Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 2003 (Proper 8B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on June 29, 2003. 
Based on Deuteronomy 15:7-19, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15 (Proper 8, Year B).

There’s nothing more confusing than a Westchester County map. If I understand it correctly, you’re sitting in the Village of Briarcliff Manor but the Town of Ossining. Most of Briarcliff is within the Town of Ossining, none of Briarcliff is within the Village of Ossining but some of Briarcliff is located within the Town of Mount Pleasant. However some of you live in the hamlet of Scarborough, which is in the Village of Briarcliff Manor and the Town of Ossining. Then there are the school districts. Most kids who live in Briarcliff go to Briarcliff schools but some are enrolled in the Ossining School District.

This past week I participated in a Baccalaureate service sponsored by the Ossining Ministerial Association (which, by the way, also includes churches and synagogues in Briarcliff and Scarborough but not Mount Pleasant). Before the service I was introduced to the Town Supervisor of Ossining. We chatted for a bit and then I asked him to explain this whole confusing business of local jurisdiction. He very patiently started to explain things to me but when he started talking about incorporated versus unincorporated parts of Ossining my eyes started to glaze over. Fortunately the service started and we dropped the matter.

It’s easy to look at the layers of local government and oddities of town lines and just shake our heads. We can laugh at the arcane complexity of it all. It seems to make very little sense. But in our minds we do much the same thing. It’s not an issue of gerrymandering, but of creating insulated boundaries and comfort zones. The lines aren’t visible but we rarely cross them. In our daily lives we tend to live in our own little self-constructed hamlets. The routine of daily life feeds the tendency to encounter only what we know. There’s a job to go to or children to shuttle around or chores to attend to. There’s a certain rhythm that takes over. And generally that’s a good thing. But when we keep our eyes straight ahead and remain within our self-created hamlets, we lose a vital piece of the underlying Christian message. It’s simple really. Love God, love neighbor. When we fail to break out of our own little worlds, we completely neglect the neighbor part of the equation. The Christian faith demands that we break out of our sheltered environments and pay attention to our neighbor. And this is especially important in an area like Westchester County where there is a stark contrast between the wealthy and the impoverished. Again, it’s easy enough to ignore. We know the less desirable parts of the county. We don’t need a map to avoid them. Ignorance is bliss and for many of us this is a blissful existence in comparison to that of some of our neighbors.

And that’s the heart of our first two readings this morning. The passage from Deuteronomy seems to be written with us in mind. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns…you should open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need.” It’s a call to serve our neighbor. It’s a call to move beyond our self-constructed hamlets and work in areas we might rather avoid. This takes first a shift in attitude and then action. Jumping headlong into an outreach project without thought or prayer isn’t particularly helpful. Guilt is an effective short-term motivator but rarely sustains the underlying need. Helping our neighbors must come out of conviction and passion for the Christian faith. And when it all seems overwhelming, remember that we can start small. As a parish community we can’t solve all the world’s problems but we can still make an impact. The passage from Deuteronomy reminds us that “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” Jesus himself told Mary and Martha that “the poor will always be among us.” But this shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can. Again Deuteronomy is pretty clear: “I therefore command you, ‘open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

There are many ways to help our neighbors. Hands-on ministry is important. So is the sharing of wealth with the less fortunate. Paul seems to be addressing many of us in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

As a church community, this is an important question to reflect upon. Are we doing enough? Can we ever do enough? Could we do more? The answer to this last question is a resounding yes. This week I also met with a couple of parents of children in our congregation. They have a burning desire to link the Christian faith that we proclaim here each week with service to others. And I’m encouraged to think that the youngest among us may in time inspire the rest of us. We have much to learn from one another, both from the neighbors in our midst and those neighbors in the wider community. May God keep us open to the possibilities of service and outreach that surround us.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003


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