Orbiting Dicta

14th Sunday of the Year

Leaders of the twenty most rich and powerful nations of the world are just concluding their annual meeting, held this year in Hamburg amid sometimes violent protests on behalf of the world’s poor and too-often powerless nations.  There was talk of peace, and a conflict-weary world would like nothing more to see an end to the turmoil in Syria and other hot spots around the globe. There are hopeful reports of an end to the siege of Mosul, but no guarantee of peace yet for Iraq or Afghanistan. There is talk of a resolution to the seemingly endless and grim contest between Israel and the Palestinians. But over it all, despite some progress in stabilizing the world’s economies, there persist rumors of war, periodic insurrections, and recurrent mass protests and demonstrations.  No wonder we still  long for peace and justice.

Today’s readings are not without point in this regard, not least in the wake of America’s annual celebration of

Zec 9:9-10
Rom 8:9,11-13
Mt 11:25-30

independence. The first reminds of us of Palm Sunday and comes at an opportune moment given the world situation.  In this passage from Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had pined for.  And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them.  Jesus, too, entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle.

And this is what St. Paul is reminding us in the passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of what he deems “sinful flesh.”  To belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy and powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty.  Life belongs to all.  And so, we may rest assured, do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For those who find life burdensome, Jesus offers refreshment and rest.  To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help.  In my course on the Book of Revelation, I have my students listen to some of the great spirituals it inspired among the slaves who had been abducted from their homes in Africa and sold to Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  These are songs of hope, of liberation, of confident expectation that God would deliver them.  They are not songs of violent rebellion.  Learn from me, the Lord says, for I am meek and humble of heart.  And they did.

Late in the last century, when the French people endowed the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the inscription at the base of the statue as it faces east towards Europe.  They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel, not, I think, by chance:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbour [1883]

I hope we still believe that. Sometimes it seems that we have all but forgotten.

In the United States especially, we should not pass over the celebration of our national Independence as if it had nothing to do with faith, or as if faith had nothing to do with our independence.  Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact.  Many of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains.  Not untarnished, to be sure.  Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews.  They tied political rights to property and wealth.  They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office.  But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice.  We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.

We do not honor their memory, however, by assuming that God is somehow on our side.  Our task, like theirs, should be to make sure that we are on God’s side.  To the extent that is true, America will be able to be a true light to the nations.  To the extent we fail, America will become a dark blight on humanity’s struggle to grow into the maturity of God’s people.

No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual.  We are either all free, or none of us is free.  Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery.  Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later.  And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]