Monday, February 18, 2008

Help Thou My Unbelief

2 Lent A #25
Gen 12, 1-4a
Ps 33
2 Tim 1, 8b-10
Mt 17, 1-9

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
February 17, 2008

I hope everyone here has seen Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film, Life is Beautiful, La Vita è Bella in Italian. It won three Academy Awards. If you haven’t, you can make a date with Monica and come over to our house to watch it on VHS. Life is beautiful, indeed, yes it is, despite it all.

The movie’s plot is set in World War II, the persecution of the Jews. An Italian Jew and his son are picked up by the Nazis and sent to a death camp. The father tries to convince his young son -- he looks no more than five or six years old -- that it’s all a game, a contest, and that if he plays his part and keeps out of sight of the guards, he may win the prize. He tells the boy that everyone else in the camp is competing for the same prize, a tank, a military tank, not a toy, a real one. At last, the U.S. Army advances on the camp. The Nazis flee. But before they go, they kill all the prisoners they can. Improbably, the boy Joshua survives, playing hide-and-seek as his father is led away to be shot. When all is quiet, Joshua comes out of hiding and stands alone in a large, deserted open space. Suddenly a U.S. Army tank enters the camp, heads toward him and stops right in front of him. Joshua’s eyes light up with amazement. “È vero!” he says, “It’s true!” Joshua thinks that this is the prize, his prize, that he has won. He had begun to doubt. Soon he comes to realize just what it was that his father had given him, not a tank, but life, life itself. “It’s true!” But it’s more than he could ever have imagined, far more. Far more than a tank! It’s true!

Abraham believed and he obeyed. That is why he is our “Father in Faith.” He set out from his own country not knowing where he was to go, in obedience to God, to start a new life in a Promised Land. He was seventy-five years old. At that age one does not start a new life, you can take it from me. But he had the Promise. His wife had never conceived. And yet he is told that he will father nations, that his offspring will outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore. Sarah laughed at the very idea. And yet, Abraham became the ancestor of the Hebrews and the Arabs as well (and many of us here too, those of us whose roots are in Sicily and Southern Italy, where the Arabs held sway for two hundred years; they made genetic contributions to our people). Spiritually Abraham and Sarah are the father and the mother of all believers in the One God of the Hebrew Bible. They had reason to doubt. Abraham knew he was not the man he used to be, and Sarah laughed. They could not imagine that billions of Muslims and Christians as well as Jews would be blessed in their name and bless them in turn. But the Promise was true. More than they could possibly imagine.

Twice each year we hear the story of the Transfiguration, every Second Sunday of Lent, and again on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6th. Just six days before, Jesus had told his disciples that he was to be handed over to his enemies to be killed, and then be raised up. He took the three, Peter, James and John, up Mount Tabor, there to be transfigured, gleaming like the sun. Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Then the voice from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son.... Listen to him!” Peter, James and John fell on their faces, struck with terror. Jesus told them to get up, not to be afraid and not to tell anyone their vision until he had risen. What they had seen was a pale glimpse of what was to be, a sign of the glory that is to come after Jesus’ death. It is a sign of the Resurrection. No one is to speak of it until it is accomplished.

We believe in the glory that is to come; we have the Promise. Doubt may linger. We pray, “Lord I do believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mk 9,24). Any high school astronomy student can tell you that our sun is but a pebble wandering in the Milky Way in limitless space, aimlessly, it would seem. Our planet Earth is a speck of dust in the immensity of it all. Our lifespan, seventy or eighty years or ninety, is as a nanosecond in the billions of years the universe has been expanding. What are we then? The Psalmist sings, “What is man that you should pay him heed? You have created him a little lower than the angels....” Jesus tells us that not a sparrow falls from the sky nor a hair from our heads without God our Father’s leave, and that the Father has care of us.

Non-believers do not agree. That’s nothing new. An epitaph found in the ruins of a two thousand year old Roman cemetery reads, “In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recedimus.” “Into nothing from nothing how quickly we fall back.” An atheist friend of mine said the very same thing to me not long ago, “from a vast void into a vast void” he said of birth and death. In this view, life is meaningless, or worse; it is cruel. Lost in the stars we are victims of blind chance, and nothing more. Some claim it is all the more noble to struggle for peace and justice when you are convinced it is useless, as they do. Let’s see about that! I wish them a lot of luck! A world at peace, a world of solidarity, even a world that can sustain the impact of man will never be built unless we face the hard fact that our moral failings, pride and greed and the rest, are at bottom spiritual and must be addressed with the weapons of the spirit: prayer and the sacraments, penance and fasting, self-denial and the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual.

Lent is a time of waiting. We wait in quiet hope. We slow down. We pray more. We turn off the radio and the TV and we listen to what God is trying to tell us. We wait for Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus.

What is it we wait for in the afterlife for ourselves and our loved ones? We don’t know! We can be sure that it is glorious, to be in God, in God’s glory. It is life, the fullness of life, life everlasting. Saint John tells us, “We are God’s children now. What we shall be has not yet come to light. We know that when it comes to light we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3, 2).

It’s true! When we wake to it in the Resurrection, that’s what we will say, like little Joshua. È vero! It’s true, more than anything we could possibly imagine.

Get up. Do not be afraid!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Remembering Selma, '65

2 Sunday A #64

Is 49, 3. 5-6
Ps 40
1 Cor 1, 1-3
Jn 1, 29-34

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 20, 2008

In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist proclaims Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1, 29). Lamb of God, one of Jesus’ titles. Jesus has many titles, each tells a tale, Christ, Redeemer, Son of God. Jesus is not just a son of God but the Son of God, the only begotten Son of God, the revelation of God the Father. Today we fix our attention on Jesus the Lamb of God, as John directs us. The lamb is a symbol of innocence. The innocent lamb led to the slaughter is a symbol of unmerited suffering. Unmerited suffering, willingly accepted, is redemptive. That is how the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King explained the dynamic of the Civil Rights Movement, which came to its climax in Selma, Alabama, in March, 1965. Unmerited suffering willingly accepted. Monsignor Dugan was there. So was I. We would not meet for another fourteen years, but when we did, Father Dugan and I, we acknowledged that that time was a highpoint in our lives, something precious that we shared, a bond as of a Band of Brother and Sisters who put our lives on the line.

Forty-three years ago! Is it possible? Today a black man has a shot at the presidency. We could not imagine it back then, when Americans, black and white, scores of them, lay down their lives just so black people could vote. Sometimes, even when I am alone and writing about those times, tears flow down my face and I choke on sobs. I don’t know why. When I talk about them at schools and colleges I have to keep my emotions in check, so bear with me if my voice cracks. Andy Young was my boss down there. I was one of his marshals. Andy went on from the Movement to the United States House of Representatives and then to the United Nations as U.S. Ambassador. I worked with him there too, in the Congress and at the U.N. I saw him on TV not long ago, talking about The Days, Selma, ’65. To wind up, the interviewer, asked him, “Do you think about those days often?” He answered, “No, not often, always, all the time!” Then he broke down and sobbed, right on screen. That made me feel better.

Fast forward to Iraq, 2003, the lobby of the Al Fanar Hotel in Baghdad and a few Americans sipping sweet tea in the lobby. Somehow Selma came up. “I was there,” said a lady from Colorado. “So was I,” I told her. “Do you remember Leroy, Leroy Moton?” I asked her. Leroy was my first friend there. I often thought of him, a nineteen year old kid, about six feet seven inches tall, lanky, very dark and full of nervous energy. Leroy showed me around town and helped me to settle in. Then he went on to lead the singing as we sat night and day under sun and rain for ten days in front of Brown’s Chapel. When the police lifted the barricades and the great march made it to and returned from Montgomery, when it was all over, Leroy helped a white woman from Detroit drive people to the airport and to the bus and train stations to return to their homes up North. Her name was Viola Liuzzo, wife of a union organizer and mother of a family. Maybe some of you remember. When we got home we heard on the news that four white men in a car menaced Mrs. Liuzzo when they saw a black youth sitting next to her in her Olds, and drove into her rear bumper. Then they gave chase, at over 80 miles per hour on a state highway. They drew alongside Mrs. Liuzzo’s car and shot her in the head. She died instantly. Leroy survived somehow. It turned out that one of the men in the car was an FBI plant who had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. He testified against the Ku Kluxers at a state trial for murder, but an all white jury refused to convict. The killers were then tried in federal court for violation of civil rights. There they were convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Three years for murder!

“I wonder what happened to Leroy after all he went through,” I told my new friend in Baghdad. “I’d love to find him, see how he did in life. If if he’s in need, well, we have a farm in Marlboro....” My friend was still in touch with some people in Alabama. She gave me a clue, and the long and the short of it is: I found Leroy in Connecticut. He’s in his sixties now, retired on disability income, bent over from an industrial accident but still six feet seven if you could straighten him out. He has had a hard but a good life as a factory worker and he has a son now in high school in Hartford. Leroy shares his story with young people in schools and churches, as I’m sharing it with you today, to show just how unmerited suffering, willingly accepted, is redemptive. We didn’t just win the vote, we bought back America’s soul! That’s what redemption means, a buying back, at a price. We did it, black and white, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox and Jew and Muslim together, and maybe an agnostic or two. We won the vote and we tore down the legal structures of racial segregation. The institutional framework for this great movement was the black Protestant church, but at the March to Montgomery, you could see a swarm of Catholic nuns in habit and priests in Roman collars, more then any identifiable group.

These days we are celebrating the Church Unity Octave, praying for, and working for the restoration of Christian unity, one church that will be truly catholic, truly orthodox, truly evangelical and truly reformed. We are already one, Saint Paul tells us over and over again, for there is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4,5). So, what we can do together, we must do together. We can pray together. We can study together. But the best way to achieve the unity that Jesus prayed the Father for his church is to struggle for peace and justice together in his name, in his way, even at a price. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has paid the price of our sin, once and for all. We are in Christ. If in baptism we died in Christ, and if in baptism we rose with Christ, then in baptism we share his saving mission too. It’s still going on, and it’s up to you. Redemption does not come on the cheap.

The night before Martin King was assassinated, Andy got him up out of a sickbed in a motel in Memphis. A large congregation was waiting in a church to hear him speak. He looked haggard and dispirited at first. But after a few minutes the Spirit caught him. His voice rang, he spoke as if he knew what was coming the next day. “Like anybody, I’d like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Martin King was surely a lamb of God. I never heard of a wolf of God. 