Dorothy Day lived in the 20th century during the time religious historians know as the second part of the social Gospel period; she founded the Catholic Worker Movement and the social justice focused journal by the same name. She was responsible for a dramatic increase in public understanding around the realities of poverty and homelessness, and was deeply involved in nonviolent direct action to advance the interests of people who live on the margins.
That’s about all I remembered from high school social studies, and it’s a description that I admit, in my younger days, led to some one-dimensional assumptions about Dorothy Day, including that she probably wasn’t a whole lot of fun. But later in life I did some more reading and my assumptions have changed; I think she must have been a fascinating and entertaining person to know.
Her early life is marked by a series of radical, sensual, curiosities, that she sought to satisfy by just about every form of experimentation; a published author, she would write about some of it in detail, and then later wish to find every published copy and burn it. She always served others, people living in the most desperate of circumstances, but early in life, she often did so unhappily. She found the work an overwhelming source of despair and hopelessness. Then, in midlife she connected it to the faith she had found in God. Her spiritual life opened the door to really loving others, and finding joy and meaning in doing so. Along the way, she made deep connections with others and with the world around her. One admirer wrote, “She had an enormous capacity for close friendships…each one unique, and she had many, many of them…” And her love of the created world was not limited to people who suffer. She was moved to the depths of her being by the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Her love of beauty was so rich that it was not uncommon for friends to find her lost in ecstasy while listening to opera on the radio.
All of that background suggests to me that Day’s life story is one of a person with deep yearnings who never settled. She was willing to take big chances and try new things. She left no stone unturned in life; she searched for meaning and purpose, and also for joy. I have to imagine that she amassed a lot of wisdom in the course of her life and that there was never a dull moment if one was her companion. And the heart of her story is that she cared deeply for other people, because of her intense love for God.
It’s Stewardship season here at Knox. This time of year, we always throw around jokes suggesting that no one likes this time of year, who would want to be on a committee that has to ask people for money, and do I really like preaching these Stewardship sermons. But the reality is that much of that just isn’t true. During this time of year, we share amazing stories about Knox members who have been inspired by God to do wonderful things; our committee is a joyful group, new and old members of this place, who have had a great time thinking about how to inspire you this season. As for me, I love being a part of telling stewardship stories because of something Dorothy Day teaches us: we spend much of our lives achieving and accumulating and trying to advance ourselves in the world, and never feeling quite complete; but if we are wise, we eventually learn that life’s deepest joys come when we learn to be generous, and focus our attention on helping someone else. We find joy when that generosity and service is connected to our love for God.
There’s a Bible story about this, one that many of you may be familiar with, but perhaps having thought about in the way I’ll invite you to today. I remember it being one of the first stories I learned in Sunday School. It’s the calling of the disciples. Each of the Gospels include a version of this story where Jesus approaches these perfect strangers who are going about their business, and in very short order, he convinces them to leave their life behind and go where he is leading; in the words of my childhood Bible in the old Revised Standard Version, it was: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I remember not only the gender exclusive translation, but the classic interpretation. I always figured that when Jesus invited the disciples to fish for people, he was talking about conversion: Come with me, and together we’ll start a church; we’ll tell people about Jesus, and we won’t rest from our fishing until our nets are full to bursting. There is of course, nothing wrong with telling people about Jesus. But the idea that following Jesus is all about getting more followers has led to immense human suffering, whether we’re talking about the Crusades, or forced conversions of indigenous peoples. And I can assure you that the constant drive for more church members is also a miserable way to think about one’s ministry. There must be some deeper reason for us being together than to count butts in the seats—and I wonder if the story of the first disciples, if interpreted differently, might lead to a more satisfying goal.
So, I thought again about Jesus’ invitation to fish for people, and I wondered: What if I had been among those first disciples, making a living, minding my own business, and Jesus came and asked me to help him amass a huge crowd of followers and become really popular? I don’t think I would have gone along. Why did those first disciples go? But what if their motivation, and his invitation, was different than I thought? What if, like the Dorothy Days of the world, those first fishermen were searching, longing, hoping for some joy they had not yet found in life? And what if Jesus gave them what they needed by inviting them to serve others? What if the invitation to fish for people is not about how many followers I can attract, but about how I can turn my life outward, from survival and accumulation to the advancement of the good of others?
Jesus began his ministry by calling his disciples and inviting them to find themselves in service to others; and his ministry ends with another invitation to them. After his Resurrection, Jesus appears on a beach at the Sea of Galillee. There he makes a simple breakfast of fish and bread for his disciples. He approaches Simon Peter, who only days before had denied knowing him three times. Can you imagine the guilt and shame he must have been carrying? In a manner clearly meant to forgive and heal Peter, Jesus approaches him on the beach and asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” and when Peter says yes, Jesus invites him: “Feed my sheep.” This is how Jesus heals Peter. Do you want to heal the brokenness in your own life? Jesus answer is to serve others. In seeking their salvation, you will find your own.
Dorothy Day lived a life of dramatic generosity, and yet her acts of service always started small and personally, and she advised others around her to do the same. Meet the need that is before you; see God in every neighbor. God loves the drug addict or the homeless person as deeply as the high-achiever. Love wherever you can, and the life you save may be your own.
It might seem strange to step from Day’s example and the stories of Christ straight to our church’s Stewardship Campaign, but the reality is that for most of us, this is where deep generosity begins. We show up on a Saturday to pack food bags for hungry children; we mentor a child and meet someone whose life is quite different from ours; we teach our children by example that we give the first portion of our income back to God. Generous living is grounded in faith; the easiest place to find joy is in helping someone else; and loving others is the most concrete way we love God. These lessons begin at church.
So I am not at all shy about asking you to make the commitments that help the church to thrive. Everyone who is part of this community should make a commitment and give. Knox Presbyterian Church relies on the annual gifts of not a wealthy few, but hundreds of people who make three-, four-, and -five figure gifts to fund this place. In a way just as practical as your own household, we need your gifts to grow over time so that the church can keep up with inflation and try new things. This year we seek an average increase of 5% in our giving, and knowing that some are on a fixed income, we pray that others who can will do more; and we have a goal this year of adding 50 new pledges. Pledge cards are in your mail and available here at church and you can make your pledge online. Next week is Commitment Sunday; please turn in your pledge soon and help us plan for the year ahead.
Most of us are not Dorothy Day; we’re just looking for a way to add some meaning, purpose and joy to life. We hope to raise our children to be faithful people; we hope to find God’s presence in regular things; we hope to live with some virtues that belong in a good eulogy and not just on a good resume. The stories that inspire me here at Knox are not the ones that amount to a tear-jerking end to a sermon, but the ones of every day. Coming to Mission Possible yesterday and seeing every generation of faith working together. Witnessing volunteers who go to immense effort to help others and serve God’s church. Seeing people who are hurting and grieving cared for by friends who love them. Knowing that this is a place where my children are safe and happy, and trusting that they will realize that as they grow, and will discover their own commitments to God. It is not a perfect place, but thankfully, it is a good one. Let’s continue to nurture God’s legacy here. Amen.