by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Jesus had compassion for the crowds, verse 36 reads.
Out of Matthew’s account of Jesus summoning the disciples and giving them authority to heal and cleanse and sending them to cure the sick and raise the dead, the word compassion jumps out at me. When we practice compassion, we see the world from the perspective of someone else. We at least momentarily step into the head and heart space of another person. If the person is sick, we imagine ourselves in the hospital, poked by nurses and doctors who are working to heal us, releasing control over who comes in and out of our room, enduring a roommate with noisy relatives or constant TV-watching, feeling lousy all the long, long days that we are there. If the person is stranded by the side of the road due to an accident or car trouble, we imagine ourselves in the hot sun, grease on our fingers from trying to fix the car, worried about getting hit by passing cars and about being late for work or to pick up a child from school, anxiously waiting for help to arrive, thinking about the cost of repairs. If the person just gave birth to a baby, we imagine ourselves at home with a newborn who needs nearly constant attention, not being able to shower until another adult comes to relieve us, our arms tired from holding the newborn, our body sore from the delivery and from breastfeeding, great joy in the life of this newborn. In seeing the world from the perspective of another, we are then moved to help or maybe just listen. And practicing compassion means that the help we give or even the way we listen will be thoughtful. Our help will likely actually help instead of just being a token.
Compassion jumps out at me today because compassion is the reason Jesus sends out the disciples. He alone cannot help every person in the crowd. He alone cannot heal every person, raise every person, cleanse every person, proclaim the good news to every person. And of course, Jesus knows the limited nature of his time on Earth. He can’t do it all—not in the present moment and certainly not after his ascension. So he summons the disciples, empowers them, and sends them out to do ministry.
Two thousand years later, the Holy Spirit has summoned us here to receive instruction. And the Holy Spirit is poured out on us to empower us for ministry. And the Holy Spirit sends us out to do the very things Jesus himself did. And that ministry starts with compassion, starts with seeing the world from the perspective of another, feeling the pain of another, listening to the despair of another and allowing it to pierce our own heart, and also rejoicing with another on good days and at good times, whether or not the cause for celebration would be a cause for celebration for us. Compassion.
Three years ago when we deliberated as a community about whether or not to sell our property to Sencorp, I truly did not know if God was calling us to sell. Three years later, I am glad we didn’t sell, very, very glad. Now, we have before us the opportunity not to sell our property but to enter into a long-term ground lease with True North. True North wants to build a project they have named The Urban Sanctuary, a project consisting of three parts. First, housing for families, mostly single women with children, exiting homelessness through a partnership with the non-profit Homeward Bound. Second, housing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young adults ages 16 to 24 who for whatever reason find themselves without housing, housing that would be managed by the non-profit One N Ten. Third, an urban farm. The proposed land use includes the lot on which our parsonage and playground currently sit as well as the lot to the south of it. Our parking lot would remain ours, and the new building would include a unit for our caretaker. For actual construction of the project, True North has negotiated their lawyer, their architect, their contractor all to do the work at cost or pro bono as the case may be. The project would be privately funded by the two non-profit partners, and not a single shovel would go into the ground prior to raising every cent for the project. In my first meeting with True North, Jonathan Vento, the owner of the company, said: “We are concerned about the gentrification of this neighborhood.” I’ve talked with a lot of developers, and he is the only one who has ever said that to me. As cynical as I have become about developers, I believe Jonathan and his colleagues Ryan and Wayne when they talk about wanting to do good in this neighborhood. They are engaged in other money-making projects, but The Urban Sanctuary is a project of the heart, their way of showing compassion to people who find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances. And we could be a part of it.
Next Sunday, June 25 at 11:30, I encourage all members of the congregation to participate in the voting meeting in Hope Hall. We will vote on whether or not to allow the council to negotiate with True North in moving forward with The Urban Sanctuary project. At this moment in time, we do not know all the answers to our questions—questions about what exactly the building will look like or how exactly the ground lease will be worded. But if we decide to move forward—and I hope we do, we will continue to negotiate with True North about the details of the plans and ground lease and will be accompanied by an attorney who will ensure that we are making wise legal decisions. Inevitably, the project will not turn out exactly as we think it will today, but the mission of the project will remain regardless of other details. And of course, there is the possibility that some part of the project will fail. Maybe the non-profits won’t be able to raise the money, or maybe we won’t be able to reach a consensus on our ground lease. Maybe the City of Phoenix won’t allow for a particular kind of permit. In any of those cases, the project will simply be off.
Three years ago, we prayed continuously for God to show us the way. I feel badly that, though I have been ruminating and praying about this project personally for many months, I have not led us as a community in this same practice. Curiously, though, probably three or maybe four years ago, the then Children, Youth, & Family ministry team, which after merging with Spiritual Growth, has become the Faith Formation team, wrote a mission statement. Through a process of prayer and conversation, the team discerned that they were called to support families. It may have been in the back of their heads that they really just wanted more children and youth in the congregation, and certainly, that would be wonderful. However, God opened a door for us to support foster families in our partnership with Lutheran Social Services, and I do believe that God is now opening the door for us to support families experiencing homelessness as well as teenagers and young adults who need encouragement and a place to land.
I imagine myself in the shoes of someone who would benefit from this housing, not knowing where to go or what to do after an eviction, working but not having a place to shower or wash clothes, having to get kids to school with no stable place to sleep let alone make breakfast and help with homework. I imagine myself in the shoes of a teenager who has been kicked out of their home for being gay, called names by the very people who are supposed to love and care for me, as a teenager having no life experience that really prepares me for the difficulties ahead.
Today, Jesus sends out the disciples because he has compassion for the crowds, and Jesus sends out the disciples to do the very things Jesus was doing. We too are sent—to show compassion, to proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers. It is an overwhelming job, but once in a while, an opportunity to show compassion lands in our laps. And still, it is an overwhelming task—because we have to trust that what Jesus says is true, that we are equipped to do the things he asks of us, that the Holy Spirit at work in us is sufficient. But it is.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we give you thanks for the many gifts we have received, including the land on which we gather to worship and serve you and our community. As we discern your call to The Urban Sanctuary project, we pray that you would make so very clear what you would have us do. Speak to us… Lead us… Help us understand the best ways to be good stewards of your gifts.