Third Sunday in Lent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 4, 2018 (Lent III, Year B)

Sometimes you just have to cut the cord. The signers of the Declaration of Independence did this when they decided they’d had enough of taxation without representation, cutting the cord with King George and setting into motion what would become the United States of America. Martin Luther did this when he nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, cutting the cord with the Roman Catholic Church and setting off the Protestant Reformation. Mark Zuckerberg did this when he dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook, cutting the cord with the traditional vocational path and starting a digital revolution.

Sometimes you just have to cut the cord. And, no, I am not referring to my impending cable-cutsabbatical which begins in about seven and a half hours — right after S.W.5. But sometimes you do just have to cut the cord when it comes to exacting full-blown, systemic change. You can dance around the issue for only so long before something more impactful is called for. I mean, stories and parables are great but sometimes you need to go to even greater lengths to make a point.

That’s what Jesus is doing when he famously flips those tables in the Temple. It is dramatic and bold and it completely changes the narrative. It’s hard not to take notice when tables and chairs and money and pigeons are all flying through the air. It might even be possible to zone out during the Sermon on the Mount, but flipping tables? That gets your attention.

But in order to comprehend exactly what cord Jesus was cutting we have to take a closer look at the Temple. In other words, what was the point, why did it exist, and why was it so central to the religious identity of the Israelites? For Jews, the Temple, as impressive a structure as it was, was more than a mere building. It was God’s dwelling place. It was a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people; an external sign of the eternal promise of divine relationship.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the very heart and epicenter of their faith. And indeed it housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments, which we also heard this morning — the Temple was built and it served as the literal House of God. The point is, it was impossible to imagine worshiping God without the Temple. It was that important to religious identity and that central to the community of faith.

So there were two reasons, really, that Jesus flipped those tables. None of which have anything to do with Jesus being some sort of hotheaded religious zealot. He wasn’t the Bobby Knight of ancient Palestine. Jesus doesn’t snap or lose it. He may have been frustrated and righteously angry and passionate, but this act is done with intentionality and a steely resolve.

The first issue was that over time a problem had developed with the system of sacrificial rites that had become the heart of Temple worship. The way it worked — and the reason there were money changers in the Temple — is that people of faith participated in the ritual celebration through the sacrifice of animals and the offering of money towards the temple tax. Those who came from great distances had a couple of problems here. First, they weren’t going to lug an animal with them on their journey, so they needed to buy one once they got to Jerusalem. Second, the Temple didn’t accept foreign currency. Hence the money changers. It was all a pretty convenient set-up for travelers looking to participate in the process.

What riled Jesus is that, in a cord, corruption had crept in. What had once been a system that brought people closer to God had become little more than a self-perpetuating money-making scheme. And in Jesus’ mind, this defiled the holy ground upon which the Temple had been built.

This is the major theme addressed in the account of this story from the Synpotic gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus rails against the money changers, accusing them of turning his Father’s house into a “den of thieves.” This grieved Jesus’ heart as he witnessed people coming to the Temple, in some cases making long journeys, filled with hope and earnestly looking to deepen their relationship with God, and then being taken advantage of. The system was irreparably broken. The cord of corruption holding the Temple together had to be cut.

The second issue, which is the emphasis in John’s gospel, which we just read, is a matter of location. Where is God most present? If Jesus had taken a poll, the answer to this question would have been obvious: the Temple. But with the Incarnation, with God entering the world in human form, this had changed. Forget the tables. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the entire relationship between God and humanity was flipped over.

So in offering up this dramatic statement, Jesus is making the point that God is not a building or a sacrificial system or a doctrine or even a book. God is not found exclusively on a mountain or in a set of scrolls or in a building. God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, in the temple that is his body. And this is a radical, new understanding of God’s presence. Because when we gaze upon Jesus, we gaze upon God; when we worship Jesus, we worship God.

Over the coming weeks Christians throughout the world will follow Jesus as he sets his face towards Jerusalem for the final days of his earthly life. We will shout hosannas and throw palm branches along his way as he triumphantly enters the city. We will gather with the disciples in an Upper Room as feet are washed and the eucharist is instituted. We will follow the crowds to Calvary shouting ‘crucify him.’ We will wait with him in the tomb and we will rejoice when we learn learn it is empty.

We will worship God in the temples that are our churches. But we will embark on a journey of the soul; a journey of Jesus that transcends physical time and space. It is exciting and edifying and frightening and self-revealing but it begins and ends in Jesus. That is the cord that binds us to God.

Friends, I will miss you over the next four months. I will pray for you and hold you intently in my heart. It will be hard to be apart from this community because it is where I myself most often encounter Jesus. But I look forward to a time of renewal and discovery and I can’t wait to hear about the spiritual growth that will take place here during my absence. I love you all dearly; I have such confidence in entrusting you to Father Noah’s pastoral care and to the leadership of our Wardens and Vestry; and I know that we will come back strengthened and ready to begin the next chapter of our ministry together. Thank you for this opportunity and may God’s blessing be upon us all in the days and months ahead.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

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First Sunday in Lent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2018 (Lent I, Year B)

I sometimes get invited over to visit and bless newborn babies. It’s a job perk and one of the great joys of what I do for a living. There’s nothing quite so life-affirming as holding a newborn infant in your arms; and there’s nothing quite so stage-in-life affirming as handing the child back. Occasionally, especially if it’s a first-born child, the proud parents will invite me in to see the nursery. In many cases they painted it themselves and assembled the furniture and it’s clean and bright, and they like to point out, probably because I’m a priest, the Noah’s Ark mobile that hangs above the crib. The cute animals dance around the ark, and there’s music that plays, and the colorful rainbow hovers over the entire blissful scene.

And I compliment them on the set up and am genuinely happy for this new young family, noah's arkeven if they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. But as I stand amid the serene setting and gaze upon the mobile, part of me always thinks to myself, “Have you actually read the story?” Yes, there’s a rainbow involved, and animals marching two by two, and a dove with an olive branch. But in addition to all that, nearly every living creature is wiped off the face of the earth! It’s a story with death and destruction and is that really what you want your newborn looking at as you rock her to sleep?

Actually the story of Noah’s Ark is, like so many Bible stories, complex and rich in nuance and theologically profound and exciting and maddening and ultimately offers insights into the nature of God and humanity’s relationship with the divine. When we actively engage with Scripture, themes emerge that move us beyond the surface of the text and into the very heart of God. Which is why we’re always encouraging you to wade into it and read it and be transformed by it. And, yes, this is a not-so-subtle plug for our four-part adult education series on the Bible that begins this morning.

But today, as we enter into the season of Lent, I want to talk about the imagery of the ark. It’s interesting that this story is handed down to us as Noah’s Ark. I mean, why don’t we call it, Noah’s Boat? Or Noah’s Ship? In English translations, there are actually two arks in the Bible. There’s Noah’s Ark, of course, but there’s also the Ark of the Covenant, which was a chest described in great detail in the book of Exodus, that contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. Moses himself had it built to God’s specifications and it was carried by the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years as the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Once they entered into the Promised Land and built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Temple’s most sacred spot, the Holy of Holies.

In Hebrew, the two words translated as “ark” in English are different. The Ark of the Covenant translates more like “chest,” which makes sense. And the word used for Noah’s boat is used not just for that massive floating zoo but also, interestingly, in one other place. It’s also used for the small cradle upon which Moses’ birth mother sent him afloat among the reeds. So the same word used for Noah’s Ark is also used for the ubiquitous Moses basket.

But I love the idea of an ark as a place of refuge. That’s why we call it Noah’s Ark rather than Noah’s boat. It offers shelter from the storm. But beyond that, all three of these arks point to refuge and salvation. The Moses basket was used as refuge and salvation from slavery and certain death for an infant born under an abusive system in Egypt. Noah’s Ark was used as refuge and salvation from the wickedness of humanity and led towards Covenant with God. The Ark of the Covenant held the Law, the way to relationship with God for the ancient Israelites, refuge from uncertainty, and salvation as God’s chosen people. Some see the ark that is the Moses basket as a foreshadowing of the manger, another ark-like structure that leads us to refuge and salvation.

Whatever our circumstances or stories, we all crave sanctuary and refuge, safe places where we are protected and nurtured. Maybe it’s because it is our birthright — we come from the ultimate place of safe haven, the womb. And we seek the sanctuary that often remains elusive throughout our lives.

This past week amid news of another school shooting, the first instinct of parents everywhere was to protect their children. To keep them safe. To provide shelter from the chaotic and scary world that swirls around them. It’s a reflective action of every parent and it’s not just parents of young children, either. I had parents of children in their early 20’s express the same concern to me; the desire to protect their kids and keep them out of harm’s way. One of the most painful aspects of parenting is the realization that you cannot always be there to keep them safe. That evil does exist in this world and tragic things can and do happen.

I think one reason we come to church is that we seek safe haven from the storms of life. We crave the safety of an ark. And, frankly, this place even looks like the hull of an ark if you look up. Which makes sense as it is a place of comfort, a place of sanctuary, a place of peace.

But we can’t just hunker down and stay inside the ark. Noah and his family eventually had to get out and create a more just and peaceful world. We can’t stay inside the womb, or our comfortable homes, or even this church. We need these places to be inspired and rejuvenated and recharged. But the spiritual life is all about finding balance between seeking sanctuary and going out into the midst of the storm to make a difference. It’s not easy to leave the ark, but leave we must.

At the end of every service we are dismissed to go forth into the world, carrying with us the strength and courage that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We can carry the comfort and stability of the ark of our faith with us. That centeredness, the rootedness that comes with having a place of sanctuary doesn’t stay here. In this sense the image of that other ark, the Ark of the Covenant is helpful. We can carry the presence of God with us wherever we go. As we go through life, whatever befalls us, into whatever wilderness we find ourselves, we remain in the ark of God’s care. And that’s the good news of this day and of this week.

Maybe the new parents I meet have figured all this out. Perhaps it wasn’t the cute cuddly animals that drew them to the Noah’s Ark mobile but the story of the ark and the sense of refuge it offers. In this sense, there could be no better symbol to hang in a child’s bedroom or in our own hearts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2018 (Ash Wednesday)

Well, this is romantic. Spending Valentine’s Day together; talking about death. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on February 14 was 1945. A year when the destruction of World War II was still fresh even as the euphoria of victory celebrations would soon spill into the streets. And here we are 73 years later again gathered on a day stereotypically set aside to both receive chocolate and to give up chocolate.

But, regardless of the date upon which it falls, Ash Wednesday has always been a day of IMG_5694-768x512paradox. We hear Jesus warn us about practicing our piety before others, and then we put ashes on our foreheads and practice our piety before others. We proclaim our own mortality by being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and then we proclaim our share in Christ’s immortality through the Resurrection. We confess our sinfulness and the utter depravity of the human condition, and then we are assured of divine forgiveness.

This is a day of paradox, a day that points to a paradoxical faith. A faith where out of despair there is hope, out of grief there is joy, out of death there is life. A faith where we can be, as Paul writes, sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything; as dying and yet alive.

And we desperately need this paradoxical message of hope as we hear news coming out of Florida about yet another school shooting this afternoon. 17 dead was the last I heard, with images of a mother with a cross of ashes on her forehead crying out in agony being beamed all over the world. On a day we repent of our propensity for violence, our indifference to suffering, our blindness to injustice and cruelty.

Today we begin our journey into the depths of this paradox as we enter the wilderness of Lent. A journey that will take us to the cross, and the depths of despair; a journey that will culminate in the empty tomb, and the heights of exultation.

And into this paradox we hear Jesus speak about the interplay between exterior actions and interior motivations. This is the passage we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and it helps frame our own entrance into the season of Lent, this time of introspection and repentance.

Jesus holds up three pillars of the spiritual life — alms giving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ day, these were the primary external ways you could tell someone was religious. They gave money to the poor, they prayed regularly, and they fasted at the appointed times. These are all things you could do quietly and without notice, but they are also things that can be done with a bit of fanfare. You could prove your great religiosity and bring honor upon yourself if you approached the alms basin when you knew people were looking; you could pray in public places where people would see you and comment upon your great piety; you could try to look as miserable as possible when you fasted so everyone knew just how devoted you were to your spiritual disciplines. Public alms giving, praying, and fasting were the ancient version of keeping up with the Joneses.

Now I know this seems a little out-of-synch with our own context. Most of us aren’t going to stand up in the middle of Legal Seafood and make a great show of saying grace before dinner to impress family, friend, and stranger. But maybe we like having a fancy car and pulling up in front of the restaurant. Maybe we like whipping out our platinum card when the bill comes, making a great gesture of our generosity. We make shows of ourselves in different ways but the principle is the same.

And just as on Valentine’s Day, it all gets back to the heart. For Jesus, it’s not about the heart-shaped box of chocolates but the interior work of the heart. It’s about the motivations that drive us. Do our actions honor God or do they draw attention to ourselves? Are they humble manifestations of service or are they intended to puff us up?

When there is integration between our actions and our motivations, our faith is in harmony. When there is a disconnect between what we do and what we feel, well, Jesus has a word for that: hypocrisy.

Now, we’re all hypocrites to some degree. To be human is to have mixed motives. When you put money into the tip jar at Starbucks, do you wait until the barista is looking so you “get credit” for your generosity? It’s only human to seek affirmation for a kind gesture, even if you insist that you don’t want any. There’s a reason alumni magazines and symphony programs list all their donors and there’s a reason we search for our names.

Jesus is warning us against the temptation of seeking validation from others. Of measuring our self-worth by what others think. None of that matters when we are being true to God. And Lent is a time to examine our motivations and the motives of our hearts. It is an opportunity to recalibrate and rethink and retool our inner most heart’s desires. It is a chance to open our hearts and renew our faith. It is a season to bring our actions and motivations into greater harmony.

And this is where Lent’s invitation to self-examination and repentance can bring our lives into greater harmony and bring us even closer in our relationship with God. You don’t need to prove your self-worth to God. You already have God’s approval. You are already affirmed and validated and deemed worthy. God sees your hypocrisy and still loves you. God sees your strivings and still encourages you. Lent is a season to allow God into your heart and in turn, give your heart over to God.

The ashes you will soon receive are not outward marks of piety but inward signs of your own mortality. They are a reminder of what matters. That life is short and that our primary calling is to love God and love neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul. That God has marked you for both death and eternal life. That you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever and also that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is a day of paradox; but ultimately, whether or not it falls on Valentine’s Day, this is a day of love.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 4, 2018 (Epiphany 5B)

A stomach virus is a miserable thing. A nasty strain has been going around this winter and a good number of us have succumbed to it. The reason I’m up here in the pulpit this morning and not Natalie — as it says in your bulletin — is because she was stricken this week. Please keep her in your prayers and good wishes.

But if the flu gods have passed you over this year — I mean, there’s still plenty of flu season left — but if you’ve been lucky so far, chances are you can vividly recall a time when you weren’t so lucky. It truly is miserable. The nausea, the fever, the achy-ness. The writhing uncomfortably on the bathroom floor as death seems like a more attractive option than another round of, well, you get the picture. 

Not to get too graphic, but this must have been what Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law was Thermometergoing through when Peter and and his brother Andrew showed up with James, John, and this Jesus fellow. Mark’s gospel brings us into this story at the worst possible moment for this poor woman. She’s burning up with a high fever, probably drenched in sweat, weak and woozy. And as she contemplates the relative merits of living versus dying, she must have been just thrilled to hear that company had arrived. Her son-in-law barges in unannounced with his entourage. And at one level this woman must have thought to herself, and probably not for the first time, “I cannot believe my daughter married that fool!”

In a state of barely feeling human, quite possibly actually on the verge of death, she must have been further outraged to hear footsteps coming toward her. Her daughter had actually married a man who would introduce someone to her in this state? It’s hard to know exactly what happened next. Jesus approaches this woman and takes her hand. Without a word he lifts her up. And the fever immediately leaves her. In an instant she is restored to health and wholeness. And in an instant she has become a disciple of Jesus. Like her son-in-law Peter, who just a day or two before dropped his fishing net to follow Jesus, this woman, too, experiences a profound moment of healing and conversion. 

Now, at this point, the story seems to take an offensive twist. At least to our modern ears, attuned as they are to issues of gender equality. Because the instant Peter’s mother-in-law is cured, she begins to serve the men who had arrived. You can almost hear one of them saying, “Now that your fever’s broken and, well, as long as you’re up, could you maybe hook us up with some nachos?” And in other ways, too, the whole story isn’t exactly a paragon of women’s liberation. The men are named, the woman is anonymous, identified only in relation to her son-in-law. The men are healthy, the woman is sick. We hear no mention at all of Peter’s wife, who was presumably also in the house. And then this whole business of leaping to her feet after she’s cured, to bring them some food. 

But despite the difficulty of hearing this through the filter of our own culture, the story is actually quite progressive. What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, which in itself goes against our own Fred Flintstone-inspired stereotypes, but that he had any relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother.

This relationship was such a non-factor that I don’t think there was even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter refused to be bound by the cultural norms of the day. He treated this woman, to whom he had no obligation, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. All dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry. And all themes we continue to struggle with in our own supposedly more “enlightened” cultural context.

The other important lesson in this story is that the woman’s act of service showed to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, could be disciples of Jesus. This was not the norm. Men formed communities of learning around teachers in the ancient world. But the women were not invited into these circles of intimacy and discipleship. Yet we see Jesus again and again subverting this through his interactions with women: Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, Mary Magdalene. So taken in context, this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. Lessons we are still learning and issues we are still struggling with in every single facet of society, including the church.

But back to those nachos. On one level it’s still just so hard to reconcile this story with our modern value structure. But on another level the newly healed woman’s immediate response to serve makes perfect sense. She was called by Jesus and her response is to serve. Just as we are all called by Jesus and our response is to serve. We do this in different ways but when Jesus took this woman’s hand and lifted her, she was tangibly touched by Jesus and called to service in his name.

Like Peter’s mother-in-law we, too, are touched by Jesus and called to service. We are touched by Jesus through our common worship, through prayer, and through acts of kindness done by our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life. We are called to service in his name each day and our response must be to serve Christ. That’s why we’re here this morning: to be touched by Jesus, to be lifted up by him, and then to be sent back out into the world to reach our hands to others in his name.

It’s a work in progress, no doubt. And Jesus may reach for our hands when we’re feeling least prepared to look up and take it. But he’s always in our midst, always reaching out that hand to lift us up, to heal us, to convert us, and to call us to service in his name. So, take his hand. Stand up. And serve.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

2018 Patronal Feast (Rector’s Annual Address)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 28, 2018
(St. John the Evangelist)

“It’s not about the numbers.” You hear this a lot in church circles. It’s a way of remindingTim.Headshot.Edited people that there is more to church life than can be conveyed by statistics. That the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be quantified or reduced to a spread sheet. That the pastoral relationships between clergy and parishioners cannot be collected as data. That the inspiration that comes through soaring music and challenging sermons and engaging education programs cannot be relegated to a spiral-bound report. That spiritual growth cannot be measured.

And of course, it’s true. It’s not ultimately about the numbers; it never has been. But often the people who insist most vehemently that it’s “not about the numbers” are the same people serving congregations with dwindling numbers. Parishes stuck in survival mode. Congregations spending their energy on merely keeping the doors open, rather than boldly sharing Jesus’ message with passion and creativity. This is not meant to belittle anyone or any congregation — it’s tough out there. All over the country, pews are emptying. Here in Massachusetts, according to a recent survey, we’re living in a place tied with New Hampshire as the least religious state in the entire union. Which is shocking to me. But across the Commonwealth, church attendance is dropping and financial contributions are down. The church as an institution is changing in dramatic ways.

Now, I don’t believe this is entirely a bad thing. Without the social and cultural pressure to go to church, the people who are in the pews are more committed to following Jesus. And it certainly makes for a fruitful mission field as we seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with an increasingly secular society. We do have a compelling story to tell; one that offers hope and meaning to a world that so desperately craves it. But the evolving nature of our cultural context also highlights just how much of an outlier St. John’s has been in recent years.

By all the measurables, 2017 was a banner year at St. John’s. Attendance was at an all-time high, as was financial giving; registration for Sunday School and Confirmation Classes was off the charts, as was participation in Youth Group and our children’s choir. Our annual Holiday Boutique was more successful than it has ever been; our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was wildly popular in this community and beyond; Outreach programs like Laundry Love took hold. We’ve never done more baptisms in a single calendar year and even our intimate Wednesday morning service is outgrowing the chapel.

Now, it may not be all about the numbers, but numbers do matter. They can point to an underlying vitality and presence of the Holy Spirit infusing what we do at St. John’s. Our Average Sunday Attendance was up 6% in 2017 and this fall alone, from Homecoming Sunday through December, attendance was up 11% over the same period last year. Pledging also increased by 12%.

To offer some broader context, in the last four years attendance has increased by 22%. In real numbers this means that on an average Sunday there are 45 more people in the pews than there were in 2014. That’s significant. And it’s why if you think coffee hour is more crowded or that there used to be more spaces in the parking lot, you’re not nuts. During this same time-frame, giving went up 31%. Which is astounding. And it’s why we’ve been able to hire additional staff, increase our outreach budget, and make needed repairs to our sacred space.

21762198_10213830343183520_2148731484658337247_nWhile we know it’s not ultimately about the numbers, these numbers do point to something extraordinary happening up here on this hill. Which is why I think rather than saying “It’s not about the numbers,” a better and truer statement would be “Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” There’s more to it of course, but numbers do matter.

And around here they highlight the fact that an increasing number of people are drawn to encounter God through St. John’s and they are being inspired to give generously to support the mission and ministry of this place. Rest assured that the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” never sees you as just a number. And neither do I. You are a beloved child of God and I hope you take great pride in being part of this particular, vibrant community of faith.

This is not to say that we’ve figured everything out or that we don’t have our challenges. We do. While our challenges tend to be “good problems,” like limited parking and overcrowded Sunday School rooms and packed pews and overstretched staff, they are still issues that demand attention.

This is precisely why we are entering into a parish discernment phase in the weeks and months ahead. The time is right to discern where God is calling us as a parish in light of our continued growth. We could just stumble forward and hope for the best. I mean, things are going well! But in order to do this intentionally and faithfully and strategically, we need to take a broader look at our ministries, staffing requirements, and explore the possibility of raising some money to make sure our facilities meet the requirements of our mission. I want us to harness this incredible growth and the amazing spirit that pervades this place. It is truly a special time at St. John’s and we have both an obligation and an opportunity to make the most of this moment in our history.

This time of discerning who we are and who we want to become must be a communal process because we are, all of us, St. John’s. St. John’s is not just a beautiful building but a community of faithful people. And so we will be asking lots of questions in our small group discernment sessions. Things like, how can we be more accessible and inviting? In what ways should we interact with the wider community? How does our physical plant support our mission? What are your dreams for the St. John’s of the future? We’ll hear more about this process from our consultant, Leslie Pendleton, at the Annual Meeting but this is simply an invitation to participate. We need your insights and input to make this the fruitful, productive, Spirit-driven process that I know it can be. And, frankly, it’s exciting! I am incredibly jazzed about seeing where this will lead us in the years ahead.

In the meantime, as many of you know, I will begin a four-month sabbatical five weeks from now. I’ll be doing some traveling and some writing and some coffee drinking and some writing about coffee drinking. It will be an opportunity for me to recharge and renew and reconnect. And I think the timing is right as we reflect on a full and fruitful year that is past, and look forward to an abundant future together. Four months won’t be long and while I will miss you all dearly, I have great confidence in our lay leadership — our Wardens and Vestry — and Father Noah to carry on in my absence.

You know, in times of uncertainty and confusion, faith is an anchor. It grounds us and provides hope. It offers perspective and meaning. It shines a light in darkness. St. John’s, as the physical manifestation of our faith, serves as a beacon to all who enter these doors. And St. John’s, as the communal embodiment of our faith, demonstrates the power of God’s love. At its best, this is a place of inspiration and beauty; a place of motivation and challenge; a place of relationship and joy. I am proud of the ministry we have done together over the past twelve months and I am grateful to everyone whose presence and participation helped to build up the body of Christ that was St. John’s in 2017.

In the end, it’s true that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not count them. If we continue to feed the children of God, to minister to all who enter our doors, the numbers will follow. We can and should be grateful that God has richly blessed this community. And in return, our calling is to continue to share the Good News of Jesus’ love with passion, integrity, and faithfulness.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside each and every one of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as a fellow pilgrim on this journey of life and faith. Thank you for doing your part and may God bless us all in the year ahead. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Baptism of Our Lord 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 7, 2018 (Baptism of Our Lord)

Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I mean, it’s been a week so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put anyone on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick. Which is why I pre-empted the whole thing by not making any.

But as I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it 167baptireminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. This doesn’t make us bad or weak. Rather, it binds us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.

Because we all go though periods of reengagement with our spiritual lives or renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. That it’s easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship.

And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life: Avoid silence. Shun introspection. Over-schedule yourself. Stay online. Keep the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula.

The thing is, we follow a Lord who invites rather than compels. You don’t have to follow Jesus. No one can make you. Children may be forced to go to church but you aren’t. No one’s threatening to take away your phone if you don’t show up. Jesus so desires to lead you into joy and fullness of life. But he’s not going to yank you along like a petulant child. Jesus requests the pleasure of your company but he doesn’t insist upon it. That’s not his way.

Even John the Baptist in his loud, urgent, impossible-to-miss proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was simply issuing an invitation on the banks of the Jordan River. He wasn’t grabbing people and forcibly dunking them; baptism isn’t some sort of water torture.

So what’s the point of baptism? Well, it initiates an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, sealing us as Christ’s own forever with a mark that never fades away. And this permanence of divine relationship is the key. Again, we may fall away — we will fall away — in our relationship with God. But God never falls away from us. That’s the power and the promise of the baptismal waters through which we all emerge. That no matter what we do or fail to do, Jesus never forsakes us. God’s invitation is always extended.

And I think that’s the difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. And it all begins with the relationship initiated at baptism, this sense that God never gives up on us.

The other difference is that we don’t need to wait until January to recommit to God. We can do that right now. Or tonight or tomorrow or next month or next year. Or any day in between. One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again. To renew right relationship with God. And isn’t that an amazing and inspiring notion? That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. Waiting for us to return. Patiently and eagerly yearning for us to follow him.

You know, I love that we have baptisms in early January each year. Just when we think we’ve seen the last of John the Baptist, this seminal figure of Advent who prepares the way for the arrival of Jesus and figures so prominently in our Christmas preparations, he returns to baptize Jesus. And there is something about new beginnings and baptisms that go together.

I have to admit, however, that I’m a little intimidated at the prospect of baptizing Arthur Van Niel this morning. Not because he’s Father Noah’s son. That’s the cool part. I love that. But I’m a bit intimidated because on Christmas Eve, Arthur played Jesus in the pageant. And who am I to baptize Jesus?

Actually the Baptist wondered the same thing. In Matthew’s account of our Lord’s baptism, John basically says to Jesus when he asks him to baptize him, “What are you nuts? You’re the one who’s supposed to baptize me!” Nonetheless the Baptist consents. And so will I. But you can understand John feeling completely unqualified to baptize the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. And yet Jesus still extends the invitation. He lovingly invites John to baptize him, to be in relationship with him. In the same way he invites relationship with you.

IMG_8646Making new Christians through baptism on the very day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism does remind us of the power of every baptism we do here at St. John’s. It it not a cute little rite of passage but a bold rite of commitment. We should all be a bit intimidated in the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down upon us through the waters of baptism. Or if not intimidated at least in awe of the power of divine relationship that takes place here. The permanent bond of this relationship that takes hold in these children and that we all renew in ourselves when we join in saying the baptismal covenant. We are witnesses to this; and how incredible is that?

Yes, the newly baptized will fall down in their relationship with God, just as we all do. No matter how much they or we resolve to stay the course of faith. But the good news of this day is that “even when we fail, always we begin again.” We can do this but only with the support of one another and only with God’s help. The true gift of baptism is the power of God’s love for us. And that never, ever fades away.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Christmas Day 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2017 (Christmas Day)

John’s gospel would make a lousy Christmas pageant. No swaddling clothes or mangers. No sign of Mary and Joseph. No wise men or shepherds. It’s pretty much just the Word of God and a bunch of light.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It’s beautiful and poetic, but what’s a pageant director supposed to do with that? You could have a kid shining a flashlight around, I guess. And another one dressed up as the Word of God wearing a costume with a big W on it. But the whole scene just doesn’t make for a compelling visual.

Which is one of the reasons I so love being in church on Christmas Day. After the pageants and the pageantry of Christmas Eve, we are left to contemplate all that has taken place. With bits of tinsel still on the rug and wax drippings still on the pews and perhaps a hint of incense still in the air, we are left to reflect upon what God has wrought in sending his Son into the world. There is a more cerebral approach to the meaning of the incarnational event that took place in a stable in Bethlehem a couple thousand years ago.

Despite our preference for hand-carved nativity sets with figurines placed just so on our mantle-places, God entering the world in human form was a messy affair. As you would expect from a birth taking place among farm animals. The chaos of Christmas pageants hints at this. And it’s an important part of the Christmas story and our annual devotions. But so is zooming out and reflecting on the cosmic meaning of the events that are such beloved aspects of the Christmas experience.

This morning, as we take a step back from the manger, perhaps having left wads of lightswrapping paper on the living room floor, I want to focus particularly on the image of light. Light is a major theme in John’s gospel and it is indelibly intertwined with his theology of Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. John boldly proclaims that Jesus is the light of the world. In these first few paragraphs alone John calls Jesus the “light of all people,” the “true light,” and tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But first, let’s acknowledge that the image of light and dark just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. Despite the sun setting before 4:30 these past few weeks — which is rather depressing, frankly — it’s easy enough to take light for granted in our modern world. If we want light, we flick a switch and behold! Let there be light! When the sun goes down there are streetlights and headlights and exterior lights and, if we’re fumbling around for our keys, flashlights on our cell phones. We basically have the power to turn night into day if need be and we are rarely ever inextricably cast into a darkness that we cannot illuminate.

So at first glance, John’s image of the light coming into the darkness of the world loses something in translation. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what it was really like before the advent of electricity. Trying to get everything done before nightfall. Getting lost in the woods on a dark night. Reading by candlelight.

But even though we can’t necessarily relate to the primal interplay between light and dark, we can very much relate to metaphorical darkness. To the forces of darkness that are unleashed upon the world in the form of bigotry and hatred and violence. That kind of darkness is alive and well and terrifying. It is this darkness that cannot overcome the light of Christ. The light of Jesus Christ that entered the world can never be extinguished. And that’s what Christmas is all about. This light that shines in the darkness is the light of hope.

And if there is anything we could use right now, if there is anything we crave, it is hope. The hope that justice will prevail; the hope that our lives have purpose and meaning; the hope that darkness will be driven out.

This is the thing about light. It dispels darkness and illuminates truth. It makes visible that which was previously obscured. When hope — that beautiful life-giving emotion — is hidden by the cares and occupations of our lives, we live a dimmed existence. All that is lovely and holy is hidden from our eyes. When we allow the light of Christ to shine forth, joy flows abundantly, bursting through the darkness. This is hope. The recognition that even amid darkness, the light of Christ will prevail.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who could not abide the song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Annoying tune aside, he insisted it was heretical. When the subject of the song came up, he would proclaim with righteous indignation to anyone who would listen, “This light is neither little, nor yours.” He was right, of course. The Light of Christ is the greatest light the world has ever known. And we do not own it or control it. On our best days, we stand in its warm glow, experience it, and share it with others. This light that entered the world in the form of Jesus changed everything. And it is by this light that our lives are defined and illuminated.

That’s the reminder for us on Christmas. So often we focus on the darkness of this world — the fear, the violence, the injustice — and fail to see the light in our midst. The light that stands in contrast to the darkness; the light that illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and souls. On Christmas Day we testify to this light; we give thanks for its never-ending presence in our lives; and we revel in the Light of Christ that sustains us with peace, hope, and joy.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017