Year A, Proper 9
July 6, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Dorothy Day has been looming large in my world recently. I just finished her autobiography The Long Loneliness, a fabulous book. We might be reading it next year on Wednesday nights. Who can tell us something about her? _____ She, with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 with the publication of a 1 cent newspaper, The Catholic Worker. (It costs a quarter for a year’s subscription now). The paper promoted the biblical promise of justice and mercy as it spread word about the labor movement, the destitute and pacifism (with some solid Marxist and anarchist critique as well). Founded, as it was in the dark early days of the Great Depression, Dorothy proclaimed in the paper, “…the Catholic Church has a social program… there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.” Kind of like Jesus.
The primary work of the movement continues to be the storied Houses of Hospitality “…where the homeless, the hungry and the forsaken would always be welcome.” Last week we spoke about welcome, about the radical hospitality that Jesus Christ calls His followers to practice… Dorothy Day took this command to heart.
We have powerful scripture today. The prophet Zechariah, “O prisoners of hope…” St. Paul’s letter to the Roman church, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And from St. Matthew’s gospel, “Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We, Resurrection, donated the first log book, the official record of life at Opportunity Village and I inscribed that verse on the frontispiece. And the day is gathered, collected as it were by the Collect of the Day, where we pray “… you have taught us to keep all you commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection…” The propers of the day (that is what the collect and scripture indicated for each specific Sunday in the year is called, today is Proper 9), the propers of this day point with startling precision to the heart of not only Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, but to the very essence of Christian work in the world: we are called to stand with God’s children, all of them, and embrace them, embrace each other with wide open arms just like Jesus did.
The key to all of this, the key to all Christian activity in the world is the word with. With is tricky. With is challenging. With, in particular for solidly middle-class folks like most of us here at Resurrection, is the narrow path, but it is the one to which we are called. With.
St. Francis and his spiritual descendents spend a lot of time on with. They remind us that largely, we cannot be of the poor or oppressed because largely we are not ourselves poor or oppressed, not in white, main-line protestant churches, not in the Episcopal church, not usually. Members of this community certainly suffer oppression and depravation: the simple fact that more than half of us are women means that oppression is an experience in the life of this body, I don’t want to minimize that, certainly in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, but as a mean, this community is not made up of poor or oppressed people, our mean is firmly in the top 20%, the top 5% if we zoomed out to a global perspective. We are not collectively of the poor or oppressed, we have to remember that.
Similarly, we can’t be for the poor or oppressed because that is a colonial posture. For is a posture of pity and charity, of “father knows best,” of control and prescription. Expertise is needed sometimes, yes. Social workers, teachers, doctors, attorneys and advocates are needed, but that is not, largely, the work of the church (besides perhaps our funding of such endeavors). Being for the poor and oppressed itself can culture an oppressive relationship. We encounter that at Opportunity Village sometimes. As an extremely well intentioned board member, I too often find myself thinking and acting in terms of “them” or “on their behalf.” And sometimes judgments have to be rendered in relation to the conventional world, financial skills need to be used, decisions need to be made less clouded by stress or more informed by experience or skill than those being helped might be able to muster on demand, but acting for others is a slippery, patriarchal slope.
That leaves us with being with. Being with is the keystone of discipleship. Being with is the ethic of the Catholic Worker. Being with is our charge as followers of Jesus Christ. He was with a whole lot of people, very few of whom were savory characters according to polite society and conventional wisdom of His day. Being with is very hard work, and when fully leaned into, will bring you to your knees. You may be brought to your knees in praise and thanksgiving for the eternal and actual presence of Jesus Christ you will experience standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. You will meet Christ with the needful, and that will bring you to your knees. Or, being with, you will be brought to you knees with frustration at the two steps forward, three steps and a swan dive backwards that is the pattern of life in destitution. Arrgh! Case in point, someone walked off with that beautiful log book at Opportunity Village. Why? Frustrating. Or, you will be brought to your knees in desolating sadness at the pain you will witness with the broken and the forsaken, the addicted and abused and abusive and sick and tired. Or, you will be brought to your knees in disappointment that the good works and honest efforts of so many to relieve relievable, needless suffering are not met with congratulations and attaboy’s from the conventionally wise, let alone the principalities and powers that be. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” John fasted: “He has a demon!” Jesus ate with the undesirable: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners!” No being with the poor and oppressed is dirty work, poorly paid (if at all), won’t get you into the fashionable parties and if you end up at one, talk of your work will uncomfortably kill most casual conversations. “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” or in the more modern language of Doug Bailey, a professor of urban ministry at Wake Forest, “…we must stand with the poor and oppressed. Our salvation, our wholeness, and our peace are found finally in the authentic justice and wholeness of all others.” He goes on, “Show us a peace-giving and foot-washing congregation, and we will show you a changing neighborhood around it. Show us a justice-driven congregation, and we will show you a changing city.”
Yes! To the barricades! If only… It is hard work, being with, because being with is never done on our terms. At the very least it is mutual term, but generally, the terms are set by the least capable of flexibility in any given relationship. Radically being with the poor is what will lead to Dorothy Day’s canonization. Putting ourselves aside… hard, hard work, particularly for the capable among us, folks accustomed to making decisions, to knowing what to do and how, and with the very best of intentions, that is extremely difficult work. And I am not even hinting at what a life of voluntary poverty and a life of Christian virtue or chastity like Catholic Workers do… just the simple fact of remembering that we don’t always know best, though society often tells us we do; that our voices don’t count any more than anyone else’s; that we don’t deserve our lot any more than anyone else deserves theirs… now there is a heavy burden that we need help with. Those are lessons that we need from someone gentle and humble in heart. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light…” Jesus said that, offered that because He experienced as fully as is humanly possible the real presence of God, that though that cup might not pass from him, and no matter how dark the night seemed, how viciously they curled their lips and wagged their heads at Him, He was not forsaken: not by God. He was not ever alone, never separate from God. And Jesus Christ offers that same exact lesson to us. We need to take His commands to heart.
Dorothy Day found the title of The Long Loneliness in the writing of a 17th century English nun named Mary Ward. Ward wrote, “I think, dear child, the trouble and the long loneliness you hear me speak of is not far from me, which whensoever it is, happy success will follow… The pain is great, but very endurable, because he who lays on the burden also carries it.” That is the easy yoke. That is the light burden. It doesn’t seem easy, it doesn’t feel light, not to our bodies, not to our minds, not to our nerves, but to the world, to your community, to your eternal soul, light as a feather. It is blue skies; fair winds and following seas, it is a glimpse of the kingdom of God right there before your very eyes. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin learned that with baby steps. Day after day, week after week, year after year living and working with the people of God, they learned. And countless anonymous saints, Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and otherwise have suffered the long loneliness and taken to heart God’s command to be with the children of God, all of them.
What commands do you take to heart? Is it not looking away from the man on the corner flying a sign. You don’t need to give him anything, though smiles or “Hi’s” are abundant and affordable. Is it returning the Piecemakers to making quilts primarily for the world? Or joining in the breakfast ministry, maybe going not with the idea to serve, not working for, but to have breakfast at First Christian with the folks down there and you happen to be cooking this weekend? Or delivering home starter kits, or working in the nursery during shelter week, or coming with me to Occupy Medical some Sunday? My charge to you is to discern a way to be with someone you might not otherwise be with, and that can start today at coffee hour. Now there is a roadmap to the beloved community. AMEN