Sermon – November 6, 2016 (All Saint’s Day)

All Saint’s 2016
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

 

Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

“Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  So said the great anti-poverty activist and champion of social justice, Dorothy Day.  The legendary co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a network of houses of hospitality that reach out to those on the margins of society, Day became famous for her commitment to live among the poor in the lower east side of Manhattan and for her vocal stand on many the most important issues of her day, from worker’s rights to her pacifist position on war.  She did not live on a fixed income, but relied on the charitable contributions of others; she did not own private property but held property in common.  She spent most of her days practicing the corporal works of mercy, acts of direct service to those in need, which included feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners, and burying the dead.

Living like this, it is no surprise that her contemporaries were inclined to call her a saint.  She fits the image well.  When most people think of saints, they think of those individuals who have given up everything—their livelihood, their ambitions, their career prospects—to make themselves wholly available to a broken world.  They think of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, and Mother Teresa, individuals who directly immersed themselves in the lives of the suffering, extending a gentle touch to the leper, the shut-in, and impoverished.  Day is certainly identifiable within this tradition.  During the Great Depression, it was her soup kitchen that fed thousands of hungry, unemployed workers.  And countless more poured through her doors in subsequent years looking for shelter and sustenance.  Day even provided hospice care to the wife of her former common law husband.  If that is not saintly, I don’t know what it is.

Still, she protested.  “Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  At first glance, her comment is puzzling.  We call people saints as a sign of our esteem.  It is our way of recognizing individuals who have distinguished themselves by their goodness and their willingness to follow the Gospel to the letter.  But that, I think, is just it.  This is what Day feared: that in extoling her as a saint, we would re-instantiate that ancient division between the spiritual all-stars, who sell all they have and give to the poor, and the rest of us, who have to go on with the business of earning an income and raising a family.  Day knew that the very praise that we confer upon the saints can also function as a subtle form of dismissal.  We hold the saints up and honor them knowing that we can never be like them. The saints are special, spiritually great, and extraordinary; we are normal, spiritually mediocre, and all too ordinary. How could we possibly be like Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi?  How could we apply anything they did to our own lives?  So in the very act of honoring them, we dismiss them as irrelevant.

Or dismissal could take another form.  We can ask, “What would happen if all of us sold everything we have and actually gave it to the poor?  Or what would happen if we all became celibate monks?  How would anything get done?  How would people work?  How would the economy grow?  How would the human race continue?”  From this angle, a saint is easy to dismiss as unrealistic, an outlier, a model of goodness that may be inspiring in individual cases, but hardly sustainable as a broader ethic for a community or country.  This connects to a similar objection that attaches to the saint’s emphasis upon direct service to those in need.  Sure, it is remarkable to see Mother Teresa humbly dwelling among the poor in Calcutta, but how did those throngs of people become poor in the first place?  What society-wide practices sustain their misery?  What systems are in place that reproduce their poverty?  What structural changes are required nationally and internationally to ease their burden and begin to construct a more equitable society?  The worry with the saint who is serving soup in the breadline is that his or her aid may very well perpetuate the cycle of poverty, instead of alleviate it, content as the saint is to deal with symptoms instead of root causes.  Day knew that sometimes when we call people saints, we do so with a subtle air of condescension, as if we are patting them on the head and saying, “Good job.  That is very noble.  Now if you only knew what was really required to deal with this issue, you’d get out of the breadline and get on with the real business of social change.”

So no, for these and other reasons, Day did not want to be called a saint.  She did not want to be dismissed as a spiritual all-star whose moral excellence has no relevance to ordinary Christians, and she did not want to be dismissed as a do-gooder ignorant of wider forces of structural injustice.  Day was, in fact, one of 20th century Christianity’s most eloquent critics of structural injustice, and she always saw her commitment to the works of mercy as a window into these wider forces.  She was first arrested in the 1930s for marching for women’s rights; she was later arrested several more times for protesting the Vietnam War.  She attended multiple draft card burnings, carried placards that called out American’s marriage of industry and militarism, and decried her country’s environmental degradation long before being green was popular.  She was, above all, a passionate defender of worker’s rights.  She knew a thing or two about labor unions and had read her Marx.  She was well acquainted with the often-acrimonious world of negotiations, strikes, and collective bargaining.  Meeting the unemployed worker in the breadline may have been direct service, but it was also for Day a tangible point at which structural economic forces become real and palpable.  It was where she learned to become passionate about changing these broader structures.

The choice between direct service and structural change was thus, in her view, bad economics, but it was also bad theology.  I suspect Day would have been pleased hearing Luke’s version of the beatitudes read aloud this morning.  Luke provides a much shorter list of beatitudes than the one we find in Matthew, and he places a much more unequivocal accent on the material and economic.  Instead of the poor in spirit, here Luke’s Jesus simply says, “Blessed are the poor” (6:20).  This is followed by the blessing of the hungry, those who weep, and those who have become unpopular on account of their fidelity to Jesus.  Again, unlike Matthew, who keeps the focus on those who are being blessed, Luke’s Jesus turns in prophetic mode to those who are responsible for the poor’s plight and issues a series of judgments or “woes”: woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh, and who enjoy a good reputation (6:24-26).  So there you have it, a succinct structural analysis of the economic climate of the day, much in the mode of prophets such as Amos and Isaiah, who called out economic injustice and heralded a coming judgment which would vindicate the poor and bring about a more just order, which Jesus took to calling the kingdom of God.

This coming kingdom, already breaking in with the ministry of Jesus, is displayed in the way that his followers behave in the world.  And this is precisely the point where Jesus pivots in Luke’s Gospel to counsel about interpersonal behavior, or what we might call direct service.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27).  Our interactions with others are supposed to be defined by what we believe about the Kingdom.  So now in our everyday interactions with enemies, we are to show love, not hate.  If someone strikes us, we turn the other check.  If someone takes our coat, we give them our shirt.  If someone begs, we don’t ask if they are deserving or what they will do with it, we give it to them (6:30).  And if there is any confusion about questions Jesus does not address, he gives us a memorable maxim to cover all the grey area: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (6:31).  The broader structural picture of verses 20-26 frames the face-to-face relations of verses 27-31, and likewise, the face-to-face relations visibly display what disciples believe about the future order, the kingdom coming.  Direct service and structural change are not conceived in the Gospel as a choice, but as two correlative parts of kingdom living.  This was the aspect of Day’s ministry, I think, that she did not want her admirers to dismiss so easily.  She did not think she was simply doing good.  She was proclaiming a new order.  She was declaring the coming of the kingdom of God, the long awaited social reversal, God making good on his promise to vindicate the vanquished and bring justice to an unjust world.  She was, in a word, testifying to the truth of the Gospel.  Day could afford to be dismissed herself, but what she could not stomach was the dismissal of the Gospel.  And she was perceptive enough to note that in dismissing the saints, what we are often doing is dismissing the deepest truths of the Gospel.

As with the false choice between direct service and structural change, so too with the division between spiritual all-stars and ordinary Christians.  The most important phrase in this morning’s Gospel comes in line 27: “But I say to you that listen.”  Jesus is not addressing a select group of morally superior disciples; he is addressing all who have ears to listen.  And his teaching is not meant as a counsel of perfection for a spiritual elite (supererogatory duties for the monks and nuns), but a way of life for all who aspire to follow him.  It is an ethic for Christians.  How disappointing it must have been for Day to hear what was intended as praise instead function to reinforce the practice of reserving Jesus’s most rigorous teaching for a select few.  Again, this was more than a misinterpretation of what she was up to.  It was for her a denial of the Gospel’s claim on every Christian.  For her, the Catholic Worker was one interpretation of what that Gospel means for Christian living.  What is so unsettling, and yet so generative, about the Catholic Worker is that it asks us to take the movement seriously as an understanding of what Christ requires of us all.  To call it radical, to call it edgy, to call it anything but Christian is to miss its challenge for each of us.  To appreciate this isn’t to say it is the only interpretation of the Gospel, but it is to take it seriously as one interpretation, one to be put into conversation with many other forms of faithfulness, fuelling our own discernment of the shape that the Gospel should take in our lives.  This is the discernment, the searching, the striving that she did not want her own example to short-circuit.  This is the challenge she did not want us to dismiss.

Let’s be clear.  Dorothy Day was a saint.  She will in all likelihood receive that official designation in the coming years.  What she rejected was a certain understanding of what it means to be a saint, and more deeply, our habit of praising others in a way that prevents us from taking ourselves seriously as men and women called upon by God to live out the Gospel in our diverse settings and circumstances.  Are all of us called to celibacy?  No, but all of us are called to chastity.  Are all of us called to a life of voluntary poverty?  No, but all of us are called to dispossession.  Are all of us called to open shelters and serve soup in breadlines?  No, but all of us are called to hospitality.  Maybe what Day was really getting at was the widespread tendency to see saints as individuals, as isolated agents of moral perfection, instead of members of one fellowship, called to holiness as one corporate body of Christ.  It’s possible that in denying the honorary title of saint, she wanted to redirect our attention to the communion of saints.

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (1:11).  We have “been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplished all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:12).  I suspect Day’s prayer was similar to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (1:15-19).  Anything Dorothy Day was able to accomplish was enabled through this power of Christ, a power she believed God extended to all who believe.  And her example has been given to us so that we, in a spirit of wisdom, might discern how God is empowering us to more fully realize his kingdom among us, and to live in a way that proclaims the reality that we are not individuals alone, but members of a fellowship, a communion that transcends age or generation, that includes the living and the dead, a communion of believers united in their pursuit of the living God, a communion of saints—a communion that includes you and me.  Amen.