Fourth Sunday in Lent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 30, 2014 (IV Lent, Year A)

Everyone loves a good scandal. It’s why we can’t help but sneak a peek over at the tabloids while checking out at the grocery store or watching TMZ when no one is looking. What could be more entertaining than watching the downfall of the high and mighty? Or the public exposure of cheats and hypocrites? Sports, Hollywood, politics — every arena has its version of Lance Armstrong, Paula Deen, Anthony Wiener. The list goes on and on and we just can’t get enough.

I’m not saying this is a positive trait of the human condition but it’s certainly nothing new. This story from John’s gospel begins with a search for a scandal. As the disciples are traveling down the road they spot a blind man and they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Maybe there was some salacious scandal involved. Perhaps the man was born out of wedlock, the result of a steamy affair. Or maybe the man himself had engaged in sacrilege of some sort — though that would have been difficult since it’s made very clear that he was born blind. But who doesn’t crave a little holier-than-thou moral rubber necking?

healing-a-blind-manThere’s an assumption here that someone must have really screwed up to have caused this man’s blindness. It’s not even a question of whether someone sinned, it’s a matter of where to assign the blame. No one is asking “Did someone sin to cause this man’s blindness” they want to know “who sinned to cause this man’s blindness?”

It’s important to note that it’s Jesus’ own disciples who ask this question. It’s not the Pharisees trying to trap him in his words or cause him to publicly blaspheme, as they so often do. So we see that this whole notion that someone’s sin had caused this disability was the prevailing notion of the day.

To be disabled was to be cursed; and to be cursed was a result of sin. Someone had to be at fault since surely God would never willingly afflict someone in this way. If we’re “made in the image of God,” there’s no place for someone who is deformed or somehow less than the human ideal of perfection. To do so would imply that God was not perfect.

And to be blind or lame or mentally challenged or to have leprosy was in many ways a death sentence. There was no disability to collect; there were no public hospitals or Mass Health; and quite often families disowned those who were not physically whole. The religious community banished them as ritually unclean and so they were not only reduced to begging, they were also turned into pariahs and ostracized by society. It’s hard to imagine the isolation, desperation, and utter hopelessness of this blind man sitting in rags by the side of the road.

And yet, despite the fact that this guy was precisely the kind of person an upstanding citizen would avoid at all costs, where does Jesus spend most of his time? He certainly wasn’t hanging out at country clubs drinking cocktails and mingling with the upper crust. He spent his life among the poor, the lame, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the “least of these.” And so by virtue his actions alone, Jesus was making a strong statement about the dignity of every human being.

Yet Jesus isn’t just doing a nice thing for these people. He’s not simply a do-gooder who takes pity on the vulnerable. Jesus is challenging the deeply held societal norm that assumed the marginalized were outside the realm of God’s favor.

But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus makes the bold proclamation that God doesn’t just care for this man, he is actively working through him. He was born blind not because his parents had sinned, not because he was cursed, but so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” That was shocking! A stunning turnaround! From the assumption of sin to the presumption of blessing. It’s hard to overstate just how radical this was. Jesus is offering those who have literally been cast out of society, blessing, dignity, and a new understanding of their lives.

This Lent we’ve been exploring the issue of poverty in our Lenten series and raising awareness and inviting action through the Outreach Committee’s Lenten Initiative on homelessness. And while it’s not popular to voice, many of us in some deep-seated way ask the same question about the poor. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Passing a poor person on the street we may well think that this person brought it upon himself. He’s lazy, shifty, trying to work the system. Well, perhaps, just as perhaps the blind man or his parents had sinned in some egregious way. But the end result is not related.

You may be familiar with what’s been called the “preferential option for the poor.” It’s a phrase that’s been misunderstood and celebrated and maligned over the years but at its essence, it’s consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions. Basically it states that in God’s eyes the needs of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable come first. It’s precisely because God loves everyone equally that we can’t sit around idly in the face of poverty, injustice, and oppression. When human dignity is violated we have a a gospel imperative to work for justice.

As Gustavo Gutierez, the Liberation theologian who first coined the phrase, put it, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

Yes, God desires wholeness — but it’s not the idealized wholeness of body so desired by Jesus’ contemporaries and, more subtly, by us. As Jesus points out, you can be physically whole but spiritually blind just as you can be physically blind but spiritually whole. Throughout this season of Lent we’ve been trying to open eyes and hearts in our own community. It is so easy to do nothing, to remain neutral in the face of human suffering, to stay in our respective suburban bubbles. That’s the true sin we confront on a daily basis — the sin of going about our business while so many of our brothers and sisters both locally and globally are hurting.

We’re all guilty of it to some degree and this is the sin Jesus continually challenges us to transcend. Because apathy in the face of suffering is just as bad as participating first-hand in the structures that perpetuate it. And so I encourage you first to simply be aware — be aware of your surroundings and the circumstances of those beyond your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Then act. It can be, in many ways it must be, a small step. Eyes must be opened before hands can be extended but be extended they must. We have much work to do as individuals and as a community of faith.

But as people who walk this Lenten journey, we have little if not hope as we journey toward the cross and resurrection. Sometimes, if we seek it, we’ll see glimpses of the resurrection even in the darkest moments. We simply need Jesus to open our eyes to the possibilities — as he does both literally and metaphorically — to the moments of grace that emerge out of the darkness. And then do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 16, 2014 (II Lent, Year A)

Did you notice it? Maybe it’s not as recognizable without the guy in the rainbow-colored wig holding up a big sign but this is his day! We just read John 3:16 — the verse popularized by that guy in the wig who always seemed to have the best seats at sporting events in the 1970s and 80s. I always thought of him as a sort of evangelical Zelig. He’d be sitting behind the plate at the World Series or at the 50 yard line at the Super Bowl or court-side during the NBA finals holding up his sign whenever the camera was on him, which was often.

Tebow Rainbow ManI have to admit, it worked on me. As a kid I went and memorized the verse — something young Episcopalians are not exactly known for doing. “And God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” I must have been watching TV in a hotel room and picked up the ubiquitous Gideon’s Bible because I wouldn’t normally have turned to the King James Version.

But of course our gospel reading this morning isn’t about a single verse of Scripture. We always read the Bible within a broader context. That’s the problem with focusing on one particular  verse, no matter how compelling or inspiring as it may be. And this morning our context is a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus, who is identified as a leader in the Jewish community. Granted holding up a sign that says John 3:1-17 isn’t exactly a great marketing ploy. I certainly wasn’t going to run off and memorize 17 verses of the Bible.

On the surface of things, Nicodemus and Jesus are having a conversation about faith. But they’re really having a parallel interaction because Nicodemus has no idea what Jesus is talking about. It’s as if they’re speaking completely different languages. And they are. Nicodemus came to Jesus by cover of darkness (which is why I once heard Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina refer to him as “Nic at Night”).

Now this is an important detail; John’s always playing with imagery of dark and light and so it’s important to pay attention to the time of day when reading his gospel. Yes, there was a practical reason for Nicodemus to be skulking around at night — to be seen with this Jesus whom many of his peers deemed a dangerous, rabble-rousing heretic would be scandalous. But more importantly, in the spiritual sense, Nicodemus is very much still in the dark. He has drawn close to the source of all light but he remains blinded.

And this initial conversation between the two sounds absurd. Jesus is talking on a spiritual plane and Nicodemus is stuck on the literal. Jesus tells him that, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” To which Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Well, that’s ridiculous obviously; an image that reminds me a lot of another comical image in Scripture, when Jesus says it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s easy to use this text to mock those who take the Bible literally. I mean, Nicodemus comes across as a bit of a buffoon here, lacking any sense of nuance — something we might accuse “born again” Christians of. But tread carefully here. Because I think there’s more of Nicodemus in us than we might care to admit. Not in the literalism but in the partial understanding. Nicodemus is truly stumped here — he’s not playing dumb or purposefully misinterpreting Jesus’ words. He really doesn’t understand this new understanding of relationship with God and his head’s about to explode (metaphorically, not literally, just to be clear).

Sometimes I think Jesus must have the patience of a saint in dealing with us — well, I know he does. We don’t get it, we fall away, we don’t listen to his words or follow his actions. And I picture him just shaking his head as he gently calls us back again and again to the path of righteousness. We all do and say some things that must look and sound pretty foolish to Jesus. Things that must sound at least as nonsensical as Nicodemus’ response to Jesus.

Like Nicodemus we struggle with meaning, with what’s knowable and what’s not. Faith is hard work. Belief is hard work. It would be easy to skip over the struggle and go sit with rainbow man in his choice seats. Taking John 3:16 in isolation, as beloved a verse as it may be, glosses over the hard work of being in relationship with the living Christ. To do so ignores the struggle and God is very much right in the midst of our spiritual yearning and wrestling. A mature faith demands interaction rather than passivity.

Last week we heard about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as we always do on the First Sunday in Lent, and Anne pointed out that Jesus’ own struggle with temptation doesn’t really get the treatment it deserves. He goes back and forth with the devil quoting Scripture faster than a Baptist preacher after a triple shot of espresso in an amazing display of spiritual repartee. But those were short interactions and he was out in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights. That would have left plenty of time to wrestle with his very human doubts and questions about how his ministry would actually unfold. He figured it out, of course, and left the wilderness to begin his public ministry, but I doubt it was easy.

The broader question is, how can we receive that which we don’t fully understand? When it comes to the question of faith and mystery and understanding, I’m always brought back to the Eucharist. Every week we reach out our hands and hearts and souls to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Yet, if I had a brief quiz up at the communion rail and asked people to describe precisely what was happening and why before handing over a wafer, no one would be receiving communion — including me. There is mystery involved in faith. And there are also things that we will never understand, at least on this side of the Resurrection. All will one day be revealed but not now. Not yet. And some of faith is becoming comfortable in the uncertainty, in the questions, in the mystery.

Unlike Rainbow Man who may well have had a unique calling — though I googled him yesterday and learned that he’s currently in jail on kidnapping charges — Nicodemus is ultimately a figure of hope for us. Despite his confusion and astonishment at Jesus’ words, later in John’s gospel, at the time of Jesus’ arrest we hear Nicodemus referred to as “one of them,” meaning a disciple of Jesus. And after the crucifixion he joins Joseph of Arimathea this time, significantly, in the daytime — in the light — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So between the lines we see spiritual growth happening right before our eyes. Which is precisely what we’re all invited to enter into during this continuing season of Lent.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Ash Wednesday 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)

In a world that loves to affirm and build up, Ash Wednesday puts us in our place. It reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. That there is something beyond what we can see on the surface of life. That we are not the permanent element on this earth. That our lives are fleeting. That we are flawed and broken members of the human race. And that we will die.

Ash Wednesday tears down the elaborate platforms we erect that give us a sense of control over our lives and the world around us. It is a day of leveling, reminding us that whoever we are, whatever we have done or failed to do, we are linked by our humanity; a humanity that is neither immortal nor indelible.

In the gospel passage from Matthew appointed for this day Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” What are these treasures Jesus is referring to? It could be money, sure. Many of us have an unhealthy, often miserly relationship with money and we all know, at least intellectually, that we can’t take it with us when we die. But our treasures are also the things around which we build our identities — the things we’re convinced define us. Academic degrees, awards, jobs, clothes, families, cars, houses, hobbies. Much of this is good stuff but it’s not who we really are.

Because when you strip everything else away, our sole identity in this life is as a child of God. That’s the essence of who we are and why we’re here. We add so many layers over the course of our lifetimes this is easy to forget. Lent allows us to strip away the layers and return to the natural beauty of our humanity. But just as, if you’ve ever tried stripping the paint off an old piece of furniture, it’s hard work. Many of the layers seem permanent and it takes much effort to get down to the wood. People often give up and move on to the next, easier project. But if you stick with it, if you endure the frustration and the hard work, the original beauty begins to shine forth and you’re both reminded of why you started the project in the first place and rewarded for your effort.

So how do you begin stripping away the layers? How do you return to your true identity as God’s beloved. The season of Lent offers us a unique opportunity for self-examination and repentance. A time to take stock of the layers we’ve built up that distance us from God and to return to the essence of what defines us, which is relationship with God in Christ.

When you engage in a Lenten discipline — not giving up chocolate or Fritos but something like setting aside time for daily prayer or spending 10 minutes a day reading Scripture or learning about and being inspired by saints — you begin to get back to your true identity. You start chipping away at the false assumption that we can do everything ourselves, that we don’t need any help, that we are fully in charge of our lives.

Ash Wednesday puts us in our place. It reminds us that this false sense of security only goes so far. In stark language it reminds us of our humanity — our sinfulness and wretchedness in the face of the divine. And nothing quite forces introspection like being reminded of our own mortality — something many of us spend a lifetime denying.

In a few moments, we will impose ashes with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s a sobering thought; a painful reminder that all of our strivings in this mortal life are ultimately for naught. Despite our worldly successes and triumphs, despite the deep emotions and connections we all experience, we are mere dust — meaningless, ephemeral dust.

But only outside the concept of the Resurrection. Because of Christ’s resurrection — toward which this entire Lenten season points — when we die we don’t just return to dust, we return to God.

And so Ash Wednesday also sounds a note of hope. For in the midst of our sinfulness, God’s forgiveness is absolute. In the midst of our brokenness, God’s abounding mercy is steadfast. In the midst of our turning away, God welcomes us back again and again and again.

As you receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross remember also that the sign of the cross was made on your forehead when you were baptized with the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In other words, you have already been indelibly marked, not with the dust of ashes but with the glory of everlasting life in God’s eternal care.

Ash Wednesday does indeed put us in our place. But it’s a good place to be. A holy place to be. A hopeful place to be. And for that we can rejoice.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Last Sunday after Epiphany 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on March 2, 2014 (Last Epiphany, Year A)

“Transfiguration” is not a commonly used word. I don’t think I’ve ever used it outside the context of preaching on this passage. It means a change in appearance, usually with an other-worldly connotation. In church circles it refers to the specific event we just heard about in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus hauled three disciples up a mountain and became transfigured before them. We hear a version of this story every year on the last Sunday before the start of Lent — and here we are.  

At first glance this whole scene reads like a cheap third grade production with cheesy special effects and some rickety steps for a mountain. You can imagine the shadowy figures of Moses and Elijah clawing at their itchy fake beards and an awkward pause as the stage hands scramble to dim the lights before shining a spotlight on Jesus to simulate the moment when his face and clothes become dazzling white.

So what’s going on here? The Transfiguration of Jesus, while an account that has confounded readers and preachers alike over the years, is ultimately a story of identity. The three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain, Peter, James, and John, are offered a glimpse of Jesus in his resurrection glory. As a foretaste of what is to come, it’s as fleeting as it is dazzling. Jesus’ divinity literally comes shining forth as he is transfigured before the frightened disciples. 

Their reaction is natural. Slightly comical perhaps as they dramatically fling themselves to the ground and Peter’s offer to make three “dwellings” is absurd, a caught-in-the-headlights paralysis mixed with the urge to do something. Kind of like when Bryna’s water broke and I ran into the kitchen to boil water. Seriously. Of course we know the context, we know the end of the story so we can watch their reaction with a certain bemused detachment. But like Peter and James and John, most of us are frightened by what we cannot understand. And so often we, like Peter, want to do something.

Whenever we hear of a friend or neighbor or fellow parishioner who has suddenly been admitted to the hospital or who has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease or even that someone has died, our first response is often “What can I do?” The spouse or parent or companion generally mumbles something thankful — but in the immediate aftermath of such an event they often don’t know what they need. And that “What can I do” response is both for the family but also for us. We want to do something concrete; we want to be of service; we want to alleviate the pain; we want to help.

There’s no more helpless feeling than wanting to fix something that’s completely out of our control. This is precisely the situation when a friend or loved one is suffering and we want to do something to alleviate the pain. Yes, there are often practical things that need or can be done for someone in need. But sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all — that advice would have served Peter well. Sometimes it’s best to simply be present, let someone know you care, and offer an unspoken hug. 

Now Peter’s response to build three dwellings has been interpreted in several ways. Some see it as a natural response of a person of faith encountering the divine presence. The idea of building what has also been translated as booth or tent or tabernacle was to honor these three giant figures of the faith. It may also have been a way to memorialize the moment; to freeze time so that Jesus wouldn’t have to endure the suffering that was to come, the suffering that Jesus told Peter he was soon to endure. 

You may recall that just before this, Jesus told the disciples about his impending crucifixion. Peter took him aside and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” To which Jesus famously replies, “Get behind me, satan — you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” So you can see the dark mood settling in over Peter, James, and John as they realize the end is drawing near.

These may all be true in part, but knowing Peter’s impetuous nature, I still think, given the circumstances and his frame of mind at this point, he just freaked out and wanted to do something.

But let’s get back up the mountain for a moment. We desperately crave so-called mountaintop experiences, moments when we feel especially connected to God or spiritually plugged in. They’re always more elusive than we hope and when you have one you just want to press the pause button and revel in it before inevitably heading back down the mountain. This last Sunday before Lent is like a pregnant pause. Before we move from the mountain to the wilderness we stand on the mountaintop and enjoy the view. Again, that might have been part of Peter’s thinking — to extend the experience. 

The thing about the mountaintop, though, is that it’s hard to reach. It’s slow going getting up the mountain. We don’t hear about Jesus and the disciples journeying up the mountain. The stumbles, the twisted ankles, the huffing and puffing, the frustrated feeling that you’re never going to make it. The reality is that mountaintop experiences don’t usually just happen. There are no shortcuts, no one can hike up the mountain for you. We spend a lot of time diligently climbing our own spiritual mountains. But the more you dedicate yourself to a life of prayer and spiritual growth, the more mountaintop experiences you’ll enjoy. I promise. That’s the real opportunity of the season of Lent but more about that next week.

Now let’s be honest, bright lights and a voice coming out of the clouds aren’t exactly everyday occurrences. Yet as awe-inspiring as this encounter with God may be, I think what happens next is just as moving, just as awe-inspiring. After the three disciples fall to the ground in terror, Jesus approaches the disciples, touches them, and lifts them up. There’s a wonderful tenderness in this moment as we move from divine encounter to human touch. From Jesus in his resurrected glory to Jesus in his compassionate humanity.

When you find yourself seeking to help someone, trying to “do” something, I encourage you to follow Jesus’ example. Touch, pray, walk. Your loving presence is often the most important thing you can “do.” That presence can be face-to-face or remote through the presence and power of prayer. But it matters, it helps, not because you can fix every situation but because you can model the presence of Jesus who never forsakes us and who always accompanies us along our respective journeys up the mountain.

I invite you to allow the bright light of transfiguration that shines forth this day to illuminate your journey into the wilderness. Allow Jesus to touch you, to lift you up, to accompany you down the mountain to the wilderness of Lent. And then prepare to accompany Jesus through Lent to the very foot of the cross. And from the cross right back to the bright light of resurrection glory.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 9, 2014 (5 Epiphany, Year A)

imagesUnless you’re a farmer, you probably don’t measure many things by the bushel. You may not even have any idea what a bushel basket looks like. The only reason I’ve ever seen one is because I’m from Maryland and when you’re having a big summer party you might order a bushel of crabs — that’s one of the standard measurements for hard shell crabs out of the Chesapeake Bay. You either get them by the dozen, half bushel or a full bushel. Depending on the size of the crabs, a bushel could mean anywhere from 60 to 100 crabs. Throw in some sweet corn and a keg of cheap beer and you’ve got yourself a crab feast.

The bushel baskets used by fishermen or farmers are typically made of wood — think Hingham bucket but larger and flimsier (see, I know my context — that’s one of those rules from Preaching 101). So when Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand,” picture a wooden basket covering a lamp. It’s a great illustration because it’s so absurd. You can almost see Jesus smirking and hear him speaking in a voice reminiscent of Captain Obvious: “No one in their right mind would put a lamp under a basket.”

But what’s he really talking about here? Jesus starts out by talking about light and salt. Now to us these are pretty pedestrian things. If we need salt we go down to Stop & Shop and pick up that big blue container of Morton’s. Or if we’re feeling fancy, we might go to the Fruit Center and pick up some gourmet rock salt. It’s such a common commodity that if you’re desperate you can even go into McDonalds and borrow a few of those tiny salt packets that are wedged between the straws and the ketchup pump.

This is one of those times when we need to dip into the cultural context of Biblical times Morton-Salt-photo-by-flickr-user-_nickdbecause salt — an important preservative as well as flavoring — was a luxury item in Jesus’ day. In fact, the expression he’s “worth his salt” came about because the Roman soldiers were paid in salt rather than currency. So to say someone is worth his salt meant then, as it still does, that someone was worthy of their salary and status.

Light is something else we take for granted these days. It’s dark? Flip the switch and the room is suddenly and magically illuminated. We think so little of natural light because Thomas Edison enabled us to function without it. But in Jesus’ time, if you didn’t get done what needed doing during the day, your opportunity was likely lost. If you were lucky enough to have an oil lamp you maximized its use and you certainly wouldn’t be covering it up with a bushel basket. 

Jesus goes on to compare us to this precious and valuable light and calls us the “salt of the earth.” Now in John’s gospel we’re used to hearing about Jesus as the Light of the World. We talk about the Light of Christ. But here Jesus calls us, you and me, the “light of the world.” And it’s hard not to think, ‘Um, excuse me, Jesus but have you ever actually met me? Light of the world? I’m barely the light of my own house.’

Yet this is exactly the point. Jesus knows us, loves us, and despite our humanity and brokenness, calls us to shine forth and illuminate the world. Easier said than done, of course, but Jesus goes on to tell us how and why. “Let your light shine before others,” he says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We’re challenged to live in the world as followers of Jesus, not just on Sunday morning but at every moment of our lives, allowing our good deeds and all the ethical decisions and choices we face on a daily basis to be consistent with Jesus’ message of love for God and one another.

That’s enough of a challenge in itself but it doesn’t stop there. As a parish community, we also need to shine forth in the world. We can’t let this beautiful Weymouth stone and slate roof serve as a bushel basket covering a light that shines only inside our four walls. 

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” That’s a tough statement especially if you’re a faithful member of a parish community. It’s not that we wouldn’t want to reach out to help the poor and it’s not as if we don’t think it’s important to share the Gospel with those beyond our walls. But, frankly, it’s countercultural to think beyond ourselves to such a degree. To support your own parish financially, emotionally, and spiritually and to think all the effort should go to benefit those who are not yet nor may ever become part of this community. We want if not all, at least some bang for our ecclesiastical buck!

williamtemplein1942-abc-500Archbishop Temple is really inviting us to think about the church as a society whose sole purpose is to share the Good News of the Gospel with those beyond itself rather than as a club, a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends every week. Now this is an important aspect of parish life — Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community and it is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency and faith, to be the light of the world. And it is the parish community that offers comfort and help during times of crisis.

But think about Jesus’ approach. He didn’t say “Follow me” to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little stone chapel where they could gather once a week before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation, into becoming the light of the world.

I think a lot of our recent strategic planing work focused around ways to make sure we’re not using this beautiful building as a bushel basket over the light that shines here at St. John’s. Like every parish we’re always seeking to strike the right balance between looking inward and looking outward — between outreach and pastoral care and reaching out to the wider community. 

Parishes are most effective when they hold these three in creative tension with one another. Not by saying “no” to one at the expense of the other but by saying “yes” to all three. This doesn’t mean burn out the clergy and lay leaders in trying to be all things to all people but rather identifying those with gifts in each area and encouraging them to let their own lights shine. I invite you to think about how you might let your light shine through one of the many ministries here at St. John’s. A lot of small lights working together really do have the potential to illuminate the whole world.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

The Presentation of our Lord 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck on February 2, 2014 (Presentation of our Lord)

There’s one designation in life that transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, ethnicity, and any other label you could possibly come up with: generation. You can’t control when you’re born, of course, and so your birth year determines your generation. As much as I might admire those in what we call the Greatest Generation — people who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II — I can’t become a convert from my own Generation X. And I could take computer classes and play XBox until my eyes fell out but I’d still never be a Millennial, as we call the first generation born into our hyper-connected world. 

Generationally, we’re stuck. Now that’s generally not a problem because we all think our generation is the best generation. The generation before us is full of out of touch dinosaurs and the generation after us is populated by entitled young whipper snappers. It’s the generational circle of life.  

This morning we encounter a coming together of different generations. We meet old man Simeon, a Temple priest who had been promised he would not die until he saw the Messiah, and his contemporary, the 84-year-old Anna, a widowed prophet. In walk Mary and Joseph with their 40-day-old infant son Jesus (yes, today is the 40th day after Christmas — you can spend the rest of the sermon doing the math). They were following the custom of the Law of Moses by presenting their firstborn son at the Temple in Jerusalem. What struck me this week is that this was truly an intergenerational moment. 

In modern terms, if Simeon and Anna were of the Greatest Generation, Joseph was probably a Baby Boomer, Mary a Millennial, and Jesus would have been Generation Z, or whatever the new generation is being called. 

This passage also made me think that the Church, and specifically this parish, is one of the few truly intergenerational places left in our society. For generations, multiple generations lived under the same roof but advances in transportation changed this dynamic as families scattered all over the country. This has led to a generational segregation of sorts. For instance if you live at Linden Ponds you may not see a child running around for days at a time. And if you’re a young stay-at-home mom you may go all week without interacting with anyone over the age of 55.

I love looking out on a Sunday morning and seeing every generation imaginable out in the congregation. It’s a sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth as we all gather to pray and sing and give thanks to our Creator. And I love watching this whole community come up to the communion rail with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Church School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers. But everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: Jesus.

This is precisely what Simeon was reaching out to receive in the Temple: Jesus. Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms and was suddenly filled with such a profound sense of peace that the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis — Simeon’s Song –  came pouring forth from his lips. “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.” It is a moment of pure joy. The good news for us is that we, too, can participate in this joy and we don’t even have to wait until the end of our lives to hold Jesus in our hands. We can do so every single week as we reach out our hands to receive the body of Christ. If we truly open our hearts to divine relationship, this becomes a moment of transformation. Precisely how, is the stuff of mystery. But when we reach out our hearts as well as our hands to receive the living Christ, an astounding thing happens. Burdens are lifted, sins are forgiven, grace amazes, joy thrives, and peace abounds. 

20140131seeger-adv-obit-slide-9WAT-jumboIt was hard to think about generations this week without reflecting a bit on Pete Seeger. The 94-year-old folk singer died on Monday and his music and memories have been reverberating ever since. We even sang a few of the spirituals he helped popularize at last night’s S.W.5 service — Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, a song about making it to the Promised Land; We Shall Overcome, a song that became the great anthem of the Civil Rights Movement; and Turn, Turn, Turn!, his song based on the Book of Ecclesiastes that the Byrds turned into a number one hit in 1965. 

I think my great accomplishment this week was walking into a coffee shop the day after he died and insisting they put some Pete Seeger tunes on the sound system. I mean, a coffee shop and Pete Seeger should be a no-brainer, right? They agreed and soon enough I was sitting there banging away on my laptop to the classic “Where have all the flowers gone.” Which is not, mind you, the motto for the parish Flower Guild.

Pete Seeger was an icon of his generation and yet transcended generations. Yes, his protest songs spoke to his own generation often against the previous one — that’s the basic MO of the folk singer — and many didn’t always agree with his politics. But much of his music also transcended generations. “If I Had a Hammer” is known by children and adults, even if its message has different levels of meaning and his songs have been sung in classrooms, union halls, and Carnegie Hall.

The point is faith, like music, can also transcend generations. We’re all at different points on our respective spiritual journeys, we all have different expectations and opinions and hopes and dreams. Yet our unity is in Jesus Christ.

An intergenerational community is not without its challenges. Not everyone agrees on what the church should be and do and where its emphasis should lie. People’s expectations often differ based on the experience of church they grew up with. But intergenerational community provides more joy than challenge and it is truly a gift to be embraced. I encourage you to take advantage of this by leaping over the generational divide. Perhaps this means talking to a young dad during coffee hour or striking up a conversation with an older parishioner you’ve never met; maybe it means taking a risk and teaching Church School even if you no longer or have never had young children at home. 

Whatever the case, I encourage you to metaphorically embrace another generation just as old man Simeon literally did on that day in the Temple as he held Jesus in his arms. And then allow Jesus to embrace you. Fully and completely and with utterly reckless abandon.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

2014 Patronal Feast (Annual Parish Address)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 26, 2014
(St. John the Evangelist)

Well, the honeymoon’s over. I’m in my fifth year as your rector and so it’s about time. You’ve realized I can’t be all things to all people and I’ve been reminded that parishes are fully human institutions. You’ve discovered first hand my strengths and weaknesses and I’ve discovered the gifts and limitations of the parish.

But that’s okay because what is a honeymoon anyway but a relationship lacking in depth? A superficial relationship full of excitement and promise, but short on reality. If the honeymoon is a time when a priest and parish get to know one another, life after the honeymoon is a time when we learn how to live together. Which means, as in a marriage, learning to handle the inevitable ups and downs with honesty, patience, understanding, encouragement, and forgiveness.

Now don’t get me wrong; the honeymoon was wonderful and this building has been a stunning “honeymoon suite.” We’ve done quite well together during this period; the church grew, financial giving went up, and there was lots of energy coursing through the parish. But for a variety of reasons, attendance is down a bit; pledging is down a bit; and while we’re still thriving by most measures and comparatively speaking we’re doing exceedingly well, I’m used to standing up on the Sunday of the Annual Meeting and talking about percentage increases across the board. And I can’t do that this year.

You should know that this blip isn’t unusual — all the studies point to years four and five of a rector’s tenure as the most challenging for both priest and congregation and my personal experience bares this out. But this is also, ultimately, very good news. Because once a rector and congregation push past this mark, they typically enter into an incredibly fruitful period of ministry together; a time when we have worked through the difficult part and now trust and love one another more deeply.

I still believe the Charting Our Course strategic planning process came at a good time. Any earlier and it wouldn’t have authentically reflected people’s thoughts on life at St. John’s; any later and we would have missed an opportunity to get us headed in the right direction. The timing was right to take a long, hard, objective look at our parish — its ministries, governance, leadership, and overall mission.

In a faith community, this type of process naturally stirs up great passion and emotion and the feedback piece of Charting Our Course showed that people care deeply about this parish. I am so very grateful to everyone who participated in this project and for the over 800 individual comments recorded and diligently categorized by our hardworking committee.

In general, the parish is highly satisfied with the experience at St. John’s especially regarding preaching, liturgy, and the strong sense of community. Yet there are several key areas that need improvement and demand attention.

The data indicates that a good portion of the congregation feels their pastoral needs are not being met. That’s not acceptable to me as pastoral care is at the heart of what we do as a community of faith. I’m proud of our pastoral team — a tremendous amount of pastoral work gets done behind the scenes by the clergy, though it’s not something that will show up in a report. In teasing this issue out with the Vestry, with the wardens, and with the Charting Our Course committee, I’ve come to understand that there is a great hunger for a more personal connection with me as the rector.

What I can’t change is my personality and who I am. Some feel that I am emotionally distant and I’m aware that I can come across as not caring but I assure you that’s not the case. I care deeply and passionately about the mission of St. John’s and the people who drive that mission and those fed by that mission. I love what I do, I love doing it here in Hingham, and I look forward to continuing to do so in the years ahead.

What I can change is my approach to certain situations and the allocation of my own time and spiritual energy. While there are large numbers of “fixed” pieces in any given week, there is some flexibility in switching priorities around that I can spend on building deeper relationships. But I need your help. Relationship is a two-way street and so if you’re not feeling connected, please reach out to me. In turn I will be more intentional about reaching out to you and together we can create a culture of communication that better reflects the spirit of Christ in this community.

The other major piece of feedback was about our youth program. Parishioners are not satisfied with it and named it the number one priority for the church to address. Since then, after a year-long search, we have hired a new Youth Minister. I’m excited about Ken’s ministry among us and I’ll be taking an active role in helping set up structures of adult support and input to insure more people are invested in this program. There is no reason, with committed parents and the support of the entire community, that youth ministry can’t thrive at St. John’s.

You’ll hear more about the plan during the Annual Meeting itself but those were two areas I wanted to specifically address. Overall, I believe St. John’s is in an enviable position right now with the opportunity to bring even more connection and meaning to people’s lives through our faith in Jesus Christ. In a word, we have been richly blessed. I’m hopeful for the future and excited to see how this process continues to evolve and unfold as together we discern where God is calling us as a parish in the years ahead.

DCF 1.0Perhaps it was the whole language of Charting Our Course but I’ve been thinking about sailing recently. My father was an avid sailor so I spent some time on boats growing up and while the image of the tiller makes the most sense when reflecting on charting a course, I’ve been thinking more about the keel. The keel is that heavy weight on the bottom of a sail boat that prevents it from capsizing. The breeze may blow a sailboat back and forth — the wind can be your friend when  a stiff breeze keeps you humming along at a good clip. And it can also be a challenge when a storm blows in and the water gets choppy. Through it all the submerged keel quietly does its job of keeping the boat afloat.

Here at St. John’s the keel is not the church or the vestry or the rector — relying on any of these for protection amid the inevitable storms that swirl in parish life will only lead to shipwreck. Our keel is Jesus Christ. And so as we focus on the priorities and direction of this parish, we do well to remember that it is all for the glory of God in Christ. All the best laid strategic plans in the world won’t help if we aren’t cognizant of the keel. In the gospel appointed for today’s celebration of John the Evangelist, Jesus says very simply, “Follow me.” That is precisely and ultimately what we are all called to do as individual Christians and as a Christian community.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am honored and humbled to serve as your rector. And while I will certainly mourn for aspects of it, I’m glad the honeymoon is over. May God bless us all in the year ahead.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014