March 20

Lenten Series 2022: The Faith of Dorothy Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:1-9

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Ah the fig tree. From the fig tree learn its lesson. You know what it means to be a fig tree in the New Testament. It is like being a turkey in late November, or like being a green beer on St. Patrick’s day. You know you are going down.

People step aside when they hear that the story is about a fig tree. They step back ten feet, because they know what is coming.

Sure enough, at least at the outset, doom descends. In stomps the owner. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fee fie foe fum. Yes, we know what is coming. I have seen this lousy, lazy, no good, flee bitten moth eaten, barren, fruitless, faithless, heartless, ruthless fig tree for three years, and nothing. Where is the fruit? Where is the beef? Show me the money! Yes, we have a sinking feeling about the old fig tree, having heard a sermon or three. Is there not fruit? And here it comes… Cut it down, throw it in the fire, off with their heads.

And in the other Gospels, that is that. One dead fig tree, and let it be a warning to you. I came not to bring peace but a sword. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away. Woe to you…

Which is, of course, what makes today’s lesson so interesting. Guess what? It’s not over, at least according to Jesus in Luke 13. No, it’s not over, yet. This is the Gospel according to Yogi Berra. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. With a little cunning and creativity, a little psalmist and saint in him, this lowly vinedresser says, “Well, hang on a minute…” There is something there. He sees something. Something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension.

Hope, stubborn and maybe even unreasonable, is what the vinedresser in our parable displays. He has a certain confidence, perhaps a confidence born of obedience to a great and loving Lord, yet still a confidence that where there is a will there is a way, no matter what the immediate cornstubble evidence suggests.

One struggles to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke’s struggling church. As we saw last week, all these chapters 10 to 20 Luke has added to Mark’s asperity. They must have had singular meaning for Luke’s church fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps, perhaps, the parable is meant to give trusting patience to those who are waiting out what scholars call the “delay of the parousia”, or the expected but not actualized return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (1 Thess. 4-5). “Give me just a little more time…” sings the gardener.

Let it be, he says. Let it be.

His is not a naïve view, stubborn, maybe, unreasonable, perhaps, but not naïve. No, he recognizes that there comes a time when it is too late in every venture. He recognizes that the power to kill and give life is not his own. He recognizes that human labor and human investment is required for any progress. He recognizes the messiness of manure and dailyness of water, the messiness of history and the dailyness of grace. He recognizes that hope for the future is confidence, finally, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.

But he trusts, senses, hopes that there is something there, something alive, something not quite phenomenal, something just beyond our comprehension.

You could compare his sense, his hope, to a March day when it is still winter. Yet, there is a sense, a feeling. There are geese flying past, v by v. There is a blueish tint in the evergreens. There is more light and better light. There is wind, but not with quite the bite. One can fairly taste the maple syrup brewing miles away. Spring is coming.

Give me just a little more time, he asks. Do you have the feeling that he will ask the same a year from now, if things are no different? Well, yes. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.  Our Uncle David used to say, with a grin, ‘It will all work out.  Or else it won’t’.

Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change.  In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent.  Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.

In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential.  Time.  Time is given.  A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration.  Time heals.  There is impending judgment, but there is time for change.  This is Luke’s own material.  This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, later, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened.  The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned.  In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation.  Not here in the parable of the fig tree.  Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing.  We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time!  The Greeks taught us that life is long.  Give it just a little more time.  Not: Especially, and perilously, too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture.  Scripture entirely alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience.  No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.

We who wrestle to support leaders who balance resistance with restraint, resistance to naked and brutal warfare of choice with restraint to retard such from becoming global conflagration, we need some measure of such hope. Hope is one gift of today’s gospel.

Dorothy Day

Hope is one gift of today’s gospel. The other is faith.  Hope and faith, the gifts of grace today.

Our Lent 2022 conversation partner is Dorothy Day.  Our guide to her life, faith and work is Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2020.  The citations in these sermons are from this recent, excellent biograpy. As we saw las week, Dorothy grew up in a non-practicing Protestant home. But when her daughter was born she determined to locate herself in faith, and in the Roman Catholic faith tradition. She found faith, and was found by faith. She did so in a remarkable but typical way:  she approached a nun whom she saw crossing the street in Staten Island.  Sister Alyosia.  The sister  provided reading material, catechisms, an interview with a priest. Tamar was baptized the next year, 1927 (Lughery and Randolph, 111).  Dorothy herself was baptized six months later.

‘Faith in God and Christ as the Redeemer, a belief in Transubstantiation and the life to come, the veneration of Mary and the saints, delight in saying the Joyful Mysteries and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, a willingness to be guided by a confessor and to accept the role of confession and absolution in a redeemed life, respect for the papacy and a two-thousand-year-old tradition: indeed, it wasn’t ‘a little’.  It was everything. (116)…Religion was the necessary corrective to the ‘narrow hermitage of the self’ that characterized modern life with its imprisoning walls of egotism and alienation.  A fellowship of faith spared one the desolation of aloneness. (Loughery and Randolph, 120)

            Yet the major influence in the composition of Dorothy’s faith, over time, came from an eccentric philosopher and activist, Peter Maurin.  A word on Maurin: What Peter wanted to talk about was the Church, Catholicism, the state of the world, the salvation of souls, the extent of the compassion Christ asked of us, the intellectuals he had known in France, American’s attitudes toward poverty and the impoverished, his plans for a Catholic newspaper, Dorothy’s evident potential as a writer and leader, and the need for more discussion and debate about what a Christian life looked like—the ‘clarification of thought’ was his favorite phrase (133).

            Both Maurin and Day were greatly influenced by the work of Jacques Maritain.  Maritain deserves more attention even today.  By whatever combination of lasting influences, Maurin and Day came at last to create the lasting publication, The Catholic Worker, published first in 1933 in the depths of the depression, and which still exists and still sells for a penny.  At its height it had 100,000 subscribers (Loughery and Randolph, 141).  One of its first extended interests was the coverage of the Scottsboro Boys case, one of whose primary exponents and supporters was Allan Knight Chalmers, who became a BUSTH professor of homiletics, and from whom today’s preacher received his middle name.

            In sum, the very basic, rudimentary aspects of Christian faith lived out in the Catholic tradition were crucial for her.  Daily, weekly mass.  Prayer.  The Rosary. All.  Her biography put it this way:   During times of stress, Dorothy found solace in the rosary and her attendance on daily mass, of course, and from conversations with her confessor and with those people…who understood her point of view (276)…For more than thirty years she read biographies of those whose lives she found instructive about different paths to holiness, the saintly and the venerable—e.g. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Philip Neri, Francis de Slas, Vincent de Paul, Cardinal Newman, Rose, Hawthorne Lathrop, Theresa of Lisieux (Loughery and Randolp, 289).

Faith.  Hope.  Hope and faith, the gifts of grace today.

Wrote Dorothy Day:  “What we would like to do is change the world…by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.” 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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