Loneliness and Real Healing

The past two Sundays our priest Associate, and our seminarian have begun their sermons by making fun Of me for assigning them to preach. The Pentecost, fire from on high. The Trinity, a difficult doctrine. Well, there’s some truth to their claims. It’s good to be rector. I did very much enjoy having some time away, some time with our partners in El Salvador and then some time for vacation. We all need a little time away, and I’m grateful to both Mary Haggerty and Marc for tackling difficult texts in my absence. It’s good to share the wealth of weirdness in the Bible.

Today’s lessons give us two very different images of people who are alone. Elijah the Tishbite, on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, hides in a cave on Mt. Horeb. A man from the town of the Gerasenes inhabits the tombs outside the village because his seizures make him unfit to live with the other villagers. Both men have been driven out from society. Both men are alone, terribly alone.

We know a thing or two about terrible loneliness, social scientists tell us, even though we are more connected than ever. Smartphones in our pocket constantly tell us when someone has “liked” our Facebook post. Our notifications tell us who is emailing, the score in the game, when the deadline is coming, what the president has tweeted. Are we richer for the connection?

We have gone from a society where a precious few were constantly “on call,” doctors, policemen, firefighters, to a world of smart phone owners who are never free from work. A few years ago my younger sister taught me how to switch the settings on my phone, so that I have to actively check my email. In her words, “I’d rather check my email then have my email check me.” Yet even with all this connectivity, sociologists tell us, the feelings of loneliness are reaching epidemic levels. Professor Sherry Turkle from MIT describes our world as “alone together.” Our constant connection only makes room for shallow relationship. We never connect at the roots, at the depths, and we are left feeling lonely even with 1000 friends on social media.

In our new strange loneliness, what could Elijah the Tishbite and the possessed man from Geras possibly teach us? Can these strange texts be useful in our own day? (If I didn’t think so, I probably would not have come back from vacation).

Let’s begin with the strange creature who is left among the tombs.

The haunted figure in Luke’s Gospel is particularly compelling. The text tells us he has been naked for awhile, having torn off his clothes in a fit. He breaks through the chains that his fellow citizens used to restrain him, and rushes into the wilderness. He terrifies the other villagers, and yet, and yet, Jesus sees through the terror. Jesus knows this person, knows him deeply. Jesus knows this man better than his neighbors know him. Jesus knows him better than the possessed man knows himself.

And so we can understand his request at the end of the story, once he has been clothed and is in his right mind. The man who has been healed wants to stay with the healer. He wants to follow Jesus, to stay nearby the person who saw him when no one else could, the person who helped him return to himself. We can understand that desire.

But Jesus isn’t done healing. Yes, the demons have been cast out, but the healing isn’t done. The healing isn’t just about him. The Gerasenes need healing too the village needs to receive their sibling, to reconcile. “Return home and tell the story of what God has done” Jesus tells him. The healing isn’t done until the relationships have been restored, and deepened. The healing isn’t done until the community is whole, until the one who has been cast out is seen, and known, and has an equitable place in his society. Healing is more than personal, healing is societal, it’s relational. Jesus’ healing gives us back to one another.

We are so torn apart today. We are so torn apart that we don’t even know where to begin. Our smartphones and televisions constantly feed us a diet of outrage, the latest quotes from the hated other. We unfollow and silence and avoid the folks with whom we disagree, and we continue to build silos.

Now, the usual place for me to go next rhetorically would be to talk about “both sides.” Conservatives and Liberals, we both build silos. Both sides isolate themselves. We don’t know where to start because Republicans and Democrats don’t know how to come together. Well, I’m not preaching that sermon today. The brokenness is more complex. The “both sides are wrong” feels good, feels balanced, but I’m not sure the balance really works that way. Instead I want to get local, as dangerously local as Jezebel and Ahab got with Elijah.

The Tishbite prophet, the famous Elijah, is also alone this morning. Facing death threats from the rulers, from the police state, Elijah runs scared and finds himself alone, on God’s mountain. Elijah dared to question the injustices of his city government. And so he is in the desert, the wilderness, because the city wasn’t safe for him anymore.

I thought about Elijah, and the safety of our city this week, as I heard the news about next Sunday’s Pride March. If you have not heard, the Pride March encountered controversy, not because Religious groups are planning to protest. It wasn’t that usual story.

Last week, the Pride organization, at the request of city officials and certain members of the LGBTQ+ community, reversed their original decision about police participation in the event. Armed police officers will be allowed to march in their uniforms, alongside the handful of churches like ours who choose to march, alongside the non-profits and advocacy organizations, alongside the Home Depot and all the other corporate sponsors. I heard from a number of friends who were glad that the officers were “being allowed to march.” “We need to stand together” they said. People are coming together, it seemed like a good decision.

Before the decision, I had heard a great deal of anger about the Pride board’s initial decision. On Twitter, local friends, gay and straight, mostly white men but some women, were outraged. How could Pride exclude the police? Friends on Facebook, the local news, even the mayor of St. Louis characterized the situation as one of exclusion. The police shouldn’t be discriminated against. And folks brought the rhetorical fire.

Fire is dangerous, and fire is attractive. Elijah knew. The prophet found himself in the wilderness, in a cave, and God said “Go out and stand at the mountain. The Lord is going to pass by.” Then Elijah witnesses a wind so powerful that rocks were breaking, Elijah looks for God in that powerful wind. But God wasn’t in the wind. An earthquake came, surely only God could shake the very ground, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. Then the fire raged, this must be God Elijah though. But God wasn’t in the fire. Finally comes a sound, Thin. Quiet. God was there, all along, a still, small voice.

Elijah learned, we have to be careful with fire. We have a habit of turning all of our political discourse up to eleven, past the max. Every injustice is extreme, every decision is a calamity. Our local community suffers from our fire: “The police are being excluded. How will our city heal?” The language chosen these past days was often extreme. Our news alerts have us always ready to be outraged.

In the midst of the controversy, I was impressed by the leadership of Sayer Johnson. Sayer Johnson is a co-founder and serves as the Executive Director of the Missouri Trans Umbrella group. Sayer presented at Theology on Tap earlier this month. If you didn’t hear it, do yourself a favor and listen online. We are hoping Sayer will be working more with Holy Communion in the coming year as we seek to deepen our ties with the trans community. In an interview with NPR last week Sayer’s words didn’t break rocks or shake the ground.

Sayer talked about the anger and the betrayal felt by the trans community but he talked gently. He said, “We have a strange relationship at best and a hurtful relationship at wors[t] with police.” Sayer didn’t bring the fire. He talked about a missed opportunity.

Sayer could have talked about how 50 years ago in New York, the first Pride was a riot against police violence, led by trans folk. Sayer could have cited recent abuses of the trans community by the police. Sayer could have said, “if the police are there, MTUG can’t be.” But Sayer didn’t choose the fire.

In Sayer’s mind, it was simpler. This wasn’t about intentionally excluding anyone. This was about t-shirts. Literally about t-shirts.

Pride didn’t say that police officers weren’t allowed to march. The Pride board didn’t bar the LGBTQ+ police organization or the police department from sponsoring a contingent in the march. They simply said that officers walking in the march should not walk with their guns, should not march in uniform. Officers were invited to march, unarmed, in Police Department t-shirts. That invitation to march in t-shirts was met fire and brimstone, characterized as a decisions that police officers were not being allowed to participate.

Sayer said the fight to allowed uniformed armed police was an “opportunity wasted…It would have been such a gracious gift for the St. Louis Police Department to say, ‘We hear you and we see you, and you’re right, we have hurt you, and this year we’re going to step back and we’re going to center you…That didn’t mean not marching, just marching without their guns and uniforms.”

In this intense local controversy, as we get ready for the March: What would healing look like? Where could God act? I have a sense we don’t need more fire. God would be small. Healing would start quietly. Perhaps some of the officers in the police contingent could choose to march without their guns, to march without their uniforms. Maybe a few officers could choose to wear their badge, their jaunty police caps, and wear them with an MTUG t-shirt. Can you imagine police officers making that choice? Can you imagine what those officers would be saying to the Trans community if they showed up in a trans t-shirt? It could be a new starting place. And for those with power, for those entrusted with safeguarding the community, it would mean choosing to listen to those who do not feel safe, who are often the most isolated.

As I prayed through the news of our local Pride March these past weeks, as I held the stories alongside the stories of scripture, I became more and more convinced: God’s healing presence won’t come through more fire, more earthquakes. God’s healing will be slow, and patient, and frustrating work. There will be backwards steps. And our strange scripture tells us this has always been the case.

In today’s lessons we encounter two strange stories of unchosen loneliness, two Biblical characters who are cast out. And yet, both are met by God. God surprises them, surprises us.

Healing loneliness is difficult. Overcoming exclusion and injustice isn’t easy, doesn’t happen fast. Really celebrating diversity isn’t just about pretty pictures of people coming together. Real justice takes more than our usual “two sides” arguments. We have to consider historic uses and abuses of power. Holy relationships ask us to listen to the still small voices, and to choose sometimes to speak in small ways. Real healing asks us to know and name those who have been cast out.

God invites us to see one another, to choose one another, and to listen. Jesus wants us to know, wants us to help one another know, we are not alone.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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