The reading for the morning was Matthew 25:34-36--
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you fro the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
I work at a small café-restaurant in Harvard Square. It’s an old two-story building, paneled inside with mirrors and old maps. We serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything else you could want in between. At this restaurant, the waitresses are not just waitresses, but also hostesses, baristas, bartenders, food-runners and bus-boys. We do a little bit of everything.
Now, a childhood and young adulthood spent enamored of libraries and academia might’ve taught me how to read a poem, but it could not teach me how to smile politely even when I wanted to smash a tray over someone’s head. It did not teach me how to stay calm even when I had fifteen tasks to prioritize and complete in the next three minutes.
In learning these things, I find I’ve learned a lot about the rest of my life, too. I’m a waitress, but I’m also the Kellogg Fellow at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, and a Sunday school teacher over at St. John’s in Charlestown. I’m in the discernment process for the Episcopal priesthood, and I hope to spend the rest of my life working in the church. Waitressing has been an excellent preparation.
A restaurant is fertile ground for learning because it consists of a constant stream of interactions with colleagues and strangers, as well as an ever-changing set of tasks to be accomplished. It’s like setting church life into hyperdrive.
I want to share with you something that first learned in church, but which I have relearned a thousand times since becoming a waitress. And that is: How we look, how we dress, where we went to school, where we work, how much money or influence we have—NONE of these things REALLY matter. What matters is what we have in our hearts, and what comes out of hearts into the ears and eyes of others.
Now, in a restaurant, it’s easy to become a little mercenary. Since we’re paid two dollars an hour and the rest comes from tips, we’re inclined to hope that people will be generous. This—naturally—can lead new waitresses to pin their hopes (and their smiles) to the folks wearing fancy shoes and well-cut suits, hoping for a really good tip.
But soon they learn what everyone in the industry knows—that in a restaurant, the hierarchy is not about how important the world thinks you are. In a restaurant, our favorite customers and colleagues are people who are gracious, and considerate. You get extra points for outrageous generosity, yes, but “gracious” and “considerate” are the highest compliments. For these, we’ll be happy to see you walk in the front door; we might even want to know your name.
My favorite customers are a music teacher named Harvey; a taxi driver named Asim; a retired journalist named Lois, and a grad student whose name I haven’t learned to pronounce yet. These people are gracious even when they are obviously exhausted and grumpy; they think about how their actions affect the waitresses and their fellow customers; they are both respectful and kind, and they are inspirations to me.
Now, being gracious and considerate aren’t just artificial social graces, but in fact in their best forms, they come out of an attentive empathy for every person—even the person who is bringing your glass of water and cleaning up the mess on your table.
There are two particularly Christian ways of talking about this attentive empathy for everyone. One way is to say that we start to see people with God’s eyes. Our mind is limited, but we have been given the mind of Christ; our hearts are narrow, but God’s heart has room for everyone. I am a petty and short-tempered person, but it is Christ in me which allows me to be kind even when my customer has made me angry. When I see a person who was rude and deserves only rudeness in return, Christ’s heart sees a person to be cared for. Christ is, as the hymn says, “My best thought.”
A second way to imagine this attentive empathy is to say that we start to see God in other people. We heard this in our reading today—I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was in prison and you visited me. Most of us don’t take such dramatic steps on a daily basis. So perhaps we might add to that: “When you saw me looking overwhelmed, you held the door open for me. When I was exhausted, you offered me your seat on the train. When I was flustered, you were patient. When I was looking sad, you gave me a real smile and asked me how I was doing.”
These are small things. But in working at the restaurant, I have been confirmed in my certainty that they can be part of God’s work.I’m worried that I’ve made it sound like I float around my restaurant on six inches of air, smiling beatifically at my customers from beneath a halo. If you come to the restaurant, chances are that I will have my face set in a dour mask of concentration, and I might be a little short with you if I’m in a rush. I am not perfect! But here’s something else I’ve been reminded of, working there: No one is perfect. And God is pleased by our desire to please him, and by the small turns and steps we take in his direction.