“Dignity”-Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Brother James Dowd

This morning we have just heard a reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians which contains a passage that has had a major impact on my own faith journey. Given the particular moment we find ourselves living through as Americans, I wanted to share a bit of my personal experience with others in our community because I think it might shed light on what some of you might be experiencing yourself. So I am going to ask you to indulge me talking about myself for a just a little bit here.

This then is a story about me, my dad, the Sisters of Mercy and how I became an adult Christian in a very difficult time. First, Dad had the faith of a man raised in an Irish-Catholic milieu, the type of faith you found in members of the Greatest Generation. Unlike many men of that generation and from that tradition, he was comfortable talking about faith – he loved the Scriptures and he loved to read lives of the saints. He was well grounded in what it meant to be a Christian. And he shared that with all four of us kids and, as I showed particular interest in religion, we talked about God and the Church and lots of religious topics a fair amount. These are the conversations with Dad that I most cherish now, many years after his passing.

When I was about fifteen, Dad began to talk to me about what we just heard in First Corinthians. He would say, “Jim, it is always important to remember that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you.” The reminders of this particular passage, which came often in my mid-teens, seemed to come out of the blue. This would often be followed by his telling me that it is important to listen to the church’s teaching on all matters, but that there were levels of teaching that were more important than others. The teaching that we are all God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within each one of us was among the highest and most important teachings. Remember that, he would say.

I had no idea why he was constantly referring to this one specific passage.

Now fast forward a few years to when I was being educated in high school by Sisters of Mercy. These sisters, along with my mother and sister, are among the greatest women in the world, and I just love them. Towards the end of my junior year and throughout my senior year, I was beginning to come to an understanding of myself that was rather upsetting and often confusing. It would take several more years for me to be able to fully grasp what it all meant, but it was becoming clear to me that I was gay.

At this point it was the late 1970’s and we lived in Williamsburg, VA. I was completely steeped in my Roman Catholic faith, and didn’t even have the word “gay” in my vocabulary except as something that was said by actresses in movies from the 30’s and 40’s referring to being happy.

But for me, there was nothing happy about life by the end of my senior year and into my first year of college at William and Mary. No, these were dark times.

And throughout this period there were several Sisters of Mercy who reached out to help in ways that would have an enormous impact on me. They would tell me – over and over again – that I was created in the image and likeness of God and that God made me, just like God made everyone else, to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

One Sister at a particularly dark time, said to me “don’t you understand that when God made you in God’s image and created you to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, God gave you an inherent dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter how bad things get, no matter how awful the President and the Pope might be on this issue – your dignity was given to you by God and no human being and no institution can take that away from you.”

So that was the early to mid-1980’s and things were very bad and getting worse for gay men at that time. With the entire church – not just the Catholic church – being openly hostile toward gay people or, at best, neutral, as if we didn’t even exist; and with the president ignoring the ever growing plague of AIDS, it was a dark, dark time for me personally and for gay men in general.

But through it all, my father’s words and those of the Sisters of Mercy kept coming back to me – “I am created in God’s image and I am the temple of the Holy Spirit. No one can take that dignity from me.” This became a kind of mantra for me. I thought about that a lot and more importantly, I prayed with that idea a great deal, and soon, I actually began to believe it and then found a way to live more deeply into that theological point of view. A point of view that still guides me today. A point of view summed up in one word: Dignity.

I haven’t really consciously thought about that time in my life in quite a while now. But the current situation in our country has brought all of that rushing back to me and that has caused me to reflect much more profoundly on our Baptismal Covenant, especially the last question that we ask and answer every time we renew that covenant.

That last question – you can find it on page 305 in the Prayer Book – is asked by the Presider at the liturgy: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? And we all answer: “I will, with God’s help.”

There is so much of our theology tied up in that question and answer. The linking of justice and peace among all people – let me emphasize – that means all people, every type of people, every type of person. Like them or not, understand them or not, agree with them or not, we are to strive for justice and peace among everyone.

But it occurs to me that had my dad and the Sisters not taught me about my own inherent dignity, it would have been nearly impossible for me to see that dignity in people who were different from me. And so I would like to offer you the gift that my dad and the Sisters offered me. That gift which understand that God loves each one of us in the unique way that God created us.

So if you are a person who feels under attack by the current political climate, I want to offer you the wisdom of the Scriptures and the tradition of our faith that Dad and the Sisters taught me.

  • If you are a woman, who is repulsed by the idea of being considered a piece of meat that can be grabbed at will or if you are a woman who is sick and tired of not being paid equally for equal work, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a transgendered person, and you are sickened by the hatred and ignorance that lands at your feet daily, then I want to say that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a differently abled person, and you are horrified by the governments’ attempt to erase your presence from every Federal web site, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a person of color and you are repulsed by the outward display and inward longing for a white nationalist regime by some of those in power, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are an immigrant or refugee and you are terrified that the Administration is going to tear apart your family then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.

 

But for all of us, it is not enough to be told by someone that you have this God-given gift of dignity and then, magically, everything will be o.k. I had to pray for a long time after my dad and the Sisters taught me this wisdom to really come to believe it. Faith is the gift from God, but it is only the gift of a seed. If you don’t tend and water it with prayer it will not grow. So during this dark and dangerous time in our history, I urge you to tend to your dignity, water your dignity. Deepen your prayer lives as an act of resistance to those forces both within you and without that attempt to tear you down, that attempt to tell you that you are not worthy of the protection of this great country, that you are not God’s beloved child.

Now please understand, dignity is not enough. But the Baptismal Covenant directly ties respecting the dignity of every human being to the striving of justice and peace. And respecting the dignity of every human being begins by respecting the dignity inherent within yourself.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, that season in which the Church focuses on the manifestation of Christ in the world. The greatest manifestation of Christ in the world is a community of Christians shining forth their dignified selves. Embracing our Christian faith by acknowledging our own dignity and the dignity of others is a great act of resistance that we can all engage in. May God bless us in this holy work. AMEN.

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One thought on ““Dignity”-Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Brother James Dowd

  1. Dear Jim, I thank God for you, for your monastic vocation, for Bp Scott’s invitation to you to come to the Diocese of Nebraska as a monk-in-residence, for this sermon in particular, and for our friendship through the monastic life. You are a blessing, and your work has been…and is…a blessing to countless people wherever you have lived. With love and a big hug, Ann

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