Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
In 1996 there was a movie released called Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story. Like most films with a theme of religion, it passed by without notice. However, it is a beautiful story about a great woman who will pass by most without anyone even knowing anything about her.
Dorothy Day was born in 1897 and described as a journalist, social activist, and anarchist. Dorothy Day became a Roman Catholic and brought with her understanding of the social gospel of Jesus Christ, which often put her at odds with the hierarchy of the Church at the time.
She fought for such radical ideas as women’s suffrage, rights for workers, honest days pay for honest work, and all the rest of the radical, liberal ideas. In the 1930’s she formed the Catholic Worker Movement that combines direct aid to the homeless or under-housed with nonviolent action on their behalf. She spoke for those who had no voice and advocated for those who could not advocate. She did more than make speeches; she rolled her sleeves up and got busy.
Day wrote and spoke about the Roman Catholic economic system called distributism. The idea is that the wealth and production in the world’s economy are owned widely and not concentrated in only a few hands. Day saw this as the middle ground between capitalism and socialism. Furthermore, Day believed that any economic system’s central focus and purpose was to help those most vulnerable. I wonder where she got that radical idea.
As part of her work with the poor, Day created “Houses of Hospitality” that would provide shelter, food, and other necessities of life. But these houses were also places of learning and activism. Part of the system was created to teach those with no voice to find their voice and advocate for themselves. By 1941, more than 30 of these Houses had been founded, and the work continues today.
A significant point in the theology of the Catholic Worker Movement was that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserved and demanded respect. Day believed that by helping and educating the poor, we were, in fact, entertaining angels. This theology comes from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham and Sarah entertain three strangers that bring a message. The great Russian Icon Painter Andrey Rublev has a beautifully artistic rendition of this meeting called “Hospitality of Abraham,” This meeting has been theologically connected to the Trinity.
The entirety of Day’s theological understanding can be summarized in words we heard this morning from the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews. I have mentioned before that I have issues with Paul, but hey, a broken clock is right twice a day, right? Paul masterfully summarizes all of Jesus’ teachings in the opening lines, “let mutual love continue.”
Paul is somewhat of a windbag, but he employs an economy of words here and puts it rather plainly, “mutual love.” In one of Paul’s more famous writings, the one we often hear at weddings, Paul says that we can do all things, but if we do it without love, we are nothing but a clanging cymbal… (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Paul goes on to say that we have to provide hospitality to strangers. This might be difficult in today’s world, which teaches us to be cautious of strangers. For a good reason, we teach our children not to go up to strangers, yet here is Paul, the great theologian of the Church, telling us to provide hospitality. It can be easy to love those who love us back, and it can be easy to love those we know, but what of those we do not know? Can we love them and show them Christ’s love through hospitality?
But Paul goes on to talk about others.
Remember those in prison and those being tortured. But Paul says we are not to just remember them, wring our hands and mutter a few prayers; no, we are to remember them as if we are in prison with them and being tortured with them. The world looks very different on the other side of the bars.
I like to say, “I did a year at the Middlesex County House of Correction.” I usually pause and wait for a reaction before I continue and say, “as a chaplain intern.” While in seminary, we were required each year to complete specific placements for “field education,” or as it is called now, “contextual education.” The idea was to take the theory and put it into practice. To come alongside those working in those ministries, be it hospital, prison, soup kitchen, or whatever, and learn how to take the theory we have been learning and put that into real-world situations.
I learned a lot in seminary, and I was thankful for the opportunity I had to attend. I mentioned before that I was taught by some of the best thinkers in the Church today, but there is not much practical learning in seminary. I can wax on poetically about such theological topics as the tripartite structure of the sacraments and hold my own in a discussion about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Still, none of that prepares you to hold a person’s hand as they draw their last breath or you meet someone who is looking to find food for their children. Sometimes I think of it as utter nonsense.
During my time on “the inside,” I learned that prison is not a nice place. Middlesex is not for the hardened criminals amongst us; it’s low-level stuff. You won’t find anyone there who say had 15 cartons of top-secret documents in their closet, but it is still a prison. I will never forget the sound the metal bars make as they close behind you, locking you in. There is an atmosphere of danger and mistrust that permeates the entire place.
We call these places “Corrections Facilities,” but there is not much “correcting” going on. Sure, there are opportunities for education, drug and anger counseling, and all the rest to make the prisoner a “productive member of society.” But for the most part, they are just warehouses designed to make the lives of those confined there so miserable they do not want to return. But Paul is asking us to remember those confined as if we were there with them.
Jesus commands us to “visit those in prison,” but Paul is taking it to the next level and saying we have to think like we are there with them. How would we wish to be treated if we were in prison?
Paul mentions those being tortured in the same way; we are to remember them as if we were being tortured along with them. We often think of torture as physical, but what of mental, spiritual, and economic torture? Paul speaks of the love of money, and Dorothy Day preached this idea of distributism; what are we thinking about when supporting economic systems? Are we looking at the system designed for the greater good or the system that can provide what we want and need?
Lack of proper, affordable education, substandard housing, poor health care, and others torture people by keeping them locked in a system they cannot break free from. The idea that if we concentrate wealth at the top, it will trickle down is a fallacy, as those with wealth often want to keep that wealth for themselves. The very ones who complain about helping those caught under the torture of a predatory lending system, all the while having their loans forgiven, certainly do not want the system to change. But Paul is telling us that we have to be the ones who work for that change.
Paul then turns from the global to the personal. Keep marriage sacred. Don’t love money. Be content with what you have. Remember your leaders. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
When we strip it all away, Paul says, don’t be selfish. Christianity is about the other and not about us. We love God by loving our neighbor, and again, Paul is telling us to go further by putting ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes. Think about the others’ struggles and our desire to help lessen that burden. Be thankful for what you have and be willing to help someone else if you can. Life is not a competition but a journey that we share.
I began with the brief story of Dorothy Day, and I will end with another woman who helped change the lives of many. I have mentioned her before, a Russian Immigrant to France called Mother Maria of Paris. Mother Maria was a Russian Orthodox Nun and a contemporary of Dorothy Day. Maria advocated for the poor Russians in Paris and set up her version of Houses of Hospitality. I have used a quote of hers before, but I thought it fitting to end with it today.
Maria speaks of the last judgment when we will stand before God and try and justify our lives. She says, and I will paraphrase her, that she will not be judged by how often she attended Church or how many scripture verses she memorized. Instead, she and we will be judged by how we cared for the “least of these” during our lives. Did we genuinely serve them, or did we scoff at them? Did we truly love God and our neighbor, or did we simply pay it lip service? This is how we will be judged and by no other method.
If we love God, we have no choice but to love our neighbors and desire what is best for them.