Homily for January 31, 2016
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The year was 1968 – the Civil Rights Movement was in full-swing. Tragically, Martin Luther King Jr. had just died, but his vision lived on. That summer, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The USA sent two African-Americans, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, as part of their track-and-field team. They had been wildly successful in the Olympic trials, breaking several world records.
The day came for the much-anticipated 200 meter relay. The race was run, and Tommy came in first, while John came in third. The two of them decided to turn their victory into something much bigger – they wanted to take a stand for racial equality. As they approached the podium to receive their awards, they took off their shoes in solidarity with their poor black brethren at home, while they donned a pin to their uniforms, advocating for human rights.
As they were headed to the podium, the man who came in second – a white Australian named Peter Norman – asked what they were doing. When the black men explained their actions, Peter did something surprising – he asked if he could join them in their witness. They quickly found a human rights pin to put on his jersey, and the three of them stood united on the podium – from two different races, from countries across the world, they stood to advocate for equality for all.
But this came at a price. Because of their actions, the US Olympic Committee immediately sent John and Tommy home. Peter, meanwhile, was ostracized when he returned home, and was uninvited to the next Olympics. It was a difficult price they paid – the price of standing up for human dignity.
We believe that every human being has dignity because they were created in God’s image and likeness. Regardless of race, culture, language, intelligence, or how much money is in the bank account, every human being has equal dignity under God as His son or daughter.
Denying someone dignity based upon the color of their skin, their accent, or their heritage is gravely immoral. This is precisely what the Jews were doing in the Gospel. Jesus brings up two examples of God’s mercy towards “outsiders” – how God cleansed a foreign leper through the prophet Elisha, and how God multiplied bread for a foreign widow through Elijah – and the Jews are furious! How is it that God could be generous to these foreigners? How dare Jesus say that these dirty half-breeds are worthy of the Kingdom of God? And yet He does – because in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free. All human beings have equal dignity in the sight of God.
But racism is only one denial of human dignity. Our first reading tells us that God knew us from the moment we were conceived – He loved us, and called us to holiness, from the very first moment of our existence in our mother’s womb. Yet many people in today’s society want to deny even the basic human right – the right to life – to unborn babies through the atrocity of abortion.
Because of our common dignity, human beings have basic human rights, which are given by God. First among these rights is the right to life, the right to be respected, the right to food and shelter, the right to freedom of speech and worship. These rights are given to us, not by the government or by popular vote, but by God, as an intrinsic part of our dignity. All of us, from the homeless man on the street to the newly-arrived immigrant, from the child in the womb to the elderly person with Alzheimers, from the famous pop star on American Idol to the man with Down’s syndrome, all of us have equal dignity in the eyes of God.
Sadly, there are many offenses to human dignity, even in America. I mentioned racism and abortion, which are two of the greatest crimes against the dignity of the human person. But other offenses exist: from bullying to human trafficking, from gun violence to our culture’s disrespect for the elderly.
So what is the antidote to all of these crimes against the dignity of the human person? St. Paul puts it out there in the second reading today – LOVE. As Pope St. John Paul II so beautifully said, “The only proper response to another human being is love.” But lest we think love is a mushy gushy emotion, he spells it out: Love is patient, love is kind, it is not rude, it is not arrogant, it rejoices in the truth. Love must be practical – we cannot say we love someone until we take the step to actually do it!
So love – practically. At Westhill High School in Stamford, there are two cafeterias because of the size of the school – but students decided they were only going to sit with their own race, so they dubbed one the “Black Caf” and one the “White Caf” and ne’er the two shall mix. Do you want to love practically and overcome racism? Go sit in the opposite cafeteria. Do you want to love practically? Pray in front of the Stamford Planned Parenthood on Friday mornings from 8-10am, which is the time that abortions are taking place. Do you want to love practically? Get to know some of the Hispanic immigrants in our community.
Yes, this requires us to get out of our comfort zone. But if I’ve learned anything in my year-and-a-half in Stamford, it’s that love requires us to cross the distance between us and the other…and when we do that, we find that it isn’t much of a distance at all, since we were all made in the image and likeness of the One who endowed everyone with equal human dignity.