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.
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.