Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year C)

 A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 2, 2016 (Proper 22, Year C)

“Super Size our faith!” That’s basically what Jesus’ closest disciples are asking him to do this morning. And in a world where bigger is better and might makes right and to the victor goes the spoils and the one who dies with the most toys wins, more faith is surely better than less faith. More always trumps less. Which is why we love all-you-can eat buffets and McMansions and ordering the Big Gulp at 7-11.

“Increase our faith,” they plead. And who wouldn’t want more of a good thing? More supersize-fries-2abundant blessings, more amazing grace, more fruits of the spirit, more abiding faith.

If more is always better why should it be any different when it comes to faith? More faith must equal more blessing and more peace and more spiritual clarity and more holier than thou moments. That’s how it works, right? Well, not exactly. At least according to Jesus.

He points out that for one thing, faith isn’t a zero sum game. Faith isn’t a limited commodity that the wise disciple hoards like food before a famine. More faith for me doesn’t mean less faith for you. There aren’t winners and losers when it comes to faith. The Christian life is not a spiritual version of The Hunger Games or Survivor.

And for another thing, time and time again, Jesus reminds us that the Christian life runs counter to the mainstream. What may be seen as victory in the eyes of the world, often isn’t in the eyes of God. And what may be seen as failure in the eyes of the world, often isn’t in the eyes of God. You need look no further than the cross for the ultimate example of the human perspective versus the divine outlook; as Easter people, we see in the hard wood of the cross an implement of death transformed into an instrument of life.

This isn’t to say that the notion of abundance isn’t a powerful image of faith. Sometimes more is better. For instance we can’t fully grasp God’s never-ending, ever-flowing, unconditional love for us. It’s like trying to comprehend the infinite nature of the cosmos — a concept the human mind can’t ever completely understand. God’s love is over-the-top and unending and more than we could possibly ever ask for or imagine or deserve. God’s love is not in limited supply or available for a limited time only. God’s capacity to love is a metaphor of more.

And the same idea of abundance encompasses the realm of prayer. It blows the mind to think that God is in relationship with and responsive to every single person in the entire world at the same time. That is some serious multitasking. I mean, I get distracted if I try to check my email while I’m on a conference call — not that I ever do that if I’m on a conference call with any of you. But you can think of God’s capacity for relationship as a kind of miraculous unlimited bandwidth. The more users, the better the service, not worse.

One of the abiding Scriptural images of God’s kingdom is the heavenly banquet. A feast where all our needs are met and satisfied in stunning fashion. But I envision this more as a table to which everyone is invited, not a table where the select few gorge themselves into a food coma while the rest gather up the crumbs that fall from the table. More means more for all. And we see that faith itself, the very notion of belief in God, is based upon a model not of scarcity but abundance.

So how much faith do you actually need? Not that you can really quantify it, but Jesus tells us that a little goes a long way. That we already have all that we need. That the faith of the tiny mustard seed, an ancient metaphor for smallness, is enough. And isn’t that good news? It means that we can stop the commodification of faith, we can stop the pursuit of “more” faith and work with what we have. And, despite our faith insecurities — ‘I’m terrible at praying, I’m not faithful enough’ — and despite our faith guilt — ‘I really need to get to church more often, I never make time to pray’ — we have all the faith we need. That was conveyed to us through the water of baptism, the water of indelible relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of tapping into it and nurturing it and allowing it to flourish, something we all seek to do through our involvement in and with the community of St. John’s.

So how does faith manifest itself if it’s not about quantity? Faith is realized primarily when you reach out to Jesus. The simple act of reaching toward the divine, even if you don’t know why you’re doing so or you’re not sure of the “right way” to do so, is an act of faith. When you reach beyond yourself, when you recognize you can’t do everything on your own (and you most certainly cannot), you are being faithful. Being here this morning is an act of faith whether you came here willingly and joyfully and intentionally or out of habit or whether you’re here grudgingly and under duress. It doesn’t matter because you’re here. And that only takes a small amount of faith.

The thing is, faith is most often realized in small, everyday acts. I think this is where we get hung up and start feeling unworthy. We hear about “faith that moves mountains” and we get frustrated when our faith can’t even seem to move to the next room. Or we hear that old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and we think, that’s nice, but my faithfulness feels not so much “great” as rather mediocre. And I’m convinced, this is why Jesus brings us back to the mustard seed; to remind us that faith is so often found not in the large things, but in the small ones.

Let’s be honest; sometimes the demands of the Christian life can feel overwhelming, like an impossible ideal. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be merciful, give away your possessions, feed the poor, etc, etc. Living up to such lofty ideals of faith can feel like an impossible proposition. It’s not easy stuff and we all stumble on a daily basis.

And maybe this is what the disciples were experiencing. Maybe their words weren’t so much asking Jesus to supersize their faith as much as they were a simple plea to help them with it. Maybe they needed some bucking up in the face of feeling unworthy in their faith. That even after leaving family and friends to follow him, the demands were just too much for ordinary people. And sometimes we need the same reassurances.

I do think we over-complicate things sometimes; we forget the lesson of the tiny mustard seed. Remember, when it all seems so hard and complicated, Jesus distills everything down to the basics: love God, love neighbor. That’s it. So you can think of the small ways in which you do just that and you start to see ways in which you are already exercising your faith in remarkable, if small, ways.

You only need a little bit of faith. And the good news is that you already have all the faith you will ever need.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 25, 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Once upon a time, when I was a fraternity pledge, one of the brothers came up to a group of us and demanded to know the lyrics to the song “Louie, Louie.” We had one hour to present them. Or else…well I don’t know what, but something bad. Now, if you know the song, which has been played by every garage band that ever played in a fraternity basement, you know that the lyrics are unintelligible. I mean, nobody has any idea what they say beyond “Louie, Louie” and “we gotta go” and “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This was before the magic of the internet, of course, so 10 of us crammed into a dorm room, played the cassette over and over again, and argued about the lyrics. Little did we know that it really didn’t matter; that we’d been sent on a fool’s errand. Not only did no living person, including the lead singer, have any clue what the lyrics really were but by the time we presented our interpretation to the brother in question, he’d forgotten he’d even asked us in the first place. Such was life as a pledge in the Delt house at Tufts University.

I thought about this for the first time in years as I read through and reflected on the lessons appointed for this morning. The gospel passage from Luke in particular, this peculiar parable about the rich man who is condemned to eternal damnation and the poor man who is carried away by angels into heaven. Their earthly lives were as diametrically opposed as their everlasting fates. At the end of the reading the rich man pleads to have the poor man, whose name was Lazarus, return to earth and warn the rich man’s brothers to turn their lives around so they don’t also end up, like him, in the place of torment. To which the reply comes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In other words, they have been warned over and over again about changing their ways and behaving differently towards the less fortunate. And they simply will not listen; they refuse to heed the call to a life of compassion. You could send Jesus Christ himself and they would rebuff him too, in favor of self-justification and comfort.

For some reason, I couldn’t get the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence” out of 5a824a200fcdcb8a68d1ef78d314ef0fmy head as I sat with this passage. In particular, the line about that sign that said, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls. And whispered in the sounds of silence.” The “words of the prophets.” Like the rich man in this story, like the Israelites time and time again, we so often ignore the words of the prophets.

Often we ignore them because they’re not the messages we want to hear. They may be challenging or off-putting. They may be messages from the margins of society; messages that advocate for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless; messages that tell us that black lives do indeed matter. The prophetic voice is not a mainstream voice. It often shines a light into areas that, all things being equal, we’d rather not see. Out of sight, out of mind, under the rug. It’s the voice of the prophet Amos, a powerful voice for social justice that we’ve heard the past two Sundays. There’s a note of warning in this morning’s reading to the rich and powerful that continues the prophet’s harsh words about those who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor.”

Why didn’t this rich man heed the warnings of Moses and the prophets? Probably because it would have forced him to look in the mirror and make some lifestyle changes. And when you’re living high on the hog, why would you possibly want to change anything? Why would you want to make sacrifices to help others at the risk of losing some of your own authority or wealth or comfort? Well, you probably wouldn’t. And so you ignore messages to scale back or readjust or give back or repent. And you do so, according to Jesus, at the loss of your very soul.

The point of this parable isn’t to condemn the wealthy — as Father Noah reminded us last week “God doesn’t hate the rich.” But it is to highlight the evil in our self-centered lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters. Apathy or indifference to those in need is sinful. Ignoring those who stand begging outside our proverbial gates distances us from God. And this story reminds us that what we see and how we respond in this world impacts our standing in the world to come.

The rich man wasn’t damned because he was wealthy or because he wore fancy clothes or lived in a mansion. He wasn’t damned because he lived in luxury and dined sumptuously. He was damned because he wouldn’t even look at the poor man who lived in abject poverty outside his very gates. He wouldn’t even look at the pile of dirty, smelly rags he considered inhuman; an ugly “thing” rather than a fellow child of God, a human being made in the image of God.

Those who originally heard this parable would have been shocked. They assumed that blessings in this life were signs of God’s favor while poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure. Beggars didn’t get to heaven, while rich men were assured priority seating at the heavenly banquet.

Do we believe in the hidden world of righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy? Or do we put our hope in the fleeting pleasures of worldly wealth? This is the choice that is set before us. Just as much as the choice proffered last week between serving God and wealth.
Like the words of Louie, Louie, the sound of silence can be interpreted in multiple ways. It’s easy enough to use silence as a false sense of security. Burying your head in the sand certainly brings about silence. Despite the warnings, despite the words of the prophets, it’s easy enough to ignore them. Hear no evil, see no evil.

Yet there’s another approach to silence, a spiritual embrace of silence that isn’t about ignorance but listening. Prayer is the Christian disciple’s sound of silence. It’s a silence that troubles the water; a silence that allows us to hear the cries of the distressed and downtrodden and voiceless; a silence that opens the heart in gratitude and thanksgiving and compassion. A silence that can’t help but lead to action in the name of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to enter into this sound of silence that is prayer and reflect upon the messages you may be ignoring. They may indeed be written on subway walls or tenement halls. But mostly, they’re written on your heart. And it takes prayerful silence to hear and interpret them. May God be with you, and all of us, in that sound of silence.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 11, 2016 (Proper 19, Year C)

When I was in high school, a small group of us would often gather on the roof of my friend Matt’s apartment building in Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure we were allowed up there, but to gain access we had to travel up a sketchy, poorly-lit staircase that led to an old, battered door. A few furtive glances to make sure no one was looking, you know just in case, and suddenly we had again attained access to our urban refuge. Nothing illicit went on up there, though we did haul up a hibachi at one point.

But what was so striking about this special retreat was the view. The building, you see, was67906-050-cb0f6f1f-420x280 on the last street in Brooklyn Heights. It overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River and it offered a panoramic view of lower Manhattan. You could see the Statue of Liberty, South Street Seaport, and, most prominently, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I will always cherish the memories of being up on that rooftop, laughing with good friends and discussing life, as the sun set over that stunning skyline.

I’ve been thinking about that view and reflecting on the gift of perspective this week. Because today is a funny mixture of joy and anticipation and excitement as we return to the fall routine and embrace what we call Homecoming Sunday. It is such a joy to reconnect with familiar faces and welcome new ones; to hear the full choir return in all its musical glory; soon we’ll watch the children march in from Sunday School — one of the great highlights of Sunday morning at St. John’s. But given that this is the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it’s also tinged with a nagging sense of despair that exists just below the surface, at least for many of us.

Like a skyline, our perspective changes over time. Buildings are erected and razed, morning breaks and the sun sets. The view changes sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A skyline indelibly linked to the prosperity and confidence of a nation morphs into a symbol of humanity and vulnerability.

The story of the golden calf from Exodus reminds us just how easy it is to run after idols and false gods. You remember the story — Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai to get the 10 Commandments and he was gone for a pretty long time, the ubiquitous “40 days and 40 nights.” Out of fear that he wouldn’t return and that they’d be abandoned in the wilderness, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make for them a calf of gold to worship in place of God.

It’s a familiar human sin; the temptation is so strong to put our faith in things that are fleeting. Like money or the allure of success or tall buildings; seemingly impenetrable symbols of strength and stability. And that can work for awhile. At least until it suddenly doesn’t; and our perspective changes once again.

Homecoming Sunday helps us to keep our lives in perspective. It helps us to be reminded that our faith is what matters and that everything else will pass away. Because by being here this morning and committing yourself to your faith in a tangible way, you are playing an active role in the narrative of perspective. You are claiming faith as an integral piece of your perspective on life. You are opening yourself to the counter narrative of love and hope in a sinful, broken, and overcommitted world. And while I commend you for it, God loves you for being here, for answering the divine call, and for seeking to follow Jesus in ever deepening ways.

Now, I’m not unaware that we hear the Parable of the Lost Sheep on Homecoming Sunday. I didn’t plan it this way, that’s just how the three-year lectionary cycle of readings lined up. If you haven’t been to church for awhile you may think Jesus is speaking directly to you; that you alone are the single sheep that has strayed. You’re not. And if you’ve been coming all summer, you may feel like one of the 99. You haven’t wandered away, you’ve endured those July and August sweat-fests, you’ve been faithful in your attendance, you’ve received spiritual nourishment, and that’s great. But in some ways today, as the name implies, today is a time to welcome home those who may have strayed just a bit. We’re not changing the name from Homecoming Sunday to Lost Sheep Sunday — bad marketing. But we are delighted to welcome those who haven’t been here in a while and it’s great to get everything cranked up again.

Yet in a very real sense, wherever we’ve been this summer, whether here or elsewhere or nowhere on Sunday mornings, we are all that single lost sheep. There’s a vulnerability that comes from acknowledging that we, too, are the lost sheep. And this has absolutely nothing to do with church attendance. We all fall away, we all lose our way, we all go astray. That’s the nature of humanity’s relationship with God — the story of the Israelites and the golden calf is our story. And it’s why Jesus calls after us again and again. Like that lost sheep of the parable, Jesus actively comes searching for us. He doesn’t just say, “Whatever. I have 99 other sheep.” Which, practically speaking, would have been the much more prudent course. It’s risky to go after the one when you have 99 others to tend to. But we worship a risk-taking Lord. One who never writes us off but rather pencils us into his very heart and never, ever lets us go.

That’s the miracle of faith: that God in Christ yearns deeply for you. You! Whoever you are, whatever you have done or failed to do, Jesus yearns for you and seeks after you like the Good Shepherd who goes to the ends of the earth to track down his single lost sheep.

Thinking about that view from the rooftop of my friend’s place in Brooklyn, I realized that on that day 15 years ago, a certain perspective had been irrevocably altered; partly because a dominating piece of the skyline had fallen, but mostly because our sense of invincibility had been toppled along with it. What we see with our own eyes is not the full extent of reality. So often, what we hold up as idols of strength and stability are fleeting. And we are reminded that God is the only permanent fixture of our lives; that we can rely on nothing we build with our own hands or create out of our own sense of self. Everything that is earthly will pass away. Everything. No matter how tall or how wide, no matter the cost or the beauty. And what remains is our relationship with God, our relationship with the eternal ruler of all creation. That is the bedrock upon which all else stands. And I am delighted you are here to recapture and recommit to the divine perspective.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 28, 2016 (Proper 17, Year C)

One of the things churches take very seriously is the whole notion of the Sunday morning welcome. We have ushers and greeters and newcomers’ packets and welcome tables during coffee hour. Recognizing that walking into a church for the first time can be intimidating, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making visitors feel welcome.

Now some parishes do this better than others. I’ve personally had every experience from being completely and utterly ignored to being treated like a minor celebrity. There’s a fine line between genuinely feeling as if people are glad you’re there and feeling as if the congregation is simply desperate for new blood — in a vampire, blood-sucking kind of way. As I like to tell people on our newcomer’s committee, there’s a fine line between “welcoming” and “stalking.”

But this whole idea of welcome isn’t simply a veneer of good manners. And hopefully it’s not just the adoption of certain best practices from the hospitality industry, as passed on through the filter of church growth consultants.

Rather, if it’s authentic and not just self-serving, welcoming the stranger is a spiritual endeavor. We hear much about this topic in the Bible. The people of Israel are reminded again and again to treat the aliens who reside in their lands with dignity and respect. God reminds them that they, too, were once aliens in a foreign land when they lived in the land of Egypt. And it is a Scriptural mandate modeled by Jesus himself, over and over again. We don’t get to choose who shows up but we do have a choice in how they’re treated once they arrive.

Given this emphasis on welcoming, you can understand how shocked my friend Laurie was last Saturday when she awoke to find graffiti all over the front doors of her church in Lexington, Kentucky. Now to set this in context, remember that down South there’s no great dividing line between pre and post-Labor Day. Things are in full swing down there. Vacations are over, school has started, everybody’s already back in the fall routine. In fact, at St. Michael’s where Laurie is the rector, they had a big Sunday planned with a service to welcome all the entering students from the University of Kentucky. It would be like me waking up the morning before Homecoming Sunday to find graffiti all over the doors and the front driveway. In other words, this wasn’t some lightly attended August Sunday in New England (glad you’re all here by the way, and it’s great to be back).

Now, Laurie texted me photos of the graffiti. And I assure you, this wasn’t just your garden variety, colorfully creative 1970’s New York City subway graffiti. This was crude, hateful stuff that invoked the political, the satanic, and the, um, anatomical. So what do you about this? Well, the first thing you do is alert the parish and suddenly power washers appear and chemicals you didn’t even know they sold at Home Depot show up and there’s a whole group of parishioners cleaning and scrubbing and washing away the hate. In several hours it’s all gone, with nary a trace left.

GodIsLoveWhich is great. Except that the emotional scars of hate-speech scrawled across the entrance to your sacred space remain etched in the community’s consciousness. And I love what Laurie did the next day. She amassed several buckets of sidewalk chalk and, as part of the liturgy, she invited everyone outside to cover the sidewalk and driveway with messages of God’s love. Parishioners of all ages expressed their own responses through words and art to the hate that just 24 hours before had been scribbled all over the front of their church.

To me, this is what faith is all about. It’s not about ignoring hateful rhetoric but responding in love. It’s not about being reactionary in the face of evil but being proactive in the name of God. It’s not about rejecting others but accepting them as fellow children of God.

As Laurie said to the news media when they inevitably showed up, “The vandalism is not the story. That’s a part of it. The end of the story is always love in the Christian faith. When people send out into the world hate and violence, our responsibility is to respond with love.”

In a lot of ways, this is why it’s so important to welcome strangers. We never know where people are in their respective journeys or what they’re going through. As we heard this morning in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It’s the whole idea of treating one another as if we are encountering Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed when he says, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” So we see again and again that welcoming the stranger is not just about being polite, it’s about being a Christian.

And we can’t pick and choose who to welcome. We can’t only welcome people who look like us or act like us or talk like us. That’s too easy. And true hospitality is hard work. Think about the dinner party Jesus wants us to hold. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Every time we gather to worship, we are hosting a dinner party in Christ’s name. That’s why we seek to be intentional about our Sunday morning welcome. We fling open the doors and open ourselves to being transformed by those who enter. We offer them something to be sure — our understanding of Jesus’ love for us. But we also receive something in return as we become a more diverse and complete community of faith. The church as the body of Christ is not intended to be static, but a dynamic reflection of the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Two weeks from today, when we get that post-Labor Day crush and people scramble to return to the fall routine, I encourage you to be welcoming (yes, even if someone you don’t recognize sits in your pew). It’s not just the responsibility of the ushers or the clergy to welcome strangers into our midst. It’s up to you. Even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to reach across the aisle and offer words of introduction and encouragement. Remember, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby,” as we hear in the more poetic King James Version, “some have entertained angels unawares.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 24, 2016 (Proper 12, Year C)

One of the things that happens when you tell people you’re going to seminary is you suddenly become the ‘designated pray-er’ at all family gatherings. Thanksgiving? “Oh, Tim’ll say grace.” Christmas dinner? “We should ask Tim — he needs the practice.” Random Sunday dinner? “Tim, you’re on.”

This continues, of course, once you’re ordained. At most meetings I attend, I get “the nod.” As in, oh good, the professional’s here. Let him say the opening prayer. And while I’m always happy to do so — which is a good things since I’m, you know, a priest — clergy don’t have a monopoly on prayer. They never have, they never will, and most importantly they never should. Because if prayer becomes the realm of a spiritual elite, we’re all in trouble.

But I do find a profound spiritual bashfulness when I invite others to lead us in prayer. In a group setting I often get an uncomfortable shuffling of the feet, downward glances, awkward silence. Basically I feel like the middle school sex ed teacher on the first day of class.

In speaking to people about this phenomenon, the biggest hesitation people cite is that they’ll do it “wrong.” That they’ll say the wrong words or that it won’t sound like a “real” prayer. Sprinkle a fear of public speaking into the mix and you end up with the perfect storm of what could be diagnosed as prayer performance anxiety, or PPA.

The problem, of course, is that this misses the point of prayer. There’s not a right and a wrong way to pray. Prayer isn’t a magic formula or incantation. If you’re a witch and you’re trying to turn little children into, say, frogs, you need to get the magic words down exactly as they’re written in that giant book of spells. But that’s not how prayer works! You can stumble over words, you can sit in silence — it doesn’t matter. Because God already knows what’s on your heart.

So prayer is just a conversation; an acknowledgment that there is a force at work in God that exists beyond what we can see and control. And yet for as long as anyone can remember, humans have been intimidated by the prospect of prayer; of approaching a deity with whom they seek relationship.

This may be why the disciples take Jesus aside and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Perhaps the question was rooted in their own spiritual insecurity. These disciples were simple men, after all. They weren’t used to being the center of attention or being asked to lead others in prayer. And what Jesus gives them isn’t some long and flowery incantation. The Lord’s Prayer is basic and straightforward, yet it contains all we need to engage God with sincerity and authenticity.

If you break it apart, the Lord’s Prayer is brilliant in its simplicity. It begins by reminding us just who it is we’re addressing — “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It reminds us that God is sovereign — “Thy kingdom come.” It reminds us that God provides — “Give us this day our daily bread.” It reminds us that God forgives — “Forgive us our trespasses.” And so should we — “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It reminds us that evil exists but that we have an antidote in Jesus — “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”

So Jesus gives us a fundamental and sufficient and well-beloved outline of how to pray. But still, when it comes to prayer, it’s important to occasionally put relationship with God in our own words; to step away from the teleprompter, to go off script.

It’s like when you’re married it’s nice to recall your wedding vows, sure. But if you go through life together and all you keep saying over and over again is, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” rather than telling your spouse what they mean to you beyond the formula, you’ll miss an opportunity for deeper connection. And you may want to see your priest for some counseling.

Perhaps it’s helpful to make a distinction between public and private prayer. In the Episcopal Church we have a Book of Common Prayer. That’s “common” as in “communal” not common as in ordinary or pedestrian. When we gather as a worshipping community there are set prayers, gleaned from Scripture and the wisdom and practice of generations of English-speaking worshipers. There’s a poetry and a dignity to the words that transcend what we might come up with in the moment. That’s one of the major differences between churches in the liturgical tradition and those that are more free-form. And there are inherent dangers in both styles — the tendency toward rote and listening to the words without really hearing them on the one hand and a free-for-all of unordered chaos on the other.

There’s been a lot of public prayer this past week at the Republican Convention and there will be more next week as the Democrats gather. Between today’s gospel passage and the invocations and benedictions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, it’s a topic that’s been on my mind. One of the most jarring prayers I’ve ever heard — and this transcends politics — was given by Pastor Mark Burns on the opening night of the Republican National Convention. Did you hear that one? He talked about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as “the enemy.” Which is evangelical code for “devil.” Call me old fashioned but I prefer prayers that don’t demonize others, regardless of what you may think of their politics.

I was interested to learn that a colleague of mine, Steve Ayres, who’s the Vicar at Old North Church, had the opportunity to give the opening prayer at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He wasn’t asked to do this because of his political leanings but because Old North is the most iconic church in America and it was five blocks from the convention site. Steve was reflecting on this experience and shared his three rules for praying in public — something he’s often asked to do.

“1. Be as inclusive as possible in the choice of words and images. Pray so that anyone in the audience can feel comfortable saying “amen.” 2. Ask for God’s blessing, never God’s judgment. 3. Use prayer to help deepen the audience’s spiritual connections to God and to the world.”

He went on to say that “Pastor Mark Burns’ prayer violated all three rules. It was divisive and offensive. It cursed political opponents. It was shallow to the point of being unrelated to reality.”

height.182.no_border.width.320So what was Steve’s experience in 2004? I find this fascinating. He says, “The arena was only a third full. Most of the delegates and reporters did not stop to pray. I was background noise. The notable exceptions were delegates of color, who all stopped to listen and pray. A thought went through my head – ‘is anyone besides my mother watching this at home?’

“I began my prayer by inviting the delegates to walk around the corner to visit Old North and breathe in the patriotic values we enshrine. Few did. I am convinced that if John Kerry had taken the time for a photo-op at Old North, he might have won Ohio.

“I reminded the delegates that while Old North Church was famous for the two lanterns that launched the Revolutionary War, our fame wasn’t established until Longfellow wrote a poem on the eve of the Civil War that summoned the nation to a new battle for freedom, a battle we still seem to be fighting today. I concluded this short history lesson with a prayer that the freedom we enjoy be extended to all citizens of the nation and the world. I was then whisked off the stage, out of the dark hall, and out into the summer heat.”

And that’s how you pray at a national political convention.

Look, prayer takes practice. It’s referred to as a “discipline” for a reason. I’m never going to put someone on the spot and compel them to pray in public but it is something I encourage you to work on. Get out of your comfort zone — start by saying grace with your family or small group of friends. And recognize that any words you speak are simply an offering of the heart. You can’t mess it up. But you can be drawn ever deeper into relationship with our Lord.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 3, 2016 (Proper 9, Year C)

Okay, hold onto your hats. I’m about to talk politics from the pulpit. Well, not exactly. But in the midst of a fairly nasty and sure-to-get-nastier campaign season, there is one particular aspect of politics that seems relevant to our readings this morning: the advance team.

In a political campaign, the work of the advance team is essential, if not glamorous. These folks go from town to town handling the logistics for a candidate’s big rallies. The advance team scouts out the location, making sure the backdrop visuals are good. They set up the microphones and teleprompters, they figure out where to put the TV cameras, and perhaps most importantly they make sure enough people are at the rally so it looks good on TV.

When things go smoothly, no one notices the advance team. When they go poorly, everyone does. Just this week Donald Trump gave a speech in front of a bunch of garbage. The idea was to talk about economic revitalization but after observing people on Twitter connect the dots between the candidate and the symbol, I’m pretty sure the advance man in charge heard those familiar words: “You’re fired.”

One of my favorite stories about advance work comes from a time in my life when I ran lexmark1political campaigns for a living — you know, before I went to seminary. In 1992, a woman who at the time was the First Lady of Arkansas, was coming to town for a big pre-election rally at Lexington Market in Baltimore. The advance team was charged with setting up Hillary Clinton’s tour of the Marketplace but at the very last minute they realized they had to change the route. It seems they were planning to stop by one of the great Baltimore institutions, a sausage place called Polock Johnny’s. Now if you’re looking for good Polish sausage in Baltimore, Polack Johnny’s is your best bet. The problem was that people all across America who were unfamiliar with this Baltimore tradition, would invariably see only one thing: an ethnic slur. Not exactly the kind of exposure you’d want for the wife of someone running for President of the United States in the waning days of a close election. Some crack member of the advance team noted this and a potentially sticky situation, was averted.

I bring this all up because I see parallels between the mission of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus and the work of an advance team. Luke tells us that the seventy were sent out by Jesus “in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” So they were sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the townspeople for his arrival. They prepared the way for Jesus by pointing to him, and to his message that the kingdom of God was near. Like the advance team, they left town before Jesus himself arrived and then headed off to proclaim the message of the kingdom to other people in other places. As Jesus’ message spread, the seventy were integral members of his team and in a very real sense they were advance men for Jesus.

Now I’m certainly not comparing Jesus to a political candidate. He said some memorable things to be sure, but the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t meant to be a series of sound bites; Jesus wasn’t trying to get elected Messiah; the cross wasn’t merely a good visual. And let’s face it, if Jesus was running for office in modern day America, he’d lose. Big time. But he dedicated his entire life to getting his message of hope and forgiveness and love and salvation out to the whole world. And to do this effectively he needed helpers, laborers to be sent out into the harvest to help spread the word; disciples to witness to the power of God’s love for all humanity, followers to tell the story. And he still does.

Which is why we are invited to participate in this work as witnesses to God’s love in the world. But how do we do this? How do we participate in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ? Well, the first step is to point beyond ourselves; to proclaim Christ and not ourselves. Our job is to prepare a place for Jesus in our lives, but it’s not to be the messiah. That role is already taken.

For guidance in this, we can again look to the advance team. Because no advance man worth his salt draws attention to himself. He doesn’t step up to the microphone to speak, but rather he turns it on and checks the volume for the candidate. He makes sure the podium is in place and that the stage is secure. He makes sure the crowd has gathered, and then he takes a step back. There must be humility in this work. A humility that recognizes the limitations of the role. A humility St. Paul attests to in his letter to the Galatians. “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Essential advice for the seventy and essential advice for us if we are to truly and humbly serve Christ as fellow members of his advance team.

The next step is to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Which means enacting the words of Jesus in your everyday life. In how you act, in how you treat people and, yes, even in how you vote. Now, politically, we may or may not agree on what this means. I’ll just keep preaching the gospel of Jesus, but you must decide how that gospel translates into reaching out to a broken and sinful world. And then pull the lever for the candidate you think best reflects this vision. Even when your true answer may well be “none of the above.”

Finally, it’s about sharing your experience of God with others. This doesn’t mean going out two-by-two to knock on doors (thanks be to God). But it does mean being willing to tell people that you go to church, letting them know that your relationship with God is important to you, and that your faith is an integral piece of your identity. That’s it. We do our best to prepare the way for God’s entrance into the lives of those we meet, but we’re not asked to do the really hard work of conversion itself. That’s up to God. Our role, like that of the seventy disciples, is to participate by sharing the good news of the kingdom of God. We share the message, but it’s not up to us how it is received or when it is received or if it is received. Jesus takes it from there.

Of course, in a campaign, once the preparations are made, it is the candidate who must take it from there. The ultimate responsibility lies with the candidate and not with the members of the advance team, as crucial as they may be to a successful effort. So it is for us who seek to do advance work for Jesus. We point to Jesus, but we ourselves are not Jesus.

May you be drawn ever deeper into the reconciling work of our Lord. And know that your participation in it, matters deeply.  

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 19, 2016 (Proper 7, Year C)

Whenever we hear stories about Jesus driving out demons, we never quite know what to do with them. We tend to rationalize the demonic. “You know, they weren’t able to diagnose mental disorders back then.” Or, “That was a more superstitious time; this so-called demon possession is nothing a few doses of lithium wouldn’t cure.”

Or we relegate the demonic to the realm of fantasy. We think of The Exorcist — priests exorcist3mumbling Latin incantations, holding up giant crosses, and sprinkling holy water. Which turns the whole notion of driving out demons into a Hollywood farce.

But mostly we don’t know how to define the demonic. Is it a malevolent paranormal being like something out of Ghostbusters or an unclean spirit or simply a metaphor for evil? In some ways it doesn’t really matter, as long as we recognize a demon as anything that keeps us from wholeness. A force that subverts the wholeness of our humanity and serves as an obstacle to becoming the person God intends us to be. Something that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of the human condition by distorting our relationships with God, with one another, and with ourselves.

But we dismiss the demonic at our peril. Because while we have made great strides in psychiatric care, and exorcism isn’t part of my everyday theological tool kit, we certainly haven’t made much progress in eradicating evil. And that’s really what’s at the root of these Scriptural stories of demonic possession. Suffice it to say that evil is alive, well, and thriving in our world. The events that took place at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando one week ago are a bloody reminder that demons do indeed still exist.

Which makes this morning’s gospel passage about Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac absolutely relevant to our everyday lives. We meet a wild, unkempt, demon-possessed man in a story that is both striking and bizarre. He’s been tormented for years and has terrorized the local population with his erratic behavior. Shunned by his family and community, he is left out in the tombs, chained up like an animal. It’s not that his family want to harm him but they literally have no idea what to do with him. He’s become a menace to society and a danger to himself.

This is the man Jesus meets as he and the disciples disembark from their journey across the sea into Gentile territory. Actually he doesn’t really meet the man as much as he meets the demons. But he sees the humanity trapped within; he sees the man held hostage by his demons. He knows that deep within this outward horror is a creature made in God’s image. A man literally and figuratively being held in bondage by his demons.

It’s impossible to know what goes on in the mind of a killer. It’s been speculated that Omar Mateen was a troubled soul; plagued with self-doubt and questions of identity; radicalized, tormented by his own demons. Somewhere in that tortured soul was a human being; but the demons were not exorcized; the humanity was unable to break through the demonic. And 50 people, including Mateen, are dead.

It’s interesting that whenever Jesus encounters a person described as possessed, the demons themselves never fail to recognize him. It’s as if the mere presence of Jesus makes them nervous. They cry out, “What do you want with us? Leave us alone!” For all those who don’t recognize Jesus for who he is — the establishment, the religious elite, the respectable — the demons do. The demons get it. The demons understand that Jesus opposes their very existence and seeks to drive them out. In this story they cry out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

And this speaks to the profound truth that the great counterbalance to evil is love. Jesus knows this; the demons themselves know this. And deep down, we too, know this. Even if we don’t always act as if we do.

What happened in Orlando was evil, demonic. There is no doubt about that. The slaughter of 49 innocent people is the height of an evil act by a demon-possessed man. But besides the evil act itself we see that a single demonic act can unleash a legion of demons. In the aftermath of horror we have seen the demonization of those who differ from us. The demonization of Muslims; the demonization of the LGBTQ community; the demonization specifically of Latino gay men. The demonization of those who differ from us physically, racially, sexually, religiously. And this demonization has come from places and people that should be held to higher standards — our religious leaders, our elected officials, our politicians.

And yet, as followers of Jesus, we know the demons Jesus fought so actively and tirelessly to drive out: the demons of discrimination and fear and hatred and violence. Which means that until the world is a safe place for gay men and women who want to dance; until the world is a safe place for an African-American man to cross the street; until the world is a safe place for women to walk through a parking garage at night; until the world is safe for young girls to avoid being sexually exploited; our work is not complete. The reign of God that Jesus ushers into our world as the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is not realized.

We live in a sinful and broken world. Which is why the Christian witness is more important now than ever before. Your presence here this morning adds your voice to this witness; it helps proclaim to the world that the demons don’t win. That the demons don’t get the last word. Jesus does. And he drives them out not by fighting fire with fire; not in a hail of bullets; but with love and compassion and hope. By speaking the word and naming the demons.

That’s our charge as well. To stand up, to make our voices heard, and to name the demons. We Christians must stand up and speak against those who would use our faith as a means to oppress others; we Christians must stand up and speak against those who incite anger against Muslims because of the actions of a few extremists. We Christians must stand up and proclaim peace in a nation which has become increasingly numb to violence.

Ck60cwKUUAA4PchOn Tuesday night many of you gathered along with other members of the community for a Vigil for Orlando at Old Ship Church. It wasn’t the words or the music that mattered but our collective voices standing up to the demons in our midst. We can make a difference. Your voice matters. The temptation to demonize those who differ from us is yet another demon in our midst that needs exorcizing. If demons encourage our participation with the forces that seek to destroy the creatures of God, then all we can do is invite Jesus to be among us to drive them out.

Faith, hope, and love. These three. That’s what Jesus brought to the Gerasene demoniac. And it’s what he seeks to bring to the entire world. Until this becomes a reality, our work as a Christian community is not done.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck