Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 19, 2014 (Proper 24, Year A)

canonad1“Image is everything.” That phrase has been around for a long time but in the early 90’s it was the wildly successful slogan for Canon cameras featuring ads with a young, long-haired Andre Agassi back when he was the number one tennis player in the world. Image is not everything, of course, unless you’re talking about photography, in which case I guess it actually is. Because when we talk about public personas or images we’re really talking about the superficial plane. Dig a little deeper and things aren’t always as they appear on the surface.

Take this moment in the life of St. John’s. If we took a snapshot of this parish today on October 19, 2014, the image wouldn’t be so crisp and clear. Deacon Geof just moved to New Hampshire where he took a new job; Mother Anne is moving to Oregon in a couple of weeks to become rector of her own church; Dr. Fred is moving to Illinois next month to become the director of music at a cathedral in Springfield; and, if that wasn’t enough, I just found out this week that we need a new boiler. Seriously.

Now these are all great opportunities for Geof, Anne, and Fred — and we can rejoice with them in their new callings. But let’s be honest. The timing is brutal! Several people have half-jokingly asked me recently, “Are you starting to take it personally?” And of course not — well, except for the boiler. I am pissed off at the boiler. But as a parish we truly are at a place of great transition and great opportunity. Which is really just a euphemism for “Oh my God, everybody’s leaving!”

But after the initial freak out — and thanks for letting me get that out of my system — we remember that nothing really changes. The snapshot is out of focus but when we zoom out and take the broad view, we see the many blessings that abound. St. John’s is unique in its stability — I mean, I’m just the fourth rector in a hundred years. Considering the median tenure for a rector these days is five years, St. John’s is doing something right.

We expect staff to come and go, of course, just as parishioners move in and out of this community. And this has been a terrific place of learning and ministry for generations of clergy and musicians and parishioners over the years. You need look no further than our current bishop who began his ordained ministry right here — in fact I think I’ll put that in the job description for Anne’s position: “Come to St. John’s and become the next Bishop of Massachusetts!”

But we also need to remember that the one constant at this parish and in our own lives, which can be fraught with transition and change, is Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone of our faith. Whatever image we’re trying to project, that’s one thing that never changes.

Because the Christian faith is not about image; it’s about hope. And so if on the surface of things the image we’re projecting at this moment doesn’t match the perfect, fully-staffed, Christmas card parish (with a working boiler), we just need to take a moment for some healthy introspection. And when we do that, we see the incredible joy and abundance and continuity at St. John’s.

But first, let’s talk a bit more about image. When it comes to this gospel passage, imageTiberian_denarius really is everything. Or at least the image of the emperor on that Roman coin Jesus asks to see. The Pharisees, with malice in their hearts, ask Jesus a seemingly very black and white question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Now the the tax in question was the annual tax to Rome and it was controversial among the Jews. Roman collaborators like the Temple authorities and tax collectors profited from it while those sympathetic to the cause of resistance against the Roman oppressors considered it anathema. Refusing to pay it was an act of treason.

So the question itself was a trap. If Jesus answered “yes” he would have been discredited with the masses wanting to throw off the Roman government. Yet answering “no” would have made him subject to arrest. It was the ultimate no-win situation and you can just imagine the anticipatory silence as everyone turned toward Jesus thinking, “How’s he going to get out of this one?”

The brilliant response is necessarily ambiguous: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Now, what this isn’t, is a rationale for the separation of church and state. Nor is it IRS-sponsored subliminal messaging to remind you to file your tax returns in a timely manner.

With his answer, Jesus offers us a choice. Are you going to put your trust in things temporal or things eternal? Are you going to place your faith in the things on the surface of life or in the things at the core? Are you going to cast your hope on the superficial things that fade away or on that which endures. Are you going to believe in the human authority of the emperor or in the divine authority of God?

That’s what Jesus is getting at here. And it’s a reminder that ultimately everything we see and everything we own and everything we are, belongs to God. Given the finite period of human existence, we are all merely temporary stewards of our resources.

So whether you earned it with blood, sweat, and tears or inherited it, it’s not yours. And when we start viewing the world through this lens, generosity flows organically. We want to give back and share the things that are God’s with the church and with others less fortunate than we are. Pledging to this congregation is a tangible way to praise the God from whom all blessings flow. And you know what? Once you let go of the fear and embrace a spirit of generosity, you will find incredible freedom. (Oh, did I mention today is Stewardship Sunday?).

And so even amid the change that is swirling around us, indeed because of the change swirling around us, I invite you to invest in this community, to invest in your faith, to invest in the ministries that draw us closer to God and one another. This is the perfect time for us to collectively drive our stake into the ground and proclaim for all to hear and know that we are people of faith and that it is a faith that matters and that it is a faith that transforms and that it is a faith that gives our lives meaning and that it is a faith that transcends the shifts and changes that life throws at us.

Image is everything. But not the image we may want to project to the world — images of strength and invulnerability and perfection. That is not a sustainable image, not because we’re weak or bad or hopeless but because we’re human. The good news in this is that we are made in the image of God. That’s the image that is everything. That’s the image that brings wholeness to the broken places in our lives. And when you are part of a faith community that is formed in the image of God, you can’t help but do your part to keep it healthy, vibrant, faithful, and thriving.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist 
in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 5, 2014 (Proper 22, Year A)

“Everything I know about the 10 Commandments, I learned in Sunday School.” Okay, that’s not entirely true. Which means I have just borne false witness. From the pulpit. During a sermon on the 10 Commandments.

tencommscriptural-1But for many of us, there’s at least some truth to this. For generations, almost every Sunday School room in all of Christendom had a yellowing poster board cut into the shape of two tablets bearing the 10 Commandments — five on each side with the requisite Roman numerals.

It’s a classic lesson and we like it because it’s very clear cut. Do this, don’t do that, live happily ever after. Plus parents get a lot of mileage out of the “honor thy mother and father” bit when the cherubs start getting sassy. “Remember what you learned in Sunday School,” we chide — because vague threats are always a great way for kids to connect with their faith. Many of us memorized these commandments even if we didn’t really know what they all meant or got the wording confused. Like the child who was convinced the seventh commandment was “Thou shalt not admit adultery.”

I do think some of the traditional attraction to the 10 Commandments is because so much of faith comes in shades of gray — as with any real relationship, our interaction with and connection to God is complex. But the 10 Commandments, well, it doesn’t get any more black and white than that, right? They’re indelibly chiseled into stone, handed down directly from God, and there’s a certain finality to the Commandments. Obey them and live, disobey them and die. It doesn’t get any more unambiguous than that.

The irony is that despite the fact that one of the commandments states, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” or in the more familiar King James language, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” some have turned the 10 Commandments themselves into an idol; into something to be worshipped in itself rather than something that points back to God.

But that’s not the point. At all. The 10 Commandments are about relationship, they’re not a litmus test. Yet time after time whenever we hear about them in the news they’re the focus of a highly publicized legal squabble. There’s always great drama whenever some group wants to put them up in a public square as some sort of moral guide to the community and some who call themselves Christians use them as stone tablets to metaphorically bash people over the head. Which must please God to no end. It’s no wonder we’ve ended up having such a complicated relationship with the 10 Commandments. We want the commandments themselves, just not the political baggage and not-so-subtle religious bigotry that comes with them.

So we’re wise to remember that these commandments were very much handed down in a10commandments particular context. When we yank them out of their original circumstances and erect a freestanding monument next to an American flag, we miss the larger point. They were given to a nomadic people wandering in the wilderness who craved structure, identity, and direction in their relationship with God as mediated through Moses.

So the 10 Commandments themselves were not simply a moral straight jacket, they were meant to help shape and form a people into the image of the God who had created them, freed them, and loved them fiercely. The laws are given to shape the people of Israel into a holy nation, into a people whose identity is based exclusively upon relationship with their God. The laws are a symbol of God’s covenant with the people but they are not the covenant in and of themselves. In other words, the commandments point to relationship. They are a tangible sign that God invites the people to be as devoted to God as God is devoted to them. God loves the people of Israel with fiery passion and expects them to do likewise.

And again when we look at the specific laws, context is key. The command to forsake idols and “have no other gods before me” was poignant because every other tribe or people were doing just that. To not worship a variety of statues and household gods was completely counter-cultural. This emphasis on monotheism was, again, something that set the Israelites apart and formed their identity as God’s Chosen People.

The ethical portion of the Commandments weren’t necessarily new but they were critical to the formation and sustainment of a new community. You needed to establish norms and neighborly practices — don’t steal from one another or lie to one another or cheat on one another or covet one another’s things and for God’s sake don’t kill one another. These are basic best practices for living in a healthy communal environment.

So the 10 Commandments make much less sense when they are disembodied from the text, when they are isolated from the context of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, when they are extracted from the bonds of relationship. Because when we do this, we turn God into some sort of divine finger-wagging parent. The commandments become punitive and we focus on the “though shalt not” vibe. Yes, there are rules and norms we’re urged to follow and obedience is a critical piece of faith. But it’s also important to remember that God is ultimately about blessing not curse, about forgiveness not destruction.

The major problem of proclaiming the 10 Commandments out of context is that it doesn’t leave room for forgiveness or mercy or grace. Jesus, of course, understood all this which is why he offers the “summary of the law” or the greatest commandment. He takes the 10 Commandments and distills everything to the basics “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve never understood why people don’t fight and bring in lawyers to have the Jesus’ summary of the law put up in public places. It would be a lot cheaper to erect a monument that simply said, “Love God, love neighbor.” Because when we do these two things all the other commandments naturally flow out of our love for God and one another.

That’s the balance Jesus brings into the conversation. He knows we all inevitably break some of these commandments yet he desires repentance, that turning of the heart away from that which destroys and toward that which builds up. We need the law, we need structure — just as a town or city functions more effectively with laws that set expectations and norms. But the relationship is central and when we lose sight of that, we lose our souls.

So the 10 Commandments still speak to us because they flow directly out of the divine relationship — they invite us to model our human interactions on our relationship with God. We should love one another as God loves us. Which is precisely what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the Last Supper — “Love one another as I have loved you.” So it all connects. And Jesus helps move us from “thou shalt not” to “thou shall…love.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 21, 2014 (Proper 20, Year A)

There’s an awful lot of complaining and grumbling going on here this morning. Well, not here exactly — unless you’re all hot and bothered about not finding a parking place and having to walk up the hill from Water Street — but in our readings. The Israelites are complaining, the stiffed day laborers are complaining, everyone’s in a foul mood.

Rather than add to the complaining — did I mention how early I had to get up to be here this morning? — I thought we’d start by taking a look at the source of these complaints. And whose idea was it for me to work on Sundays anyway?

In the Book of Exodus, there’s no doubt that this transitional time between escaping slavery and the brutally harsh existence under Pharaoh in Egypt and entering the Promised Land is an unsettling, uncertain, and chaotic experience for the Israelites. There’s a reason we call difficult periods in our lives “wilderness experiences.” But the novelty of gaining freedom through the Red Sea has evidently worn off. It’s gotten so bad they’ve even idealized the past — saying to Moses, “You brought us out of Egypt just to die in this wilderness? We should never have listed to you.”

And as they wander around the wilderness, God’s chosen people have other complaints born_to_kvetch_mugas well and pretty legitimate ones; so they start kvetching. Kvetch is one of those wonderful Yiddish words that sounds like what it’s meant to convey. Like klutz or schlep or chutzpah or schlock. It basically means to complain endlessly, which is precisely what it must have felt like to Moses as the Israelites kept kvetching out in the wilderness. They kvetched about being hungry and God gave them manna to eat; they kvetched about being thirsty and God gave them water from a rock; they kvetched about only having manna to eat and God gave them quail.

But it’s not just the kvetching in the wilderness we hear this morning. In Matthew’s gospel we also get the laborers grumbling against the landowner for paying all the workers the same amount even though they didn’t work the same number of hours. And there are a lot of parallels between the complaining in the wilderness and the complaining in the vineyard. “If only we had died in Egypt” is very similar to “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

And while this story does challenge our sense of fairness, the owner of the vineyard can’t imagine why they’re complaining. He paid everyone the agreed upon wage so there was no duplicity involved, they just assumed they’d get more because they worked more and when they don’t they complain bitterly.

Now, the traditional interpretation of this parable is fairly straightforward — the landowner is God and the vineyard represents the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t matter at what point in our lives that we come to believe in Jesus; whenever that happens we are ushered into the promise of eternal life. And there is some amazing grace in that.

IMG_0494Of course with the annual Ministries Fair taking place during coffee hour, I don’t want to send the message that it doesn’t really matter whether or not you participate in the life of this community as long as you claim your faith on your deathbed. ‘Forget joining any committee or getting involved or getting to know people because all you really need is that last minute reprieve and it’s all good.’ The thing is though that the kingdom of heaven breaks into the visible world when we engage our faith lives by serving with one another through the many ministries here at St. John’s. And it does mean that the kingdom puts all sorts of people side by side — the person who served faithfully on the altar guild at St. Swithun’s for 50 years right alongside the person who never darkened the door of a church but had a last minute epiphany that brought him great peace at the end.

And while in a human sense that feels so unfair, in reality that’s way above our pay grade. That’s for God to deal with, not us. So if we focus on the issue of fairness, we’re missing the larger point here. It’s not about the laborers’ wages and arguing about who got what and why it was or wasn’t fair; it’s about God’s abounding generosity. The door is always open, the table is always set, the invitation is always extended to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is never too late to turn toward God and revel in the relationship.

The laborers in the story didn’t care about any of this, of course, they just wanted more money than those johnny-come-latelies and when it doesn’t happen, they start grumbling. Fortunately kvetching, grumbling, complaining, whining, whatever you want to call it, never happens in church. I’m sure no one has ever thought “When will this sermon ever end?” or “Of all the seats in this place, she has to sit next to me?” or any other “impure” thoughts when we should really be thankful that I don’t preach for 30 minutes, that we have a church full of diverse personalities, and that our inner thoughts aren’t projected up on some giant screen.

While some of us are “better” than others in the complaint department, if we’re honest we all have our moments. We give in to negative thinking or pile on the grievances without helping work toward a solution. But the thing is, there’s no contentment in this; nothing good comes out of it. There’s no peace in our souls when we’re always grumbling and complaining; holding onto perceived slights or wishing for something bigger, better, and shinier. When we do this we completely miss the joy of the present; we miss the abundant blessings that surround us; we lose the good things in our lives that are happening right now. And that’s a shame.

Fortunately, the inoculation against this resides in the very parable we’re looking at. God invites us to revel in the vineyard that is the kingdom of heaven here on earth. To accept the generosity of relationship with the divine — which is a stunning offer when you stop to think about it. God wants to be in relationship with humanity in general and you in particular. Yes, you! Even with all your complaining and grumbling and kvetching and doubts and missteps, God will never let you just slip away.

Yes, we all have wilderness moments — that’s just part of the human condition — but God doesn’t want us to remain in the wilderness indefinitely. Remember, vineyards don’t just appear out of thin air; they are formed out of the wilderness through hard work and intentionality and discipline. God has done the hard work and, having prepared the way, God invites us into the vineyard of relationship; into a place of peace and hope; into the kingdom of heaven where we can finally experience the full grace and abundance of God’s love for each one of us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 7, 2014 (Proper 18, Year A)

Ned_FlandersNed Flanders is a lousy Christian. You know Ned Flanders, I hope. The uber religious next door neighbor on The Simpsons. The exceedingly nice pushover whose unfailing good mood can’t be disturbed even by Homer’s most egregious un-neighborly shenanigans. The earnest, Biblical literalist who uses such saccharine catch phrases as “Hey-diddly-ho!” and “okilly dokkily!” (two things I never thought I would ever utter from a pulpit).

It’s not that I have a problem with his theology — although I do. It’s that Ned Flanders embodies the perception that all Christians are nice. And I don’t mean nice in a compassionate, Good Samaritan, justice-seeking way — that’s a good thing! But nice in a way that embraces a spineless “meek and mild” approach to human interaction. A way that turns the power and scandal of the cross of Christ into little more than harmless pleasantries and superficial, friendly conversation. A way that equates being a “good Christian” with turning the other cheek, avoiding conflict, and sweeping any issues that may arise under the rug.

If this morning’s gospel passage tells us anything it’s that Jesus wasn’t interested in being Ned Flanders nice. His recipe for building up a healthy community of faithful disciples — in other words, the church — includes holding people accountable for their actions. If someone wrongs you, Jesus doesn’t say go talk about them behind their back or unfriend them on Facebook or go home and stew about it.

Jesus says, go talk to the person. Pull him or her aside and have a conversation about it. And if that doesn’t work, bring a couple of others to talk about the issue. And if that doesn’t work, confront the issue in front of the whole community. And if that doesn’t work, only then should you wash your hands of the whole situation. So if you have this image of Jesus benignly smiling at everyone or hugging sheep on dinner plates produced by the Franklin Mint, I invite you to rethink your perception of him. Jesus wasn’t about being all warm, fuzzy, timid, and nice. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus boldly called out religious hypocrisy and publicly shamed the self-satisfied for not helping those in need. Jesus was passionate about breaking open the Kingdom of God on earth, which sometimes meant trampling upon the culturally accepted superficialities of niceness. In the end, of course, this is precisely what got him strung up on a cross.

Now, let’s be honest. This isn’t really the message I wanted to share on Homecoming Sunday. I would have much preferred to just welcome everybody back to the fall routine, maybe remind you how much Jesus loves you — even if you haven’t darkened the door of a church for a couple months — or just preach about the joys of jumping in a bounce house. But that really wouldn’t have been faithful to this morning’s gospel and it would have played right into the culture of nice that Jesus warns us against.

Because, let’s face it, confronting others is hard to do. It’s much easier to take the path of least resistance through conflict avoidance. Most of us are world class conflict avoiders — why deal with something that raises your blood pressure when you can ignore it and hope it goes away?The thing is though, many problems never just go away. They eat at us and destroy our souls from the inside out. Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some self-help assertiveness training session. I won’t spend the rest of the sermon speaking exclusively in “I” statements. Or command you to all stand up and proclaim, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

This is about creating an environment where the Holy Spirit can be fruitful and thrive in your own life and in the life of the community. In a word, we’re called to be faithful, not nice. And being faithful can lead to some tough conversations with the people in our lives.

But this passage also begs the question about what to do when someone really is indifferent to the harm they’ve caused you. Jesus says, “Let such a one be as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Okay, what does that mean? Well, first century Jews wouldn’t go anywhere near a Gentile — they were considered ritually unclean. Or a tax collector — they viewed these collaborators with the oppressive Roman government as the scum of the earth. Basically, Gentiles and tax collectors were dead to them — unacknowledged, untouchable, unknowable. So on the surface of things, Jesus is saying if anyone treats you badly, cut them out of your life, take them off the Christmas card list, avoid them when you see them in the frozen food section at Stop ‘n Shop, drop them like a bad transmission.

But here’s the thing. Who did Jesus spend much of his ministry hanging out with? That’s right — Gentiles and tax collectors. He takes a lot of flack for it — the religious establishment is always railing against Jesus for eating with and ministering to the ubiquitous tax collectors and sinners. So it could be that when Jesus tells us to treat those who do us wrong as Gentiles and tax collectors, what he’s really telling us to do is to extend them hospitality, to be compassionate, to love them, to forgive them. And that is hard to do because it so goes against our human nature.

But this doesn’t mean Christians are supposed to be door mats, letting people trample over us and abuse us and bully us and then stand meekly by and take it. That’s a terrible reading of Jesus’ message; Jesus doesn’t want us to be Ned Flanders and let Homer’s continuous abuse wash over us simply because we love the Lord.

And that’s because the Christian life isn’t about generic niceness but authentic forgiveness. And there’s a huge chasm between these two concepts. Forgiveness is an act of the heart — it takes intentionality and forbearance and it’s one of the most challenging things about trying to live a faithful life. Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting people off the hook; it means keeping them accountable for their actions, most especially when they hurt us.

Well, maybe this is a better way to start the fall season than I thought. Learning to stand up for what is right and calling people out when they act in ways that are harmful is an important lesson in our family and work lives as well as our communal life here at St. John’s. Perhaps this is the perfect lesson as we re-gather for the coming program year. We’re a healthier, stronger community when we talk out any grievances we may have with one another. Bringing things out into the light rather than keeping things hidden away where they can build and fester and destroy is an important spiritual practice for any community, especially any community of faith.

So, sorry, Ned. You’re a “nice” neighbor — just not the best role model for those of us who actually want to follow Jesus.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 31, 2014 (Proper 17, Year A)

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” You heard the guy — take off your shoes. Seriously. Now, normally we only do this when we wash feet on Maundy Thursday. And while I’m just back from vacation, I’m not so disoriented that I’ve lost complete track of where we are in the liturgical year. But as uncomfortable as this may feel, I invite rather than compel you to take off your shoes and socks. I won’t make you do anything but just sit with your shoes off and be mindful that you are indeed standing (or at least sitting) on holy ground. And don’t worry — you can always put them back on during the Creed.

Moses_PluchartWhile we’re familiar with this story of Moses and the burning bush, I don’t think we always know what to do with the concept of holiness. And it doesn’t help that whenever I hear the expression “holy ground” it makes me want to quit my day job and open a coffee shop called Holy Grounds — wouldn’t that be a great name? Shockingly, Bryna’s not okay with this little plan of mine.

But when it comes to the idea of being holy, we either trivialize or objectify the concept. Think about all the expressions we use in everyday conversations — holy mackerel, holy Toledo, holy moly, holy cow, holy smoke, and, if I want to push the edge a bit, holy crap, but I’ll stop before I get to holy it-kinda-rhymes-with-ship (ship — emphasis on the “p”). Depending on usage and intonation these expressions all convey either astonishment, pleasure, or anger. What they don’t do is get at the real meaning of what it means to be holy.

But we also use holiness to objectify in a way that makes things feel remote or distanced. I get this when people curse in front of me and then quickly apologize once they notice my collar (‘Oh, sorry, Father’). Somehow priggishness is associated with holiness. Or when we think of the saints we see in our stained glass windows as perfect rather than as the faithful but flawed human beings they actually were.

Holy simply means set apart. Something or someone or someplace is holy when it has been set apart by or for God. So the holy ground in this story of the burning bush is a place set apart by God specifically for this encounter with Moses. And as such Moses is commanded to treat it with respect — which is what the whole slipping off the shoes thing is all about.

But it’s also, I think, a reminder of the profound connection between the Creator and the creation; between the divine and the human. As Moses removes his sandals we see him standing on this mountain, vulnerable before God, the bottoms of his feet touching the soil, awed, astonished, frightened, yet ultimately receptive. He is at the end of one journey even as he prepares for a new one. He is meeting God on this mountain and he will return to this very mountain with the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, to worship once more the God who has formed the soil of the earth and the soil of our souls.

One of the joys of summer, especially around here, is going to the beach. After you haul everything down to your spot and setdraft_lens17697582module148605855photo_1299070371feet_in_sand up your umbrella and unfold your chair and take off your shoes and settle down to listen to the rhythm of the waves and feel the warm sun on your skin, nothing beats letting your toes dig into the sand. You feel the heat on the top layer and then wiggle your toes down into the coolness below the surface. Taking your shoes off invites a direct connection to the earth, to the holy ground God has created.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, as adults — unless we’re at the beach or the pool — we rarely remove our footwear in public. Shoes have become part of our daily armor. We give a lot of thought to what we put on our feet and we have many choices: sneakers, pumps, heels, loafers, sandals, flip flops, boots. We have running shoes and walking shoes and dress shoes and tennis shoes. And when we take them off, there’s a distinct feeling of vulnerability.

Which is why we rarely do. There are practical considerations, of course. We don’t want to get our feet dirty or step on a piece of glass and it’s not really socially acceptable to wander around town barefoot. “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Children certainly do though and maybe we could stand to follow their lead occasionally. I remember growing up in Hawaii and it was a natural thing that kids would walk around barefoot. It was strange to see kids playing with their shoes on. I don’t know if this has changed over the years but I went to St. Clement’s nursery school in my bare feet and no one thought anything of it.

The point is, you are already standing on holy ground — because it’s all holy ground. Yes, we set certain places apart as specifically dedicated to God like our churches or the Memorial Garden. But Jesus’ entrance into the world makes the whole world a holy place. That’s the power of the Incarnation. It’s what makes our bodies the temples that they are — flesh and bones set apart to glorify God.

But this also means that each one of us is holy — we have all been set apart by God. And if we truly take this to heart it bears the question, how would recognizing your own holiness change the way you treat yourself? How would it impact the way you treat the other holy beings you encounter in this life in the form of friends and strangers? I think living life, at least metaphorically, with your shoes off helps root us as the children of God that we are. It helps us feel better connected to the God who loved us so much that he sent his only Son into the world to walk among us. And graced us with fellow pilgrims to share this journey of life and faith.

Well, I guess you can put your shoes back on if you want. But you’re also welcome to leave them off for the rest of the service — there must be some perks to coming to church on Labor Day weekend. If you’re really feeling brave, walk up to communion without them on as a reminder that you are indeed standing on holy ground. Be aware of seeking to remove the distance between you and God in your own life. Following Jesus is not without its stumbling blocks but the invitation to ever-deepening relationship with him is always extended. And that profound connection to all that is holy is always waiting.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

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