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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.
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Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
September 14, 2003
This week's readings **

Numbers 21:4-9
Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.


Philippians 2:6-11
Christ Jesus, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


John 3:13-17
"No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him


 * 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.

Probably when we heard the gospel lesson today and Jesus said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself," we did not immediately think of the incident from the Book of Numbers that was our first lesson. But I am sure Nicodemus thought of it. He knew those scriptures very well, and he understood that Jesus was making a clear connection between what had happened in the desert so many hundreds of years before and what was happening right then. God had so loved us that God sent Jesus. This connection is what we must try to reflect on today -- what happened there in the desert and what Jesus says about himself.

Let's go back to the Book of Numbers and reflect this incident. Wandering in the desert, the chosen people began to lose their sense of gratitude for all that God had done for them. They even began to think that Egypt was OK, that they would be better off in slavery again. They complained, and they rebelled against God. They sinned.

As a result of their sin, serpents attacked them. You may remember that in the Hebrew scriptures and, in fact, in religious writings in that part of the ancient world, the serpent was a symbol of evil and sin. The first thing that this story tells us is that when we sin, we hurt ourselves. We punish ourselves. We bring misery into our own lives. We diminish ourselves by our sin. The serpent, that symbol of evil, then was destroying the people.

As the chosen people came to realize that they needed God's help, they went back to Moses and begged for help. They were ready to be forgiven. What does Moses do? He takes that symbol of sin, the serpent, makes a bronze image of it, puts it up on a pole and then tells the people: "Look at it and you will be healed."

The power of the symbol is this: looking upon the bronze serpent, they became aware of their sinfulness. They were acknowledging: "Yes! I am a sinner." This is how forgiveness begins. You remember your sins and acknowledge your sins. That is a very important spiritual truth that we need to take into our lives.

The truth is this: any sin that is forgotten can never be healed, and sin that is not healed will always be the cause of greater evil. Moses was helping the people remember their sins. He told them: Don't forget your sins. Don't bury them. Acknowledge them. Remember your sins and then you can be healed. In this way, your sin will not become the cause of greater evil.

So they look on the serpent, the symbol of sin, they acknowledge their sinfulness and they were forgiven and healed.

I was reminded of that spiritual wisdom this week when on Sept. 11, the second anniversary of the terrorist attack against us, The New York Times ran an editorial that surprised me because of its title, "The other Sept. 11th." The editorial referred not just to the one we experienced two years ago, but the other Sept. 11!

Many of us don't know what that other Sept. 11th was because we have forgotten it. We have not acknowledged it. This is what the Times said: "In the United States, Sept. 11th will forever be a date to remember our victims of terrorism, yet our nation's hands have not always been clean. It is important to recall Chile's Sept. 11th. The Pinochet File, a new book, presents declassified documents showing that the Nixon administration, which had tried to block the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, began plotting to bring him down just 72 hours after he took office. The United States did not directly participate in the coup that brought about Mr. Allende's murder on Sept. 11, 1973, but it laid the groundwork for it and supported the plotters."

Our government secretly embraced the regime of coup leader Gen. Augusto Pinochet even as widespread murders ensued, and for decades afterwards, we supported Pinochet's regime even though evidence mounted of its use of murder and torture of thousands of innocent people in that country.

Our hands are not clean. It is a sin when you support the murder of people, even if you don't do it yourself directly. You are committing a heinous crime. We have been implicated in a sin, but we have forgotten that sin. And a forgotten sin cannot be healed. And a sin that is not healed becomes a cause of greater evil.

Think about what was happening in El Salvador in the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s. On Feb. 17, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him: "Stop sending arms into this country. The arms you send here are only being used to kill the poor." He pleaded with us: "Stop supporting the tyrants who are killing the people in this country."

His letter was totally ignored. He never got an answer from President Carter. Five weeks later, on March 24, the archbishop was shot by someone who had been trained in this country with weapons that had been sold from this country. But a greater sin was being committed. For 12 years, we spent a million dollars a day supporting this regime of terror that brought about the death of tens of thousands of people. This too we have forgotten. And a sin that is forgotten is not healed and will become the cause of greater evil.

Isn't that exactly what has been happening? When we invaded Iraq in 1991, we carried out a war that totally destroyed the infrastructure of that country and killed hundreds of thousands. We carried on sanctions against Iraq for 12 and a half years, which brought about the deaths of a million and a half people.

Then when we are attacked, and we wonder why. Well, you see, our forgotten sins have not been healed, and they lead us into greater sin.

So now we are talking about conducting a war on terrorism. That's what our president says: "We're taking the war on terror over there." And it will go on for years. How many tens of thousands of people will be killed? We must remember our sins so that we can be forgiven and then we can be healed.

Take a moment now to reflect on how Jesus calls us forth in the gospel lesson. He says "when I am lifted up" -- he wants Nicodemus and us to think about that serpent being lifted up on the pole - "look on me, remember your sins so they can be forgiven, you can be healed."

St. Paul tells us how Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sins. The cross was the sign of the greatest hate and suffering that people could inflict on other people at the time of Jesus. So Jesus hanging on the cross is a sign of sin. But he transforms that sign. He tells us: "Look on this and remember your sins and you can be forgiven and healed." Through Jesus the cross is no longer just a symbol of sin. It is a symbol of how much God loved this world and loved every one of us, because with Jesus on the cross, violence ended. There was no retaliation. There was no return of hate for hate; violence for violence. Jesus loved.

We remind ourselves of this in the Eucharistic prayer: Jesus, innocent and without sin was given into our hands, was tortured and nailed to a cross; but before he stretched out his arms between heaven and earth in that everlasting sign of God's love, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his closest friends. Because he stretched out his arms in that everlasting sign of love, that is what the cross has become -- not simply a symbol of sin and evil and hatred and violence, but a symbol of love. That is why we must look upon the cross. Jesus was tortured, nailed to the cross, but he did not hate, did not seek retaliation. He only poured forth love.

As we look on the cross and see it as a sign of our sins and remember our sins and then seek Jesus as a sign of God's love poured forth for us, our sins will be forgiven. We will be healed, and our past sins will no longer be the cause of greater evil.

Each of us in our individual lives must do that, and I plead that as citizens of this country we do that. We must become active in trying to help our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in this nation, to remember our sins so that we can have our sins forgiven and we can be healed. We must also begin to do what Jesus shows us so clearly: forgive and love those who have hurt us. It will be only if we Learning this message of the cross and carrying it out in our everyday lives, that is how we will stop terror in the world. Terror won't be stopped taking war to Iraq.

I hope that the symbolism of today's readings will be deeply implanted in our minds and our hearts and that we will respond by consciously and frequently looking at the cross, seeing our sins and also seeing God's love. God's love will change our lives and bring God's peace into our hearts and into our world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and have the Holy Spirit.

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