The following sermon was offered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, May 19, 2019.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
This morning I want to read a passage to you
from the book City of God, written by Sara Miles.
Sara is a lay woman who had a conversion
experience when she received communion
at an Episcopal church.
As she returned to her seat,
the Spirit spoke to her very clearly:
“Feed my people.”
Sara has founded a dozen or more
food ministries in Northern California.
She writes: “While God is remarkably
flexible about showing up anywhere –
in the desert, in a manger, in a burning bush,
or in a prison cell – the eyes of my own faith
see the most on urban streets.
For me, paradise is a garden,
but heaven is a city.
Though prophets tend to describe the
heavenly city with fantasy-Barbie imagery
that leans heavily on golden robes,
sparkling fountains, and precious stones,
the actual urban place I’ve lived in for
more than twenty years –
the Mission District of San Francisco –
has changed my view of heaven.
I begin to see how the new Jerusalem
might look less like a pious Disneyland
and more like – well, like the “New Jerusalem” bodega
run by Syrian Christians that I trudge past
on my way to work, its dingy pink front
plastered over with Miller beer signs,
its enthusiastic, unshaven owner waving
and smiling each new day as he opens the door
to welcome in a straggling, polyglot parade of
school kids, nurses, winos and day laborers.
I begin to see that city-ness,
not necessarily prettiness,
might be a characteristic sign of heaven.
The city of God is a place so mixed,
so layered, and apparently impure
that it proclaims a love vaster than
humans can come up with on their own.
A place as surprising and generous as the sheet
of formerly unclean food in the Book of Acts
that turns Peter from heaven’s gatekeeper
into its dazzled servant.
This is not unlike our ministry here in the
midst of community, in a neighborhood
that is becoming increasingly diverse.
It speaks to the divine wisdom of welcoming
everyone, regardless of social status,
race, intellectual ability or creed.
In God’s economy there is room for
all of creation, there is room for all of
his created beings.
`What God has made clean,
you must not call profane.’
What God has created,
you must not call godless.
With God’s grace we make room in
our hearts and our lives for whatever
and whomever he sends our way.
When the busy-ness of our “messy Jesus business”
begins to take over, we must be prepared to remind
one another and call one another to that place
of “wild inefficiency,” making room for the Spirit
to do her work of healing and grace.
We preach the gospel through love.
Last week we explored the “wildly inefficient”
model of compassion at work in L’arche
communities around the world,
communal living partnerships that
bring together the intellectually disabled with
those longing to find connection and community.
We find our true and best selves in the other.
We encounter the living Christ in the
face of our neighbors.
Here at St. Mary’s it is easy to
get caught up in the urgency of
all the work that needs to be done.
Grounds and gardens need
tending and care.
Repairs must be done.
Bills must be paid.
Food must be picked up from
Pantry shelves must be stocked
Volunteers are trained and
bring leadership to a perpetual cycle
of food-in and food-out.
Those coming for groceries must be greeted,
signed in and directed.
This week one of our volunteers
leaned into that model of
“wildly inefficient compassion.”
She was the only volunteer available for
handling reception and check-in
for pantry friends coming for food.
It was the kind of morning where I’d be
tempted to move them through quickly,
signed up, signed in, pertinent data recorded.
The word “Next!” could easily replace a
genuine welcome, an “inefficient” but much
In the midst of busy-ness, this volunteer
sensed a need for pastoral care.
She made space for tending a hurting child of God.
Our volunteer learned that this
first-time pantry visitor was experiencing
tremendous grief from the recent loss not only
of her husband but also of a grandchild,
who died at birth.
These losses came within weeks of each other.
As the matriarch of her family, our new friend
felt great pressure to exhibit strength,
to be the “rock” for her family in the midst
of loss and tragedy.
If that weren’t enough, she became the victim of
a landlord scam when she sought to downsize
her home, adjusting to life without her husband.
Our front desk volunteer came to me.
“I think I have one who would benefit
from a few moments of your time.”
It was a humbling privilege to listen
to her pour her heart out as she shared
her journey if the past several weeks.
“I could use a hug,” she said as
we prepared to pray.
Her tears wet my sleeve and reminded me
for some time after her departure of
what a holy gift she brought.
I thanked her for coming, for reminding
me of what is most important.
For being willing to share her pain
with someone she had only just met.
Right now our new friend she is staying
at a local shelter where I used to spend
several hours each week,
being available to listen to clients or staff.
The busy-ness and legitimate demands of
our growing ministry have gotten in the way
of that space.
Still, I sense the Spirit at work and know
that a long-held dream of trained spiritual
companions will be realized.
Our vision of St. Mary’s includes
providing training and support to those
called to engage in such ministry,
not just on our campus but in our streets and
in our shelters.
I feel energized — and hope that you do too –
to do the work of creating the infrastructure and
space to allow this to come into being.
This summer we will welcome 2 seminarians
who will gain hands-on experience in this
ministry of compassionate presence.
In addition, we are in conversation with the diocese
to offer 4-day residential training experiences
for deacons-in-training and lay persons who
may sense a call to this form of ministry.
There is no substitute for sticking
your toe in the water, to bring clarity
to a sense of calling.
Frankly I don’t know how else to do it.
As our friend Barbara Brown Taylor writes
in her book Finding an Altar in the World:
“My life depends on becoming
more fully human, trusting that there is
no way to God apart from real life
in the real world.”
Whether your work is here in the
food ministry or in other places
along the highways and by-ways,
know that God dwells with you.
You are his hands and feet,
creating a new Jerusalem —
a city of God marked by
acts of love.