Simple Justice – Simple Compassion

Mary Magdala Community

“Simple Justice – Simple Compassion” ©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

Homily thoughts on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, January 10, 2016

“Catching sight of Jesus approaching, John exclaimed, “Look, there’s God’s sacrificial lamb, who takes away the world’s sin!”   Gospel of John, 1:29

This feast is one of transition and overlay. Liturgically it stands as the end of the Christmas Season. Yet, next Sunday will be already the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. We use the Gospel of John’s passage that recounts the Baptism of Jesus. (In John’s Gospel the actual baptism of Jesus is pretty much more implied than recounted.) Remember that John’s Gospel has no birth narrative, no Christmas story, no telling of Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Following the Prologue we find the adult Jesus already on the road, already drawing attention, and approaching John, his cousin, to be baptized.

The overlay of this feast with layer upon layer of event and meaning begins also with what is not in this Gospel. The other Gospels recount this story with signs and visions, with sounds and voices. In those accounts there are hearers and recipients. Some say it is the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

The layer of this Gospel gives us none of this – only the personal testimony of Jesus’ cousin John. John says, “This is the sacrificial lamb.”   And, “I have seen for myself that this One is the beloved of God.” Another layer of this feast is the reminder that the itinerant teacher, this son of a carpenter, this nobody, says things that are outside of the standard things said by religious teachers of his day. Jesus taught that God did not need to be appeased because God, the ever present Parent, always already loves us. Jesus taught that when 2 or 3 gather in his Name – God is present. Such a gathering is church at ground level, from the bottom up as it were.

By teaching in this way and with these words Jesus removed himself from those standard ways and lived outside of the reigning paradigm in his own homeland. In this, Jesus was, in effect, a refugee in his own country. He was homeless and a refugee. His refugee status connects him to all refugees, connects him with all who desire and require the basics of living included in which are freedom, safety, a roof over one’s head, and the means to provide for the physical and spiritual well-being of loved ones.

Jesus’ refugee status challenges us today to respond to today’s refugee. This challenge, we know, is difficult because there are real people here and now who are refugees now, who need our help now, who flee from harm and plead for safety now.

There is a history to take a look at on this matter of welcoming the stranger, accepting in the refugee from foreign lands. This history of the United States people and our government deals in part with refugees coming to our country. This history is, I think, instructive.

For reasons unconnected here, I recently took a look back at the Hungarian Revolution in late October, 1956. People rose up in Budapest in the name of freedom and sovereignty to rid themselves of oppressive and murderous overlords. James Michener, the author of many books about interesting places to visit, wrote about one place – in one very isolated location – that became the beacon for Hungarian refugees to flee to because it gave them a route out of Hungary into their hope for freedom in other lands. This location was a small bridge at the Hungarian-Austrian border.

Michener’s book is “The Bridge at Andau.” In it he documented the flood of people whom the leaders of the Soviet Union allowed to flee away. My guess is they regarded those who fled as the riff-raff, the scum of their society. They were the people who decided that they could no longer live in the proletarian paradise that was Hungary in the 1950s, except it wasn’t.

Back then the United States government faced its own attitudes toward the refugees. Michener reported that by late November, 1956, when there were 96,000 refugees the United States had taken in only 500. Switzerland, by contrast, had already taken in 4,000.

It wasn’t like the refugees wouldn’t have been welcome. I grew up in Cleveland, and the 1950s United States population included the greatest concentration of Hungarians, either born there or of descent from there, anywhere in the world outside of Budapest. That concentration centered in Cleveland.

In late 1956, though, things changed after then Vice President Nixon’s visit to Austria. Nixon apparently returned to the United States and supported easing the entrance requirements for the refugees. By late spring, 1957 there were 30,000 Hungarian refugees residing in the United States. Remembering the times and the political views of Vice President Nixon my interpretation about this change is that these refugees became in the eyes of the government the “good refugees.” They were, after all, fleeing communism and we were just welcoming these freedom fighters.

This has happened at other times in our history. The good refugees from Vietnam and Cuba, the Hmong people all became welcome because the reigning paradigm of political views acknowledged that these people fit.

But what happens when refugees don’t fit the reigning paradigm? What happens when Jesus, the refugee, knocks and wants to come in? These days the Syrian refugees, the Central and South American refugees are anything but a “fit” into the reigning paradigm in this country. These people do not fit, so they are blocked. Yet these refugees have no less a love and desire for safety, freedom, a roof over one’s head, and the means to provide for the physical and spiritual well-being of loved ones.

What are we to do?  We are to abandon the reigning paradigm and act upon simple justice and simple compassion. In short, we conduct ourselves as the practitioners of the Works of Mercy.

This Feast we celebrate today reminds us of Jesus who forms church at ground level — Jesus who gathers those who hear the Word of God and act upon it — Jesus, the refugee in his own country, who offers simple justice, simple compassion.

As I took this look back to the 1950s a memory buried for 50 years returned to me. When our Christmas break was over that year and we 4th Graders at St. Ignatius of Antioch School returned in the New Year of 1957, there was a new boy who joined our class.  He was a Hungarian child whose family escaped in the human flood that eventually exceeded 200,000 people. I do not remember my new friend’s name now. What I do remember is I was assigned to be his buddy – this child in a new land, 10 years of age, and who spoke no English.

Thank God for the Works of Mercy.

And pray to God that simple justice and simple compassion overtake us once again.


A Prayer – Everlasting Life

(“Fragments of Your Ancient Name” January 12. Joyce Rupp)

There is nothing temporary about you.

Nothing shallow about the endless depths

Of your being. Nothing brief about the extent

Of your longevity. You are. You will be.

Always and forever. For us, with us, among us.

Constant. Sustaining. Enduring. Unending.

You promise to each one a life

Forever united with the richness of yours.

How could we ask for anything more?

Why would we want anything less?      Amen.


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