Finding compassion in the fire of love

This originally was presented as a sermon for Noon Prayers, Wednesday August 22, 2018 at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid Oklahoma.

Today we remember St. Martin de Porres, who lived in Lima, Peru from 1579 to 1639. He is the patron saint of barbers, public health workers, all those seeking racial harmony, and – particularly relevant for me and Tammy – the patron saint of innkeepers.

As innkeepers, it’s often useful for us to have a saint we can emulate, someone who embodies the compassion, patience and love we aspire to show each guest at Southard House. Like the old saying goes: We love all our guests – some when they arrive, some when they leave. We know, as Christians, we’re called to love all who come through our door. But, if we’re being honest, that is easier with some than others. The ones who steal all the toilet paper and soap, clean their shoes on the bedspread and show up late, loud and tipsy – those require a little more effort toward Christian love and patience.

I think most of, in our daily lives, have people who are easier to love than others. Compassion and hospitality are easy when our neighbors look, act and think like us. When they have the same beliefs as us. And, particularly, when they pose no threat to our health, reputation or well-being. But, it’s in those difficult cases when we’re called to lean on Christ, to follow Him and to love when this world tells us to turn away. This world constantly tells us, as James pointed out in today’s epistle, to “make distinctions among” ourselves and to “become judges with evil thoughts.” These are the distinctions and judgment that keep our camel from passing through that needle eye we heard about in today’s reading from Mark.

St. Martin knew about living in a society based on distinctions and judgement – distinctions of race and class, and severe judgment on anyone who attempted to cross those lines. Born the son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave, Martin was exposed to the extremes of colonial society. He saw the power and extravagance of the Spanish nobility. And, when his father abandoned Martin, his mother and sister, he got to see the depths of poverty and hardship.

Martin went to apprentice under a barber and surgeon as a young teenager to help support his family. But, from a young age he desired to serve the church, to live a life among the sacraments of his faith. Unfortunately, law in Peru forbade descendants of natives or slaves from pursuing religious orders, so Martin settled for being a servant in the Dominican Convent of the Rosary in Lima.

He did not allow the lowliness of his station to prevent him serving, both the convent and God. Martin put his skills as a barber to work, and while still a servant he became known for performing miraculous healings. After eight years at Holy Rosary, the prior, against law and the objections of many of the monks, permitted Martin to take his vows as a member of the Dominican order.

When an epidemic struck the convent the sick monks were quarantined behind locked doors, and it was forbidden to enter out of fear of spreading the disease. Martin was repeatedly reported to have passed through those locked doors without them being opened to treat the sick. Law, rules and the risk of infection, for Martin, were no impediment to showing kindness and mercy.

This was again put to the test when Martin encountered a man covered with sores, dying on the street. Martin brought him back to the convent and placed the man in his own bed. Another monk complained to Martin that the poor, sick man was unclean, and would infect them all. Martin’s reply, I think, is instructive for us all: “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.”

When another epidemic broke out in Lima, Martin began bringing more sick people, both rich and poor, to the convent. The superior of the convent eventually ordered him to stop, again out of fear that the sick would spread disease. But Martin continued, disobeying the orders of his superior. When confronted about his disobedience, by a rather irate and stern superior, Martin replied: “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

In that bold statement, Martin held up before his superior the Great Commandment, from Matthew 22:36-40: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

“Forgive me,” Martin says, “but I didn’t know the law was more important than charity.” And, in the words of Christ, we know that it is not – love, or charity, is the fulfillment of the law. Faced with this realization, the superior was so humbled that he allowed Martin to continue bringing in and treating the sick and dying any way he saw fit, until Martin’s death. And, in all that time, Martin did not allow the distinctions of this world to keep him from treating with equal love and compassion those in need – rich or poor, Native or Spanish, noble or slave. He treated them all with the love commanded and given by Christ.

We can learn a lot from St. Martin, about how to encounter the people we will meet in this life – in the streets of our very own community when we leave here – and how we should overcome fear with the fire of love. These lessons are well-expressed, I think, in a reading set aside for St. Martin’s feast day from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 7:32–36:

Stretch out your hand to the poor,
so that your blessing may be complete.
Give graciously to all the living;
do not withhold kindness even from the dead.
Do not avoid those who weep,
but mourn with those who mourn.
Do not hesitate to visit the sick,
because for such deeds you will be loved.
In all you do, remember the end of your life,
and then you will never sin.

St. Paul expresses this more succinctly in Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

St. Martin de Porres not only understood those words, and the teaching of love given to us by God. He lived those words, never allowing the prejudices and barriers of this world to stand in the way of any opportunity to love and serve all he encountered. I pray, when we leave here, we will take with us the faith and courage to follow his example.

Please pray with me:
Merciful God, you sent your Gospel to the people of Peru through Martin de Porres, who brought its comfort even to slaves: Help us to follow his example in bringing fearlessly the comfort of your grace to all downtrodden and outcast people, that your Church may be renewed with songs of salvation and praise; through Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Finding compassion in the fire of love

  1. James, you may not know Blessed Solanus Casey (on the road to sainthood) who was a Capuchin Friar in Detroit and was the porter or doorkeeper, welcoming people from all states of life. I think of him as the modern patron of innkeepers. (Interesting to learn another facet of your life, too.)

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