilt. I've been a priest 35 years, I've heard a lot of guilt in our church, people who don't believe that God could forgive their big sins. But he does; he wipes them away.

Well, this theme, such a rich theme, gets taken up by Jesus in a very interesting way. Personally, this is one of the Gospels — if I were making a movie, I'd think I'd like to start with this one — it's just extraordinary. First of all, it is so dramatic. This man is brought there, a paralytic, to this house where Jesus is gathered. The whole town's all gathered in the house. They can't get near him, so this paralytic apparently insists, "Take me up on the roof. Put me down through the roof." What a scene is this! So they do. They climb up on the roof. They unthatch the thatchness and then they drop the man right down in front of him.

Here's the moment: Jesus looks at him and says, "Child, your sins are forgiven." Now, in this moment to come, he unparalyzes one man and then paralyzes some others. Well, actually, the others are already paralyzed, but he just aggravates their paralysis. They're paralyzed with jealousy, anger, hatred: Jesus couldn't possibly do one thing right or say one thing right. Everything he does is wrong, and every miracle that he does, it's on the sabbath, so they ride him off. Today he's a blasphemer.

So, he says in this story, which is easier to say: "You sins are forgiven" or "Pick up your mat and walk"? Well, I think it's easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven." What evidence could you show that they were or were not? Who sees inside a person's soul? That's easy to say. But if you say, "Pick up your mat and walk" and the man doesn't move, oops, I blew it. You failed. So he says — and in saying this — he kind of proclaims that he's not blaspheming, that he does perhaps have an identity bigger than they're willing to say. He says, "But to show you that I have the power to forgive sins I tell you pick up your mat and walk." And he does. And everyone is astounded. Except, I think, the Pharisees. And they become, of course, more paralyzed, more convinced of their hatred for Jesus. It's strong enough that they'll eventually put him on the cross.

This is an important Gospel, I think, for all of us, but I know it's important for me. Even from early in my life I knew I was a grudge holder. I knew I was very self-righteous. I did everything at home, and my brothers did nothing. I was a big judger, I think, of everyone. This is my big confession in front of all of you. If somebody hurt me, I could really sit back in my misery and not talk for three days. I didn't talk to a friend for three years in the seminary, because I was deeply offended. I don't even remember over what. So if anybody wants to talk to me about grudges, here's the master. I can tell you about grudge-holding, and I can tell you when I'm hurt what it does to me.

I eventually learned that Jesus gave a key to release that, to free me, years ago. When I was very young I had the key and I didn't know it. It's the only prayer that he really taught us — the Our Father. And toward the end of it, not buried there, but close to the end, we say these words to Jesus: "Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." I hate the prayer! I hate it! To lay this condition on God: "God, you forgive me as I forgive those who hurt me." What a condition! Thank God he doesn't hear me. Forgive me, Lord, as much as I forgive them, because I often didn't. But it was something that began to work on me when I discovered that there was a deep secret hidden there. And I began to learn, with work, to forgive those who offend me.

I think it was in 2006, something happened in our country that was just an extraordinary event that was marked on my soul. It took place in Nickel Mines, Pa. And I am going to read portions of an article from Joseph Shapiro. The article is titled, "Amish forgive school shooter, struggle with grief." He says: "It's been a week for quiet reflection in the Amish communities around Nickle Mines, Pa., which one year ago experienced tragedy." And the tragedy was this: This milk man who delivered milk into this Amish community came there with a gun, walked into a small, tiny school house (I think there were boys and girls, and I think the boys were ushered out, and the girls remained there). And unbelievably, a 14-year-old girl walked up and went between the gunman and the girls and said to the gunman, "Shoot me if you must, but let them go." A 14-year-old had this courage. Well he did shoot her. He shot 10. Five were killed, and the others lived but were shot, and then he turned the gun on himself.

But what happened in the Amish community was astounding. The article says: "Last month it was announced that the Amish community had donated money to the killer's widow and her three young children." It goes on to say what happened after this shooting. He says, "I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when the members of the Amish community went to the killer's burial service at the cemetery. Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters only the day before, were in attendance and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer's family."

I can't even imagine me doing that. And apparently, this is something very deep in the Amish community. It is the need to forgive. But I understand that there are changes, that we have these images of the Amish don't ever drive vehicles or have any electricity, and I understand that this is changing in the communities. And they also didn't used to go to counseling very often. They were very private about these things. They went through their grief absolutely privately, often not sharing much with each other. But this was such an extraordinary event, that some were moved to get counseling services. It helped them through their grief.

But the thing that happened within them, those who were able to forgive, is they discovered the freedom and peace that flows from forgiveness. I know that people can forgive anything, really. People have forgiven the Holocaust, people who lost every single member of their family. And some have described it, "I just got tired of hating. I couldn't hate anymore. I had to forgive the source of all of my hate." And so, I look at the stuff of my life — it's little in comparison to the Amish people. But I'll tell you the little stuff sometimes messes us up most.

This Sunday, these readings give me an opportunity that I get a few times in a year when we have readings like this. I realize, I've been a priest 35 years in several parishes, and I've offended a lot of people. I can honestly say, I don't think I try to, ever. I mean, I don't like confrontation. I'd much rather go away from people and brood inside and be miserable with myself. But to get in their face — I talk big: "I'm going to tell 'em!" but I don't do it, usually. And when I offend people, I do it for lots of reasons. Sometimes I just make stupid mistakes. Sometimes I choose a road that was dumb and has bad consequences. Sometimes I'm just careless and don't see a consequence coming up, and sometimes even after the fact I don't see it. But very  often, after I've made mistakes or after I've offended people, I discover that there are a lot of people who don't like me. And I don't mind that. I mean, I like to be liked, but really, on a deeper level, it's not important. What's important is that we know how to be professional with one another. It's just tolerance.

How many people work next to somebody at work that you just don't like? You don't like the way they smell, you don't like the way they chew their food, they talk too loud, you don't like their music, they dress poorly. There's nothing likable about them, but they don't know you feel that way because you have to work with them. Let's get the job done. That's just professional.

But we're supposed to go beyond that as Catholic Christians. We're supposed to do more than tolerate. I don't care if you like me, but I do care that you love me. I ask you to love me, because that's what I do for you. And in the Christian spirit of loving, we care about one another and how people are and what they do with their life. I want you to criticize me, I really do; but respectfully and politely. Pardon the language, but I hate when someone comes up to criticize me and they vomit all over me. Hello? Can't you say it politely? But when you critique me, when you critique what I do and don't do, it helps me grow, and I want it. I try to speak Spanish, and even in Mass, if people correct me right there, I prefer it. I don't want to keep making the mistake for 20 years. Teach me. But when people don't, and they prick me, and it hurts, I go right back to that place. I want to go inside and feel all that self-righteousness against them. And so I say that prayer that I don't like, but I know I need it because it leads me to the truth.

I know that first reading is true, that God wipes out my offenses, forgets my offenses, my sins, not because of me, but because of who he is. But for that reality to penetrate into my soul, I have to be open to it. And when I choose not to forgive, to judge anyone else, or even if they don't like me and I don't like them back, I go right to that place of the Pharisees, and it strangles and paralyzes my soul. And I know it.

I know it's not magic, but it's deeply spiritual, this prayer — "Father, forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me." When people trespass against me — and they do — I need to go to that place where I finally find my freedom and my peace, and I discover that God, indeed, can wipe out every  offense.

Father Perry D. Leiker is St. Bernard parish administrator. Reach him at (323) 255-6142, Ext. 112.

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