We have been through the whirlwind, the earthquake, the fire this week. We have suffered through tragedy and outrage. We have expressed grief and anger, solidarity and determination in and with our LGBT community. And now we come to church, seeking peace, seeking healing, seeking to listen as the body of Christ. What might God say to us today after all the noise and turmoil, in the sound of sheer silence?
The prophet Elijah is excluded from the structure of privilege because he speaks the truth. In a culture whose leaders have abandoned all sense of decency, the one who dares to call the people to account is a hunted man, he is alone and afraid. So, what does he do?
Elijah hides. He goes into a cave, a closet, to escape persecution. He wants to die because he is so alone and so afraid. Have you ever been in that cave? That's not where you belong, and it's not where Elijah belongs. He belongs in the midst of his people, speaking God's truth and living out his call to be who God has made him to be. And so God comes looking for him. God comes to him in the dark, speaking his name, calling him to be courageous in spite of his fear. And God gifts Elijah with a demonstration of the mystery of divine power. It is not in the wind, it is not in the earthquake, it is not in the fire or in the hail of bullets. God's power is in the still, small voice of peace. True power doesn't reside in violence, in bombastic rhetoric, in the competition to see who can accumulate the most weapons. We do not change the world by arming or isolating ourselves. We change the world by being present to those who are afraid, by offering love to those who feel unlovable, by standing for connection and relationship in the face of those who would divide us. God did not make us to be alone. God made us for love, and love wins.
The Gerasene demoniac in Luke's Gospel had to stay among the tombs. He wasn't safe in a village or town. He had to keep himself hidden in case his behavior upset someone and caused them to hurt him. He was so afraid of who he was that he behaved in socially unacceptable ways. Perhaps he even hurt people as he fought the demons inside himself. Was it mental illness? Was he so internally conflicted that he endangered himself and others? Whatever the demons that tormented him, he was alone, exiled from his community, condemned to camp out in a graveyard and gaze across the Sea of Galilee at his home village, so near and yet so far. Nobody should ever have to shut themselves away, exile themselves, for fear that the revelation of their true self will bring them harm. And yet, many of our LGBT friends continue to live in exile, in places cut off from home and family, for fear of that revelation.
But Jesus doesn't want anyone to live like that. Jesus asks the man his name, because he wants to enter into relationship with him. And when the man is unable, for fear of the demons, to reveal himself even to Jesus, Jesus expels those demons. He sends them packing in a sensational act that grabs the headlines. How often does good news hit the headlines? How often do we hear about the healing rather than the attack, about the reconciliation rather than the revenge? And then the people ask Jesus to go away. They can't deal with that much power, that much change, so they ask him to leave. And Jesus moves on to heal others, but not before he tells the healed man to share the good news with others. "Go home," he says, "and declare how much God has done for you". And so a deeply traumatized individual is restored not only to health but to his community, because God does not mean for us to be alone.
Last Monday afternoon I heard an interview from Orlando on NPR. The interviewer encountered two young Latino men who were on their way to a gay bar. The interviewer asked one of them, "Aren't you afraid to go to a gay bar tonight?" The answer was, "Yes, I am afraid tonight, but I don't want to be alone in my fear." And so the Orlando LGBT community was gathering, just as the community gathered here, at the Center on Sunday and Monday, and at St. Paul's on Wednesday, to gain strength and comfort from one another. God does not mean for us to be alone.
And we, here, are not alone. We have this strong and loving cathedral community surrounding us, praying for us, visiting us, caring for us. Our pastoral care committee meets regularly to make sure our homebound and infirm parishioners are receiving visits and the sacrament. We pray each day in the chapel for long lists of names for whom prayers have been requested. We send notes and cards to those who have lost a loved one or who cannot come to church. We offer special liturgies in times of crisis and tragedy.
Our Stephen Ministers provide a special and very focused ministry for anyone who is going through a difficult time, whether it be coming out, a transition to retirement or parenthood, a challenging diagnosis, a bereavement, or the day to day stress of caring for someone with a progressive illness. Stephen Ministers are lay people who discern a call to caring ministry. After an application process, interview, and references, they commit to 50 hours of classes. Once they are commissioned they are assigned one or sometimes two care receivers, and they meet regularly, one on one, for totally confidential conversations, about once a week, for up to two years. Meanwhile, every Stephen Minister is also assigned to a small peer group for regular supervision and continuing education. We have trained and commissioned eight Stephen Ministers already and have just begun training another class of six.
I know that the healing power of Christ works through our Stephen Ministers. I see the Holy Spirit working in the ministers as they go through training and as they practice their ministry of compassion. It's remarkable how often the Stephen Minister who is available is just the right match for a potential care receiver whom we have identified. And the care receivers themselves experience the unconditional love of God through the care and dedication of their fellow Christians. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. This is how we change the world.
But even a great ministry can get stuck in assumptions, and we have to be ready to adjust as we grow and learn. For example, the Stephen Ministry organization tells us not to pair a male Stephen Minister with a female care receiver, to avoid inadvertent infatuation, but they don't give room to consider the situation when the Stephen Minister or care receiver is gay. So we are adapting the ministry structure to our local situation. God continues to speak to us in new ways, to enlarge our vision and open our eyes, and we are to be open to that growth, something the church has not traditionally been very good at. The church's history is more a history of exiling, shackling and isolating troubled souls rather than seeking to bring them God's love. But we can change, and we are changing.
No matter how hard things get, we will never have to hide out like Elijah or the Gerasene man, alone and embattled, wanting to die because there is nobody to care. There is always someone to care here.
And the work we do through our pastoral care ministries doesn't stop here at St Paul's. Love that is shared multiplies beyond itself. Jesus sent the healed man out to share the good news of God's love. Those who receive love have more love to offer. We invite others to come experience the welcome of St Paul's. We get out on the 10:00 news and talk about God's healing love, and more people come to check us out. Last Wednesday we had 195 people here for the Prayers for Pulse, and a lot of them were new faces. We shared some love on Wednesday, and it will change the world, incrementally to be sure, but we can and will do our part for the healing of everyone's demons and the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God through the gracious and sacrificial love of the one who brings us together today, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
June 19, 2016 Proper 7
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges