Sunday, September 16, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine
Sunday September 16, 2007

OPENING WORDS: “If you want to be successful, it’s just this simple. Know what you are doing. Love what you are doing. And believe in what you are doing.” -- Will Rogers

READING: Luke 10: 25-37

I wanted to say just a word about these banners hanging in the gallery, which really impressed me when I was here preaching as a candidate last spring. “Open the Windows + the Doors” “And Receive Whosoever is Sent.” I especially like the little envelope which provides the background for the word “sent,” because it reminds me of something my mother used to tell me when I was young, that if you really want to receive a letter, it’s not enough to just sit around watching the mailbox. Sometimes you need to write and mail one first yourself.

I also like these sentiments, because they reflect so well the theme that I’ve chosen for this year and for the start of my new ministry here at First Parish: “A Warm and Welcoming Place in the Heart of the City” -- which is actually (as you may recall from when I preached here last spring) a phrase I learned from all of you. And it also compliments something I heard Bill Dickinson say at the service he lead this past summer (the one that was so prominently featured on the religion page of the Portland Press Herald) -- that here at First Parish we are in the “gracious neighbor business.”

But most of all I like it because it reflects a principle -- a commandment, really -- which resides at the heart of all three of the so-called “Abrahamic” faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...and in many ways is the soul of that shared tradition of Western monotheism.

Christians know it as the “Great Commandment,” while in Judaism it is expressed throughout the Hebrew Bible, and especially in the shema of Deuteronomy 6:5 (which the Pharisee quotes to Jesus), where it is found alongside the instruction that “these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

And in Islam, each and every sura of the Qu’ran, as well as all of the public prayers (or at least the ones with which I am familiar), likewise begin with a similar invocation of the one Merciful and Compassionate God, in Arabic Allah.

Yet it is the second half of this Great Commandment -- in effect a paraphrase of the Golden Rule -- which both provides the foundation of the ethical reciprocity that makes authentic community possible, and also carries with it the lawyer’s unsettling question: “Who is my Neighbor?” And notwithstanding the words of Hebrews 13:2 (which I also quoted last spring) “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained Angels unawares,” or Will Rogers more folksy aphorism that “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet,” we still teach our children not to talk to strangers, not to take candy from strangers, and certainly never to get into a car with a stranger...all very sensible rules, and (unfortunately) important ones for a very good reason. A certain degree of suspicion regarding the unfamiliar and the unknown has probably been hardwired by evolution right into the structure and function our brains, and (at least until now) has been essential to our on-going survival as a species -- even if it does sometimes cause us to be suspicious even of our own neighbors as well.

And yet as I reflect back on my own experience, I’m also struck by how routinely in my life I’ve been blessed by the kindness of strangers. Not to mention my Strange Friends...and even stranger neighbors...whose quirks and idiosyncrasies, peculiar attitudes and unconventional opinions have enriched my own perceptions of the world considerably.

And I’m likewise struck by how often the fear of appearing “strange” to our neighbors functions as a powerful instrument of social control. The simple phrase “but what will the neighbors think?’ can have a very real “chilling effect” on potentially anti-social (or even marginally bizarre) behavior, or at least it did in back in my old neighborhood.

And let us not forget those “intimate strangers” -- our spouses, our children...people we think we know so well, who still remain capable of surprising us with their depth and complexity.

And finally, there is the pain of becoming estranged from those we once loved: neighbors, friends, family, often merely by some thoughtless or unintentional slight through which we give or take offense, yet which strangely leaves us stubbornly incapable of making that first essential gesture towards reconciliation.

But within the specific context of Scripture, a stranger is a foreigner -- someone from “Away” who dwells among us, yet whose ways, language, clothing, customs are strange and unfamiliar, and whose very presence somehow challenges our own comfortable, familiar, and (dare I say?) often provincial points of view. And by the same measure, there is nothing that gives us a better perspective on our own provincialism than the experience of being strangers ourselves, by visiting (or if we’re fortunate, even living for a time in) a foreign land, and another culture.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experiences like this three different times in my life. In 1978, when I came at the age of 21 to begin my theological studies in Boston, it was the first time in my life that I had ever been east of Spokane Washington. Life in Boston was a pretty big culture shock for me, -- I was shocked by how dirty it was, and how rude people seemed, and how nobody really spoke to one another or even made eye contact on the streets; but by the end of three years it was even more surprising how little I noticed any of that any more, and that it was my home in Seattle that seemed strange.

Then in 1984, when I was being interviewed for what would later turn out to be my first settled pulpit in Midland, Texas, I actually told the Search Committee that the very thought of moving to Texas made me feel like I would be living as an expatriate in a foreign land...which made them all laugh out loud, since in fact Texas historically has been part of not just one foreign country, but five: a colony of Spain, a provence of Mexico (and then briefly under the sovereignty of France), its own independent Republic (I don’t think they’ve ever really gotten over that), and a member of the Confederacy, as well as now a somewhat reluctant (it often seems) part of the good old USA.

So when they did eventually call me to that pulpit, I made up my mind NOT to behave like an the “Ugly Ecotopian,” but rather to try to understand that culture according to its own standards and the hope that perhaps I would come to appreciate a little more both about it and about myself as a result. And of course, now I’m very proud of the four years I spent as the “Bishop of West Texas” (the only settled Unitarian minister between Fort Worth and El Paso, Austin and Albuquerque), while New England now feels almost like a second home.

But Texas and New England are both still technically part of the United States. In the year 2000, however, I received a very generous stipend from the Danish government to spend a semester in Europe as a visiting doctoral fellow at the School for Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Research on Interculturalism and Transnationality (more commonly known by the acronym "SPIRIT"), basically doing whatever I wanted to...probably the closest thing to a MacArthur "genius" award I'll ever see.

One of the things I was naturally very curious about was religion, and in particular the odd phenomenon that in Denmark, where the "Folkekirke" or "People's Church" is supported by tax revenues, only about 2-3% of the people themselves actually attend services on any given Sunday, whereas here in the United States, where we have a voluntary church system, church attendance typically runs between 40% and 90% (and sometimes even more, depending upon what part of the country you live in, and how many different times the same people attend church each week).

But as you might imagine, I spent an awful lot of time going to church in Denmark, and really came to enjoy the experience, despite the fact that my command of the Danish language really isn't all that great. Given a little time, I could usually puzzle out the Scriptural text in the pew Bible, or follow along the words to the hymns in the Salmebog. But the sermons were generally almost completely incomprehensible to me -- which in some ways was probably a good thing, since it left me free to make up a sermon more to my liking inside my own head; and which really didn't interfere much with my appreciation of the rest of the service either (an important, if humbling, lesson for a preacher).

But as a sojourner in a foreign land, I also gained a new appreciation for simple rituals and the familiar structure of the liturgy itself. I especially learned to appreciate kneeling at the communion rail, alongside not only the handful of aging native Danes (and occasionally their grandchildren, there to receive their first communion on Palm Sunday); but also Christians from Asia and Africa who, unlike me with my blond hair and blue eyes and Danish surname, were much more obvious strangers in Denmark, yet still brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, sharing a symbolic meal of bread and wine.

I don't know that I ever really answered my research question to my satisfaction (although I do have my theories), and I have to admit, it really wasn't much on my mind either as I rode the train from Aalborg to Copenhagen at the crack of dawn the following Sunday morning, since the day before (also as part of my cultural research) I had attended something called a "Paaske Frokost" or "Easter Brunch" -- basically a six-hour party that began at two in the afternoon and continued until no one was left standing... herring, salmon, roast lamb, (and of course, Danish ham), potato salad, pasta salad, bean salad, deviled eggs, all lubricated with liberal quantities of Aquavit -- the "water of life" -- which really goes down quite smoothly after the second or third one, and only turns deadly the following day.

But this was going to be the only chance I would have to worship at the indigenous Danish Unitarian Church, and I wasn’t about to miss I got up early and made the four hour train trip across the entire length and breadth of Denmark, walked briskly across the center of historic Copenhagen from the train station to the church, found a seat on the aisle near the back; and as I sat there alone in my pew half-listening as the preacher droned on and on incomprehensibly about some obscure intellectual topic I didn’t have a prayer of understanding, I found myself admiring the fresco in the alcove behind the chancel where the high altar would ordinarily have been.

It was a representation of a scene from the story of the Good Samaritan, and I started thinking about how appropriate that particular iconography was for a Unitarian Church -- so much more appropriate than so many other stories from the Bible that might have been chosen instead. We've all known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children. Even if we weren't raised in the Christian tradition, it's part of our cultural lexicon. A Samaritan is someone who does good deeds, who helps others in need, even if they happen to be strangers. Especially if they happen to be strangers....

It's easy for children to miss the subtext of this story, and even for adults the actual context is often obscure. A traveler is robbed, beaten, and left for dead at the side of the road. A Priest and a Levite (which is basically just another kind of priest) see him there but pass him by...not necessarily because they are bad people, nor even because they are afraid of being attacked themselves, but perhaps simply because they assume he is already dead, and touching a corpse would leave them ritually unclean and therefore incapable of performing their religious duties.

But a Samaritan -- an outsider, an outcast -- sees the body and takes the time to investigate. He's not worried about his formal religious duties interfering with his compassion for another human being, nor is he afraid to take the risk of becoming a victim himself. Or at the very least he is willing to face that fear. And all this in the context of the one Great Commandment I spoke of earlier: "Love the Lord Your God With All Your Heart (and all your Soul and all your Strength and all your Mind), and Love Your Neighbor As Yourself." The lawyers, the Pharisees, to prove their own importance, may wish to quibble about the definition of "neighbor." But the Samaritan knows that if you happen to be in the neighborhood, whoever you see is your neighbor. Even if he happens to be a stranger, and you yourself are traveling far from home.

And then suddenly the sermon -- the Danish sermon -- was over, and the preacher was telling us all to take out our Salmeboger og Åbenet det til nummer fire hundrede fem og fyrre and soon the entire congregation was singing while I was still thumbing through the pages of the Salmebog and trying to figure out where we were in the order of service. And then after the benediction (and this was unique in my experience in Denmark) the entire congregation was invited downstairs to the parish hall, where we all sat around a long table and were served more coffee and these amazing Danish pastries -- and anyone who wanted to could say what THEY thought about the sermon, and even ask the minister what seemed to me to be pretty pointed questions about his ideas. And it was at that moment that I really KNEW that I was in a Unitarian Church, even though it was all happening in a foreign language, and I was thousands of miles away from home.

About a month later, I had a very vivid reminder of that Easter morning. I was back again in Copenhagen, this time with my mom, who was visiting me for a few weeks around Mother’s Day; and we were on our way to the train station, once again very early in the morning, when we were approached by a rather frail, elderly woman who started jabbering at me in rapid, heavily accented Danish. And I was trying to tell her that I didn't understand what she was saying, but she didn't seem to understand me either; she just kept grabbing at my arm and pointing to a nearby bus shelter, so I looked up at where she was pointing and saw...

...a Body, seated on the bench, slumped over against the glass wall, a thin trickle of blood running down the side of his face....

Well, now the conversation suddenly got very interesting. I was trying to tell this woman (in a jumble of Danish, English, French, German, Greek and Latin all at once) that she needed to call the police, but she wasn't having any of it... she'd shown the body to me, and now she had to catch her bus,"Tak skal du have" ("thank you very much") and away she went.

And there I was.

This particular bus shelter was right outside a government hospital that had recently closed due to budget cuts, so naturally, being an American, I assumed that this young man had been shot in some sort of gang-related drug deal and then dumped by his buddies outside the hospital because they didn't want to risk involvement with the authorities. I tried to rouse him, but got no response, so I went inside the hospital just to see if I could find anyone there, and eventually located a caretaker, who explained to me (in English) about the hospital being closed, and then agreed to accompany me back outside to see the body for himself.

He also tried to rouse this fellow, a little more loudly and aggressively than I had, and sure enough, the body responded... and after a brief conversation between the two of them, the caretaker assured me that the gentleman in question was merely someone who had stayed out a little too late the night before, and had fallen asleep while waiting for his bus, having fallen down and banged his head against something hard earlier in the evening... but not to worry, because [wink,wink] he was feeling no pain. So I was able to explain all this to my mother, who of course had also seen the body, but basically understood nothing else of what had been going on, that everything was OK and that we could continue on our way.

And I honestly don't know to this day whether or not I would have spent as much time I did trying to help this stranger if I hadn't seen the fresco of the Good Samaritan in the Unitarian Church the month before. I do know this...having just seen that fresco, only a few blocks from that bus shelter, I would have felt like a terrible hypocrite if I had simply passed him by.

As a general rule, we Unitarian Universalists don't ordinarily put much stock in Shame as a spiritual and emotional motivator, but I suppose there's a time and a place for everything. Because yes: I was confused, and also a little afraid, far from home on unfamiliar ground, and in many ways it would have been a lot easier for me to turn my back and walk away. But how was I going to explain that behavior to my mother (who, in all honesty, would have probably just as soon walked away herself). And, more importantly, how was I going to live with myself afterwards?

"Who is my neighbor?"? the Pharisee asked Jesus. And Jesus told him a story in response, a story about a foreigner who did the right thing when his more pious neighbors would not. Nowadays we have a slightly different question we sometimes ask ourselves whenever we are tempted to step outside the customary boundaries of social conformity. We ask ourselves "but what will the neighbors think?" -- and then let the shame of that imagined response keep us from acting too "strangely."

And yet when we can teach ourselves to ignore those imaginary voices inside our heads, and listen instead to those principles of hospitality and compassion written in our hearts, we recognize that the ONLY difference between a neighbor and a stranger is our own familiarity or ignorance, and that in all the ways that truly matter, we are less different than alike.

And then realizing this very simple truth, it falls to us to take that next all-important step of opening the windows and the doors, and receiving whosoever is sent....