Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2015 (Proper 11, Year B)

“Free-range parenting” has been in the news recently. You may have heard about those two kids, ten and six-year-old siblings, in Silver Spring, Maryland, who were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services a couple months ago after they were spotted walking home alone from a neighborhood park.

The incident spurred nationwide debate over parenting practices and the appropriate video-undefined-24D8712700000578-548_637x357degree of parental involvement in the lives of children. Free-range parenting is basically a reaction to the whole concept of “helicopter parenting,” where mothers and fathers hover over their over-protected and over-scheduled children. Or as my kids tell me when I unreasonably demand to know when they’ll be home, “stop being such a drone parent.” Which I guess is the next level up from helicopter.

There has certainly been a shift in the way parenting has evolved over the last couple of generations. Truth be told, by today’s standards, we were all neglected children — or at least anyone over the age of about 30. Left on our own to use our imaginations or to find our own friends to play with or, something my children literally can’t relate to, only being able to watch cartoons on Saturday morning. There was no 24-hour Cartoon Network! If you missed Saturday morning TV, you had to wait an entire week to watch the Flintstones. And it’s amazing any of us made it to adulthood, what with all those cribs that have since been declared choking hazards, no bike helmets, and the way we used to lie down in the back of the station wagon on long car trips.

Now, I’m not wading into the middle of this — and I don’t want this to turn into a “get off my lawn” rant — every family has a different situation and there’s probably an appropriate balance somewhere between the two extremes. But it does make you wonder where Jesus would be on this continuum. Was he more of a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? Did he just leave his disciples to wander around the countryside unaccompanied or did he follow them around watching their every move?

I guess I have sheep on the brain because this morning feels a bit like a mini-Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we get the full-blown deal. We hear Jesus proclaim “I am the Good Shepherd;” we sing the 23rd Psalm; sheep wander around all the readings; pastoral images abound in hymns like “The King of Love my Shepherd is” (which we’re actually singing this morning) and choir anthems like “Sheep Safely Graze” (which we’re not).

Today we’re not doing the whole sheep thing to quite that degree. But we do hear about Jesus looking with compassion upon a crowd that he compares to “sheep without a shepherd” and the prophet Jeremiah rails against the leaders of Israel who mismanaged their responsibility, comparing them to bad shepherds who lead their flocks astray where they are scattered and devoured. And we also get that 23rd psalm which reminds us that as the Lord is indeed our shepherd, we shall not be in want.

But the question remains, is Jesus a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? I mean he did send the disciples out two-by-two so, even if he did insist on the buddy system, there was at least a degree of independence. On the other hand his farewell discourse in John’s gospel goes on for five chapters so he’s not exactly trusting them to go it alone without any instructions.

Perhaps the point is that we have a shepherd who meets us where we are. One who goes after us like the lost sheep who has gone astray when we inevitably do stray from the fold. One who cradles us in his arms and comforts us in times of need or crisis. But also one who sends us out to do the work he has given us to do. The one who entrusts us to be the Church, his Church, even when we make a mess of it.

Like children, there are times when we need to be watched and cared for even when we seek to assert our independence. And there are times when we need space to make our own mistakes, to fail on our own terms, to be picked up, dusted off, comforted, and sent back out equipped with a new perspective and a lesson learned.

We vacillate between vulnerability and confidence in our daily lives just as we vacillate between faith and doubt in our relationship with Jesus Christ. As with parenting styles, our lives are lived on a continuum, and our spiritual needs change and evolve depending on the circumstances presented. It’s why the apostle Paul, in talking about spiritual maturity, uses the analogy of an infant transitioning from milk to solid food. There are times when we are not ready to be sent out on our own; when we need to be watched and nurtured. And there are times when we are able to handle greater demands and responsibilities.

If we think about God as a spiritual parent — and many of our images of God point in this direction — it’s helpful to think about the human parental relationship. The thing is, we don’t own our children. We are temporary stewards of them, yes, but ultimately they will become the people God has created them to be. We guide, protect, teach and generally do our best to share our values with them but in time they will need to make their own way in the world, just as we have done. In the same way, God has created us, provided for us, and yet sets us free to forge our own identities. In time we realize we can’t do this all by ourselves, that we can only experience true freedom “with God’s help,” as we proclaim in our baptismal vows.

And, look at that — coincidentally we just happen to have a couple of baptisms this morning. I love when things all comes together. Because at baptism, we initiate and mark that indissoluble bond between an individual and Jesus Christ. But Jesus doesn’t then stalk us for the rest of our lives. The invitation to relationship is always extended. But Jesus doesn’t hen peck or helicopter us to death. He so desires to be in relationship with us because he wants us to experience that incredible peace and freedom that comes through faith in him. Baptism reminds us that Jesus is always present in our lives; whether or not we always recognize him, he is there patiently and lovingly waiting for us to notice and to respond.

So I guess Jesus is a bit more free-range than helicopter in his relationship with us. We’re never neglected; we’re allowed to wander and fail, but we’re never forsaken or abandoned; we’re always welcomed home with arms wide open. It’s a relationship rooted in love, the perfect model for our own parenting and one that reminds us that in order to truly thrive, we all so need that Good Shepherd.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 12, 2015 (Proper 10, Year B)

Kids don’t seem to play the classic Parker Brothers game Monopoly much these days. I mean, I remember some epic family battles growing up; games that would last for days. Which may be part of the reason it’s not as popular anymore. In a world of instant results, it takes time to build up your monopolies, buy all the railroads, and slowly suck your friends and family dry. Or maybe the recent mortgage crisis has made the whole concept a bit too real for adults. But whatever the reason, it’s no longer common to walk into a neighbor’s house and see an in-progress Monopoly game on the dining room table waiting to be completed later that evening.

CHANCEOne of the best things about those highly competitive Monopoly games was drawing the coveted Get Out of Jail Free card. You didn’t need it then, but eventually and inevitably it would come in handy. And there was nothing quite like the sweet freedom of tossing that card down on the table right after being told to go directly to jail without passing go and without collecting $200.

Now, I’m sure John the Baptist would have loved a Get Out of Jail Free card to present to King Herod as he rotted away in the royal dungeon. He ended up there not for going out into the wilderness, standing in the River Jordan, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That might have annoyed the powers that be but he was generally seen as little more than a nuisance. As long as he kept his crazy out in the boonies he could be ignored as just another fringe religious figure — the original Jesus freak.

John ran into trouble, though, when he took his act to the palace. The Baptist pointed out to Herod — in his inimitable loud, bold, unrepentant manner — that in marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, in defiance of the Law of Moses, the king and queen were living in a state of sin.

You see, John had this little character flaw of needing to speak truth to power. It comes with being formed in the image of an archetypical Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Amos, who we also hear about this morning. There are some strong parallels between Amos, who in his day had chastised King Jeroboam for being a corrupt and faithless king, and John. And we see again and again that standing up to princes and principalities is not for the faint of heart. Bringing God’s word to powerful people who are unwilling or unable to change their ways can get you exiled or reviled or killed.

Unfortunately John the Baptist never did draw that Get Out of Jail free card. And in this gruesome tale of his beheading, the whole notion of freedom and imprisonment becomes twisted as the virtues and vices of human nature play out.

Let’s take a quick look at the players and the scenario involved here. There are three main actors in this drama — Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius; his wife Herodias, who had previously been married to and divorced from Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist, whose arrest at the end of the first chapter of Mark was the last we heard of him. There’s also Herod’s young daughter, called Salome, but she’s a mere pawn in the action.

Now, Herod, who we hear admired John as a holy and righteous man, threw him into prison for criticizing his marriage and defaming his reputation rather than killing him. It was the perfect compromise for a weak, insecure man: John was silenced publicly, his wife was placated, and whatever conscience Herod himself had was satisfied. Brilliant! Except for one problem — Herodias held a grudge. A major, nasty, blood curdling grudge.

So she bided her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge. And Bernardino-Luini-Salome-with-the-Head-of-Saint-John-the-Baptist-not-dated-painting-artwork-printeventually it came at a fancy state dinner; actually Herod’s own birthday party. Salome famously danced to the pleasure of the king and his guests in what has become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils in both Richard Strauss’ operatic version of the story and Oscar Wilde’s play. Herod publicly and foolishly and perhaps lecherously promised Salome whatever she wanted in return and, after consulting her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

In the precise moment that her daughter came to her, Herodias seized that Get Out of Jail Free card and played it with venomous glee, triumphantly tossing it onto the banquet table. And Herod was backed into a corner; if he refused to keep his promise, he would lose credibility, and worse, failing to keep an oath was akin to taking God’s name in vain. Evidently that was less distasteful to the king than killing an innocent man.

Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean Get Out of Jail Free card? Herodias wasn’t the one in jail!” But here’s the thing. This venomous woman finally saw her chance to be freed from the only real threat to her power and status — God’s judgment in the person of God’s prophet, this man called John the Baptist.

So, ironically it was John, jailed and beheaded, who was truly free. Free by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ. And it was Herodias, enjoying all the royal benefits of queenship who was truly imprisoned. Imprisoned by her sinfulness. Imprisoned by her guilt. Imprisoned by her rage. Imprisoned by her thirst for selfish ambition. And again, we see that the deep truths of life don’t always reside on the surface; that they are not always visible to the naked eye. That the reality of God’s realm does not always reflect the limited human interpretation of events.

And what we ultimately learn from this story is that violence never trumps faith; that evil cannot conquer love — something the power of the cross teaches us in no uncertain terms. Beheading, crucifixion. Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even death.

And we see that Jesus is that Get Out of Jail Free card. Not because grace is cheap or easy but because it is freely offered to those who repent and pursue true amendment of life. It is offered to you and to me and, yes, even to Herodias. But we have to say “yes” to it. We have to admit our wrongdoing and open our hearts to the gift of a loving God.

This is a tough story to think about. It’s a tough story to preach on. No one’s turning it into a Church School pageant. But confronting the realities of evil in the world and offering an alternative is part of our calling as a community of faith. There is another way. And it runs straight from the pain of the cross and sword directly to the triumph of resurrection glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 28, 2015 (Proper 8, Year B)

There’s a show that airs on ESPN called Pardon the Interruption and it gives me agita. It’s a roundup of the day’s sports news hosted by a couple of loud, contentious talking heads with strongly voiced opinions about…everything. I’ll often wander down to the rectory around 5:30 pm which is when it begins and Ben usually has it on — it’s one of his favorite shows. It’s kind of like the sports version of the McLaughlin Group, the long-running PBS news show that puts liberals and conservatives around a table and lets them have at it. Both shows are 30 minutes of people interrupting one another in what is basically, at least to my ears, a verbal food fight. Which is not, by the way, anything like a vestry meeting at St. John’s. In case you were wondering.

Pardon_the_Interruption_logo-600Much of ministry, like life itself, is an interruption. You can plan out your day and yet, depending on what arises, it often veers off in a completely different direction. Pardon the interruption. Those plans you had to write that newsletter article? That gets trumped when you get a phone call that someone took a fall and is being transported to South Shore Hospital. Or that time you carved out to sit in your office and go over the budget for the upcoming buildings and grounds meeting? That goes out the window when a parishioner comes in with news that her father just died.

You can either rue the disruption of your regular routine or you can view it as an opportunity to serve others. And you learn pretty quickly that people are much more important than your own calendar or deadlines or to-do list.

Jesus certainly knew what it was to get interrupted. During his brief, what I like to call “rock star” phase, when people hounded him wherever he went, his life was one long interruption. He couldn’t go anywhere without people wanting his attention or a healing touch or a chance to take a selfie with him. If he wanted a quiet moment for renewal he had to slip away by cover of darkness to find a place to pray — and even then people caught up with him and interrupted his private devotions with their own needs and concerns. Something he never once complained about.

This morning’s gospel story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter contains a major interruption in the form of a second healing story, of the woman who touches his cloak seeking relief from her hemorrhages. Jesus’ interaction with this woman is sandwiched in-between the two-part account of Jesus’ dealings with Jairus and his entourage. Jesus agrees to go and heal the man’s daughter and, as the crowd follows him, he is interrupted by this other woman. If Jesus had followed his own schedule, he never would have stopped. But he did. Jesus is quite literally a man on a mission but it’s a mission that invites stops of compassion along the way. And in this case, he allowed himself to be interrupted and a life was transformed in the process.

Now, Jairus himself couldn’t have been thrilled with the interruption. When your child is ill and at the point of death, any delay could have dire consequences. In fact, some of his friends came from the daughter’s bedside to tell him not to bother Jesus anymore. She was dead. The interruption took too long. Forget it.

It’s not a difficult leap to imagine Jairus being enraged even in the midst of, or precisely because of, his profound grief. I mean he was a prominent leader in the Jewish community; an upstanding citizen used to preferential treatment while this other woman, well, she was a nobody; an outcast — her disease made her an untouchable by Jewish law. It would be like a major donor to Mass General being indignant at having his daughter’s care interrupted as a prominent physician left her bedside to tend to a homeless person who had just been brought in.

And it is at this precise moment that we see the conflicting emotions swirling around Jesus. Jairus’ despair set against the joy of this long-suffering woman who is not only healed physically but is also restored to her community after years of isolation. So a woman who has been afflicted for 12 years rejoices in her newfound freedom even as the family of a 12-year-old girl grieves her loss.

Part of what this passage does, then, is to shift our perspective. While we often view interruptions as a great source of annoyance and frustration, we can all thank God for what I like to call “holy interruptions.” Unplanned interactions with others that make a difference in our own lives or those of others. The thing is you have to be open to the holy interruptions that present themselves. Sometimes it means putting your phone away and really listening. It means seeing the Christ in others even when we’d really rather not get involved. It means being flexible as we go about our days — flexible enough to leave room for people who may be hurting or vulnerable or seeking a word of comfort from a friend or stranger. It means cultivating an awareness to those in our midst rather than remaining so inwardly focused.

Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer used to complain about interruptions to his work — important work which built up the body of Christ and inspired thousands of people around the world. But at a certain point, he realized that “It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part . . . All of these interruptions presented themselves as opportunities . . . invited me to look in a new way at my identity before God. Each interruption took something away from me; each interruption offered something new.”

The opportunity for holy interruptions happen all the time — both at home and at work. There are days when I come home from the office, and after being annoyed that I have to listen to PTI in the background— that’s the shorthand for Pardon the Interruption — I finally sit down to unwind with the newspaper I didn’t get to in the morning. It’s usually at that very moment that the boys want me to go out and shoot hoops with them. And I don’t want to. I’m tired physically and tired emotionally from a full day. And I’m tired of playing two-on-one against them and having my 6-foot-tall 16-year-old swat away my shots like Shaq playing one-one-one with Spudd Webb. But more often than not, I go out anyway because these holy interruptions won’t be there forever. And I’m always glad I did even as I suffer yet another basketball beatdown.

What are some of the ways interruptions might turn into holy interactions in your own life? I encourage you to reflect on this in the days ahead. Unlike Jesus, we may not be able to resurrect someone from the dead, as Jesus ultimately does with Jairus’ daughter, but we can raise up God’s presence in the life of someone who desperately needs it. In other words, don’t pardon the interruption but embrace it. Allow interruptions to instruct rather than to disrupt. And know that your life will be all the richer for it.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 14, 2015 (Proper 6, Year B)

One of the great things about Google Earth is that it gives you a God’s-eye view of anywhere in the world. With just a few clicks, you can see satellite images of any place on the globe — well, not North Korea and Iran and several other places. But you can zoom in and see almost any other place in the entire world. Which can be fairly voyeuristic, as in “I had no idea our neighbor had a swimming pool tucked away in that hidden back yard!” Or you can check out the location of a hotel to make sure they’re as close to downtown as their website claims.

google-earth-12-700x406I used Google Earth to look at the church this week — which I’d never done before — and was amazed at just how thick those bushes were in front of the church and going up the front walkway. They update the images every so often and this one was from before we gave the front lawn its recent hard-to-miss haircut — in a few short days we basically went from radical hippie to Marine recruit. From the sky you could barely even tell there were front steps and when I clicked on “street view” I couldn’t see the church at all. That’s how obscured it was before we opened things up, which we were able to do thanks to the foresight and generous gifts of two parishioners.

Sometimes beautiful things are hidden in plain sight. Like locally quarried Weymouth stone on the outside of a church in Hingham. And sometimes through the initial obscurity of a parable.

Although he’s the one we most closely identify with parables, Jesus didn’t actually invent the form. Jewish teachers in the ancient world used these types of stories or analogies to explore all sorts of spiritual or ethical concepts; there are examples of parables sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Of course, Jesus popularized the parable. I guess you could say that Jesus is to the parable what Aesop is to the fable.

The parables of Jesus used everyday images to shed light on the nature of God or to convey deep spiritual truths. And so he used examples that his hearers would have all been familiar with. We may have to dig a bit to understand the full context of his stories — we’re not an agrarian society and so we have to learn about mustard seeds and sheep and the economic and family dynamics of ancient Palestine. But his original hearers needed no translation; even if the full meaning wasn’t always clear, all of the examples Jesus used were immediately recognizable.

But even when we need a bit of background information, the messages themselves remain powerful, true, and as relevant today as they were in Jesus’ day. Because human nature and our relationship with the divine is unchanging, even if the trappings and outward appearances of everyday life differ.

Today we get two gardening parables including the well-known Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus tells us it is the smallest of all the seeds. Yet when fully mature, the mustard plant is a massive bush, large enough for birds to make their nests. And so Jesus gives us a parable about the potential abundance of the Kingdom of God. We start with something tiny and it grows into something great.

Parables often come with an an unexpected twist; they help us see beyond the obvious. If a parable seems clear right off the bat, chances are you’ve missed the point. Or more to the point, you’ve missed the points because there are always many layers of meaning embedded into even the simplest parable.

And this one is no different. What’s sneaky about this parable is that Jesus doesn’t compare the Kingdom of God to a giant tree but a big shrub. He tells us that the tiny mustard seed grows into the “greatest of shrubs.” Which is like referring to something as the “king of the ants!” I mean, it’s still a shrub and as mustard plants grew rampant they were basically considered weeds. Which seems a curious analogy to make, even if it is king of the weeds.

The paradox of parables is that while they use examples from everyday life to make a larger point, they weren’t meant to be purely prescriptive. Parables often open up more questions than they answer — and that’s precisely the point. Jesus doesn’t just give us all the answers, he invites us to ponder, to reflect, to chew on issues of life and faith. So the purpose of a parable isn’t to settle an issue once and for all but to encourage us to think more deeply about the issue at hand, whether that’s the nature of God, or forgiveness, or the ways we treat one another.

As we think about parables, you should know that there’s a modern, somewhat controversial Bible translation called The Message that tries to incorporate images that people today would be more familiar with. Instead of a mustard seed — which let’s be honest, few people have ever seen since we get our mustard out of a squeeze bottle — The Message translates these verses this way: “How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches.”

Now I’ve never actually seen a mustard seed or a mustard plant. And, embarrassingly enough, I thought pine trees came from acorns. But most of us had pine nuts in our salad the last time we ate at the Square Cafe — they do that kind of frou frou stuff there. So we know what one looks like. It’s still an agricultural image that captures the nature of God’s abundance that Jesus was alluding to but using something we’d likely be more familiar with.

11147146_10206517117957460_4176512140477409887_nBut the danger in putting words into Jesus’ mouth is that, as we’ve seen with the mustard seed, Jesus intentionally didn’t use the example of a mighty tree. If he wanted to do that, he could have just pointed to the great cedar trees we hear about in our lesson from the prophet Ezekiel — an intentional counterpoint to today’s gospel reading. So the pine tree analogy actually fails to convey Jesus’ more subtle, even subversive point. There’s a difference between what is considered mighty by human standards and what is considered mighty by God’s standards. Which is yet another layer of the parable.

As with overgrown bushes in front of a church that you fail to even notice because they’ve always been there, sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper to see the hidden gem and deep meaning of Jesus’ words. But when you take the time to strip away the layers, you encounter something life-giving that continues to inspire, day after day and year after year. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 7, 2015 (Proper 5, Year B)

“Throwing somebody under the bus.” That’s a terrible expression. I mean, that can’t be pleasant. Between the diesel fumes and the 15 tons of steel and glass, nothing good ever comes from being thrown under a bus. But it is a wonderfully graphic, metaphorical expression to describe what happens when you blame someone else for something they didn’t actually do in order to save your own hyde.

Public examples of this abound. Cyclist Lance Armstrong threw his teammates under theunderthebus bus when he was defending himself against doping allegations. Presidents often throw cabinet secretaries under the bus when something happens in their department that could reflect poorly on the Oval Office. Just this week Mayor Marty Walsh threw the director of the Boston Public Library under the bus by forcing her to resign after some valuable prints were stolen. Which became rather awkward when they turned up the next day.

And in the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there’s some serious bus throwing under going on. God confronts them with their sinfulness, and their first response is blame. Adam throws Eve under the bus, Eve throws the serpent under the bus, and both come out looking like what they truly are: a man and a woman broken by sin.

Just listen to the dialogue: God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And Adam immediately replies, “The woman gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then God asks Eve the same question and she says, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

They don’t accept responsibility or immediately confess their wrongdoing and ask for divine forgiveness. Who knows how the story would have played out if that happened? But it doesn’t. And we’re left with a pretty ugly window into the human soul.

Because isn’t that so often our first reaction when things go wrong? We get defensive and blame others. Admitting our mistakes is so hard to do because we don’t want to seem weak or incompetent; it’s not good for our public image. So we make excuses, we shift the blame, we play responsibility dodgeball (which is my new favorite expression).

And we do this because deep down we’re ashamed of our behavior. Shame is one emotion that Adam and Eve are very much in touch with. They know they have done something they should not have done and they seek to cover it up; literally, by grabbing fig leaves and metaphorically, by throwing others under the bus.

Now, you have to be careful when you talk about shame in the context of the Fall story. There’s a misconception that the story of Adam and Eve is all about shaming the human body; or at least it’s been used to perpetuate the myth that nakedness is something to be ashamed of. That thought runs pretty deep in the Western psyche.

But what is nakedness anyway but a symbol of extreme vulnerability — something we seek to avoid at all costs? It’s why we feel the need to project an image of strength and prosperity and shove anything that smacks of vulnerability as far below the surface of our lives as possible. Because if we come across as vulnerable, we fear that someone will exploit that weakness.

Yet human beings are by their very nature vulnerable creatures. To be human is to be imperfect. And try as we might, we can’t hide from this fact. Which is why the fig leaf is such a hilarious image. Not because it makes a pretty lousy cover up, which it does, but because we can’t hide our imperfections from God.

This is one of the reasons I so love the Collect for Purity — that prayer Anglicans have been saying at the start of liturgies since the mid-1500s. “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” That’s a pretty vulnerable place to be! It doesn’t say anything about being naked but it absolutely embodies the image of standing naked before God. You can put on as many layers of clothes as you can find; you can even put on a coat of armor; but it doesn’t do a thing because God know our hearts, our desires, and our inmost secrets.

And while at one level this is terrifying, at another level it is a source of great freedom and comfort. We don’t have to be anything other than our true selves in our relationship with God. We can’t be anything other than our true selves in our relationship with God. We stand utterly naked before God and God loves us anyway. God loves us precisely for who we are in all of our goodness and in all of our sinfulness. And that is the great blessing of our faith.

Now, please don’t take this the wrong way or quote me out of context but when it comes to our relationship with God, the church should really be a nudist colony — metaphorical speaking. It should be a place where we are able to fully be ourselves with one another without shame or fear. We have a way to go to get there; we have some layers to strip off. But that’s the source of true strength — acknowledging our brokenness and accepting God’s love for us despite our failures and shortcomings.

Masaccio_Adam_and_Eve_detailAnd that’s really at the heart of Jesus’ message isn’t it? That despite the fact that God sees into our hearts and minds and souls; despite the fact that God knows our true desires; despite the fact that we can keep no secrets from God; God loves us fully, completely, and with reckless abandon.

It’s a message that Adam and Eve just couldn’t wrap their heads around until it was too late and they were driven out of the Garden. Yet Jesus, who is often referred to as the new Adam, shows us that there is indeed another way. When you come to terms with your vulnerability and stop throwing other people under the bus when things go wrong, you become uniquely empowered. You’re given the freedom to be the fully human person God has called you to be. We need the Garden of Eden to see this and we need Jesus to lift us out of the depths of sin into the life of abundance that God has prepared for each one of us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Trinity Sunday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 31, 2015 (Trinity Sunday, Year B)

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has to go down as one of the most infuriating exchanges in the history of human interaction. Like the most egregious case of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” they’re both talking right past one another. We see this all the time in international diplomacy or race relations or couples therapy. And their discussion seems to embody the ancient Chinese idiom “like a chicken talking to a duck.” In other words, a conversation between two people speaking entirely different languages. In order to have an actual conversation, both parties must speak the same language — otherwise misunderstanding and miscommunication abound.

In this case, Nicodemus speaks literally, Jesus speaks metaphorically, and we just stand chic and duckback and observe this linguistic train wreck. It’s really two monologues rather than anything resembling dialogue. And it’s maddening to try and follow the arc of the conversation. It’s like watching a tennis match where every time a ball is hit to one of the players he smacks it over the fence into another court. You just can’t follow the action.

Jesus and Nicodemus are indeed speaking different languages. That whole Pentecost concept we encountered last week of speaking in a variety of tongues and yet being understood in our native languages is out the window here.

In fairness, Nicodemus can’t possibly understand what Jesus is saying; he’s not yet equipped to do so. And so we end up with that awkward exchange about being born from above and Nicodemus, clearly flustered and confused, asks how it’s possible for someone to be born again — “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

In a word, no. Of course not. And it’s about as absurd an image as a camel trying to enter the eye of a needle. The new birth, the birth from above, happens when we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit; it ushers in a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can see this, now, standing as we do on this side of the Resurrection. But for all Nicodemus could comprehend, Jesus may as well have been speaking like one of the parents on Charlie Brown. Or reciting the Nicene Creed.

Because in a sense this is the perfect conversation for Trinity Sunday. The whole nature of Trinitarian doctrine is confusing, bewildering, mysterious and in the end can leave us asking, as Nicodemus puts it, “How can these things be?” One plus one plus one equals one; the three in one and one in three; a divine dance of love. Throw in words like only-begotten and co-eternal and the only logical response is, “How can these things be?” So, that’s not a bad refrain for Trinity Sunday.

We will never, at least in this life, know completely how these things can be. The fullness of God is more mystery than certainty; more article of faith than verifiable fact. Human words and formulas only take us so far because they are, by their very nature, incomplete.

Some of you know that when it comes to sermon writing, I’m a creature of habit. For years I’ve set aside Thursday mornings as the time I get most of it done. Always at a coffee shop. It’s become something of a Pavlovian response for me as I literally can’t write a sermon without coffee — nor would I subject anyone to the byproduct of un-caffeinated sermon preparation. This Thursday morning I was all set to head down to Redeye Roasters. I already had a few ideas banging around my head and even at the gym earlier that day I was thinking about the doctrinal challenges of preaching on the Trinity.

And then I got a phone call from one of our regular Saturday night service parishioners whose 41-year-old son was dying of cancer. He’d had a rough night and the hospice nurses were pretty certain the end was near. So obviously I scrapped my regular routine and told him I would drive right down to Pembroke to administer last rights.

And I was again reminded that all the theological and linguistic gymnastics in the world can never explain the fullness of God. It can’t get at the depth of God’s love for us or describe the powerful healing presence that comes through faith in Jesus Christ or reveal the glimpses of resurrection glory that shine even in life’s darkest and most painful moments.

TrinityWe can try our best to parse out the unity of God in three persons, an attempt that will always fall short, or we can simply be present for those in the throes of grief as an embodiment of God’s love. We can show rather than tell. And that’s what I invite you to do in the coming days. To think about the ways in which you practice God’s love for yourselves and for those around you. Friends, family, strangers. It’s human interaction that puts flesh on theology and doctrine; otherwise we’re left with a sack of dry bones.

I should note that eventually Nicodemus did come to understand what Jesus was talking about. You may recall that in John’s gospel, darkness is codeword for lack of understanding so it’s significant that Nicodemus came by night when he sought out Jesus for this initial, unsatisfying conversation.

Despite his confusion during that first encounter, at the time of Jesus’ arrest we hear Nicodemus referred to as “one of them,” meaning a disciple of Jesus. And after the crucifixion he joins Joseph of Arimathea this time, significantly, in the daytime — in the light — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So the veil has literally and metaphorically been lifted from his eyes. He understands Jesus’ identity with his very soul. Nicodemus may not have been able to write a theological treatise on the Trinity but he has a fuller understanding of God because of his interactions with Jesus. And that is enough.

“How can these things be?” I don’t know. At least not precisely. But perhaps this is why John, our patron saint, John the Evangelist, also makes this crystal clear. Amid all the language of Trinitarian doctrine, John reminds us again and again that “God is love.” That’s not a bad working definition and it’s one we could stand to heed more rather than less; to show more rather than tell.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Pentecost 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2015 (Pentecost, Year B)

My mother-in-law, like James Bond, is very particular about her martinis. Actually James Bond is low maintenance in comparison: Shaken. Not stirred. Done. Rosalie, on the other hand, gives very precise instructions on everything from the number and type of olives (three and green — and God forbid if they’re bruised) to the brand of vodka and degree of dryness (Grey Goose and very). I generally hold my breath from the moment she orders it to the moment it touches her lips. And given that it takes about 10 minutes to place the order, I’m nearly blue by the time her drink arrives.

Btx-r6RCQAAiQgb.jpg-largeNow, before any rumors get started or I get myself into a heap of trouble, I should say she only orders these on special occasions. This isn’t a nightly occurrence at the local watering hole. But I was thinking about Rosalie’s martinis this week because when it comes to experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives, the encounter often leaves us both shaken and stirred.

If we pull out some key words and phrases from the reading describing the Pentecost event in the Acts of the Apostles, it’s clear that the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit was disconcerting: “Suddenly, violent wind, tongues as of fire, filled with the Holy Spirit, bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” You don’t hear any words like “calm, serene, peaceful, relaxing” — that’s not part of the Pentecost vocabulary.

Sometimes when the Holy Spirit is at work in our individual or communal lives, it’s not comfortable. Actually, it’s rarely comfortable because the Spirit takes us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit can’t do a new thing without first leveling the old. And that can be incredibly disorienting because it literally throws everything up for grabs.

Because when the Spirit blows through our lives, nothing remains untouched. The Spirit pays no heed to structure or norms or routines. There is no “we’ve always done it that way” when the Holy Spirit shows up. The Spirit is described as a powerful wind that blows where it will, turning deeply held beliefs upside down and inside out. The Spirit is described as a raging fire that burns away that which obstructs God’s desires. Resisting the Holy Spirit is a bit like trying to stand still during a powerful hurricane — you can try, but it just can’t be done.

Around St. John’s it does feel like we’ve all been thrown into a shaker over the past eight months. With all the staff transitions and building challenges and the crazy winter and ripping out all the bushes on the front lawn, we’ve definitely been shaken and stirred. It looks different around here; it feels different around here. We’ve experienced some unexpected turbulence and we’ve created some of our own.

But when the ice and vermouth and vodka are put into just the right ratios, what emerges when it’s poured into a frosted martini glass and garnished with the correct number of olives is a creative thing of beauty. And that’s what I’m confident will come out of this season of controlled chaos at St. John’s. I see the Spirit at work; I see a new exciting phase of ministry emerging with new energy and new ideas and new life bursting forth. And that’s exciting, if somewhat disorienting. Being shaken and stirred by the Spirit has that effect on people and institutions.

So, as we mark and celebrate this day, it’s important to remember that Pentecost wasn’t just a single event that happened in the days immediately following Jesus’ ascension. If that was the case, it would be an interesting historical moment to read about. Certainly a dramatic one with the languages and the tongues of flame descending and the general chaotic nature of that day.

Part of the problem is that reading about such an event or viewing artistic renderings can never tell the whole story. To fully comprehend and grasp the power of the Holy Spirit, it must be experienced.

One of the exercises I did with the confirmation class this year tried to get at the power of experience. We were talking about the sacraments and to make a similar point, I had them all sit in a circle and we blindfolded one of them. I then passed out a particular food — in this case cheese puffs, because that’s what I had — and I asked them to describe to their blindfolded peer what they were eating without naming it. They described the taste and the texture and the color as best they could and eventually the one who was blindfolded was able to guess the food in question. Not the precise brand, but the food. The point was that words and language only go so far — you have to experience something yourself to fully grasp it.

The same is true with the Holy Spirit. I can talk about it. I can describe it. I could even draw a picture of it — not a good one mind you. But unless you experience the Spirit at work in your own life, you can’t understand its power. So, how can you tell if the Spirit is at work in your life?

smart7-2It’s different for everyone but for me it usually starts with that sense of confusion. With not being sure that something that’s taking me out of my comfort zone is indeed of God. It could be, of course, but then it might just be something annoying. But then something amazing happens — if it truly is the Spirit at work. If I begin tentatively moving in the direction I think God is calling me, suddenly the door opens. And I can take a few more halting steps. And then another door opens. And eventually it starts to feel like the opening scene from the old 1960s TV series Get Smart where all those different doors start opening as I walk down a long corridor into the unknown. Minus the theme music.

How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life? How do you know when God is acting or challenging you to try a new thing? I invite you to reflect on this and I’d love to hear your stories. We all stumble on occasion or misinterpret the signs. But then there are other times when God’s presence and purpose for us is unmistakably clear. We may start out feeling, like Jesus’ disciples that day, “bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” But if the experience is truly of God, that all fades away and the never-changing nature of God remains, even as the Spirit infuses us with something new and utterly beyond anything we could ask for or imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck