The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time||October 3, 2004|
If you had a chance to glance at the bulletin already you've seen that in my article I spoke about having been to Haiti this week. While I was there I was reflecting on today's reading and this first reading especially.
"Yahweh, how long will I cry for help while you pay no attention? I denounce the oppression and you do not save. Why do you make me see injustice? Are you pleased to look on tyranny? All I see is outrage, violence, suffering ..."
That is exactly what I saw, and I could imagine the people of Haiti crying out to God in these words. This is a country, as you know, that is desperately poor. The poorest in this hemisphere certainly. People now say it is the poorest country in the world. You go into parts of the city of Port au Prince into the slum area and almost all the children you see have red hair. They are malnourished children, severely malnourished.
Now, of course everyone's aware of the terrible floods that have brought mud slides, have destroyed their homes, have washed them right down the hillsides into the sea. When I left there the other day they were saying that by this point at least 5,000 people have died through those floods. People who had nothing to start with. You almost say how could they lose anything more? And yet now they're even more desperately in need than they ever were.
We even thought of trying to take a quick trip, up to the parish that is our twin, but we could not get through. The roads are still flooded. They cannot repair them quickly. They cannot open them up. So people are desperate, especially in that area of the flood, but throughout the country.
Like what Habukkuk was talking about, their suffering is not just from floods and from the lack of all that they need to have a decent human life, but also from oppression, outrage and violence. What we are not so aware of is that there has been a coup in Haiti, and now there are people running the government, an illegitimate government, who are perpetrating human rights violations that are getting almost desperately bad as what happened during the first coup period back in the 1990s.
We spent two or three hours one afternoon listening to person after person testifying about what had happened to him or to her as people came to their homes, dragged them out, sometimes burned their homes. This has happened to hundreds and hundreds of people.
We visited a jail where the legitimate prime minister, Yvon Neptune, is imprisoned. We talked with him. Two days after the coup he had stood up to denounce it and was almost immediately arrested. That was five months ago; he has been in jail ever since. No appearance before a judge. No charges against him, just sitting in jail. Three other members of his cabinet are also there. Same thing. Ordinary people are picked up in huge numbers and are dumped in jail. And when I say dumped, that is what I mean. I have never seem anything so terrible as this.
When we went into what amounted to the city jail in one part of Port au Prince, there was a cell that was no more than 10 by 14 feet, maybe 15 by 12, or something like that. It was a very small area. There were 36 men in that one cell. They were jammed together. No room to lie down at all. The youngest in there was 15 years old. They told us that there are a couple people in there who are -- and I'm not surprised at this -- emotionally or mentally disturbed. They're causing trouble. It's incredible. I could hardly believe it. These 36 men to be jammed into that one cell. The only way they get anything to eat is if their families bring them something. Of course, their families are desperately poor, but somehow they manage to come and bring some food.
It is oppression and violence, mostly against the poor. You can drive out of Port au Prince up the hillside to a place called Petion Ville and it is wealthy. Big homes where the elite are living, those who are benefiting from the coup that has driven President Aristide out of the country.
I could easily imagine the people of Haiti crying out as Habukkuk cries out, "How long O God? How long? Will this go on forever?"
As you listen to the lessons today, and I learned a lot from the people of Haiti about this, the response is what God suggests: to be a people of faith you still must believe. That does not mean you assent to a body of doctrine. It means you trust in God, develop the relationship with God that Habukkuk talked about.
When God responds to Habukkuk's cry, God said, "Write down the vision, inscribe it on tables that can be easily read." In other words, write it big so that even when somebody is running by they'll see on the wall the words of this vision that God is proclaiming. "And it will not fail, this vision. It will be fulfilled in due time. If it delays, wait for it. It will come."
"Look," God says, "I don't look with favor on the one who gives way. The righteous one, the upright one on the other hand, will live by faithfulness, by commitment to God. Life will come. Keep the vision clear. God's reign will happen."
That is the same message that we hear from St. Paul in writing to Timothy. He tells Timothy, "Follow the pattern which you have heard from me concerning faith and love of Christ, Jesus. Stir up that flame of faith within you heart. Follow that way of Jesus in faith and love." The Gospel lesson also urges all of us, as we are tempted to cry out in frustration, anger perhaps, to "have faith. Jesus means, "Trust in me. Trust in God." Faith is that strong conviction, strong assurance about things that are not seen. It is trust in God even though we can't see the outcome right now.
Then Jesus told that strange parable. I think it is strange for most of us. In fact it is sort of contradictory. A little while ago in the Gospel we heard Jesus talking about the faithful house holder who when the master comes back, the master finds everything going well and so he invites the house holder to sit down and he says, " I'll serve you. I'll be your slave." Today's parable is the opposite. It seems almost harsh. The person comes in from the fields, has been working all day long, tired and overwhelmed with all that work, and the master says, "You've got to wait on me. Serve the meal and then afterwards you can have something to eat." But the key to the parable -- why it is a message of faith and even a message of great hope -- Jesus reminds all of us that we are no more than slaves to whom nothing is owed.
In the time of Jesus, slavery was just a common fact of life. Nothing is owed to a slave, because a slave is property of the master. Now it is not the kind of a system that is right, but it was a fact at the time of Jesus. The one advantage of this system was that the slave was not just an employee, a slave became part of the household. So what Jesus is suggesting to us is that we are members of God's household. Nothing is owed to us. We have no right to anything. We have no right to anything as creatures made from nothing, but God has made us part of God's household. Jesus is our brother within this household.
Remember what Paul says about Jesus: "Who though he was God, emptied himself, took human form, even became a slave and gave himself over to death, even the ignominious death of the cross." Jesus became a slave to become part of us, to become one of us and we become one with him, the son of God.
So now, we are members of God's household. That is the message that Jesus is giving to us. When we accept that message in faith, then we know that God is with us, and that no matter how desperate of a situation, God is right there with us.
I'll tell you, when I was in Haiti and I was in that jail, something happened that overwhelmed me. I was looking into the cell and finding it very difficult. I just could not imagine what it meant to be in that cell 24 hours a day, and suddenly it was as though I saw Jesus right there in the cell. I had to turn away and walk away, because I was overwhelmed with the thought. First of all, I thought of how wrong this is! Yet, on the other hand, it was clear that Jesus totally identifies with us. He was in that cell. He is in that cell. Jesus enters into every bit of oppression and suffering that we have ever experienced, because we are members of God's household. We are together with Jesus, and Jesus is together with us. I'm sure that is part of the faith that the people of Haiti have that sustains them. They know that Jesus is with them even in the midst of their struggles, and I experienced this time and time again from the people of Haiti who, in the midst of all of this, will not give up their confidence that God will bring them through.
So, it was an inspiring experience. Maybe one of the things that was most inspiring was a young man who was our translator. His name is Daniel Tillias. He had been a law student. He wants to get his degree as a lawyer. He says, "I am going to be the best lawyer in Haiti." When you hear him say it, he is not bragging; he is determined that somehow he is going to be a lawyer. He is going to work for human rights for the people of Haiti. He will give his life to it. He has had to interrupt his schooling for the time being, but he is going to go back. It is clear that he is a very brilliant young man. He is also a poet, which is quite astounding, I think.
I thought of that when, when Habukkuk said, "Write down the vision, describe it so it can be easily read. This is a vision for an important time. It will not fail, but it will be fulfilled in due time." That is what Daniel has done. He has written his vision. This is a book of poems that he has written together with another young man. Here is one of his poems that I think sets forth the vision as he sees it. He is a person of faith, and so for him this vision is real and it's going to happen. It's called, "Let the Bell of Hope Ring":
The message from our scriptures today is "be people of faith, trust in the vision that God projects to us through Jesus, the reign of God." Trust in people of faithfulness and it will happen. If the people of Haiti, like Daniel, can proclaim such a vision and devote such confidence in God and such hope how much more should we be able -- because all that God has done for us -- we should be able to have that trust and that faith.
Today as we try to take in these scriptures, we pray that God will give us the ability to see the vision, to believe in the vision of God's reign and to commit ourselves to help Jesus to make it happen.
Let the bell of hope ring for all of us, for our country, and for the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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