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|The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
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|The Epiphany of the Lord||January 4, 2004|
If we reflect carefully on the scriptures today, we will discover, I think, how the bishops came to describe the church as the light of nations and what that means for each one of us.
Isaiah, in that first reading today, sets forth for us what he saw as the "call of the Chosen People." They had been in exile for almost 70 years. Many of them had become very comfortable in their exile. They had become accustomed to where they were living in Babylon, and the exile wasn't very harsh anymore. They were becoming almost a part of that pagan nation.
Isaiah called them back to their original call as God's Chosen People. He urged them to go back to the Promised Land. Be God's people again, he promised them, and tremendous things would happen: "violence will be no more heard in your land, no ruin or destruction within your borders. You will call your walls salvation and your gates praise. No more will the sun give you light by day nor the moon shine on you by night, for God will be your everlasting light." Isaiah is trying to get them to go back and to understand that they are to be God's Chosen People in the world -- to be God's light.
In other places in Isaiah, back in Chapter 49, God said through the prophet to the Chosen People: "It is not enough that you be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the remnant of Israel. I will make you the light of nations." They were to be that shining light in the world that could draw everyone to God and within that light everyone could come to know God intimately. And -- again -- great things could happen.
Earlier in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 2, when this happens, when the Chosen People pick up their vocation again and become a light to the world all the nations shall stream to it saying "Come! Let us go to the mountain of the Lord - to the house of the God of Jacob that God may teach us God's ways and that we may walk in God's paths and God will rule over the nations and settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lay sword against nation. They will train for war no more. O nation of Jacob, come! Let us walk in the light of God."
That's what Isaiah was pleading with the people to do -- walk in the light of God and the world could be transformed.
All of that comes to us from the prophet Isaiah. But that is not the end of God's revelation, as we know. Matthew shows us in the gospel that Jesus is the fullness of the revelation begun in the Old Testament. The story that we heard from Matthew today, which draws on Old Testament biblical passages, uses the three Magi (or kings as they are sometimes called) to personify how people from all parts of the world came to Bethlehem to discover Jesus who is the fullness of God's revelation. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything the Chosen People were called to be. Jesus himself said, "I am the Light of the World. I am the Light of the World that can change this world."
The call we hear is to live according to the ways of Jesus, and we know what that means, to live according to the values of Jesus. Often in our celebration of the Eucharist, we use the prayer: "Yes, God. You are holy. For this we thank you. We thank you above all for your Son, Jesus. You sent Him into this world because people had turned away from you. But Jesus revealed to us that we are brothers and sisters and that you are the one God of us all and Jesus shows us the way to your light -- the only way -- the way of love." How many times have we heard that? But do we really live it?
Do we recognize that Jesus is the one who shows us that we are all brothers and sisters, and that there is only one God of us all, and there is only one way to God -- the way of love? Jesus can show us the way to transform our world into the Reign of God, if we live according to his way.
As we reflect, then, on who Jesus is and then on what Jesus did, we learn that Jesus gathered a community of disciples around himself, because he did not complete the work that he had come into the world to do. He aimed at transforming the world. As members of the community of disciples, the church, we are the ones now who must carry on the work of Jesus. That is, we must be the light for the world in which we live. It is a tremendous calling that we have. To be light for all peoples. To show who God is and to live in such a way that people are attracted to the church, so that they can discover God and discover the way to transform our world into the reign of God.
So, as we celebrate this feast of Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus, we should come to realize that Jesus is to be manifested in and through us. We are to be lumen gentium, the light of the nations. Maybe we should take a moment or two to think about how as individuals or as a community we can be the light of the nations.
First, we need to look at how each of us interact every day within our families. Consider the people with whom we interact every day. Am I manifesting the light of Jesus among those with whom I live? With whom I work? With whom I go to school? Am I following the way of Jesus so my light draws people to the love of God and through the love of God to a fullness of life?
As a community, as we the community of St. Leo's, how do we manifest Jesus? In many ways, we do it well. I was just reviewing the numbers of people that we served through our parish soup kitchen this past year. Feeding hungry, homeless people is the kind of thing that you know Jesus would do.
We provided more than 60,000 meals this past year. That's 10,000 more than the year before. The need is greater, but we continue to respond. I think that makes this church not just a building set on the corner of 15th and Grand River, but a community that can draw people. People can see in us the love of Jesus. That's a magnificent thing, but that's the kind of thing we have to keep doing as a community.
Furthermore, that is why we are the church. Not to save our souls, though in some sense that will happen. But we're the church so we can be the light to the nations. We are to be the light to everyone, but as with Jesus, especially to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden.
Finally, I thought, as lumen gentium, as the church, we must try to influence how we are as a nation. We have a responsibility. We can't impose our teaching on anyone, of course, but if we really live the ways of Jesus, we can help change things in our country. And how much they need to be changed!
I came across an extraordinary thing this week that reveals to me how much we have to try to change how we are as a nation. This almost seems incredible, but it's the Christmas card that the Vice President Cheney sent out this year.* Our vice president is a member of the Episcopalian church. On his Christmas cards, he has the quote: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His [God's] notice, is it probable that an empire can arise without His aid?"
In other words, he is saying that God is making us into an empire, to rule and dominate the world. That's almost a blasphemy to say that God who came to us in Jesus, that tiny infant, would help us to become an empire, to dominate the earth! Jesus came in the midst of the Roman Empire to change it, to show that empires don't follow the way of God and yet, our vice president is suggesting that God wants us to be an empire. What a contradiction to everything Jesus stands for.
So we have a real need to try and change the way our nation interacts with other nations so that we can be instruments of peace. Not to have domination or power over others, but to be instruments of peace. To take the love of Jesus wherever our nation can have influence.
Sometimes listening to how other people perceive us can helps us understand how we need to change as a nation. The same article that I read about Vice President Cheney's Christmas card has a quote from Bishop Peter Story, a Methodist bishop from South Africa who is described as having "walked the walk" in his courageous outspoken resistance to the apartheid regime. Here's what he says to us Christians in the United States:
I have often suggested to American Christians that the only way to understand their mission is to ask what it might have meant to witness faithfully to Jesus in the heart of the Roman Empire. Certainly when I preach in the United States I feel as I imagine the apostle Paul did when he first passed through the gates of Rome. America's preachers have a task more difficult than those faced by us under South Africa's apartheid or by Christians under Communism. There we had obvious evils to engage.
That may be a hard judgment for us to hear but it is an honest appraisal of how someone from the outside sees us as a nation. So, if we are going to be lumen gentium to our own nation, we have to work for change -- to be not an empire but to be servants of other people.
All of this, of course, is a very hard challenge -- to be lumen gentium. But God invites us. God calls us, and we have responded to that call. We have said we want to be disciples of Jesus, the community of his disciples. I hope this morning, we understand more fully what it means to be the disciples of Jesus, to be the ones who make his life manifest to all the world. I hope we leave this church determined to renewing our commitment to be the community of Jesus' disciples, our commitment individually and as a church to being lumen gentium, light of the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Editor's Note: A copy of the article Bishop Gumbleton refers to can be found here: God On Their Side.
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