Second Sunday of Advent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 9, 2018 (Advent II, Year C)

Did you know, there’s a Christmas episode of the Flintstones? It originally aired on December 25, 1964, as part of the original cartoon series. In it, Fred gets a part-time job at Macyrock’s department store to help finance the family’s Christmas. Mr. Macyrock initially fires Fred for being his usual doofus self, but reconsiders when he learns that the store’s regular Santa Claus has the flu. Fred proves a natural at entertaining the children and by the end of his stint, Mr. Macyrock proclaims Fred as the best Santa they’ve ever had. 

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story. On Christmas Eve, two of Santa’s elves, named FLINTSTONES XMAS 2Blinky and Twinky, appear to Fred as Macyrock’s is closing for the night. They explain to Fred that the real Santa Claus is sick and they ask him to help deliver presents to children around the world. As Fred steps in to save the day, we see him perched atop Santa’s sleigh shouting “Merry Christmas” in French, Italian, German, Dutch, English, and Swedish. 

This is all very nice, until you do the math. And you think, “Wait a minute. The Flintstones took place in the Stone Age. That was two-and-a-half million years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” Fortunately, as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons, this encroachment of reality never reared its head. 

But as Christmas has become increasingly secular, it’s entirely possible to celebrate the holiday like the Flintstones: completely devoid of Jesus. You can celebrate Christmas without any sense of what it’s about or why it matters. Many of the people we know and care about do just that. They put up beautifully decorated trees and reverently place candles in all the windows. They gather friends and family for Christmas dinner, pulling out all the culinary stops. They revel in this most wonderful time of the year. This is all good and even holy in its own way. But, as with the Flintstones’ Christmas, there’s something missing. 

It is into this scene, that John the Baptist shows up every year. Well, not to the town of Bedrock exactly, but it’s impossible to miss the point of this season when John breaks into our midst. John demands that we set some expectations for this season; expectations that transcend the external trappings of gift giving and menu setting and holiday decorating. John insists that we remember the purpose and meaning of what we are preparing to celebrate with the arrival of the Messiah. John urges us not to forget what the fuss is all about. John adds substance to the flash.

He does this with grand pronouncements and with action; with lofty words as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who points not to himself but towards the one who is to come, John reminds us that it is all about Jesus. That the inflatable snowmen and your mother-in-law’s fruitcake and stockings hung by the chimney with care all must, ultimately, point to Jesus. Otherwise, why bother? It’s all empty; it’s all meaningless; it’s all a Flintstones’ Christmas. Nice. Pleasant. But, in the end, hollow. 

In this vein, John the Baptist stands firmly in line with the Old Testament prophets. This morning we hear from the prophet Malachi. And as John calls us to meaning in this season of Advent, Malachi was calling the people of Israel to meaning in worship. The people had gotten lax in their devotions, their rituals had become empty, they had failed to uphold the core of what mattered most: God’s relationship with God’s people. Malachi, like John the Baptist, was announcing God’s imminent arrival. And while this is exciting, it is not without cost.

That’s what Malachi is getting at when he uses the image of the refiner’s fire. With the processing of silver and gold, the impurities are burned away and something shiny and beautiful and valuable emerges. The same thing will happen, says the prophet, on the day that the Lord returns to judge the world. The evil that inherently resides in each one of us, will be burned away. That’s not always an easy process, indeed it is often a painful one. But the mercy and loving kindness of God endure. We are healed and made whole through the process. God’s entrance into the world is not something to take lightly, whether we’re talking about preparing for Christmas in our own day or looking ahead to that final judgment towards which the prophets point.

Now, the themes of purification and repentance and judgment don’t always make it onto your holiday playlist. No one’s hanging a cute refiner’s fire ornament on the Christmas tree next to the one of Snoopy in a Santa hat. But these are important themes for our spiritual preparation, as both Malachi and John the Baptist proclaim. During Advent we reflect upon both the first coming of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem and his second coming in great glory at the end of the age. He comes as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, yes, but also upon clouds descending. And it is our role to prepare our hearts through prayer and good works.

I guess the main difference between a Flintstones’ Christmas and a St. John’s Christmas is that we’re not just expecting Christmas, as if it’s merely a date on a calendar. We are expecting a Savior. That’s why this season of Advent is so important to our spiritual lives, why you are encouraged to be drawn deeply into it, why John the Baptist is making all that noise. Expecting a Savior means standing in the sure and certain hope that we will one day be set free from that which enslaves us. That the sin which clings to us will be burned off by the refiner’s fire of repentance. And we will be made whole, healed and forgiven and lifted up by God’s deep and abiding love. That’s what the impending joy of Christmas is all about.

Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore the external trappings of the season and simply navel gaze until December 25th. You can drive down Main Street after dusk and be enchanted by the twinkling white lights in all the windows; you can even head a town or two over if you want to experience some more colorful, flashing displays of holiday spirit.

But none of it has any rootedness unless you also spend time reflecting on the deeper themes of the season. When you do, when you engage in Advent worship, when you prepare for the arrival of the Savior with intention and great expectation, when you heed the words of the prophets, there’s just an extra jolt of joy that makes Jesus’ birth even brighter and more meaningful. 

I’m still not sure why Fred yelled out “Merry Christmas” rather than “Yabadabadoo” from Santa’s sleigh in that Flintstones’ Christmas episode. These are the things that keep me up at night. But in the end I’m thankful to Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, and Bam Bam for helping highlight what truly matters this Advent. Even it’s by pointing us back to the message of the one crying out in the wilderness, the one who bids all flesh to see the salvation of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018


Christ the King Sunday 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 25, 2018 (Christ the King, Year B)

A few years ago, we replaced the septic system over at the rectory. This was not something we held up as a cornerstone of that year’s stewardship campaign. It was not a glamorous project, but it was an important one. Believe me, it was an important one. 

When the work was about to begin, the septic company first dropped off the digger in front of the house and there it sat for a week while they tended to other, more immediate emergency situations. I got tired of friends and neighbors asking about the big piece of construction equipment sitting out there since, I mean, there really is nothing sexy about sharing the news that you’re getting a new septic system. So I started telling people we were digging a moat. That I was tired of parishioners dropping in all the time and I was finally doing something about it. I’m not sure anyone actually believed me, but it did abruptly end the conversation, as people just sort of backed away. 

I’m actually a big fan of moats — not because I want to keep people away, but because 100_14401they evoke castles and knights in shining armor and fair maidens and dragons. But mostly I think of kings and queens and kingdoms. Much of this is fantasy and fairy tale, of course, as there aren’t many kingdoms or castles around today. At least in these parts. McMansions, yes, but not  fortified stone castles with moats. We tend to leave those to the Europeans.

But on Christ the King Sunday, we reflect upon the reign of Christ, as we celebrate the King of kings and Lord of lords. Many of the great and powerful kings we read about in history ruled by fear and isolation. They enforced their will with armies and kept the populace at arm’s length by living in moat-ringed castles. 

That’s not the kind of king we’re dealing with in Jesus. His is a different sort of realm. And so, in thinking about Christ the King, we need to undo our notions of earthly kingship. Jesus’ kingship is not about the iron grip of absolute power. It is a kingship of invitation rather than coercion; a kingship of inclusion rather than isolation; a kingship built upon peace rather than fear. In other words it is a kingship that looks nothing like what we’ve learned about in history books or seen in movies. 

And so, as Christians, we end up with what could be called the “upside down kingdom.” A place where a king is born in a lowly stable, not a royal bedchamber. A place where a king is not King Midas-wealthy, set up in a fortified castle but a man without a spot to lay his head. A place where a king has not 12 armor-wearing knights but 12 unarmed apostles. Everything has been flipped in this kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last; where the king came not to be served, but to serve.

It’s why this interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate from John’s gospel doesn’t follow the usual script. For Pilate, a man used to being in control of such interactions with accused prisoners, things quickly go sideways.

He keeps trying to get Jesus to admit to being a king in the earthly sense of the word. ‘Admit that you claim to be a king and I’ll execute you; admit that you’re not and I’ll let you go.’ Over and over again he tries to force Jesus into a box that doesn’t exist. “Are you the king of the Jews? he asks. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus answers. “So you are a king?” “You say that I am a king.” It’s an impossible conversation because they are speaking on completely different spheres. Jesus speaks of an upside kingdom not of this world; Pilate hears treason because kingship can only be in opposition to the Emperor.

The reality is that Jesus embodies both a kingship and a truth that the world cannot comprehend. Which circles back to the very first lines of John’s gospel: “The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.” From the outside looking in, you simply cannot comprehend such a kingdom. From the outside, Jesus looks like a quixotic fool, destined for the death penalty. You can’t fight the powers that be and expect to live. From the outside, this “king” is put to a shameful death. Which should be the end of the story. Except that it’s not. That’s the thing about eternal kingdoms, they abide and endure in ways our human minds can barely begin to fathom.

One way to think about the kingdom of God is as a borderless kingdom. When we think about earthly kingdoms, we tend to think about defined borders. Most wars have been fought over questions of borders. One kings wants more territory, so he invades another king’s borders. It’s why those ancient walled cities, so fun to visit as tourists, existed in the first place. “If I build a wall around it, it is mine. And you can’t come in.” 

But here’s another feature of Jesus’ kingdom: it is a borderless kingdom. There are no walls keeping people out or keeping them in. And there is a certain freedom in a borderless kingdom. All are invited to the banquet table of the king. There are no guards keeping out the undesirables. Indeed those deemed unwanted by society are first in line to be ushered into this kingdom. 

This is yet another aspect of the upside down kingdom. In a world that prefers to put up barriers between and among people, Jesus tears them down. In a world that seeks to divide and separate us one from another, Jesus unites us. Which is why this kingdom, as unusual as it may be and as uncomfortable as it may seem, is a place of profound connection and joy.

This morning, through the sacrament of baptism, we welcome two more loyal subjects into Jesus’ realm, into this crazy upside down kingdom. And as they grow into the full stature of Christ, we have a responsibility to teach them about this kingdom. To show them by our words and our actions that this is a kingdom without walls and moats and defenses. That it is a kingdom of relationship, not rule. A kingdom of invitation, not declaration. A kingdom of love, not law. 

The question hangs out there for all of us: In what ways are we building this kingdom here on earth? In what ways are we reaching out our hands in love to help the least of these among us? In what ways are we doing our part to tear down the structures of oppression that exist in this world? There are no easy answers. Yet we owe it to Christ the King to do our part in casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is our role and our responsibility as active participants in this kingdom, rather than passive observers.

I do hope that in the coming years, parents and godparents and friends and relatives of our soon-to-be newest Christians will inspire their imaginations by reading them the stories of King Arthur  and Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel and all the other stories out there with kings and queens and princes and princesses. But most importantly, tell them stories about Christ the King, the Prince of Peace. Help them to see and know the stories about the kingdom of God. Invite them to build it with you. It is a lesson we all need to hear again and again and again.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Thanksgiving Day 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 22, 2018 (Thanksgiving Day)

As part of our Liturgy 101 class this past Sunday our gifted organist/choirmaster Buffy Gray spoke of her love of hymns. Now, it’s a good and joyful and presumably expected thing that a church organist would like hymns. I’ve never met an organist that hated them. Particular hymns, perhaps, but not hymns in general. 

But she loves the idea of people singing together in public, the way in which lifting our voices builds community, strengthening our connection to both God and one another. For Buffy, singing hymns is not about perfect pitch; but about making a joyful noise, which is something anyone, regardless of ability, can do. She also encourages people to pay attention to the words, pointing out that our hymn texts collectively contain everything we believe about God.

One of the things she suggested, which I hadn’t really considered, was delving into the context of the hymn writers, as a way to illuminate the words behind the music. For instance, some of the oldest hymn texts, written by the great theologians of the early church were written to educate singers about church doctrine. So they’re full of orthodox theology about the Trinity and the nature of Christ. If you look at hymns written in the 1920s and 30s they’re full of social justice themes, mirroring the needs of society. 

But Buffy specifically mentioned the background of one of the traditional Thanksgiving Martin_Rinckart.jpghymns. “Now thank we all our God,” this joyful hymn of gratitude that we just sang, wasn’t written because things were going well. It’s easy to be thankful in the midst of prosperity. Rather it was written in 1636 by a Lutheran minister named Martin Rinkart in the midst of war-torn Germany.

Pastor Rinkart came to serve a congregation in the old walled city of Eilenberg in Saxony at the beginning of what came to be known as the 30 Years War. Now, if you don’t remember your middle school European history class, the 30 Years War was fought in central Europe, amid a swirl of religious and political discord, and was one of the most destructive and deadliest conflicts in human history. Eight million people died through a lethal combination of military engagements, famine, and plague. It finally ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but not until after the devastation of entire regions.

Eilenberg became a refuge for political and military fugitives, an oasis of sorts in the midst of a war-torn region. But this brought problems of overcrowding, leading to widespread famine and rampant disease. Eilenberg was also invaded by various armies over the years, causing even more anguish and destruction for both residents and refugees. The suffering is hard to imagine, but when you read stories about throngs of half-starved, plague-ridden townspeople fighting over the corpse of a single dead cat, you get the idea.

Things were tough for Pastor Rinkart as he sought to minister to the people of his congregation and eventually to everyone in the besieged town. In the year he wrote his now famous hymn, there were four pastors in Eilenberg. By the end of that year, one had fled for his life and never returned, while the other two contracted the plague and died, leaving Rinkart as the only pastor in town. During the height of yet another diseased-riddled year, Rinkart was conducting up to 50 funerals a day and in 1637 he officiated at over 4,000 burials, including one for his own wife. With his tenure in Eilenberg paralleling nearly exactly the duration of the 30 Years War, he spent his entire vocational life ministering to others, barely surviving on limited rations, giving away most of what he did have, and having the soldiers who forcibly stayed in his home stealing anything that was left over.

It’s hard to imagine his state of mind in the midst of such despair and heartache. And yet, in the depths of such overwhelming sorrow, Rinkart penned “Now thank we all our God,” a hymn so full of hope and gratitude. Rather than a lament, he summoned the joy emblematic of a deep and abiding faith. And I find this remarkably inspiring, much more so than someone writing of God’s bountiful grace while surveying a Thanksgiving table heavy laden with rich foods.

Perhaps in those dark days, Pastor Rinkart looked to the prophet Joel for solace. We just heard from Joel this morning, a little known book of the Bible to be sure. And in this brief section we hear Joel proclaim God’s promise in the midst of chaos and destruction. “Do not fear, be glad” goes the refrain. “You shall know that I am in the midst of you, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” Hope in the midst of chaos. This is what God offers; this is what the life of Jesus Christ makes known; this is why Pastor Rinkart gave thanks even in the darkest of days.  

You know, Buffy is right. Knowing and understanding the context out of which a hymn such as “Now thank we all our God” was composed makes it even more powerful. It is a bold statement of faith, not just a nice sentiment about gratitude. As you gaze upon the bounty of your own Thanksgiving feast, I encourage you to think about Pastor Rinkart and be inspired by his story. While Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer, he also used this text as a grace before meals with his own family. Perhaps you will use it this way today. I could think of no better way to give thanks to our God “with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 18, 2018 (Proper 28, Year B)

When it comes to architecture, we like to be dazzled. It’s why people travel thousands of miles each year to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Roman Coliseum, the Taj Mahal. It’s why people visit the Empire State Building or drive over the Golden Gate Bridge or walk through the lobby of Trump Tower — although that may evoke other emotions these days.

But we are drawn to imposing facades and massive columns and dramatic rooflines. In exeter_ceilingthe spiritual realm, church architecture has long sought to inspire the faithful, drawing hearts and minds upwards with flying buttresses and soaring steeples and vaulted ceilings. Wonder and awe burst forth as we take in the great cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris, St. John the Divine in New York, Westminster Abbey in London.

In a world that can feel so fleeting, there is something tantalizing about an edifice that conjures the permanent; a sense of security in approaching a structure that has endured for many years and will remain standing for countless more. 

These are some of the feelings the unnamed disciple of Jesus must have felt as he left the Temple that day. “Look, Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings!” Now, at one level, he comes across as a small town yokel visiting Manhattan for the first time. Wandering aimlessly around the streets, looking up in astonishment at the tall buildings, getting in the way of the throngs of commuters. And it makes sense — this man was a Galilean peasant who’d followed Jesus from the countryside to the big city of Jerusalem. He can’t contain his wonder at seeing the most impressive building he’d ever witnessed in his entire life, and his words come gushing forth. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

But, still, his overenthusiastic reaction to the Temple’s splendor must have caused Jesus to do a face palm. He does that a lot in Mark’s gospel. Or at least that’s how I imagine it, as the disciples stumble and bumble their way through their time with Jesus; misunderstanding and misinterpreting and misconstruing his message again and again. They aren’t fools or foolish, they are just very, very human.

Now, the awestruck disciple probably expected Jesus to agree with him; or at least to nod in knowing appreciation at the splendor they beheld. It was so impressive! And massive!

Never mind that Jesus kept pointing his disciples away from worldly splendor and towards the kingdom of God; that he urged them to keep their minds not on earthly things, but on heavenly things. The allure of the big and shiny is strong. It dazzles and distracts.

So maybe Jesus didn’t do a full-on face palm but he probably at least sighed deeply before responding, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

On the surface of things, this was a ridiculous answer. An answer that would lead you to question Jesus’ sanity. There was nothing more permanent than the Temple, after all. It had stood for 500 years. It took 23 years to build. These “stones” weren’t mere rocks but massive slabs of white marble. The Temple was literally the bedrock of God’s relationship with God’s people, the beating heart of Jewish religious life. It was impressive and impenetrable and immovable.

Now, the Temple was destroyed about 40 years later by the Roman Empire. So Jesus was literally correct in saying that the stones of the Temple would be thrown down. But more to the point, through Jesus Christ, a new way of worship was raised up out of the rubble. One not dependent upon the corrupt system that had traded on the goodwill of people like the poor widow who placed two small coins in the Temple treasury. One that didn’t include money changers and religious leaders profiting off the backs of the devout. Jesus, himself the way and the life and the truth, became the source of divine relationship. In John’s gospel, after flipping over the tables, driving out the money changers, and accusing the leadership of turning the Temple into a den of thieves, Jesus proclaims that after the Temple is destroyed, he will raise it up in three days. An overt reference to his impending death and resurrection. Jesus himself, his body, is the Temple. Broken and raised up.

But still, despite all of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship and faith and love and humility, we retain much of that disciple’s initial response in our own hearts. We remain drawn to the big and shiny. Whether it’s the latest political savior or the bigger house or the nicer car or the prettier girlfriend or the better job, we’re rarely satisfied enough to enjoy what we have. The allure of the big and shiny is powerful. And that’s sad.

I’m reminded of that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — that’s the one where they search for the Holy Grail. Legend has it, of course, that the Grail was the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. In the movie, the Grail not only offered the promise of eternal life, it also held healing powers, which Indiana needs to save his dying father, played by Sean Connery, who had been mortally wounded by an evil American businessman who, along with his blond sidekick, was in cahoots with the Nazis. It’s all coming back, right? 

grail-hd2After they pass through the three tests, they make it to the Grail’s chamber, which is guarded by a Monty Python-esque medieval knight, who’s been kept alive for 700 years courtesy of the Grail. They approach an altar lined with a stunning array of fancy chalices of all shapes and sizes. The true Grail is hidden among many false Grails, but the catch is that only the true Grail brings life, while a false one claims it. The bad guy’s eyes are drawn to the shiniest one, a jewel-encrusted gold chalice, assuming the Holy Grail fitting of the king of kings would be the most impressive of the lot. Surely that’s the one. But of course it’s not. And after drinking holy water out of it, he rapidly ages and dies in horrifying Spielberg special effects fashion. At which point the knight deadpans, “He chose…poorly.” Indiana Jones has one chance to choose the true Grail and, as he surveys the choices his eyes fall upon a simple clay vessel, the cup of a carpenter. And, of course, “he chose…wisely.”

The scene, contrived as it may be, does help make the point about looking past the shiny facades of life to what really matters. The good stuff of life is often hidden in plain view. The relationships we take for granted; the simple pleasures that bring joy; the freedom to worship Jesus without fear. If this weekend’s Holiday Boutique marked the unofficial start of your holiday season, and I trust it did, I hope you’ll carry this message of moving beyond the big and shiny with you throughout the next month and a half. 

Look past the fancy facade to what’s inside; don’t be dazzled by the gleaming chalice, but look to the simple vessel of substance. That’s most often where we find Jesus. In the unexpected places. In the unexplored crevices of life. Seek him out. And even more importantly, allow Jesus to seek you out. Open your heart to the Temple of God’s presence being built up stone-by-stone in your soul. The divine construction project taking place within you is the most impressive structure you will ever encounter. Allow the humble carpenter to do his work. Assist him with his grace. And know that this holy habitation will be more glorious than anything you could ever ask for or imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

All Souls’ Sunday

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 11, 2018 (All Souls’ Sunday)

If I really drag this sermon out, I’m reasonably confident I can still be speaking by the time the clock strikes 11:00 am. Or, as it’s been known to generations, “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” It was at this moment 100 years ago that the armistice was signed ending World War I. The death totals from The Great War are staggering, well beyond what the human mind can even fathom. 16 million soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed during the four-year conflict, with another 20 million injured, often in gruesome ways. It’s difficult to comprehend the horror unleashed by the first full implementation of the modern military machine: tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas, artillery, and machine guns were all introduced or perfected to deadly precision in World War I. Not to mention the diseases that ran rampant in the trenches: influenza, typhoid, dysentery, cholera.

It’s no wonder the end of the war was met with such unabashed joy and that Armistice Day has been celebrated throughout the world ever since as a symbol of peace.

I came across a story recently about an Episcopal priest in the small Central New York town of Oswego, who kept in touch with the local soldiers sent overseas during World War I. The Rev. Richmond Gesner was rector of Christ Church and he regularly corresponded with a small group of servicemen from Oswego, who found his letters a comforting reminder of home. 

Corporal Arthur Ingram was one of “Gesner’s Boys” as they came to be known. In one cpl.-arthur-ingram-281x375letter to Father Gesner, he wrote from France, “About half the time, I have been in the front line, sometimes not more than sixty yards from the enemy.” He lamented that the “once beautiful wooded country” had turned into “a shelled, broken-up, muddy mess.” And continued, “Not a twig on any tree is alive, but the one link we have with nature is the birds. . . . the more intense the bombardment, the harder they seem to sing. They just sound great in contrast with the guns. When I hear them, it seems like a promise of peace.”

“A promise of peace.” I love that phrase. Set against the terrifying sounds of war, of human beings destroying one another, the songs of the birds hold out the beautiful promise of another way. I’m reminded of the passage from the prophet Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

And the contrasting image of singing birds as a symbol of hope is taken up in the first stanza of the famous poem In Flanders Fields, written by a soldier after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow comrade in arms:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row; That mark our place; and in the sky; The larks, still bravely singing, fly; Scarce heard amid the guns below.

As we mark All Souls’ Sunday this morning at St. John’s, Corporal Ingram’s words are also a reminder that Jesus offers us all a promise of peace. For ourselves, for our loved ones, for our world. 

It’s not a promise that things will be easy. Or that everything will go your way. Or that life won’t be full of challenge and adversity. But the promise of peace is a reminder that Jesus will be with you even to the grave and beyond. It is a promise of hope in the midst of despair; a promise of light in the presence of darkness; a promise of resurrection in the face of death. 

Grief is a sneaky emotion. We may think we’re over the loss of a loved one. The initial swirl of emotion has passed. The flurry of activity that marks the immediate aftermath of a death — the food, the planning, the friends dropping in — all fades. The looks of sympathy and words of comfort no longer come. The invitations stop and the assumption is that you’ve moved on; that life goes on; that time heals all wounds. 

And yet grief can creep back into your consciousness when we least expect it. It may be triggered by a stranger’s glance or a whiff of cologne or a change in seasons. It may be a sweet memory or a painful reminder of loss. But grief is also a marker that we remember, that we care, that the person we miss so deeply touched our lives in very real and meaningful ways. There is joy in the midst of grief, perhaps not when it’s so raw, but in time we see it. In tiny glimpses at first but then in the attitude of gratefulness for having had that special person in our life for as long as we did.

This is where faith can play an important role. Frankly, I don’t know how people face grief without it. The depth of despair must be unbearable. But faith is more than just wishful thinking. It may be comforting to think about your loved ones flying around the clouds strumming harps. But the life of resurrection is more than this. It is the blessed assurance that through faith in Jesus Christ, life is not ended but transformed into a larger life, where there is no pain or grief, but life eternal. This is the promise of peace.

One of those seemingly pie-in-the-sky ideas about death is that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones. In some cases this is comforting; in others, less so. But, again, this isn’t just something we say to make people feel better. This is the promise of peace. St. Paul writes in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book of the New Testament from which we read this morning, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 

The point is that this separation we feel from our loved ones who have died, is only temporary. And that one day, we will come face-to-face both with God and with those who have preceded us into the glory of the resurrection. This is the promise of peace. 

Today we offer up to God all those for whom we pray but see no longer. In some cases, the open wound of grief remains raw. In others, we have come to terms with the loss. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle. We often find ourselves along that continuum of deep wailing and acceptance. But in the end, grief is not linear. It dances and swirls and makes itself known in ways we least expect. If you are experiencing grief, be kind to yourself. If you are comforting someone you care about who is grieving, be understanding. But know that Jesus, the great comforter, remains with you. This is the promise of peace.

Corporal Ingram wrote that letter to Father Gesner more than two years before the armistice was signed. He was never to return to Oswego as he was wounded in France and died in an English hospital in 1917. But like all who die in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, Ingram lived his life in that promise of peace. And like so many we meet along this continuing journey of life and faith, he points to something beyond the visible, to that promise of peace that surely does pass all understanding.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

All Saints’ Sunday 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 4, 2018 (All Saints’ Sunday)

When I was in Rome this past June as part of my sabbatical, we hit the usual tourist hot-spots like the Coliseum and the Vatican and the ancient catacombs hidden beneath the city. We ate lots of fresh pasta, drank our share of red wine, and sucked down a ton of espresso — at least I did. One of the more unusual tours we went on took us down into the crypt of the Capuchin monks, located below a 17th century church dedicated to their order in the heart of Rome.

The Capuchins are a Roman Catholic monastic order established in the 16th century by a Capuchin-brothers-11Franciscan friar named Matteo da Bascio who believed the order’s leadership had drifted away from the humble origins of St. Francis. This reform-minded monk, along with a small group of fellow Franciscans, sought to rededicate themselves to the vows of poverty, obedience, penance, and solitude they took as Franciscans. For this, they were persecuted by church authorities who were none-too-thrilled at their implicit accusations of splendor. Matteo and his band of monks went into hiding after they were threatened with arrest for dereliction of their vows. But, in time, they were accepted by the church and the order continues to be active, with about 10,000 Capuchin monks around the world.

Somewhere along the line, the Capuchins started keeping the bones of their order’s dead monks and, rather than burying them, displayed them in the crypt’s chapels. That’s what we apparently signed up to see when we bought our tour tickets online. Now, at one level, this whole thing is totally creepy. There are chandeliers made out of femurs; there are stacks and stacks of human skulls; there’s a room with designs created exclusively from the pelvises of dead monks; and several rooms contain robed figures with their darkened skin still clinging to their skulls. It’s not exactly family entertainment. We won’t be adding a Capuchin room to our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House next year.

But at another level, it is incredibly moving to be among saintly souls in this way. To be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. To recall that our earthly pilgrimage is short and that we do not, in fact, stand at the center of the universe. To remember that we are part of a long continuum of humanity that has lived and died over the generations.

Perspective is a great gift, one that we so often ignore, unless it’s brought to the fore in tangible ways. And nothing is a more tangible reminder of your own mortality than coming face-to-face with the bones of thousands of dead monks. That’s precisely the point the Capuchins are trying to communicate from beyond the grave. Indeed, there’s a plaque in the crypt reads, “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”

But this point is also being made within the context of Jesus’ resurrection. There is hope embedded deep in the marrow of these bones. Because through faith in Jesus Christ we know that death is not the end. These bones live! Well, not the bones themselves but the souls attached to them. And so the Capuchins, with their unusual tradition, are proclaiming hope and resurrection to the world through these otherwise macabre displays. They aren’t meant to frighten, like some scary over-the-top Halloween display, but rather to inspire. But faith is the key to seeing the difference.

One way to think about this divide between the living and the dead comes from language that has perhaps fallen out of favor. The church has traditionally referred to its living members as the “church militant.” You and I are part of this church militant, an odd phrase to be sure. One that conjures images of military struggle. But I think the point is that being a Christian in the world is hard work; discipleship takes dedication and intention. We are striving to do our best as followers of Jesus while on our earthly pilgrimage.

The other piece of the universal church, known as the “church triumphant,” is comprised of the generations of the faithful who now exist in the heavenly realm. Together, the church militant and the church triumphant make up the fullness of God’s church; the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses that transcends all time and space. We are firmly and forever linked to those who have come before us in the faith — those we have known and loved and lost, the great saints of the church, and those whose names are known to God alone. As a Christian you are part of something so much larger than yourself, something that includes generations of dead monks and billions of people who have lived and died in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

I, frankly, find that comforting. Just as I find it comforting to worship in a place where so many have lifted up their prayers before us and so many will continue do so long after we are gone. And just as I find it comforting to worship surrounded by the great saints of the church in stained glass and statuary. Because on All Saints’ Sunday, we remember the great saints of the church, those women and men who have come before us in the faith and continue to inspire us from beyond the grave by their witness to the gospel.

So the saints, if we let them into our hearts, can be compelling examples of godly living. But in order for us to allow them to inform our own lives we also need them to knock them off their pedestals. Not in an iconoclastic, sacrilegious kind of way but by remembering that these men and women, like the Capuchin monks, once had blood running through their veins. These were real people who struggled with their faith in the same way that you and I, at times, struggle with ours. They were heroic because of their humanity, not despite it. So in a sense we have to take the costumes and masks and capes off the saints. They’re not Christian Super Heroes with super human powers beyond anything we could imagine; though they did often display a super human and heroic faith. And it is here where the example of the saints who have come before us, and the living saints among us, can support us in our own journey with the risen Christ. As long as we open our hearts and let them in. 

Today through the sacrament of baptism, we add yet another name to the communion of saints. Nolan McKenna joins us on the journey of faith, on the continuum of sainthood, as another member of the church militant, and as part of the great cloud of witnesses to which we all belong. And that’s a good and holy and joyful thing.

Of course, I wasn’t just in Rome to look at the bones of dead monks, I was there to do some research for my forthcoming book on the intersection of faith and coffee. What I learned is that when what became known as cappuccino was introduced in Italy, it acquired the name because the combination of espresso and frothed milk that makes up the drink closely resembled the color of the hooded robes of the Capuchin monks. So the next time you order a cappuccino, or see it on a menu somewhere, think about the bones of dead monks, take a moment to reflect on your own mortality, and remember that you are part of something larger than you could even imagine. You are a member of the communion of saints.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 28, 2018 (Proper 25B)

If you stumbled upon a magic lantern, and were granted three wishes, how would you use them? You know the kind of lantern I mean. Depending on your age, think “I Dream of Genie” or “Alladin.” The kind that if you rub it enough, the big green genie emerges and grants you three wishes. The possibilities are limitless. The only thing you can’t wish for, of course, are more wishes. Even genies have some rules and regulations.

For most of us it may be a bit embarrassing to realize what initially pops into our minds7f742c38d13dd92b91014a45ea45ad0c_genie-lamp-vinyl-decal-sticker-genie-lamp-black-and-white-clipart_281-400 when we’re asked the question about our deepest desires. Our wishes usually begin with issues of self-improvement or self-enrichment or self-preservation and only then do we begin to think beyond ourselves. Maybe out of guilt we reserve the last wish for something like world peace or the eradication of global hunger. If we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that our first instincts aren’t necessarily the most honorable ones. If you bought a lottery ticket this past week, dreaming of winning that 1.6 billion prize, you may have played out some of these fantasies in your own mind. And it’s fun to dream!

But before your genie wishes go to money or Prince Charming or a new yacht, I should mention that there’s a caveat to these wishes. I’m going to narrow the focus a bit and limit your wishes to the spiritual realm. Also, you only get one. Because this is my sermon and the genie is kind of cheap. So, what would your spiritual wish be? Internal peace? A conversation with Jesus? The gift of healing? An end to doubt? Maybe it’s speaking in tongues — though that probably wouldn’t go over so well here at St. John’s.

Over the past three Sundays, in our gospel readings we have heard people approach Jesus with various requests, as if he himself were some sort of genie. Two weeks ago, we heard the rich young man approach Jesus and ask him for eternal life. Last week James and John come forward asking Jesus to grant that they will one day sit at his left and right hand in heaven. Their spiritual wish is for glory. And this morning the blind beggar Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus asking for mercy.

Mercy is an interesting selection for a spiritual wish. One that likely wouldn’t be among your top choices. What does it mean to crave mercy? How do you even define mercy? There’s that game I used to play with my brother where we’d try to twist the other’s hand backwards until one of us cried, “Mercy!” That’s not necessarily what we’re talking about. Mercy is a word we throw around a lot in church and it’s all over the Bible. We hear phrases like, “the mercy of the Lord is everlasting” and “God’s mercy endures forever” and “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”

To be merciful is to relent. But it’s more than just stopping that which is painful. It is to acknowledge that a painful situation exists and then offering relief. It is an act of mercy, for instance, to help a person in need. Someone who is struggling emotionally or financially or spiritually. 

On a global level, mercy is one of the defining characteristics of God. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness,” the Psalmist proclaims. Full of compassion and mercy — to be compassionate is to show mercy, and to be merciful is to show compassion. Compassion and mercy are two sides of the same coin, pointing towards the reality that, ultimately, mercy is about love. When we crave God’s mercy, we are craving God’s love. The painful pre-existing condition that demands mercy is our own sinfulness, our unworthiness. It is into this condition that God showers us with mercy. Not because we have earned it, or deserve it, but because God’s loving grace is poured out upon us, made manifest through Jesus Christ. And so in seeking mercy, Bartimaeus is craving, is crying out for God’s love.

In many ways, the world is crying out for mercy these days. Just this past week, a white supremacist killed two African-Americans in Kentucky, a man in Florida targeted people he disagreed with politically by sending them mail bombs, and an anti-semite murdered 11 Jews and wounded countless others when he opened fire inside a synagogue. You can’t help but cry out for mercy when hate and violence shatter the sanctity of our common humanity. 

The Synagogue in Pittsburgh where yesterday’s shooting took place was called the Tree of Life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the image of the tree of life comes from the Book of Genesis. There are two trees named in the first book of the Bible: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That second tree is the one which Adam and Eve famously ate from, causing them to be banished from the Garden of Eden. After the fall, God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life, as they are no longer worthy for having disobeyed God.

The Tree of Life is an ancient image teeming with hope and possibility. It brings us back to the garden, to a time of unfettered joy and unity and abundance. And yet it feels so remote and inaccessible when the sin of hate and prejudice run rampant in our midst, causing pain and sowing division. Tearing people down rather than building them up. Destroying fellow children of God, people made in God’s image, violating the sanctuary of a house of worship. The Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally understood the tree of life as prefiguring the cross of Christ. But in order to get there, in order for us to enter that place of hope and glory, our own fears and prejudices must first be crucified and driven out. 

And it’s on us to stand up to bigotry and violence and cruelty when it rears its ugly head. To name it and to shine a light upon the darkness in our midst. We may not be able to control the external circumstances when the Pandora’s Box of hate is opened. But we can surely control our response to it, and react with vigilance when it arises. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a sinful and broken world. We pray, and then we stand up in the face of injustice and hatred.

And in the meantime, we cry out for mercy. Mercy for ourselves, mercy for the victims of violence and degradation, mercy for those who grieve, mercy for one another. We’re all in this together. Regardless of race or creed or religion, all of humanity cries out for mercy. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018