3rd Sunday of Advent 2023

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Once again, we are being given another picture of life on the road. And I mention this because that’s not how American’s look at the Gospels. As Christian religion developed here in the 19th and 20th centuries, we came to look at the gospels as a solid, many fruited tree way out in the back somewhere. And you went there when you needed something religious for family issue, business, political slogans, whatever.  You went out, looked at what was available, found something that looked like it might work, picked it, and took it back home and put it to use.

Well, the details of the life of Joseph and the pregnant Mary on the that awful, 40 some mile hike, ordeal of life on the road to Bethlehem; and then the story of John attracting crowds on another slog, this one down to the Jordan – 1500 feet lower than Jerusalem – another tough walk, down and back for a people driven off their family’s lands – reinforce the picture of many people’s tough lives on the road. Think of the dispossessed folks, refugees in Europe after World War II. A life that may seem a lot tougher than we live with today. Except it really isn’t tougher. Our news casts and foreign reports can bring life on the roads and as refugees into our homes if we choose every day.

Well, it is easy to wonder whether we are that much better off in our world. And then, by accident I learned that last Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent was the 75th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of All People. It stated that all people have rights to freedom of thought; freedom from being enslaved; the right to be legal citizens in their land; the right to move about, to travel; the right to exercise religion or change religion; to have personal property. And on and on, 16 pages. It is a wonderful Declaration of International Law, adopted in Paris, and approved by the members of the United Nations.

But from Paris to now, from principles to our lived realities. How does it affect us? It affects us the ways we choose to have it affect us.

We look around us. We see people in need of these basic human rights that we believe in, but because of their life situations, they have little or no access to them. And we ask ourselves, what can I, what can we do? We can figure out what to do. And that is where our own gifts come in. What do we do? We do what we always do – we figure it out. I think that that is very American. And we can be good at it – if we choose to. But there is a choice here.

We have our histories of learning eventually what we have to do in order to survive. And also, what to do to help others survive. And we have such good local examples close up. Years ago, some local folks here, aware of the numbers of people in Point Richmond who weren’t eating decently, decided to help them. They looked for a place where they could serve food; rounded up food sources and kitchen equipment; got the legal permits; recruited volunteers to work with them. What they did we know it as the Souper Center. Support and funding and volunteer servers started coming from places like this parish, and it is now our principal beneficiary.

On our smaller level there are no formulas. No plans. You look at the jumble and mix of human realities and needs and whatever resources you’ve got, and what do you do? You figure it out. Somehow you go to work and you make it work. There are no formulas because the need to do it often comes out of nowhere. A personal example.

30 or so years ago in New York I was editing a magazine for Catholic parishes in the US. Tough work, I was good at it, and I liked it. But I had had a heart attack at 50. And then a couple of years into the job I had some problems. A friend in New Jersey, a cardiologist, sent me in for an angioplasty, then told me my career as an editor in New York was over and I was going back to California. Actually, it was a choice. I could go back right away in a seat up front, in the plane, or stick around working for a while and  go back in a box in the baggage compartment out in the back. But one way or the other, you’re going back.

My provincial and I decided over the phone that I should / could come back and become pastor in our historic little parish in Benicia, up on the Carquinez Straits.

While I was tying up loose ends and getting ready to drive back there was a live TV special on life in the Bay Area. It was called the Loma Prieta earthquake. By the time I got back here to a parish with 2000 parishioners, school, the whole thing was pretty well worked out. The hundred plus year old, historic, brick church was also a registered historic monument. It was going to need tons of steel in the brick walls and wooden roof, 150 cubic yards of concrete in new underground supports. A new parish hall to replace the one from around 1880 that had to go. A first estimate of around $750,000.00. What was my new job description? You’re in charge, I was told. Figure it out.

But there’s nothing new here. Sooner or later, if we’re lucky – a number of us can end up in situations where it is possible to figure it out. So many people in the world – our world – don’t have that opportunity. How do parents in Gaza figure out how to help their kids, or one another? Here, we are challenged, but we also have some real options. The language in this Declaration of Human Rights is very specialized, diplomatic and legal. But the human realities they refer to are right here with us in our world. Many of us do have choices. In a world of coerced people, some of us have real choices. Some of us are lucky enough to be more or less in charge of us. And what our faith, our lived beliefs ask of us is to look at using some of what we have to help folks who are too beat up to help themselves, or don’t have the minimal savvy to figure out what to do.

It is a gift to have the understanding and ability and knowledge to be able to choose for ourselves. It is a privilege, for some of us, to be able to carry some of the weight of making our own worlds humane. And as we see every day, that ordinary humanity is really needed.