A “Godly” Nation

Homily for February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

The director of a social service agency in Kansas City recently reflected on a telephone call he received from the pastor of a local parish.  He was seeking help for a woman named Jacqueline.  Until a few years ago she, her husband and their two children were living in the Central African Republic.  It’s a poor country, with a per capita Gross Domestic Product of only $700, compared with over $50,000 in the USA.  Their average life expectancy is less than 53 years.  Further, for the past several years the CAR has been torn by a civil war. Jacqueline lost her husband to that war and fled with her children to neighboring Cameroon.

After several months at a refugee camp, Jacqueline and her children were chosen by lottery and given the chance to come to the USA.  She began to take ESL classes and enrolled her children in school. She experienced the kindness of many strangers.  Then she and her children became the victims of an unkindness that has become all too familiar to people here in Chicago:  their home was burglarized and Jacqueline was shot in the shoulder and stomach.  She missed two months of work.  In addition, one of her sons needed surgery to repair a birth defect. Thankfully, he was able to have the operation.  Jacqueline, a refugee from a country afflicted by war and poverty, was able to return to her job, which pays $8.40/hour.  She works at a factory sewing American flags.

I thought of Jacqueline and her family and countless others like them in war-torn countries like Iraq, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere as I reflected on the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:  “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own….If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness….”

Isaiah was addressing a nation convinced of their righteousness and their greatness.  The problem was that they measured that righteousness solely by their observance of religious ritual and what they did in the Temple on the Sabbath.  They thought that’s what made them “a godly nation.”  They measured their greatness by how strong they were politically and militarily.  Take some time this week to read the six verses of Isaiah 58 that precede today’s First Reading.  They are God’s indictment of those people for their hypocrisy: what they did in the Temple had nothing to do with how they lived their lives or treated their neighbors, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

As he continued his Sermon on the Mount in today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus challenged his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the of the world,” not just individually but also collectively.  But they couldn’t be just any salt or light.  As salt they had to have enough “kick” to enhance life, and as light they cannot allow themselves to be muffled.  Salt that’s insipid, Jesus points out, is next to useless.  Light that’s covered up doesn’t help anyone, except those who thrive in darkness.  As fellow disciples of Jesus, how savory is our salt and how bright is our light?

Throughout our nation’s history, we have had many refugees who were treated with suspicion because their customs, languages and religion were different.  Even as they fled famine, poverty, violence, civil strife and discrimination in their home countries, there were people in the highest offices in our land who sought to keep them out of the United States, convinced they could never become “real” Americans and fearful that their ultimate allegiance would be to foreign leaders and ideologies that were contrary to freedom.  At one time, many of those immigrants came from places like Ireland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Italy, and what people feared and hated most about them was their religion:  they were Roman Catholic.   How easily we forget.  +