Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac
This night your very life is being demanded of you. If you take it very seriously, does the prospect make you squirm? In truth none of us knows what the next hours hold. Tomorrow is not promised. If your life was demanded of you tonight and you stood before the Almighty where would your confidence lie? Are you running the mental tally sheet, was I mostly good or mostly greedy? I have good intentions so…
“Trust in Jesus” is always a good answer in church, but it’s Jesus’ own words that form the core of tonight’s collect, “to see and to serve Christ by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick” Jesus told us that in all these things, whatever we did to the least of these we did to him, and whatever we did not do to the least of these we refused to do to him.
It’s worth considering, “Am I seeing and serving Christ in the ways he told me I would?”
The pair of saints we commemorate today answered that call in very direct ways, Vincent de Paul roused the lax clergy of his day by leading retreats for them, encouraging them to live up to the call they had been given. And, he devoted himself especially to the direct care of the poor, sick, and disadvantaged. Louise met him a short while later and after being widowed took the vows of religion and set up a women’s order to fill the deep need of direct care to the poor.
This was all happening in the early 17th century, while religious pilgrims were just thinking of coming to these shores. France had been rocked by violent upheaval as the Reformation tore through the region. Care for the poor and sick was nothing like professionalized hospitals and social programs of today. Safety nets were practically unheard of. Life and death were at stake in painfully vivid ways that we’d struggle to comprehend today.
Stepping into that void was a risky venture that required so much more than giving to charity. That work involved the literal, physical work of feeding, spooning a hungry person food welcoming inside, under this roof, with me, clothing, dressing a person in clothes that would prevent frostbite, and caring providing for the real bodily needs of people sick with all manner of illness in a time when germ theory was hardly a speck on the horizon. It meant putting one’s actual body in proximity to another human body and doing real, tangible work, and that’s how Christ said we’d meet him.
Today, Vincentians and the many other orders that trace their lineage to St. Vincent de Paul prize the home-visit, the direct work with people where tangible needs and relationship are all bound together.
Vincent and Louise dedicated themselves wholly to that work, that’s a good way to take Jesus very seriously. Where does that leave us though? How do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling? I would suggest just that, that it be with fear and trembling. I think we should take Jesus seriously and fear the consequences when he tells us that what we’ve done to the least of these, we’ve done to him, and that what we haven’t done to them, we’ve refused to do for him. I think we should tremble when we find ourselves making plans to ensure our comfort and let those plans crowd out a more open-handed life lived towards God.
And it’s with fear and trembling that I say I don’t think it’s the same to just write a check to a good cause. It’s not unworthy, but it’s not the same as doing the work. I don’t think it’s the same to say, “I’ll pray for you.” It’s not unworthy, but it’s not that same as tangibly meeting a need, person to person. We come away changed when we actually encounter people in the flesh; when our bodies do work that our minds and our hearts can only imagine. We become whole in a way that we weren’t before.
God sent prophets to reveal his love. God sent manna to sustain his people. And then, God came in the person of Jesus to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to himself. If it could have been done from a distance, God would have done it. But God did it by coming to us, in the flesh to mediate our healing, our redemption, our restoration. God met us in the work of mercy through Jesus and we will meet Jesus in works of mercy.
I imagine you’ve already encountered this before, the opportunity to meet someone in need in a personal, physical way. To work in a soup kitchen, to volunteer at a center for inner-city kids, to bring medical aid to impoverished places. Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us, and maybe it’s because we’ll always need them in order to meet Jesus again, face to face. Let your fear and trembling meet the strength and courage and comes from “God working in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It’s not a penance to be paid, it is to see your salvation in the face of those whom Jesus would have you serve.
Perhaps you live in that world all the time, caring and giving of yourself and you’re exhausted. In that case, perhaps rest is in order. Rest, to recollect and remember that it is Jesus you are serving it is your salvation at hand.
Perhaps it’s been a while since you were actually in the trenches. Could Jesus be inviting you to see him again, face to face, in a way that makes you tremble? The promise is to see your salvation!
Draw near, beloved. Draw near and receive the body that was given for you. Become that body broken for the world and prepare to meet Jesus again! Amen.
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