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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
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
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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.)
Sometimes I have the feeling, and perhaps you do too, that the message you hear at church Sunday after Sunday gets repetitive. It's always about trying to change your life and follow Jesus. Well, the truth is, it doesn't just seem so; the message is repetitive. That's the way Jesus himself preached.
We are in a political campaign right now, so we are all aware of how candidates go from place to place delivering what they call their "stump speech," the one they give over and over that contains the main issues they are trying to focus on. Well, as Jesus lived out his public life and went about teaching, it was as if he had a stump speech, one you do hear over and over.
Remember the first words recorded in Mark's Gospel. When Jesus started his public life, he said: "Repent and change your lives. Follow the Gospel." As his mission and ministry progressed, he repeated that same message many times. Just before Jesus went to Jerusalem on his last journey, he gathered all the disciples around and told them the same thing: "I am going up to Jerusalem. I am going to be put to death," and so on. "You have to change your lives and follow me."
In today's Gospel, we hear the message again: "Change your life. If you are going to be my disciple, you have to live differently." And "If you don't all repent and change your lives, you will perish."
As we listened to this message today, I wondered how many of us heard the words of Jesus as a threat. "If you don't change your lives you are going to perish, just like those Galileans whom Herod killed." Jesus recalled for his listeners a tragic accident: People died when a tower fell on them. "Do you think they were greater sinners than you?" he asked. "No, they weren't. If you don't change your life, even worse will happen to you."
Don't think of this as a threat. It isn't that God is trying to frighten us into changing our lives. God is calling us. If we think God is just waiting to crush us, to punish us because we didn't follow God, then we don't know who God is. That's why we have to listen carefully, especially to the first lesson today.
Our God, as revealed, is the God who is intimately close to us, present to us at every moment. That's what Moses experienced. He was traveling through the desert by himself, and he saw that bush. It seemed to be on fire. He went to investigate and discovered that it was on fire, but the fire wasn't consuming the bush. Then he experienced the profound sense of God's presence. God called him: "Moses! Moses! You are on holy ground. You're in the presence of God."
One of the scripture commentators who wrote about this particular incident, Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, remarked that the fire probably didn't just start when Moses approached the bush. It had been there all the time, but Moses had to make himself present to it in order to see it. He had to be aware that God was present.
That can be true for any one of us. One time I was walking in a park with a friend. It was late afternoon in the autumn of the year. The sun was very bright as it was going down, and we both saw a bush that had these beautiful red leaves on it. Each of us said: "It's a burning bush." It was like what happened to Moses. The bush wasn't on fire, of course, but we both immediately had that clear sense.
Everything created, if you attend to it, is like the burning bush Moses saw. God is present in the beauty of it, in the beauty of the world around us.
God emphasizes that when he tells Moses his name: "I am who am." That's a very profound understanding of God that Moses sets forth for us. God isn't "a" being, like we are a being. God is being, and all of us derive from the presence of God, who is with us at every moment. That's the kind of God who speaks to us through the scriptures, through Jesus -- a God who is intimately present.
We learn more about God if we listen carefully as God continues the conversation with Moses: "I have seen the humiliation of my people in Egypt, and I hear their cry when they are cruelly treated by their taskmasters. I know they are suffering. I have come down to free them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a beautiful spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey." Our God is kind and merciful, as we sang after that first reading. That's who God is.
So God isn't waiting to punish us if we don't change our lives. That's not the point. But Jesus is urging us to change our lives. What he is saying isn't a threat, but it is a fact: If you don't change your life, you will perish.
Those words have always been true. Don't you have a sense that if we don't change things quite dramatically in the world, we are going to destroy ourselves? It won't be God punishing us. It will be our own blindness and malice that will bring about the destruction.
We are all aware of the terrible tragedy that happened last week in Spain. Trains and train stations were bombed in Madrid, and 200 people were killed in that evil terrorist action. People were blown apart in an act of terrorism. But how do we respond to that? How did we respond to Sept. 11? We declared war on terrorism; we responded to their violent actions with violence.
If you think about it, you can't really declare war on terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic. People do terrorist acts, so those are the people we have to confront and deal with. On the other hand, a war against terrorism would have no end. It would go on and on, every act of terrorism and response escalating until at some point, someone would use a nuclear device or some chemical or biological weapon. That would wipe out hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.
War against terrorism only gets worse and worse. What we need is to know who the people are who are waging this war. Try to discover something about them. I've mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating. In the film "Fog of War," Robert McNamara said the first lesson he learned from his experience as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War era was that you have to have empathy for your enemy. If we want to avoid utter and final destruction of the world, we must come to empathize with our enemies. By coming to know them, to know why they act the way they do, we can respond to the humanness in them. If we don't, we will all perish.
We have a marvelous example of this from history, nearly 800 years ago. Circumstances were somewhat similar then as today: The Christian West was fighting the Muslim East.
It was in the time of the Crusades. Christian and Islamic armies were in a standoff. Francis of Assisi went by himself, unarmed, into the camp of the enemy. He went to visit the sultan who was the head of the Islamic forces. Francis carried on a long conversation with the sultan and discovered that he was a very holy and good person. Francis began to understand something about this man and it changed his whole attitude, his whole approach. He also could see how the Christians themselves were violent and committing evil that could destroy so much. Neither side was all good. Neither side was all evil.
Francis wanted to carry on negotiations, and the sultan was willing, but the Christians refused.
Francis gives us a model for confronting violent evil. We must try to come to know who our "enemies" are. When we come to know them as human beings, we can relate to them in a different way -- enter into negotiations, perhaps. We need to find a different way to end terrorism, a way that relates to people, understanding that our "enemies" are human beings. In fact, they are our brothers and sisters.
So, once more, God is calling us to change our lives. This message of Jesus is given to us again and again. Maybe we get discouraged, because we are not able to change as much as we would like to. We find ourselves falling back instead of becoming committed to active love and nonviolence. We find ourselves reacting with anger and even with hatred, sometimes.
Jesus understood that, too, and that's why he told the parable at the end of the Gospel today about the fig tree that wasn't bearing any fruit. The owner wanted to destroy it and the gardener said: "No. Give it more time. One more year and maybe I can make it grow." That is what God is saying to us. We have more time, and with God's help we can change. We can become different. We can begin to follow Jesus.
This is the season of Lent, the time when we especially concentrate on looking into our lives, trying to discover God's presence with us, trying to understand better how the God who loves us without limit is trying to change our lives. God gives us the time we need.
You notice, at the end of the parable, Jesus doesn't say whether or not the owner came back a year later and found the fig tree growing. The parable does have an ending, though, because it is connected with all of us. How we live will be the ending. If we allow ourselves to enter deeply into the spirit of Lent and allow God to work within us, we will be -- like that fig tree - alive, vigorous and full of life. And ready to follow Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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