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 The Peace Pulpit:  Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI.  Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive.  You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted.  From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week.
NOTE:  The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday.  By signing up for our weekly e-mail, you will be notifed as soon as each is available. (See the upper right corner of this screen.)
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 25, 2004

Thomas J. Gumbleton
Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *

This week's readings **

Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. He opened the scroll so that all the people might see it -- for he was standing higher up than any of the people -- and, as he opened it, all the people rose. Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered, "Amen, amen!" Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground. Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: "Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep" -- for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: "Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!"

1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27
Brothers and sisters: As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. You are Christ's body, and individually parts of it.

Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."

* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published numerous articles and reports.

* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.

For your convenience, the Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC).

** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.

As we begin our reflections on the readings today, I am asking you to remind yourselves of two things that were said in the first lesson. The people gathered at the water gate at the opening of the city, and they were there from early morning until midday as the prophet spoke on and on. Did you notice that? Well, I promise I won't do something like that! We'll keep, as usual, to some limits. Once in a while, a preacher needs to go on and on, but not today.

The other important thing is what the people were saying: "Amen! Amen!" You know what that means. They were saying: "Yes! Yes!" The word of God was being proclaimed to them, and the Word of God bound them together as a people in unity and strength. They listened carefully to take it in so they could say: "Yes, we will accept this word of God. We will live by it. It will inspire us. It will guide us."

We need to apply that to the gospel lesson. Jesus is giving us the word of God and laying it out as his agenda. He came into the world, he said, to proclaim good news to the poor, give the blind new sight, set the down-trodden free, bring liberty to captives, heal the broken hearted and proclaim God's year of jubilee. He acknowledged this when he said: "This day, this scripture passage is fulfilled in me." That's what Jesus was saying.

As we listen to this reading, the same thing should happen. We are the followers of Jesus. As St. Paul said so marvelously in the second reading, we are the body of Christ. We should be saying: "This day, this scripture passage is fulfilled in us who carry on the work of Jesus." The words will be fulfilled if we each say: "Yes. Amen."

That means, of course, that we have to apply the word of God, this agenda of Jesus, right now, where we are. In this point in history. In this place where we live. In this nation of which we are a part. In the circumstances of the world in which we live. As I think about that -- what it means to proclaim this message right now and to make it happen -- two things come to mind that I suggest we use as background for our reflection.

One is the situation of Iraq, where I have just spent a number of days in these last couple of weeks. The other is the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday we just celebrated. Dr. King was one who did say yes to these scripture passages. I suggest that these two things are connected: Iraq and the message of Dr. King as he lived out the message of Jesus.

When I was in Iraq during these past days, I read this gospel thinking about today and what I say about these scriptures. I was overwhelmed with an awareness that everything Jesus said in this gospel is not happening in Iraq.

I'll give you are few examples: Proclaim good news to the poor!

A week ago yesterday I was in Baghdad just outside the compound housing the headquarters of the military occupation forces in Iraq. The morning after I was there, a bomb went off that killed 25 people. I was with thousands of people among the poorest people in the city of Baghdad. These are homeless people -- squatters. They had taken over a government ministry building that had been severely bombed during the recent war. It was empty. All the windows were shattered and there was no electricity, heat or anything like that. But between 2,000 and 3,000 people had taken over this building and were living in it, trying to find some place of shelter. It gets cold in Baghdad during the night at this time of the year so it wasn't really a marvelous place to be living, but it was better than being on the street.

Just the day before they had received a letter from the government, the Ministry of Interior, telling them they had to leave that building the next day. They were saying: "Where will we go? We have no place to go!" Yet, they were being pushed out -- these poor homeless people. They protested this, and we heard on Monday that they had been given another month, but by the end of this month they have to be gone. Where they will go, they do not know. It is hardly good news for the poor.

That is only one minor example of what is happening in that tragic country. There are worst places, if you can believe it, than those who are squatting in these buildings. The city of Baghdad has areas where tens of thousands of people live in shacks. I guess you could call them homes, but they are only shacks. They have no heat, no plumbing, and no electricity. They are desperately poor, and they are not hearing a message of good news. There is no good news in the near future for them that I can see and that they can see. The agenda of Jesus is not being carried out for the poor of Iraq.

The majority of the people in the country are becoming increasingly, desperately poor. Sixty to 70 percent of the people are unemployed. They have no incomes. When their current resources run out, they will be desperate simply to find food to survive.

Or think of healing the broken-hearted, the physically ill or the emotionally troubled. That's not happening in Iraq either. We visited hospitals where the administrators told us that they have a little bit more medicine now than they used to have, but they still don't have the equipment the need. They don't have the electricity they need everyday, all day. They don't have what it takes to provide healing. The hospitals aren't functioning the way they were before the first Persian Gulf War.

The schools are decrepit. A family I met refused to send their children to school because they are not learning anything. They don't have the teachers. They don't have equipment. The condition of the country's health and education systems tells you how desperately poor the situation is.

Some people would say (and I've had people say this to me since I have been back): "The situation isn't good, but they've got their freedom. They should be rejoicing." Think about the freedom they have. Does it mean they have the freedom to live in constant fear (as they do), never knowing when the next attack will take place, always fearing their children might be kidnapped. When there is no order in the country, is that real freedom? The freedom to starve? The freedom not to be educated? What's freedom if you can't become a full human being?

So we are not bringing good news to the poor. We're not healing the broken-hearted. We're not setting the downtrodden free. We are not releasing the captives. The agenda of Jesus is not happening.

I was overwhelmed, really, by what I experienced in Iraq this time. As you know I have been there 7 times prior to this trip. The first time was before the first war. It was a marvelous, beautiful, active city. Now it is in shambles. Five million people living in a terrible situation. It is always ready to erupt into violence.

As I experienced this, I recalled the words of Pope John Paul II, who tried to prevent the first Persian Gulf War, the sanctions that followed that war and the second Persian Gulf War. He said: "War destroys the lives of innocent people."

That's what has happened! The lives of innocent people in Iraq, now in the millions literally, have been destroyed. What is left is hatred and resentment that make it all the more difficult to resolve the problems that provoked the war. Clearly that is what is happening in Iraq right now. We're not coming to peaceful solutions. The whole situation is becoming more volatile.

Even the CIA is trying to understand what is happening over there. I read in the Detroit Free Press the day after I got back that the CIA reported to the government that there is great danger of civil war erupting at any moment. So we have left a trail of hatred and resentment.

As I mentioned before, we celebrated Martin Luther King this past week. What a different message he proclaimed in the presence of injustice. The laws of this country imprisoned the Black people of the United States. The laws took away their freedom to eat where they wanted to, to stay in the hotels they might want to, to travel on buses and sit where they wanted to. Many people proposed Black Power, violence and killing. But Dr. King had a different message. He rejected violence and responded to hatred with love.

Remember the Freedom Riders? I am sure you do. They went into the South, not with weapons but to ride on the buses. White people and black people defied the law, sitting together at lunch counters, marching in quiet. White and black, they defied the law because the law was wrong. It had to be changed. The situation was unjust. There was no freedom. But you don't bring freedom with guns. You don't bring freedom with violence. You don't bring justice and peace with war.

Dr. King proposed a different way and that way was, of course, the way of Jesus. If we would listen once more to Dr. King and follow his way, we could bring peace, justice and freedom to the people of Iraq. We also could remove a lot of the fear within our own country. We are afraid because at almost any time terrorists could attack us. The terrorists hate us not just because they resent our freedom, as our leaders sometimes suggest, but because we use violence against them.

What if we really changed the agenda? Right now we spend a billion dollars a week to support an army of occupation in Iraq. What if we were to use that billion a week for rebuilding? We could reconnect with the people in a loving, peaceful and just way. We could bring peace. We could end the violence. We could give true freedom to the people of Iraq and enable ourselves even to live in a greater spirit of freedom, freedom from fear at any moment of an attack.

It is possible! The agenda of Jesus is what can make it happen. We've heard that agenda this morning: "Proclaim Good News to the poor. Heal the broken-hearted. Give the blind new sight. Set the captives free. Lift up the downtrodden. Proclaim God's year of favor." That's the agenda of Jesus.

Each of us must ask ourselves: Am I ready to say "amen" to that agenda? Am I ready to follow it? Am I ready to urge the leaders of my country to give up violence and to use our resources in a loving way for the people of Iraq and people in other places who are desperately in need of being lifted up, of being given their freedom and of being healed?

As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, my hope is that all of us will pray about this agenda of Jesus and how we can carry it out through active love and non-violence, imitating the way of Dr. King, which is the way of Jesus. I pray that each of us will say "amen" to the agenda of Jesus and "yes" to the way of Jesus.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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