When we lived in Virginia, and I was serving as rector of Emmanuel Church, Middleburg, I saw several maps of the Diocese floating around that showed parish boundaries. Though we were Emmanuel Church, in the 19th Century we had birthed another congregation in nearby Aldie, and together we made up what was called Johns Parish. The parish map was a bit strange at first, as it asked one to look at the diocese in a new way, not along civic boundaries, or larger church boundaries, like deanery, but with boundaries encompassing neighborhoods, in our case, a village and the farmland surrounding it.
At this point in time, this map of the Diocese of Virginia had little use except when people became worried about trespass; some new congregation or Episcopal ministry was springing up within established parish boundaries without having followed the procedures to allow for this.
The work we all have been doing together in the Diocese of California has transformed the view of parish boundaries I received from experience elsewhere in the Church. Rather than being a boundary to not be crossed from the outside, the parish (or mission) borders in the Diocese of California are places of possibility, where we learn to become neighbors.
When I was a student at Virginia Seminary, in the very first, new, disorienting and exciting days of the first semester there, the dean told the incoming class that we should spend that first semester visiting as many different sorts of Episcopal congregations as we could, and to deliberately go outside of the sort of congregation to which we were familiar and with which we were comfortable. If one were used to simple liturgy, vestments, clear windows in the church building – in other words, Low Church, then check out one with smells and bells. If you came from a rural parish, see what urban feels like, etc.
Sheila and I took the dean’s recommendation to heart and over the next ten weeks or so we sampled a variety of Episcopal congregations far beyond what we imagined to exist within our Church. One of these was an urban congregation in the District, St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation. It was the first time we had been invited up out of the pews to stand around the Holy Table for the Eucharist and there were colorful banners hanging from the ceiling to nearly the floor in the sanctuary. But these liturgical features, though I’ve remembered them were not what impressed me the most. There were poor people, working poor and street people worshipping side by side with the “normal” Episcopalians that Sunday, and during the coffee hour (some things are consistent) I had a conversation with some of them. What they said to me has stayed with me all these years: “St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation is our neighborhood church. Everybody in the neighborhood feels that way, even if they don’t go to church here like we do. Everybody in the neighborhood wants to be buried from this Church.” I was told by some other parishioners that members of the Kennedy family, staunch Roman Catholics that they were, sometimes attended St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation because it was so clearly in solidarity with its poor neighborhood, and thus was so clearly on the side of justice, a stand that mattered to the Kennedy’s despite denominational affiliation differences.
The very word, parish, is one I’ve used so long and so often that until I was working on this address to you I had not inquired as to its root meaning, its etymology. To my great delight, the original meaning of parish is…neighbor, “para,” meaning nearby, combined with “oikos,” home or house, to give the sense of the neighbor and neighborhood.
Being a parish, then, is about being neighborly among neighbors. Being parish isn’t about good fences making good neighbors as a central reality, whether the fence is out at the border of the parish or the physical walls of our church buildings.
Letting in the Light
What I want to talk about is letting in the light, which you need from your neighbors as they need it also from you.
You remember that the narrator of the poem is speaking to his neighbor over the stonewall that divides their land, just as they are about to undertake the spring-time chore of repairing the wall. The narrator questions the purpose of the wall
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
At the least, Frost is subverting mindless re-enactment of traditions that no longer serve a positive purpose, or even questions the continuing allegiance to traditions that perpetuate negative patterns of life. Parish boundaries, church walls as the equivalent of Frost’s New England stone wall are where much of the Episcopal Church seems to have been for some decades.
The poem that speaks to how we are parish, neighbors among neighbors, rather might be Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. The rhetorical question thrown at Jesus by a doctor of the law, “And who is my neighbor?” isn’t far off from the hide-bound neighbor’s quotation of, “Good fences make good neighbors,” in Frost’s poem: a way to shut down the conversation, get out of something uncomfortable and hard to think about, something potentially life changing.
Jesus’s response to the stone wall of a question to open a perceptual door that continues to inspire and provoke through the ages since he spoke it. Jesus, like Frost so many years later, first questions the often conventional answer: my neighbor is the person I recognize as being like me, of my social class, going to the same church, educated in the same schools, voting as I do, my kind of folk. Rather, as Jesus guides us to understand, the major lesson we remember from the parable is that neighbors are those who act neighborly, and are not neighbors by category. Neighbors are as neighbors do, we might say, to sum up this part of Jesus’ teaching in the Good Samaritan.
I think, looking at the history of the Diocese of California and our constituent congregations, from our earliest days right up to the present, we have heard the lesson of the Good Samaritan and have heeded it. We have sought to be neighborly, to show compassion to those in need.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Don’t the words of the across-the-wall neighbor and the doctor of the law seem to suck the light from the room and from within our hearts? And, by the same token, doesn’t the action of the Good Samaritan lighten the landscape, and our hearts? So, imaginatively let us look at a map of the Diocese of California, first divided up with parish boundaries, and all of us in a discussion about new ministries that have sprung up, one in each deanery. And somehow, as in a bad dream, we find ourselves wrangling about impropriety of all this boundary crossing. We can feel the lights going out, within and without as the acrimonious discussion grinds on.
Now, let us think about the same map, showing how you have actually been neighbors to those around your congregations. The food banks, the gardens, the tutoring projects, the preschools; the visits to nursing homes, the use of your church buildings for temporary homes for the homeless, and the list goes on and on. We can see and feel the light and warmth radiating out around each of your beautiful congregations, coming forth from being neighbors by showing compassion.
I hope you take as much pleasure as I do in contemplating this luminous map that charts the neighborly efforts of our forebears in faith, and your own in serving our neighbors in the Bay Area.
The New Light Pattern
Let me suggest though, that there is a new light pattern showing up all across the Diocese of California, a way of being neighbors that is hidden in the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and that has been brought to life in our Church through the use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and its Baptismal Covenant.
First, hidden in plain sight in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a difficult paradox, that Jesus insinuates that it is not the doctor of the law questioner who is the neighbor, offering his compassionate care from on high to someone on the outs, but rather the exact reverse; it is an observant, culturally central Jew who is in desperate need and the neighbor, the one offering compassionate care is the outsider, the other.
This is a critical point – we serve, with our own wounds, our own needs and God meets us in the humble movement of our hearts – the other, the one whom receives, is an instrument of love and grace to us.
Place this deeply challenging idea of Jesus’ next to the formative promise we make in the Baptismal Covenant,
you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.
As we have lived into that promise over the last thirty years, we have been formed, shaped to hear this inner message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Love, wisdom, truth do not only flow out from a center, our congregations, but also move in to us from unexpected sources, from all who share life with us in the neighborhood, the parish.
Think about our thought experiment again, with light filling in the map of the parish and mission boundaries in the Diocese of California. In contrast to some places in our great Church, light has dilated over the last 160 years of our diocesan history – more and more light coming out of our church centers. That radiating light continues, but I think more and more we are witnessing the light of compassion filling in the parish and mission areas because of a mutual recognition of Christ in each other, that all are capable of being neighbor to the other, that the church member or even the congregation as a whole may be the injured, wounded man in need of neighborly compassionate love…from outside, from the outsider.
Stories of Blessings from the Outside
I am a deeply blessed man. I along with the Diocesan House team with whom I share care of our diocese am privileged to visit each of your congregations, and I am here to tell you that this beautiful new pattern of dawning light is showing up with great strength and beauty all over our diocese.
I’ve invited two people to share a public narrative, a dynamic, compact story of what has been happening in the Diocese as we live into the spiritual principles of the Beloved Community. First you’ll hear from the Rev. Este Cantor about community engagement, about parish as neighborhood at Good Shepherd, Berkeley and Holy Trinity, Richmond. Then you’ll hear from a young adult lay leader, Ms. Peggy Lo at our cathedral, who is a witness to how Being the Beloved Community is being manifested within this unique congregation so important to us all.
After their brief remarks, I will return with closing comments and some lively images for you to enjoy from the community engagement work going on in both of these congregations, and a view of how I see us moving into the future.
In closing, I want to bring to your attention cards on each table that will help you connect to resources for church vitality. These videos can be viewed individually or together. All the lessons from last year are easily accessed on either Vimeo or the DioCal website, excellent and free.
The year in progress offers teachings on becoming an invitational church, leadership for dynamic change, and engaging our neighborhoods.
These are but tools, but tools to help stir your minds and hearts as we enter into learning prayerfully.
But what I call you to do, as your bishop, is to continue your intentional, faithful work of ministry. Let’s continue to cast light from the center, and, formed by Christ through Baptism and its promises, let us learn to receive light from others. Look with me within our parish and mission borders and rejoice to see the light gathering and growing, filling in.
I would love to have the time to tell you and show you the many beautiful new ministries I have the pleasure of witnessing across our diocese. Trinity and St. Peter’s, San Francisco coming together to make a vibrant new start in an old and significant building…the unfolding area ministry in Southern Alameda, becoming more responsive and creative in serving the wider community with each year…a courageous new beginning for four congregations in East and Central Contra Costa, using the tools of the See::Community initiative to visualize their common life as a planning tool…Good Shepherd, Belmont and Holy Family, Half Moon Bay choosing to stay connected and deepen their relationship during the uncertain times of an interim. These are just a few, suggestive examples. But I’d like to invite you to watch some images from the neighborhood engagement of Grace Cathedral and from Good Shepherd, Berkeley, whose inspiring public narratives you’ve just heard.
And then, I invite you to enjoy a brief closing video that expresses to you some of the joy, excitement and possibility I feel about our common work and life.