Homily for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
It took me a full year to realize that the pearly-white doors on the credenza above my desk at VCU have a bonus feature of being dry-erase marker friendly. If you come by for a visit, you’ll notice that my vocational identity is apparent in the quotes that I keep around me from my personal Great Cloud of Witnesses like Jane Addams, Pauli Murray, Karl Rahner, Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Oliver and Dorothy Day. Their inspiring words ground me and remind me why I do what I do…whether in the church, or in the academy. I also hope it conveys a message to those who cross that threshold about how I am living into my one, wild and blended vocational life.
This week, at the same time I’ve been sitting with our Gospel lesson, my focus has been drawn to one specific quote from Dorothy Day, social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement:
Those are holy and challenging words. They were the holy words inspiring Dorothy’s daily work. And, they are words I have to sit with in order for them to really sink in…which is probably why they ended up written in dry-erase marker right where I can see them every day.
Because Dorothy Day was on my mind and heart along with the Gospel this week, I also travelled down the rabbit hole of intellectual curiosity and re-read some portions of her biography; I was reminded that she was baptized as an adolescent in the The Episcopal Church and later found herself pulled away from her practiced faith and into what she described as a humanistic political activism. In her early adulthood she became deeply interested in the lived expressions of holy poverty found in the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare. She shocked the secular news outlet she was writing for with her new found religious zeal, and finally made her home in the Roman Catholic church. She left the security of career and sought vocation as a co-founder of intentional, working communities where she and others could live into voluntary, holy poverty together with those experiencing the world’s poverty. In doing so, she came to experience Christ more deeply. For our Christian sister Dorothy, it wasn’t enough to do something for the poor, or even to advocate on their behalf. It was essential for her to be in a level place, to voluntarily embrace holy poverty eye to eye with others who were poor.
Jesus is also speaking holy words to his followers from a level place, as we heard described in last week’s Gospel lesson. Today, we are hearing another part of that same dialogue from the “sermon on the plain.” Whether the level place was literal or figurative, I am reminded that Jesus’ vision of ministry with those around him was also eye to eye, and person-to-person. As we move deeper into this week’s Gospel, Jesus’ declarative statements about blessedness become imperatives about our life in Christ. Think of them as directions for implementing and living out the blessings into which we are called while following the Way of Christ.
Love our enemies….
Do good for our haters….
Bless those who curse us….
Pray for those who hurt us….
Give without expectation of return
You’ll notice that it doesn’t say “do unto others as they did unto you” or “love the people you already like” or “pray only for those who you think deserve it.” Jesus’ message is evenness; reaching out to find God’s presence where we least expect it.
We can’t offer our other cheek without first turning to face the person who has slapped us. We can’t pray for those who abuse inflicts pain on people or the human condition without placing them in the hands of God whose ability and desire to love, convict, convert and reconcile clearly exceeds our own. These are not demands of personal accountability, but imperatives for how we…the followers of Christ…are invited to participate in the reign of God which far exceeds our own human efforts.
The Gospel message is as much about evenness and mutuality, as it is an inversion of our human tendency to privilege those we like, and give to those we find most deserving: God’s mercy surpasses what others deserve. God’s mercy surpasses what we all deserve. That includes God’s mercy toward others, as well as God’s mercy toward the parts of our own selves which we wrestle with, or want to reject, or where we have experienced hurt and abuse. We aren’t asked to fix our broken lives, our broken families, our broken communities or our broken world by ourselves. We are invited into level relationship with each other through God, who sees us with an amount of love we can never wholly deserve, and who sees others through that same lavish gift of love.
Our Gospel lesson today reminds us that relationships with others involve relationships with God. And, that our relationship with God involves relationships with each other. As Dorothy Day wrote in her diary: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
I’ve developed a deep connection with our sister Dorothy this week as her writings and this Gospel lesson have come together for me. And I have to share with you that something rather amazing happened while I was chasing down that rabbit hole of curiosity preparing this homily. I found myself rather serendipitously conversing with some scholars within the Catholic Worker community, who then connected me with someone at the Dorothy Day Guild who is also both social worker and church worker…and happens to be the person leading the effort for Dorothy Day’s canonization in the Roman Catholic church. By Thursday, I was oriented as a volunteer and officially part of a team of 35…three of us I’m told are Episcopalians…transcribing, coding, and analyzing her hand-written diaries. I finished this homily with the first scanned copies of my assigned sections of Dorothy’s diaries…I am assigned 1961…spread out across my desk.
There are so many ways that holy words and holy work finds us.
Jesus offers holy words and holy work to those who follow him, helping us see God in our midst. Jesus’ holy words remind us that the poor and those on the margins of this world are blessed, because their eyes are drawn to God alone. Jesus compels us to action through holy work: to accept our own belovedness in the eyes of God, and to see others and act toward them through the same lens of belovedness.
We cannot love as fully as God loves. But, we can trust that God’s love is more powerful than the structures of hatred, fear, sin, pain, and judgement which keep us from experiencing the depth of divine mercy, love, and grace. Holy words and holy work will always find us, because that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Holy words and holy work are here for us today, to receive in a level place…in this community, in this communion, in the bread and the wine which are for us the body and blood of Christ in which we are joined together.
I had been praying this week for holy words and holy work to find me, and the Holy Spirit brought that into being in ways surprising and delightful. That’s kind of the way it works, in case you don’t already know. So, I share with you an entry of some newly transcribed words from Dorothy 58 years ago: holy words crossing through time that invite us to holy work today:
February 24, 1961 Day of Recollection, at Balmorhen Lake, Texas
A warm, sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky. Many are fishing at the lake but we have gone past them and there is complete silence, aside from an occasional call of a bird.
My heart is wrung by the suffering of the world and I do so little.
There was a picture in Newsweek of a dozen starving babies in the Congo, one tiny little one with his face in his hands. Terribly, terribly moving. The Only consolation is that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. But woe to us who caused those tears. We white ones, the prosperous.
It seems to me that one of the happiest lessons in the Gospel is that of love. That we are told to love one another and to show that love by giving. And that love becomes more like that of God when we see Jesus Himself in those around us…
He taught them about love, about loving. The prodigal son, the sick, the leprous, the priviledged, the tax-gatherers, the sinners, those in prison–in other words, loving the unlovable, naturally speaking.
But truly, “Love” is the reason for it all. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who calumniate you, and to him who strikes thee on one cheek, offer the other also, and from him who takes away thy cloak, do not withhold thy tunic either. Give to him who asks of thee, and from him who takes away thy goods, ask no return.
It is a mystery to me how we keep going…these 28 years with nothing in the bank, and debts piled high. But we survive, and since where love is, God is, and God is Life, we can truly be said to truly live.
May holy work, and holy words, find us all this week.