The following is a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on February 10 at the 10 a.m. Community Mass. The inspiring text was Luke’s account of Peter’s marvelous catch of fish. (In my experience, the text of a homily falls short of the spoken event; but some people asked that I post this, and so here it is).
Speaking as a fellow traveler through this life, I’ve always found final forgiveness, particularly of myself, to be one of the most difficult things to “accomplish.” The bad fairy sitting on my shoulder wants to keep going back to the pangs of guilt, especially over the really big stuff. Even when I may know intellectually the gift of a profound forgiveness, my dogged mortal nature cannot quite accept the reality of it; I must still be guilty—there is still something to pay for. To that bad fairy, the good fairy (on my other shoulder) answers for me: Yes, I am ultimately responsible for my life, and my sinfulness, and whatever suffering I have caused; but I am also loved beyond measure, and thus freed for a deeper loving. In the sight of God, there is nothing more to pay. In whatever ways I have harmed others or squandered that responsibility, it has been borne already by the God who, on the Cross, died in order to bring an end to our tendency to become green-shaded clerks of moral accounting. God does not want us to drown in guilt. Jesus chose to die rather than see that view win. God wants to free us.
A friend recently sent me a quotation from the well-known Buddhist practitioner and author, Jack Kornfield: “Forgiveness,” he says, “is giving up all hope for a better past.” Forgiveness is giving up all hope—for a better past. It is a way of letting go of the past, and of our past selves and the past selves of others. My friend went on to say: “I’ve never been good at SELF forgiveness, but somehow taking this perspective seems really liberating. Offering forgiveness is ultimately about completely freeing ourselves and others from the wish that things had happened differently.”
There is so much truth to this statement! To its wisdom I would only add that it does not all depend on us. When we feel that we cannot forgive ourselves, or others, that is the time to remember that it is God who is doing the job, not us. For, in the final analysis it is not we who are doing the forgiving; we are only the secondary actors in the drama. We may struggle to forgive others, or ourselves, but what we fail to see is that we are already being forgiven. All is grace. Mercy is a divine gift, constantly being offered us for the taking, the self-offer of a God who delights in excess. This gift of being forgiven is the great catch, the overwhelming divine largesse, that is already filling our boats.
In today’s Gospel we have Peter, who is having a slow day fishing, until Jesus happens on the scene. All of a sudden things pick up. One minute there is nothing; in the next, the sky is raining down fish! He is thrown off his footing in downright fear before a chaos beyond his control: leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Facing Jesus, Peter experiences a holy confusion, a confusion through which, ironically, he comes to see himself more clearly. And in this moment of clarity, he beholds the truth of his life. He is Peter and remains Peter, a sinful man (we’ll take his word for it), but now a Peter who is freed to live for a future not of his own making, with more marvelous catches to come. He has experienced a love so powerful that it is forgiving—meaning that it overcomes our past and opens up a future. This is the grace of forgiveness, of redemption.
How often we miss this, as we writhe in shame we cannot shirk, in guilt we cannot shake. We cannot forgive ourselves, much less others, when we consider the sweep of our lives and the suffering we might have caused, or the affronts we may have endured. And, these days, we as a puritan society seem to find it impossible to grant forgiveness, the possibility of redemption, to some who have made grievous mistakes. Granted, actions have consequences, and justice must be pursued; but, as in all things, a justice bounded by mercy. Yet accusation itself, even self-accusation, has come to signal the impossibility of redemption, the absurdity of God’s offer of forgiveness:. a moral self-righteousness shared by the pure. Rigid lines are drawn and dogmatic judgment rules. In that frame of mind we can easily forget that we are all in need of forgiveness. God’s ways are not our ways, yet we would often enough impede the flow of God’s love into our own lives and the lives of others.
What we need is to be more like Peter, capable of being thrown off balance and shocked into a new way of seeing things. I don’t want to paint a pie-in-the-sky picture here. The reality is that we get thrown down only to get up, get thrown down again, and get up again. Remember, Peter’s moment was chaotic! The actual experience of God’s forgiveness and our own patterns of failure are often enough comically predictable. We keep doing the same old things; we often feel stuck, our lives chaotic. The point of the Gospel story is not a one-off conversion, as if we are all to go home from here, pack up, and sell the house (although the apostles seem to have done something like that!). It is, rather, that again and again, we stand to be astonished. And we can change. Over time, we can learn to forgive those who have harmed us, be they parents, spouses, friends, coworkers, or lovers. We can gradually come to an authentic self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, by seeing ourselves as Jesus saw Peter, with a love that saw right into him and brought him to his knees.
The late French Jesuit, Yves Raquin, once described God’s desire for us:
God wants before himself
a real human being,
one who is able to shed tears, to cry out
under the effect of his purifying grace…
It is a real human being
whom God wishes to see before himself,
for otherwise his grace
would not be able to work its transformation.
The real human being stands naked [before God].
The real human being stands naked before God. Such was Peter (who, by the way, in John’s account, was fishing naked). In fact, we all stand naked before God whether we like it or not, starting from the day of our birth. There’s no use trying to hide behind the fig leaves of religious moralism or morbid self-flagellation. We must strip away such flimsy covers and let God throw us off course. For each of us will also die in nakedness. And it is only in our nakedness that we can allow God to reach us, to saturate us like the sea waters, to let God astonish us.
Then, like Peter and the apostles, we can witness fish raining down from heaven, filling our boats to overflowing. Then we can leave our boats ashore, leave behind the past, and start life anew, yet again. The invitation to freedom is always there; we need only open our hearts to let the work begin.