Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 16, 2017 (Proper 10A)

One of the few things I remember from middle school biology — besides dissecting that fetal pig (which was both disgusting and the precise moment I realized I would never become a doctor) — is the concept of photosynthesis. In order to grow something you need seed, sun, and water. Whether you’re trying to grow a flower or a tree or a tomato plant you need all three for horticultural success.
This isn’t to suggest I’ve been particularly effective at this over the years. For someone who spends a lot of time reading agricultural parables — about reaping and sowing and mustard seeds and vineyards — I’m a lousy gardener.
But we’ve actively participated in the process of photosynthesis here at St. John’s the last couple of months as we’ve been growing some grass out front. A number of you have volunteered to help water and it has actually worked. What once was dirt, now is grass. And we are reminded again of the miracle of creation and the beauty of the natural world and the rising cost of Aquarion’s water.
This morning we hear the Parable of the Sower. And one of the great things about this story is that it’s one of the few parables Jesus tells and then immediately interprets for the disciples. So he’s basically already done the work of the preacher — in no uncertain terms he’s explained what it all means. Jesus has spelled out the metaphorical meaning behind seeing receptivity to God’s word as the seed sown on the path and the rocky soil and among the thorns and on the good soil. I should probably just sit down and let him have the last word.
But that’s not my way. And, as always, there are nuances here that begin to emerge beneath the surface of the text. Because, of course, life isn’t so neat and ordered. Our spiritual lives don’t categorically fit into one of four quadrants. You can’t go up to a crowd of people, share this story, and say, “Okay, everyone who considers themselves rocky soil stand over here. And if you identify as thorny soil, go into that corner. Sown on a path? Go there. And those who see themselves as good soil, stay right here.” And while we all like to think of ourselves as the good soil, it’s always more complicated than that.
The reality is that our lives are made up of a patchwork of different soils. We bear more or less fruit at different times. Some days we’re particularly receptive to hearing God’s word and acting on it; on other days it gets choked by the pressing concerns and distractions of our over-scheduled lives. Some days we just don’t understand or can’t hear God’s word; on other days we receive it joyfully but it doesn’t stick.
In a sense, the soil of our lives is like fill dirt. That’s the dirt that’s taken from one Fill-Dirtconstruction site where holes are being dug — like to put in a pool or excavate for a building’s foundation — and taken to another site where earth is needed for regrading or landscaping. Sometimes you’ll see signs around town at houses where construction is being done: “Free Fill Dirt” or “Fill Dirt Wanted.” And so this dirt gets repurposed and reused and moved from project to project. Basically fill dirt is the poor stepchild of the soil world. It’s necessary, but it’s not pure in any form. There’s often some good soil mixed in along with rocks and sand and weeds.
We like to think our receptivity to God is more like a bag of potting soil from Home Depot. Rich earth, chock-full of nutrients that has been specifically engineered to encourage the greatest growth. That’s what you sink your geraniums into or use when you plant sweet-smelling herbs like basil or lavender. We like to think that, because we usually come to church or say our prayers or occasionally pick up the Bible, we are always receptive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives.
And we’re often right. But not always. Sometimes we do all the right things to nurture our faith and yet nothing takes root. At other times we do nothing to put ourselves in a particularly prayerful posture and we suddenly have a powerful and surprising encounter with God. And what you start to realize is that we’re not the ones actually in control here. That we have a role to play in the process of spiritual growth but it often happens in ways that are well beyond our control.
The truth is, we can’t control all the variables needed for spiritual photosynthesis, but we can help tend the garden. Your spiritual garden begins with baptism — that’s the seed, the spirit of God that has been lovingly sown within your heart. And we’ll be sowing some of this seed in just a few moments when we baptize Miles and Julia and George.
One of the things we sometimes overlook in this story is the sowing itself. We focus on the soil. But when the guys came to spread grass seed around here, they put it exclusively on the bare spots in the lawn; they concentrated it on the areas where we wanted to grow grass. They weren’t spreading seed on the driveway or on areas where the lawn was already lush or in the flower beds or behind the church back in the woods or on the front steps. They put the seed where we wanted grass to grow.
That’s pretty obvious, right? It would be a waste of seed and therefore a waste of money to do it any other way. But isn’t that precisely what the sower in this story is doing? If we view the sower as a metaphor for God, then God is a pretty lousy gardener. Or at least a wasteful one. Old MacDonald himself would never sow seed in places he knew it would never grow — like on paths or rocky ground or among thorns. Again, I’m not a great gardener, or farmer, but even I know this is not how you sow seed. You don’t just recklessly throw it all over the place — seed is a precious commodity. It must be sown with care and intentionality.
But the point Jesus is making here is not about efficient gardening techniques. He’s talking about the abundant grace of God; a God who spreads love with reckless abandon; a God who opens his heart to everyone.
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized – when that seed is sown in your soul – it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the seed of relationship with the risen Christ has been indelibly sown within you.
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017


Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 24, 2016 (Proper 12, Year C)

One of the things that happens when you tell people you’re going to seminary is you suddenly become the ‘designated pray-er’ at all family gatherings. Thanksgiving? “Oh, Tim’ll say grace.” Christmas dinner? “We should ask Tim — he needs the practice.” Random Sunday dinner? “Tim, you’re on.”

This continues, of course, once you’re ordained. At most meetings I attend, I get “the nod.” As in, oh good, the professional’s here. Let him say the opening prayer. And while I’m always happy to do so — which is a good things since I’m, you know, a priest — clergy don’t have a monopoly on prayer. They never have, they never will, and most importantly they never should. Because if prayer becomes the realm of a spiritual elite, we’re all in trouble.

But I do find a profound spiritual bashfulness when I invite others to lead us in prayer. In a group setting I often get an uncomfortable shuffling of the feet, downward glances, awkward silence. Basically I feel like the middle school sex ed teacher on the first day of class.

In speaking to people about this phenomenon, the biggest hesitation people cite is that they’ll do it “wrong.” That they’ll say the wrong words or that it won’t sound like a “real” prayer. Sprinkle a fear of public speaking into the mix and you end up with the perfect storm of what could be diagnosed as prayer performance anxiety, or PPA.

The problem, of course, is that this misses the point of prayer. There’s not a right and a wrong way to pray. Prayer isn’t a magic formula or incantation. If you’re a witch and you’re trying to turn little children into, say, frogs, you need to get the magic words down exactly as they’re written in that giant book of spells. But that’s not how prayer works! You can stumble over words, you can sit in silence — it doesn’t matter. Because God already knows what’s on your heart.

So prayer is just a conversation; an acknowledgment that there is a force at work in God that exists beyond what we can see and control. And yet for as long as anyone can remember, humans have been intimidated by the prospect of prayer; of approaching a deity with whom they seek relationship.

This may be why the disciples take Jesus aside and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Perhaps the question was rooted in their own spiritual insecurity. These disciples were simple men, after all. They weren’t used to being the center of attention or being asked to lead others in prayer. And what Jesus gives them isn’t some long and flowery incantation. The Lord’s Prayer is basic and straightforward, yet it contains all we need to engage God with sincerity and authenticity.

If you break it apart, the Lord’s Prayer is brilliant in its simplicity. It begins by reminding us just who it is we’re addressing — “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It reminds us that God is sovereign — “Thy kingdom come.” It reminds us that God provides — “Give us this day our daily bread.” It reminds us that God forgives — “Forgive us our trespasses.” And so should we — “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It reminds us that evil exists but that we have an antidote in Jesus — “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”

So Jesus gives us a fundamental and sufficient and well-beloved outline of how to pray. But still, when it comes to prayer, it’s important to occasionally put relationship with God in our own words; to step away from the teleprompter, to go off script.

It’s like when you’re married it’s nice to recall your wedding vows, sure. But if you go through life together and all you keep saying over and over again is, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” rather than telling your spouse what they mean to you beyond the formula, you’ll miss an opportunity for deeper connection. And you may want to see your priest for some counseling.

Perhaps it’s helpful to make a distinction between public and private prayer. In the Episcopal Church we have a Book of Common Prayer. That’s “common” as in “communal” not common as in ordinary or pedestrian. When we gather as a worshipping community there are set prayers, gleaned from Scripture and the wisdom and practice of generations of English-speaking worshipers. There’s a poetry and a dignity to the words that transcend what we might come up with in the moment. That’s one of the major differences between churches in the liturgical tradition and those that are more free-form. And there are inherent dangers in both styles — the tendency toward rote and listening to the words without really hearing them on the one hand and a free-for-all of unordered chaos on the other.

There’s been a lot of public prayer this past week at the Republican Convention and there will be more next week as the Democrats gather. Between today’s gospel passage and the invocations and benedictions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, it’s a topic that’s been on my mind. One of the most jarring prayers I’ve ever heard — and this transcends politics — was given by Pastor Mark Burns on the opening night of the Republican National Convention. Did you hear that one? He talked about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as “the enemy.” Which is evangelical code for “devil.” Call me old fashioned but I prefer prayers that don’t demonize others, regardless of what you may think of their politics.

I was interested to learn that a colleague of mine, Steve Ayres, who’s the Vicar at Old North Church, had the opportunity to give the opening prayer at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He wasn’t asked to do this because of his political leanings but because Old North is the most iconic church in America and it was five blocks from the convention site. Steve was reflecting on this experience and shared his three rules for praying in public — something he’s often asked to do.

“1. Be as inclusive as possible in the choice of words and images. Pray so that anyone in the audience can feel comfortable saying “amen.” 2. Ask for God’s blessing, never God’s judgment. 3. Use prayer to help deepen the audience’s spiritual connections to God and to the world.”

He went on to say that “Pastor Mark Burns’ prayer violated all three rules. It was divisive and offensive. It cursed political opponents. It was shallow to the point of being unrelated to reality.”

height.182.no_border.width.320So what was Steve’s experience in 2004? I find this fascinating. He says, “The arena was only a third full. Most of the delegates and reporters did not stop to pray. I was background noise. The notable exceptions were delegates of color, who all stopped to listen and pray. A thought went through my head – ‘is anyone besides my mother watching this at home?’

“I began my prayer by inviting the delegates to walk around the corner to visit Old North and breathe in the patriotic values we enshrine. Few did. I am convinced that if John Kerry had taken the time for a photo-op at Old North, he might have won Ohio.

“I reminded the delegates that while Old North Church was famous for the two lanterns that launched the Revolutionary War, our fame wasn’t established until Longfellow wrote a poem on the eve of the Civil War that summoned the nation to a new battle for freedom, a battle we still seem to be fighting today. I concluded this short history lesson with a prayer that the freedom we enjoy be extended to all citizens of the nation and the world. I was then whisked off the stage, out of the dark hall, and out into the summer heat.”

And that’s how you pray at a national political convention.

Look, prayer takes practice. It’s referred to as a “discipline” for a reason. I’m never going to put someone on the spot and compel them to pray in public but it is something I encourage you to work on. Get out of your comfort zone — start by saying grace with your family or small group of friends. And recognize that any words you speak are simply an offering of the heart. You can’t mess it up. But you can be drawn ever deeper into relationship with our Lord.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 12, 2015 (Proper 10, Year B)

Kids don’t seem to play the classic Parker Brothers game Monopoly much these days. I mean, I remember some epic family battles growing up; games that would last for days. Which may be part of the reason it’s not as popular anymore. In a world of instant results, it takes time to build up your monopolies, buy all the railroads, and slowly suck your friends and family dry. Or maybe the recent mortgage crisis has made the whole concept a bit too real for adults. But whatever the reason, it’s no longer common to walk into a neighbor’s house and see an in-progress Monopoly game on the dining room table waiting to be completed later that evening.

CHANCEOne of the best things about those highly competitive Monopoly games was drawing the coveted Get Out of Jail Free card. You didn’t need it then, but eventually and inevitably it would come in handy. And there was nothing quite like the sweet freedom of tossing that card down on the table right after being told to go directly to jail without passing go and without collecting $200.

Now, I’m sure John the Baptist would have loved a Get Out of Jail Free card to present to King Herod as he rotted away in the royal dungeon. He ended up there not for going out into the wilderness, standing in the River Jordan, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That might have annoyed the powers that be but he was generally seen as little more than a nuisance. As long as he kept his crazy out in the boonies he could be ignored as just another fringe religious figure — the original Jesus freak.

John ran into trouble, though, when he took his act to the palace. The Baptist pointed out to Herod — in his inimitable loud, bold, unrepentant manner — that in marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, in defiance of the Law of Moses, the king and queen were living in a state of sin.

You see, John had this little character flaw of needing to speak truth to power. It comes with being formed in the image of an archetypical Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Amos, who we also hear about this morning. There are some strong parallels between Amos, who in his day had chastised King Jeroboam for being a corrupt and faithless king, and John. And we see again and again that standing up to princes and principalities is not for the faint of heart. Bringing God’s word to powerful people who are unwilling or unable to change their ways can get you exiled or reviled or killed.

Unfortunately John the Baptist never did draw that Get Out of Jail free card. And in this gruesome tale of his beheading, the whole notion of freedom and imprisonment becomes twisted as the virtues and vices of human nature play out.

Let’s take a quick look at the players and the scenario involved here. There are three main actors in this drama — Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius; his wife Herodias, who had previously been married to and divorced from Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist, whose arrest at the end of the first chapter of Mark was the last we heard of him. There’s also Herod’s young daughter, called Salome, but she’s a mere pawn in the action.

Now, Herod, who we hear admired John as a holy and righteous man, threw him into prison for criticizing his marriage and defaming his reputation rather than killing him. It was the perfect compromise for a weak, insecure man: John was silenced publicly, his wife was placated, and whatever conscience Herod himself had was satisfied. Brilliant! Except for one problem — Herodias held a grudge. A major, nasty, blood curdling grudge.

So she bided her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge. And Bernardino-Luini-Salome-with-the-Head-of-Saint-John-the-Baptist-not-dated-painting-artwork-printeventually it came at a fancy state dinner; actually Herod’s own birthday party. Salome famously danced to the pleasure of the king and his guests in what has become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils in both Richard Strauss’ operatic version of the story and Oscar Wilde’s play. Herod publicly and foolishly and perhaps lecherously promised Salome whatever she wanted in return and, after consulting her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

In the precise moment that her daughter came to her, Herodias seized that Get Out of Jail Free card and played it with venomous glee, triumphantly tossing it onto the banquet table. And Herod was backed into a corner; if he refused to keep his promise, he would lose credibility, and worse, failing to keep an oath was akin to taking God’s name in vain. Evidently that was less distasteful to the king than killing an innocent man.

Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean Get Out of Jail Free card? Herodias wasn’t the one in jail!” But here’s the thing. This venomous woman finally saw her chance to be freed from the only real threat to her power and status — God’s judgment in the person of God’s prophet, this man called John the Baptist.

So, ironically it was John, jailed and beheaded, who was truly free. Free by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ. And it was Herodias, enjoying all the royal benefits of queenship who was truly imprisoned. Imprisoned by her sinfulness. Imprisoned by her guilt. Imprisoned by her rage. Imprisoned by her thirst for selfish ambition. And again, we see that the deep truths of life don’t always reside on the surface; that they are not always visible to the naked eye. That the reality of God’s realm does not always reflect the limited human interpretation of events.

And what we ultimately learn from this story is that violence never trumps faith; that evil cannot conquer love — something the power of the cross teaches us in no uncertain terms. Beheading, crucifixion. Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even death.

And we see that Jesus is that Get Out of Jail Free card. Not because grace is cheap or easy but because it is freely offered to those who repent and pursue true amendment of life. It is offered to you and to me and, yes, even to Herodias. But we have to say “yes” to it. We have to admit our wrongdoing and open our hearts to the gift of a loving God.

This is a tough story to think about. It’s a tough story to preach on. No one’s turning it into a Church School pageant. But confronting the realities of evil in the world and offering an alternative is part of our calling as a community of faith. There is another way. And it runs straight from the pain of the cross and sword directly to the triumph of resurrection glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 13, 2014 (Proper 10, Year A)

“You dirt bag.” That’s a terrible insult. And quite possibly it’s a phrase that’s never been uttered from a pulpit. Please don’t call anyone a dirt bag during coffee hour. It’s not nice. I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen a dirt bag — potting soil from Home Depot, maybe, but not an actual bag of regular old dirt. But the phrase popped into my head because Jesus compares us to dirt in the Parable of the Sower. Well, kind of.

He was really making a point about being receptive to the Word of God and offers four 1339848626727_BULKERBAGWITHSOIL-938x704possible responses to seed being sown. It falls on dirt in a variety of forms — a path, rocky soil, thorny ground, or good soil. And it doesn’t take a genius or a Biblical scholar or a landscaper to figure out the best place for the seed to land.

But before we look at these four options, it’s important to determine what exactly we mean by the “Word of God,” or as Matthew puts it here the “word of the kingdom.” In John’s gospel the logos or Word of God is Jesus Christ himself. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, the Word of God is Jesus himself — his message, his approach, his teaching, his very being.

So the Word of God transcends mere “words,” as important and inspiring as they may be. The Word of God isn’t something that can be bound and stuck on a shelf. The Word of God is dynamic, relational, and alive. And that’s what is being abundantly sown with reckless abandon. If you think of the seed as God’s love for humanity, the miracle here is that it’s an endless supply. There’s no worrying that God as the great farmer in the sky will ever run out.

And from a purely practical point of view that’s a good thing because what farmer in his right mind would waste so much seed. Farmers are very intentional about where they sow their seed precisely because they don’t have an unlimited supply. They don’t toss it on paths and into areas with rocks and thorns. They stick to the good soil because that’s where they get the most bang for their horticultural buck.

As we reflect on this parable, it’s important to remember that the life of faith isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition where we’re either receptive to God or not. This isn’t a passage meant to set up divisions between those who hear God’s word better than others, but a recognition that we all hear and respond to it in different ways at different times in our lives.

Preparing our souls to receive Jesus’ message of hope and salvation and mercy and forgiveness is what we all work toward but there are often things that get in the way along the journey. There are times when we have no idea what God is talking about; times when we get all jazzed about our faith and then something comes up that distracts us and we get pulled away; times when we hear it but we get too busy or comfortable and nothing comes of it. And these are all balanced by those incredible moments or seasons in our lives when we truly do hear the Word of God and understand it and act in accordance with it and enter a place of peace and harmony and spiritual synchronicity.

I have a feeling that the biggest challenge for most of us happens when the seed falls on that thorny ground. The place where we “hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” That seems to be the biggest challenge for those of us living on the South Shore in the early part of the 21st century. The cares of the world loom large for most of us. We’re busy, we’re over-scheduled, we’re stressed out, we’re exhausted, we’re slaves to technology — and that’s just while we’re on vacation! Add financial pressures, children and all their activities and special needs, our own health concerns or those of family members, an endless wave of errands, and it’s no wonder we sometimes really do feel like seeds that have been choked by thorns.

So, recognizing that we all have moments that are not exactly spiritually fruitful, what can we do to make sure that more of God’s abundant grace falls on the good soil of our souls? How can we cultivate better dirt in order to be more receptive to God’s presence in our lives? Well, unfortunately, we can’t encourage quicker spiritual growth by bathing in Miracle-Gro. It takes patient tending to our relationship with God. You can’t go to the local garden center and buy a bunch of plants; you really do have to let the seed take root and water it and make sure it gets enough sun and pull up the weeds around it.

Now, I should pause in the middle of this gardening analogy to admit that when it comes to plants and gardens, I’m like the Grim Reaper. I once killed a big cactus I had in my very first office as a priest. Evidently even a cactus needs some water. We’ve done some gardening at the rectory this spring and summer and I’m good at digging holes where I’m told and pulling weeds when someone helps me distinguish between what needs to come up and what needs to stay and I can water things. But I can’t identify flowers beyond dandelions — or is that a weed?

Anyway, there are some things we can do to be more receptive to the moving of the Spirit in our lives. We can recognize that we’re not being held hostage by the cares of the world; that we do, in fact, have more control over the way we spend our time than we think. Yes, there are things that need to get done and there are things out of our control, but we also have the power to say “no.” We don’t have to do everything and please everybody — we can stop the hamster wheel from spinning simply by stopping to catch our breath every so often. We’re the ones, after all, making it go round and round. Or, to get back to the garden, we can cut back some of the thorns that choke us and leave us gasping for breath.

Think about what you might prune. What’s essential? What’s not? What is it in your life that needs nurturing? Tend to the things that are life-giving rather than life-choking. And you’ll find that the Word of God will grow within you; that your life will be more fruitful; and that the fruits of the spirit — love, joy, hope, kindness, faithfulness — will grow more and more, right along with your relationship with the risen Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 14, 2013 (Proper 10, Year C)

I’m not sure how many homeless folks follow the Sunday lectionary cycle of readings but today would be the perfect day to hang around outside a church. The well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan evokes many responses in people but one of them is guilt about all the people we pass on street corners who are poor and downtrodden and seeking a handout.

When I served a downtown church in Baltimore City we would always tell people not to give directly to those on the street but rather to an organization we supported one block away that ran a feeding program and offered free counseling and other services that was called, ironically enough, the Samaritan Center. Nonetheless whenever this reading came up I’d always see people handing out change as they walked to their cars for the ride back to the suburbs where  homelessness wouldn’t confront them face-to-face.

This isn’t to make light of either homelessness or people doing what they feel they can do to help those in need. But helping those in need out of guilt is not the point Jesus is making with this story. He’s talking about a spirit of compassion and generosity rooted in the love of God.

One of the great twists in this parable is that the man who stands up to “test” Jesus is pretty certain of the answer when he asks him, “And who is my neighbor?” Coming out of a very tribal culture where people generally stuck to their own kind and intentionally set up barriers between people of other cultures, his view of a neighbor would have been someone that not only lived in his community but someone who also looked, thought, and acted much like himself. It’s easy enough to be hospitable or helpful to one of our own — we’d expect a similar response if the roles were reversed. That’s one of the joys of living in a tight-knit community.

And when we think of our neighbors our initial thoughts likely go in the same direction. They’re the people our kids play with, the ones we occasionally socialize with, the ones we wave to as they pull out of their driveway. Sure, the one guy two houses over uses that annoying leaf blower but at least he doesn’t keep his boat parked on the front lawn.

But Jesus shatters this whole limited notion of what it means to be a neighbor. He takes us beyond the white picket fence to a place where humanity is the common denominator regardless of race, class, social standing, or belief system. And that’s a hard place to go — it takes us out of our comfort zones and into contact with those who don’t look, think, or act like us. Even in this era of globalization and multiculturalism that’s still so often our default mode — we can be parochial in our own definition of what it means to be a neighbor. And we’ve just seen with the Trayvon Martin case in Florida just how deadly these consequences can be.

It’s hard to grasp how much this little parable would have blown this man’s mind. Contrasting a priest and Levite with a Samaritan couldn’t have been more radical. It would be like comparing an orthodox Jew and a radical Muslim or a white supremacist and a Black Panther. But what it really calls us to reflect upon is what is our responsibility to those we don’t know? What is our responsibility to the stranger in need?

I was telling my younger son just this week about what it was like to be stranded on the side of the road in the era before cell phones. He had trouble relating to the idea that in the olden days, if you blew out a tire or your car overheated on a lonely stretch of highway you just had to pull over to the shoulder and wait. You were literally at the mercy of some “good samaritan” who happened to pull over to help. There was no cell phone safety net of always being in touch. By the time I started telling him about how you had to page people in airports when you couldn’t find them, Zack had heard enough about my stories from the “pre-historic” era.

Jesus reminds us that we are all interconnected; that we are all fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith; and that our responsibility to the stranger runs deep. For in the stranger we may indeed meet Christ himself.

But as a parish this puts us in a tricky position. What is our communal responsibility to those in need? We do a lot to support outreach efforts locally and globally but is it enough? And can it ever be enough? Should we cash in our endowment to buy food for the poor? Should we sell off our buildings to help rebuild houses destroyed by natural disasters? Should we lay off some staff to pay for vaccinations in poor countries? What’s the proper balance?

One thing that needs to be said is that the church is not a social service agency. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to build the United Way upon this rock; he told him to build his church. There are certainly similarities between what we do to help people in need and what, say, Meals on Wheels might do. Many churches host food pantries and run homeless shelters, they offer clothing banks or serve meals. This is all good and certainly in keeping with the mandate of Matthew 25 that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger.

As a church in Hingham some things aren’t feasible. Unlike an urban parish it wouldn’t make sense to open a food pantry or run a homeless shelter. That’s neither our context nor our calling. I’m delighted that we have been taking our commitment to reach out to others more seriously and the Outreach Committee has done a terrific job over the past year to involve more of us in hands-on ministry, fundraising, and awareness.

But all outreach efforts must be taken in context of the church’s primary mission which is to share the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ. Without that as the driving motivation we may as well just take the crosses down and become a non-profit service agency. It is our passion for Jesus that allows us to go in peace to both love and serve the Lord. Only when our ministry flows directly from the altar out into the world does it become authentically Christian service, which is our true calling and mission.

There is, of course, a place for both the church and social service agencies. Many of us generously support both. But the church needs to be true to its mission. When Jesus said “We’ll always have the poor among us,” he wasn’t saying that to justify turning a cold shoulder to our brothers and sisters in need. He was noting that the Kingdom of Heaven has not yet fully arrived here on earth and nor will it until that day when Christ returns in glory. And in the meantime our mission is simply to love God and love neighbor in a way that marks us as Christ’s own forever.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013