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

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