The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time||October 23, 2005|
One of the reasons I began to realize how important these readings are was that I came across again in my prayer book, yesterday or the day before, some words that my brother had written down as he was dying. I have shared these before, you may remember, what he discovered. He wrote this out in a little notebook that he had next to his bed: "You'll never be happy if you can't figure out that loving God and other people is all there is. And it's more important to love than to be loved, because that's when you feel love, by loving somebody. I've learned that you get the reward of love by giving love." He had great clarity as he was approaching death. Nothing is more important than our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. Nothing is more important than those relationships, than our love. The love we give, especially, and the love we receive.
Yet it is so easy to misunderstand loving, especially the love of God. How do we love God?
One of the mistakes we make, I think, is when we think we can show the love for God by obeying rules and regulations, by going through certain kinds of spiritual exercises -- fasting, long periods of deprivation of things we enjoy -- as if by following these rules, somehow we're loving God. But that's so wrong. Jesus said today: All the law and the prophets depend on only these two commandments. The prophets especially show us that we don't love God by doing certain things or following certain rules, carrying out certain exercises of penance and so on. A very familiar passage that teaches us this is in the 58th chapter of Isaiah. The people complain, "We are fasting and you do not even see it," they say to God. "We are doing penance and you don't notice it." And God says, "Look, on your fast days you push your trade, you suppress your laborers. Yes, you fast but you end up quarreling, striking each other with wicked blows. Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high. Is this the kind of fast that pleases me?" "Fasting, is merely bowing down one's head, making use of sack cloth and ashes. Would you call that fasting?" God says, "No, here is the fast that pleases me -- breaking the fetters of injustice, unfastening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free. Fast by sharing your bread with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see naked and do not turn away from your own kin."
It isn't the rules and regulations, the penance that we might do that somehow will make us holy, bring us into a close relationship with God. No, it is reaching out and doing justice, that is what will bring us closer to God. The prophet Micah summed it up when he said in answer to the question, "What is real religion and what is your relationship to God?" Micah said, "To act justly, to love tenderly and to follow humbly the way of God." Fasting, penance, following rules and regulations that doesn't show our love for God.
If we really want to love God we have to enter into a relationship with God and how does that happen? I think there's two things that we must do.
The first thing is to spend time thinking about and reflecting on what God has done for me, realizing that I could not even be if God hadn't called me into being, loved me into being, and that every instant of my life God is sustaining me. God is pouring forth love upon me at every instance. How often do we just sit and realize that, let that reality sink into our consciousness? God is reaching out to me at every instance. If we begin to do that then our hearts will be filled up with gratitude, and we will begin to love God in response. It's almost automatic. Once we really understand how God is relating to us at every moment of our life -- not one second goes by that God isn't holding us up, loving us. Every second -- and so once we realize that, we develop a relationship with God and we begin to love God in response. Our love may be kind of meager and weak but it begins. It's there.
The other thing that we must do, I think, is look at all the rest of creation that God has made. We begin to be in awe as we ought to be as when you look up into the heavens on a clear night or sit on the shore of the ocean or be in a mountainous area and see the wonders of creation. How can you not begin to thank the God who made all of this, who set everything into being? How could we not be filled with love for such a God? That's what happens when we begin to contemplate, reflect quietly and seriously for a period of time, we begin to build up our relationship with God, we begin to love God, thank God, be in the awe of God.
That is the first and the greatest, the most important of all the commandments. If we spent a few moments or more every day doing that, there's nothing more important we could do. The first and the greatest of commandments, Jesus tells us.
The second commandment is very similar to the first. In fact, Jesus sets the two on a par. "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets." Everything else comes from these two commandments, so the second is also a very important commandment. It is exemplified today in our first reading where Moses instructed the people, "You shall not oppress the stranger but welcome the stranger." And Moses reminds the people, "You know, you were aliens once in Egypt. You were refugees. You were living outside your own land. So remember that and remember when others are refugees in your midst. Reach out, love them." A very important lesson for us right now at this time in our own history, the United States, where people are trying to come into our country and there's a strong tendency to push them back, build a wall as they're trying to do across the border between Mexico and the United States. "Keep those people out!" That's not loving your neighbor. And yet that's sort of our national spirit to a large extent. And maybe it's the spirit in our own hearts, in our neighborhood. "Keep those people out!" It's still happening in the metropolitan area of Detroit because of racism. Moses tells people, especially be concerned about the widows and the orphans. In the Jewish history and culture and in the Bible the widow and the orphan are the symbolic representatives of all the poor. Those who are homeless on our streets right now, reaching out to them, that's loving our neighbor.
What happens when we don't do that? Jesus didn't teach us to love God and our neighbor just to give us a set of rules to follow. It's not that way at all. If we really love God and then love our neighbor, we begin to become a full human person, everything that God wants us to be. If we don't do that then we destroy the image of God that is within us because God is love and if we're not loving we're destroying God's image.
I don't know if you saw this picture in the paper this week or not. It's a very terrible picture in a way. It shows U.S. troops in Afghanistan watching and laughing as two people who were killed, their bodies are being burned. The soldiers are mocking a very important tenant of the Muslim religion, that the body is sacred and among the Muslims you never cremate the body. It has to be buried with dignity. And here are our troops mocking this. In fact they had a loud speaker. They made fun of the other people in the area, "Why don't you come out and pick up these bodies? Are you afraid of us?" They mocked them. How can that happen? Well, it's because they're soldiers; as military people generally are, they've been taught to hate. Remember the words I've told you before from Sen. John McCain? "I hated my enemy even before they put me in prison, before they tortured me. I hated them because that's the only way I could kill them." He had to learn to hate, and that's what happens if we don't love, if we begin to look down on other people, despise other people, mock other people, hate other people. We're destroying the very image of God within us. And this is one of the reasons it's so important to hear the commandment of Jesus today: "Love your neighbor. Love all other people." Because everyone is our neighbor. Reach out in goodness and love -- that's the only way we make the image of God grow within us.
I hope again as I said at the beginning that we will understand that these teachings of Jesus today are the most important that we're going to hear on any Sunday. They really are the most important. They're foundational to our whole life. If we don't love, we never become the full person God intends us to be. We destroy the image of God within us.
But think of what St. Paul said to that Church at Thessalonica. He told them, "You heard the word of God and you took it not just as a human word but as God's word and you began to live it." And he said, "You have become a model for the people of Macedonia and Achaia since through you the word of God spread to them and has gone even farther." They became a model of love and other people were attracted by that, and the message of Jesus began to spread.
The same thing will happen now if each of us individually becomes a person who loves, loves God first of all with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we do that, people will see how we love one another. People will be drawn to follow Jesus, follow his way. Our world can be changed if each of us becomes that model of love. The message of Jesus will change our world, starting in our homes, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our country throughout the world. Love God with your whole heart and mind and soul and spirit and love your neighbor as yourself. In this way God's word will spread everywhere and our world will be changed as each of us grows into the full image of the God who loves us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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