Peacemakers Rock the Boat: Preaching Catherine of Siena

Such assurance of God's worth and work in her soul inspired Catherine to enter passionately into human misery and political strife; not for any personal fame or benefit, but for the sake of Christ her peacemaker. Catherine said, "God has loved us without being loved by us . . . We are bound to Him, and not He to us, because before He was loved, He loved us . . . Thus God demands that as He has loved us without any second thoughts, so He should be loved by us. In what way can we do this? . . . I tell you, through a means which he has established, by which we can love Him freely . . . that is, we can be useful, not to Him—which is impossible—but to our neighbor . . . To show the love that we have for Him, we ought to serve and love every creature and extend our charity to good and bad—as much to one who does us ill and criticizes us as to one who serves us. For, God's charity extends over the just and over sinners."

"She seeks no recompense either from me or from others," Catherine heard God say, "because she is stripped of any mercenary love, of any loving me for her own profit. She is clothed in perfect light, and loves me sincerely without any other concern than the glory and praise of my name. She does not serve me for her own pleasure, or her neighbors for her own profit, but only for love . . . [For] if anyone serves me, it is I who have given that person the will and the inclination, the power and the knowledge to be able to do it."

Far from tranquil seas and smooth sailing, Catherine saw the horrific blood and cross of Christ as emblematic of God's peace and love for sinners. "Nails were not enough to hold God-and-man nailed and fastened on the Cross," she wrote, "love held Him there." The church and the Christian life therefore must be patterned after the Cross. Followers of Christ ride a rocking boat, a via dolorosa or way of grief and pain. But we suffer not because of public scandal or vice, but because we hold to the Word of God, preach it, love it and live it—which inevitably rocks the boats of others. In the tenor of St. Catherine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "Where the world exploits, [the Christian] will dispossess himself, and where the world oppresses, he will stoop down and raise up the oppressed. If the world refuses justice, the Christian will pursue mercy, and if the world takes refuge in lies, he will open his mouth for the dumb, and bear testimony to the truth . . . [on behalf of] Jew or Greek, bond or free, strong or weak, noble or base."

Around the same time as Bonhoeffer, another Christian reminiscent of Catherine named Clarence Jordan once said, "Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences." Intent on loving his neighbors, Clarence Jordan with his wife and friends founded Koinonia Farms, a Christian cooperative in southern Georgia modeled after the Acts church. It was the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and continues strong to this day. The cooperative was designed to keep poor farmers from going broke and migrating to the inevitable poverty and oppression of big cities. The farm would have received a foundation grant for its start-up work in 1942 except that Jordan, a white man, was determined to have black farmers work alongside white farmers for equal pay. In the rural south of the mid-20th century, you just didn't do that. Jordan's farm buildings were shot at by angry gunmen, his roadside fruit stand bombed, the community members threatened, and an economic boycott was mounted against them. Yet they refused to be deterred.

However, nearly depleted of funding in his battle against poverty and racism, Jordan turned to his brother, a successful lawyer in a nearby town for some help. After a long but futile conversation, an exasperated Clarence Jordan finally said, "Brother, you and I walked down the same aisle as kids, at the same time in the same Baptist church, and both said 'yes' when the preacher asked if we wanted to give our hearts to Jesus and follow him." His brother replied, "I want to follow Jesus, but I'm not looking to make any trouble." "Well," Clarence replied, "then why don't you go back to that church and inform the congregation that what you meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him." For many, faith is merely admiration. Safe. From a distance. Nobody else needing to know. Tranquil flatwater. Serene. No trouble.

"Why are you so afraid?" Jesus asked. "Do you still have no faith? I'm here in the boat with you, aren't I?" Faith in Jesus is marked by blood and a cross. The peace God has made with us by that cross compels us to be peacemakers, which sometimes means being boat rockers. Ours is a passionate peacemaking that irrepressibly grows out of passionate devotion to Jesus.

"O eternal God, light surpassing all other light because all light comes forth from you!" Catherine sang, "O fire surpassing every fire because you alone are the fire that burns without consuming! You consume whatever sin and selfishness you find in the soul, yet your consuming does not distress the soul but fattens her with insatiable love, for though you satisfy her, she is never sated but longs for you constantly. The more she possesses you the more she seeks you, and the more she seeks and desires you the more she finds and enjoys you, high eternal fire, canyon full of charity!"

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.