The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|First Sunday of Advent||November 28, 2004|
Until this week when I read some commentaries on the scripture, I had always taken for granted that the words of Jesus in today's Gospel referr to his coming again at the end of time. He said, "Stay awake. Be alert." Probably most of us think that all this refers to the final coming of Jesus, but the scripture scholars suggest that it probably was something really quite different.
We need to remember that Matthew was writing his Gospel in the late part of the first century, as the follower's first enthusiasm about Jesus being in their midst had begun to diminish. And Paul was writing to the church at Rome during the same time telling the people the same thing, "Stay awake. Stay alert."
We might presume these message refer to the final coming of Jesus, but the scripture scholars say that is not the message. Probably by this point, the community of disciples is beginning to be a little bit less alive in their faith, in their awareness that Jesus had come and that Jesus was in their midst still and that that should mean a total change in their lives.
So what Matthew and Paul are saying is: "Be alert right now in faith to who Jesus is, to what Jesus taught, how Jesus wants us to live." Don't wait to the end of time, but be alert and make sure that your lives reflect the fact that Jesus did come into the world and that he is still present with you at every moment.
The reason the scholars suggest this is because when Jesus in the gospel talked about the people in the field, he said that one is taken and one left. Two women grinding. One is taken. One is left. If Jesus had been talking about the end of time, everybody would have been taken. There would be no one left. It seems very plausible, and to me quite persuasive, that Jesus was talking about being alert in faith to his presence right now and how that should mean we live differently. We live according to his way, his teachings and that our faith life informs everything that we do.
There are many ways in which this can happen. If we are really living out of our faith in Jesus and all that Jesus taught and our faith that Jesus is really present among us, then we will see an incident very differently than it is seen by those who, very often, see it without faith.
This was something that I became aware of as I was reading an article in the paper earlier this week. The headline to the article was, "Mother deported and child left behind."
In April of last year when her mother dropped by immigration headquarters in Manhattan to complete some paperwork, eight-year-old Virginia Feliz became part of a growing tribe of U.S. children who have lost a parent to deportation.
The article continues:
No one keeps track of exactly how many children are left behind by the record 186,000 non-citizens who were expelled from the United States last year, but immigration experts say there are tens of thousands of children every year who lose a parent to deportation.
Immigration authorities look at the law and say, "These parents have to go. If the kids are left behind that's the way it is. We have to carry out the law." But suppose you looked at it from the perspective of faith. What do we say in the Eucharistic prayer so often? "God sent Jesus into this world to open our minds and our hearts, to understand that we are brothers and sisters and that God is the one God of all." If we are really brothers and sisters, could we deport a parent and leave a child? I don't think so.
By just obeying a law, we are taking parents away from their children in the tens of thousands every year. If you really were operating from a perspective of faith, a faith that tells us that we are brothers and sisters and God is the one God of us all, then you wouldn't let a law like that happen. You couldn't carry out such a law. Deprive children of their parents and parents of their children? The light of faith throws a whole different perspective on what we do and how we act. That's one example.
The week before last, we had a meeting for our whole vicariate about the closing of parishes; the strategic plan, they call it, for the archdiocese. I tried let everyone know about it.
During that meeting, I listened to the people making the presentation tell us, "You know, we have to consider the number of priests. We have to consider our finances. You have to consider how many buildings we have and how many people there are, and so on." And if there's only so many priests then you have to make sure they're spread around and you have to have one priest for, say, every 1,200 families. That means if you only have 300 families you shouldn't have a priest.
If you look at it all that way, figure out all of the numbers and so on, well of course, you'll end up closing a lot of parishes, a lot of churches. That's kind of a corporate way of looking at things. It becomes very efficient. We save money. We save personnel. Very efficient. Just like a good corporation would operate.
But what if we looked at it from a perspective of faith and thought of ourselves as communities of disciples of Jesus? The need for efficiencies diminishes.
"Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in their midst."
You can have communities that are small, and instead of closing parishes we would have to find new kinds of leadership in parishes, the way that the early disciples did. They had house churches. People in their communities were leaders whether they were men or women, but the community grew. And it was a community, too, where everybody knew one another.
"See how these Christians love one another" was the word that went around, because the rest of the people knew the Christians cared about one another. You can't do that in a huge community of thousands of people where you're anonymous.
Our faith tells us that Jesus wanted small communities.
Look at the way that Jesus drew disciples around him and how the early church first began to go out into the world. It wasn't a church marked by efficiency and corporate policy, it was simply a church of a community of disciples where leaders rose up and kept them going. That's another example of how if we are people of faith, we'll have a different perspective.
That is why Paul said, "Wake up! Let your faith be alert!" Or Jesus said, "Be awake. Stay awake. Your faith has to guide you. Don't let the world around you take away that perspective of faith."
Something else that occurs to me when I think of how a faith perspective gives us a whole different view of things is when we talk about, in our government, faith-based initiatives. We're big on that these days, but do you know what a real faith-based initiative would be? One that would be dramatic and would really be coming out of faith? It would be to listen to what Isaiah said in the first lesson today. That would be a faith-based initiative.
Isaiah said, "Oh, nation of Jacob come! Let us go in the light of the Lord!" And what does that mean? It means: God will teach us God's ways. We will walk in God's path where the teaching comes from Zion and Jerusalem. The word of God. God will rule over the nations and settle disputes for many people and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not raise sword against nation. They will train for war no more."
It would take real faith and a profound faith initiative, a faith-based initiative, for us as a people to follow the word of God, but isn't that what we're supposed to do? We're supposed to be following the word of God. We're supposed to be alert to the way of Jesus that God teaches us.
Oh, people will say, of course, "That's so impractical! How could you really do that?" Well, the first Christians did it! Here's a quote from St. Justin who was a martyr around the year 150: "We who delighted in war, in the slaughter of one another, and in every kind of indignity have in every part of the world converted our weapons into implements of peace. Our swords into plowshares, our spears into farmer's tools, and we cultivate piety, justice, brotherly and sisterly charity, faith and hope which we derive from God through Jesus."
Those first Christians understood what Jesus said. They understood that Jesus really did come to fulfill that vision of Isaiah -- that nations would not make war on other nations again. But it takes someone to start. If we really were to have a faith-based initiative in this country based on God's word, we would not be at war in so many places. We would not consider terrorism something we have to go to war against. Rather we would search out peaceful ways to respond to those who hate us, to those who try to do evil against us. We would try to transform every violent situation through the power of love!
Faith is really demanding isn't it?
If we were alert and awake to what Jesus taught us, to how he modeled for us, and if we were faithful in trying to follow him, how different would be our outlook on so many things. On everything in fact. And so this call at the beginning of Advent is something very important. To be awake . To be alert. To make sure our faith guides everything that we do.
A final question that may occur to some of us is: How do we have that kind of faith? How does it happen? How could we really look upon everyone as a brother or sister, son or daughter of God? So that we wouldn't push parents out of the country and take them away from their children. So that we wouldn't close our churches because they're not efficient enough. So that we would give up our weapons. How do we come to that kind of faith?
Well, first of all, we have to realize that it is a gift. As Jesus said in the Gospel: there are two people side by side. One is taken. One is left. One is taken by faith. The other isn't. It is a gift, but the gift can happen when we prepare ourselves for it.
We need to be alert to this at this time of year, probably more than at most other times, because we get so caught up in activities and we live in a culture that almost compels us to be busy all the time. We have cell phones that keep us in contact with people all the time. We have laptop computers so we can always get to our e-mail and that sort of thing. We're always busy. Busy all the time.
Remember when Elijah was told he was to meet God at the mountain of Horeb? He went there and the first thing he experienced was a powerful wind. He hide behind a stone, part of the mountain, and this wind went by. Then there was an earthquake, and then there was fire. Each time, the author of the Book of Kings says, God was not in the fire; God was not in the wind; God was not in the earthquake. Then came a quiet breeze. And God was in the breeze.
The message is so powerful and so clear. If you are going to become a faith-filled person, if we're going to be able to be touched by God, it will have to be in times of quiet, times when we really do go apart, cut ourselves off from our everyday activities and be ready for God to come to us.
That is one of the reasons these little blue books of Advent meditations are so important. With them, for six minutes a day, we can be apart and be quiet and invite God into our lives.
God wants us to be faith-filled people, but we have to open ourselves to that gift and then when we do, we will be able to live according to the way of Jesus. We will do as Isaiah urges us to do; "Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Let us walk and live according to the way of faith."
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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