More than 10 years ago, a mentor of mine encouraged me to begin discernment for the priesthood. I thought he was crazy. I was too broken, too insecure, too confused to be a priest. I had been married and divorced, I had walked away from and then back into the church, and I had no sense of direction in my life. There was no way I was called to be a priest. My mentor said it was exactly for all those reasons and many more, that I needed to enter discernment...that I was living proof that God’s grace and compassionate welcome was available to all. I still thought he was crazy, and so I ignored my mentor’s suggestion.
After a few years, I found myself in seminary, guided by new mentors, and the story hadn’t really changed. I was still broken, insecure and confused. I was in the midst of people who were also broken and insecure in their own ways, and together we were working to bring about the Kingdom of God...welcoming other broken people and sharing experiences of God’s unending grace.
While at St. Matthew’s in Sacramento, I was learning how to celebrate the Mass in Spanish. I was terrified that I would confuse the words for “fish” (pescado) and “sin” (pecado) and offend someone. I was convinced that the congregation would look at me as some privileged white girl that was here to “fix” them and therefore shun me. Boy was I wrong! Instead of seeing me as an outsider, the small congregation welcomed me with compassion and love. Together we worked on our Spanish and English, and I did a lot of listening to them about their lives--their joys and troubles. Even though I had done various ministries at different churches in California, it was there at St. Matthew’s that I learned about compassionate welcome and really affirmed for me what kind of priesthood I was being called to.
While I would never claim to be the most compassionate or loving person, I am more empathetic and caring than I was before. In those early days of mentoring, I never would have imagined how important Jesus’s teaching to his friends “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (Matthew 10:40) would become in my life and my understanding of discipleship. And this piece of today’s gospel has become the cornerstone of my ministry. Whenever I welcome someone, I am welcoming Jesus.
This week, the volunteers of the Emergency Voucher Program, which is hosted here at St. Mark’s, wrote about 15 vouchers...that’s a lot of vouchers for one week; normally we average about 5 vouchers a week. There are probably a lot of reasons for this increase in requests, but what it made me conscious of is how we were expressing compassionate welcome to these guests. A woman, who I’ll call Jody, came in on Friday around 3pm. Jody was younger than me and had very little hair. She told me about her brain cancer, but that she was grateful for the doctors who cared for her. Shyly, she asked for a food voucher because she was waiting for her food stamps to come in on the 1st and she’d already been to FISH this month. When I looked through the record of past voucher recipients, she had never made a request before. She had exhausted all of her resources, and found herself in my office...an hour after we had stopped writing vouchers for the day. Technically, I could have told her to go to the police department at 4pm...they manage the voucher program from 4pm-8am. But I guess I take Jesus’ teaching “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” a little too seriously. And so we talked as I wrote her voucher, and then she asked me to pray for her. Our whole encounter lasted maybe 10 minutes---she got the food she needed, and I was reminded that Jesus is constantly in our midst--even if we don’t recognize him.
The good news about this story is that you don’t have to be a priest to extend compassionate welcome to others! When you take the time to greet someone and look them in the eye, when you take the time to listen to their story with an open heart, you are welcoming Jesus into your world. When you volunteer at FISH, the warming shelter, or the emergency voucher program, you are relieving the burden of someone else through compassionate welcome. When you mentor or tutor another--particularly our young people--you are welcoming them into your life and modeling for them what a compassionate welcome can be.
In Bible Study we’re reading Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps for Compassionate Living”. In our group, we share stories of our own experiences of being treated with compassion, and how that has made us more compassionate towards others. That is the reward of compassionate living--not that you’ll gain more notoriety, popularity or wealth--but that this way of being in the world makes it a better place. When we welcome one another and the stranger, when we relieve the burden of others, when we listen deeply and love fully, not only do we experience God’s grace and welcome, but we perpetuate the cycle of healing and reconciliation in our world.
As we prepare to come to the table, and then as you go out into your daily life and work this week, I ask you to consider how you have experienced compassionate welcome in your life, and how you may extend that welcome to another. May God be with you on your journey.
In preparing for this morning, I went back and reviewed some of my previous sermons from Pentecost Sunday. In one of them, I spoke generally about my experiences of worshipping in a Pentecostal church with my high school best friend, Dena. In this sermon I talked about witnessing speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles, and altar calls. Dena’s church was a lively place to be. And while I always knew intuitively that the tradition of the Pentecostal church was not where I felt at home, I am grateful for the experiences I had there because it has shaped the way I understand and perceive the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.
If in my relatively short life I have had my fair share of dealing with loss, change and forgiveness. Not unlike the disciples, I have continually wrestled with understanding how to continue the work that God calls me to do. Not unlike the disciples, I have moved into unknown places, wondering if I would experience peace or kick the dust off my shoes. Not unlike the disciples, I have experienced the death of teachers, mentors and friends, and wondered how to make sense of it all. And for me, the answer is the Holy Spirit.
Now next Sunday, Marilyn will be with you and I’m sure she’ll do a fantastic job of sharing her insights about the Trinity, so I don’t want to steal her thunder. But when I think of Pentecost, the gifting of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ friends so they could be empowered to do their ministry, I can’t help but think of the Trinity as a whole.
God--our Father and Mother, Creator of all, in whose image we were created--God calls each one of us into ministry. For some this means a calling to ordination, but for all of us it means being called into the further work of the Kingdom. It’s in this work--be it nursing, teaching, accounting, wherever we find our heart’s passion--that we claim our identity as children of God.
Jesus--our Redeemer, our friend, our teacher--Jesus calls us to be fishers of people. This takes our daily ministry and identity as children of God, and shapes it to bring about justice in the world. Jesus offers forgiveness for all, peace for our troubled souls, and balm for our broken hearts.
And the Holy Spirit--our Sustainer, the wind that moved over creation, the breath of life, the burning passion that motivates, inspires, and enables us--the Holy Spirit is the gift that transforms and pushes us to continue to be prophetic witnesses in our community. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms our volunteer service into outreach ministry because we have been empowered to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
The Spirit is dangerous, playful, and daring. It calls us to be truth-tellers and witnesses to the gospel. It calls us to a place that says “All are welcome” and no one is denied access. It calls us to a place that doesn’t allow discrimination for any reason. It calls us to a place to be prophetic in the proclamation of the gospel that gives us the courage to confront the injustices in our world.
In my newsletter article this month, I wrote about change and the tension between wonder and terror that it can bring in our lives. I mentioned Marilyn’s ordination, this being the 40th anniversary of women’s ordination in the Episcopal church, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, and the year when the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted in our state. These changes have been simultaneously wonderful and terrifying for people depending on where you stand in the crowd. And that’s the Holy Spirit at work! The Spirit is present in the midst of that tension to encourage those seeking justice, and to help bring others along to experience a “metanoia”--a turning around or change of heart.
So we need the experience of Pentecost. Not just one day of the year, but every day in our Christian lives. It may or may not include dancing, waving of arms, or speaking in tongues. It may or may not include the laying on of hands and altar calls. But when we are open to the Spirit of Pentecost, we are given the strength, courage, and encouragement to proclaim the Gospel in our daily life, to be truth tellers, prophets and teachers acting in ways of love, peace and justice.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.