Homily for Sunday, September 16, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
“No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison… The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”—James 3:8 & 6
Now that I have everybody’s attention, you may be seated…
I bet, hearing today’s passage from James, that I am not the only one feeling somewhat discomfited. For me, not a week goes by—often not even a day— in which I haven’t said something that I wish I could take back, to either say differently or to not even say at all; and I bet I’m not alone. But I don’t want to begin there; rather, I want to begin with two stories and then a quote. The two stories are both set in the American South, both are about young men, and both involve a death.
The first is of a young man, aged 18 at the time, who, early one morning on the way to his summer job at the country club in small-town Georgia, crested a hill on the highway and drove straight into a motorcyclist who was turning left into his lane just the other side of the hill. The driver of the motorcycle, a man in his 50’s, was killed instantly. The accident was a tragedy all the way around. Imagine how the young man felt; imagine how the family of the motorcyclist felt. Several months later, after going to court and being found “not guilty”—a stoplight has since been placed at that intersection—the young man received a phone call from the father of the man who was killed. “Meet me in the parking lot behind the Baptist church this Sunday at 3:00pm.” The young man went(!). Probably looking over his shoulder and ready to run, just in case. There in the parking lot in a pickup was the father of the man. The older man got out, walked over and said to the younger, “Son, I want you to know that I forgive you. You are a young man, and I don’t want you to let this eat you alive for the rest of your life. Please know that you are forgiven.”
The second is of Lloyd LeBlanc, whose name you may recognize as the father of the man who was murdered in Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking. When Lloyd LeBlanc, a devoted Catholic, arrived with the sheriff’s deputies at the deserted field to identify his son’s body, the first thing he did was to kneel down beside his son’s body and pray the “Our Father.” When he came to the part, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he spontaneously added, “Whoever did this, I forgive them.” In the months that followed, Prejean would often bump into Lloyd LeBlanc at a local chapel where he would come to pray. LeBlanc confided to Prejean that, though he had forgiven his son’s killer that night in the deserted field, yet he struggled with feelings of bitterness and resentment. He said that the struggle was near constant, and that the forgiveness he gave out there in the field he had to give over and over again. We know that the bitterness did not prevail, for LeBlanc was able to visit the mother of his son’s killer as she lay dying, but forgiving his son’s killer was something that LeBlanc had to do again and again.
And here is the quote. It comes from William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury back in the ‘40’s:
It is not easy to find outstanding opportunities for practicing this great virtue of forgiveness. But there are plenty of little ones, and the little ones test us more searchingly because there is nothing heroic about them. It is always easier to do one big heroic thing than a thousand little, obscure things; and that is what it has to be with most of us. (Christian Faith and Life, 1931)
What these two stories tell us is that forgiveness is beautiful, and also risky, and that forgiveness takes practice. Beautiful, because what a beautiful thing it was for those fathers to forgive the men who had killed their sons. In our world, marked by so much coarseness, it is beautiful to see souls of such depth. Risky, because forgiveness means showing up, probably not in a parking lot, but at some point to face the one whom we have offended and setting aside our right to be right. And “takes practice” because acknowledging that we have made a mistake and forfeiting our right to be right is not something most of us come by naturally. We tend to be adept at making “nests” of our resentment and lining them with hurt, and it takes practice to open ourselves to the vulnerability and new life that forgiveness can bring.
What Archbishop Temple’s quote tells us is that it is unlikely that we will have heroic opportunities for forgiveness, as those two fathers did. Rather, it is likely that we have “plenty of little ones,” “a thousand little, obscure” opportunities for forgiveness. But they “test us more searchingly because there is nothing heroic about them.”
Which brings us back to the epistle of James and “the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Like I said, hardly a week goes by—often not even a day—in which I haven’t said something that I wish I could take back, to either say differently or to not even say at all.
And I’d give you a story, an example, but the things that I’ve said that I wish I could take back were so petty, so from a small place within, that I’m too ashamed to tell you about them. And the vast majority of those things I’ve said that I wish I could take back, I’ve said to my wife. (Maybe she’ll tell you…)
Since “All of us make many mistakes,” says James, and since “no one can tame the tongue,” the things we say will likely continue to offer us plenty of opportunity to practice forgiveness. Not the heroic kind of forgiveness, like the fathers of those two men, but the “obscure,” non-heroic kind. And the place where we are most often called to practice forgiveness is likely to be in our intimate relationships. Our close relationships are “schools of forgiveness,” as it were, where we are called to practice forgiving and being forgiven, again and again and again, probably most often for things that were said.
I am going to leave us with words from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 2000’s. At a Lutheran church gathering in Stuttgart, Germany, in July of 2010, Williams speaks of the beauty and the risk of forgiveness, as well as the practice that it takes.
When offence is given and hurt is done, the customary human response is withdrawal, the reinforcing of the walls of the private self…
[But] the person who asks forgiveness is a person who has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; he has acknowledged that he is hungry for healing… [and acknowledged] that [he] cannot grow or flourish without restored relationship, even when this means admitting the ways [he has] tried to avoid it. [And] equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim; he has decided to take the risk of creating afresh a relationship known to be dangerous, known to be capable of causing hurt…
To forgive and to be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanized by those whom you may least want to receive… [and] is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humanity…
I invite us to pray this week for a spirit of reconciliation, especially in our close relationships, and for the grace of forgiveness.