The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time||September 4, 2005|
I wonder how many of you have ever thought that God had called you to be a prophet. Think about it. Have you ever thought that part of your role within the church, within the community of disciples of Jesus, would be as a prophet?
I think most of us probably have some sense of what happens to prophets. We've been reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah up until this week. Remember last week, he told us how he had felt he was duped by God. God had led him to be a prophet and now he was suffering. He was put into stocks. He was humiliated. He was threatened with death. He was put down a cistern where they were going to let him stay there until he died.
Who wants to be a prophet? Most of us don't, I think. And yet I hope that by the time we finish reflecting on today's scriptures, we'll understand that each of us is called to be a prophet, and the whole community is called to be a prophetic community, a prophetic church. And besides understanding that that's our call, I hope that we'll be willing to accept that call and begin to be a prophet, that our community will be truly prophetic.
Well, first of all, what is a prophet? Maybe we still have the idea, some of us, that a prophet is somebody who foretells the future. That's not what prophecy is in the scripture. That's not what any of the great prophets of the Old Testament or in the New Testament, like John the Baptist or Jesus himself, did. They weren't predicting the future. That isn't what God sent them to do. No, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. They do this either with words or by the way they live, their lives give a lesson. That's what a prophet does.
One Old Testament scripture scholar defined a prophet as a conscience of a community, the conscience of the church, the conscience of a nation. That's what a prophet is. Ezekiel today tells us a prophet is like the watchman, the person who is out there watching for what might happen to the community, issuing a warning, trying to alert everyone, "Things are going the wrong way" or "We're in danger. We have to change. We have to be ready to protect ourselves." The prophet is the one who sees farther, perhaps, than others, and the one who sees implications in what is going on.
So a prophet is someone who has insight, someone who is in touch with God, someone who can be truly a conscience for the rest of us.
When we think that maybe we might be called to be a prophet, we're probably like those very prophets we read about in the scriptures. First of all, you probably say, "Well, how can I be a prophet? Who am I?" Or you might say, "I'm a sinner. I'm not that good. How could God speak through me?" Well, you know what? That's exactly what some of the prophets of the Old Testament said. Isaiah said, "I'm a sinner. You can't send me to prophesy!" But God said, "I'll touch your tongue with burning coal and you'll be healed of your sins." Or Jeremiah. He said, "I'm too young! Don't send me. I'm too young!" And God said, "I'll be with you." Amos: "Well, I'm just a shepherd. What do you expect, a shepherd to be a prophet, to speak for God?" Any one of us might say similar things. "Who am I? I'm a sinner. I'm just this ordinary person, and I'm supposed to be God's prophet?" Well, the answer is yes, God is calling all of us. If we follow Jesus who was the prophet, then we must also be prophets.
How do we discern what it is that we must proclaim for God? If we're going to be prophets, if we're going to speak for God, we have to discover what God would want us to say. The first way I think that happens -- and this is something we would have to commit ourselves to -- is made clear for us by the example of Elijah, one of the prophets of the Old Testament. A few weeks ago, we read this passage from the Book of Kings where Elijah's life was in danger. The queen was out to kill him, and he fled to Mt. Horeb, found a very secluded place and he prayed. He went in deep prayer, a relationship with God and in the depths of his prayer -- Remember this? -- he experienced the terrible fire, then the earthquake, then the wind. It was destroying everything. And in all of this he says, "God is not in any of this." Then the gentle breeze came. Yes, there was God. In the quiet of that breeze, he listened deeply and God spoke to him. He knew what he had to preach and so then he left that place, and he went on back to where he had fled from to proclaim God's word. But it was in that quiet moment of prayer where he heard God speak deep within his heart.
Each of us, truly, if we take the time to enter into quiet with God, we will hear the gentle breeze, God's spirit, God's voice, deep within us guiding us, leading us and giving us courage.
God speaks to us not only in the quiet of prayer. Sometimes God speaks to us by what is going on in the world around us. Events speak to us about God and about God's message. Think about this past week. Not one of us is not aware of the terrible catastrophe that happened to the people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The suffering, the dying, the destruction of ordinary life. It's almost beyond our capacity to take in all that has happened there.
But if we look at these events and try to see as the watchman who sees implications, we discover that God is speaking to us through these events. One of the things I believe God is telling us is that we haven't had enough reverence for creation, enough reverence for God's world or the universe. We've done with it whatever we've wanted, and we've tried to use our technology to build a city where probably there should never have been a city built. We thought we were smarter, in a sense, than God, so we did what we wanted. But, also, we have destroyed so much in the world through global warming. The hurricane, terrible drought in other parts of our country, the extraordinary erratic weather we've been having, most scientists say it comes from global warming. Most of it because of human activity. We've disrespected God's creation and so we have a catastrophe like happened last week. Some people may say that's stretching it, but I don't think so. I think if we look into that event, we can say there was human culpability that helped to bring about this terrible, terrible disaster.
But I think it also sends another message, a message that we've been unwilling to hear. What happens to a society, a technological society like ours, when it loses electricity? Loses its communication system? Loses its transportation system? It becomes a disaster, people suffer, people have died in the thousands. Take all of those pictures that you saw in the paper last week or that you saw on your television, and you can project those onto Iraq. Then, perhaps, you will begin to understand what we've done to that country. We bombed them. We destroyed their infrastructure. We destroyed their whole electrical grid system. And the heat in Iraq isn't just in the 90s. In Iraq, 130 degrees is not uncommon. Sometimes it reaches 140 degrees. Hospitals lost electricity. Refrigeration systems and air conditioning systems were all destroyed. People there have suffered and they have died, just as they have in Louisiana and Mississippi. They can't communicate with their family and friends. They're isolated because we destroyed their communication system. We destroyed their transportation system. That's gone on now for 12 and a half years, and most of us pay no attention.
Finally there's a movement at least to bring our troops home because far more are being killed than we ever thought would happen. At least one person has become very clearly a prophet in this instance, Cindy Sheehan. She's concerned about the death of her own son, which she is right to be, but she and the rest of us have to be concerned not only about the U.S. troops who are killed and wounded and mutilated, but the Iraqi people. This goes on and on. Cindy Sheehan says to the president, "Just answer one question for me: What's the good for which my son died?" The president can't answer. But what is the good for which all of those Iraqi people have died? I think in the events of last week, if we look at them, we see an image of what is happening in another part of the world and God urges us to speak out as prophets.
Another thing happened this week that I think provides us, if we look at it with some insight, with another message from God. I'm talking about the report that appeared in the papers this week about Detroit. You know, we're now listed as a city that's over a quarter million people. Detroit is the poorest city in this country. Fifteen out of every 1,000 people born in Detroit die. Infant mortality is higher than it is in some Third World countries. Forty-eight percent of the children in Detroit live in poverty. It's a terrible, almost unbelievable description of what has happened in our city. Shouldn't we be speaking out about this? Doing something about this?
Well, I think we must say with shame, almost, that the Catholic church is abandoning the city of Detroit. We've already closed all the high schools except for one and many of the grade schools. Now we're going to close many parishes in Detroit. We should be here as a Catholic community stronger and stronger to serve the poor. Isn't that what Jesus said? His first responsibility was to reach out to the poor, those in need. That's where Jesus always went. He preferred them. They were the closest companions of Jesus -- the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. But we as a church move away from them. We follow, as one of the leaders in the diocese structure says, "the demographic." Where the rich Catholics move, we follow. Leave everybody else behind. That and the report that came out this week speak to us; God is challenging us. If we're going to be speaking for God we have to raise our concerns about that and do something about it.
I could go on. There are so many ways that if we would begin to be alert we would discover God speaking to us in the quietest prayer or through events of the day. If we're going to be prophets and proclaim God's message and live it, then perhaps what we need to hear most of all is exactly what St. Paul wrote to the church of Rome: Prophets are people who really hear God's word, follow God's word and live God's word. How does one do that? By following the one law that sums up everything: "Love God with your whole heart and soul, your mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."
When we begin to do that, we will really be prophets by the words we proclaim, but most of all by the way we live our lives with concern and love for our brothers and sisters, especially for the poorest and those who suffer the most among us.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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