Fr. Bill Carroll – The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 13, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tomorrow, we are meeting with our son’s caseworker about placing him in a group home in Tyler. Danny turns twenty-one this year, and he has gotten to be more than we can handle. A little while ago, he spent three nights in the house where he may be living. He seemed to like it. All our research points to this as the best way forward for him.
I believe we have worked through our doubts about this difficult decision—and that it represents a true spiritual discernment for our family. We rejoice that Danny will be close enough for us to visit frequently (a lot closer than Mobile). Whenever we want to, we will be able to see him. We’ll be able to take him out for dinner and ice cream—or on vacation. We can even bring him to church, which he loves.
We are also looking forward to a more normal life. We love Danny more than life itself, but the last twenty years, certainly the last ten or so, have taken their toll on our family. Today, as we reflect on the Beatitudes, I find myself feeling hopeful—but also heartbroken. Danny is not only our beloved son, but he is in many ways our most profound spiritual teacher. And so, in more ways than one, this sermon is inspired by him.
Not long after Danny was born, or maybe a little before, I was visiting Sewanee, where I ended up as a student in the seminary. One of the professors there had a curious tradition in her classroom. Once a semester or so, she required her students to come in with something for show and tell—like they were in kindergarten. On the day I was there, one student had brought in an ad for a discount stock broker. Day-trading on the internet was just becoming a thing. The ad was a glossy picture from a magazine, which back then was still a thing.
Anyway, it showed a poor person, lying down on the ground, with a boot print across her face. “Here’s to the meek,” it said, “who shall not inherit the earth.” I am quoting it today, because it strikes me now (as it did back then) as a brazen denial of our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel. “Blessed are the meek, he tells us, “for they shall inherit the earth.”
Today, we hear Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, where Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, and those who weep. He blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We might add the pure in heart, like our sequence hymn does, or the meek and those who mourn, like our Lord himself does in other places).
In Luke’s version, the Beatitudes can seem especially harsh, because, unlike Matthew, Luke also has Jesus pronouncing woes on those of us who are rich or full or laughing. I include myself in this. Like most of us here, I am rich, at least by global standards. I could easily forget how I need the blessings Jesus brings. I certainly don’t need them the same ways that poor people do. For my belly and my wallet are often full and I receive many good things and a relatively stable life. In other words, I am among those Jesus says have “already received our consolation.”
I trust that’s true for many of us here today. And it makes me wonder how we can receive today’s Gospel as Good News. How can we hear it as a blessing for those who need it most, rather than a scolding and a shaming for those of us, like me, who get our basic needs met. How is it Good News for us that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor?
And it is Good News, I’d like to suggest. God loves poor people not because they’re better than the rest of us. God loves poor people because they need help. Too few of us really want to help them. And it harms us spiritually, when we close our hearts off from anyone this way.
As I shared with you a few weeks ago, Dorothy Day, who followed Jesus by living among the poor, once put it this way: “I only love God, she said, “as much as the person I love the least.” Sometimes, God reminds us of the ones we love least, so that we can learn to love them better.
The help we provide to poor people can make the difference between life and death for them. But that’s not the whole story. Many of us live lives that are more precarious than we let on. Many of us live with massive amounts of debt. We live with family situations that are unmanageable. Even if we are making it outwardly, many of us live a lifestyle beyond our means by relying on credit and putting on a good show for the neighbors. If we could only see past the masks we wear in public and the lies we tell each other, we would know that we are weaker and less confident than we admit. That’s why the Gospel is Good News for us, even though it may seem to indict us for our strengths.
For those of us who are secure by the world’s standards, the Gospel is teaching us how to use God’s gifts to help our neighbors. In Jesus, we don’t have to be prosperous or put together to earn our daily bread. God is all about taking the side of the poor, the messed-up, and the heartbroken. God takes the side of the lonely, the lowly, and the afraid. God takes the side of all those who are isolated in our society, and those who live with secret shames.
God is in the business of giving us a fresh start. God makes a way where there is no way. God calls enslaved people into freedom. He calls sinners into righteousness. He calls dead people into life. And his Kingdom belongs, first and foremost, to the poor, but there is still hope for the rest of us. The last may be first, but the rest of us may still come in. Because Jesus loves us. He died for us and rose again.
And so, God calls us to trust only in his mercy. The Beatitudes call us right into the arms of Jesus. They call us to share what we have. They call us to reassess our priorities. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love our neighbors; he shows us how. He embraces those that others consider untouchable. He helps them. He shows us how to break bread with other sinners—even the ones we disagree with, even the ones we might be tempted to look down on, or to pity. God shows us how to share our bread with other people—and how to put our trust in him. And so, we learn to draw our strength only from the Lord. “He is our trust” and our only Savior.
And, as we follow Jesus together, in the way and the power of the Spirit of love, all our traumas, all our flaws, all our griefs no longer have the last word over us. For God is the defining reality of our lives. God has taken our side. He meets our needs with his abundance. He sets a table for us out here in the wilderness.
And, because I’m feeling heartbroken (but also hopeful) today, I’d like to close by quoting something Thomas Merton once said in a small book he wrote back in 1953. (Some of you have read it with me.) He had just spent a whole year as a hermit. He spent that year without much human contact, listening for the voice of God. The book he wrote is called Thoughts in Solitude, and I read it every year for Lent.
In that book, Merton comes to terms with his own human weakness and spiritual poverty. In the mid-twentieth century, as we all began to get so busy, lonely, isolated, and afraid, Merton observed that the whole world has become a kind of wilderness. And it is here, as with the desert hermits of old, that God may be calling us to embrace a new humanity—and a new, human future:
The desert (Merton writes) has become the home of despair. And despair now is everywhere. Let us not think that interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and to forget you have consented. This then is our desert (he goes on to say): to live facing despair but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against it unceasingly. That war (he writes) is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side.
We will also find true brothers and sisters—and blessings we didn’t even know we needed. We will find them in his People gathered. We will find them in his Body and Blood. We will find them in the neighbors he gives us to serve.
And so, beloved, blessed are the meek. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who know that we need God. Blessed are those who put their trust in the Lord.