Second Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 12, 2017 (Lent 2, Year A)

There’s an old Negro spiritual called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Legend has it that this song was really a musical roadmap for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. If anyone overheard slaves singing the song, it would seem innocuous enough. On plantations, a hollowed out gourd was often used as a water dipper. But in the song, “drinking gourd” had a more subversive meaning — it was code name for the Big Dipper, at the tip of which is the North Star. And so the song was all about following the North Star to freedom.

While the verses point out topographical landmarks like rivers and hills, the chorus pointsBigDipper to the ultimate goal: “Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd.” The old man is likely a reference to Moses, the one who led the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

And the religious connotations run deep along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, the famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who was herself a runaway slave, was known as the “Moses of her people.” Tales abound of her bravery and she took great pride in the fact that, in the process of bringing over 100 people to freedom, she never lost a single soul in her care.

All of this work of the Underground Railroad took place under cover of darkness. Darkness became an essential ingredient in the recipe of freedom. Runaway slaves needed darkness to avoid capture and they also needed darkness to see the North Star, to “follow the drinking gourd.”

Now, we have a complicated relationship with the whole notion of going out under cover of darkness. It feels illicit or unsavory. If I were to skulk around neighborhoods on the South Shore late at night, somebody would surely call the cops. A priest moving from tree to tree while wearing black and looking around furtively would be…sketchy.

And yet in this morning’s gospel passage, Nicodemus is doing precisely this. He’s a respected leader of the institutional faith community and yet he’s arranged this clandestine meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness. Which makes a lot of sense since Nicodemus would have been roundly condemned by his peers for even approaching this rogue teacher; this upstart who was always holding up an unflattering mirror to the religious elite and condemning their hypocrisy when it came to serving empty rituals at the expense of serving the poor. So even as Nicodemus was drawn to learn more, meeting Jesus in broad daylight would have been unthinkable. Which is why he waits for the sun to go down, puts on some dark clothes, and sneaks over to see Jesus.

It should be pointed out that in John’s gospel, the time of day is significant. At various moments, darkness serves as a metaphor for unbelief or ignorance or temptation. Indeed the interplay between light and dark has profound theological undertones in John; culminating in the fact that the women come to Jesus’ tomb while it is was “still dark” and experience the Resurrection as day breaks.

So, it’s no accident or mere happenstance that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In time Nicodemus would quite literally come to see the light but for now he remains a secret disciple of Jesus, one who, if this rather comical interaction about what it means to be born again is any indication, has much to learn.

And yet, like, those seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad, Nicodemus is also seeking freedom by cover of darkness. In time the sin of slavery will be brought out into the light and in time Nicodemus will come to Jesus by the light of day. But the road to freedom is often traveled in darkness. It’s not always a seamless journey. Sometimes you fall or fail. But we, like those who followed the drinking gourd, like Nicodemus, have a steady guide in Jesus Christ.

And make no mistake: you and I are still seeking freedom. It may or may not be based on the color of our skin or upon what others will think. But we’re all seeking spiritual freedom. Freedom from the temptations that draw us from the love of God; freedom from the crush of anxiety; freedom from the ideal of perfection; freedom from the expectations of others; freedom from the pressure we impose on ourselves to be more productive; freedom from the cultural messages that question our very self worth.

The challenge for us is to recognize our lack of freedom. And that takes acknowledging our imprisonment. Which isn’t always visible to the naked eye. We have freedom of movement. Most of us live in relative luxury; or at least comfort. And yet something still keeps us tied down. Chained to our insular opinions or limited worldview or lack of concern for others or self-centeredness. That’s the spiritual imprisonment that holds us back and keeps us from living lives of true faith and hope and joy. Something that becomes ever clearer as we take a spiritual inventory during this season of Lent.

Now I know it’s hard to try new things in the bright light of day — even things we know will benefit us and start that process of unshackling. We can be so self-conscious. We can be so aware of our discomfort in trying new things. I remember when I first starting jogging. I was in eighth grade and running wasn’t exactly as mainstream as it is now. There was that Jim Fixx book on running and that was about it. So after buying a pair or running shoes and thinking about what to wear — an outfit that surely involved tube socks — I decided to take my maiden voyage just before bedtime. I really didn’t want anyone to see me so I laced up my shoes and snuck outside for a brief run under cover of darkness. It wasn’t pretty. At one point I ducked between two parked cars — this was in Queens, New York; not exactly a lonely rural road — and I cut my leg on a piece of metal sticking out from the bumper of an old Buick. I kept going but it started bleeding and I was, once again, glad it was dark out. I still have the scar on my thigh. A reminder that there can be a cost to seeking freedom by cover of darkness.

Jesus wants us to bring our faith into the light, but he also loves our awkward, nighttime strivings. Our clumsy attempts, a la Nicodemus, to deepen our relationship with him. This Lenten season of self-renewal encourages us to try new things. Perhaps there’s a spiritual discipline you’d like to take on? Maybe there’s something you’d like to try to stretch yourself, however haltingly. Perhaps you want to put aside some dedicated time for silence or prayer — which you can literally do in the dark. Or maybe you want to step out into the light and join me and Noah for morning prayer or try out our Wednesday service in the chapel or make the effort to attend our Lenten Series on poverty. Whatever it is, know that we want to support you and help guide you along this path to greater spiritual freedom.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we sometimes do stumble around in the dark. But eventually our strivings bring us to that well-known verse we hear this morning at the conclusion of the story of Nicodemus: John 3:16. The same verse that guy with the rainbow wig used to hold up at sporting events — around the time I was wearing tube socks. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

“God so loved the world.” Full stop. Period. End of story. Tapping into that love is what true freedom is all about. Once we appropriate that love into our hearts and graft it onto our souls, and crave it not only for ourselves but those all around us, all the awkwardness evaporates. And the love of God, like the brightness of the sun, can shine fully and completely and utterly upon us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2017 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s not every day that ashwednesdaysomeone overtly reminds you of your own mortality. We generally avoid the topic of death in polite company. We’re all aware of this in a general sense — that, along with paying taxes, as the saying goes, death is the one thing we can’t avoid in life. We just don’t tend to name this inevitability in everyday conversation.

Yet the words spoken by a priest when imposing ashes may as well be, “Remember that you are going to die.” It’s a stark reality that most people spend an entire lifetime trying to avoid. Which is why we live in such a death-denying culture. One full of euphemisms for death, like he “passed away” or “bought the farm” or “gave up the ghost.” It’s why we call them funeral “homes” — even though nobody actually lives there.

But the liturgy of Ash Wednesday cuts out the flowery prose and bids us to face the reality of the human condition. That we will return to dust; that we will die. We don’t know the day or the hour but we are reminded of the inevitability. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The purpose of this day on which we are invited into the observance of a holy Lent is not, however, a gathering simply meant to state the obvious. It’s not a wakeup call of fear and trembling but a wakeup call of love and compassion. Because you cannot fully live until you recognize and accept your own mortality. Easier said than done, of course, but critical to living a life of peace and joy.

So what does it mean to fully live? How do we do this? Well, our faith has some suggestions, and not surprisingly they are rather counter-cultural. None of them revolve around bungee jumping or roller coasters or thrill rides that make us want to scream, “I’ve never felt so alive!” The adrenaline rush is temporary; fun, perhaps, but unsustainable.

No, the recipe to fully live can be found in the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. To fully live is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” It is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and to cover those who are naked.”

To fully live is to embrace justice and work to lift up the downtrodden in our midst. It is to live inter-connectedly with those who differ from us; it is to open our hearts and minds and souls to new possibilities; it is to live a life of compassion; it is to be generous; it is to forgive.

And so when we talk about dying, we are really talking about living. That’s the essence of the Christian faith. That’s the message of Jesus whose very life reminds us that we cannot encounter death without recognizing resurrection. That when we talk about death, we can’t help but talk about life. That when we talk about grief, we can’t help but talk about joy. Death and resurrection are inseparable; even on Ash Wednesday as we reflect upon our own mortality.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You know just a few days ago, 27 pilgrims from St. John’s were out in the African bush on safari. The last two days of our trip was spent at South Africa’s largest game preserve. And when you’re out among the wildest of beasts in God’s kingdom, the concept of mortality is a constant companion. There’s no euphemism involved when a hyena attacks and proceeds to eat a gazelle.

And yet there, too, is the fullness of life. And a reminder that you cannot live your life paralyzed by the inevitable end. The African bush reminds us that we are not called to live a life of cowardice and fear but of empowerment and joy. To revel in the gift of each day.

So as we enter into this season of introspection and penitence, do not be afraid. Do not allow the reality of the human condition to leave you paralyzed. Rise up; live your life in the warm glow of the resurrection; do a deep dive into Lent here at St. John’s. And most importantly, remember that you are dust; for in so doing, you will fully live as a beloved child of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 12, 2017 (6 Epiphany, Year A)

“I hate people.” Now, that’s not a direct quote from me, so relax. But this is something a friend of mine says on a fairly regular basis — whenever I tell him about a particularly challenging encounter with a stranger or a tough situation with a family member or sticky circumstances with someone at church, (not this church, of course). “I hate people” is kind of his misanthropic mantra. It’s a rather dark view of human nature, to be sure, but there are times when, if we’re pushed, we can’t help but agree. At least for a moment or two.

Now, if you really unpacked this idea using a theological framework, I guess you could get into the fall of humanity and its utter depravity and the absolute need for redemption. Though I don’t think this is really the spiritual takeaway I want to leave you with this morning.

But much of our anxiety in this life is caused by other people. By the way they treat us or hurt us or act towards us. And things would be so much easier and run so much more smoothly if other people didn’t get in the way, right? If they just left us alone to do things our way, on our schedule, to our liking. But life doesn’t work that way. Despite all our talk about “rugged individualism,” we’re rather dependent upon one another; we live interdependent lives woven into communities based on family and proximity and vocation and interest and faith. We are, for better or worse, a communal species.

In this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount — and by the way, this sermon has "Sermon on the Mount"been going on for three weeks now, so just remember that when you want to complain about the preaching around here — but in today’s section, Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see that every action we take impacts those around us. The life of faith isn’t an individual proposition.

Jesus may have looked deep into the soul of each individual when he called them with the words, “Follow me,” but he invited them to become a community of disciples. He didn’t ask them to be spiritual lone rangers but to follow him together; to care for one another, to support one another, to love one another. Because Jesus knew that humans can’t live fruitful, faithful lives in isolation. We need others to reach our fullest spiritual potential, as it’s set out in our Baptismal covenant. And so, as he continues this famous sermon, Jesus talks about the different relationships we have — with friends and spouses and strangers and family members. And he’s well aware of just how complex, how potentially damaging, and how life-giving, our interdependence can be.

Ultimately, this whole notion of interconnectedness revolves around accountability. We are first and foremost accountable to God, of course. Everything we do or fail to do impacts our relationship with the divine. Our actions either bring us closer to God or distance us from God. And that places a burden of responsibility upon us — our actions matter, our words matter. They matter to God.

Which brings us to the other side of this accountability equation: because we live in various communities made up of people, we are accountable to one another. Being accountable to others is not always easy. Our interconnectedness can be messy. It can mean directly confronting those whose actions hurt us, and it can mean being confronted when our own actions don’t live up to the standards of civility and good citizenship.

It’s why Jesus speaks about being reconciled to one another — something especially important in a faith community but equally important in every aspect of our lives. Allowing things to fester below the surface, in any relationship, always proves toxic. Most of us are conflict averse, but if we are to be accountable to one another and move beyond the hurtfulness, open and honest dialogue is the only way forward.

Here’s an example of how accountability works in the church. At least in the Episcopal Church. Because you may not know this, but you can’t just decide to become a priest. You can’t just enroll yourself in seminary and come out wearing a collar a few years later. It doesn’t work that way.

Of course, these days you can just go online and get ordained. Not in the Episcopal Church, mind you, but if you have an internet connection you, too, could become an ordained minister — of some sort — by the time I finish this sermon.

But an authentic calling, as the Church understands it, is a matter of communal discernment not individual preference. For instance, when something started to stir deep inside my own soul in my mid-20’s, I went in to talk to my parish priest. And after he first counseled me to think about doing something, anything, besides ordained ministry, we started meeting regularly. Eventually, when he recognized a call, he enrolled me in the diocesan discernment process which involved all sorts of holy hoops and hurdles. A group of fellow parishioners was set up to help me test and explore this sense of call; I met regularly with others around the diocese who felt similarly called; there were physicals and psychological tests and internships in nursing homes and parish settings and meetings with panels of lay people and clergy from throughout the diocese and eventually with the bishop, who ultimately had the authority to decide whether or not to allow me to move forward in the ordination process and go on to seminary.

Among other things, this was a process of accountability. A mutual process that allowed the community to explore the sense of call along with the person discerning that call. They could have said, “We think you have some gifts but we don’t think ordained ministry is where they lie.” And that certainly happens. And should happen. But everyone I encountered in this long process was seeking to be accountable to me, to the Church, and to God. And that takes hard, brutally honest work. It’s not a perfect process but, when done with authenticity and deep faith, it does help raise up faithful, competent, committed clergy.

The point isn’t to teach a How to Become a Priest 101 class. It’s to highlight the centrality and importance of community and accountability in our faith lives. We are all accountable to one another and to God. There are no lone wolves in a community of faith. It doesn’t work that way. There are certain spiritual checks and balances that keep everyone open and honest and accountable to one another. Which is precisely Jesus’ point.

Again, Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals but into a community of fellow believers and strivers. Sometimes we may drive one another crazy; sometimes we may disagree; but in the end we are all there for one another. We lift each other up when times are difficult and celebrate with each other in times of joy. That’s the gift of our interconnectedness; that’s the gift of being accountable to one another; that’s the gift of the community into which Jesus beckons us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

2017 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 29, 2017
(St. John the Evangelist)

One of the things I love about Annual Meeting Sunday is the opportunity to look back at the past year and reflect upon all the ministry that takes place here at St. John’s. It’s not always easy to find the time to do this amid our busy, deadline-driven communal life. It’s tough to revel in the successes and God-inspired moments that take place on a regular basis. And that’s to our detriment — whether in parish life or our personal lives. But the Annual Meeting forces us to press the pause button and take a long, hard look around. And, wow, there is some great stuff happening at St. John’s!

11147146_10206517117957460_4176512140477409887_nNow, statistics alone can’t tell the full story of a faith community, but they can shed some light on how things are trending. And I’m always seeking to understand what’s behind the numbers. It encourages me to wonder what it is, exactly, that has allowed us to not only grow numerically but to thrive spiritually over the past 12 months?

What is it that has seen our average weekend worship attendance rise by a whopping 20% from the year before? Sure, it helped that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday which counts toward this figure but even without that, attendance is up 12%. And just to put this growth into context, nationally church attendance fell almost 4% during this period. In the Diocese of Massachusetts attendance decreased by nearly 6%. So we are bucking some pretty strong trends here on this hill in Hingham.

And what is it that allowed us to realize over an 8% increase in money pledged to support the work and ministry of St. John’s? Why is giving higher than it’s ever been in the long history of this parish?

Not surprisingly, I have some theories. And I want to name four reasons I believe things are thriving at St. John’s. It’s not that we can bottle this stuff and share it with the wider church but there are some transferable attributes if congregations truly do want to grow.

First, strong leadership. We have a Vestry that is dedicated to the mission of the church, passionate about their faith, supportive of clergy and staff, and willing to take some risks.

You know, this isn’t a for-profit religious corporation we’re running here. I’m not the CEO, the Vestry isn’t the board of directors, you aren’t the shareholders. We’re not gunning for a hostile takeover of neighboring congregations. We’re a community of faith that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; a group of people that strives to inspire one another to live with compassion and boldly proclaim Jesus as our Lord; an inviting place that shares the peace of God with all who enter these doors. The Wardens and Vestry understand this and they are committed to continuing to grow in faith and service.

Second, keeping one foot firmly planted within the four walls of the church and one foot outside the church. Yes, holy space is important and this is a beautiful, inspiring place to gather and grow spiritually. We have a responsibility to maintain it to the best of our ability and available resources. But this must be balanced with looking outward, with doing outreach in the community, of being citizens of the world, of welcoming the stranger into our midst.

This isn’t a given in faith communities and we have had to forge a new way of doing church as we continue to live in an increasingly secular society. It used to be that the church didn’t have to reach beyond itself too much. Sure, there were good works to do and people in need to serve but people came to church because they always had. Of course many were deeply devoted to their faith, but many came partly out of habit and partly because it was simply the cultural norm. Plus, there was nothing else to do on a Sunday morning. Well, these days there is plenty to do from watching TV to surfing the web to playing youth sports to going out for coffee to heading to the mall. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just that it’s the reality.

Now I know this change hasn’t always been easy; that it’s meant a different model of ministry. But there’s a reason I spend time online and writing newspaper columns and sitting in coffee shops in addition to meeting the pastoral needs of parishioners and writing sermons and planning liturgy. The church — and I mean this both globally and here at St. John’s — must be in two places simultaneously. Out in the world and here in the sanctuary. This is the balance we seek to strike. We don’t always get it right — I don’t always get it right — but I think we succeed more often than we fail.

Speaking of failure, the third reason we’re growing is that we’re not afraid to fail. That doesn’t mean we plan on it or rush hastily into new ideas or programs but if you’re not willing to take risks in ministry, you can quickly become paralyzed. To me this was never so evident as it was when Dan Fickes came to me with his crazy idea about wanting to host a Halloween event for younger children.

Now, usually when this happens, I nod my head, say something like “Hmmm. Sounds…interesting,” and hope the person gets distracted and forgets about it. But I was intrigued when Dan started laying out his vision and soon enough, I was sucked into his All Hallows’ vortex and we had organized a small team to plot and plan ways to pull off a large-scale community event.

There were logistical issues with recruiting an army of volunteers, publicity, graphics, 14369914_1785888681655821_3722973629077628514_nHalloween-themed crafts, and food in the midst of a very full fall season at St. John’s. But we decided to take a chance on this idea and what emerged in our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was pure magic. The church basement was transformed into an enchanting, interactive exhibit intended to delight and entertain before visitors were brought back up to the non-spirit world of Lower Weld Hall for donuts, cider, and crafts.

Over two weekends we had 1,800 people through, made some money to support the church, and were able to convey the message that at St. John’s, faith and fun are not mutually exclusive. And it all came about because we weren’t afraid to have something flop.

Finally, gifted staff. Every January I invite the parish staff over to the rectory for lunch. We do this after Christmas and call it an Epiphany party since, well, we’re busy in December. But what a joy to look around the room as we were opening our Yankee Swap gifts this year and see this amazing group of talented and dedicated people. We really are blessed right now and it’s important to take a step back and just recognize this. Our support staff regularly goes above and beyond and our program staff is making the spiritual magic happen on a daily basis. I am very proud of the ministry they are engaged in with all of you and it is a joy to call them colleagues.

Much of the fruit of our labor is highlighted in the full Annual Report. But I wanted to mention a few new initiatives that took place in the past 12 months. Projects we have undertaken to enhance our ministry both here on the hill and in the community.

In addition to the Haunted House, we redesigned our parish website, introduced an online giving option, held an adult education series on climate change that has morphed into the creation of a dynamic new Green Team at St. John’s, held another wildly successful Holiday Boutique, laid the groundwork for Laundry Love, an exciting new outreach initiative that kicked off last week, had more people than we’ve ever had at our Christmas services, started two weekly prayer groups, implemented healing prayers on the last Sunday of the month with the help of our beloved Sisters of St. Margaret, saw not only an increase in Sunday School numbers but also more regular attendance, added an online directory, grew the children’s choir, and started a Youth Group Steering Committee. Among other things.

But I’m most proud of what you can’t quantify, like spiritual connection and joy and the wonder of a small child learning that God loves her more than she could ever even imagine and the deep peace of a man slowly slipping out of this world supported by love and prayer and a rekindled passion for working for justice in Jesus’ name and a teenager’s making profound spiritual connections even when he’s not willing to admit it. This is why we do what we do around here. This is why we put so much effort into our respective callings — whether that’s to lay or ordained ministry. This is why I encourage you to be drawn ever deeper into the life of this parish. You will encounter Jesus, you will be transformed, you will be made new.

This is precisely what St. John the Evangelist set out to record when he wrote his gospel. He sought to testify to the Light of Christ that had entered the world so that others might hear and believe through his testimony. And here we are, 2,000 years later, as a faithful community seeking to follow Jesus.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. And to share the peace of God that truly does surpass all understanding.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Third Sunday after Epiphany (3 Epiphany, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 22, 2017 (3 Epiphany, Year A)

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

How’s that for a timely passage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 21-womens-march-pink-01-w710-h473President on Friday and protests all over the world on Saturday? “Be in agreement” with “no divisions among you” and “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Yeah, there hasn’t been so much of that of late. We seem to have more disagreements than ever, we’re more divided than ever, and disunity rules.

In other words, the United States of America at this moment in history has an awful lot in common with the early church. Paul’s letters were written to the burgeoning but small communities he had started — in this case to the Corinthians but also the Thessalonians and Ephesians and Philippians and all those other names readers in church have been saying and sometimes stumbling over for generations. 

And we often put a gloss on these first communities of Jesus followers. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘it must have been great to be a Christian back then. Everyone agreed on everything, there was no conflict, it was all so spiritual and peaceful.’ But then you start reading Paul’s letters and a different picture emerges. Because based on his epistles, these folks argued about everything from worship to sexual ethics to socio-economic class to what they could and couldn’t eat. Literally, the moment Paul left one of these communities, the divisions would break out.

These were faithful people, seeking to follow Jesus, who simply disagreed on what this looked like in practice. Remember, there was no rule book to follow. No “What Would Jesus Do” wristbands. Yes, there was Hebrew Scripture to look to but there was not a New Testament to consult because it hadn’t yet been written. And even if there had been, the Bible itself was never intended to be God’s rulebook.

And I think that, for the most part, as citizens of this country we are decent people who want to help others while maintaining a certain amount of autonomy for ourselves and our families. We often disagree on the specifics of what this looks like. Hopefully with civility, but that seems to be increasingly rare.

Paul was quite aware of the nature of humanity — our pettiness and shortcomings. Our yearning to put our own interests above those of others. Our desire to subjugate the vulnerable and weak. Paul was certainly no saint himself — well, I mean he was in the church sense, which is why he’s known as “St. Paul.” But he had his own personality quirks that rubbed people the wrong way. You can’t by sheer force of will and personality almost single-handedly spread a religion across the known world without annoying some people along the way. Or running afoul of the governing authorities. And Paul endured the beatings and imprisonments and eventual martyrdom to prove it.

So, knowing all this, Paul’s call to the Corinthians to “be in agreement” with one another despite all their differences sounds, at one level, rather Pollyanna-ish. Let’s just all come together for a group hug. Well, Paul’s answer, despite appearances, was not “Let’s all just get along.”

The unity he’s talking about transcends viewpoint and perspective and party. Because unity in Christ transcends all of these petty particulars. That’s what Paul is trying to convey here. That there is something so much greater that binds us together; and that something is Jesus Christ. And this is precisely what we can learn as we gather in the months following a bitter, divisive election season. That if we keep Jesus at the center of our lives, it doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or any other label we use to describe our viewpoints. It’s not that these differences don’t matter; it’s that Jesus exposes all of our labels and self-identifiers as false and fleeting constructs. The cross of Christ transcends whatever banner under which we choose to march. And in divisive times in our national political life, we do well to remember this.

I admit I’ve personally had a rough week wrestling with the ways the Episcopal Church has been part of the Inauguration festivities in Washington. And this has nothing to do with who won or lost this particular election — it’s bigger than that. Because one of the great debates is about the often uneasy relationship between church and state. Yes, the Constitution is clear about separation and yet tradition often belies this. There is a great tradition that the morning of the Inauguration the President-elect attends a service at St. John’s, Lafayette Square, which is across the street from the White House. It’s an Episcopal church informally known as “The Church of the Presidents” — there’s even a pew specially reserved for the president and every president since James Madison has worshipped there on occasion.

photo1At one level, this practice brings pride to Episcopalians everywhere, even as it hearkens back to a bygone era when we were associated with the political and cultural elite. And then there’s the other tradition of the prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral — the Episcopal cathedral in the Diocese of Washington — that takes place the day after the Inauguration. It’s hospitable, perhaps, to offer our space, but at what cost?

For instance this year’s preacher at the president’s private service at St. John’s was an inflammatory Southern Baptist who has made disparaging remarks against gays and Catholics and Mormons and Muslims, among others. Hardly what I would expect to come from the pulpit of one of our churches. Now, as an Episcopal parish, the rector has the authority to invite an outside preacher with the consent of the bishop. Usually, the President-elect’s transition team chooses the lineup and this gets signed off on as a formality. But what happens when you bring in a divisive preacher whose interpretation of Scripture is antithetical to our own. Yes, we welcome all people into our churches but that shouldn’t mean inviting them to preach in our pulpits. And so I struggle with this.

It’s been argued that when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, paving the way for it to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it was a Faustian bargain. Yes, it ended the persecution of Christians and allowed the faith to come out from the underground into large, state-sanctioned sanctuaries. But as an official religion, we gave up our status as followers of the one who spoke truth to power and advocated for the poor and downtrodden and ministered among outcasts and sinners. The church was vaulted from outsider status to being the ultimate insider. Suddenly bishops took on the trappings of princes and the church in many ways became complicit with the powers and principalities it sought to stand against.

As a denomination I think we need to rethink this relationship. And this has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office. That changes. But the Church as an institution must be free to call out our leaders when actions stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Complicity is not an option. You cannot be both prophet and king. And the Church must maintain its prophetic voice in the world if it’s going to have any relevance at all. We must be able to speak out in defense of the poor and vulnerable and downtrodden and those on the margins of society — whatever the political cost — or we fail to live up to our high calling.

So all this tribal warfare — and at a base level that’s what politics is — is folly to Paul. He doesn’t care what camp you’re in. Literally could not care less. Because he sees it all as a distraction from what really matters. And what really matters is preaching the gospel and living out Jesus’ words in the world as faithful Christians. Period. The cross always transcends the flag. It must overshadow the flag or we have no business claiming to be the hands and heart of God in the world.

So unity, yes. But not allegiance unless it is to Jesus. We will not always agree but we must always be one in Christ. That’s the calling of our baptism; that’s our challenge; that’s the unity to which Paul beckons.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Baptism of Our Lord 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 8, 2017 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

When I returned from my October pilgrimage to Jordan I vowed that I would not begin every subsequent sermon with the words, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I mean, let’s be honest. That would get pretty old, pretty quickly. And I’ve dutifully kept this promise. Even during Advent when I preached about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, I didn’t once mention that I’d been to the site of King Herod’s palace. Or that I’d seen with my very own eyes the caves that were used as prisons along the hillside leading up to the palace. I could have painted a vivid picture of that cave in all its isolated glory and talked about the amazing selfies I took among the palace ruins. But, for the sake of not coming across like a pompous, know-it-all preacher, I demonstrated heroic self restraint and kept my mouth shut.

Well, that ends this morning. Because, say it with me, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I 14589893_10210706753690840_204573456376960638_owent to the very site on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. And I had the great privilege of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of Episcopalians right along the banks where Jesus himself was baptized. And we renewed our baptismal covenants — as we will all do in a few moments — while actually standing in the river. It was a magnificent, profoundly moving, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience.

Now, because there are a lot of hymns and spirituals that describe the Jordan, I kind of felt as if I’d already been there before. We tend to sing them during Advent as John the Baptist engages his forerunner role pointing not to himself but to the one who is to come. We sing, “On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh” and “What is the crying at Jordan?”

The most well-known song, though it’s not in our hymnal, is probably “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” — which, if you listen to all the verses, is less a children’s song and more a rip-roaring spiritual in which we hear that the Jordan River is both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold.” Hallelujah. Well, I’m here to report to you, once and for all, that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide, nor chilly, nor cold. So let’s just get that out of the way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; but singing about a river that’s “tepid and narrow” just kind of loses something in translation. But the particulars of the river itself don’t really matter. Because what matters is that the place in question is holy ground. Something remarkable happened down by that riverside.

Now, the baptism we hear about this morning is…rather confusing. At one level, we rightly ask ourselves, why Jesus even needed to be baptized in the first place. If this ancient purification ritual is being offered by John as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would one who lived among us yet without sin, need to be baptized at all? Perhaps it’s an expression of his solidarity with us; a connection between Jesus’ humanity and our humanity.

But I think this whole scene in Matthew’s gospel illuminates the question of Jesus’ identity. John had been pointing to the one who is to come, the Messiah, God’s anointed, the person whose sandal he is unfit to tie. And suddenly here he is, in the flesh. Asking John to baptize him! Well, this certainly threw John off his voice-of-one-crying-in-the-wilderness game. He wanted Jesus to baptize him. And in the natural order of things, that’s what we’d expect. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we would expect that the master would baptize the servant; just as at the Last Supper, we would expect that the servant would wash the feet of the master.

But even as Jesus is claiming his identity as God’s son, even as the heavens rip apart and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and we hear the voice of God affirming Jesus as his beloved son, the hierarchical norms are flipped upside down. And the forerunner baptizes the Messiah; just as the Messiah will wash the feet of his disciples.

For us, too, baptism is about identity. Identity as God’s beloved children; identity as members of a faith community that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; identity as Christ’s own not for a limited time only but forever. That’s what happens when we wade in the water of baptism, whether we’re baptized as an infant or as a child or as an adult. Our primary identity becomes one who is a beloved child of God.

You know, I returned from that 10-day trip to Jordan late on a Saturday night. And as I stumbled into church the next morning, tired, overwhelmed by the entire experience, and severely jet-lagged after a sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York, a three-hour layover at JFK, and a post-midnight cab ride from Logan, I admit I was just trying to get through Sunday morning without falling asleep at the altar. And I just assumed that after that spiritual high of celebrating the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan, doing the same thing here, more or less along the banks of Hingham Harbor, would be incredibly anticlimactic. In my mind, the words “celebrate the eucharist” were replaced with the more pedestrian “get through the eucharist.”

But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. Just as the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up at the altar before which I stood.

Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.

Now, I’m not sure what others experienced that morning in October, but that’s where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people I love who seek, with me, to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.

That’s the baptismal identity we share; an identity that flows straight out of the Jordan and into our collective souls. Sometimes it’s transcendent. Sometimes it feels rather pedestrian. But through it all, we stand secure in our identity as beloved children of God; baptized into indelible relationship with our Savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Christmas Day 2016

Christmas Day Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2016

One of the things I love about the Christmas Day service is that it always feels like the calm after the storm. You don’t have to look too hard to see evidence of the Christmas Eve tornado that blew through here last night. You can probably spot a strand of tinsel from one of the angel’s halos leftover from the Christmas pageant. Or there’s some wax that dripped onto the pew in front of you from midnight mass. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stray bulletin tucked into the hymnal racks that the ushers forgot to collect after one of the four services.

But here we are. The calm after the storm. And there’s something wonderfully wrapping-paper-messcontemplative about Christmas morning. All is finally, calm; all is finally bright. Some might call it anticlimactic — I mean, if you have kids at home, they’ve undoubtedly already ripped everything open and no matter how many gifts graced the tree, the phrase, “Is that it?” eventually rings out.

And at one level, that is it. The presents have been opened; the decorations will soon enough be hauled back up to the attic; the wreath will be taken off the front door. Maybe you have Christmas dinner to get to or to host but that will come and go soon enough. And you’ll be faced with a bit of a holy hangover — something that affects both children and adults. I know by Christmas morning I personally always feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a giant candy cane. But that may just be an occupational hazard.

And I can talk all I want about the 12 Days of Christmas — the partridge in a pair tree and the maids-a-milking and all that, about how Christmas is a season that starts rather than ends today, how we can finally start singing those Christmas carols in church that the rest of the world has been singing since Halloween. But there’s still an “is that it?” moment to December 25th.

What abides, of course, is Jesus’ entrance into the world. What remains is our relationship with the God who entered the world in human form. What stays with us is God’s love for all of humanity. Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to dwell among us. So, no, that is not “it.” The joy of Christmas is just beginning and we’re invited to embrace each day as if it was Christmas morning. Which doesn’t mean you’ll get to sleep in every day or open presents every day or enjoy a great feast every day. But it does mean that every time you wake up, every time you step out of bed, every time your feet hit the floor, you can be secure in the knowledge that God is with you. On good days, on lousy days, and all those days in between.

That’s what St. John is getting at, I think, in the familiar passage we hear every year on Christmas Day. That beautifully poetic prologue to his gospel speaks of Jesus entering the world as “the light of all people.” We hear in those stunning words that this “light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.” Think about that for a moment. No matter how dark life sometimes may feel, there is a light shining in the darkness that can never be extinguished. That’s the light we celebrate this morning and every single day. And it is a most glorious light.

It’s a light that has nothing to do with white lights in windows or colored lights on Christmas trees. It’s a light that can never be turned off with a switch or become unplugged. It is the light of Christ.

And this light is not merely metaphorical. It is the light that burns brightly within us, the light that fuels our desire to know God through Jesus Christ. It is the light that illuminates our minds and warms our souls as we enter into deeper relationship with the incarnate and risen Christ. It is the light that scatters the darkness from before our path, the light that enables us to step into uncertainty without fear of stumbling. We may not always recognize it or fully nurture it but this light is always present within us. And that’s the miracle of Christmas: that Jesus entered our world and sustains us with his very real presence.

A presence this world so desperately needs. I’m aware that while it’s easy enough for us to revel in the calm after the storm and enjoy the warm glow of the holiday, for so many of our brothers and sisters, there is no calm after the storm, because there has been no respite from the storm. In places where gun violence is a daily threat, there is no calm; in places where terrorism is an everyday reality, there is no calm; for those who live in fear because of the color of their skin or their way of life, there is no calm. For those facing crippling poverty with no hope of economic justice, there is no calm.

Calm is a luxury that we all too often take for granted. My abiding prayer is that we can use the hope we feel at Christmas as fuel to go out and make a difference in the world. To comfort those who seek solace; to relieve those who suffer; to assist those in despair. If Jesus’ birth means anything, it must be in the way we reach out to our fellow human beings, especially those not able to afford the luxury of calm and peace and joy this season.

So I do invite you into the calm after the storm. But I also encourage you to share this calm with those whose souls are disquieted within them; with those who aren’t able to sing “Joy to the World” at this moment in their lives, for whatever reason.

The joy of Christmas is indeed a wondrous thing. But we can’t just leave it lying under a decorated tree in the privacy of our own homes. Like that light of Christ, it must be shared abundantly and with reckless abandon to be made fully manifest in our nation and in our world. Only then will all be truly calm and truly bright.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016