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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.  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.)
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 31, 2003
This week's readings **

Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8

"Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. "So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? "Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?" And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. 'But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men." After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. "All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."

 * 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.

One evening this past week I happened to watch a part of the "Larry King Show" where he was interviewing the comedian Bill Maher. In the course of their conversation, they got into the problems of the church. Mr. Maher said very bluntly: "I am an ex-Catholic " He had given up on the church, he said, because the leaders have lost all their credibility.

As I watched that and observed his reaction, I remembered hearing that same reaction from people I have met. They say they have given up on the church. "I am an ex-Catholic," they say, and walk away. Instead of just walking away in anger and disappointment over failures of the church, I think, it would be better to remember what I suggested to all of us last week: Ecclesia semper reformanda -- the church is always in need of reform.

Don't give up on it. We are a human institution. We are God's people, a pilgrim people and a sinful people. We fail as a church, and our leaders fail sometimes within our church. That has been true from the beginning. It was true for the chosen people of the Old Testament. God always had to call them back. It is true today. God always has to call us back. It's also true of each of us individually and all of us together as a community of God's people.

But don't give up. We need to be reformed. Even when the church fails in very dramatic ways, don't give up. Remember, instead: "I need conversion. I need to be reformed, and my community, the church, needs to be reformed." We have to be constantly open to being changed, to being converted, to being reformed.

Today, if we listen deeply to the scriptures, we will discover some ways in which we can very specifically commit ourselves to the reformation and the conversion that we need.

First, in the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses exhorted the people. "Look at the gift that you have, the law that God has given you," Moses said, trying to get Israel to understand that the law was a blessing.

Often we think of the law as something that restricts us or as something that binds us. We think of the law sometimes as hoops that we have to jump through. Moses said that thinking is wrong. He said, "God has shown you the way to fullness of life." If you follow God's teachings, Moses said, look at the law as a guide for you to live by. God's law guides you as you develop a relationship with God. It guides how you think about yourself and develop love for yourself. God's law teaches you how to interact with others. The laws Moses proclaimed were marvelous. And for Moses, that meant right here and now on this earth.

Those who change their attitudes about the guidelines God has given us will see, as Moses said so plainly, marvelous things. "There are no people as wise or as intelligent as this great nation," he said. "Is there a nation as great as ours, whose gods are as near to them as Yahweh is to us?" That is the blessing God has given to us, Moses said. God is present through the word God has proclaimed, the law, if we call it that.

So that's the first thing we need to do: look at the guidelines God has given to us. Look at the law. Look at the commandments and all the teachings that come to us from the word of God through sacred scripture. See them as a way of giving us life, making us whole human beings, enabling us to live with one another in peace and fellowship, communion and love. That's what can happen when we look upon the law as this blessed gift from God.

In the gospel, Jesus reminds us how we can make the law into something limiting and restrictive. The Jewish leaders of the day, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were insisting upon rules and regulations and rituals for their own sake: "You must wash your hands at certain times of the day, every day. You are not allowed to carry things on the Sabbath day beyond a certain distance. You can't even travel beyond a certain distance on the Sabbath day." They had all these very strict rules and regulations. In fact, in the Jewish Torah there are 613 of these rules and regulations.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had forgotten the purpose of the law. They wanted everyone to follow the law to its letter, just because it was the law. It got so ridiculous that the Jewish teachers and the Pharisees once tried to stop Jesus from healing a paralyzed person because it was the Sabbath. According to these leaders, Jesus was not supposed to minister to people on the Sabbath. The person who had been healed was not supposed to get up and carry the pallet away because it was the Sabbath. Well, how absurd. When you make the letter of the law all-important and forget the purpose of the law, then that's the kind of bind you get in. Jesus' response was: "Open your eyes. Look at why you have these rules and regulations."

One way that might apply to us is attendance at Sunday Mass. Some people might come just because it's the law. Probably most of us are beyond that; we come because we feel enriched. But do we come because we want to get something or to give something? The reason we should come to Mass on Sunday isn't for the sake of the Mass. It is so that we can share our faith, enter into the celebration with spirit, with life, with joy, with enthusiasm. Giving of oneself in the celebration enriches oneself and others in the community.

That could happen if we came to our Sunday celebration not out of habit, not out of conformity, and not out of obeying a law, but because we want to come and praise God with all the spirit that we can bring forth, and enrich one another. That could happen if we came to every Sunday liturgy with the conviction that this is a time when we pour forth our love for God and our love for one another. Then we enrich ourselves and enrich one another. If we had that attitude, every Sunday celebration would be filled with a joyous community of people praising God and enriching one another.

Jesus also used the example of ritual laws about food. The teachers and Pharisees were insisting on external conformity. Jesus' answer to that was: "It doesn't make any difference what you eat, what goes into your body. It's what's in your heart and comes from that heart that matters." He tells us to examine our hearts and how we interact based on our love for one another and our love for God. It isn't the letter of the law; it is the spirit behind the law that Jesus is telling us about. We need to be converted to that deeper understanding of the purpose of God's law.

Finally, there is one other element that I think is very important in our conversion to becoming fully adult members of our church, our community of disciples. When you look at what Jesus was doing in the gospels, it is really quite amazing, because Jesus wasn't, as you may know, a rabbi. He wasn't a Pharisee. He wasn't a priest. Jesus was what all of you are: a layperson, a layperson within the Jewish community. Yet, he had the courage of his convictions and he had the inner strength to speak up to the leaders and to challenge them because they were not being faithful.

Just this week, I was in conversation with a person who is a co-chair of a group from another diocese. I have spoken of the group before. The members call themselves "Voice of the Faithful." They are very concerned in that diocese because their bishop is one of the bishops who moved around priests who were guilty of terrible crimes against children.

They want to confront the bishop, but they are sort of afraid. I told them: "Look. This is a responsibility of an adult member of the church. All of us are called to confront one another and even to confront our leaders if they fail." That takes courage. It takes conviction. Maybe most of us aren't quite ready to join a group like Voice of the Faithful, people who stand up for what is right within the church as they see it and want to enter into conversation about changing things.

Call to Action is another group of laypeople who are saying, "We are the church." More and more of us have to come to that point where we are ready to be the church. That's what Jesus is teaching us in today's gospel. He was not acting as a priest, a leader of the community at the time. He was not a rabbi. He was a layperson. But he wanted that community of the chosen people to become more clearly and authentically what God was calling them to be.

That's what every one of us should want for our church community, that we become more clearly and more authentically what God is calling us to be - individually but also as a community. That means at times we do have to confront one another, even confront our leaders and call for change and for conversion.

Maybe the most important thing for us to hear today comes from James, who said, "Listen to God's word." But don't just listen. "Listen to God's word but then do it. Be doers of the word, not hearers only."

Today, as we reflect on the word of God, we listen to it deeply and try to let it enter our hearts to change us. Then, as we go forth, we must be doers of God's word. Change our church. Bring about the conversion that each of us needs, that our community needs. Then we can truly be God's people and reform the world around us, which we are called to do. I hope you leave our gathering today with the conviction that you will continue to hear God's word, but even more, that you will do God's word.

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

(Editor's Note: Bishop Gumbleton's episcopal coat of arms, which he chose in 1968, bears the motto "Be Doers of the Word.")

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