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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
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In light of that, listen again to what was said in the first lesson: "A word of God came to me: 'Even before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Even before you were born, I had set you apart and appointed you a prophet to the nations.'" If the word of God is for now, then God is saying to every one of us: "I knew you even when you were being formed in your mother's womb. I chose you to be a prophet to the nations, to all people."
The question all of us face as we reflect on these scriptures this morning, then, is this: Am I willing to accept what God is telling me? God has chosen me to be a prophet. Can I accept that? Can you accept that? Prophecy doesn't mean predicting the future. A prophet is one who proclaims God's word, and not just by speaking but by being a living witness to the truth that God has proclaimed through Jesus.
The passage we read this morning from the Book of Jeremiah skipped right to the end of the call of Jeremiah and we heard how God promised to strengthen him. The part before that is very interesting because it might reflect how some of us would feel if we had been in Jeremiah's place. Jeremiah was afraid. He did not want to be a prophet, so he started to offer excuses. He said to God: "Wait! Lord, I do not know how to speak! I am still very young." He was trying to think of ways to get out of being God's prophet, because prophets often were treated harshly, persecuted and killed. Jeremiah knew that being a prophet for God would get him into much trouble, so he did not want to do it. But he did.
Maybe some of us feel like saying: "Me? A prophet? No way!" But God is asking us to be prophets.
There is another important aspect to the passage that precedes what we heard this morning. The scripture tells us that "The word of the Lord first came to him [Jeremiah] in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah, in the 13th year of his reign, and continued through the reign of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the downfall and exile of Jerusalem in the fifth month of the 11th year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah."
What is important about this passage is that it tells us Jeremiah's prophecy came within a specific context. It happened in a particular time and place. The same thing is true of us if we accept the call to be God's prophets. We must look around the world in which we live, because that is the context in which we have to speak God's words.
What is the context of our world today? Well, one thing that pops into my mind right away is Superbowl Sunday. Who could not know this football game? It's on the radio, in the papers. It's everywhere! Superbowl Sunday. What is it? Well, it's a football game, but it is a lot more than that. It is a celebration of material wealth. To buy time for a 30-second ad during the game costs something like $2.3 million. And there will be all kinds of ads during the game, ads urging us to buy more, get this, be healthy, be beautiful, be whatever with all these material blessings that we have. It is a world of materialism - greed, really. That's the culture in which we live. You can't miss it today.
The word of God has to say something about that. Jesus came into this world to show us that the poor are blessed and that simplicity is the way to live our lives. Possess what you need, but do away with the excess. And make sure that everyone else has what he or she needs. Being a prophet for Jesus in the United States of America in the year 2004 certainly challenges us to confront the materialism of this culture.
But it is also a time, and we all know this, of extreme violence. Car bombings in Iraq are killing innocent people. U.S. troops were killed there yesterday, and more today. The list goes on and on, not just in Iraq but also in so many other places in the world. If we are going to be God's prophets today, we have to speak within that context. Jesus has something to say about how to transform violence into peace. Jesus speaks about that, and if we are his prophets, we have to listen to his word, follow his way and try to speak that message in this violent world.
That message is so clear when you listen to the second lesson today. It is a passage so familiar that sometimes when it's read, we don't hear it; it just sort of floats past us.
Paul says about the gift of love: "Set your heart on the most precious gift. … If I can speak all the human and angelic tongues but have no love, I would only be sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even gave up my own body but only to receive praise and not true love, it would be no value to me."
He tells us what love is. "Love is patient, love is kind, it is without envy." Now, listen carefully. Let these things sink in. "It is not boastful or arrogant. It is not ill-mannered, nor does love seek its own interests. Love is always reaching out to the other. Love overcomes anger and forgives offenses. Love is always reconciling. A person who loves is the one who always reaches out to forgive first. It does not take delight in wrong but rejoices in truth."
Love, if you want to know what it is in its fullness, is Jesus. Everything that Jesus manifests to us is love. That's his way, the only way to change our world. So, if we are going to be prophets in the world in which we live, we must take on this gift of love, make it our own, use it, preach it. Live it.
Sometimes, I think, we hear this and say: "Well, OK. I will try to be better." If I am a married person, I will try to interact more lovingly with my spouse, or a child with my parents or parents with our children. Or I will try to be a better neighbor. We think of the individual ways in which we need to try to grow in love, to proclaim this message.
But it is bigger than that. It is more than that. We have to do this as a people. That's something that perhaps we don't accept so readily. I remember over 20 years ago, when I was on the committee of bishops that wrote the peace pastoral, we were meeting with State Department officials, the secretary of state and some other high officials. We got into a discussion about using weapons of mass destruction. The discussion got to be kind of heated because we, the bishops, were speaking about how wrong it would be ever to use those weapons, and how wrong it was to have used those weapons in 1945. One of the State Department officials got very angry at me because I was insisting on this.
He said: "We don't have that luxury. We have to do what is in the best interests of our country." So, the best interests of our country would not include loving as Jesus loved, forgiving an enemy, doing good to the one who hurts you. The best interests of our country would be to use such a weapon if we decided that's what was needed. That's what he was telling me. And he was a Catholic. He made it a point to say he graduated from a Jesuit university.
This was not very long after the Second Vatican Council, so probably he had not really learned the theology of the council that tells us that, as Christians, we aren't just here to make the world better only for ourselves and those near to us. We are here to transform the world through the Gospel. We have to bring the teachings of Jesus to bear on more than just our everyday lives and our interpersonal relations; we have to try to influence the public policies of our country.
Now if we really loved the people of Iraq, would we drop bombs on them? I don't think so. We wouldn't kill in order to bring freedom. Jesus has taught us a different way, but we haven't listened well enough.
These two things that I suggested are part of the context in which we proclaim the word of God -- the wealth we have and the violence we do -- are really connected. Way back in 1990, before the first Persian Gulf war, the first President Bush said: "We have to go to war to protect our way of life." We protect our way of life through violence and war, and our way of life deprives the majority of people on this planet of what they need to have full human lives.
So, this morning, as we think about the context in which we live and our role as prophets in this world, we must think about how we can bring the teachings of Jesus to bear on our personal life, our community life and our national life. It is not easy to stand up for what Jesus teaches. A lot of people will challenge us and criticize us and even maybe begin to hate us. One of the reasons it isn't easy to listen to the word of Jesus about love is that Jesus asks us to go beyond just loving those who love us. He says to love our enemies.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus told the people that back in Elijah's time there were many widows starving in Israel, but God sent Elijah to a gentile woman in Sidon, outside the promised land, outside the chosen people. And Jesus said, Elisha was sent not to the people of Israel where there were many lepers, but to a military commander from Syria, one of the enemies of the chosen people. People got angry with Jesus when he said this, because these outsiders were the enemy. "Love your enemies." That's what Jesus was telling them, and they rejected him. They took him to the brow of the hill to throw him down and kill him.
Being a prophet is daunting. Perhaps many of us are feeling -- and I share this feeling -- reluctant. "No! Don't ask me, God! Ask somebody else." But the fact is, God is asking you.
God's word is a living word, and it came to us today. The Word of Yahweh came to me: "I knew YOU even before YOU were born; I have set YOU apart and appointed YOU a prophet to the nations.
Let those words remain in your hearts today, and pray to God that all of us will say "yes" to God's call.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
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