Homily for February 23, 2014: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Fr. Scott Bullock

February 23, 2014

Sunday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time


Gospel    Mt 5:38-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said,
 You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”



Love your enemies—is truly possible?  Listen to the story of Jennifer Thompson:

Jennifer Thompson was a 22 year old college student at Elon College in Burlington, North Carolina, described as "the perfect 4.0 student, perfect daughter, perfect homecoming queen." Her life was forever changed one summer night in July 1984 when a stranger held a knife to her throat and raped her.

She was determined to remember every detail about her assailant so that she could identify her enemy and guarantee imprisonment for the rest of his life. She helped the police develop a drawing. She picked Ronald Cotton out of a lineup. She was calm and confident. The police described her as a perfect witness. Although he insisted on his innocence, the power of Jennifer's eyewitness testimony helped to convict him and sentence him to life in prison. She never had a doubt.

A year after his conviction Ronald Cotton met another inmate in the prison kitchen. His name was Bobby Poole and they looked a lot alike. Poole was serving consecutive life sentences for a series of rapes. He bragged to other inmates that Ronald Cotton was serving some of his time because he had assaulted Jennifer Thompson. Cotton got a knife to murder Poole but his father told him not to murder but put his faith in God. He followed his father's advice.

A new trial was ordered for Ronald Cotton. This time the jury saw both men. The jury also heard testimony about Bobby Poole. But, the jury again convicted him on the basis of Jennifer Thompson' s eyewitness testimony. Ronald Cotton was again sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison.

After eleven years, Jennifer Thompson had gone on with her life with marriage and children. Then one day the police detective she hadn't seen in years knocked on the door of her Winston-Salem home. He said, "Jennifer, you were wrong." The new technology of DNA analysis conclusively proved that Ronald Cotton was innocent. Her assailant was Bobby Poole after all.

Jennifer Thompson was shocked. How could she have made such a terrible mistake? She felt she had stolen eleven years of a man's life that could never be given back. She agonized over this for two years and then asked to meet with Ronald Cotton and ask for his forgiveness. She prayed for strength to meet the man. They met in a church building in the town where she was raped. Her husband and the pastor waited outside. Face-to-face for the first time outside a courtroom, Jennifer said, "I'm sorry. If I spent every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to what I feel." Calm and quiet, Ronald Cotton finally spoke: "I'm not mad at you. I've never been mad at you. I just want you to have a good life." They talked for two hours while the pastor and Jennifer's husband anxiously waited outside. When they all stood outside, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton embraced. They held each other for a long time.

A few days later Jennifer wrote to Bobby Poole in prison. She asked to meet him. She wrote, "I faced you with courage and bravery that July night. You never asked my permission. Now I ask you to face me." She wanted to meet him to tell him that she forgave him for what he did. She reasoned that if Ronald Cotton could forgive her, she could forgive Bobby Poole. (He never responded. Poole died of cancer while in prison, early in 2000).

Look what happens when we love our enemies—life happens. Why does Jesus tell us to love our enemies? That we might have life—that we might be like God. “Love your enemies . . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” Notice what an odd, puzzling turn of phrase Jesus uses:  loving our enemies makes us children of your heavenly Father. To paraphrase:  to love one’s enemies—isn’t that just like your Father would do? Our God is already our Father—but it is when we forgive that we become God’s children. For it is then that we most vividly show our godliness—to forgive like God does, to give life through pardon, just as God does.

Look in the story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton—how Cotton’s forgiveness gave life to Thompson, who was ready “to spend the rest of her life trying to say she was sorry.”  Cotton forgave her and relieved her of this lifelong burden—he gave her life, just as our God gives life.  He created a new life. Until he forgave her, until he loved the “enemy” that put him in jail, Thompson herself was the one who would remain in the prison of her guilt. He also saved her from the burden of anger against her true assailant—for when she chose to forgive according to Cotton’s example, she could live without that life-crushing anger.

If we are to claim the privilege of being a child of God, we must forgive as God does. However, to forgive our enemies, we must first identify who they are. So, I ask you, who are your enemies? It could be tempting to say, “I have no enemies.”  But look closer and with more honesty—Who has hurt you? Who has mistreated you? Who has taken some life from you? To continue to harbor anger and resentment means only two things: They cannot live fully. You cannot live fully.

What is it like to love them, your enemies? It’s like Ronald Cotton:  choosing not to be mad, hoping them a good life, and not holding their offense against them. “It seems impossible!  The pains are too deep. The offense too egregious,” we might think. You’re right, for you, for me, it is impossible.  But it is not impossible for God. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? Communion is the “Bread of Life. ”When you come for Communion, ask for this life: Ask the Lord to show you who you still hold as enemies, even though years may have formed a scab over the wound. Ask the Lord to fill you with his love, so that you can love as the Lord does—impossibly, fully, mercifully. It is the way to full life for you and for those who are your enemies.

Isn’t it time to start to live again? Isn’t it time to live like a child of the all merciful, completely loving Father that we have? Isn’t it time to forgive, to love the enemy so that you can live life in its fullness? Life in its fullness—is just the other side of forgiveness.  Isn’t it time?