A homily given on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the context of a retreat on St. Clare of Assisi given at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ.
Today on the Franciscan calendar, it is a day to remember the First Franciscan Martyrs. In 1219, Francis of Assisi sent six brothers out to preach, convert, and to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Five were put to death on this day in Morocco in the year 1220. Later, according to one account
…[W]hen the life and history of these martyr brothers had been brought to Blessed Francis, he heard himself praised and saw the assembled brothers glorifying in their brothers’ martyrdom. Whereupon, as he held himself in utmost scorn and condemned praise and glorying, he put aside the history and forbade it to be read, saying “Let each glory in their own suffering and not in that of another.” (Chronicle of Jordan of Giano, A Sense of the Divine: A Franciscan Reader for the Christian Year)
Francis had no time for worshiping the past, for living in the glories of another time or another people. “Don’t live off the faith of your martyr brothers,” he says. “Have your own faith such as can strengthen you, too—to look in the face of death and burst into laughter for eternal life.” Some years later, the words of Francis as he lay dying, were very similar. He said to his brothers: “I have done what was mine to do, may Christ now teach you what you are to do.”
On this day celebrated as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I think it’s safe to imagine Martin agreeing with the sentiment of Francis. “Fine, if you want to read my words,” I can hear Martin saying. “Go ahead and watch old speeches, and study “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and sing “Lift Every Voice,” all you want. But more than anything else, do YOUR part in following a dream of equality and fairness. Do YOUR part in breaking down barriers and extending the hand of friendship even when you think it might be bitten in return. While it’s easy to mourn the loss of Martin Luther King and leaders like him, we do have leaders, if we listen for them.
One is the Rev. William Barber, who is a leader of what has become known as the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina. Barber never loses sight that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a HUMAN rights leader before he was a CIVIL rights leader, always bringing diverse groups of people together. He was assassinated just as he was about to lead an even more diverse effort of blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and everyone to Washington for what he was calling the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign,” highlighting issues that affect the poor of every race. Barber is organizing a successor to the Poor People’s Campaign, to create interracial army talking about poverty, health care, and the environment and he hopes to make it into a march on Washington.
Rev. Barber explains the impulse for his action, when he says, “In every age, there had to be a group of people who understand that they were born for such a time as this.” Barber continues, “King said he was tracked down by the zeitgeist. Now it’s our time.” (CNN, “How MLK Can Get You Out of Your ‘Trump Slump’”, January 15, 2017).
In a similar way, but from a more secular origin, the Women’s March on Washington is led by strong, sharp women who are not content to live in the past, but are doing what they can for the present and the future. Their vision statement explains, “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.” In addition to the march in Washington next Saturday, as of this morning, 387 other marches around the world are planned to advance issues around justice for women and families.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about living in the “now.” Using a wedding celebration to make his point, Jesus says, “Don’t fast when it’s time to celebrate. And don’t celebrate when it’s time to fast. Know what each day requires and be alive to the moment.” He goes on,
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.
We need new wineskins. Today, and in the days ahead, we will need a new expressions faith.
This morning, we began exploring the faith of St. Clare. Hers was a new kind of faith for her day. She was perceptive to God’s will, understanding that she was called to go forward—walking closely with St. Francis, but also walking in a way that had not yet really been tried. She insisted that poverty was the key, solidarity with the poor and a deep, personal knowledge of the kind of poverty that makes it not only possible, but essential, for us to fall again and again into the arms of a saving God. For her, “clarity” meant sometimes dealing with people whose eyes can’t quite see the brightness of God’s light. Clarity around Christ sometimes means our dealing with people in the dark, but our still clinging to the faintest of lights that will show us the way. Clare faced opposition for much of her life, but she kept praying, she kept loving, and she kept on going with a deep faith in a God who lives not in the past, but in the present. She knew that one truly meets God in the present moment—whether that moment involves family who don’t understand your vocation, or an army about to attack your convent and city. Meeting God in the moment happens even when we’re floored by death of a best friend or a mentor; or when we’re out of food, out of energy, out of work, out of faith, out of money, or in any way completely and utterly dependent. God is in that impoverished moment and God fills it with promise.
Late in life, Clare corresponded with a holy woman named Ermetrude (who, after visiting Assisi, eventually changed her own community into one of Poor Clares). In one letter Clare encourages her friend simply writing:
Watch and pray always. The work which you have well begun, swiftly complete, and the ministry which you have undertaken in holy poverty and sincere humility, fulfil it. Have no fear, daughter, God is faithful in all His words and holy in all His deeds, He will pour out his blessing…” (“Letter to Ermetrude,” Saint Clare of Assisi, Volume 1: The Original Writings, tr. Sr. Frances Teresa Downing, OSC)
We don’t know exactly what the new wineskins should look like, but if we are poor enough, we’ll get resourceful. We’ll learn from others. We’ll share what we have. And no matter what we use as wineskins, as vessels, the important part is clear: we know what we’re carrying and we know what needs to be shared: We carry the love of God in Jesus Christ.
We have the martyrs to empower us, the prophets to inspire us, and the saints like Clare and Francis to remind us that if any action is to be faithful, it needs prayer. It begins in prayer. It grows and develops in prayer. Faithful action blooms with prayer and more prayer.
May Christ now teach us what we are to do.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.