Maximizing the Middle Ring

October 8, 2017

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC
Proper 22, Year A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Listen here, or read below:

As most of you know, September 10th was my first Sunday at Church of the Servant. It was a festive day, with worship returning to its school-year schedule, including the Family service and Sunday school for all ages. All that plus a beautiful reception of welcome, made it a truly joy-filled day!

During the week that followed, as I was catching up with Barbara on administrative stuff, she mentioned that she had created an “overflow” mail slot for me, since my other mail slot was already very full. I have to admit, I hadn’t even thought about having a mail slot, let alone that anything would be in it after just one week!

So a bit later, I decided I better go through it. Amid the non-profit newsletters, fundraiser promotions, and liturgical supply catalogues, was a small cream-colored envelope, addressed by hand to The Rev. Jody Greenwood – finally, something to me! I guessed it was probably a welcome note, yet when I opened the card, the salutation was to me and the Vestry – piquing my curiosity further. It turned out to be an apology letter from one of our youth (who will remain nameless). It seems that on my first Sunday, during all the excitement, one able-bodied teen took their enthusiasm to new heights, literally, and got on the roof.

And unfortunately for that youngster, there always seems to be one adult who, no matter how cool they are in so many ways, seems to be the one who catches kids “in the act” and so, too, that Sunday. When this adult (who will also remain nameless) saw the teenager on the roof, like jumping into a nearby phone booth to don their cape, they became The Enforcer.

The next Sunday, as I was light-heartedly talking with The Enforcer, a wave of memories flooded my mind. When I was growing up I spent much of my time hanging out with youth-group friends. We did silly, and sometimes stupid stuff, too. We had our own Enforcer who, though they weren’t our parent, wielded the same authority in our lives. That whole “it takes a village” concept was the real deal for me – not just in matters of discipline, but even more in times when I needed support or guidance.

Like when I was in Jr. High school. My parents were facing a point in their life when they wondered if they should remain married to each other. As you can imagine, it was confusing for me, and I needed someone to talk to. I turned to a few of my youth leaders at church and they were there for me. These adults were honest, compassionate, and supportive of me at a time when I really needed it.

For many of us, this kind of connection is why we are connected with church. It’s why we long for by-gone days, when pot-luck suppers epitomized community life. And if not church, it was the school PTA, the Rotary Club, and even the neighborhood swimming pool. These were gathering places that provided a sense of belonging – where random individuals and families gather to be in relationship with one another.

But our culture has shifted.

In his book The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, [i] Marc Dunkelman, a Research Fellow at Brown University, illustrates this cultural shift and the implications on our American institutions. While his focus is on public institutions, I believe the underlying premise has relevance for the institution that is church, too.

He begins by talking about three levels of connection as three rings:

  • The inner-most ring is the family, the parents and children, and extending to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  • The middle ring is those community groups I mentioned earlier. The neighborhood you live in, Church, Parent/Teacher Organizations, Civic clubs, etc.
  • The outer ring is transactional connections. Those you interact with in a limited way – like the group you go running with, or meet at a Non-profit fundraiser. It’s the waiter at your favorite restaurant, your hair-stylist, or your child’s teacher.

The premise of The Vanishing Neighbor is that culture has shifted in such a way that the inner and outer rings are more prominent, and people aren’t as interested in those middle-ring connections.

Dunkelman explains that today’s families are laser-focused on their immediate needs. If they have children, school and after-school activities fill their days. Strong GPAs and extra-curricular activities increase access to sought-after colleges or highly competitive scholarships. And while extended family may be more geographically dispersed than before, today’s technology keeps the inner-ring connected, virtually.

As for the outer-ring, he explains that today’s culture prefers to cherry-pick the things they are connected to. For some it’s a particular cause or charity. The focus of our time is on that thing we have in common, not on all other matters of life. It’s transactional because we limit how much we share of ourselves. We sure don’t talk about religion or politics, unless it’s specific to the thing we have in common.

And so, our connection to neighbor is vanishing. Neighbor, those random individuals and families who live on the same street. Neighbor, those random individuals and families who come together on Sunday morning to worship and pray.

Yet, I contend that there’s a real risk that church has shifted to the outer-ring kind of connection – those who come for a particular thing, and then go. I used to be that kind of church-goer in my 20’s and 30’s. You see, when I realized I was gay, I no longer felt accepted by the church community of my youth, so I left. I went to other churches to scratch my liturgical itch, and then slipped out the side door so I didn’t have to actually connect with anyone. I didn’t want to invest my whole self, because I didn’t want to be hurt again. So church became an outer-ring connection for me.

But there came a time in my life when I realized that something was missing. If we understand Church as the Body of Christ, it doesn’t work fully as an outer-ring connection. Church is a middle-ring place, by design. Love your neighbor is about community.

And when I look at this community, I see the middle-ring connection alive and well. Not in the form of pot-luck suppers, though I’m sure they are coming, but more in terms of true care and connection with one another. Inter-generational connection of compassion and support.

I’ve witnessed it first-hand. When the Schultz family was walking that difficult path of saying goodbye and letting go of one they love so dearly, this middle-ring community was there for them. When you’ve learned that someone is ill or having surgery, this middle-ring community took them communion or delivered dinner. And the outpouring of care in the form of food, visits, cards, and prayer for Carl, and for Bob, over the last several weeks, and longer, speaks to the vitality of this middle-ring community.

That’s what being good stewards of community looks like. The essential aspect of a middle-ring community is their willingness to be in the midst of one another for myriad reasons, in myriad ways. It’s a community that chooses to be together in spite of our differences. It’s a community that allows themselves to be vulnerable with one another at times when things aren’t so good, when we’re sad, or when we’re confused.

This week has presented much for us to be saddened and confused about. In our own parish-family, and in the world around us. The horrific mass-shooting in Las Vegas left us shocked, and once again crying out, “WHY?” We have an understandable desire to find a way to FIX-IT and to MAKE IT STOP. Each time we hear about these acts of violence in our country, we are challenged to discern what to do, and confounded that nothing seems to be changing to reduce the risk.

But like it or not, violence is not new. In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of creation in terms of a vineyard. On a fertile hill, carefully prepared, the grapes that are humankind were planted by God. God expected the vineyard to yield grapes, but it says, “it yielded wild grapes.” That is, humankind is flawed and unwieldy.

We see the vineyard imagery again in today’s Gospel. This parable talks about those God sent to “collect the produce.” Those sent were killed, then, even the son is killed – foreshadowing Jesus’ death – this change-maker that was killed at the hands of the authorities who wanted things to stay the way they were.

The Bible is full of violent acts that are hard to stomach. We tend to flip past these, and try to block them out of our thoughts. And then something horrific happens that reminds us of the presence of difficult and confusing things. We grapple for what our individual and collective response should be. I believe that it is at these times that the middle-ring community is vital.

  • The outer ring is too safe – we interact on a superficial level, or only with those who think the same way we do.
  • The inner ring is too insulated – focused on the immediate day-to-day demands.
  • The middle ring is the one that provides opportunity for a safe space for conversation, for vulnerability, for discernment, for compassion and comfort, and for collective response.

Community is at the heart of Jesus’ command that we are to love our neighbor. It isn’t only the singular neighbor depicted in the Good Samaritan story, but also the corporate, communal neighbor. And while I think Dunkelman is correct that culture has shifted, based on what I see here, the middle-ring is far from vanished. Our sanctuary-space alone reminds us of that.

So let’s continue to make room for this middle-ring community in our lives. It’s stronger when you are all fully part of it, and will be stronger still as we welcome others into the circle that is Church of the Servant.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Gospel Text:

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Mt 21:33-46)


[i] Marc J. Dunkelman, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014).




One Response to “Maximizing the Middle Ring”

  1. jg3potomac said

    Enjoyed learning about Dunkelman’s book, and particularly his concepts’ application to your own personal life experience and the “neighboring” you have experienced in several recent events in the life of your parish. A really nice blending of the personal with the scriptural instructions we encounter in various of Jesus’s teachings. Nice job.

    Sorry your Astros recording didn’t include a victory—maybe today.

    Have a good week.


    Dad James “Jim” Greenwood III 1306 B Potomac Houston, TX 77057-2063 (713) 468-8102 (primary) (713) 898-2293 (mobile)


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