Laborers in the Vineyard

02.25.16 | by The Rev. George Monroe

    She was standing on the corner when I was pulling out of the shopping center. It was mid-January and the street-lights were already on at 5:30 p.m., and I was in a hurry to get home with my load of groceries. As a rule I studiously avoid eye contact with panhandlers because it makes it easier to refuse them; but since I had to pay attention to the traffic, I was forced to glance to my right to check traffic and when I did I read the handmade sign the young woman was holding. It read: “Pregnant and Homeless.” I whipped my BMW to the left and headed home with my out-of-season strawberries, my Port Salut cheese, along with a number of other delicacies; however, I didn’t get too far before I turned back and pulled around to where she stood. The rest of the story is between the “three of us”-- me, her and God.

    We live in a society where we have professionalized just about everything, and to some degree that might be good because we do need to provide the best care possible to the greatest number of people in the safest and most efficient way possible. Resources are limited, so they must be distributed in a rational way and in environments where people can feel safe; but is it right to just summarily dismiss the poorest of the poor or are we to tend to them even when we are conflicted?

    Recently in The Dallas Morning News there have been reminders, taking folks to task about aiding panhandlers on the street. Such encounters could, in fact, have negative consequences which one might regret. There is something inherently sad about this admonition not to come to the aid of someone who is reaching out and asking for “alms.” Yet we are being asked to give our resources to the professionals, and to allow them to care for the indigents and needy.

    While growing up in far East Texas, my folks often spoke of their childhood and what it was like growing up on farms with no electricity or running water. One very distinct story I remember was how they cared for their dead. The big oak table in the kitchen was covered with an oil cloth and the body of the deceased was laid out and lovingly washed by family members, dressed and placed in a homemade coffin, placed in the parlor and folks “waked” the body until the funeral. Caring for the dead was a part of the grieving process. Today death is so sanitized; most of us don’t even know the cold touch of the body of someone who has died, much less had the privilege of dressing the body. I have had the privilege of dressing two priests for burial, and on both occasions were profoundly humbled.

    I’m not suggesting that we return to some kind of Little House on the Prairie lifestyle, but I am suggesting, in fact theorizes, that we have in the last three-quarters of a century drifted from some basic elemental human experiences which have prevented us from reaching the fullest potential of Christian discipleship. There is something systemically wrong in paying someone else to “exercise kindness on our part” because we are too busy or we have some other excuse. This should be as awkward to our ear as it is to hearing of a wealthy Victorian mother having a wet-nurse breastfeed her child because her social schedule demanded she be elsewhere.

    Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once remarked that in her early days of research into how the medical field was dealing with dying patients, it was not uncommon for dying patients to end up on the end of the hall away from people. It became clear to her that as medical practitioners and medical science became less effective; i.e. it had peaked out and was in fact in decline, these patients got less human contact; after all they were dying. She also noticed one day that one patient was being lovingly cared for, not by medical staff but by a cleaning lady who was spending extra time and care in a particular patient’s room. Dr. Kubler-Ross then began to push the notion that as medical care peaked and then diminished, human care of another kind needed to be pushed upward and continued until death. It is emphatically true -- there is nothing more emotionally, mentally and even physically palliative than loving human touch, and this is true in every aspect of human endeavor.

    If we need empirical evidence to prove what we know intuitively, we need only to visit the neo-natal wards of any major hospital. Infants cannot survive without human touch, affection and affirmation (cuddling, cooing, and loving;) in fact, they will die. Children adopted from East European orphanages have come to the U.S. and have had insurmountable emotional issues because of infant and early childhood neglect. Ironically, the same has been found to be true with children who have come from ghetto homes in the United States where addiction is present and there is nutritional deprivation and socialization neglect.

    This raises the question of how does a Christian, in a society constructed as ours, deal with all the day-to-day demands of work and family and then respond to the Gospel’s admonition to be heads, hands and feet of Christ in the world, when so many of our own cares get left undone which need to be done and there are so many demands made on our time and resources? It is precisely because so much is demanded of us that when we are told, “Let the professionals handle these situations;” we really are quite content to write out a check; however, there is something slightly hollow about that outcome when juxtaposed to Christ’s sweet words, “In as much as YOU have did it unto one of the least of these, you did it unto me.” For within Christ’s teachings it is absolutely clear that he expects there to be an intimate involvement and human engagement where the sacramental life of his followers is lived out in a hand-to-hand way. Jesus touched the leper, the blind man, he lifted up the crippled and he took the widow by the hand. We do not live in a sanitized world; and as Christians, we cannot turn our backs on the broken world and be afraid to touch it with our hands. There is something inherently antithetical to the Gospel in living apart from the world that suffers.

    Rich Rusaw and Eric Swanson in their book THE EXTERNALLY FOCUSED CHURCH argue that the contemporary church would be healthier if it focused more externally, and that good deeds and the Good News of the Gospel should always go hand in hand. They suggest that parishes work with existing organizations within their communities. One of the wisest things they suggest is, “Sometimes our churches don’t need to do extravagant things to make a real difference in the world. Sometimes we are most effective when we softly rub shoulders as we serve others.” There are scores of ways that ordinary Christian folks can get involved in doing things for others. The critical and fundamental thesis of their book is that of engagement: hand-to-hand contact with the world in some form; it inspires the participant and it gives greater purpose to and justification for the very existence of the congregation itself. A food pantry, a clothes closet, “A One Church/One School Relationship,” a nursing home visitation program, a community garden, a tutoring program and scores of other ideas might work. It is also of paramount importance to work in tandem with other organizations as well. As Episcopalians we not only witnesses to the world of our commitment to the Gospel, but we are also witnesses to our fellow Christians of other traditions to the nature of our own Anglican tradition and experience. We are not “God’s frozen chosen” but fellow laborers in the vineyard.

    How does one have time or energy to add something like this to all those day-to-day pressures being demanded of “me?” The preacher could be glib and throw scripture at you and say, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” In other words, if you really thought this important you would do it. No so! Engagement is like anything else. You might think that you don’t have time to go and watch your son or daughter play soccer after a hard day’s work because there are so many chores to do. When you finally decide that the need of your daughter or son supersedes those chores, and you relent and go to the game, and then to your amazement you are overwhelmed with pleasure, to the point that even the endorphins in your brain are increased, you are so glad the chores were forgotten and that you went to the game. Engagement in even the smallest of parish ministry brings joy. It may be nothing more than putting extra groceries in the shopping cart for the pantry at church or the food bank in your community or mowing the widow’s yard next door. It may be tutoring at your neighborhood school or washing cars to raise money to buy backpacks for kids in your “One Church/One School” connection.

    Jesus says, “Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” Let’s just call these spiritual endorphins.

    No one wants to go back to the early part of the last century, but neither do we want to be disconnected from the world our Lord wants us to serve. As parishes and as individuals we should seek out and search for ways that we can serve our Lord, not only because there are those who need to be served, but because we as Christians need to serve. Sure, we need professionals to do the heavy lifting, and we need to support the important social agencies within our communities in every way possible, but never at the cost of losing a connection between our own sense of what it means to be a disciple in the world touching the lives of those in need and doing so in the name of Christ.

    In the Diocese of Dallas the Missional Church Commission’s purpose is to assist parishes in identifying ways they might imaginatively and uniquely serve their communities. This can happen through networking by finding out how others parishes, small and large, have found a niche that fits their interests and talents. A consultation with the head of the commission, Dabney Dwyer, is readily available as are opportunities to attend conferences to learn about community needs and organizations with which to interface.