A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 12, 2017 (6 Epiphany, Year A)
“I hate people.” Now, that’s not a direct quote from me, so relax. But this is something a friend of mine says on a fairly regular basis — whenever I tell him about a particularly challenging encounter with a stranger or a tough situation with a family member or sticky circumstances with someone at church, (not this church, of course). “I hate people” is kind of his misanthropic mantra. It’s a rather dark view of human nature, to be sure, but there are times when, if we’re pushed, we can’t help but agree. At least for a moment or two.
Now, if you really unpacked this idea using a theological framework, I guess you could get into the fall of humanity and its utter depravity and the absolute need for redemption. Though I don’t think this is really the spiritual takeaway I want to leave you with this morning.
But much of our anxiety in this life is caused by other people. By the way they treat us or hurt us or act towards us. And things would be so much easier and run so much more smoothly if other people didn’t get in the way, right? If they just left us alone to do things our way, on our schedule, to our liking. But life doesn’t work that way. Despite all our talk about “rugged individualism,” we’re rather dependent upon one another; we live interdependent lives woven into communities based on family and proximity and vocation and interest and faith. We are, for better or worse, a communal species.
In this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount — and by the way, this sermon has been going on for three weeks now, so just remember that when you want to complain about the preaching around here — but in today’s section, Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see that every action we take impacts those around us. The life of faith isn’t an individual proposition.
Jesus may have looked deep into the soul of each individual when he called them with the words, “Follow me,” but he invited them to become a community of disciples. He didn’t ask them to be spiritual lone rangers but to follow him together; to care for one another, to support one another, to love one another. Because Jesus knew that humans can’t live fruitful, faithful lives in isolation. We need others to reach our fullest spiritual potential, as it’s set out in our Baptismal covenant. And so, as he continues this famous sermon, Jesus talks about the different relationships we have — with friends and spouses and strangers and family members. And he’s well aware of just how complex, how potentially damaging, and how life-giving, our interdependence can be.
Ultimately, this whole notion of interconnectedness revolves around accountability. We are first and foremost accountable to God, of course. Everything we do or fail to do impacts our relationship with the divine. Our actions either bring us closer to God or distance us from God. And that places a burden of responsibility upon us — our actions matter, our words matter. They matter to God.
Which brings us to the other side of this accountability equation: because we live in various communities made up of people, we are accountable to one another. Being accountable to others is not always easy. Our interconnectedness can be messy. It can mean directly confronting those whose actions hurt us, and it can mean being confronted when our own actions don’t live up to the standards of civility and good citizenship.
It’s why Jesus speaks about being reconciled to one another — something especially important in a faith community but equally important in every aspect of our lives. Allowing things to fester below the surface, in any relationship, always proves toxic. Most of us are conflict averse, but if we are to be accountable to one another and move beyond the hurtfulness, open and honest dialogue is the only way forward.
Here’s an example of how accountability works in the church. At least in the Episcopal Church. Because you may not know this, but you can’t just decide to become a priest. You can’t just enroll yourself in seminary and come out wearing a collar a few years later. It doesn’t work that way.
Of course, these days you can just go online and get ordained. Not in the Episcopal Church, mind you, but if you have an internet connection you, too, could become an ordained minister — of some sort — by the time I finish this sermon.
But an authentic calling, as the Church understands it, is a matter of communal discernment not individual preference. For instance, when something started to stir deep inside my own soul in my mid-20’s, I went in to talk to my parish priest. And after he first counseled me to think about doing something, anything, besides ordained ministry, we started meeting regularly. Eventually, when he recognized a call, he enrolled me in the diocesan discernment process which involved all sorts of holy hoops and hurdles. A group of fellow parishioners was set up to help me test and explore this sense of call; I met regularly with others around the diocese who felt similarly called; there were physicals and psychological tests and internships in nursing homes and parish settings and meetings with panels of lay people and clergy from throughout the diocese and eventually with the bishop, who ultimately had the authority to decide whether or not to allow me to move forward in the ordination process and go on to seminary.
Among other things, this was a process of accountability. A mutual process that allowed the community to explore the sense of call along with the person discerning that call. They could have said, “We think you have some gifts but we don’t think ordained ministry is where they lie.” And that certainly happens. And should happen. But everyone I encountered in this long process was seeking to be accountable to me, to the Church, and to God. And that takes hard, brutally honest work. It’s not a perfect process but, when done with authenticity and deep faith, it does help raise up faithful, competent, committed clergy.
The point isn’t to teach a How to Become a Priest 101 class. It’s to highlight the centrality and importance of community and accountability in our faith lives. We are all accountable to one another and to God. There are no lone wolves in a community of faith. It doesn’t work that way. There are certain spiritual checks and balances that keep everyone open and honest and accountable to one another. Which is precisely Jesus’ point.
Again, Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals but into a community of fellow believers and strivers. Sometimes we may drive one another crazy; sometimes we may disagree; but in the end we are all there for one another. We lift each other up when times are difficult and celebrate with each other in times of joy. That’s the gift of our interconnectedness; that’s the gift of being accountable to one another; that’s the gift of the community into which Jesus beckons us.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck