Lesslie Keller gave this homily at the Episcopal Community Services Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral
Holy God of compassion, healing and hope, be with us in this place, Amen.
Happy Epiphany! Episcopal Community Services is so honored to have been featured during this entire feast day at the Cathedral and I want to thank everyone who has helped to make this such a wonderful day especially Allisyn Thomas, Christine Spaulding, Richard Lief, David Mosley, Bishop Mathes, Martin Green, Bob Oslie and many others.
In tonight’s readings we find the familiar and comforting verses from Matthew 12, which show us the heart of God. Jesus has just broken the Sabbath and angered the Pharisees and then he humbly withdrew to heal people. With tenderness and love he lifted up the meek and strengthened the weak. And who doesn’t love the promise that “he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick?” It is this healing ministry that we celebrate tonight from an incarnate God who considers us the sheep of his own pasture.
We also celebrate the feast of the Epiphany . . . the story of a journey that led to enlightenment. Have you ever taken a journey that led to an unexpected place, ending with insight or transformation – an epiphany? I believe they happen all around us every day. Tonight I would like to take you on a few modern-day journeys which also led to transformation – journeys that ECS has been privileged to be a part of.
The first journey was a very long one in terms of distance as well as personal insight. It was made by a young immigrant named Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie came to this country to escape persecution in his African nation. Unfortunately one day last July he had his first taste of alcohol. It didn’t really agree with him and he found himself arrested and mandated to attend ECS’s ACCORD program. We have about 2,500 people going through that program every month. They attend classes, go to group sessions and have one-on-one counseling. Jean-Marie initially thought that his arrest was motivated by discrimination, that he had been arrested because of the color of his skin, and he was a reluctant participant in the program. On the last day of his program he left a letter on the desk of the program manager which said, in part, “I feel better and I know the mistake I made and I know that I cannot drink and drive. In my country it is not illegal to drink and drive. But it is a danger for the population and drivers kill many people. I cannot return to the Congo to help my country because I would be killed.” He goes on to say that he is thankful for ECS because it changed his life. A long journey with a transformational event.
Because a bruised reed he will not break.
Annie had a different kind of journey. Her mental illness led her to become one of the over 3,600 unsheltered homeless in the city of San Diego. Did you know that California has 21 percent of the nation’s homeless according to recent national statistics? New York has the second most at 10 percent and no other state has double digits. In San Diego, approximately one person in 220 is homeless. But back to Annie. She sought refuge in emergency shelters and tried to live on the $234 per month she received from General Relief. Annie knew how to stretch her $234 farther than you would think possible. Have you ever baked a pie in a crock pot? Eventually she became part of ECS’ homeless outreach program, Friend-to-Friend, a street-based outreach program to the mentally ill and chronically homeless. According to the most recent Point in Time Count, homelessness in San Diego County is up 24 percent since 2009 and there are almost 10,000 homeless people in the County. Over 6,000 are here in the city. Of that number, it is estimated that about 47 percent are chronically homeless and 89 percent suffer from mental illness. This is the specific population that ECS serves.
Eventually Annie moved into our Downtown Safe Haven, a transitional housing program for mentally ill homeless adults. And we began working with Annie to try to get her income supplemented with Social Security Disability income so she could afford housing. The application process is lengthy and complicated and I brought a little show and tell. Those of you nearer the back may not be able to see that this application I am holding up is almost 100 pages long. Fortunately Friend-to-Friend has a full-time SSI advocate to help with that. It took a year, but Annie was finally awarded the income which would allow her to become housed. On November 30, 2012 Annie picked up the keys to her new apartment. Guess what she asked for as a housewarming gift? A crock pot.
Her smoldering wick has been strengthened and blown into a fire.
And then there was the difficult journey that little Lilly had to make. She was one of our Head Start children (we have 2,136 low-income children in this program and we see them in 24 locations) and she was having a very difficult time. She was a biter – exhibiting very oppositional and defiant behavior. It was hard to keep her under control and a big distraction in the classroom. She was referred to our mental health program for young children called Para Las Familias. We work with children who have suffered trauma and are experiencing behavioral and developmental problems. Lilly had been exposed to domestic violence and drug use in the home. She had watched her father get arrested and deported. Her mother was having great difficulty coping with the situation. Lilly was learning that the only way she could get attention was to misbehave. Her mother was a big part of the treatment plan and over the next year our therapists worked with this family in the home and in the therapist’s office to increase good interaction and emotional understanding. As she approached six, Lilly’s behavior was that of a normal little girl. And she and her mother have begun a new journey, one that is taking them to a place of love and support.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey which led me to ECS. It took me 1,700 miles away from my family to an unfamiliar part of the country. But after touring the ECS programs and seeing the life-changing work that was happening, it became a journey that was just too compelling to refuse. A journey which has led to my own insight and transformation.
A lot of people don’t like to travel; they’d rather stay put. There is a pull to accept the status that you already know and not risk something different. Travel often does include fatigue and discomfort and encountering the unexpected. And that is true whether your journey is physical or behavioral or emotional.
But our strength is that we are guided in our journeys by the heart of God who even on the Sabbath lent his healing grace to the flickering wicks and bruised reeds he found in his community. ECS has been on a long journey – it has lasted for 85 years and taken us many places. Many of you have made that journey easier for us and for the many thousands of people we have served. Through the healing grace of God and your help we will continue this work.
Feeling trapped is scary. As the Psalmist’s words remind us, however, God comes to those who are stuck. This was the case in the Old Testament with exiled Israel—caught in a geopolitical and geographical conundrum, with its oppressors on one side and the daunting Red Sea on the other. Nowhere to go but “up,” so […]
Brian Petersen grew up in San Diego County and was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. He served in the Marine Corps and later became involved in youth ministry and music ministry while attending Azusa Pacific University. After graduating from APU, Brian moved to the Pacific Northwest and attended seminary at Golden […]
Peter arrived from the Diocese of Iowa after retiring in January 2016. Following graduation from Nashotah House seminary in 1984, he served parishes in Davenport, Trinity Cathedral; Durant, Iowa; and Clinton, Iowa as well as ELCA Lutheran congregations in Princeton Iowa, and several interim settings in the “Quad-Cities” Iowa/Illinois region with the ELCA. Having been […]