Easter Day 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 4, 2021 (Easter Day)

Well, I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to preach after that. What a beautiful and compelling re-telling of the Easter story by our Sunday School children. They have just preached the gospel in word and action in a much more powerful and eloquent way than I ever could. They have beautifully captured and conveyed the wonder of the resurrection. And, frankly, I hope that’s what you hold onto this day — the sheer joy of what we just witnessed.

So, I should really just sit down and let the story speak for itself. But, since that’s not happening, I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a few moments as we reflect upon this day of resurrection and revel in the glory of Christ’s victory over death.

You know, if there was ever a year to celebrate the resurrection, this is it. For the past 12 months we have been surrounded by gloom and doom and tombs. It has been a tough year, a trying year, a painful year on so many levels. The death toll has been relentless. Each day, each news cycle  has felt like a mini Good Friday. And we all just want it to stop; we are all so ready to get back to some semblance of the way things used to be. 

And with this as the backdrop, it is so tempting to race headlong into the arms of what might be called a societal Easter. To replace the word “hope” with “vaccine,” to swap out “new life” for “new normal,” to proclaim victory against this pandemic, and call our recaptured life “resurrection.” But resurrection, real Resurrection as made manifest in Jesus Christ, is so much more than just relief or light at the end of the tunnel or getting back to the things we’ve missed for so long.

The Resurrection we celebrate today is not found in the joy of indoor dining at our favorite restaurant; or paying $9 for cheap beer in the bleachers at Fenway Park; or even in being able to hug our grandchildren again. As wonderful as all of those things may be, and as welcome as they will hopefully soon be, they are not, in fact, what Easter is all about. Not even this particular Easter.

Because the Resurrection we celebrate this morning is not just about getting our lives back, it is about the very essence of new life. It is about the triumph of life over death. It is about the spirit of the risen Christ being made known to us not just as a distant memory, passed down through an ancient book, but as a real and tangible presence in our lives right here, right now. It is about a God who loves us, forgives us, and walks beside us, right on through that valley of the shadow of death, straight into the new life of grace and hope.

The Resurrection we celebrate this morning is a reminder that even in our darkest moments, and we’ve had plenty of them this year, Jesus is fully present among us. That he is with us through times of isolation and brokenness, through moments of doubt and despair, through painful realizations and fractured relationships. The Resurrection is a reminder that we are not alone, that we will never be alone, that we can never be alone. Because we will never, ever be abandoned or forsaken or forgotten. For Christ is alive. And that’s the power of the Resurrection we celebrate this morning.

But even in light of this reality, the truth is, the resurrected life is not easy. Following Jesus doesn’t automatically wipe away grief and pain. It may heal, but not entirely erase the scars and hurts on our hearts. The true mark of Easter joy is not a temporary sugar high, but an enduring relationship with the divine that carries us through all the trials and travails, the temptations and touchpoints of our lives. 

While the resurrected life is not always easy, it does point to a path forward. A path through the rubble and debris of our lives to a promised land of a soul at peace. A place where joy coexists with grief; a place not of denial but of perspective. That’s where true hope abides. That’s where it shines forth, illuminating and filling our hearts with love. Not despite all that we have suffered, but precisely because we have suffered and, with God’s help, found the path through. That’s true hope. A hope that moves directly through the pain of the cross, not viewing it as an obstacle to avoid, but as a mystical portal into a life of joyful obedience and abundance. That’s what the flowers and fancy vestments and jelly beans ultimately point us towards: new life in Jesus Christ.

In John’s version of the Easter story, after Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Christ at the empty tomb, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold onto me.” In Latin, the phrase is noli me tangere, [NO-lee may TANger-ray] which is literally translated as “touch me not.” And as we hold our second online Easter service in as many years, amid a hopefully waning global pandemic, that phrase, that translation jumped out at me. “Touch me not” — noli me tangere — has been our collective motto throughout the past year. Jesus is basically saying to Mary, “Hey! Keep six feet apart.”

The broader context here is that Jesus is telling Mary he has a mission to fulfill. After a few post-resurrection appearances, Jesus will ascend into heaven. He can’t stay. He can’t be in relationship with Mary and the other disciples in the same way. New life awaits. Mary must let go of Jesus physically, so that she and her friends and all of us can experience Christ’s presence spiritually. Not just in the immediate future, but for all time.

“Touch me not” in the old way, Jesus is saying, but allow yourself to be held in the palm of God’s hand for all eternity. Whenever we can fully embrace one another again, know that you have always been and will always be, embraced by the loving arms of our Lord. Arms that were once stretched out on the hard wood of the cross; arms that are now open wide in welcome, inviting you and loving you into the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. Alleluia and Amen.

Good Friday 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of  St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on April 2, 2021 (Good Friday)

I’ve always loved the term “rubbernecking.” It’s a wonderfully illustrative, even cartoonish description of turning to watch something that really isn’t our business. I don’t love what people normally see when they rubberneck. I mean, it’s easy enough to feel a sense of schadenfreude when the guy who just raced passed you on the highway gets pulled over for speeding a mile or two down the road. But slowing down to stare at a grisly accident is hard to see, even as it is nearly impossible to look away.

I get the sense there was a lot of rubbernecking during that first Holy Week. With all the drama surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there were ample peak rubbernecking opportunities. The forces of empire and the seeds of rebellion, the mix of religious conviction and charges of heresy, the passions aroused on all sides — all of this came together to create a highly-charged environment with an intoxicating swirl of emotion. It must have been hard for even the most causal observer to turn away.

And, regardless of where they stood on the question of this particular religious movement — whether they viewed Jesus as a misguided zealot, a dangerous heretic, or the Messiah — people couldn’t help but be drawn into the drama of what was unfolding before their very eyes. They simply could not avert their gazes.

But for people of faith, the crucifixion of our Lord, isn’t merely interesting or captivating from a detached, observational point of view. Just as it was for Jesus’ closest friends, Good Friday is an integral part of our story. The pain is our pain; the death is our death; the grief is our grief.

In some ways we’ve gotten desensitized to the full violence of the cross. You can buy sweet little silver crosses at Kay Jewelers, you can spot crosses on bumper stickers, they’re seen on the steeples of picturesque white clapboard New England churches. They’ve become so ubiquitous  as emblems of personal and communal faith, that the shock value has worn off. But it’s not just the violence, it’s the symbolism and meaning behind crucifixion itself that demands our attention.

We forget that crucifixion was not the normal means of capital punishment in the ancient Roman world. It was typically reserved for a certain class of criminal.  The crucified class included those deemed especially worthless by the powers that be, which is why Roman citizens themselves were exempt from such a fate. 

Crucifixion was used exclusively for outsiders — for slaves; for enemy combatants; for insurrectionists. Victims were stripped naked and put on public display. Besides excruciating pain, crucifixion carried with it the stigma of dishonor and humiliation. And so to be crucified, was to be dehumanized, shamed, and literally lifted up as an example of all that was wrong with the world. 

So in a very real sense, for Jesus, crucifixion was his final earthly act of allegiance with the poor, the marginalized, the hopeless, the devalued, and the scorned. After casting in his lot with tax collectors and sinners, bringing good news to the poor and downtrodden, pushing back against the hypocrisy, privilege, and abuse of authority, it’s not surprising, really, that he ends up dying among those he so lovingly and compassionately served. Jesus lived among the outcasts, and Jesus died among the outcasts.

I’m reminded of the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young white Union officer who commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made famous in the 1989 film Glory. In 1863, Shaw was killed leading a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful charge on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederates dumped his body in a mass grave with the rest of his unit’s dead soldiers, figuring that would be the utmost insult, burying a white man with a bunch of black bodies. 

As word of the regiment’s bravery started to spread, a movement to return Shaw’s body for a proper burial in Boston with full honors was initiated. But Shaw’s parents, avowed abolitionists, would not have it. Shaw’s father wrote to Union officials, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.” 

This isn’t a perfect parallel to Jesus being crucified among those he sought to lift up. There’s danger in viewing Colonel Shaw as a white savior, as many even well-intentioned people initially did. But that’s not how Shaw viewed his role, nor is it how his parents saw it. They objected to the design of the famous bronze relief that stands on Beacon Street showing Shaw on horseback, elevated above his soldiers. The true memorial, however, is Shaw’s unmarked final resting place, lying among those he loved and respected.

Through the shame and scandal of the cross, Jesus placed his broken body between God’s vision of a beloved community where all are equally valued and loved, and the sinful reality of the human condition where some are loved and elevated, and others are derided and rejected and treated as less than.Which is why you can’t fully face and embrace the power of the cross without confronting and condemning racism and sexism and every other human construct that stands between God’s vision and our reality.

In the end, the cross stands as the ultimate act of love. The attempt to strip Jesus of everything — his dignity, his power, his beliefs, his life — only reveals that God’s love is everything. In one way or another, we are all outcasts and sinners. And God loves us anyway. God casts his lot in with us, despite all that we do or fail to do. And God loves us anyway. Through belief in Jesus Christ, God forgives us and lifts us up and loves us anyway.

All of which is why, when it comes to the crucifixion, we can’t just rubberneck. As people of faith, we are not merely interested bystanders. The cross isn’t something to casually gaze upon, but to venerate with all of our being. That’s what Good Friday is all about. A reminder that hope and joy and love sprout forth even from the hard wood of the cross.

Don’t avert your eyes from the pain of this day. Stare intently and intentionally into it. And know that this act of love is not just for all of humanity, but also very specifically for you.

Palm Sunday 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 28, 2021 (Palm Sunday)

If I’m honest, Palm Sunday is one of those days when I particularly miss being with all of you. At St. John’s, we seem to channel a bit of the excitement that must have marked that original, long ago day. There’s always a buzz in the air as we gather outside before the service. Often there’s a chill in the air as well. But we’re hardy New Englanders, so we bundle up and congregate in front of the church to bless the palms, listen to the choir, and then process in with branches held high, as we belt out “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”

Once inside, the liturgy pivots and we rapidly move from shouts of “Hosanna” to cries of “Crucify;” we go from triumph to tragedy; from palms to Passion. This year, however, we’re going to pause, and sit a little bit longer with Jesus’ entrance into the great city of Jerusalem. We often move so quickly past it, that the palm portion of the service ends up feeling like little more than a preamble to the Passion, an overture before the crucifixion. 

Now, we’ll get to the Passion reading; in fact we’ll end with it, offering it up as a stark entrance into Holy Week. And I’m pleased that this year we’re partnering with St. Mary’s in Dorchester to share Mark’s Passion gospel over Zoom. So there’s at least one benefit of doing Palm Sunday online.

But first, we’re going to wade into the crowd that gathered to welcome Jesus. We’ll grab some virtual palm branches, crane our necks to catch a glimpse of this man we’ve heard so much about, and surround ourselves with the pent-up joy that comes bursting forth with shouts of Hosanna and palm branches spread along his path.

The deep sense of longing is so palpable among our friends and neighbors here in the so-called City of David. This Jesus is, after all, a descendent of King David himself. And as such, his royal lineage makes him an heir to the throne. Which is why we’re all shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!” The long-awaited Messiah is coming, finally, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the heavy yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to shake off the shackles of Roman imperial occupation. 

And those chains have been so heavy for so long. The Roman occupation was fraught with cruelty — economic, cultural, religious, and psychological oppression. It’s no wonder such profound hope was placed in the person of their perceived savior. The word “Hosanna” literally means “save us!” These shouts were hopeful, desperate cries for salvation. To be saved from the painful circumstances of the present time, to overthrow the cruel oppression under which they lived each moment of their lives.

And as Jesus approached, as the cries reached a fevered pitch, the only remaining question, was how? How would this long-anticipated salvation take place? Would this Jesus come with a mighty army, brandishing a sword? Would he come from on high with clouds descending in a supernatural show of force? I mean, those are the only two options here, right?

So it must have been at least a bit disconcerting to see their long-awaited hero riding in on a donkey rather than something a bit more…regal. Maybe not six white horses exactly, but at least a beast with some bearing. And instead of a well-equipped militia, he’s followed by a rag-tag group of peaceniks. While the hopes and expectations surrounding the Messiah’s entrance into Jerusalem may have felt triumphant, Jesus’ entrance itself left a little something to be desired. 

After the initial euphoria, you can almost hear the crowd muttering in disappointment as they dispersed. Some must have been utterly devastated by the dawning realization that nothing would ever actually change in their lives. Others must have left angry, feeling duped and disappointed. And you begin to see how, just a few days later, Hosanna, “save us,” could have easily morphed into Crucify, “kill him.”

But rather than anti-climactic, as it must have felt to many in that crowd, this triumphal entry is actually quite revealing. Jesus’ ministry isn’t about pomp and circumstance. Excitement, sure. A new way of being, yes. Hopeful anticipation, absolutely. But, much to our own chagrin at times, it’s never been about the expectations of others. Or our own expectations. 

And that’s hard for us. So often we tend to project our own images of what we seek in a Savior onto Jesus. We seek to form the Messiah in our own image — theologically, politically, racially — which is little more than an attempt to control and domesticate God. And that never ends well.

Which is why, when it comes to the nature of God, time and time again, our own desires and expectations are overturned. It begins with the Son of God being born in a barn and ends with him strung up on a tree. That’s not how we would have written it up. That’s not the script we would have come up with if we were imagining the story of God living among us. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t have stuck him on a donkey.

And yet, as he’s riding on that slow and humble animal with the crowds cheering, Jesus’ focus remains on what is to come. It’s not to revel in the moment or to enjoy the adulation, but to steel himself for what will soon be at hand. He travels this road with his eyes wide open to what awaits him in the coming days. For he knows where his unconditional love for humanity will take him. He knows that crossing the powers of tradition, hierarchy, and privilege will leave him hanging on a cross. He knows that breaking the barriers that divide people one from another will lead to the breaking of his own body. 

He also knows that, despite all worldly evidence to the contrary, human weakness is no match for divine love. Oh, it will triumph in the short term. The powers that be will execute an innocent man. We know how that turns out. But it’s not the end of the story.

And so the entrance into Jerusalem, with all the shouts and all the exaltation, serves only to highlight this disparity between our desires and God’s reality; between our hopes for a Savior and God’s saving grace. That’s what the week to come is really all about. And I encourage you to embrace it heartily, to walk it fully, and to enter into it with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul.

Third Sunday in Lent 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 7, 2021 (3 Lent, Year B)

It’s hard to imagine, but tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of our last in-person service here at St. John’s. It was the Second Sunday in Lent and we knew something was up. I’d sent out a communication about just waving to one another at the Peace and not shaking hands after the service. We used a lot of Purell and offered communion in just bread form, withholding the chalice. From the perspective of living the last year in the midst of a global pandemic, it all seems so quaint and naive. 

None of us owned masks, most of us thought Zoom was a PBS show for kids that came on right after The Electric Company, and we hadn’t even started hoarding toilet paper. On Friday of the following week, we made the decision to go fully remote and I even texted the bishop for permission to do so — we were the first parish in the diocese to shut everything down. And on Sunday, Jack and I were live-streaming from the chapel, mostly because that’s where we could get the strongest signal.

Well, here we are. Still fully remote one year later. With hope on the horizon, but still committed to keeping one another safe by gathering online and being together spiritually while staying apart physically. 

This morning we hear the story of Jesus flipping tables in the Temple. And just as those tables were overturned, many of our preconceived and deeply held notions about how to do and be the church have been flipped over as well during the past 12 months. We’ve realized that we can be the Body of Christ in new ways. We’ve learned that as much as we love and cherish our sacred space, we can stay connected to God and one another without it. We’ve seen that a temporary fast from Communion is hard, but we’ve learned to be fed in new ways.

But the thing about the Temple in the ancient world is that it was always more than just a building. It was God’s dwelling place. It was a tangible, brick-and-mortar sign of the covenant between God and God’s people; an external symbol of the eternal promise of divine relationship. If you asked the average person on the street where God could be found, they’d point to that massive structure and say, ‘Right there.’

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

What riled Jesus was that corruption had crept into the Temple system. For some, faith had become transactional rather than transformative; money and preserving the institution became more important than divine relationship and living out God’s commandments in the world. The system of Temple sacrifice, originally intended to draw people to God, had become a pre-cursor to the indulgences of the Middle Ages. And few things angered Jesus more than the hypocrisy of faith leaders preying on the vulnerable in the name of God.

In keeping with this passage, I’d argue that much of what Jesus came into the world to do was to flip traditional assumptions. Assumptions about power and privilege; assumptions about who matters and who does not; assumptions about who is blessed and who is cursed; assumptions about how relationship with God is accessed. 

Jesus looks at all of the traditional assumptions and turns the entire system upside down. The cleansing of the Temple is simply a physical manifestation of this. For those who are a little slow to understand metaphor, Jesus puts on a show, embodying what it means to literally flip things over. And in this context, it makes sense. We hear John’s version of this story this morning, which comes at the beginning of his ministry, setting the tone for what is to come. In the other gospel accounts, the story takes place at the end. When time was getting short. As Jesus’ impending arrest was just days away. Either way, and maybe it happened twice, in trying to get people’s attention, sometimes theatrics speak louder than parables; sometimes bold action moves people more than sermons. I’m sure nobody who was there, ever forgot that moment when tables and chairs and coins and pigeons all started flying through the air.

But the other thing about the Temple is something that relates very clearly to our situation over the past year. As long as you have your faith, a physical place to worship is less important. Cherished, certainly. Missed, of course. Especially as a gathering place to see people we all dearly love. 

In one of his early Passion predictions, which we hear after the table flipping, Jesus invites those around him to gaze upon the majesty of the Temple. And he says, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They take him literally and are like, “Yeah, okay, Jesus. It took 46 years to build this thing and you’re going raise it in three days? Good luck with that.” But of course Jesus is talking about his Resurrection. He’s talking about his own body, crucified and risen, serving as the object of adoration and worship; his own body as the Temple; his own body as the entry point to relationship with God.

This is a radical reimagining of relationship with God. Jesus is making the point that God is not a building or a sacrificial system or a doctrine or even a book. God is not found exclusively on a mountain or in a set of scrolls or in a building. God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, in the Temple that is his body. When we gaze upon Jesus, we gaze upon God; when we worship Jesus, we worship God.

This was a stunning, table-flipping new understanding of God’s presence in the world. And that’s where this all comes back to our present day. Because through this pandemic, we too, have had our understanding of what it means to be the church, flipped on its head. Yes, it’s taken a global health crisis, rather than the flipping of tables, to shake us out of old routines and imagine the possibilities of being St. John’s in new ways. 

But the reality is that because we worship Jesus, we can do that anywhere in any form in any place. That’s what we have been doing this past year in ways that we have never done before. By necessity, that’s what we have learned to do. And as hard as it’s been, as much as we have given up through the loss of embodied community throughout this season, that’s an important lesson about what it means to follow Jesus. We don’t have to come here physically to be present spiritually.  

Now, I know the prospect of journeying through yet another Holy Week and Easter online is tough. Personally, I’ve had thoughts like “Maybe we should just show re-runs.” But that’s not what this is all about. We can do this and we will do this. And while we are getting closer to regathering in person in some form, we are not quite there yet.

It’s been a long year, a hard year. But I give thanks everyday for this extended community of faith. For your faithfulness, your patience, your forbearance, your love, and your willingness to persevere when everything around you has been flipped over. That’s the essence of faith. And it remains a privilege to continue along this journey with each and every one of you.

Ash Wednesday 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 17, 2021 (Ash Wednesday)

Ten blocks from the parish I served as a young curate in downtown Baltimore was another Episcopal church. I used to drive by it every day on my way into the office, but I never really thought much about it. It was an old, historic church with an impressive gray stone façade but, like most places or things we see every day, it just sort of faded into the background. The church, as striking as it was, never really grabbed my attention. Except on Ash Wednesday. Because on Ash Wednesday they would always put out a large sign advertising their service times. This is a fairly standard practice for churches on special days, and at first glance their sign was pretty ordinary. 

At the top, in big letters, it read “Ash Wednesday Services.” Then it listed the service times. But what always made me take notice of the sign were the two words at the bottom: “No Imposition.” They were, of course, referring to the imposition of ashes. This was a congregation that took great pride in the simplicity and non-ceremonial nature of their worship. Incense at this parish was about as likely as snake-handling would be at St. John’s. In Episcopal-slang, they weren’t just low church, they were “snake belly low.” And they always proudly held their Ash Wednesday services without ashes. 

But as much as I couldn’t imagine Ash Wednesday without ashes, at least in a pre-pandemic world, that’s not what struck me about the sign. What caused me to take notice was the whole idea of starting Lent with “no imposition.” Because for me, that’s what Lent and the entire Christian faith is all about. It is an imposition. Not of ashes, but of faith in Jesus Christ. Our Lord demands certain things of us — like time and devotion and prayer. Not out of guilt or because we have to somehow earn God’s affection. Rather, faith is an imposition of love. The season of Lent gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect upon this interior, loving imposition, and reminds us of the responsibility we have to examine ourselves and our lives in the context of our faith.

To repent and return to the Lord is the invitation, the imposition, of this day. To “return to me with all your heart” says the Lord, in our reading from the prophet Joel. To return not to a vengeful or punishing God, but to one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This imposition of faith is like the yoke’s burden of discipleship which Jesus says is easy and light and overflowing with grace. That’s what we are being called to return to.

So here we are. An Ash Wednesday with no imposition of ashes, but with a full-on imposition of faith. And as much as I yearn for the fullness of future Ash Wednesday liturgies, with the choir, the Eucharist, all of you, and those gritty ashes made in the sign of the cross upon my forehead, I’m embracing this ash-less Ash Wednesday as an opportunity to begin this Lent by focusing not on the external signs of repentance and mortality, but on the interior nature of this penitential season. And I hope you’ll join me and one another for this seasonal journey of the soul.

It’s true, I never thought I’d experience an Ash Wednesday like the one offered by that church in Baltimore. And I hope this is the last time I ever do. But, as our bishop put it last week regarding the imposition of ashes in the midst of a pandemic, “Ashes should be a sign of our mortality, not an accelerant to our mortality.” So we will allow Jesus Christ to be imposed upon our hearts this year. We will continue, out of love, to stay physically apart, yet spiritually connected. And that is enough for this particular day, in this particular year.

Frankly, there are more than enough signs of our mortality these days. The global death toll over the past 11 months is a sign of our mortality. The daily ticker on our news sites highlighting the number of deaths in the United States is a sign of our mortality. The people we’ve known and lost to the coronavirus is a sign of our mortality. We don’t need ashes on our foreheads to remind us of the grief that swirls all around us. Everyone has been touched by this pandemic, some communities are harder hit than others, to be sure. But we are all affected by the pain, suffering, and grief that surrounds us. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ.

Perhaps this year of fasting from such profound symbols and rites will make us look ever-more deeply inward. Perhaps foregoing the outward signs will allow us to focus upon our interior lives in renewed and life-giving ways. Therein lies the great opportunity of Lent. To rend our hearts and not our garments, as Joel puts it. To not practice our piety before others, as we hear from Jesus himself. But to attend with ever-greater intention to living in right relationship with God.

So, allow this imposition of faith upon your heart to guide you throughout this season. Let it be a symbol of the faith that you live out in your daily life. Let Jesus Christ impose the way of love upon you and those whom you encounter this holy season. And may God bless us all as we prepare for the coming resurrection of our Lord by accepting the imposition of the Christian faith, with joyful and expectant hearts.

Last Sunday after Epiphany (2021, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2021 (Last Epiphany, Year B)

I know someone who used to always insist that she was “great in a crisis.” I had no reason to doubt this because, well, I’d never been with her when a crisis struck. I’d never been with her during a massive earthquake or when someone came in to rob a bank and yelled at everyone to get down or when the brakes failed on the car she was driving. Since I was never with her during a crisis, and hoped I never would be, I took her at her word.

Until I ended up being with her during a crisis. It was a medical emergency. An older family member ate something too quickly at an anniversary party and started choking. It was, frankly, frightening. And in those first frantic moments, a doctor friend saw the commotion, rushed to her side, calmly took over the situation, cleared the passage, and stayed with her until the paramedics arrived. He literally saved this woman’s life.

The person who always claimed to be great in a crisis, however, decidedly was not. She basically walked in circles and started babbling nonsense. She didn’t have the wherewithal to call 911. She certainly didn’t know what to do. In a word, she was a mess.

Now I’m not judging her. In similar high stress situations, many people simply freeze or behave irrationally. When Bryna’s water broke with our first child, I inexplicably went to the stove and started boiling water. I think I saw a midwife do that on some period TV show. And while I was fiddling with the knobs, Bryna calmly picked up the phone and called the doctor’s office.

The woman who claimed to be good in a crisis but was not, and my reaction in a dizzying, emotionally fraught moment, reminds me of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James, and John had hiked up the mountain with Jesus only to be stunned and even paralyzed by a glimpse of Jesus in all his glory. We hear that as Jesus stood before them, “his clothes became dazzling white.” In Matthew’s account, we learn that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun.” And two of the great prophets of old, Moses and Elijah, suddenly appear as well.

The disciples’ reaction to this is perfectly normal and certainly quite human. Slightly comical, perhaps, as they dramatically fling themselves to the ground. And Peter’s offer to make three “dwellings,” is an absurd, deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment; an impulse to do something, anything, in the midst of confusing circumstances. It was basically the equivalent of boiling water for no apparent reason.

Fear is often our natural reaction to things that defy comprehension or logical explanation. Fear of the unknown or a discomfort with the mystical can lead to irrational behavior. Sometimes an encounter with the supernatural leads to questioning, anger, or even the reliance on a cynical rationality. In the face of mystery, we seek concrete answers. And while critical thinking is a God-given gift to humanity, it often drives the fear that stands as an obstacle to faith. An insistence that unless we ourselves have all the answers, truth cannot possibly exist.

So we want to study the physics of how Jesus could have possibly walked on water, while ignoring the broader invitation to contemplate the divine presence in our midst. We want to parse the whirlwind that swept Elijah up to heaven, instead of reveling in the relationship that brings earth to heaven and heaven to earth. We want to know the science behind Jesus’ transfiguration, how exactly his face shone and his clothes became dazzling white, rather than reflecting upon the gift of wonder and awe that comes from such a glimpse of glory.

The Transfiguration is ultimately a story, not of theatrics or special effects or God showing off, but of identity. The three disciples are offered a great gift: a glimpse of Jesus in his resurrection glory; a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus’ divinity literally comes shining forth as he is transfigured before their very eyes. It’s as fleeting as it is dazzling. And they’ll need to hold onto this glimpse of glory as they head back down the mountain, back down to reality, back down to face the crucifixion that is to come.  

This brief season of the church year, this Season after Epiphany, begins with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and ends with the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration. And these weeks lead us into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ identity, mission, and purpose. From birth to baptism to the call of the first disciples to the revelation on that holy mountain, this journey is literally an epiphany of identity. From God’s message to Jesus as he emerges from the waters of baptism, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased” to God’s message to us as Jesus emerges from the glow of glory, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” We see that Jesus is not just human, not just a holy teacher, not just an advocate for the oppressed, but the only-begotten Son of God, the anointed one of God, the Messiah. Jesus comes into the world as God’s very self, not just with ideas for how to create a better world, but with a divine mandate that wills it into being. 

As we move into Lent, we will journey from today’s mountaintop to tomorrow’s wilderness. From the grand vista of the risen Christ in all his glory, to our Lord’s temptation and ultimately to the agony of the cross. We will get back to the mountaintop, but not before first traveling through the valleys of our faith. It is in these very valleys that Jesus walks alongside us; even amid the specter of the shadow of death. He comforts us and reaches out to us, just as he comforts and reaches out to Peter, James, and John in their terror and uncertainty and bewilderment up on that holy mountain. And then he accompanies them back down the mountain. Back to the work at hand; back to sharing the good news of peace; back to the transforming work of offering justice and dignity for all people. 

I invite you to allow the bright light of the Transfiguration to illuminate your own journey. To heed God’s call to listen to Jesus. Oh, we’ll stumble along the way. We’ll make mistakes and get it wrong. We’ll mess things up and act irrationally. We’ll hurt others and ourselves. We’ll let fear of divine relationship cloud our judgment and close our hearts. We’ll boil water for no apparent reason.

But the story of the Transfiguration reminds us to allow Jesus to touch you, to lift you up, to walk with you down the mountain of glory and into the wilderness of Lent. Let him accompany you to the very foot of the cross. And from the shadow of the cross right back to the bright light of resurrection glory.

The Rector’s Annual Address 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 31, 2021 (Rector’s Annual Address)

As I’ve taken some time to reflect upon the year that has passed, I promised myself I would not use terms like “unprecedented” and “new normal” or even “dumpster fire.” At one level, 2020 was all of those things. And much, much more. 

At St. John’s, as in the world at large, the past 12 months have been revealing in ways both painful and hopeful. At this time last year, we were gathered in Upper Weld Hall, following a lively service in the church. We had just received communion, hugged each other at the Peace, shook hands on the way out, scooped out a bowlful of Dorothy’s famous soup, grabbed a cup of coffee, and sat next to one another ready to celebrate another full and fruitful year of ministry at our beloved parish. We looked back and we looked forward, ready to enter a new year with faith and vigor. 

There is much to mourn as we gather around our computer screens this morning. This global pandemic has taken its toll not just through lives lost, but through traditions sacrificed and communities dispersed. Our hearts ache for the deep connections and relationships formed through this parish. We yearn to be together, to worship and laugh and weep and rejoice as one. 

Yet, since March, we have made the commitment, as difficult and heartbreaking as it has been, to love one another by staying apart. We care too much and love too deeply to risk the health of the body of Christ that is St. John’s. As much as I miss being with those whom I love, I am so proud of each and every one of you for embracing being the church in new ways. This has not been an easy time, but it has been one of profound faith and love. The resilience of this community has been a joy to behold, even amid trying and frightening circumstances. We have never stopped praying and worshipping, learning and loving, reaching out to strangers and one another. And those are signs of a deep, vibrant, and abiding faith.

Not that any of this has been easy. We have all had to learn new skills and adjust our expectations and engage in new ways. I, for one, never thought I’d become a televangelist or do ministry in such a two-dimensional fashion. I never wanted to be an amateur epidemiologist or video production specialist. Our Sunday School teachers never wanted to learn how to teach virtual classes. Buffy never wanted to learn how to use Garage Band to blend voices into a digital choir. Jack never wanted to teach Confirmation Class and lead Youth Groups online and become our resident expert on all things Zoom. Yet here we are.

We have all adapted to hold this community together, to keep everyone safe, to reach out to those in need, to welcome those tuning in from all over the country, and to keep faith at the center of our lives, even as everything else swirled around us. From Zoom Sunday School to Youth Group Pop-Ups, from Virtual Choir Anthems to Zoom Morning Prayer, from Children’s Chapel to the Online Christmas Pageant, from the Drive-Thru Pet Blessing to socially-distanced outdoor baptisms and burials, the flexibility and creativity of this community has been astounding.

We have, of course, had to let go of a number of beloved traditions that give context and texture to our common life. Besides worship, I’m talking about events like SummerFest, the Not-So-Spooky Haunted House, the full-blown Holiday Boutique, Parish Picnics, Movie Nights. The list of things we grieve goes on and on.

But this time has also forced us to return to the essentials. From the moment we shut down, the COVID Response Team sprang into action, pairing those with needs in our community with those who could lend a hand. From postcards to St. John’s face masks to conceiving our Pandemic Prayer Network, the members of this team embodied our response to this crisis and continue to do so. Just this week, they launched an effort to assist fellow parishioners who need help making online vaccine appointments. 

The other group that arose during the early days was the Regathering Task Force. This faithful crew has met weekly throughout the pandemic to examine state and diocesan guidelines, look at our context, and make decisions based on our guiding principle of loving one another. This has been a tremendous responsibility and has not been easy work. I assure you, everyone has opinions. But the task force has stayed faithful to its mission and I will continue to lean on them for guidance moving forward as the health climate changes and restrictions, hopefully, begin to ease.

Our outreach efforts continued as the need in our local area grew. From food drives to backpack collections to Christmas gifts to B-SAFE to Laundry Love, people at St. John’s have continually given of themselves and their resources during this time. It’s been inspiring to watch faith-in-action take place at a time when people need help now more than ever. In fact, a number of parishioners with the means to do so have quietly given to my discretionary fund, allowing me to directly assist families in our community and beyond, who are unduly shouldering the burden of this pandemic.

I can’t say enough about our Associate Rector’s ministry throughout this time. Her passion and compassion, her giftedness and doggedness have helped keep our children’s and youth programs not merely treading water but actively thriving. This has been a particularly challenging time for our families. Many of you are simply overwhelmed and the existential fatigue is real. Jack’s invitational approach and ability to creatively adapt to the changing needs of our youngest parishioners has been inspiring. And on a personal level, it’s hard to express just how helpful it’s been to have a valued colleague, friend, and pandemic comrade-in-arms literally at my side during this past year. 

In the midst of everything else, we ran a successful capital campaign. Yes, it was disappointing after two years of planning to scale things back. But I applaud the Vestry’s decision to move forward, focusing on our most urgent building needs. While not everyone was in a position to donate to this campaign, we were very clear that this was fine. That putting off the campaign – the first one we’ve done in 15 years – and deferring much needed maintenance, would only mean higher costs in the future. The campaign leadership did a tremendous job pulling this all together and I am so very grateful to everyone who supported our Cornerstone Campaign to secure the long-term future of our sacred space.

Is the church pleasing everyone and meeting everyone’s needs? Of course not. Online worship and formation don’t resonate with everyone. Some feel we’ve been too cautious with our regathering plan. Not everyone agreed with the decision to move forward with a capital campaign – even in its scaled back version – in the middle of a pandemic. Some people think the church has become too liberal; others think it’s too conservative. But I’ll tell you this. The leadership and staff at St. John’s has never worked harder or been more committed to the ministry of this church and the needs of its people than they have been over the past year. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes our approach feels strategic, sometimes it feels like we’re stumbling around in the dark. But always, I believe, with love, compassion, and faith at the center of it all.

There is, as always, more work to be done. In the days ahead, our newly-formed Anti-Racism Task Force will be offering ideas and practical ways that we can truly live into being an anti-racist community of faith. This past year we bid farewell to our Sunday School Director, Alexis MacElhiney, after five years of ministry among us. That leaves a large hole in our parish and, while Jack’s role, for now, has moved to focus primarily on children, families, and youth, we do need to address this critical piece of our common life. 

There remains a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the world, in our nation, and here at St. John’s. While we’re all hopeful that we will be able to fully regather in person, we don’t yet know when that will be or what it will look like. There are a number of individuals and families who pledged to support St. John’s financially in 2020 who have not done so in 2021. Some of that is rooted in economic reality and some is a lack of engagement with online church.  Ultimately, this impacts the ministry we are able to offer through this community. 

A post-pandemic church will look different – none of us can know for certain what the future holds and what changes are in store. The church and the world will look different in the years ahead. And I am convinced, knowing this parish, that we will continue to faithfully adapt to whatever comes our way. But what will never change is the hope upon which our community is built. 

On the wooden reredos behind the altar, underneath Jesus’ feet, are carved the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. Jesus proclaimed “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” And that is precisely why even as everything changes and shifts under our own feet, the bedrock of our faith endures. For Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” 

My friends in Christ, despite all the challenges we’ve faced this past year – and perhaps even because of them – it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside each and every one of you. May God bless us all in the year ahead.

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B, 2021)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 24, 2021 (3 Epiphany, Year B)

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” The apostle Paul writes these words at the end of this very brief passage we just heard from First Corinthians. “For the present form of this world is passing away.” It sure feels as if the present form of our world has been “passing away” these past months. In so many aspects of our lives, the present form of this world has been passing away in ways both painful and necessary, challenging and hopeful. External traditions and assumptions have been overturned even as our internal priorities have been reset and redefined. 

Presumably…hopefully…at some point this year, we’ll begin to emerge from this pandemic. It will be an opportunity to return to some things we’ve so longed for and, at the same time, open us up to a new world view. There will be both a reckoning and a recognition that some things will never be the same. Which is both exciting and a bit terrifying. Change always is. And this will impact nearly every aspect of our lives — the ways in which we work and play and worship. “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

St. Paul wasn’t speaking of a post-pandemic world, of course. He was pointing to a world that had been utterly changed and transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he writes in another passage to the church in Corinth, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Now, it would be easy to view this passing away that Paul speaks of as something to fear. Or mourn. Or at least to be depressed about. Paul lays it all out — he advises the married to act as if they have no spouse, mourners not to mourn, the joyful not to rejoice, purchasers as if they had no possessions. In a word, as the writer of Ecclesiastes might say, it’s all vanity. Relationships, emotions, material things, they’ll all pass away right along with the world. So what’s the point, really?

Well, it would be incredibly pull-the-covers-over-your-head depressing if that’s all there was to it. But Paul writes these words in the context of relationship with Jesus Christ. The point is really that our world — the visible world in which we live and move and have our being — is not nearly as substantial and knowable and controllable as we seek to make it. We are utterly dependent upon a world we cannot see, upon a creator so often hidden from our eyes. Without faith, life would all be a vain, purposeless flailing of limbs and emotions.

But it’s not. Because our hope is not grounded in what we see or do in this present time. Which doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter or that we shouldn’t attend to our relationships or that we shouldn’t feel deeply and emotionally connected to the things around us. Everything we do matters. Our actions matter. Our values matter. Our concern for others matters. It’s just that what is to come, matters more. In the human experience, we encounter things both seen and unseen, visible and invisible. And faith is about allowing the unseen things to impact our interactions with the seen things. 

This may all sound a bit ethereal and abstract, but the whole concept finds its expression in the specificity of Jesus Christ. When Jesus calls the first disciples he looks at them and says, “Follow me.” With those two little words, he’s inviting Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him in the here and now. He’s inviting them to literally drop their fishing nets and follow him as he preaches and teaches and heals; as he challenges the princes and principalities of this world; as he exposes the hypocrisy of the religious establishment; as he embodies God’s dream for a just world right here on earth. And he’s inviting them into a deeper life of abundance and joy and meaning that transcends all that they can see and hear and feel and touch. He’s inviting them into the very heart of God. He’s inviting them into the mystery of God’s eternal grace. He’s inviting them into a world they can know but not see. “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

And this sense of expectation, of anticipation at the unseen and untold joys that are to come, is where hope abides. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus has ushered in a new era. One that has started the clock running on Christ’s eventual return. Jesus has died and has risen and will come again. And while we know neither the day nor the hour when this will take place, still it puts us on a trajectory of hope.

And I would argue that we, too, are on a trajectory of hope. Both as Christians awaiting those unseen things, and as Americans, as people of St. John’s, awaiting a post-pandemic world. We may not know precisely what it will look like, but we do know that it will be infused with God’s love.

I was thinking this week about the first time I wore a mask in public. It was early on in the pandemic, when we were all quarantined and Bryna sent me out to the Fruit Center in what felt like a full suit of body armor — mask, gloves, hat, clothes that would go straight into the laundry — to pick up groceries that would then be wiped down with antibacterial spray in the garage before being put away in the kitchen. And, if I was lucky enough to find it, at least one rare and glorious roll of toilet paper. I remember feeling quite foolish and very self-conscious as I walked up and down the aisles viewing my fellow shoppers less as other people and more as threats to my health and well-being. There was much we still didn’t know about this mysterious new virus. 

What’s amazing to me is how quickly we all got used to doing things in new ways. We settled into routines that would have been unimaginable less than a year ago. Our old world passed away. And although we trust that this is all temporary, we still don’t know what changes to our routines and traditions will remain. 

In the end, unless we recognize that everything in front of us will pass away, we can’t begin to fully live. Only then can we say along with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul in silence waits, truly my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.” 

We are on a trajectory of hope, even as what we think is so important in our lives passes away. All is not vanity. Because all is grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ, the one who pierces us with his knowing eyes and says, “follow me.”

Baptism of Our Lord 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 10, 2021 (Baptism of Our Lord)

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I visited a coffee farm in El Salvador, high up in the hills near Santa Ana. The farm had been in the same family for generations and it was a beautiful piece of property with coffee plants growing under canopies of banana trees. 

At one time there was a grand manor house on the plantation, but now all that remained were the ruins. It had been destroyed in the Salvadoran Civil War that started in the late 1970s. I ran my hand along exterior walls that were still pockmarked by bullet holes. It was difficult to imagine the violence and bloodshed that had taken place just a few decades before, as I stood in front of that bombed out shell of a home, one that still echoed with grace and splendor, on a peaceful and bright spring morning in Central America.

As I watched, along with all of you, the images from our nation’s capital this past week, it was hard not to think about that day in El Salvador. Civil war, political violence, the inciting of riots, reckless rhetoric, armed gunmen, the destruction of property. All of these are things which I never thought could take place here. In our country. In our Capitol. Not because we’re better than anyone else — we surely are not — but because mob violence unleashed in the halls of Congress is inconsistent with the yearning for a more just and perfect Union. The cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric of our stated values and the reality of what we witnessed was striking. And heartbreaking.

Collectively, we watched the violation of a treasured national symbol, albeit one built by slaves, unfold in real time. The place where, most recently, John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, George Herbert Walker Bush and John McCain had lain in state, was desecrated by rioters, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and insurrectionists, some bearing Confederate flags and others wearing t-shirts with anti-semitic slogans. It was hard to watch. 

Many of you have visited the Capitol as tourists or on school trips and have stared in wonder up at the Capitol dome from inside the rotunda. As a college student, I interned on Capitol Hill for a Maryland senator one summer and regularly walked those very halls. We all have connections to this place that is the symbolic seat of our representative government. Last Wednesday was a sad day, a frustrating day, a rage-inducing day on so many levels. 

Today in the church calendar, we mark the baptism of Jesus and encounter John the Baptist along the banks of the Jordan River. One of the things I love about John the Baptist is his unvarnished and prophetic truth telling. He’s not afraid to ruffle some feathers. He doesn’t even care if anyone’s listening — nothing will deter him from sharing his message. His is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, pointing to the one who is to come, loudly and boldly proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is the polar opposite of a smooth-talking politician. He’d never get elected, because rather than telling people what they want to hear, he tells them what they need to hear. In other words, he tells them the truth. And in this way John takes his place in the long tradition of Hebrew prophets. Men and women who were accountable only to the God’s honest truth. Voices that called out leaders who had lost their way, who had been seduced by love of money or love of self. Leaders who trampled upon their own people in order to satisfy their own needs. Leaders who preyed upon the vulnerable rather than caring for them with compassion. Leaders who had gone astray by failing to keep God at the center of their lives.

Now, this was not an easy path. The average life expectancy for a prophet was rather short. John the Baptist literally lost his head for telling the truth. Truth telling won’t necessarily get you reelected or make you popular with your base. And yet, if there is anything this country needs right now, it’s more truth-tellers. Leaders with the courage to stand up, despite the political winds, and tell people the truth. Without spin or bias or personal interest. We need less flag waving — whether that’s an American flag or a flag emblazoned with the name of a particular candidate — and more truth telling. We need courageous truth tellers to hold us all accountable when we stray from our national ideals, just as we need prophets to point us back to relationship with God.

And the first truth that John the Baptist voices is a call to repent. Everything will unfold in its own time, but first get down on your knees and repent. Admit your sinful nature, admit your complicity in the trampling down of the less fortunate, admit your lack of faithfulness. Repent of the demonization of others, repent of the false narratives, repent of the violence. Repent first, and then we can move forward.

Because repentance is not just about looking back, a way of dwelling on the sins of the past. Rather, repentance looks forward, it envisions a new way of life. It involves a turning of the heart toward the future, a future dripping with hope and possibility and expectation and new life.

There’s another truth teller I’ve been thinking about this week, a modern day prophet. When I was on that coffee farm, I met the owner of the property. He was a gracious host and was proud to lead our small tour. Over lunch I asked him about Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador. I figured maybe he’d encountered him at some point and had a story to share about this saintly soul who risked everything to lift up his country’s poor and vulnerable populations. 

But at the first mention of Romero’s name, the man’s face clouded over. The charm dripped away into an icy stare and it dawned on me that, while I naively assumed everyone in the country loved and admired Romero and treasured him as a national hero, the ruling class did not. It was the rebels that had destroyed the family home. The monied class was strongly allied with the repressive military regime against which Romero had railed. Romero was a truth teller, an advocate for social justice, an ally of the oppressed, one who condemned violence and torture, and a man whose vision of equality for all people contrasted sharply with the ideology and practices of a power hungry dictator. 

The day after preaching a sermon in which he called on all soldiers, as Christians, to stop carrying out the government’s orders to violate its citizens’ basic human rights, Oscar Romero was assassinated while standing at the altar celebrating mass; martyred for telling the truth.

I’m not sure what our collective future holds as a nation. But I do know that we can disagree without demonizing one another. That we can seek truth rather than spreading falsehood. That we can repent for the ways in which we have not lived up to our values. That what we witnessed wasn’t merely an aberration, it was a reflection of America in 2021. And that if the bodies of those who stormed the Capitol building had been black and brown rather than white, those hallways would have been stained with blood. In the spirit of John the Baptist and Oscar Romero, we need to hear the uncomfortable truths. Only then can we begin to embody hope rather than despair.

That old bullet-riddled manor house in El Salvador had since been converted into an open-air nursery. Gardeners tended the young coffee plants that would soon be placed deep into the farm’s rich soil. Out of destruction, injustice, and violence, the seeds of new life and growth are literally being sown.

Christmas Eve 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2020 (Christmas Eve)

I don’t know about you but for me, all the Christmas Eve services I’ve attended or led over the years tend to blur together into one giant, joyful, ball of anticipation and hope. The big crowds; belting out the traditional carols; the intoxicating smell of incense, greens, and poinsettias; receiving communion; singing Silent Night by candlelight; handing out hundreds and hundreds of candy canes afterwards; and the unabashed joy of celebrating our Lord’s birth with people I dearly love. 

But this one is different. I know I won’t ever forget it, and I doubt you will either, as we gather virtually on this most holy night, together but apart. 

Now, I realize nobody really wants to basically be watching TV on Christmas Eve. It’s fine to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Frosty the Snowman — but there are some advantages to an online Christmas Eve service. For instance, you will never again sit in a more comfortable pew on Christmas Eve than the one you’re in right now. And, unless the server goes down, there is literally unlimited room at the inn. You don’t have to fight for a parking place or a seat in the church; and, for better or worse, each and every one of you is in the front row. Welcome. 

But despite all this, to watch church on Christmas Eve, even while in your Christmas PJs or drinking egg nog, is not ideal. We miss the joy of being together, we mourn the loss of those who have died during this pandemic, we miss lifting our voices in prayer and song in this sacred space, we grieve for the family traditions that won’t happen this year. None of this is ideal.

But then again, nothing was really ideal for Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas Eve. Finding “no room at the inn” is not ideal. Giving birth in a stable is not ideal. Laying your newborn son in a feeding trough is not ideal. 

Yet God takes all that is not ideal — the mud and muck of the stable, the sense of isolation and abandonment — and transforms it into hope. The amazing thing about the Christian faith is that we worship a God who entered into relationship with us in less than ideal conditions — at least by the world’s standards. Jesus wasn’t born behind the fortified walls of a palace, he wasn’t laid in a beautifully handcrafted crib, he didn’t enjoy the built-in advantage of wealthy and well-educated parents. 

Yet God sent his only Son into the very heart of the human condition. Jesus comes to us not in spite of, but precisely because of, our brokenness and sinfulness. He enters directly into the messiness and disarray of our lives. 

And I find that incredibly hopeful. Because God gets it. God understands our hopes and our fears, our desires and our shortcomings. And God loves us anyway. Despite whatever may not be ideal in your own life in this moment, or ever, God loves you. And delights in you. And will never, ever abandon you. 

That’s the miracle of Christmas. Not that everything is perfect — we don’t live in a Hallmark Christmas movie where there is always a predictable and happy ending — but that God sees our struggles and enters into them by walking right alongside us. God takes all that is not ideal in our own lives — the loneliness, the brokenness, the fear, the heartbreak — and through relationship with us, transforms it all into a loving, liberating, life-giving hope.

I’ve found over the years that, quite often, God is most present when conditions are not ideal. The prophet Isaiah speaks to this when he proclaims that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” That’s us! We are the people who have struggled, partly as a result of the human condition, partly due to the circumstances in which we’re now living; and even upon us, the light of Christ has shined.

We are not living in ideal conditions these days. It would be hard to claim otherwise. But that light that shines in the darkness is shining upon you. And on this holy night, I bid you to hold on to the hope of Christmas. Carry it with you through the cold, dark days ahead. Bring it with you as things begin to thaw. And let it foster in you a resilience that will inoculate you against the strong grip of hopelessness. 

In the loving arms of his mother in that little town of Bethlehem, the face of the baby Jesus shines with the bright light of hope. The shepherds recognize this; the angels recognize this; the Magi come to recognize this; and we are invited to recognize this as well. May God bless you all, and may you have a very Merry Christmas.