Sermon by the Rev. Terry Elsberry on Sunday, October 11, 2020.
I’m a student at Virginia Seminary, five miles from the Pentagon. It’s the first day of my CPE, and I’m scared.
What’s CPE? Clinical Pastoral Education. All Episcopal seminarians need to take a summer of CPE following their freshman year. What CPE means is you spend a summer in a health care facility. Mostly you observe. You also get to call on patients and, hopefully, hone your pastoral skills for calling on people in hospitals.
Why scared? Because I’ve chosen for my hospital St. Elizabeth’s Federal Mental Hospital in Washington, DC. It’s for high need, some high risk, some even dangerously psychologically impaired mental patients. John Hinckley, the man who shot President Reagan is at St. Elizabeth’s. I could not feel more inadequate
I’ve met with my supervisor. He’s told me what to do this first morning. Which is spend the morning in what he called The Day Room. “What should I do?” I ask.” “Observe,” he says. “Today all you have to do is observe.”
Then he hands me two unusually large keys on a chain. He says, “Unlock the first door. Then lock it behind you.” “Go down the hall, unlock the second door and lock it behind you.”
With a big grin, he gives me a little shove. I am literally shaking in my shoes. First door. Unlock; lock. Second door. Unlock; lock. Nobody told me I’d be in a locked ward, let alone a doubly locked ward. Why didn’t I sign on for some nice, normal, sweet little neighborhood hospital? What am I doing here, anyway?
Too late for second-guessing. Suddenly I find myself in a large room with lots of windows and a whole lot of very psychologically ill people.
Are they dangerous? Will they hurt me? What can I do?
As it turned out, nothing was really required of me that morning. Mostly the people in the room ignored me. Four guys were in the corner playing pool. There were a couple of groups talking. Some people just sat and stared. Some looked out the window. A woman in the corner was at the piano playing a surpassingly beautiful Grieg sonata.
So what did I do? Moved around, said hello to people who would look in my direction. And prayed, prayed something like, “Help, Lord.”
And he did. As the summer continued, I found people who would talk to me. Some of the conversations were nonsensical, some brilliant.
Two mornings a week, I led a Bible study.
I began to see that the people in the Day Room were just people like any of us. They just happened to be burdened with a tragic affliction. I began to unwind, relax. I discovered what one of my professors called “the ministry of presence.” In other words, you just hang out with people and pray silently for them and ask God to somehow comfort them through you. Before the summer was over, I learned something else. I learned the importance of intentionally doing a certain thing that can help anyone in any situation in life. It’s something that can help people carry on when they feel like giving up. It’s something that can help us survive the problems and difficulties, even the tragedies of life.
It’s something you and I, as people of God in this unprecedented time of pandemic need to be doing.
Midway through the summer session, J. Edward my supervisor said, “Terry, at this week’s chapel service I want you to preach.”
Preach? Me preach? I wanted to beg off; pleaded for time. But no way. J. Edward was adamant. I was going to preach at the next chapel service.
My sermon was happily short. Happily for the congregation. Happily for me.
I prayed, asked the Lord what He wanted me to talk about. What He gave me was simple, you might call it Christianity 101. But my little message of the morning had a surprising result.
A result I didn’t learn about until several weeks later, at the end of the session, on the last day of my CPE experience. That’s when I learned the value of doing what I’m charging you, and me, with doing.
On the last day of CPE, we had a picnic, outdoors on the grounds for all of us students from seminaries all around the DC area, our supervisors, members of the hospital staff and a few of the patients who were considered able to leave the building.
One of the patients was a member of my group; an attractive woman in her late Twenties. Her name was Althea.
Just before we went through the buffet line, Althea came up to me. She said, “Before you leave, I want you to know how you changed my life this summer.”
Gulping, having absolutely no idea what to expect, I said, “Go ahead. Tell me.”
She said that the morning I preached in chapel a story I told about something that happened to me as a little boy had changed her life. I could take no credit. The Lord had given me the idea. That’s why I’d based my homily on the first time I ever heard the most important song of my life. I was in Sunday School, four years old, and my teacher taught me “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
I talked about how that simple little song had brought me through some of the worst times of my life. I said I’d learned through my life experiences that Jesus loves us no matter what we may be going through; Jesus loves us even when we forget Him and give our lives over to all kinds of other interests and pursuits. Jesus loves us when we turn our backs on Him. And always, always when we want to come back to Him, He welcomes us back with the open arms of unchanging, everlasting, always forgiving love.
“Your words changed my life,” Althea said. “I’m a Christian. I can’t believe I’ve never heard that song before. My church upbringing wasn’t about love, it was about being good, doing right, staying out of trouble. For the first time in my life, I feel encouraged.
“Your words gave me encouragement,” she said. “And I never felt encouraged in my whole life before. I’ve spent my life just dragging along, carrying the burden of my illness, feeling nothing but unloved and unlovable.
“If Jesus really does love me, no matter who I am or how sick I am; if He really does love me no matter what, then I may be able to have a life after all. I have hope that I can come through this to a better place. I’m encouraged!”
And with that, Althea’s face lit up with a blazing smile like the sun coming out after a long spell of stormy weather, and she went off to enjoy the picnic. Later I heard she’d just been moved to a new unit, a step down from the one she’d been in for so long. It meant she was getting better.
Hearing Althea’s words was the first time I recognized something that had been with me all my life but that I had somehow taken for granted. It was the power of encouragement. THAT WAS THE GREATEST LEARNING OF MY SUMMER. IT WAS SOMETHING I’D ALWAYS HAD IN MY LIFE, I JUST HADN’T RECOGNIZED IT FOR WHAT IT WAS.
Looking back in my own life I remembered the teachers, the coaches, the friends who had encouraged me. I remembered my parents saying, “You can do it!” I remembered how my Encouragers had helped me do things I never thought I could do, make the most of a bad situation. Think of the people who have encouraged you.
Most of all, it’s been Jesus who has picked me up when time after time I’ve fallen down and the Lord who has brought me through tough times to a better place.
So here we are now, living in the midst of terrible times. Times so unheard of, so heart-wrenching, so anxiety-producing, so filled with grief I can’t find the words to express it. The number of new Covid cases across our country, the number of lives still being lost are unfathomable. Forest fires burning thousands of acres on the West Coast. More hurricanes, windstorms and floods in the Midwest and South. People losing their businesses, jobs, sometimes their homes.
But as Christians, we’re here with a mission. It’s a mission to not give up, not give in–to fear, frustration, anxiety, pessimism or any of the other commonly felt, natural responses to tragic situations.
We’re being called by the Lord to look up, look up to Him, find in Him the power of His Spirit and the encouragement of His great love for us.
He’s calling us not only to encourage others. He’s calling us to encourage ourselves. In one of my favorite lines in the Bible, we read that one time when David was going through a rough place, as the Bible says, “David went out and encouraged himself in the Lord.”
What’s it mean to encourage ourselves in the Lord? It means we remind ourselves that He’s with us, that He’s always got our back, that He will always bring us through.
And having encouraged Himself in the Lord, David went back to the path God had in mind for him. A path of possibility, a path of opportunity, a path of promise.
We’re living in desperate times. Which means we desperately need each other, we desperately need our church, we desperately need the Lord.
Encourage yourselves, encourage others with the promise, with the reminder, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. So that we might join hands and hearts and move forward through these dark and desperate times on the brightest of all paths to a better place: the path of His encouragement.