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 The Peace Pulpit:  Homiles 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.
  Fifth Sunday of Lent March 28, 2004

This week's readings **
Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick. Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.

Philippians 3:8-14
Brothers and sisters: I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

John 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more."

* 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.

From our readings today I hope we will remember and carry home with us especially these words: "Do not dwell on the past or remember the things of old. Look! I am doing something new. Now it springs forth. Do you not see it?"

God is doing something new. It is springing forth. We must have the spiritual insight to see it and then to experience the new thing God does for us.

If we go back a little bit in the book of the prophet Isaiah, from where those words we heard this morning come, we discover how the chosen people were very good at remembering what God did in the past. "Thus, says Yahweh, who opened a way through the sea and a path to the mighty waters who brought down chariots and horses, a whole army of them and there they lay never to rise again. But do not dwell on the past."

They were always thinking of the past because it was important for them to remember what God had done: God freed them from Egypt, from slavery, and gave them new life. God led them through the desert to the promised land and made them God's very own people with a covenant that was to be forever. They remembered these things, but they treated the events just as memories. Isaiah wanted them to become aware of what God was doing for them at the present moment.

At the time Isaiah spoke, the chosen people were in another kind of slavery. They had been carried off into exile. The chosen people had been defeated by the armies of the Babylonians and had been carried back to Babylon. For almost 70 years, they were in exile. Their thoughts were focused on the past; they did not realize that God was still at work among them. Suddenly, they were about to be freed, and Isaiah proclaimed this, telling them to remember that God had always been at work among them.

He told them: "Even though we have been in exile, though we have suffered so much, God is still and has always been with us. Now, once more, God is leading us into freedom. 'I am opening up a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. The beasts of the land will honor me because I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert that my chosen people may drink. I have formed this people for myself. They will proclaim my praise.' "

God was doing something new for them, leading them once more. God had been with them all the time, but they hadn't seen it. When Isaiah talked about God doing something new, he also meant something that started in the past and carried through time. He talked in terms of the fullness of God's reign: "The beasts of the land will honor me because I give water in the wilderness and bring water into the desert. All of nature is in harmony and peace."

God is at work making this fullness come about. A lot of times we don't see it. We become very discouraged and are ready to give up. But God said to Isaiah: "Look, I am doing something new at every moment." When you hear or read today's second message carefully, you realize that is the experience St. Paul has described. He said, as he did in the letter to the Philippians, "I am a Hebrew born of Hebrews. With regard to the law I am a Pharisee and such was my zeal that I even persecuted the church. As for being righteous according to the law, I was blameless."

Paul hung on to his past until suddenly: "I found Christ, and all those things that I might have considered as profit I considered as loss." God was at work in Paul's life bringing forth something new by revealing Jesus to him. And it changed Paul's life: "Now everything seems to me as nothing compared with the knowledge of Christ Jesus. For his sake I have let everything fall away and now I consider it all as garbage if instead I may gain Christ."

God was at work in Paul's life, and suddenly Paul saw it. He came to know Jesus, and it changed his life totally. He prays at the end: "May I know him, Jesus, experience the power of his resurrection, share in his sufferings and become like him in his death and thus attain through this, God willing, my own resurrection from the dead."

Paul came to know Jesus and to realize that Jesus was God at work in his life -- and it changed everything. God did something new in Paul. When we listen to the Gospel lesson, we discover that God is doing something tremendously new in Jesus. Those scribes and Pharisees, the leaders of the people who brought the woman before Jesus, thought they were abiding by the law that God had given them. In fact, they had carried the law to limits far beyond what God would want. But Jesus changed everything in a marvelous way. God did something new in Jesus. He helped to heal those Pharisees, scribes and leaders.

When we hear this account of the woman, I am sure we think about how unjust it is. Where is the man who was there, too? If it was an act of adultery, there were two people. We think of that, and then we think of the mercy and kindness of Jesus reaching out to the woman. They tried to dishonor her, strip her of dignity by making her stand in front of everyone in shame. But Jesus would not let that go on.

They were trying to trap him. If he had said, "stone her," then he would have been in trouble with the Roman authorities, because the Jewish people had no right to execute anyone. If he didn't say to stone her, then he would have lost the following of the crowds who were coming after him so much. But Jesus wasn't even concerned about their trap. He was trying to do something new. He reached out to the woman and showed respect for her, recognized her dignity.

But he also reached out to the scribes and the Pharisees. Instead of ranting and railing at them because they were trying to trap him, he very calmly reminded them that we can't draw lines between those who are sinners and ourselves. That's what they were trying to do. They were trying to be the righteous ones. They knew they were good. They didn't recognize their own sin, but then Jesus called them up short: "Whoever is the one without any sin, you throw the first stone."

So he offered them the opportunity to know their own sins, to become aware of themselves as sinners. So they began to walk away, aware of their sins and ready to be forgiven. When the woman was with him alone, he said: "Is no one here to condemn you? Then I won't condemn you either. Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more."

Jesus did something truly new. He did such a marvelous thing. But -- just like the events that Paul and the chosen people in the Old Testament remembered - these marvelous events continue today, right now. God does something new for every one of us. God is at work within our lives -- if only we would see it.

I mentioned before Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw. He died yesterday [March 27], as I said. We all have his little black book of reflections, and on Wednesday he had a text he wanted us to reflect on during Lent. For me, it shows how much he was aware that God is always doing something new in us, so we should never be discouraged or give up. We should never feel overwhelmed by whatever has happened to us personally or overwhelmed by the problems in the world. God is at work in the world, always doing something new.

Wednesday was the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. For the reflection that day, Bishop Untener included a passage titled "The mystery of the Romero Prayer." The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him. They were, in fact, spoken by John Cardinal Dearden in November of 1979. They come from a homily he gave at a Mass for deceased priests. But what is even more important to know is that they were words drafted for Cardinal Dearden by Ken Untener. They are really his words, and they show us an insight that I think is very important.

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The reign of God is not only beyond our efforts. It is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying the reign of God always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. We cannot do everything but there is a sense of liberation in realizing that because this enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

Ken had a very deep awareness that God is at work within the lives of each one of us. Within our world, the reign of God is happening, and it will happen in its fullness. We are invited to keep on doing something to help make that happen. We can't do it all, but we can do something. The reign of God is breaking forth. God is always doing something new.

I hope we will remember that as we look into our hearts today and discover our sinfulness. God will do something new and heal us, forgive us, send us forth renewed, rededicated, recommitted to doing God's work.

God is always doing something new. With this in mind, perhaps we can look at death in another way. I think about Ken, a very close friend of mine, but you can think about someone else who has gone before you in death. God is doing something new for Ken -- for everyone who has died -- and it's a newness that's without limit. It's a newness without end. It's the new life of living with God forever in heaven. That's what we all have to look forward to. That knowledge should give us a sense of joy and peace similar to what the prophet Isaiah felt when he cried out in that first lesson: "Do not dwell on the past. Do not remember the things of old. Look! God is doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not see it?"

I pray, God, that we will see You doing something new and be filled always with joy.

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

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