Pentecost 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 15, 2016 (Pentecost, Year C)

Imagine, if you will, a box. It’s quite a large box. In fact, it’s so large that you are actually sitting inside of this box. Now, it’s not your average cardboard box. It’s a nice box, a fancy box. A box made of stone and wood and stained glass. You’re sitting inside this box with about 150 other people, some of whom you know, some you don’t; some look familiar but you can’t actually remember all their names. A lot of the people inside this box are wearing red, for some reason. 

Early on in your time inside this box, a colorful parade went past with a couple of kids redboxholding sticks of fire and others holding books. At certain, apparently pre-designated, points they stand or kneel or sit. A lot. Sometimes, with no warning whatsoever, they start singing. And a couple of them walk up to a big wooden bird and start reading.

Some of the people, the ones who were in the parade, wear white robes and one person prances around in a bright red poncho. They appear to be inside this box willingly; though, in fairness, some seem to be inside more willingly than others. The facial expressions of those inside the box vary. Sometimes they close their eyes, sometimes they smile or nod their heads or look very serious. All in all, they seem rather content, though it’s not at all clear what they are doing and why they are inside this box.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It’s hard to know what the first followers of Jesus would make of worship in the 21st century. They may well recognize it as some sort of religious rite or ritual. But would they connect it to their own experience of Jesus of Nazareth? Would they see their own passion for the words and wisdom of Jesus inside this box that we call the Church?

On Pentecost, we get a glimpse of the early church, and what we do on a Sunday morning here at St. John’s may well look just as unfamiliar to them as their experience looks to us. Because this Pentecost event is a little wild. There was speaking in tongues and loud sounds and general chaos. In other words, just like Sunday morning worship at St. John’s.

In fact there was such commotion, the crowd of onlookers that gathered to rubberneck even thought these followers of Jesus were drunk. Of course the gathered disciples weren’t drunk. Drunk on the Holy Spirit perhaps but as Peter points out, it was 9:00 o’clock in the the morning; not exactly prime time for engaging in those kinds of spirits.

But the accusations leveled at these Christians who had come together 50 days after that first Easter Day, were just the start. For the next three hundred years they would be persecuted for their strange behavior and unusual beliefs. Even as the Christian message spread and more adherents came to know Jesus through the testimony of others, even as they gathered under cover of darkness to remember Jesus and hear stories about him and break bread together, rumors spread about this strange group. They were accused of being cannibals — there were whispers about eating body and blood; they were accused of engaging in orgies — they heard about the exchange of the “holy kiss of peace;” they were accused of being unpatriotic atheists — they refused to worship the Roman gods. Like Jesus himself, these early Christians were reviled, and mocked, and arrested, and killed. And yet they kept at it.

Now in some respects, the Church is coming full circle. Christians are no longer being persecuted, at least here in the United States, but increasingly what we do on Sunday morning is looked upon as being odd. And as society changes and becomes more and more secular, we may well have more in common with the early church than we think. The reality is that church-going, at least here in the Northeast, is no longer the norm. In a Pew Research survey that was released earlier this year, Massachusetts was tied with New Hampshire for being the least religious state in the union.

I see evidence of this all the time at weddings and funerals. It used to be that people, even if they weren’t regular church-goers, had a general idea of how to act in the pews. It might not be entirely familiar, but they would follow along, sitting, standing, kneeling. You know, when in Rome and all that. But increasingly people show up who literally have no clue. People don’t know how to open a hymnal, don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, don’t get references to basic Bible stories, don’t know what to do once they arrive at the communion rail. It’s not their fault and I don’t blame them for it — many of them didn’t grow up going to church or they haven’t been to church in a long, long time. In other words, many people experience church as something completely foreign — like the experience of those first Christians wandering into the box of the modern church. 

pentecost11Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The early church, and the current and future church, will have a lot more in common with one another than the intervening 1,700 years when Christianity not only became legal but also took on the cloak of respectability. People who show up on Sunday morning these days want to be in church, rather than feeling obligated to be in church. And there’s a big difference. You no longer face the social wrath of your neighbors if you don’t take your faith seriously. Indeed most of your neighbors probably don’t even go to church.

So rather than being coopted by culture, going to church has become countercultural. And that’s as exciting as it is daunting for the institutional church. The future church, like the early church, will be smaller but it will also, like the early church, be more devoted. You know, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, Jesus didn’t come into the world to start an institution; Jesus came into the world to start a movement. And you, my friends, are part of this movement. A movement driven by and given life by and animated by the Holy Spirit; that life-giving force that is the very breath of God.

So Pentecost, the great movement that created the Church in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection, offers us an opportunity to be the Church in a new way. Through the Holy Spirit, that indefinable, mysterious force that binds the Church together, we have a unique chance to experience knowing Jesus and sharing Jesus with others.

Because just as Jesus sent out the Holy Spirit to those first disciples, who were then sent out to live their faith in the world, so does the Holy Spirit send us out. Out to do the work we have been given to do. Out to spread the joy of Christ in the world. Out to stand up for justice in the face of injustice. Out to weep with those who weep. Out to rejoice with those who rejoice. Out to lift up the poor and downtrodden. Out to be the hands and feet of our Lord in a world that so desperately craves reconciliation and healing. 

As much as we want to turn inward and focus on ourselves, the Spirit keeps pushing us out, beyond ourselves. Out of our comfort zones; out into the world; out of the box.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday of Easter (2016)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 1, 2016 (Easter 6, Year C)

Carnivorous sea snail mucus. That was the source of the highly prized purple dyes used in sea snailthe ancient world. The process of turning the carnivorous sea snail mucus into a usable dye was, not surprisingly, slow and arduous. And expensive. It’s the reason the color purple became associated with royalty. Kings and queens were among the few who could afford to have clothing and textiles dyed purple.

We see vestiges of this in our own liturgy as the color purple is used during the season of Advent.  Purple vestments may no longer be seen as luxury items, but during the period before Christmas in which we await the birth of the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, we dress the altar in royal purple.

But why am I talking about this? Partly it’s because I’ve always wanted to utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” from the pulpit. And partly, with this week’s premature death of Prince — true music royalty — the color purple has been in the news.

But the main reason is to highlight a fairly obscure Biblical character named Lydia. She only appears once in all of Scripture and we hear about her in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She was a wealthy merchant, a woman who made her money as a dealer in purple cloth. But just because you’ve perhaps never heard of Lydia, or at least skipped over her brief Scriptural mention, doesn’t mean she was insignificant.

She’s featured in just four sentences and yet we can glean much from them. Paul writes, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

From this we can tell that Lydia was a faithful Gentile woman who worshipped the Jewish God; that she eagerly listen to the preaching of Paul; that God opened her heart to Paul’s message about Jesus; that she was wealthy, as a seller of purple cloth; that she lived in present-day Greece in a town on the Agean Sea — she needed access to those sea snails; that she was likely the head of her own household, as no husband is mentioned; that she was baptized by Paul; and that she was hospitable, as she opened her home to Paul and his companions.

In a culture that rarely mentioned women by name, or that only did so in relation to a husband or father, Lydia stands out as a powerful force in the early church. She is recognized as the first documented convert to Christianity on European soil and it is through this encounter that the church in Philippi was born. It thrived, likely with Lydia’s passion and financial support, to the point that Paul wrote to the community, and we have his beautiful Letter to the Philippians to show for it.

In his earthly life, Jesus so often brought women and others marginalized by society out of the shadows and into the light. He broke convention by conversing with women in public places, entered their homes, listened to what they had to say. At his death it was the women at the empty tomb who first learned the good news of the resurrection and Mary Magdalene is proclaimed as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” And now we see this same movement of the spirit continuing in the early church as Lydia became a prominent member and driver of the budding Christian community in Philippi. And yet, how many of you had ever even heard of Lydia? We as an institutional church and as a society still have much work to do.

As a case in point, there’s been another woman in the news recently who has similarly been kept in the shadows. The shadows of slavery and racism and sexism. Harriet Tubman, who will soon take her place as the first woman represented on U.S. currency.

Putting Harriet on the $20 bill hasn’t been without controversy. Whether due to simple resistance to change or darker forces isn’t for me to know or judge. But I will say this: if you know of anyone opposed to Harriet Tubman on the $20, please encourage them to get rid of these bills by sending them to the church. We’d be more than happy to convert Tubmans into ministry here at St. John’s.

tubmanBut what’s not often discussed is what allowed Harriet to live her courageous life: her deep, abiding faith. Like Lydia, Harriet was a strong, smart, able, and passionate woman. Nicknamed “Moses” for her work in leading slaves from captivity to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she was also profoundly faithful. It’s what kept her going as a freedom fighter throughout her varied life as an abolitionist, suffragist, nurse, spy, soldier in the Union Army.

In addition to everything else, Harriet was a woman who persevered in everything she did. One of my favorite stories involves her doggedness as a fundraiser for her work on the Railroad. It’s said that one day she approached a well-known abolitionist in New York, and informed him that God had told her that he “had twenty dollars to give her to free the slaves.” The man was not convinced. So Harriet staged a one-woman sit-in in his office. She sat down, and calmly continued to sit throughout the day, as the man went about his business. People came and went, wondering about this determined black lady sitting in the corner. By the time it was over, the man had given sixty dollars to Harriet. Or the equivalent of three Tubmans.

Of course women like Lydia and Harriet Tubman don’t do what they do in order to be publicly recognized. And yet by lifting up the saints among us, we are able to draw deep inspiration from their lives and from their devotion. We can learn lessons from how to follow Jesus amid challenging circumstances.

Harriet’s challenges are well-known but being a woman of means, Lydia also had a lot to lose by following Jesus. It would have been safer not to. There’s a reason most business owners don’t advertise their religion or put campaign signs in their store windows — why risk offending paying customers? But Lydia saw the bigger picture and her hospitality amid the persecution of the early church never wavered. Soon enough Paul and his companions would be arrested, jailed, and beaten but they headed back to Lydia’s home to be fed, welcomed, and tended to.

I may never again utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” during a sermon. But the next time you order escargot in a fancy restaurant or pay for something with a $20 bill, I do hope you’ll consider the life and witness of these two incredible women. And consider how you, too, can follow Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Easter 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 17, 2016 (Easter 4, Year C)

How do you cultivate a sense of belonging? For many of us, we become joiners. We join political parties; fraternal groups like the Masons; professional organizations like the Rotary Club; volunteer societies like the Junior League; service organizations like the VFW. If you think about the number of clubs or groups you’ve belonged to over the years, it’s probably a long list. And much of our personal identity comes from such organizations.

Now, part of me can’t help but think of these traditional societies or associations as CgPeiBtUEAE-g14.jpg-largeobituary filler. And maybe that’s not fair but if you’re a reader of obits, like I am — it’s a professional hazard — these are the things that end up in there. “Bob was active in the Republican Party, a member of the Moose Lodge, and served as past-president of the Kiwanis Club. The funeral will be held at St. Peter’s by-the-Turnpike, where he served on the Vestry.”

That’s not to minimize or make light of causes or institutions which we care about, but rather to highlight how much we all crave a sense of belonging. It’s human nature to seek connection and acceptance and value; and political, religious, social, and professional organizations often help fill that deep yearning.

Now, usually when it comes to joining an organization, the process is fairly straightforward. In some cases you either qualify or you don’t. As a veteran I could join the American Legion but as someone who drives a Honda I would not be welcome in the Ferrari Club of America. But once the basic qualifications are met and you have established a common affinity, you typically sign up, pay your membership fee, and you’re in. You often quite literally become a card-carrying member.

Religious denominations have certain guidelines as well. Some are more rigid than others — but often you have to adhere to a particular set of beliefs or give a particular percentage of your annual income or maybe undergo a formal rite. Or perhaps it’s less structured. Just come occasionally, give what you can, and try your best not to break any Commandments — at least the big ones.

That’s how it works, right?

Well actually, no. That’s not how it works. At all. At least according to Jesus. Jesus says that you already belong. That you belong to Jesus simply because you exist. There’s nothing to sign, no hidden fees, no hoops to jump through, no catch. Your belonging doesn’t depend on what you believe or what you say or what other people think. Your belonging doesn’t take into account your socioeconomic class, your gender, your sexual orientation, or your level of education. Your belonging doesn’t hinge on whether or not you’ve experienced doubts or what you’ve done or left undone. Your belonging has nothing to do with past or future accomplishments or how hard you’ve worked.

Your belonging, in fact doesn’t depend upon you at all. You belong because Jesus has chosen you, not because you have chosen Jesus. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, tells us “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” That’s it. You’re in. You belong. You are part of the flock.

And at one level, isn’t this so freeing? You belong to Jesus just as you are; even despite who you are. You are loved, included, invited into the green pastures and still waters of the Good Shepherd.

Yet this can also be a hard message to accept. Because if we belong, everybody belongs. If we belong, that annoying neighbor who mows his lawn before 7:00 am on Saturday mornings also belongs. If we belong, our meddling sister-in-law also belongs. If we belong, the guy at work who’s always stealing our ideas and passing them off as his, also belongs. For better or worse, everybody means everybody.

belonging-1You know, it should come as no surprise that religious groups are some of the worst offenders of seeking to create belonging by less-than-gracious means. The worst of human nature often means inclusion at the expense of others. Creating group identity by excluding others. This invites the notion that in order to create a sense of belonging you must intentionally keep others out. “It’s us against the world!” It’s a dangerous and, I’d argue un-Christian, model around which to build community. And there’s not too much of a leap from the in-group/out-group paradigm to David Koresh and the debacle in Waco or anti-Muslim fervor in our present day. Belonging at the expense of others is not the kind of belonging into which Jesus beckons us. His is a belonging without walls; an inclusion without barriers; an invitation without limits.

But it’s also an invitation not devoid of identity. Because as we crave a sense of belonging, it’s important to remember that our identity is wrapped up in Jesus’ identity as God’s son.

You’ll note in this passage from John’s gospel that those seeking straight talk about Jesus’ identity are not his followers. Those who have tracked him down at the Temple to demand information about who he really is, are the religious authorities, the same ones whose rigid standards of belonging are being subverted. And Jesus says two things: ‘First, I’ve already told you who I am and you don’t believe me so why should I waste my time and second, the works that I’ve been doing all along in God’s name — teaching and healing and preaching — already speak to my identity.’

You see, Jesus understands our profound need to belong. He recognizes this yearning that stands at the very depth of our souls. It’s why he called the first disciples into community, into a group. He could have saved himself a whole lot of heartache if he’d just gone around the countryside by himself, rather than with a bunch of devoted, if often misguided, disciples.

But he understood the human need for connection; the human need to stave off crushing feelings of isolation and loneliness. We crave connection and relationship and when we feel it slipping away we can easily become depressed and fall into despair. Wardens — and in this case I’m talking about prison wardens, not church wardens — are well aware that one of the most dehumanizing things you can do to a person is put them into solitary confinement; to take away their sense of belonging.

Jesus is calling out your name. Not to artificially create in you a sense of belonging, but because you already belong. We, like sheep, can and do go astray. There’s no doubt about that. We wander off, we get lost, we encounter danger. But the Good Shepherd continually, lovingly, gently calls upon you to return; not because you don’t belong, but precisely because you do.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after Easter (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 3, 2016 (Easter 2, Year C)

I’m pretty sure the most anticlimactic thing I have ever witnessed in my entire life, happened on live TV in 1986. Some of you may remember the great hype for a program hosted by Geraldo Rivera called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” This was a live two-hour special at the conclusion of which Geraldo was to open a newly discovered stone vault underneath the Lexington Hotel in Chicago.

Most of the show, which was also watched by 30 million other suckers, was spent The_Mystery_of_Al_Capones's_Vaultsspeculating on what might be inside the vault. Cash, bodies, liquor, gangster secrets. Just in case, Geraldo had a medical examiner on hand to inspect any rotted corpses as well as IRS agents to deal with any unclaimed piles of money.

Once the audience had been worked up into a lathered frenzy, the moment came for Geraldo to open the vault. There were a series of detonations and then a giant chain yanked open the vault. After two titillating hours spent rehashing the glory days of Al Capone and the Untouchables, once the smoke cleared, Geraldo had unearthed…absolutely nothing. Well that’s not entirely true; he did find two empty gin bottles and a stop sign. But that was it. Perhaps the greatest anticlimax ever.

Which brings us to the Sunday after Easter. In many parishes this day is referred to as “Low Sunday.” Certainly in comparison to Easter, the “highest” feast on the Christian calendar, anything might be considered “low.” And in many places everything about the day is low — the attendance, the energy, the music, the preaching. The whole day can feel like one giant holy hangover.

And as long as we’re on the subject of liturgical minutiae, you may be interested to know that this day was also traditionally known as Quasimodo Sunday. Not because there was a lot of bellringing, but because the Latin introit for the day started with the words quasi modo geniti enfantes, “as newborn babes.” That bell-ringing hunchback from the Victor Hugo novel? He was abandoned as an infant at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on, you guessed it, Quasimodo Sunday; hence his name. But in comparison to the day we celebrate the miracle of the empty tomb, Low Sunday can feel like an empty vault. Unsatisfying; anticlimactic.

But not here! We have baptisms and Bible presentations and a full choir and pancakes after the service! This morning at St. John’s we are sticking it to the Low Sunday Man!

And one of the great things about this day is that it reminds us that resurrection, like baptism, takes time to live into. Yes, there is a decisive moment involved. “The tomb is empty — alleluia!” or “Let’s splash some water on you — you’re a Christian!” And while these are indeed once-and-for-all events — in resurrection, Christ vanquished the power of death for all eternity and in baptism, the newly baptized are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever — we never stop living into our Christian faith and identity. We continue to be formed in the ways of Jesus Christ day after day, week after week, year after year. By listening to God’s word and being drawn to the altar; through prayer and by sharing the journey of our common life with one another.

So, far from suddenly solving everything all at once, these life-changing moments draw us ever deeper. We are invited deeper into living a life of resurrection; deeper into the waters of baptism; deeper into our relationship with God.

This doesn’t make Easter or baptism anticlimactic. But it does bring us to the realization that these defining moments are beginnings, not endings. Easter is a 50-day season, not just a single day; baptism is a lifetime, not a single moment.

And of course we can and should revel in those climactic moments — jelly beans or a fancy brunch, the sugar high of celebration. It’s important to mark and enjoy such joyous moments. Too often we skip over the celebration and just move on to the next thing. Like Bill Belichick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning yet another Super Bowl while his thoughts immediately move on to the NFL draft or next year’s training camp. It is a good and joyful thing to revel in the moment.

And yet we can’t stay there forever. Life moves on. The dishes get cleared, the chocolate gets eaten, the dog needs a walk, a diaper needs changing. And we have a need to get on with things, to move past the initial euphoria and into something deeper. That’s what this day is all about.

Of course when you go deeper in your faith, when you move beyond the surface, you do encounter doubt. Perhaps this is why every year on the Sunday after Easter the unfortunately and unfairly named “Doubting” Thomas shows up. The poor guy who missed the disciples’ resurrection party and simply wanted a side of proof to go along with the joy.

He’s certainly not the only one of the disciples to have doubts about this crazy resurrection story. As you may recall from the Easter gospel, Peter and the other other male disciples didn’t believe the women’s eyewitness account of the resurrection. They, too wanted proof before they would deign to believe that Jesus had risen. But it’s Thomas who gets saddled with this unflattering moniker. History doesn’t speak of Doubting Peter or Doubting Bartholomew or Doubting James but Doubting Thomas.

But I love Thomas because he reminds us that doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have a tendency to shove it away; to lock it up, to try and keep it inside a tomb. We feel it’s safer that way. Ignoring any seeds of doubt. But in the long run, it’s much healthier to embrace the doubt; to acknowledge it; to engage with it. Like the disciples we are both doubters and believers. These are not mutually exclusive; there is nuance involved in faith. Shades of gray in the midst of a world that so desperately craves black and white.

capture1But that’s the thing about going deeper. Faith no longer just bubbles on the surface. And suddenly you find yourself in church not just on Easter Day but the week after as well, wrestling with the deeper issues of faith that lurk beneath the surface. That’s what it means to be a practicing Christian. Walking with Jesus even when it’s not all joy and jelly beans.

Now, I don’t recommend it, but you can watch the full two-hours of “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” at geraldo.com. That’s the epitome of anticlimax. But today, we stand firm in our faith; a faith that transcends any potential anticlimax. Because the life-giving, death-conquering empty tomb, has absolutely nothing in common with the disappointment of an empty vault. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Easter Day 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 27, 2016 (Easter Day)

Isn’t Easter great? The colorful dresses and joyful music; the dignified processions and the slightly less dignified Easter egg hunts; the fancy brunches and half-eaten chocolate bunnies.

12513731_10207827867766183_4654086190179414197_oThere sure is a lot of pageantry and tradition involved for what was originally dismissed as an “idle tale.” That’s what the male disciples called the initial reports from the women who gathered at the tomb on that first Easter Day. They dismissed their eyewitness account of the resurrection as utter nonsense; feminine foolishness. And you can almost hear the condescension in their voices, dismissing both the fanciful story and the women themselves.

Culturally, this dismissive attitude made sense. Despite Jesus’ constant attempts to break down the false barriers between people, despite his continued drive to include rather than to exclude, despite his constant challenge of social norms, despite his clear mandate to love one another, despite his living example of shattering our preconceived notions, the disciples still didn’t get it. Even on that first Easter morning, Peter and his companions just couldn’t accept the first-hand account of the women who witnessed the empty tomb. They couldn’t believe the message; they wouldn’t believe the messengers.

So what were these women doing hanging around Jesus’ tomb in the first place? With heavy hearts these female disciples had made their way to the burial site, not because they expected a miracle but simply to give Jesus’ body the dignified burial they felt it deserved. They brought embalming spices in order to anoint the body. Remember the myrrh from the Christmas story? The gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the three kings? The three worst baby gifts ever? Well, myrrh was an expensive, spiced embalming oil. Foreshadowing the crucifixion.

But an odd thing, a perplexing thing, a confusing thing took place when they entered the tomb. It was empty. And it’s tough to embalm a body that simply is not there. So as they raced back to tell the others this stunning news about what they had seen and heard, they were met with hardness of heart. “But these words seemed to the male disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

There are still many who dismiss the Easter story as an “idle tale.” This is nothing new. An increasing number of people have built walls around what feels rational and logical in order to keep out that which they deem irrational and illogical. It’s easier that way. To dismiss the miraculous, to cling to the power of our own minds, to hold onto only that which we can see with our own eyes. It’s become almost fashionable to reject the resurrection.

And I get that. We, like the male disciples, want to run back to the tomb to verify things for ourselves. We want to treat the empty tomb like a crime scene. To dust for prints; do some DNA testing; analyze the data. But there are certain things in life that defy logic; things that rise above the rational. Like love and forgiveness and faith — things that we feel and know in our hearts, even when we can’t quantify them or plot the data on a graph.

The resurrection is one of these things. Yet if we open our hearts and minds to the power of Christ’s resurrection, to the irrational notion that God loves humanity not just in general but you in particular, we come to see deeply embedded and eternal truths.

Because the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God works in ways that transcend human comprehension. That God is not limited by human logic or mortal constraints.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God works through the disenfranchised and marginalized. In revealing the resurrection first to women, God shows us that God is not bound by the prejudice of society in any age.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that, in the end, fear never wins out over faith. That nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that there is a better way. That life doesn’t have to be a slog to get through but a joy to enter into.

Yes, the sugar high of Easter Day eventually wears off. The organ is powered down. The trumpets are silenced. Candles are extinguished. Colorful dresses return to the closet. Brunch is digested. Peeps get stale — actually that never happens. They have an indefinite shelf life. But we’re left with a clear path. Jesus beckons us to follow in his footsteps, either confidently or haltingly; often in equal measure.

Of course, you can ignore the invitation. You can hop right back on the hamster wheel. You can fill your days with endless activity and noise. You can find yourself, once again, with no time for silence or reflection. It’s safer that way, really. You can spend most of your life avoiding the larger questions of life; ignoring questions about the eternal and your place within it.

But, like a boomerang, eventually these questions return with ever increasing intensity. CelScRlWIAA-NAO.jpg-largeLife, death, faith. Walking the path of Jesus gives us answers — not easy ones mind you — but his path anchors our life, roots it in hope and meaning. Offers us peace even in the midst of anxiety; laughter even in the midst of tears; life even in the midst of death.

When you take those first tentative steps to truly follow Jesus, a funny thing happens: an idle tale becomes transformative. The “proof” of the resurrection is seen in lives that have been changed and healed and made whole through encounter with the risen Christ. We see resurrection not just in an empty tomb once a year, but in one another each and every day. We see resurrection in fear driven out; in hateful rhetoric denied; in equality achieved; in discrimination overthrown; in the crumbling of walls that seek to divide us one from another and in the tearing down of obstacles that seek desperately to separate the rational from the mystical.

As you walk through the rubble of these torn down walls, may this “idle tale” fill you with all hope in the power of the resurrection. May the joy of this Easter day open up for you an ever deepening relationship with the living God. And may Christ’s victory over the grave open for you the very gates of heaven. Alleluia and amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Good Friday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 25, 2016 (Good Friday)

“Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches, and weapons.”

There is a lot of violence in our lives. Murder, mayhem, misdeeds. Fortunately, at least for the vast majority of us, most of it doesn’t affect us personally. Violence happens to other people. Or on television. It happens in bad neighborhoods. Or in the Middle East. Or in Belgium. You can see it on the news. You can watch murder on demand. Corpses abound on our screens and in our consciousness. There is a lot of violence in our lives.

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.”

The problem, of course, is that we can too easily become desensitized to violence — both fictionalized and real — while living in the comfort and safety of our South Shore living rooms. No, we don’t live in a war-torn part of the world. And while gun violence is a daily issue mere miles from here, it is not something that consumes our everyday thoughts. Occasionally violence does break into our lives, but contrary to the images we regularly see, it’s the exception rather than the rule.

“Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’”

But this de-sensitivity to violence has a direct impact on our own spiritual lives, one that is magnified on Good Friday. Because the violence of the cross can become just another murder that takes place “out there” beyond our emotional connection. One that took place 2,000 years ago in what can feel like a galaxy far, far away.

“So the soldiers, their officers, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.”

On this dark day in the Christian year, I encourage you to take Jesus’ death personally. To allow it to spark outrage. To acknowledge the pain at the core of your soul. To grieve for a beautiful life cut short. To internalize the grief. To rage against the injustice. To make it personal.

“When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’”

Because when you take the crucifixion of Jesus personally, it allows you to take the resurrection of Jesus personally. When we make Christ’s suffering personal, the journey to the empty tomb becomes personal. Insurrection leads to resurrection. Like two sides of a divine coin, we can’t have one without the other.

Yet for as much as we are consumers of violence in our daily lives, when violence becomes personal, we look away to avoid the pain. That’s human nature, of course. We want to get Good Friday over with so we can get on with the celebration that is to come. Many people avoid coming to church on Good Friday precisely because they don’t want to deal with the hard reality of the cross. They don’t want to deal with Jesus’ death. They want to keep the cross at a safe distance. They don’t want to take it personally.

“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.”

The truth about the Christian faith in general and this week in particular, is that we want to avert our eyes, and yet we cannot. We want to skip over the betrayal, and yet we cannot. We want to avoid the denial, and yet we cannot. We want to pass over the violence, and yet we cannot. We cannot look away because the betrayal is our betrayal, the denial our denial, the violence is our violence.

We must fix our gaze firmly upon the cross. Not because we’re gluttons for punishment but because it is only through the cross that new life beckons.

“When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’”

We gather at the foot of the cross, not to curl up into the fetal position but to gather strength for the journey ahead. Jesus died to destroy the power of death — that’s the power of the resurrection, yes. But, still, we cannot ignore the violence that takes place on this day we proclaim “good.”

“Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.”

I bid you to take this day so personally that it changes you; that it transforms how you live your life. That through it, you are able to live a life free from the paralyzing fear of death. That you’re able to look not past or beyond but through the violence to see what the cross truly is: the ultimate act of divine love.

“There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”

We gaze at the hard wood of the cross not in isolation or alone but within the context of the resurrection and with one another. As painful as it may be, this is a day of love, not violence. Because unlike the original disciples, we know the end of the story. We don’t have to pretend as if the agony of the cross is the end; as if Jesus’ words “It is finished” are the final chapter. We know that it is NOT finished. The question is what we do about it and where we go from here.

“Then he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 6, 2016 (IV Lent, Year C)

How many different houses have you lived in over the years? As you mentally calculate this, I’ll share a bit of my own apparently nomadic lifestyle. I did the math this week and I’ve lived in 16 houses and eight states. This doesn’t include college dorm rooms or a four month stint at Fort Knox, but it does include two months working on a congressional race in California in 1993. Since it’s my life, I get to decide what’s in and what’s out.

Some of this moving around was because of my father’s career as a symphony orchestra conductor — I lived in five of those houses and three of those states before I was four. But then you add graduate school and ordained ministry into the mix and suddenly you’re up to 16 houses.

Which sounds like a lot but for me, as perhaps for many of you, there’s no ancestral family homestead or compound. There’s no single place where I’ve always lived and will always call home. This is the reality for most of us in a highly mobile society. I mean, how many of you are still living in the house you grew up in? How many of you are still living in the town you grew up in? All of which can make the idea of “home” an elusive concept, or at least a moving target.

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Parable of the Prodigal Son, with its many layers and plot lines, is really a story about home. A metaphor for what it means to truly be in a place where you are loved unconditionally and completely. A rejection of that phrase “You can’t go home again.” Because, at least when it comes to God’s love, no matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, if you choose to return, you are always welcomed home with arms wide open. When it comes to relationship with Jesus Christ, you can go home again.

As we heard, the younger son in this story is intent on leaving home. This is often a natural and healthy inclination in children — many teenagers I know, some personally, can’t wait to get out of the house; can’t wait to get out from under the repressive rule of unreasonable parents who require them to do ridiculous things like unload the dishwasher. This is part of normal human development — seeking to break free and set out on your own; to blaze your own trail apart from the familiarity of family. And the so-called prodigal son is no different.

But still, asking his father for his portion of the inheritance was unheard of. Why? Because then, as now, inheritance was given at the time of death. As the younger son, he would have been given a sizable portion, though the property and most of the assets would pass to the eldest son. That’s just the way the system worked — primogeniture is the fancy name you may remember from studying the monarchies of Europe. So rather than simply living his life, this younger son was basically trying to hit the fast forward button. In asking for his inheritance before its time, he was, in effect, saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” He wants to wash his hands entirely of his family of origin by taking his inheritance and getting out of town. He wants nothing more than to leave home.

And in some ways, you have to admire his pluck. He may not have thought his plan all the way through, but he wouldn’t be the first headstrong young person to ever act impulsively. Soon enough he would see that his grand ambition to lead a life of wine, women, and song had a fatal flaw. And as he ends up impoverished, hungry, and working on a pig farm — something that would have been absolute anathema to Jews because of the ritual purity laws — he finally comes to his senses. Whether out of true repentance or simply desperation, he decides to return home. Back to the place he had shunned; back to the family he had rejected.

And you can imagine what a torturous journey that must have been. One filled with shame and embarrassment and humiliation, with no real hope that the father whose death he had hoped for would even open the front door. Why wouldn’t this foolish child who had disavowed his father’s very life and squandered his resources, wind up metaphorically dead to him?

And on his journey, I wonder if this young man reflected on the nature of “home.” Often when you’re away from it, home becomes even more important. You begin to see the good things you may have taken for granted. How many college students come home for Thanksgiving of their freshman year and thank their parents? I mean really and truly for the first time offer gratitude for all that they have ever done for them? I know I did. And I can only hope to be on the receiving end one day.

We all yearn for home. Or at least the idea of it. Sometimes we idealize it. Or make it out to be something that’s simply the opposite of our current, trying circumstances. Sometimes we place great value on a place that is in the past; inaccessible, unattainable. Or a place that never really existed.

But where, ultimately, is home? It’s not the place we live, even if we’ve built our dream house. Or even if we actually do still live in our childhood home. Or even if we’re sitting in the family room, vegging out in front of the TV, watching our favorite show, in our most comfortable recliner. We’re still not truly home. Because once life gets in the way, and it does, we still yearn for home. True home is something that transcends even the most sacred version of our “happy place.”

In a sense we all come from broken homes. Because even when we are in our earthly homes, places we may well love, there’s still something missing. There’s still a void that all of our human efforts and strivings can’t fill.

Home is where the heart is, yes. Perhaps. But more to the point, home is where the soul is. And our soul is only fully at peace when we are in authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. Home is a place where the soul can rest.

Our true homecoming only occurs, of course, when we die. Our true home is a place we cannot access until we have arrived. There’s a reason so much imagery of heaven revolves around the concept of our heavenly home. “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. And I love the text of this morning’s offertory hymn: “Jerusalem, my happy home, when shall I come to thee? When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?” Words based on texts written by the fourth century bishop and theologian St. Augustine.

While we catch glimpses of our heavenly home at various times in our lives, there exists a deep yearning within our souls to enter that place of true home that is union with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean we should live our lives just to get them over with so we can finally go home again. All in good time. But in the meanwhile, be open to the glimpses of home that break into your daily life; enjoy the fleeting moments of refreshment when they arise. And know that when the day comes, God will rush out to meet you with arms wide open in welcome. And you will know that you are finally, truly, once and and for all, home.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck