I don’t know how many times in the course of her 98 years Dorothy Height might have listened to the passage we just heard, but I imagine quite a few. The words called the Beatitudes are so familiar that it’s easy to miss how strange they must have sounded when Jesus first uttered them 2,000 years ago, and how strange they still are.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek.” These words are saying that the weakest, the most broken, the most vulnerable people are on to something that others are missing, and that somehow they are at the center of God’s heart and work.
And then all of a sudden, Jesus shifts from talking about people—a “Blessed are the meek”—to addressing his followers directly: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account…that’s the way they treated the prophets before you.” His disciples are a rag-tag group of fishermen, ex-IRS agents, and people off the streets; they aren’t the movers and shakers, the power brokers and the famous. But Jesus is saying to them, “You’re the ones who are going to change the world.”
“You are the salt of the earth,” he says. “You are the light of the world.” I’m calling you to be edgy, provocative salt in the system, and gleaming lights of moral clarity to confront the world and guide it. You are salt and light to build a new world.
Today we are giving thanks for the life of a woman who over nearly a century became an unstoppable force of salt and light for our country. For days now, and again this morning, we have been celebrating this woman known as the grand dame of the Civil Rights movement, its unsung heroine, one of the small handful of its most important leaders. Dorothy Height’s 80 years of involvement spanned the lynchings of the 1930s, the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt in the ’40s, school desegregation in the’50s, and then the civil rights movement of the ’60s and beyond, and demonstrated her tireless dedication to equality and justice.
And Dorothy Height’s commitment to social justice led to her determined efforts to overcome gender bias in our society as well, even within the civil rights movement. A pastor friend from Chicago sent me a note this week filled with admiration for this tireless crusader, and in it he recalled her memories of being eased to the periphery among the male civil rights leaders whenever a photo was taken with the president of the United States or any other dignitary. The civil rights leadership, he said, was “A Man’s World.” Nevertheless this brave, persistent woman won her place in the highest counsels of the movement, and today the president of the United States himself is here to honor her.
Dorothy Height was by any estimation one of the heroes of the last century in America. Today we give thanks for her saltiness, for her bright and unrelenting light, for her steely persistence and indomitable spirit.
Now this remarkable woman’s earthly pilgrimage is ended, and we are here to thank God for the gift she has been to this country, to her friends and family, and to her colleagues in the National Council of Negro Women and countless other organizations she helped to lead.
Undergirding Dorothy Height’s life and work must certainly have been the faith expressed in our service today. Isaiah speaks of God’s call “to loose the bonds of injustice,…to let the oppressed go free,…to share your bread with the hungry,…to satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” “You shall be called the repairer of the breach,” the prophet says, “the restorer of streets to live in.” It’s clear those words were marching orders for this remarkable woman.
And the passages from the Christian Scriptures today speak of the conviction that death is not the final word in the human saga. “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord,” we heard as this service began. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” we heard in one of the lessons. Christian faith is grounded in the conviction that there is a power at work in the cosmos and in every human life that evil and death cannot defeat, and that means that we humans can live with hope both in this life and in the great mystery that awaits us when we die.
We know so little about eternity. But the Christian gospels are filled with acts of healing and forgiveness, of raising up the downtrodden, of confronting powers of cruelty and evil. And in them, Jesus kept saying, God’s kingdom was breaking into history, and eternal life was erupting in the ordinary. Wherever hope and healing and justice appear, people are glimpsing eternity itself.
And so we could say that eternity was breaking into history when Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, when those marchers made their way across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to proclaim his great dream, and when Dorothy Height challenged one organization after another to open their doors to everyone.
We glimpse eternal life here and now when hearts are soothed, bodies are healed, when decent schools and health-care and safe streets become the norm, when children and families have a chance at succeeding, when guns and violence no longer desecrate our streets. In those moments God’s eternity breaks into time, giving glimpses of the healed society, and even the eternity, that await us. And eternal life beyond death must be something like all these moments of healing and wholeness flowing one into another until time doesn’t matter anymore and all things are gathered into God’s love.
That’s the vision that seems to have shaped Dorothy Height’s life—a sense that there is what poet John Donne called “one equal music and one equal love” at the heart of reality. It is an immense claim—that death is not the end, that love and healing will have the final word. And it is faith in that ultimate vision that inspired the prophets and truth-speakers and organizers, and that fired Dorothy Height‘s own determination.
Now Dorothy Height has entered fully into God’s life. Because we know so little of that mysterious future, we have to leave it to the poets to give us at least a vision of it, and so I close with the final words of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Go Down Death: A Funeral Sermon”:
And Death took her up like a baby,…
Up beyond the evening star,
Out beyond the morning star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: “Take your rest,
Take your rest, take your rest.”
Weep not—weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Take your rest, Sister Dorothy, take your rest. You have been salt and light for nearly a century, and you have left this world a more just, more equal, more hopeful place. “Take your rest, Sister Dorothy, take your rest.”
May light perpetual shine upon you.