The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Second Sunday of Advent||December 5, 2004|
As I was reflecting during this past week on the scripture passages that we just heard, I kept coming back to this thought: we are so casual about Christmas. We talk about it as the day we remember that Jesus was born, the son of God came into the world -- and then we go on about our regular, ordinary, everyday activities.
God is coming into the world, and we don't really seem to be shaken up by it. How strange that is!
When John the Baptist began to announce the coming of Jesus, people got all excited and they flocked to him. "Coming in great crowds," Matthew tells us, from Jerusalem, Judea, from everywhere! John was proclaiming the good news that the reign of God is at hand. God is coming into our midst.
The prophet Isaiah, even more, looked forward to that time. He described the stump of Jesse. He meant that the family of David had become a stump; it was almost dead. It was dying out. Nothing was left of this great royal family, but then Isaiah foresees how from that stump will come forth roots and a branch that will grow and bear fruit; he's looking forward to the breaking of God into human history. The God who says, "I am who am." The God who is responsible for everything in the whole universe. The God who drew us out of nothingness. The God who is responsible for every moment of our lives. "This God is coming into our midst!"
It's a magnificent vision, and it's Isaiah's way of trying to impress upon us what it means that God enters into human history. It can change everything! And it is meant to change everything!
Then, of course, we have to ask ourselves, "Then why hasn't it happened?" Two thousand years later. Well, it's probably because we haven't listened to the rest of the message. John not only said, "The reign of God is at hand." He also said, "Change your lives." See, we have to begin to live differently if the reign of God is really to burst forth in our individual lives, and in our society, and in the whole human community. We have to change our lives! We can't keep going on as we have been. They're talking, John the Baptist and Isaiah, are talking about radical changes. We almost don't want to think about how much God is asking of us. To change our lives.
I'm afraid we're probably like those Pharisees and Sadducees. Good people they were. Today it is hard for us to think of them as good people, because in the Gospels they're criticized so much. Pharisees, even the word itself has become a term for "hypocritical." Pharisaical, hypocritical. But they really were very sincere people who practiced and kept, in a very strict way, the Torah, the Law of God.
Then why did John call them "a brood of vipers." Why? Well, because they had become complacent. They thought that just because they belonged to the chosen people. They were the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, they belonged to the covenanted people, so they thought they were OK. They don't have to do anything. But John said, "You too must change your lives. You can't be complacent."
And that's the message given to us, but we probably don't want to hear it. We are too complacent. We are too ready to just go along with the way things are. We are not wanting, really, to change our lives in the way that God suggests in these readings today.
Isaiah tells us that when God enters into history, "God will judge with justice, and God will reach out to the poor with righteousness, and be on the side of the poor." God comes to bring justice, calls us to act with justice, to change our lives. It's probably in this area more than anywhere else that you and I have to think about how to change our lives, because we live in a world where there is extreme injustice. When you think about how the wealth of the world is distributed, there's so much that so few have and so little that the majority have. The contrast between the few who have so much and the many who have so little is extraordinary.
I couldn't help but be profoundly moved by this realization during this past week as I thought about the wealth of this nation and the poverty of a place like Haiti. I'm sure all of us who were on the delegation to Haiti experienced the same thing. This extraordinary contrast was reinforced for me this morning when I was reading the paper, an article about consumption and spending in the United States:
"After all, the United States economy depends on its citizens' penchant for spending with abandon. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the nation's $11 trillion economy."
Consumer spending two-thirds of $11 trillion economy. Every year that's how much we spend.
"The machinery of American advertising, marketing, media and finance all encourage the consumption habit. Many consumers are unable to resist the overpowering mantra: spend, spend, spend."
And isn't that what we hear, during this time of the year when we're preparing for Jesus to come? Preparing for God to break into human history, to change everything, what are we about? Spend, spend, spend.
Further on in the article it points out that: "The majority of U.S. households have attained a level of affluence where added consumption no longer improves welfare." We are not spending for what we need; the added consumption doesn't improve our welfare. This is remarked upon by Juliet Schorr, an economist and professor of sociology at Boston College.
"Indeed, she points to studies that show materialistic attitudes -- wanting more and more and never being satisfied -- increase the likelihood that a person will suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
"And in surveys of children age 10 to 13," she points out that "their overriding goal is to get rich. In response to the statement , 'I want to make a lot of money when I grow up,' 63 percent agreed, and only 7 percent disagreed."
Our children 10 to 13, their goal in life is to get wealthy, because it seems so possible here in this country and because we have such affluence.
Then you go to Haiti and you find people living in shacks. Eight, 10, 12 people crowded into one very small shack. Dirt floors. You find out that 25 percent of the children of that country are afflicted with extreme malnutrition. That means it's already at the point where it cannot be reversed. Their physical and mental lives are stunted and will be. There's no reversal. The rest of the children, the rest of the people are desperately poor except for one tiny, elite group among them. About three percent of the population share with us an abundance of wealth.
This is the kind of injustice that exists in our world, and that's only one small example. The contrast between Haiti and us is extreme and once you go there and see it, and feel it, and experience it you'll never be the same. You just cannot not be concerned. To change things -- as John says to "Change your lives!" -- we have to work for justice. We have to bring about a more ethical sharing of all the wealth that God has given to all of us on this planet.
The injustice in Haiti is not just in regard to the terrible contrast between the rich and the poor. The injustice is also perpetrated because, through the efforts of the United States government, Haiti's legitimate government was overthrown. The legitimately elected president, President Aristide, was pushed out, forced to go into exile. If you go into Cite'Soleil -- the slum in Port Au Prince that is home to 400,000 to 600,000 people -- overwhelmingly the people want their president back. It is overwhelmingly true throughout the country, but we won't let him come back. We forced him out and we'll continue to keep him out.
The poor are being deprived of the one who was, and could still be, their leader. He promised to change their lives, to move their lives from misery and poverty to dignity, and he was beginning to try to make happen. But injustice prevails.
We must change the way we live, and the aspirations we pass on to our children. We must work to make justice happen. Haiti is just one situation.
So if we want the kind of peace that Isaiah proclaimed -- it is such a beautiful promise -- and everything that Jesus wanted to happen with his in coming into our midst and breaking into human history, it can't happen until we heed the whole message and change our lives.
In another part of Isaiah's promise, he tells us that when Jesus comes he will not be coming with weapons and dressed in armor; rather the girdle around his waist will be justice and his clothing will be truth that can lead to peace.
Certainly the most dramatic ways in which we must change our lives are in those two areas: giving up violence and working to reverse the situations of injustice that are so present in our world. St. Paul reminds us of another thing that we have to try to do: "Accept one another." He said, "Work on your relationships with one another." We must do that within our parish family, our individual families, and then the whole human family. Accept one another. Love one another. Work on our relationships. That's how the reign of God can break forth.
Isaiah concludes the passage of today by saying, "On that day, the root of Jesse" -- the one who comes from Jesse, that is, Jesus -- "will be raised as a signal for the nation. The people from everywhere will come in search of him thus making his dwelling place glorious." Jesus came to be a sign to all the nations of what could happen. To bring peace into our world.
And now Jesus has passed that mission on to us. You see, if we take seriously today's message and change our lives, we can become that signal, that sign to all the nations of how peace can happen. If we take seriously our mission and change our lives, peace will break forth in our world.
In the words of Pope John Paul: "The shattered moral order in which it seems that evil is overcoming good will be transformed. A new moral order will break forth based on justice and love that will bring peace." As we continue during Advent to enter into prayer and reflection, I hope we will all try to discover how I -- each of us -- can be more of a true signal to other people, to all people, to all the world, so they can see how God can change everything and bring peace into our midst.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
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