Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 30, 2001
At St. Agnes
(Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31)
What are these readings for today all about?
In normal times it would be pretty easy to say:
They are about money, for sure. Amos and Jesus frequently hold up before us the risks of wealth and the ways it can lead us to forget our center and what's important in life. And they are about complacency: Amos can see that the Assyrians are ready to move in and take over the country of the Israelites and the people are not prepared for the disaster that is going to overcome them, and the rich man in the Gospel parable is just blissful and reveling in his wealth, totally unthinking about the death which awaits him. And they are about blindness: the Israelites in Amos' time haven't a clue about the real world they are in, and the rich man in the Gospel walks past Lazarus every day without even seeing him.
But the readings are also about something much deeper: they are about the covenant. God had established a covenant with the people and said, "You will be my people and I will be your God." But the covenant carried with it a responsibility. It was a component of the covenant that those Israelites who had earthly possessions were to be responsible for those who had not, so that no one in the community would go hungry or homeless. And God would hold them accountable for their choices.
All that would have been true even in normal times. But certainly after the events of September 11 this is no ordinary time. God's word is addressed to us in our present situation. The message is meant to touch us now.
It turns out that the readings are not about individual morality. They are addressed to us as a people.
Complacency? We can never again be as complacent as we were on September 10. In a way we could never have imagined, we have lost our sense of security for sure.
But beyond that terrifying experience, as we began to get over the initial shock, a new question began to surface in our conversations across the country. We began to ask, "Why do these people hate us?"
I mean, we're the good guys, aren't we? Look at all the good we do, how much aid we assistance we give all around the world?
A couple of days after the attack I received an e-mail from a friend in Belgium -- someone who has visited and worshiped with us here in this church. She is someone who loves Americans, but she reported that when she heard the news she found herself very angry -- angry at the terrorists, to be sure, but angry at the United States for the fact that we don't see what harm and destruction our policies have caused on the peoples of the world. She was angry at us.
Oh. We didn't fly those planes. The terrorists did that.
But can we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for the conditions we created that made the attacks even thinkable?
Do we have any accountability for all the times over the past 40 years that we have moved in and overthrown democratically elected governments around the world because we didn't like their vision of life? In Chile, and Guatemala, and even Iran, where we set up and propped up the Shah until he was no longer useful to us? Do we have any accountability for the fact that for 10 years the U.S. collaborated with 170 nations to work out a treaty on the wise use of our seas -- and then, after all that collaboration, at the end we just pull out and say we're not going to sign because it doesn't fit our economic interests? Do we have any accountability for doing the same thing with the international treaty on land-mines which we refused to sign, or the global warming treaty in Kyoto? Do we have any accountability for our refusal to lift the sanctions against Iraq when all the other allies -- our friends -- advised us that the sanctions were having no effect on Saddam Hussein and only starving and displacing innocent people?
We didn't fly the planes, that's true. But that is only half the truth. And half the truth never made anyone free.
Our leaders have an answer to why we are hated. They tell us it's because these people are jealous; they envy us all we have, the freedom we enjoy. That's another half truth. They would like what we have -- but they would start with the survival essentials of food and shelter for their families.
At the prayer service in the Capitol rotunda there was a lot of fine patriotic rhetoric and political posturing. And in the president's address to Congress we heard a lot of "we're gonna get 'em!"
Of all the speakers only Congressman John Lewis got it right. And I suspect that he got it right because he knows what is like to be on the other side and be oppressed; he was beaten at Selma and the original Freedom Rides.
John Lewis simply cited the stark words of the Psalm: Be still, and know that I am God!"
Revenge is mine, says the Lord. God promises that in the new covenant "I will remove from you your hearts of stone; I will give you a heart of flesh."
Conversion is always hard work. It involves taking off blinders. Seeing what we had ignored and maybe didn't want to see. Seeing ourselves and the consequences of our actions. It's hard.
What will it take for us to see the whole truth, the only truth that can set us free?
I want to share with you a story I read in a diocesan paper from Texas this week. It's by a nun who is a friend of mine. She is a fine Scripture scholar, and in her late sixties she decided she needed to do more and so she volunteered to go to teach the Bible in Rwanda where her community has missions. She knew people there who were later victims of the genocide which the rest of the world ignored until it was too late. In the article she tells the story of one of her African sisters whose whole family was slaughtered in the genocide.
One of our sisters who was recently visiting a prison encountered a man she recognized as a neighbor of her family. Deeply ashamed, yet needing to confess, he said to her simply, "It was I who killed your father with a machete." There was a gasp, a pause, then a simple response: "I forgive you," and they wept together!
If we act out of half the truth, if we are unwilling to accept any accountability for our policies and action, we will inevitably be acting out of revenge -- covertly and still blind, having learned nothing from our tragedy.
Be still -- and know that I am God . . . .
We must pray for wisdom for our leaders. But wisdom only comes with honesty and truth and accountability.
But what about us? We're just the little people, we don't make these decisions.
In a democracy we do participate in the choices our country makes, by calling our leaders to be accountable. We must be part of the national debate which will shape these decisions. If you feel you agree with the choices our leaders are making, that's OK. And if not, if you feel they are taking us down the wrong road, you must speak out; that's OK, too. That's the way democracy works. But we all must listen to one another, we must search together and not drown each other out. To stay out of the debate, the search for wisdom --- to abdicate --- is irresponsible. If we abandon the dialogue we throw away our best heritage as a nation.
But if we are to dialogue honestly, we must allow God to remove our blinders, to see that there is only one world family, that our actions have consequences and we are accountable for them, that we can't continue to ignore the rest of the world and go it alone.
The Gospel, and the whole of our scriptures, make one thing clear: our God is on the side of the poor. Only the whole truth can make us free.
Be still! And know that I am God.