A New Colossus

Perhaps you do not recognize this sixteen line sonnet from its title, The New Colossus, yet most of us would recognize at least two lines of that sonnet most quoted, namely “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” May I cite here the first eight lines as they are emblazoned at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. . . People do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket; they set it on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house.” In those powerful words, Jesus expresses his heart’s deepest desire not only for his listeners of 2,000 years ago but for all of us today. We are the light – a light of reason, a light of welcome, a light of encouragement, a light of hope. And how the world so needs our light.

Yet, there are many reasons why some would want to put that lamp under a bushel basket. Perhaps the one reason that immediately comes to mind is fear – fear of looking foolish, fear of welcoming the wrong people, fear of claiming that we are somehow greater than we really are. How sad it is that fear might diminish us, temper our witness to the truth by cloaking it within the mantle entitled “good manners.” However when we bury our light, we insult the God who so yearns for us to shine.
God created us to be a “new Colossus,” not arrogant in drawing attention to ourselves but humble servants of the light that was entrusted to us in our baptism, the truth of who we are and what God desires this world to become.

Blessings in the Challenges

In the time of Jesus (as in, perhaps, some brands of religion today), prosperity is seen as the blessing that God has given to those who have worked hard and obeyed all the rules. As we read in the book of Leviticus, the Lord God says, “If you live in accordance with my statutes and are careful to observe my commandments, I will give you your rains in due season, so that the land will yield its crops, and the trees their fruit; your threshing will last till vintage time, and your vintage till the time for sowing, and you will eat your fill of food, and live securely in your land.”
Of course, throughout the history of God’s people, those experiencing struggles and afflictions in their life wonder what they did wrong to deserve such tribulation. Job, of course, is the classic case of the good man who undergoes all these tests and questions why all these evils are befalling him. And so, we too begin to wonder in those moments of trial, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”
The classic question that asks. “Why do the good suffer?” can never be answered with a kind of logic that will then have all suffering finally make sense. Would that it could be so easy! But somewhere, in the midst of the pain and struggle, the Kingdom is being experienced. In last week’s gospel, Jesus proclaims that the “Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God’s loving design for his world and for all its inhabitants is about to unfold. Immediately, I am sure, Jesus felt the need to offer hope and comfort to those who experience various challenges in their life. How is the Kingdom present to those who are poor, those who have lost a loved one, those who feel taken advantage of, those who struggle so hard to bring about a right order and feel either persecuted or even disparaged for their efforts?
And so, Jesus offers to the weak, the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden, the good news encapsulated in these beatitudes, the familiar opening to the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in today’s gospel. The fact is that God labors to love us even more in those moments when we feel spiritually poor, in the moments of grief and loss, in the moments when we feel treated poorly by others even when we have tried to do the right thing. To you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.
We must be careful not to think that the “reward” proclaimed in each beatitude is only to take place in some other world we call heaven. In Jesus, heaven and earth have met; the Kingdom of Heaven is the mustard-seed size of God’s new order, already taking root and eventually coming into a fullness at the end of time. Right now, even in the midst of struggle, a new order is being born where we are being consoled, fed and being immersed in an eternal Love that will never abandon us.

Jesus, the Confident One

If you were to describe the character of Jesus or list his traits, the word “confident” probably would not appear on the top-ten list. Words such as compassionate, forgiving, merciful, kind, challenging, etc. might come immediately to mind. However, look at today’s gospel – it is a portrait of one who is confident.
First we hear of the imprisonment of John the Baptist having taken place. The once popular desert-preacher is now in shackles in the king’s dungeon. A warning shot is heard across the land to those who might be tempted to take up the baton and proclaim a gospel of repentance. Yet, that is exactly what Jesus does – he moves from his native place, his comfort zone, and into a much larger cosmopolitan city on the sea of Galilee. The so-called “Galilee of he Gentiles” describes a place that is both geographically and spiritually distant from the heartland of Jerusalem.
So, into this mixed territory of Jews and pagans, tradesmen and fishermen, Jesus strolls along the sea and begins to haphazardly (or so it seems) call out to young men who were eagerly engaged in their fishing industry. Jesus had yet to garner any kind of reputation; he is relatively  unknown to everyone, Yet, he confidently walks along the shore and says, “I want you to follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” These men perhaps did not even have a clue what the call meant – or what it would cost in the end. But immediately they leave their nets and follow Jesus.
I am inclined to believe that Jesus, who has emptied himself of any divine prerogative, including foreknowledge of future events, simply relies upon a confidence that empowers him to demand ultimate sacrifice from pure strangers. As a pastor, I would be so inclined to ask Jesus to bestow just a little bit of that confidence in me as I do the tasks that I believe I have been called to do. I certainly lack the conviction to go to a perfect stranger and invite them to leave everything and follow me. So, then, I ask the question, “Where does this confidence come from and how do I get it?”
The answer to that question can be found in the previous chapter of Matthew’s gospel - the scene of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. For forty days, Jesus is in prayer and fasting. He is opening his heart to receive the mission that the Father has entrusted to him. Meanwhile, Satan enters this scene and does all that he can to undermine the confidence of Jesus. “There is no way you can fast for forty days. There is no way that people will pay attention to you if you are just an ordinary guy – flash us some of that divinity and maybe you’ll have a place among the religious hall-of-famers. Bow down and worship me and I will give you what you need to make this mission work.” However, real confidence is born by listening to the word of God and acting upon it.
Seek the Father’s will for you in your life and, receiving his dream and vision for you, act upon that with a confident heart.