FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, A.
"YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH. YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD" (Matt.5:13-14)
Let me start this homily by saying, "Happy New Year to you all". I was away for one-month vacation in Nigeria, and within this time I did my homilies off record. That's why you didn't receive my homilies since after the 2016 Christmas. I had fun with my family. I had the special privilege of officiating at my sister's wedding, celebrating my dad's 80th birthday and officiating at the child dedication of my niece. I spent the whole time in a typical African village community. Electricity is not constant. The roads are mostly dusty and bumpy. Bushes and forests are all over. But we have fresh foods harvested right from inside the gardens and farms, not refrigerated. The organic materials and natural habitat mostly adorned the environment. The weather is very hot, mostly ninety degrees and above. So you can see what it looks like to be back to Maryland winter of about twenty-five to thirty degrees. I missed this community though, my Glen Burnie family. I'm not sure if you missed me. Did you?
Today, the readings bring specific challenges to us. The Prophet Isaiah talks about sharing our bread with the hungry and sheltering the homeless. He urges us to clothe the naked and not turn away from our kin. Let me share the experience of our celebration of my dad's 80th birthday on January 2. There was no head-count and no sign-up to know the number of invitees we had expected at the birthday celebration. All we did was to prepare enough food and enough drinks for anyone who showed up. We anticipated great crowd, well over five hundred guests. We cooked as much as one bag of rice knowing that a lot of people would come around to eat and drink with us, which is a thing of joy. Those who served kept feeding as many people as possible. It was fun to see people happy for that moment, felicitate with our family, wish us well and leave behind blessings for both my dad and us. The feasting brought enough joy for us.
The prophet Isaiah invites us to a life of appreciation of one another. His principles remind us of what we know today in the church's teaching as the corporal works of mercy- Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless poor, clothe the man you see to be naked, visit the prisoner and the sick, comfort the sorrowful, bury the dead and turn not from your own kin. This was his message to the returned and chastened Israelites to embrace the realities of brotherly love. The Lord's call must be matched with concrete actions on behalf of the needy, poor and oppressed. Gestures of love cannot be isolated because love is not selective. If you give bread to the poor and not shelter the homeless, then your charity is incomplete, and so on.
Talking about sheltering the homeless and feeding the poor, we all are aware of the controversies surrounding President Donald Trump's ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries into the United States. This is of course more political than religious. And sure, it looks like religion is now driven more by politics. Political interests influence religious values nowadays. For one, I am in support of devising hard measures to fight terrorism and to ensure the safety of citizens, as well protect the security of the nation. But we have to be aware of the plight of those stranded, those ejected from their homelands for no fault of theirs.
Before I left Nigeria to return to the U.S. on January 29th, I was apprehensive of what my fate would be at the airport. It was a nasty experience to imagine that I might be turned back at the airport for no fault of mine even though I'm not desperate. I received so many calls to that effect. Now assuming Nigeria was among the countries banned from entering the U.S. (which is possible), definitely I would be a victim. It didn't matter whether I am a priest or not if it was a blanket decision or an executive order. My country has great population of Muslims by the way, and Boko Haram, a terrorist group has their origin from the extreme Islamists in the north of Nigeria. So anything could have happened. If I was not allowed entry for that sole reason, what would anyone have done? I'm not Muslim for sure, and not all Muslims are bad too. But if it is an immigration policy, then it would apply to everyone notwithstanding the individual's religious or social status. That's why we also need to look at the decision from a broader Christian and humanitarian perspective. So sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked should be seen beyond mere political decisions. We need to view our responsibilities from the Christian understanding of belonging to the city of God in heaven.
If we appreciate the plight of refugees and strangers, then we deal with them charitably. First, we're all strangers in this world whether we like it or not. No one should boast because she is more comfortable than another at any point in time. At a stage, we will all vacate this world for a place that is permanent. Unfortunately, some of those who are refugees today were bosses, employers of labor, and wealthy men in their countries but have been displaced by the scourges of war and terrorism. It can happen to anyone. Like the Israelites, we are all foreigners in the strict sense of the word. When the Israelites gained possession of the Promised Land, they almost forgot their history. God called them to order with these words, "You will not molest or oppress aliens, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt" (Ex.22:20). This is similar to what Pope Francis told the United States Lawmakers during his visit in Washington DC in 2015, "In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you also descended from immigrants".
As Christians, it is important to give some human face to the laws against foreigners and immigrants and not allow politics becloud our Christian values and sense of hospitality. We should view things a bit differently from others. In October 2016, before even Trump was elected president or sworn into office, Pope Francis made this remarkable statement aimed at refugees and immigrants thus, "It is hypocrisy to call yourself Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help". This is exactly the message of the prophet Isaiah in today's reading.
What can we do? Christ says, "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a mountain cannot be hidden". These are appropriate injunctions for the United States of today. America is a city built on the hilltops that cannot be hidden. It is a great nation already, no doubt about that. America's greatness lies in her humanitarian policies and services to less privileged nations and peoples. The US needs to be highly diplomatic in pursuing immigration laws. And for the records, President Obama was not soft on immigration only that he was tactical in his approach. According to ABC news, "President Barack Obama has often been referred to by immigration groups as the "Deporter in Chief." Between 2009 and 2015 his administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who "self-deported" or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)". So deportation is not new, but the U.S. doesn't need to give the impression that it is anti-immigrant or make enemy with ally nations in the bid to protect its borders.
Being the salt of the earth means producing good taste. Good taste is not detestable or abhor-able. Good taste brings delight. Being light of the world means helping others to see light. It means helping those in darkness to survive and succeed. It means being source of survival to those in trouble. Individuals should be light to others. Parents should be light to their children. Brothers and sisters should be light to family members. Friends should be light to friends. Nations should be light to other nations and help them to survive. Leaders should be light to those in need of help. That's what Christ wants us to do as a Christian nation, "Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the man you see to be naked". He says, "Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds" (Matt.5:16).