Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 27, 2014 (Proper 12, Year A)

As a young parent there’s nothing quite like dropping your infant off for the first time at daycare and hearing blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams as you walk out the door. To that point you’d been a pretty good parent. Attentive, loving, doting even; you spent over an hour figuring out how to properly install the car seat; you stayed up all night when he had that terrible virus and you encountered bodily fluids you never even knew existed. You’d experienced depths of love you couldn’t have imagined before you had this child.

But all of this is washed away the moment you hand your child over to a stranger for theimages first time and walk away. You feel like you’ve just sold your first born for a pittance. And yet wracked with guilt, you walk out anyway with guttural screams of abandonment ringing in your ears.

There’s a phrase for this: separation anxiety. But it’s never really clear who’s suffering from it more acutely — you or your child. Because everybody at the daycare center knows that the child will stop screaming at the precise moment you’re out of ear shot. He’ll settle down and have a great day. But even so, for those brief moments, a child does experience the sheer terror of abandonment — and lets everyone within a five-mile radius know about it. At one level this is perfectly understandable — his or her entire world has literally just walked away; everything that’s familiar and comforting has, like Elvis, left the building. (Hopefully this hasn’t been your experience with the nursery here at St. John’s, by the way).

But while we may not kick and scream and pitch a fit when we’re separated from people or things we care about, we are all still subject to separation anxiety at various points in our lives. The end of a relationship, graduation, loss of a job, an empty nest, downsizing to a smaller home, the death of a loved one. These all lead to forms of separation anxiety and at the heart of separation anxiety is fear. Fear that we will never be reunited with something or someone we care about. Fear of abandonment. Fear of the unfamiliar. Fear of change. Fear that things will never be the same.

A lot of what fuels our actions in life is the avoidance of separation anxiety. We hunker down or fail to take risks or live in fear of what others will think. And that’s really no way to exist because it sucks the joy right out of your life.

But guess what? We don’t have to live that way. Faith helps us throw off that living paralysis because we have been given the ultimate assurance — that whatever separation we encounter in our lives, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Think about that for a moment. God loves us so much that he sent his only Son into our world not just to hang out or enjoy the fruits of his Father’s creation or to brag about his divinity, but to be hung on a cross. God loves us so much that he sent his Son into our world despite our infidelity and fickleness and foibles. God loves us so much that he literally gave of himself — his own Son.

That’s the power of the incarnation and that’s the power of God’s love for not just humanity in general but for you in particular. And if that doesn’t drive out fear even in the darkest of days, even in weeks where the news brings us a seemingly endless cycle of violence and tragedy, even in moments when we want to give up, I’m not sure what will.

And when we take separation anxiety out of the equation it all points us toward the Kingdom of Heaven. In our gospel passage Jesus rips off five parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in rapid-fire succession. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and a net. Yikes. If he’d loaded all these parables into a Super Soaker we’d emerge from the encounter completely drenched. Granted, Matthew likely lumped all these teachings about the Kingdom into one section — I can’t imagine Jesus stood up and unleashed this torrent of parables on his hearers all at once. And if we were to take them parable by parable we’d be here all day.

But one thing I’ll say about these parables is that they point us to the small things. Like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast, small acts matter. And if you think about it even Jesus started small. He didn’t show up and start building institutions and endowments; he called a single disciple and then another and another and then started telling stories to small groups of people. His message, like that mustard seed, continued to grow but it started on a tiny scale. And even in what I like to call his rock star stage when the crowds were swarming and pushing in on him, it’s important to remember that Jesus was only speaking to a very small region of the world; one he could get to by foot or by boat. Which makes the miracle of the message and the abundance of the Kingdom that much clearer.

And I think this also offers us hope that even when we feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges we, too, can start small in our response. And the kick-starter may just be remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Because if the fear of death is the ultimate driver of separation anxiety — and I believe it is — the good news of the Christian faith is that death no longer has dominion over us. Because whether we live or die, we are alive through faith in Jesus Christ.

And there is such incredible freedom in that isn’t there? I mean just listen to Paul’s words again, words that are often spoken at funerals but really should be read much more often: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And we don’t have to do anything to earn this. Not matter what we do or fail to do, God’s not going to abandon us. God’s not going to leave us to scream it out at daycare. There may be days when we do some screaming, or want to, but God’s not leaving our side. Ever. For eternity. Until the end of the ages. And that, my friends, is the best news of all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch
Sisters of St. Margaret Convent, Duxbury, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2014

Soon after the sisters moved into their new digs here in Duxbury I was invited by Sister Adele Marie and Sister Carolyn for a tour. Like most people who have had the pleasure of seeing the place, I came away just so impressed by the thought, love, care, and prayer that went into the design. The grounds, the buildings, the presence of the sisters all exude holiness and I love coming down here whenever the opportunity arises.

10518646_324050684424844_2391446240574667474_nI should admit, though, that I’ve become quite the apologist for the sisters on this whole luxury convent on the waterfront thing. Every time I mention “Duxbury” and “convent” in the same sentence I’m always quick to add, “They’ve owned the land since 1908!” We have a tough enough time letting people know we even have nuns in the Episcopal Church and I certainly don’t want people thinking these are exclusive, high-end Episcopal nuns who sip sherry every evening after compline. Though I kind of hope they occasionally do just that.

But anyway, after I was given the whole tour I found myself in Sister Carolyn’s room and I had two thoughts. First, ‘I cannot believe I am actually standing in a nun’s bedroom’ — I assure you that was never a childhood fantasy of mine. And my second thought was, ‘This convent is so amazing! Who’s going to tell my wife I’m running away to become a nun?’ But then I decided I didn’t actually want to spend the rest of my life saying to everyone I met, “No, not that St. Margaret; Margaret of Antioch.” It’s quite a cross you all have to bear.

So who was this Margaret of Antioch we commemorate today? If you hang out with the sisters you probably know something about this woman who may or may not have lived in the late 3rd century. The first thing people usually think about when it comes to Margaret is that dragon — you see it in statues and paintings and iconography and even on the cover of today’s bulletin.

Legend has it that she was swallowed by satan in the form of a dragon but escaped after the cross she always carried with her miraculously grew to the point of bursting through the dragon’s flesh. Thus she’s the patron saint of pregnant women because evidently childbirth feels like a giant cross poking through your stomach. But while this story may be apocryphal, this young woman clearly had a strong faith, suffered great persecution, and was martyred during one of the last waves of persecution.

The gospel appointed for this day includes the parable of the pearl of great price, one of 1960927_283773275119252_1961193212_othree rapid-fire parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. I was interested to learn that Margaret is often depicted with a pearl necklace. The greek word for pearl is margarites which is why pearls are associated with St. Margaret and perhaps the reason this parable shows up on her feast day. Of course, this doesn’t help us alleviate the high-end nun issue since I can’t stop picturing a nun standing on the beach in full habit wearing a pearl necklace and drinking a margarita. But that may just be me.

While dragons may be the realm of fanciful legend and martyrology, they do help us focus on what we are being called to slay in our own lives. And here’s where the extraordinary witness of these Sisters of St. Margaret is so helpful. Their lives exemplify what it means to strip faith down to its essentials. They put prayer — both corporate and individual — at the center of their lives and invite us all to do likewise. They minister among the “least of these” in Haiti and Dorchester and New York City and invite us all to do likewise.

They quietly and passionately inspire those they encounter to deepen their faith, to love God and neighbor, to open their hearts and minds and souls to relationship with the divine in new and life-giving ways. And they do all of this with grace and good humor and love.

In teaching about what is truly valuable, Jesus begins with three concrete examples — the treasure buried in a field, the pearl, the net bursting with fish. Like these three parables, the sisters help us see what is truly valuable in this life. They help us focus on the treasure, on that which really matters. In other words their witness points us again and again toward the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom that is not just up there, away but right here in our midst.

But isn’t there often a lot of confusion around the whole notion of the Kingdom of Heaven? Many people hear the word “heaven” and think Jesus is talking exclusively about a place up in the sky – a place of pearly gates and Saint Peter and angels flying around; a place where everyone has wings and everyone’s in a great mood and George Burns walks around on clouds. The problem is that this makes the Kingdom of Heaven inaccessible to us; it turns it into a place that is remote and away rather than near and “at hand.” And that fails to do justice to the totality and all-encompassing nature of this Kingdom.

Yes, when Jesus talks to his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s with an eye to the future. But Jesus’ reign has already begun with his coming into the world in human form. And these parables point us toward three hallmarks of the Kingdom visible here on earth: joy, beauty, and abundance. The joy of buried treasure, the beauty of the pearl, the abundance of the catch. These Kingdom values are evidence of the life Jesus invites us into through faith in him. And they are precisely the values embodied by the sisters as they share the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with people all over the world.

This is what makes faith so valuable — it’s eternal, not fleeting. It doesn’t fade away or wither, like everything else in this life (including, I might add, valuable beachfront property). Faith endures. Even when we get distracted or fall away, it remains the one constant in this universe.

And so this day challenges us to reflect upon what it is that we could prune in our own lives to help us get back to the basics of faith. What are some things you could sweep away in order to grow your faith and deepen your relationship with Jesus? How might the sisters’ faithfulness inspire and encourage you in your own spiritual life? In what ways can you better incorporate the kingdom values of joy, beauty, and abundance?

Not everyone is called to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience — thanks be to God. But we can all learn lessons from those who are. It’s one of the great gifts offered to us by monastic communities and exemplified by the Sisters of St. Margaret right here in Duxbury.

On this day, may we all be inspired by the faithful witness of St. Margaret of Antioch; may we continue to pray for the sisters and uphold them in their ministry and service to our Lord; and may we remain focused on the Kingdom of Heaven as our hope, our passion, and our salvation.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 13, 2014 (Proper 10, Year A)

“You dirt bag.” That’s a terrible insult. And quite possibly it’s a phrase that’s never been uttered from a pulpit. Please don’t call anyone a dirt bag during coffee hour. It’s not nice. I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen a dirt bag — potting soil from Home Depot, maybe, but not an actual bag of regular old dirt. But the phrase popped into my head because Jesus compares us to dirt in the Parable of the Sower. Well, kind of.

He was really making a point about being receptive to the Word of God and offers four 1339848626727_BULKERBAGWITHSOIL-938x704possible responses to seed being sown. It falls on dirt in a variety of forms — a path, rocky soil, thorny ground, or good soil. And it doesn’t take a genius or a Biblical scholar or a landscaper to figure out the best place for the seed to land.

But before we look at these four options, it’s important to determine what exactly we mean by the “Word of God,” or as Matthew puts it here the “word of the kingdom.” In John’s gospel the logos or Word of God is Jesus Christ himself. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, the Word of God is Jesus himself — his message, his approach, his teaching, his very being.

So the Word of God transcends mere “words,” as important and inspiring as they may be. The Word of God isn’t something that can be bound and stuck on a shelf. The Word of God is dynamic, relational, and alive. And that’s what is being abundantly sown with reckless abandon. If you think of the seed as God’s love for humanity, the miracle here is that it’s an endless supply. There’s no worrying that God as the great farmer in the sky will ever run out.

And from a purely practical point of view that’s a good thing because what farmer in his right mind would waste so much seed. Farmers are very intentional about where they sow their seed precisely because they don’t have an unlimited supply. They don’t toss it on paths and into areas with rocks and thorns. They stick to the good soil because that’s where they get the most bang for their horticultural buck.

As we reflect on this parable, it’s important to remember that the life of faith isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition where we’re either receptive to God or not. This isn’t a passage meant to set up divisions between those who hear God’s word better than others, but a recognition that we all hear and respond to it in different ways at different times in our lives.

Preparing our souls to receive Jesus’ message of hope and salvation and mercy and forgiveness is what we all work toward but there are often things that get in the way along the journey. There are times when we have no idea what God is talking about; times when we get all jazzed about our faith and then something comes up that distracts us and we get pulled away; times when we hear it but we get too busy or comfortable and nothing comes of it. And these are all balanced by those incredible moments or seasons in our lives when we truly do hear the Word of God and understand it and act in accordance with it and enter a place of peace and harmony and spiritual synchronicity.

I have a feeling that the biggest challenge for most of us happens when the seed falls on that thorny ground. The place where we “hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” That seems to be the biggest challenge for those of us living on the South Shore in the early part of the 21st century. The cares of the world loom large for most of us. We’re busy, we’re over-scheduled, we’re stressed out, we’re exhausted, we’re slaves to technology — and that’s just while we’re on vacation! Add financial pressures, children and all their activities and special needs, our own health concerns or those of family members, an endless wave of errands, and it’s no wonder we sometimes really do feel like seeds that have been choked by thorns.

So, recognizing that we all have moments that are not exactly spiritually fruitful, what can we do to make sure that more of God’s abundant grace falls on the good soil of our souls? How can we cultivate better dirt in order to be more receptive to God’s presence in our lives? Well, unfortunately, we can’t encourage quicker spiritual growth by bathing in Miracle-Gro. It takes patient tending to our relationship with God. You can’t go to the local garden center and buy a bunch of plants; you really do have to let the seed take root and water it and make sure it gets enough sun and pull up the weeds around it.

Now, I should pause in the middle of this gardening analogy to admit that when it comes to plants and gardens, I’m like the Grim Reaper. I once killed a big cactus I had in my very first office as a priest. Evidently even a cactus needs some water. We’ve done some gardening at the rectory this spring and summer and I’m good at digging holes where I’m told and pulling weeds when someone helps me distinguish between what needs to come up and what needs to stay and I can water things. But I can’t identify flowers beyond dandelions — or is that a weed?

Anyway, there are some things we can do to be more receptive to the moving of the Spirit in our lives. We can recognize that we’re not being held hostage by the cares of the world; that we do, in fact, have more control over the way we spend our time than we think. Yes, there are things that need to get done and there are things out of our control, but we also have the power to say “no.” We don’t have to do everything and please everybody — we can stop the hamster wheel from spinning simply by stopping to catch our breath every so often. We’re the ones, after all, making it go round and round. Or, to get back to the garden, we can cut back some of the thorns that choke us and leave us gasping for breath.

Think about what you might prune. What’s essential? What’s not? What is it in your life that needs nurturing? Tend to the things that are life-giving rather than life-choking. And you’ll find that the Word of God will grow within you; that your life will be more fruitful; and that the fruits of the spirit — love, joy, hope, kindness, faithfulness — will grow more and more, right along with your relationship with the risen Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 29, 2014 (Proper 8, Year A)

The lectionary, our prescribed cycle of Sunday morning readings, offered a different option for this morning’s Old Testament lesson. So, in good conscience I could have gone with a brief passage from the prophet Jeremiah instead of the binding of Isaac from Genesis. Or, since starting next Sunday we reduce by one our readings for the duration of the summer, I could have just moved that up a week and gone with Romans. And I admit I was tempted. Very, very tempted.

The account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is a tough story. A confusing story. A brutal story. It’s one of those passages we’d all prefer to avoid or skip or ignore. It’s a story that has confounded theologians, preachers, and people of faith for generations — posing tough and challenging questions about the nature of God and the character of one of the great patriarchs of our faith. It’s a lot easier to go the route of conflict avoidance and doing so would make for a much more pleasant Sunday morning for everyone involved. You could greet me at the door after the service, we could shake hands and exchange pleasantries, maybe get some coffee in Upper Weld Hall, and get on with our day.

117714-004-21FFC06CBut I always find it’s important to “lean in” when we encounter these difficult pieces of Scripture rather than acting like Biblical matadors by side stepping the tough passages. Although in the process, sometimes the preacher, as well as the congregation, gets gored. So here we stand ready to take the bull by the horns and confront an abusive, cringe-worthy, therapy-inducing Bible story that we’d rather avoid. Awesome.

Of course, there are ways to justify or explain away the violence embedded in the text. One interpretation of this story — which is absolutely true — is that child sacrifice, if not prevalent, was at least known and practiced in the ancient world. God’s staying of Abraham’s hand at the last minute was a clear message that the God of Israel was not like other gods. That this was a God of loving relationship and mercy; not one who required the wanton destruction of innocent children in the name of appeasement. God had no intention of letting Abraham sacrifice his own son but wanted to make a dramatic statement that there was a new sheriff in town. Which still makes you wonder why God couldn’t have just sent this message via one of his more conventional communication methods like a voice from the clouds, or a stone tablet, or even a fortune cookie. Anything but asking a father to sacrifice his son.

And then there’s Abraham. Really? If God told you to jump off a bridge would you do it? Granted, the Biblical text doesn’t give us insights into Abraham’s inner struggle or emotional turmoil as he wrestled with God’s command but you’d think that any human being with a conscience, let alone a parent, would have at least put up a fight when asked to sacrifice their only child. Or refused outright. Faith is one thing but a blind, unquestioned faith is more Jim Jones or David Koresh than anything we’d see as good and holy and sacred.

And not for nothing but it took a lot to bring this child into the world. No child is expendable but this one took a lot of work. Abraham and Sarah wanted a child more than anything else in the world and, in their old age, were convinced that that ship had long sailed. And who can blame them? I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t see a whole lot of birth announcements sent out from Linden Ponds. And then there was that small matter of the covenant God made with Abraham and the promise that through this child, his descendants would be more numerous than the stars of the sky. In other words there was a lot riding on this young boy and the mere fact of his existence was miraculous. And God seemingly wants to throw it all away.

It’s interesting. Sometimes we like to think we live in more civilized times. We read Scripture and think, yeah that’s fine but no one’s telling us to kill our kids; we’re so much more evolved. We’re all literate, we don’t have barbarians lurking around every corner, and God’s not going to smite us if we act the wrong way or do the wrong thing. We’re not shepherds or nomads, we live on cul-de-sacs. We don’t hear voices emanating from burning bushes, we’re rational beings. We don’t ride around on camels or walk all over tarnation wearing sandals; we drive Audis and wear Nikes. We have laws and government and paved streets and our meat comes shrink-wrapped instead of being wrapped in fur. And we have more technology in our back pockets than they could have ever even conceived of.

But I’m not so sure we can claim to live in more civilized times when school shootings take place in our country seemingly every month; when wars rage all over the world; when millions of men, women, and children go to bed hungry every night; when preventable diseases run rampant; when income inequality between the richest and poorest continues to rise; when access to education is denied to so many; when the earth is being mistreated; when children are abused and domestic violence is an ugly, if often hidden, reality. We could go on and on and on. But you start to realize that for all our advances in some sectors, humanity really hasn’t evolved at all.

And yet, rather than holding all of this up while simultaneously throwing up our hands, we ndpbrecognize that this isn’t what God desires. That’s not the outcome God wants for us. God’s verbal disarming of Abraham is a reminder that God wants us to put away violence and abuse and injustice. He wants us all to put the knife down and step away. To leave behind the life of violence toward one another and move toward a life a mutual respect and love and forbearance. That’s the difference, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that we also heard this morning, between being a slave to sin and being obedient to righteousness. Of being encumbered by wrong desires which leads to self-destruction and utter hopelessness and being set free to live a life of joy and peace and hope.

I think God wanted Abraham to show some fight, to argue, to contend with God rather than passively do as he was told. We do have choices. And too often we put so much faith in our selves and in our own intellect that we truly believe faith is optional. Something that’s nice; something we do to make us feel good or virtuous. And trust in God becomes an add-on, not a way of life. It becomes something we do only if it’s convenient and doesn’t impinge upon our own desires or our own perceived personal liberties.

Faith in Jesus Christ reminds us that there are some things that need to be sacrificed in our lives. Things that keep us from full, life-giving relationship with God. And there are some things that need to be unbound and set free in our lives; things that keep us from full, life-giving relationship with one another. The one thing that’s clear in the midst of all of this, is that when we, like Abraham, do put our faith in God, the Lord will indeed provide.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

Trinity Sunday 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 15, 2014 (Trinity Sunday)

A priest friend of mine from Lexington, Kentucky, came to Boston this week and I spent Wednesday with her doing “Boston stuff.” Granted with two priests involved there were a lot of churchy things on the list — some of which were planned and some of which were 10463914_10151867634167609_6417863697744260883_nserendipitous. One of the best parts was calling in a favor and having the rector of Old North Church take us to the top of the tower on one of the clearest days of the year.

Wow is that high up — and definitely not part of the regular or even “behind-the-scenes” tour. Climbing up a bunch of increasingly narrow wooden ladders, past the oldest bells in the United States, I could almost see the headline in the Globe about the three Episcopal priests who plunged to their deaths trying to warn the city about the arrival of the Redcoats 239 years too late. You may recall that in last week’s sermon I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of heights.

Laurie and I also happened to stumble into the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill just in time for Evening Prayer which was a great precursor to a dozen oysters at the Union Oyster House. In between, we hit Paul Revere’s House, talked our way into Trinity Church in Copley Square, without paying the $7 entrance fee which I think is unconscionable, walked through the Public Library, went to the diocesan offices where we ran into retired bishop BarBp3EEKtCQAAxcUk.jpg-largebara Harris — the first woman to ever be consecrated a bishop — and took a selfie, walked to the MFA, and a bunch of other stuff before getting back on the ferry. It was a full day, an awesome day, and my feet still hurt.

But along the Freedom Trail we also poked into some of the churches on the route. Kings Chapel, Old South Meeting House, Park Street; and got into a conversation about Christian Scientists as we passed but didn’t go into that massive center on Mass Ave. All of these different faith traditions are self-described as “non-creedal” which simply means they don’t have a creed to anchor their beliefs.

I’ve been reflecting on this ever since as this morning we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the theology of which is outlined in the words we recite every week in the Nicene Creed. We are decidedly a “creedal” faith. We use the Nicene Creed on Sundays, we say the Apostles Creed every day during Morning and Evening Prayer and at baptisms and funerals. There’s even the Athanasian Creed in the Historical Documents section of the Prayer Book which, while liturgically unwieldy, is great to check out during boring sermons about the Trinity.

But what does it mean to be a creedal faith? Do we have to sign on the dotted line? What if we have some doubts? Does it then become disingenuous to say the Creed every week? Does it make us less of a Christian or a lousy Episcopalian? Should we just lip synch the parts we struggle with like a spiritual Milli Vanilli?

Here’s the thing about creeds — it’s important to put a stake in the ground as a church and say this is what we believe. And if you strip everything else away we need to believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Holy Spirit breathes life and renewal into everything we do, and that we come together as a community to worship and then be sent out into the world to live out this faith. That’s the heart of it; that’s what makes us Christians.

But let me give you permission right here, right now, to have some doubts. People of faith have a long tradition of doubt and in a lot of ways I see doubt as the flip side of an authentic faith. Unless you have doubts, unless you test your faith and question it, it sits on the surface of your heart rather than truly getting into the bloodstream and becoming that which allows you to live and move and have your being.

This reading from Matthew’s gospel includes the very last sentences of his account of Jesus’ foray among us. And we hear, “When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” And you know what? Jesus doesn’t care. He doesn’t say, “Okay, all you true believers, go over here and all you doubters, go away.” Guess what? If we banished those who ever had doubts about their faith, the church wouldn’t exist. There would literally be no one left. No parishioners, no clergy, no one would be stirring, not even a church mouse.

But Jesus doesn’t even address this issue, he simply says “go.” Go out and share this faith that you have been given. Go baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Don’t sit around navel-gazing and wallowing in your doubts, get out and live your lives and all will be revealed in time.

And his very last word to the disciples is this: “Remember that I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In other words, you may not do things perfectly, heck you may even make a royal mess of things, but I will be there. I will never forsake or forget you. I will be present with you in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Being faithful doesn’t mean things will always be rosy — in fact I guarantee you’ll end up in some pretty painful and uncomfortable situations. But I will be there offering relationship and solace, hope and comfort.

And that’s why a creedal faith matters; that’s why reveling in the fullness of God that is the Holy Trinity matters. Ultimately, it’s not about theories or formulas or theology but about relationship with God and one another. That’s why we’re here — both in the cosmic sense of “why do I exist” (which is why we heard the Creation story this morning) and in the literal sense of “this is why I go to church” (which is why we heard about those disciples, some of whom continued to have some serious doubts).

IMG_3077Last week on Pentecost we had a few baptisms — five to be precise, but who’s counting? One of the things I love about baptisms is that you can get all your theology lined up and talk about why we do this and what it means when we call something a sacrament and why we baptize in the name of the Trinity but then a baby squirms or screams and some water gets splashed around and we realize that relationship with God isn’t always neat and tidy. It can be messy and disjointed and imprecise. We may not always understand or subscribe to the right formula. But it’s all okay; we can color outside the lines and God still loves us. And Jesus will indeed be with us through it all, even to the end of the age.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Pentecost 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 8, 2014 (Pentecost)

There is some really bad Pentecost clip art out there. I know, because after seeing someone post what looked like a flaming pigeon on Facebook, Google and I did a little poking around.

Now in fairness, the Holy Spirit is hard to conceptualize. Traditional imagery includes flames, as we heard in our reading from Acts that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among the disciples.” Wind, as in “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” A dove, as when Jesus is baptized and we hear that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove.” So wind, fire, dove. Kind of like Earth, Wind, and Fire but different.

All of these are metaphors, of course, as we hear the Spirit described “as of fire,” “like a violent wind,” and “like a dove.” If teachers were allowed to talk about the Holy Spirit in a middle school English class, this would be a textbook lesson on the use of the simile. So the Spirit is tough to pin down both as an image and as a concept. You can’t hold onto or grab ahold of wind or flame and neither can you control them. I guess you could theoretically grab a dove but I think you get the point. If there was ever a strong reminder that we’re not actually in control of the things that happen in our lives, the Holy Spirit is Exhibit A.

Because the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It can churn things up inside, it can knock you off your feet, it can blow the lid off our preconceived notions, it can challenge us with new ideas whether or not we’re ready for them. An encounter with the Spirit in your life isn’t always a comfortable experience but I find that once we stop resisting, once we stop fighting a battle we can never win, we’re often left with that elusive sense of peace that surpasses all human understanding. And we can start living again.

I’ve been thinking about my own personal metaphor for the Holy Spirt especially in light of
82nd_Airborne_Mass_Jump-JSOH2006 Friday’s 70th anniversary of D-Day. 25 years ago this August I found myself at Fort Benning, Georgia, having volunteered to go to Airborne School to be trained as a paratrooper. I was an Army ROTC cadet at the time and afraid of heights so naturally I decided I needed to jump out of an airplane.

The “friendly” instructors stress two things over the first couple of weeks of ground training before you make your five jumps to qualify for your Airborne Wings: how to exit the aircraft and how to land. Since it’s the equivalent of jumping off a ten foot wall, you spend a lot of time learning how to land. And it’s painful. But I want to focus on the other piece of this — learning how to properly jump out the door.

There’s a training apparatus/torture device called the 34-foot tower. Why 34 feet? Because Army engineers determined that this was the precise height where fear was maximized — you’re not so high up that everything on the ground looks fake and you’re not so low that it looks safe. Now, it doesn’t help that these wooden towers were built during World War II and they kind of sway back and forth as you climb up the rickety stairs with a bunch of other nervous soldiers.

When it’s your turn, you get hooked up to a harness and free fall about four feet before your line catches and yanks you back down on a zip line. Chin down, eyes open, feet and knees together, count to four. Each exit gets evaluated by one of the instructors and you have to do it properly three times in a row before you “pass” that portion of the training. Which generally ends up taking a few days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnyway, when you’re actually up in the airplane and standing in the door, it’s loud, it’s windy, it’s unnerving and then suddenly the green light goes on and you leap out into what feels like the abyss. We were taught to leap out rather than to just fall out to make sure your lines don’t get caught in the big propellers of that massive C-130. That would not end well. And in those four long seconds before your parachute deploys, you feel like a rag doll caught in a tornado (that’s another simile for those keeping score).

And to me that is precisely what it feels like when the Holy Spirit grabs ahold of you. Sometimes it takes you where you’d rather not go; sometimes it completely disorients you; sometimes its sheer force overwhelms you; sometimes it makes you feel utterly powerless.

So how is the Spirit working in your own life? It may be urging you to take a new career path or join a ministry at church that might be out of your comfort zone or pursue a passion you’ve neglected or reach out to an estranged friend or family member. Sometimes the Spirit moves like that violent wind but sometimes it’s more of a gentle breeze.

But how do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit or something of your own invention? Something you’ve made up out of thin air? A reflection of your own desires rather than God’s? That’s where listening and discernment and testing come in. First, we can’t listen unless we make room for some intentional silence in our lives. Second, we need to have conversations with wise friends or counselors. Third, we need to try things out. If it’s not truly of the Spirit, God will let you know. And if it is, I guarantee that powerful feeling of discombobulation will yield to an overwhelming sense of peace.

After you leap out into that violent rush of wind known as the prop blast and you’ve gotten separation from the airplane and your chute opens up, the contrasting silence and peacefulness of the descent is remarkable. It’s just like what happens after the Holy Spirit knocks you down and you suddenly find yourself exactly where you need to be doing exactly what you need to be doing. You enter into that sense of peace and let it wash over you and know that Jesus is with you.

Now, the ground starts to come up awfully quick so you can’t stay in this state of reverie British Paratrooper Landing During Exercisefor very long. The whole point of military jumps is to get as many people onto the ground in as short a time as possible so you’re only in the air for about a minute before reality starts to rapidly rise up to meet you.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just about some individual, personal spiritual experience. We take the experience and hit the ground running; sharing our faith with others; opening our hearts to one another in Jesus’ name; becoming part of a faith community that acts as Jesus’ own hands and heart here on earth. And so on this day we say, whether we’re ready or not, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday of Easter 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 18, 2014 (Easter 5, Year A)

It’s a truism of real estate that the house you really want is the one just out of your price range. The one you’re living in is fine but imagine if you had that water view or that finished basement or the slightly bigger yard or the double sink in the master bath. I really do think it’s human nature to covet thy neighbor’s kitchen renovation. And, really, who doesn’t love an upgrade? Whether it going from coach to first class, from bleachers to box seats, or from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5, upgrades are awesome! And we have one in this morning’s gospel passage. Sort of.

The first six verses of the 14th chapter of John are often proclaimed at funerals. Like the 23rd Psalm “In my Father’s house are many mansions” has been a source of pastoral comfort over the years to many in the midst of grief. The translation we hear today is slightly more pedestrian than the “mansions” of the King James Version. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” I’m not sure about you but I’d prefer the upgrade. I’d prefer the “mansion” to the “dwelling place” which could be anything from a 1950’s era ranch house to a center-hall colonial to a third floor walkup.

newport-mansions-breakers-1But whether it’s a mansion in Newport or a condo in Southie, Jesus is really taking about about home. In a very real way, death is a homecoming. And there is always great allure and comfort in going home. Home is not just where the heart is; it’s a place to lay down your burdens; a place where you can take off the mask; a place where you can simply be. A place of unconditional love; a place where you’re loved and accepted despite what you may have done or failed to do. Jesus leads us along the way and welcomes us home when we arrive.

And yet heaven isn’t some fancy subdivision in the sky. The mansion language points not to a physical structure with every possible amenity but to a place of abundant relationship with the risen Christ. It is a “dwelling place” in that Jesus dwells with us in the next life. Intimately, lovingly, continually.

At one level it’s kind of odd that we read this passage during Eastertide. It’s part of a long section known as John’s Farewell Discourse as Jesus prepares the disciples for his death; for what life will be like for them after the crucifixion. But it’s strange to be hearing this now since we’re hearing him say goodbye just after he’s returned through the resurrection. ‘He’s back! What? You’re leaving again? So soon?’

But at a very base level, this is a passage of reassurance. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” There’s a pastoral sensitivity for his friends who will feel left alone and abandoned and full of grief. And Jesus tells them it will be okay. That the relationship will change but that through their belief in him, they will be brought into communion with him in a new way. Fear of abandonment clouds our perspective and Jesus is lovingly helping them refocus — “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Breathe. It will be okay. Which is at the heart of the burial rite — and the reason we so often read this passage at funerals.

Yet mansion language aside, Jesus isn’t merely the butler who welcomes us to our fancy new house. “Well, done good and faithful servant, can I bring you some tea?” But when we die, Jesus welcomes us into new and abiding relationship with his arms open wide in welcome. That’s the promise and the comfort in these words and they may well have been resonating in Stephen’s ears as he was martyred.

We hear the account of his death by stoning in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that account of the early church we’ve been reading throughout this season. Stephen is acknowledged as the church’s first martyr or “proto-martyr” in fancy ecclesiastical language. He was a deacon who stood up for his faith and was killed for it. His feast day is December 26th and many of you will know this from the carol Good King Wenceslas. I can’t remember the words offhand but it goes, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah on the Feast of Stephen.”

Anyway, as the church was growing, the disciples realized they needed more leaders to help comfort and distribute food to the poor. Stephen was among the seven they set apart for this ministry and we hear him described as both “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and as being “full of grace and power.”After a long speech before his accusers that proclaimed Christ as the messiah we hear the result in this morning’s passage. He is stoned to death.

As the rocks are being hurled at him by the angry mob, Stephen prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” which sounds like Jesus’ prayer “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” And just before he dies he cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” reminiscent of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus knows that some of his followers will endure violent deaths and he knows that all of his followers, like you and me, will one day die. This story and many others remind us that religious conflict often does end in violence. As does picking up a newspaper.

One story in the news this week was about a Christian woman in the Sudan who was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy by a radical Muslim court in Khartoum. 27-year-old Meriam Ibrahim, who is 8-months pregnant, was also sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery. The adultery charge had nothing to do with an extra-marital relationship — it was because she married a Christian man.

When given a four-day window in which to recant and have the charges dropped, she said simply, “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” Persecution in the name of religion has taken place for thousands of years — perpetrated both by and against Christians. Stephen was the first Christian Martyr; Meriam may well become the latest. But at the root of it all is faith — not a wishy washy faith or a faith of convenience or a faith of habit but a deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer.

Martyrdom isn’t something to aspire to but such strength of faith is. It’s what allows us to proclaim in every aspect of our lives, “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” The powerful witness of the martyrs is the unwavering belief in the homecoming of faith. The violence is temporary but the entrance into God’s bosom is eternal. So we remember Stephen, we pray for Meriam and her family, and we stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck