The Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble leads worship ahead of Hunger and Homelessness Sunday
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Ahead of Hunger and Homelessness Sunday being observed on Nov. 12, the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) heard a sermon Wednesday by one of the church’s most committed and innovative practitioners of the Matthew 25 movement, the Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble.
Worthen Gamble is Pacific Presbytery’s Mission Catalyst. Last year, the presbytery was central in garnering the political support needed to pass Senate Bill 679, statewide legislation that establishes a Los Angeles County agency dedicated exclusively to building affordable housing and creating funding mechanisms to make that happen. Churches in the Matthew 25 presbytery were among the bill’s strongest supporters.
As part of her recorded appearance during Wednesday’s online worship service, Worthen Gamble touched on some of the other Matthew 25 work in which the presbytery, which also includes Hawaii, is engaging, including immigration justice and ministry following the deadly fires on Maui. The presbytery is also working on an overture on reparations for consideration during the 226th General Assembly (2024).
“I could spend hours with you telling you so much more, but that’s not what I’m going to do today,” Worthen Gamble said. “I want to keep it simple and talk about loving Jesus, knowing Jesus, following Jesus and seeing Jesus.”
“For me, it’s really about centering ourselves in the heart of Jesus,” she said. “It’s about seeing Jesus and loving Jesus in [what Mother Teresa called] ‘his most distressing disguise,’” or people in need. Worthen Gamble shared her own story from her seminary internship during the mid-1990s.
Her husband, also a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary, garnered an internship at a wealthy church in the Bay Area. Worthen Gamble’s year-long internship assignment was at Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento ministry that describes itself as “an oasis for adults and children experiencing homelessness.”
“My husband got a glamor ministry gig,” she said, “and I got skid road. There were days when I resented that, but I could not be more grateful.”
Worthen Gamble was asked to be a minister of presence for those experiencing homelessness who were there to eat one of the 2,000 meals Loves & Fishes served up daily. “I counseled, prayed and walked along with folks and was the staff monitor to make sure no one butted in line. I was the staff cop,” she said. “I had the dual role of praying with people and breaking up fights. I assure you there was never a dull day.”
“It was a Petri dish for pastoral ministry,” she explained. “Everything I know about being a pastor I learned there on skid road. It changed my life forever.”
Loves & Fishes was founded by the Catholic Worker Movement. The training team asked Worthen Gamble to live out her ministry there with Matthew 25:40 in mind. “Cultivate the spiritual practice of seeing Jesus in every homeless guest you meet,” she was told. “Practice seeing the Christ in them through the Christ in you.”
“I thought, ‘How in the world do I do that?’” Worthen Gamble said.
She thought of Mother Teresa and how she saw in the people she served Jesus “in his most distressing disguise.” That became Worthen Gamble’s daily prayer.
“I didn’t know any other way to live out that call I had been given,” she said. “Seeing Jesus challenged me to see the full humanity of the people I served, and that began to change me. It allowed me to be drawn to the names, stories, tragedies and trauma of the people on the streets. It taught a privileged white girl like me I was no better than anyone else. When I learned their stories,” she said, “I got humble very quickly.”
“Seeing Jesus in his most distressing disguise — I didn’t know that would heal me, too,” Worthen Gamble said. Jesus’ call later led her boldly into city hall and the State Capitol in Sacramento. “How we treat the least of these is a moral issue, a spiritual issue,” she said. “Matthew 25 got into me.”
One day, Worthen Gamble was talking to a friend who’s Jewish. The woman was curious to learn more about the Matthew 25 movement and what Jesus had to say in the Judgment of the Nations. After Worthen Gamble told her, the woman was silent for a moment, and then her eyes grew wide. “Jesus said that? That is amazing!” she told Worthen Gamble. “Why don’t I see the Christian church living that out? What a burden you have as Christians to follow that teaching!”
“I have spent a lot of time outside the walls of the church with people of other faiths and no faith,” Worthen Gamble said. “I believe there is a deep spiritual hunger for Jesus’ teachings.” It’s the responsibility of Jesus’ followers “to bear witness to and live out Jesus’ radical teachings. There is a hunger for authentic transformative spirituality and spiritual practices that lead us deeper into love for one another and for God — and folks, that is what Jesus is all about.”
“We don’t need people believing in Jesus,” she said. “We need people seeing Jesus for who he really is — God enfleshed in deep solidarity with human suffering.”
She suggested speaking “to the Christ in others through the Christ in you,” knowing he will “show up most in the people and spaces the world devalues and rejects,” she said. “The signs we are walking in Jesus’ way will be eminently practical. People will be fed, visited, clothed, housed, taken care of, tended to, loved and protected. May Matthew 25 get into us. Alleluia!”
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