Doing the Dishes (homily)
August 30, 2009
Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
My mother was a fanatic housekeeper. She was so particular about her kitchen I wasn’t allowed in it. I never did a dish until I was married.
My mother polished the furniture every week. She washed the windows. Every week.
My daughter, on the other hand, is the messiest person on the planet. I say this without hesitation. She wouldn’t scrub a kettle if her life depended on it. There could be a dead elk in the middle of the floor and she wouldn’t notice for weeks.
But my mother loved me and gave me life. My daughter is a wonderful woman, full of insight and compassion.
The obvious message for Catholics in today’s Gospel is that we shouldn’t get caught up in the wrong things.
Did you know that in the Middle Ages there were Church leaders who tried to ban the use of the fork? It was new in Europe, just introduced, and there were bishops who thought it unnatural and immoral. “God in his wisdom has provided us with natural forks,” one of them said. “Our fingers. Therefore it is an insult to substitute artificial metallic forks when eating.”
The Spirit works through the human agency of the Church, and the human agency really foul things up. We all know this. We’re always trying to decide where to draw the line: what’s human in this situation and what’s divine?
We were all horrified by the pedophilia scandal. Stunned. It was a terrible, terrible thing. But for those of us who have stayed in the Church, for those of us who are here right now, we apparently decided: no. As terrible as it was, as awful and sinful as it was, it was finally a kettle. It was finally a drum.
Grace still flows beneath all the problems. God still works through this flawed human institution, as he always has and always will.
But I’m really thinking about how this truth applies to the way we read people. The human and the divine are mixed up in every person, too, and I think we forget that. We’re like the Pharisees in our relationships, fixed on the trivial, but in a negative way.
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine from Scotland. He’s been married a long time, and he was telling me a story about his wife. At the end he said: I’m in love with a woman who drives me crackers.
Well, me too. You know how it is when you’ve been married forever. Just a raised eyebrow can send you over the edge. A tone of voice.
Barb likes to leave her stuff on the kitchen counter--but complains when I do. She never puts the pillows back on the couch. She forgets to tell me when she writes a big check, and then I’m standing at the counter at Fred Meyer and my debit card won’t go through.
But she’s the love of my life. The Lord shines through her, everyday, and when I forget that I’m being a literalist, a rigorist, a fundamentalist.
It’s easy to criticize the compulsiveness of others. But what about our own? What about the little things we care too much about?
Caps on backwards. Tailgaters. Tattoos.
Who cares? Why do we?
And we’re that way with ourselves, too. We judge ourselves too harshly, focusing on the trivial and forgetting about the imago dei--the image of God within us. We gain five pounds and suddenly we’re a terrible person. We get into a fender bender and suddenly we’re not worthy to live. I think that almost all of us live with a constant stream of negative self-talk, a barrage of internal criticism, and it all has to do with things that don’t matter. That’s how the devil tempts us. He gets us to fixate on the kettles. On the drums.
Here’s our compassion, here’s our longing, here’s our intrinsic goodness. And we turn our backs on it. We don’t give ourselves credit for it.
Things are just messy and mixed up and we have to stop being surprised that they are.
We have to separate the human and the divine, not confuse them, but the paradox is that in another way they’re always intertwined. We can’t ever seem to have one without the other. Everything is incarnated, and so it’s both wonderful and flawed, good and bad.
I was standing at the kitchen sink the other day doing the dishes. (Believe me, since I got married, I’ve more than made up for my wasted youth.) I was looking out the window at the leaves changing in the maple and this feeling started to build up in me. It came out of nowhere. My prayer that morning had been rushed and distracted. The readings had left me cold. I hadn’t been feeling very spiritual at all. All day I’d been feeling like a failure.
And there, suddenly, up to my elbows in suds, I felt the presence of God welling up in me.
Jesus did the dishes and Jesus lived in the real world and he still does. In fact, he didn’t just wash the kettles and drums. He washed feet. That’s how real he got, and ordinary, and mundane. He wrapped a towel around his waist and he went around in a circle and he washed the dirty, blistered feet of those ungrateful, thickheaded disciples, and he said that we should do likewise.
The reason we have to make sure that we don’t mistake the human for the divine is that the divine is always infused in the human. For us, in this life, that’s the only way we can ever experience the divine, that’s the only way that grace can come to us, through the kettles and the drums--but only if we don’t read them literally, only if we don’t get too worked up about them, only if we don’t assume that the way we like things and the way we want things is the way God does.
Only if we never forget that in everything, in people and in life, there’s always, always more than meets the eye.