A Dollar and a Snowflake
July 4, 2004
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
On this fourth of July, a dollar bill and a snowflake can help us understand the gospel. Today’s gospel is clearly about mission. Jesus appoints seventy disciples and sends them out to proclaim the kingdom of God. Of course what the gospel is saying is that we are called to that same mission, to proclaim the kingdom of God to others. But what does it mean to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to whom should we proclaim it?
The dollar bill has the answer. We probably handle a dollar bill every day, but I wonder how often we look at anything other than the number one in the corner. If you look at the back of a dollar bill, what you will find is the Great Seal of the United States. The seal was designed by the founders of our country only a few months after the Declaration of Independence. On the front of the seal you will see an eagle, holding in its claws arrows to symbolize war and an olive branch to symbolize peace. However, what is important for us this morning is what you will find on the back of the seal. If you look there, you will find a pyramid.
Now the pyramid clearly stands for our country, because at its base in Latin numerals are printed seventeen seventy six, the year of the founding of the republic, the day that we celebrate today. But the most noteworthy aspect of this pyramid is that it is unfinished. It only goes about two thirds of the way up. The conscious decision on the part of the founders of this nation to represent our country as an unfinished pyramid was intended to make a statement. It asserts that America is unfinished. Despite all of our strength, wealth, and influence, the nation is yet complete. We are still working to finish the principles of justice and freedom and peace on which this country was founded. It is still a task to be completed two hundred and twenty six years after the nation was formed.
There is more. If you look at the unfinished part of the pyramid, what you find is an eye and a Latin motto that reads, “Annuit coeptis,” which translated means, “God has favored the undertaking.” The eye is the eye of God. Together with the motto it forms an act of faith on the part of the founders of this country. It testifies that they believed that God was involved both in the founding and finishing of this nation, that God’s activity was a part of their vision.
What the dollar bill tells us is that we are called to bring our faith to the finishing of America. Now clearly there are many faiths in America. There is the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, the Moslem faith, the Hindu faith, the faith of most religions of the world. What this symbol of our democracy tells us is that every person of faith is not to keep silent, but rather to contribute his or her beliefs to the free and public debate over the issues in our political life.
We as Catholic Christians are called to add the voice of our faith to the political discourse of our country. As Bishop Pilla has said very clearly in a statement he released this week on political life, we as believers are expected to contribute our faith convictions to the discussions on all the important issues that are facing our country—on abortion, on war, on euthanasia, on health care, on capital punishment, on education and poverty. All of these political issues have a moral dimension. The same Christ that sent out his disciples to proclaim the good news of the kingdom expects us to contribute our voices to the future of what our country will become.
The Great Seal of the United States calls people of faith to help complete America. In a specific way that is our mission today. But as soon as we hear that call, it is easy to become discouraged. The issues of our country are so vast and so complex. Any one of us could say, “What difference does my involvement make? Maybe I have the freedom to influence things in my own life, in my own family, but on these great political issues of our time, who cares what I believe, what I stand for, how I vote?”
Here is where the snowflake is helpful. A field mouse met a mourning dove, and asked this question: “How heavy is a snowflake? How much does it weigh?”
The mourning dove responded, “Nothing more than nothing.” “Then explain this,” said the field mouse. “I was sitting on the branch of a pine tree, and it began to snow, heavily but quietly, without any violence. I began to count how many snowflakes landed on the branch on which I sat. I counted every one—3,791,954 snowflakes. Then the 3,791,955th snowflake fell, weighing nothing more than nothing. The branch broke. What does it mean?”
The mourning dove thought for a minute and said, “Perhaps it means that there is only one person’s voice lacking in order to bring peace to the earth.”
Perhaps the mourning dove was right. Perhaps there is only one person’s voice, weighing nothing more than nothing, which is missing to bring about the freedom and justice that can complete America. Just be sure that that absent voice is not yours.
Not Success but Faithfulness
July 8, 2007
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
There is one truth which each of us must know above every other. We must understand the truth of who we are. Now when I say we need to know who we are, I am not talking about knowing our name or our family background or the twists and turns of our history up to this point in time. I am talking about who we are on its deepest level, on the theological level. On that level each of us must know that we are not God. Now this might seem rather obvious, but millions of people frustrate themselves daily because they do not have this truth clearly in mind.
When God decides to do anything, God is always successful at doing it. When God wills that something should happen, it happens. But we are not God. Therefore when we set our minds to do some good thing, it does not always happen. Even if we try with all of our might, there is no guarantee that we will be successful. We might try with all of our heart and energy to see that our children grow healthy, happy, and with a faith in God. But it is possible that they will grow, making disastrous decisions, wasting their talents and abilities, and trying to find their way through life without any obvious or active religious conviction. We might try sincerely to love our spouse in a mutual and faithful way, but may have to watch our marriage dissolve before our eyes. We might try to heal broken relationships in our families and among our friends, only to find that our honest efforts are dismissed out of hand. We might choose to treat others with compassion and justice, only to find that these honest efforts are ridiculed and are manipulated. Our love can be rejected, our compassion ignored, our integrity abused. In all of these areas and many others, we can and do fail. Yet that failure need not destroy us, if we know who we are. We are creatures with limited ability to do good. It is only God who is successful one hundred per cent of the time.
Now this truth is very important, because without it we are likely to live in either guilt or despair. If we think that we have the power of God to accomplish the good things we desire to do and then fail in doing them, we can end up either blaming ourselves or giving up. When our marriage fails, when our children make a mess of their life, when people refuse to love us, we can either decide that there is something wrong with us and begin to wallow in guilt, or we can throw up our hands in futility and give ourselves over to despair.
Jesus carefully avoids both of these distortions of guilt and despair in today’s gospel. He sends the disciples out to do what is right, to love others, to proclaim the kingdom of God. Yet he is aware they will not always be successful. He is aware that there will be people who reject their message and reject their love. What does he tell them to do when this happens? He does not say, “Blame yourself because you failed.” He does not say, “Give up because you failed.” He says, “Recognize the failure, then shake the dust from your feet and move on.”
We are not God. We will fail. And when we do, God asks us to shake the dust from our feet and move on. One of my favorite sayings is from St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius says, “God does not demand success from us, only faithfulness.” God does not demand success because only God is successful all the time. What God demands from us is faithfulness, to do the right thing, to continue to preach the kingdom whether we succeed or fail.
So the gospel today calls us neither to guilt nor despair, but to faithfulness. So let us today resolve to be God’s faithful people. Let us resolve to love more deeply and with greater integrity. Let us resolve to treat others with compassion and justice. And above all, let us resolve to measure ourselves, not against our successes, but in light of our faithfulness. To build our identity around our successes is not who we are. To build an identity around our successes is to assume an identity which belongs to God alone.
Independence Day: Gratitude and Mission
July 4, 2010
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
The fourth of July is not a Holy Day. It is not a part of a liturgical year. We do not have special readings for this day in our lectionary. And contrary to the suggestions of many parishioners this week, as you can see, my vestments today are not red, white, and blue. Nevertheless, when Independence Day falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it is appropriate for us to ask: What is the intersection between our faith and our citizenship, what do the scriptures say about this national feast that we celebrate this weekend? When we pose that question, a rather clear message emerges for us today.
People of faith celebrate Independence Day in a way that is different than people who have no faith. From a faith perspective we approach the fourth of July with gratitude and mission. Now most Americans that I know feel themselves very lucky to be living in this country. When you look at our prosperity and our freedom, I know few people who wish to live anywhere else. Even in these hard economic times when a lot of us are struggling, our standard of living and the opportunities that we still have as Americans exceed those which are available to most of the people in our world. I would say, that by and large we feel ourselves lucky to be Americans.
But Americans who are people of faith have a slightly different perspective. We do not so much feel lucky, as blessed. We are not so much satisfied, as we are thankful. We feel that we are fortunate to be Americans because we see our nation as a gift from God. The difference is significant. If you’re lucky, you’re just lucky and that’s it. If you feel that you are blessed, however, then you know that the things that you have, have been given to you by someone who loves you. Such a gift demands gratitude. Such a gift implies an obligation to the giver. So people of faith approach this holiday, not just by feeling lucky, but by feeling thankful. We believe that our freedom and this country come from God.
But thanksgiving leads to mission. If all we have has been given to us, then we have an obligation to respond to that gift appropriately. It is clear from today’s gospel that our response flows from being sent. Jesus sends the 70 out to every place that he is going to visit to speak in his name, to extend his peace, to minister to the sick, and to announce the Kingdom of God. In a like way, we who feel that we have been blessed by the gift of this country have a mission, a mission to speak the words of Christ and to stand for his values in the national debates that frequently occur among us. We are fortunate to live in a country where the voice of the people is heard. We who are followers of Christ are called to represent his values and his presence in our nation. If indeed we have been sent, then we have been called not to just represent what we think or what most people think, but what Jesus thinks.
The old cliché, “What would Jesus do?” is relevant here. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? What would Jesus say in our national debate about the value of life: the value of life in the womb or the value of life among the elderly? What would Jesus say about those who are unemployed and our responsibility in some way to assist them? What would Jesus say about our national immigration policy and those who wish to work and to live among us? What would Jesus say about the poor, about those who do not have adequate access to food, education, or health care? That is the mission of those who have been so blessed as Christians to represent Jesus’ voice in our national debate. We do this because we have been sent. We embrace this mission because we are thankful. We know that were it not for God’s love and God’s blessing, we would not have our job, our home, our family, our health, our education, our freedom, or our country.
I think most Americans feel that they are lucky to be Americans. Christians know that they are blessed. The gift of this country is a gift from God. So let us celebrate this July 4th from the perspective of faith. Let us be thankful to the God who has given us our freedom and our nation. And let us embrace our mission to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom from sea to shining sea.