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Learning from the Legends: Dorothy Day Teaches Us to Serve

Luke 10.38-42

Moira sat staring at the Family Promise board for a long time.  There were plenty of slots left, that wasn’t the problem.  But when it came time to put her name on one of them, she just felt tired.  She had been a regular volunteer so long, so often, that she just assumed that she was going to do it again…each time their turn came around.  But this time, she was tired.  Her dad had been in the hospital more in the last few months, her energy level was down, and she asked herself why it was that she was expected to sign up when wave after wave of church member walked by without even pausing to look…

Moira’s story is not foreign to us in the church, is it?  Phil Van Auken writes about church burnout among volunteers. You know the story. Someone volunteers to be a part of a meaningful ministry – to teach children or cook for Family Promise guests or sing in the choir. But over time, that passion for the ministry starts to wane.  According to Van Auken, here are some of the signs that burnout is coming, what he calls the “Road to Burnout”:

  • Over-commitment (always in motion)
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous ministry involvement)
  • Idealistic standards
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no

Some of you may understand these steps along the road, and maybe you have even been a victim of what Van Auken calls church burnout.  Exhaustion, lack of motivation, apathy or even anger at the people with whom you are ministering, resentment.  All these are signs that you might be on that road.

Martha was on that road.  I don’t know about you, but this is one of my favorite passages of Scripture.  I find myself coming back to it again and again and again and mining new wisdom out of these few short verses. Just this week, someone else brought it up out of the blue, referring to this passage and using the shorthand of whether someone is a “Mary” or a “Martha.”  If we were to look at the story through the lens of volunteer burnout, you might not be surprised that Martha seemed like she was on that road!

The background is this: Jesus and the disciples are travelling toward Jerusalem, on the way to Jesus’ eventual crucifixion. And they stop along the way at the home of a woman named Martha.  Martha is incredibly hospitable and offers her home to all of these men, likely cooking for and feeding them, helping them clean up and have a place to stay for the night.  It’s at that part of the story that we often stop listening to the passage, and we go directly to our own story of anxiety.  How many of us feel for Martha in that moment?  We think back to experiences in our own lives where we hosted friends or family, cooked for someone, gave them a place to stay, and we stop listening to the rest of the passage!  It is impossible not to do so, but how many of us read our middle class sensibilities back into this occurrence from 2,000 years ago! Our own middle class anxieties about hospitality and what that is supposed to look like.

But notice what the passage does not say.  Three myths about this passage that get in the way of our reading:

  • Martha only cared about herself and impressing the disciples. That’s our baggage. We read into Martha the upper middle class values of an upside down hospitality that is not about making others feel at home as much as it is showing off our home.  That is not what Martha seemed to be doing.  This was her home.  She was inviting Jesus and all of his followers to stay with her.  Hers was a radical hospitality.
  • We shouldn’t be worried about physical things, but only spiritual. It actually doesn’t say that at all.  We often set up this comparison between Mary and Martha and say that Mary’s way of inaction is better than Martha’s way of action.  But throughout his teachings, Jesus is lauding those who act, who serve, who care for others.  Remember that right before this passage is the story of the Good Samaritan, where the goats are those who are on their way to church for the prayer meeting and the hero is the one who stops and takes care of the man on the side of the road. These things had to get done. The disciples had to eat.  That’s what hospitality is. But along the way, those of us who prefer the physical acts of service get defensive of Martha and those of us who prefer the spiritual acts of prayer and devotion get defensive of Mary, but that is a false dichotomy. Which leads to the third myth:
  • Jesus rebuked Martha for being a bad Christian. Well, first, no one was a Christian yet.  But even then, I think that we sometimes imagine that Jesus stops in the middle of his teaching and goes into the kitchen to give Martha a good talking-to. Like he does in the synagogues. Or to the Pharisees.  Or the teachers of the law. We imagine him proclaiming “woe” to her like he does to them.

But look instead what actually happens.  Martha comes to him, not asking him whether or not he likes the lamb casserole or the new coffee table she just bought, not with a theoretical question about whether or not it is better to pray or serve.  She came to him, and his response was not a rebuke, but an encouragement.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about a great many things.  Mary has chosen the better way and it will not be taken from her.”  This is Jesus ministering to Martha. Healing her. Exorcising the demon of resentment in her life. She has come to him, screaming for what she thinks she wants, but he gives her what she really needs. A new way of living.  A new hope. A new lesson for how to serve.

Jesus knew that if Martha served with a sense of resentment, or obligation, or perfectionism, then she would not make it.  She would burnout on the life of service that she was so gifted for. That her energy could be taken from her. He knew that serving for the sake of appearances would only last so long.  If she was doing it so that others would thank her, then she would eventually burn out.  Those rewards could be taken from her.

But the way that Mary was demonstrating was burnout-proof.  Or at least burnout-resistant. It was the way of sitting at the feet of Jesus and allowing him to restore her.  Renew her. He knew what it would take to make her more burnout-resistant. So his healing gift to her was to show her a better way.

And we get it, right?  How many of us have served out of obligation or relied on our own energy or allowed resentment to creep into our life of service? At the church or at home or in community organizations, or all of the above?  And how many of us have had that energy, that motivation, that passion “taken from us” like Martha did?  How often do we burnout on service?  It is nice for a while, because it makes us feel good.  It makes us feel like we are doing something important.  But after a while, that self-importance fades and we need something else to encourage/motivate/inspire us.  There is a better way.

Dorothy Day teaches us this better way.  She was born in Brooklyn in 1897, and while she was raised in the church, she rejected it pretty early into adulthood.  She graduated from journalism school and then lived a rather Bohemian lifestyle, living and working in communes, helping others and in turn receiving help from them. She lived this way all over the world, moving from New York, to Italy, to Hollywood, and then back to Staten Island. She sought meaning and purpose in these communities, but instead found hopelessness. She saw around her the plight of those caught up in the effects of the Great Depression.  Men standing in bread lines just to feed their families. Unemployment, despair, desperation, hopelessness.  Personally, she left a trail of broken relationships and divorce. The more she tried to find answers in community and relationship, the more those relationships left her wanting.

It was at this moment that everything changed for Day.  In short, she found Jesus. In her reading of the Gospels, she found that the life that she was seeking was right there all along.  Her secular friends laughed at her new-found faith, but she knew that it was the answer that she had sought all along. Along with her friend Peter Maurin, she began the Catholic Worker moment. Together they began hospitality houses for the poor, advocated on their behalf, preached nonviolent pacifism, fought against societal injustice, and built the very communities of faith that she had been searching for on her own.  She put her journalism degree to good use, and published her own newspaper, called the Catholic Worker, that detailed their work and inspired others to do the same.  Dorothy lived a life of radical faith, emulating what she thought Jesus would have her do.

And yet, the work was exhausting.  It is not a coincidence that the hospitality house for women in Detroit was named the St. Martha House, after the woman who had showed such radical hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. It was named after the redeemed Martha, the one healed and restored by Christ! Like Martha, Day had to learn a “better way.”  The secular life that she had lived of giving from her own strength and talents had been a dead end, but in the life of faith, she discovered that the strength she needed came from a life of prayer, of devotion, of studying the masters, and of embracing the discipline of suffering. For Day, it became a way to burnout-proof her life. Though the hours were long and the needs seemed unending, she found her strength in the life of devotion and prayer. She tried to save the world on her own, but it wasn’t until she fell into the arms of Jesus that she truly became one of the world’s greatest servants. This little book, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus, is excerpted from her journals and other writings.  After a lifetime of service, Day turned to teach others how to serve. Not just never-ending, guilt-driven obligation, but purposeful suffering, prayerful giving, and loving sacrifice. She writes of this better way.  I could share a thousand points from Day and her lifetime of service.  I’ll stick to four.

One, Look for Jesus.  Day served in the way that she did because she saw in the faces of the poor and oppressed the face of Jesus.  As she wrote in The Reckless Way of Love: “Let us rejoice in poverty, because Christ was poor. Let us love to live with the poor, because they are specially loved by Christ. Even the lowest, most depraved — we must see Christ in them and love them to folly. When we suffer from dirt, lack of privacy, heat and cold, coarse food, let us rejoice.”

Two, Suffer like Jesus. There is a double-edged sword of service.  Many of us have been blessed in serving others, so we think that that is how service works.  We are as blessed as those who serve.  Sometimes.  Not all the time.  Dorothy Day lived a life of serving others, and it wasn’t always easy.  As often as not, there were long days, powerful forces that worked against her justice ministry, and many of the people who she served were unthankful or even belligerent.  So Dorothy before long remembered that she wasn’t doing it for herself and her comfort level.  She learned to suffer like Jesus. She writes: “Once when I suffered and sat in church in a misery while waves and billows passed over me, I suddenly thought, with exultation, ‘I am sharing suffering,’ and it was immediately lightened…joy and suffering go together, pleasure and pain, work and rest, the rhythm of life, day succeeding the night, spring following winter, life and earth and life again, world without end.” The life of faith is by nature a life of suffering.

Three, Pray like Jesus. For Day, this was incredibly important. She saw the ways that Jesus retreated to the hills to pray regularly, and how important that was to his ministry. She, too, understood that it was not her power, but God’s that gave her the strength: “I need some time alone for prayer and reading so that I can attain some proper perspective and peace of spirit to deal with myself and others. I need to overcome a sense of my own impotence, my own failure, and an impatience at others that goes with it….As long as there is any resentment, bitterness, lack of love in my own heart I am powerless. God must help me.”  Pray like Jesus did.

Finally, partner with Jesus. We are the hands and feet of Christ, and our work is to partner with Jesus in his work of healing and hope. Like Day writes, “Our lives are touched by those who lived centuries ago, and we hope that our lives will mean something to people who wont be alive until centuries from now. It’s a great ‘chain of being,’ someone once told me, and I think our job is to do with best we can to hold up our small segment of the chain…Our arms are linked – we try to be neighbors of His, and to speak up for his principles. That’s a lifetime’s job. We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.”

A better way.  The way that could not be taken from her.  Day taught us how to serve.

Just a few years after Dorothy Day died in 1980, a woman named Karen walked through the streets of New York, not far from where Day served and worked.  She met a homeless woman there, and asked if she could buy her a sandwich.  As they ate sandwiches together, Olson looked into the eyes of a person who was homeless and really saw her, heard her story, was changed by the experience.

Before long, she had returned to her home in New Jersey with a passion to do something about it. Like Day, she began organizing around caring for the needs of the homeless in her community.  She like Martha had learned how important hospitality – real hospitality – is. So she gathered the churches together to build what she called a hospitality network, caring for the needs of those in her midst.  Like Martha.  Like Dorothy.

Now, several decades later, Karen Olson’s dream has been replicated in community after community after community. A few years ago, they changed their name, from Interfaith Hospitality Network to the name we know them as: Family Promise. The vision is still the same.  Just like Karen and that first sandwich with her new friend.  Just like Dorothy and the countless poor she helped.  Just like Martha and her “better way.”  May we learn to serve like these fierce women of faith.  May we follow in their footsteps.



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