This is my homily for Sunday 16 May July 2010, 7th Sunday of Easter. On-campus Mass at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Teaneck, NJ resumes 7:30 p.m. Sunday August 29 for the 2010-2011 school year. I am the Catholic chaplain for the community and FDU Newman Catholic Association.
To view the readings, go to http://www.usccb.org/nab and click “May 16” in the calendar.
Forgiveness is sometimes the thing that happens later in the game of our lives and involves a come-from-behind victory.
I think we are all familiar with comeback victories or situations where the underdog on the playing field pulls out an unlikely victory.
It is also true in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles in which Stephen turns towards his accusers – late in his life, at the very end. Stephen turns towards his accusers and shows them forgiveness and mercy.
Stephen is the first martyr, to give up his life, with a surprising outcome at the end of his life.
The surprise is the forgiveness bestowed upon those who want to punish him with death.
Why the penalty of death?
[__02] Just before this section of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s accusers are furious. Here is how he makes them furious.
Stephen makes a speech – really a sermon – about Abraham, the patriarchs, Jacob, Jacob’s youngest son Joseph who is rejected and sold into slavery and other prophets – and the rejection experienced by those inspired and chosen by God.
Stephen challenges these religious leaders of Jerusalem, the religious leaders of his hometowan of Judaism, challenges them and compares their lack of faith in the Gospel to the lack of faith shown toward Joseph and prophets.
So, they are furious not just because it’s a long sermon. And, it lasts for almost all of Acts, Chapter 7. But, they are furious because it shakes up their view of the world. They want to stone him and take his life.
What may surprise us in this comeback victory are Stephen’s closing words of FORGIVENESS which are similar to those of our Lord on Calvary. Stephen says the words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) which are similar with Christ’s, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
So, forgiveness is a victory, a come-from-behind victory, but not one in which we conquer our enemies who have wronged us.
Or, as Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans about revenge, chapter 12, verse 19:
“Vengeance is mine I will repay says the Lord” (Romans 12:19)
“Vengeance is mine I will repay says the Lord”
Vengeance is not ours to pay back. The Lord pays back but does not subcontract out his revenge for us to take in little bits of revenge on everyone else.
[__04] So, our victory is meant to be over our own selfishness and pride not over our perceived or real enemies. Part of our comeback is to comeback to Christ and to the Gospel.
To come back home.
[__05] Last year, in June 2009, I had the opportunity to travel with a group from Seton Hall University to an orphanage in central Haiti, an orphanage with a residence for about 150 children – which was fortunately not affected by the recent [January 12, 2010 & after] earthquake activity in and around Port au Prince. The orphanage is about 80 miles away from the zone of seismic activity.
This Wednesday, this group and I will return there, playing soccer and basketball with them, for a rematch of USA-Haiti visiting another orphanage where there are some very sick children.
It was an eye-opening experience for all of us, to visit Haiti, to visit the poorest country in the western hemisphere and also to encounter the founder of this orphanage.
[__06] His name is Jean Louis.
Last year, the founder (a native of central Haiti) of the orphanage spoke to us about how the orphanage was started. His name is Jean Louis was born and raised in the dust and poverty of the central plateau and mountains and had barely enough to pay his tuition for school. Education is not publicly funded for everyone.
Running out of money at around age 12, his family had no choice but to withdraw him from school. Fortunately, a couple of Catholic religious brothers, Xaverian bothers, found him, and enabled him to continue his schooling and commuting to school which involved walking for hours each way.
Upon finishing high school, Jean Louis somehow found his way on a scholarship to Virginia Tech to study agriculture. Unfortunately, the techniques of soil cultivation, and planting taught at Virginia Tech does not transfer easily to Haiti where the field workers do not even have gloves, let alone tractors.
But Jean Louis goes home.
Under such conditions, one might wonder why Jean Louis bothered to return home?
[__07] To return to the place where it all began is a journey of forgiveness…
It was a journey home for Stephen to Jerusalem..
The Jewish faith from which our Christian faith is born starts in the hometown of Jerusalem … a place where Christ our Lord and Stephen our brother lay down their lives willingly.
Jesus goes to his home first …preaches and forgives them first… before going out to all the world. (cf., Matthew 28:19)
And, forgiveness – for all of us – is always a journey home.
It was a journey home for the Prodigal Son who has to go home and ask forgiveness, a journey home for the father who welcomes him back.
So, Jean Louis returns home to Haiti.
[__08] He is an educated man with a degree from Virginia Tech, Jean Louis certainly did not have to return to Haiti … to the place where it all began …a country which has suffered due to the complex political interests and economic objectives of many governments in the western hemisphere
Haiti has not always been a priority for the United States or the United Nations and other organizations.
So, would one college graduate be able to do anything? Would it be worth it?
This is the question we are are called to ask in any act of forgiveness, in any decision.
Revenge is not our calling; forgiveness really is the alternative. And, if you thought taking revenge was risky … well … isn’t also a risk to love and show forgiveness too.
I’m not suggesting a path of passive and least resistance where forgiveness means allowing oneself to be used. I’m suggesting forgiveness which also requires effort and compassion and action.
[__09] So, Jean Louis goes home ..and hundreds of children and families would testify to the difference he has made.
Jean Louis has gained support over the years ..running an orphanage on a budget supported mainly by a foundation in Virginia that raises over one hundred thousand dollars per year for him.
And, as for the “western hemisphere” …Jean Louis happens to own property that the United Nations is now renting out ..paying him as their landlord, money which he is using to run the orphanage.
So there may not be vengeance in our lives… but there is the chance of a come-from-behind victory, and justice, when you return home, with a spirit of forgiveness and mercy … even at the end of the game, there is still time left on the clock.