The Sunday Sermon: One humanity

On Friday morning St Paul’s hosted the monthly breakfast for RISE San Diego, an organization that brings faith communities together for action to empower the city’s residents. I served on the panel as we fielded questions about social challenges to faith, the separation of church and state, and negative stereotypes of Muslims. I shared the stage with the pastor of a non-denominational Apostolic church, a representative of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, and a member of a local refugee support organization and mosque. We held very different perspectives and spoke to some of those differences, but it was a cordial exchange and I think I can say that we were all grateful to be there, to demonstrate unity, and to model a conversation founded on grace and on common goals of justice and empowerment.

The prophet Jeremiah calls down woe on community leaders who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture. God’s call is to gather and build, to bring together those who are far off with those who are near, to create one community from many, as Jesus created a community from the crowds that followed him up and down the shores of Galilee. Our own catechism echoes this call in the mission of the church: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, a mission of reconciliation.

This is a counter-cultural mission. Look at all the ways our society promotes division. The politicians seek to differentiate themselves from each other in dramatic and over-simplified ways, and the media eagerly accentuate the differences, so that we end up with caricatures of what it means to be a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. Moderation, nuance, shades of gray are out: stark lines of black and white are in.

We hear “Muslim” and we are conditioned to think “terrorist”. We hear “police brutality” and we apply it across the board without considering the stresses of the job. Others hear “Christian” and assume bigot, narrow-minded, judgmental. Or they hear “immigrant” and think illegal, unskilled, dishonest. As a Christian immigrant I particularly resent those last two generalizations.

We are bombarded by fear-inducing images and stories, and this fear scatters us as the sheep are scattered by the wolf. Not only does the fear drive us apart, it makes us aggressive and reactive, so that we behave in ways that make God weep, denying full dignity to one another, refusing relationship, turning away from those we should be embracing.

We are not sheep. We are made in the image of the divine, and we are God’s people, Christ’s flock. Jesus came so that we might be one with him and with God. Jesus broke down the barriers between human beings to make reconciliation possible for all people, so that, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, we might all have access in one Spirit to the Father, so that we might be built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Jesus the good shepherd stands between us and the enemy, which is not the person of the other but rather is our own fear.

And, not being sheep, we have work to do. We have reconciliation to accomplish, community to build, hungry and needy people to feed and care for.

Did you notice that the Gospel passage skips over a large chunk of verses? That’s where Mark tells the story of the feeding of the multitude. We will hear John’s version of that story next week. Evidently the scholars who put the lectionary together wanted to give that miracle its own day, rather than sharing the limelight with imagery of sheep and shepherds. Our foundational feeding ministry, our Eucharistic fellowship, is the central act of our faith. We come together to feed and to be fed and in so doing we form an icon of reconciliation; but we are far from a perfect icon and so we must work at it. In April I visited the church on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where the church has traditonally located the miracle of the feeding. It’s called the Church of the Multiplication, at Tabhgha. You may have heard that last month someone set fire to the church, and the arsonists sprayed Hebrew graffiti on the walls. How tragically ironic, that the site of the central Christian symbol of unity was attacked by those who claim to represent the faith Jesus himself practiced.

How shall we work to overcome such division with reconciliation? We care for those within our community and outside it. We make ourselves available wherever the marginalized and excluded gather – by participating in the Pride festival, by visiting our neighbors in the park, by hosting pastoral services like funerals and Quinceaneras, by offering showers to those who live outside. We work on partnerships with other faith communities to benefit the whole city.
When it comes to caring for those within, we enjoy fellowship as we did yesterday at Pride; we send cards to our elders who cannot come to church; we visit those in hospital and call people we haven’t seen in a while. We celebrate milestones like birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. Our vision for Mission, which we will launch at the end of this year, calls for more pastoral care offerings such as support groups and ways to communicate needs within the congregation; I hope you will prayerfully consider whether you might be called to help launch one of these ministries.

We are preparing to launch a significant ministry of caring, which I believe will add to our general mission of reconciliation. It’s called Stephen Ministry, after the first Christian deacon. Carefully screened lay volunteers with gifts for listening and companionship undergo 50 hours of training over several months, including 18 lessons on such topics as assertiveness, telephone care, confidentiality, and when to refer to a mental health professional. All is wrapped in Scripture and prayer. At the end of the training Stephen Ministers are commissioned, and then each is assigned to a care receiver: someone going through a difficult time who could use a companion on the way. You might be recently bereaved or laid off; you might be dealing with chronic pain or a sick spouse; you might be having a hard time adjusting to retirement or new parenthood. A Stephen Minister will walk with you for a while, listening, praying, and carefully holding the precious gift of your struggle. Confidentiality is strict, and Stephen Ministers attend regular small-group supervision with specially trained leaders. This ministry is not a substitute for professional care, and any mental health professional in the picture is consulted before a care receiver proceeds with a Stephen Minister.

I have worked with Stephen Ministers for 17 years, and I have seen the difference the program makes: to the care receivers for obvious reasons, to the Stephen Ministers for the tremendous spiritual growth they experience, and to the whole congregation, knowing that this ministry is offered with such care. Our forum this morning focuses on Stephen Ministry and I hope you will attend or watch the video to learn more. We will commission our first class of Stephen Ministers on August 16.

This week the Cathedral was recognized by community leaders as an institution that has worked for decades to bring those outside in, to uphold the dignity of those who have been marginalized, to shine the light of God’s love for those who have been shut out from faith communities. As we lit up the cathedral on Tuesday we celebrated the freedom to pursue reconciliation for all people and to light the way to reconciliation with symbolic acts such as the exterior rainbow lighting and practical efforts such as the Showers of Blessings program. On Friday we broke bread with people of various faiths and diverse theology. Yesterday we showed our solidarity with the LGBT community by marching in the Pride parade, offering hospitality, and staffing a booth in the festival which continues today.

We have many other opportunities, on many levels, to work on God’s project of reconciliation. We can have conversations with people who are different from us. We can support a medical clinic in Haiti. We can visit the children at Dorcas House Vida Joven and let them know that a community cares about them. We can stretch out the hand of friendship to someone we have fallen out with. We can call on our elected officials to reform immigration policy and work for peace in Africa and the Middle East. We can contact a family member who has been out of touch.

The dream of God is for all people to be at peace with one another and with their creator. This is the vision the 23rd psalm paints. This is the fold to which the good shepherd is leading us. As we continue to discern God’s will for St. Paul’s, I invite you to enter into your own discernment. Where in your life is reconciliation needed? What steps will you take toward that vision, today and in the days to come?

July 19, 2015 
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

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