Saturday, July 10, 2010

Taking Care of the Neighbourhood

RCL Proper 15C
11 July 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

During my curacy at Christ Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado, a call came from the Diocesan Pastoral Centre with a special appeal for supplies to meet the needs of the homeless and poor . This particular appeal came after the Pastoral Centre had developed facilities for the homeless to have a place to shower and to obtain new clothes. However, there was one category of clothing that the Pastoral Centre lacked: men’s underwear. So out went the appeal for parishes and individuals to give packages of new men’s underwear, in various sizes, so that these men would be able to walk out onto the streets with more comfort and dignity then when they had entered the Centre.

Christ Church is located in south Denver at the confluence of the more affluent neighbourhoods of Denver proper as well as some of the more affluent suburbs. It had, when I was a curate, an enviable reputation for its support of the Pastoral Centre. The people of the parish met the challenge with their accustomed generosity and, I might add, their good-spirited sense of humour. A new occasion was added to the liturgical calendar of the parish: Skivvy Sunday. On that Sunday basket after basket of men’s underwear were brought to the altar at the same time as the offering plates and the baskets remained there throughout communion.

I have told this story in other settings. In one such setting, in the late eighties, a priest angrily accused me of contributing to what can only be called a desecration of the liturgy of the church and the sanctity of its buildings. He asked me what was next on my list, condoms perhaps? I admit that I had lost my temper by that moment and I responded that I might well bless condoms if I were serving in a community where AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases were devastating the community.

People of faith are frequently faced with the tension between our concern for holiness and our participation in cultures and societies where religious pluralism and non-belief are acceptable options. We are tempted to set up barriers between what we believe and celebrate in the rituals and doctrines of our faith and how we engage our cultures and societies where our beliefs may have little or no privileged place.

In today’s reading from the prophet Amos we must resist the temptation to see Amaziah as a bad man. The confrontation between Amos and Amaziah is between representatives of the two dimensions of the faith of Israel, the priestly and the prophetic, both of which are essential. “The priest has the authority of established worship tied to political institutions (while) the prophet has the authority of his vocation and the words given to him by (God).” (Craddock 1994, 330) Amaziah’s tragedy is his inability to hear Amos’ words as a call to act on the beliefs enshrined in the rituals. Ritual does not create holiness; ritual is a means by which we, human beings shaped by our cultures and our times, seek to participate in the holiness of God to which ritual points and in which ritual participates. God calls the prophet Amos to call the leadership of Israel to act upon the ethical implications of the sacrifices and prayers offered to God, ritual actions which celebrate God’s justice, mercy and graciousness.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke we must resist the temptation to see the lawyer as a bad man or to condemn the priest and the Levite as representatives of a corrupt Judaism in contrast to an enlightened Christianity. Our lawyer knows what is necessary for eternal life and he recites a Jewish formula that is older than Jesus. All Jesus says is “Do this and live.” At the end of the parable all Jesus says again to the lawyer is “Go and do likewise.” Genuine holiness, the holiness of God which we are invited to share, cannot be confined to rituals and ritual spaces; it must find expression in what we do as people of faith.

Jesus goes even further in today’s parable. By contrasting the actions of the Samaritan with those of the priest and the Levite, Jesus plays on the view of his contemporaries that Samarians were heterodox and ethnically impure. He further heightens the contrast by only referring to the victim of the robbers as ‘a certain man’ without any further identification of his religious or ethnic identity. In a culture where obligations were often defined by one’s social, familial, religious and ethnic relationships, Jesus offers a counter-cultural message: The obligation to act as a neighbour is not defined by nor limited to commonly-held social assumptions. (The New Interpreter’s Bible 2003) “For Luke and Luke’s church, (the story now serves as an example) to the effect that kingdom people are to act in love, love that has no drawn boundaries, and love that expects no recompense.” (Craddock 1994, 336)

This past week some eighty Anglican, Lutheran and United clergy and laity gathered at Vancouver School of Theology for the 2010 National Worship Conference. The theme of the Conference was “Taking Care of the Neighbourhood: Worship as Public Work for the Common Good”. We heard from Douglas Todd, one of the Vancouver Sun’s regular columnists, from Mark Macdonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop and from Karen Ward, the Abbess of the Church of the Apostles in Seattle. While there are many ideas that can be drawn from their various presentations, I believe that their presentations pointed to the lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10.27) No genuine love of God, no genuine holiness, can be experienced if it is not intimately linked to the love of neighbour, regardless of who that neighbour is.

But love of neighbour is not abstract. Communities are made up of real people with real needs and concerns and identities. To love one’s neighbour as oneself requires us to make a decision to go beyond the natural limits of our families, our social affiliations and our religious assemblies.

Saint Faith’s is not a religious assembly unfamiliar with responding to the needs of our neighbours. Whether we look at our fund-raising for particular groups throughout the Lower Mainland or our unprecedented response to the diocesan appeal for the residential school settlement fund or the many groups that use our building for meetings and activities, this is a place that loves God by loving the neighbour. Yet our neighbourhood continues to change and there may be other groups, other communities, whom we might be able to serve.

Right now you and I are worshipping in what used to be the choir space of Saint Faith’s. This experiment of worshipping in a smaller space gathered around the altar is in part fuelled by the realization that we, in order to serve our community, may need to change the shape of our worship space. Rather than the long rows that characterize many churches, we may move towards seating that permits us to see one another and hear one another’s voices more clearly. Rather than pews, we may move towards fewer pews and more chairs so that we can have more flexible seating arrangements.

All of this is not the whim of the Rector or of the Professor of Liturgical Studies who happens to be your Honorary Assistant. It comes from discussions within the Church Committee about our future and how we ‘take care of the neighbourhood’. It is a good thing to pray for our neighbours, but it may be a more excellent thing to remodel our church home to make them more welcome.

When Amos confronted Amaziah, the prophet challenged the priest to take care of the neighbourhood. When Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question, one Jew challenged another Jew to take care of the neighbourhood. In both cases the prophet and the rabbi from Nazareth called upon their religious companions to act on the faith that was already within them and to expand their definition of who the neighbour was to include every child of God.

Today you and I, members of a community of faith with its own history and character, are also being challenged to act on the faith that is in us and to expand our horizons to include the many new neighbours around us. This is a process that begins with concrete steps that may lead us into unfamiliar yet exciting quarters of our neighbourhood. It is a process which our worship prepares us to undertake and which the Spirit leads. May we uphold each other as we travel this Jericho road.

Let us pray.

O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbours with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Works cited

Craddock et al, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C

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