Sermon – October 18, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyFirst Things First: Service

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“…it cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” — Mark 10: 43-44.

The 1970s, a couple of us remember then— the 1970s— it was an odd time in America. We finished the process of extracting ourselves from Vietnam. The whole experience of the war and its aftermath left raw wounds then and left scars we still feel today. Of course, also in the 70s a President resigned in disgrace. Another president described the national mood as one of malaise, a mood of discomfort. And it was, indeed, an era of upset.

Cities had been, at one point, considered a crown jewel of American civilization, examples to the world. In the 70s many people fled from the cities to the suburbs and beyond as urban decay became rampant.

Yet another President told New York City, which was tittering on the edge of bankruptcy in the mid-seventies to (quote:), “drop dead.” And as you may remember me saying on other occasions, in the mid-70s I lived in New York City, the epicenter of that urban decay.

Now, I don’t remember exactly what the year the story I’m about to tell was, perhaps 1976 or 1977, but it involved a human response by the Episcopal Church I was attending to the urban decay around us. One of the parishioners went to the Rector and asked about trying an experiment.

The suggestion: let’s start a Sunday afternoon meal in the church hall as soon as possible after the Sunday service. The idea was to help the many homeless who at that point were populating the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood where the church was located. The Rector’s response: give it a shot, see what happens.

The first week we served less than ten. The third week that number climbed past fifty. By the eight week there were better than 200 being fed.

It was a pretty straightforward operation: the people came through a chow line with plates, got food, found a table. There was one thing we did which I think helped remind everyone we were a church: a parishioner was assigned to sit at each table.

Nothing special was asked of that volunteer. Be friendly; answer any questions you can; engage in conversation only when people are willing to do so.

One day a parishioner trying to make small talk said to a client, “Well, I hope you like the food.”

“Not really,” was the response. (And yes, I cleaned that response up a little.) “Not really,” was the response, “the food is awful. But just to sit among people for a meal is great. And you church people are so friendly it makes me feel like a human being again. It kinda feels like home.” (Slight pause.)

These words are found in the work known as Mark: “…it cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” (Slight pause.)

The 1970s— the first time the term ‘War on Drugs’ was used was in the early 1970s. And there is certainly no doubt that drug abuse and addiction were and are real. As I am sure you know, abuse and addiction remain a rampant problem, despite over 40 years of the so called ‘War on Drugs,’ over 40 years of rehabilitation programs, over 40 years of stringent enforcement efforts.

One of the pivotal issues raised by addiction is this question: ‘what, exactly, can help effect an abatement to addiction?’ Interestingly, there are several studies out there which say addiction can be reduced through social interaction. To be clear, these studies are very controversial but they are out there and at least some of them seem to have a modicum of validity.

That having been said, this is a simple explanation of how the studies work and what they discovered. A researcher builds a short tunnel. Rats are sent down the passage one by one. At the end of the tunnel, an animal can drink fluid from one of two dispensers. Both are available. One contains a morphine mixture, another tap water.

One group of rats used in this experiment lived in isolated cages, apart from any contact with members of its own species or human contact. One group was housed in a veritable Rat Park, a playground for rats which had games the rodents seemed to like and also contained other rats with whom they could interact.

On being exposed to the dispensers a number of times, the rats who lived in isolation took the morphine tap insistently. Among the rats who had experienced recreation and socialization, some also still headed to the morphine each time they were sent down the tunnel. But, largely, the rats in this group went only for the water. [1]

To be clear and once again, these studies have caused much uproar and criticism concerning their validity. Still, the idea that addiction might be reduced simply because of social interaction and a pleasing environment is a fascinating possibility.

Needless to say especially since these studies are controversial, my point here is neither to defend nor to criticize the studies. My point has to do with the thought that simply providing a socialized, pleasing environment is, in fact, a way to truly help. That is a lesson we certainly learned at my church in New York City.

To follow up on the church story with another piece of what happened, a couple years after that Sunday afternoon meal was established, in cooperation with a program at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, this church, the church that ran the meal every week, started to shelter homeless people just one night a week. And yes, just like food, housing is an imperative, a necessity, especially on cold Winter nights.

Again, we found that when those we housed understood we would socialize with them— interact, play games, watch a movie, when the clients knew they could relax, they let their hair down. And hence, we at the church shelter, did not experience the violence which so often happened in shelters run by the city.

The point I’m making here, of course, is when those seeking shelter felt they could be at ease is the point at which the housing of the homeless stopped being simply a service. Providing shelter stopped being something which was merely given away by us. That is when this housing of the homeless became a ministry. (Slight pause.)

I think we, the church, too often think in terms of ‘what can we do’ rather than ‘how should we do it?’ I think we, the church, too often think in terms of ‘what can we give away’ rather than ‘how should we give?’

I think we, the church, too often think in terms of ‘service’ instead of ‘serving.’ In short, ministry is not about giving alms. Ministry is about giving arms.

You see, we need to remember arms can hug people. Hugging is pivotal. (Slight pause.)

One of the quotes on our church Facebook page this week was a saying attributed to Helen Keller. “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched— they must be felt within the heart.”

Indeed, ministry is about giving from the heart. Ministry is about providing an environment where the positive is empowered. Ministry is not about what we give. Ministry is about how we give. Church is not about what we give. Church is about how we give.

And, to be clear, yes— it is a great good to help those in need. We, the church, need to do more of that. Hence, it is or should be clear that to provide an environment where needs can be and are met is the real mission of the church.

Jesus told us, “Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” But serving the needs of all is not about playing god by making a decision when it comes to who gets what. Resources are limited. On the other hand, making any claim that we need to play god because resources are limited is a red herring. Resources are, by definition, always limited.

We are called to be the church. We are called to serve everyone. And serving the needs of all is not about resources. Serving the needs of all is about providing an environment— an environment where ministry is empowered because the real resource is people.

Is that a tall order, providing an environment where ministry is empowered? Well, you tell me. Amen.

10/18/2015
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said [The pastor referred to the closing hymn]: “Christians Rise and Act Your Creed— no one ever said that was easy. And I think I said something like this a couple weeks ago: we who stand on the Protestant side of the ledger often forget that justification by faith often forget we need to act also. And we should not forget that.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_Park

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