5th Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 22, 2015 (V Lent, Year B)

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A couple years ago I was asked to preach at All Saints’ Church in Ashmont. If you’ve never been there for a service it is one of the true Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Episcopal Church. During the liturgy, especially on feast days, there is so much incense billowing you can barely see the person in the next pew. I think there were a bunch of people at the service but I’m really not sure since I couldn’t actually see the congregation from the pulpit.

IMG_1353But I could see the pulpit itself very well. And what I remember most is that there was a brass plaque on it — right on the lectern part so it was visible only to the preacher — that bore the King James Version of the words from this morning’s gospel: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” To a guest preacher, it was both inspiring and intimidating. A charge to preach the gospel boldly and passionately and with clarity. Or else.

Of course this statement should be the goal of every sermon — to make Jesus known to the people who have gathered to catch a glimpse of the divine presence in their own lives. But unfortunately we’ve all heard sermons where this doesn’t work out so well. Sermons that are more about the preacher than Jesus; sermons that are more platitude than proclamation.

When I was first ordained I created my own version of the reminder I encountered on the pulpit at All Saints’, Ashmont. by putting a yellow sticky note on the computer where I wrote my sermons. It was phrased less poetically, perhaps. And, although, it was inspired not by St. John the Evangelist but rather James Carville, the idea was the same. It read, “It’s the Gospel, stupid.” Just to keep me focused on the task at hand.

I think if we scratch the surface just a bit, we all have a deep desire and yearning to see Jesus. We can be pretty good at covering up that desire with busyness and activity and binge watching TV shows on Netflix and our addiction to social media and driving kids all over tarnation to get to soccer practice and ballet lessons and tutoring. But that deep yearning to encounter something beyond the visible world is part of what it means to be human.

Maybe a good analogy around here would be the many layers of snow that have piled up with each subsequent storm the last couple of months. Even at the height of it, with the MBTA spiraling out of control and our backs aching from all the shoveling and water dripping down the walls of the kitchen from ice dams and risking our lives every time we gingerly pulled out of the driveway trying to see around that six foot mound of snow — despite all that — we were all reasonably confident that there was grass under all that snow. Somewhere.

The season of Lent is a time to let some of those layers melt away. Yes, for us, this is a season of both metaphorical and literal melting but I’m really talking about the metaphorical melting this morning. For the most part. Because at its heart, Lent is a time to get in touch with your desire to see Jesus and to be intentional about seeking him out — through prayer, worship, and introspection.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It is all part of our responsibility as Christians to both know Jesus and make him known; to see him ourselves and to help others to see him as well. In Lent we tend to focus on knowing Jesus, on renewing and nurturing our own relationships with him. But that second part, of making Jesus known, is equally important and it takes action. Think about the events at the start of the interaction in this morning’s gospel. These “Greeks” came to Philip and told them they wanted to see Jesus. Philip doesn’t serve as a gatekeeper. He doesn’t judge their motives or question their standing in the community. He acts. He grabs Andrew and together they go tell Jesus.

And when it comes to making Jesus known to others — whether they’re aware of and in touch with that deep desire to know Jesus that is so often buried beneath the surface, or not — we also must act. That’s the thing about the church. Not just St. John’s, but the Church in general — we collectively gather to know Jesus and we are collectively sent out to make Jesus known. We keep one foot firmly planted within our four walls — to worship together and care for one another and deepen our faith. And one foot outside our four walls, to share Jesus with those who seek him or those who do not yet know him.

And let’s face it, we’re a whole lot better at keeping that one foot inside the church than dealing with that other foot. For many of us, our natural inclination is to keep both feet firmly planted right here on this hill. Perhaps we’re willing to tentatively stick a toe out into the community. Like we’re testing the water at Nantasket Beach for the first time after a long, cold winter. The tendency is to flee back to the safety of the sand rather than dive right in. But we can’t just stick our head in the sand and hope that people will find their way here. If we truly believe that to know Jesus is to be transformed, we can’t help but invite others to join us on our collective journey of life and faith. Even if that puts us slightly, or even a whole lot, out of our comfort zones.

Yet if this church, both locally and globally, is to survive and thrive we must get out there into the world. It is a gospel imperative, as I like to say, to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted rather than hoard it. But this means taking risks and trying new things. You know, I don’t write that monthly column for the Hingham Journal because I like to see that lousy picture of me in the paper. I started writing it the month after we moved here 5 1/2 years ago because I felt it was important to reach beyond our walls and give people a glimpse of what goes on inside “that stone church on the hill.” Yes, it’s now syndicated and runs in tiny newspapers all over the country — I’m huge in rural Iowa. But that’s precisely the point. Trying new things to get God into the public conversation and inviting others to come and see, is all part of living into our responsibility to make Jesus known to the world.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yes. Yes, they do. We all do. And it is our great privilege and responsibility to both know Jesus ourselves and to make him known to others.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

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

The summer before I started 8th grade, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. In a lot of ways this was a major shock to my system but in retrospect one of the most broadening experiences of my life. I went from a house in a suburban neighborhood and a school with a vast expanse of athletic fields to a row house in Queens and a school that was a thirteen story building. Goodbye carpool lines, hello subway.

One of the many decisions that year was choosing a church soon after we got settled. My parents decided this would be a family decision — sort of a small bone to toss the kids after ripping us away from all that was friendly and familiar and devoid of Yankee fans.

So over a number of Sundays we went church shopping. Since we lived in Sunnyside, just over the 59th Street Bridge, we started with visits to some of the stunning churches in Manhattan. We went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue and Grace Church in Greenwich Village. All impressive examples of church architecture with incredible music and clergy straight out of central casting.

Setting was important to me. We left a beautiful church in Baltimore with gorgeous stained glass windows and thick interior columns and marble floors; a place that oozed holiness and just looked, felt, and even smelled like church. But after going to all these fancy places we always left feeling like something was missing and would start plotting our venue for the next week. As we started to run out of ideas, one of my parents suggested we at least try the small Episcopal church that was walking distance from our house.

w_dio-directory-exteriorFrankly, I didn’t even know it was a church. It didn’t really look like one from the outside — it sort of blended in with the other red brick buildings on the block. No flying buttresses or soaring spires. Just a squat building with a little garden on the side. Entering All Saints’ that first Sunday morning was equally uninspiring. The floor was red asbestos tile — that was my first impression. And they had, horror of horrors for a music-loving family, an electronic organ. Not that there was a choir. The place wasn’t shabby, it just wasn’t my idea of what a church should be.

But there was something about the young, energetic rector and the welcome we received from the small and very diverse group of parishioners that brought us back the next week. And the week after that. Suddenly I was acolyting every week and my mother was singing in the newly formed choir of three people and my father was reading lessons and my brother and I made up half the youth group.

The point is that this completely changed the way I understood church. It dawned on me that it wasn’t about Tiffany stained glass or acoustics or silver chalices. It was about two things: the community and Jesus. That’s it. That’s what church is really all about. But it took a process of grieving the reliance on outward beauty to get to that place. It was something I knew intellectually — that church isn’t ultimately about the building or any of the external trappings — but it took this experience to learn it internally.

We often approach the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple with preconceived notions and it’s easy to foist our own expectations upon him. “See, Jesus got angry too — he’s just like one of us” or “That Jesus was such a rebel — look at him sticking it to the man.” But one of the major themes of this somewhat jarring story is what Jesus is saying about how and what we worship.

For Jews — including Jesus — the Temple in Jerusalem was the very heart and epicenter of their faith. According to Scripture the original Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BC. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments — the Temple was built and it served as the literal House of God. And, according to the renderings and models that have been created by architectural historians, it was a most impressive structure.

The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 when the city was sacked. After the fall of the Babylonian empire, a second Temple was completed in 515 BC. This one stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

This history is important because many Jews, including Jesus’ original disciples, couldn’t Model-of-the-Templeimagine worshipping God without the Temple. In other words, like me, those who worshipped at the Temple probably had strong ideas about what a house of worship should look like. And here was Jesus not only saying the Temple would turn to rubble but that he would raise it up in three days.

The problem with the Temple worship, and this was Jesus’ point, was that the Temple had become an idol in and of itself. And it’s understandable. We fall into the same temptation with our churches. We get attached to them. We love our sacred space here at St. John’s; it’s been an inspiration to generations of worshippers over the years; we’ve all donated time and effort and money to maintain it. And theologically, it makes sense — this is holy ground. And an incarnational faith encourages the embodiment of the holy. This space is sacred because it is where we gather week after week to encounter the divine presence. It is our Temple.

But here’s a secret: the Christian faith isn’t about the building. It took me a long time to figure this out. And it took Jesus’ followers a long time to figure this out as well. It was only in light of Jesus’ resurrection that they understood what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed on that day, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Oh really? came the reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

If Lent is a time to strip away the external trappings of our faith to focus more intentionally on our relationship with Jesus, this account fits right into the season. Now, I’m not suggesting we should ignore the stewardship of this building and let it fall apart from neglect. We need this special setting and it is indeed a sacred place. But if we spend too much time and attention on the practical at the expense of the spiritual, the balance can pretty easily get out of whack.

Yes, we need to have the roof shoveled and the ice dams broken and the snow plowed and the parish hall repaired. Yes, we need to pay for the boiler that gave up the ghost a couple months ago (you’ll be getting a letter about that this week). And as long as the church building points us toward God rather than serving as a distraction from God, we’ll be just fine.

Because ultimately we don’t need a building. We just need one another and Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2015 (II Lent, Year B)

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably don’t reflect with great fondness upon the Bobby Valentine era. When Terry Francona was unceremoniously pushed out as manager after leading the team to two World Championships, Bobby Valentine was brought in to restore order following the fried chicken and beer flavored collapse of 2011. In his one and only season as skipper of the Sox, Valentine managed the team to a last place finish and their worst record in 50 years.

valI’m bringing this up because one of the things Valentine did early on in his tenure was alienate veteran 3rd baseman Kevin Youkalis by publicly questioning his motivation and ability. The whole scenario backfired with Dustin Pedroia coming to Youkalis’ defense and saying about Valentine’s approach, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Well, it only got worse for Valentine and the Red Sox and the season quickly spiraled out of control.

In his defense, Bobby Valentine was probably just trying to light a fire under Youk who’d gotten off to a slow start. As a motivational technique, going public is risky business when dealing with the big yet often fragile egos of sports superstars. The big contracts can’t hide the human emotions that lurk below the surface. One size of motivation doesn’t fit all.

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus also goes public. Not through the media, of course, but by publicly calling Peter out for his behavior. I admit I’d never really noticed the public nature of this encounter. Well, I mean besides the fact that it’s in the Bible — the most popular, translated, purchased, visible, and, yes, shoplifted book in the entire world.

Jesus had just offered his disciples what Biblical scholars refer to as a passion prediction — foretelling his impending suffering, rejection, and death along with a veiled, incomprehensible reference to his resurrection. And immediately after this, we hear that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” So Peter was doing with Jesus precisely what Bobby Valentine did not do with Kevin Youkalis: Peter pulled Jesus aside to have a private conversation about the issue at hand. In other words, he kept this little chat inside the locker room rather than airing out his grievances on SportsCenter.

And for Peter, the issue was clear: don’t say such things about your suffering and death because a) I don’t want to hear it — the thought alone is terrifying and what will become of all of us and b) It’s not only dispiriting for those of us already in your camp, but also makes a lousy recruiting tool for those who are not.

But here’s what I never noticed before about this story. I’ve always focused on the private conversation between Peter and Jesus but you could argue that Jesus turns it right back into a public moment. Mark writes, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus said this loudly enough for the other disciples to hear. Most people wouldn’t whisper, “Get behind me satan!” It would be said forcefully and with great intention and conviction. And if that’s the case, why would Jesus seemingly publicly shame Peter? Why would Jesus pull a Bobby Valentine (which is a sentence, I assure you, I never dreamed I’d utter from a pulpit).

Well, for one thing, people already knew about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. His name itself came from Jesus when he said about Simon-Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church.” And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t actually calling Peter “satan” here but rather making his point with maximum emphasis and even shock value.

Jesus often used hyperbole to make important points and nothing could be more important than changing people’s expectations about how the divine plan would all unfold. Were used to hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion – we know how it ends. But imagine if you didn’t have a copy of that bestseller — the one that tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry? Imagine being drawn to this unique teacher and healer who simply said “follow me” and you had dropped everything to do just that.

Suddenly you’re part of a movement unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. You see first-hand the miracles and the enthusiastic crowds and the charismatic personality that draws them. You’re filled with hope that this new savior would finally lead your people in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors who had kept your community under foot for so many years, trampling you down economically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And just as events begin to move towards a great crescendo of expectation and fervor, this leader in whom you have placed all your hope and longing announces that he will suffer and be murdered. As everyone else stood around in shock, Peter alone was courageous enough to say to Jesus, “Stop! Don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious quality here — that if you don’t say something negative out loud, it won’t come to pass and if you do, it will. So just keep a lid on it, boss.

And the response is loud and clear: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s not a private message meant just for Peter but a public message meant for everyone — for the disciples, yes, but just as much for you and me. True discipleship is not all sunshine and unicorns, it is often a tough road; one that requires all of us at various points to pick up our respective crosses to follow Jesus.

We will all be crucified in some sense. Hopefully not in the literal sense — though this still happens in the world. Christians are even today being persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. Just this week we heard reports that ISIS had kidnapped and is threatening to kill hundreds of Assyrian Christians. And last month over 20 Coptic Christians in Egypt were slaughtered by the same group.

For us, the crucifixion can be of our own selfish desires; of our inability or unwillingness to fully follow Jesus with our whole heart and mind and soul; of our self-centeredness and inward focus; of our setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.

To deny ourselves and pick up our crosses doesn’t mean groveling or engaging in false humility or living into a martyr complex. It is about living our lives in harmony with Jesus’ message of love — love of God and love of one another. That’s the point. Jesus wants us to know the cost of discipleship and he makes the point to Peter and the disciples in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth remembering, I guess, that the Red Sox did win the World Series the year after Bobby Valentine was fired. They literally went from worst to first. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I can’t in good conscience use this as a resurrection analogy. But abundant life does await all who accept Jesus’ invitation to self denial and discipleship. There is joy and a victory parade of fruitful relationship with God not just on the other side, but right here, right now. And I invite you all to embrace it during this most holy season.

First Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 22, 2015 (I Lent, Year B)

Wilderness. The word alone evokes so many images and feelings; positive and negative, awe-inspiring and frightening. You can get lost in the wilderness yet it can also be a place of stunning beauty. At its root is the word “wild,” so “wilderness” derives from the notion of “wildness.” Which really means that which cannot be controlled by humans.

While we’ve all spent time out in nature, most of us haven’t ever experienced a true wilderness. A place where we are physically isolated with even odds that we’ll ever make it out alive. Or if we have, it’s been awhile. A true wilderness is tough to find here on the South Shore. Sure, you might get slightly turned around out at World’s End but keep going and you’ll eventually find your way back; or run into someone walking their dog. For a lot of us the wilderness may mean little more than spotty cell phone coverage. Or it might mean we’re on vacation surrounded by mountains or beautiful natural scenery — a sort of genteel wilderness with a rustic lodge waiting for us when we tire of all that nature.

So at one level it’s tough to relate to Jesus’ being cast out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. But at an emotional or metaphorical level, we all know exactly what it’s like to have a wilderness experience. There are times in our lives when we’ve felt alone or emotionally isolated or cut off from those we love. There are times when we’ve known the depths of despair. Times when we have been gripped by such a deep and visceral grief that we question whether we’ll ever be able to climb out of it. Some of you may even be in such a state this morning, doing your best to hide it from the world.

Yet precisely because of Jesus’ humanity and his experience in his own wilderness, can he relate to us and ours. Jesus never set himself above humanity but right in the midst of it; which is the true miracle of the incarnation.

Christ tempted by SatanEvery year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear the story of Jesus being tempted by satan out in that wilderness. In Matthew and Luke we hear the familiar repartee between Jesus and the devil: “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread” with the reply “Man does not live by bread alone.” Back and forth they go with Jesus being tempted by the allure of wealth and power yet not giving in to the wiles of the evil one.

But in Mark’s gospel, we get the trimmed down version. I’ve always thought of Mark as the Ernest Hemingway of the four evangelists. He’s brief, to the point, and in a hurry. There’s an immediacy in his words, the oldest and shortest account of Jesus’ life. When it comes to this story upon which the season of Lent is based, all we hear is that Jesus was “driven out” into the wilderness for 40 days, was tempted, and then the angels waited on him following the ordeal.

This gives us an opportunity to press the pause button and look at the whole notion of how Jesus ended up in the wilderness in the first place. It’s fascinating to note that Jesus doesn’t just saunter into it or decide to go for a weekend camping trip. He’s not a contestant on Survivor or just trying to commune with nature for a bit.

No, we hear that he is “driven out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. There’s a certain violence to that act, isn’t there? It’s interesting that the same verb used here is also used later in Mark when Jesus drives out evil spirits. So it’s as if the Holy Spirit possesses Jesus after his baptism and compels him out into the wilderness. And Jesus gives himself over to this divine possession, says “yes” to it, recognizing it is all part of his mission in the world.

All of which points to the fact that this temptation in the wilderness was an integral part of forming Jesus’ identity. It is only after this time spent in the wilderness that Jesus begins his public ministry. Something significant happened out there — something we may never fully comprehend — as Jesus comes out and immediately begins proclaiming the good news. And away we go.

The brevity and pared down nature of Mark’s account is actually consistent with the season of Lent. Mark strips away all the externals and gets right to the heart of the matter just as Lent is all about getting back to the basics of our faith.

A few years ago, I found a small wooden coffee table at the dump. It had layers and layers photoof chipped paint but the wood seemed to be in pretty good shape. We were looking for a table for one of the upstairs rooms anyway so I picked it up and shoved it into the back of my car. I thought I’d do some quick sanding and be done with it. Well, it was a much longer project than I thought. I used sandpaper, I borrowed a heat stripper, I used an electric sander, I used some sort of liquid recommended by the guy at Hingham Lumber. Then I launched a vendetta against the stubborn layers of paint at the bottom. Especially the ones on the legs. Eventually I got (most of) the paint off and decided the rustic look was exactly what I was looking for.

Like stripping furniture, Lent is a time to whittle down the layers of our lives that build up over time. The layers that distract us from the love of God; the layers that take us out of the habit of regular worship and prayer; the layers that make us lose sight of what’s truly important; the layers that cause us to be so self-absorbed; the layers that draw us away from living lives consistent with Jesus’ message to love one another as he loves us. There are a lot of layers that build up almost imperceptibly — we don’t even notice them at first. And, like those layers of paint, some of them can be quite stubborn.

But Lent is an opportunity to take stock of our spiritual lives. To take a step back and think about how our priorities might have gotten a bit out of whack and do something about it. The invitation to observe a holy Lent is extended to you today. A spiritually fruitful time beckons and I invite you to immerse yourself in this season or self-examination and repentance. To discover the true joy at the heart of renewed relationship with God. And to enter into the wilderness of this season not in isolation or fear but with one another, with Jesus, and with the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that is to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Ash Wednesday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)

The evening of my very first Ash Wednesday as a priest, as I was driving back from Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore to our little red brick rowhouse on Keswick Road, I remember having one predominant thought. It had been a long day with four very well attended services including a huge one at St. Paul’s School for Girls, a private school the parish had founded a few generations ago. Ash Wednesday is always a full day at major downtown churches as office workers come streaming in for services throughout the day.

baltimore-0643At first my one thought didn’t seem particularly profound or theological in nature. It wasn’t a reflection on repentance or the sinful nature of humanity. My thought was this: “I have never in my life physically touched so many people in a single day.” And I probably still haven’t.

I think Ash Wednesday, even with lots of snow on the ground and in the middle of school vacation week, is still the one day in the year that I touch the most number of people. I’m not generally such a touchy feely kind of guy.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the priest says as the sign of the cross is traced with a thumb dipped in ashes. At some level it’s odd that the one day in the year that clergy physically touch the most people, the message to them is that they will one day die. That was also part of my thought process after that first Ash Wednesday. That I had just told a whole bunch of people, including hundreds of young students, that they would die and that their bodies would return to the dust from whence it came.

But the thing about the Christian faith is that you can’t talk about death without also, literally in the same breath, talking about Resurrection. Ashes aren’t just flung at you. They are very intentionally made into the sign of the cross. The cross, that implement of torture and death that has been transformed by Jesus into an instrument of Resurrection and life.

And Ash Wednesday is not the only time in your life when you have a cross traced upon your forehead. At your baptism the sign of the cross was also made as you were “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Indelibly marked as Christ’s own. Not temporarily or for a limited time only but irrevocably and forever.

But this day reminds us of the stark reality of our lives — that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing partakers of this mortal life. We are all marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death — that message is literally in and on our faces as we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. The ashes are the start of our Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season there is hope. Through the promise of Christ’s resurrection, we will indeed rise out of the ashes. We will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday and be drawn into the glorious light of Easter.

But not yet. Because in order to rise, we must first die. Just as at baptism we die to the old life of sin and death, before we experience the joy of Resurrection, we walk this Lenten path. We strip away all the clutter of our lives and return to the basics of our relationship with Jesus. It’s not easy, of course. It takes the hard work of self-examination leading to true repentance and amendment of life. But Ash Wednesday is the window into the season of Lent; a season that is not all doom and gloom but rather a wilderness experience of relationship with the living God who invites us into an ever-deepening encounter.

And so the ashes, this very tangible and visceral evidence of our own mortality, draw us into the impending death of Jesus Christ. But through these ashes we are also drawn into the impending resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, new life to new life. It’s all part of our inheritance as people of faith. These ashes mark us for death but they also mark us for resurrection. We are marked for death, yes, but also for new life in the risen Christ.

And it all begins with a physical touch. An incarnational moment that stands as an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ love for you. A love that transcends everything even, and most especially, death.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Last Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 15, 2015 (Last Epiphany, Year B)

Enough is enough. The novelty has worn off. Just make it stop. Please. The snow I mean; not this sermon. People sometimes jokingly say to clergy, “Can’t you do something about the weather? You must have some connections, right?” And I always remind them that I’m in sales, not management. So I just want to reiterate that point this morning. I am officially washing my hands of the extreme weather we’ve been having. It’s not my fault. Call the bishop.

IMG_1218We’ve all been staring up into the sky a lot in the last few weeks. Watching in disbelief as the snow just keeps falling. Liturgically, we started this Season after the Epiphany by gazing up at a bright light in the sky right along with those three wise men making their way to the manger. And the season concludes with us staring up at another bright light in the form of the transfigured Jesus. This morning we hear Mark’s account of the story that appears in slightly different forms in all three of the Synoptic gospels.

It’s tempting to try and deconstruct this story and search for metaphysical answers or rational explanations. But that won’t get us very far. It’s safer to speak about it as a metaphor for the divinity of Christ and the Transfiguration is a manifestation and affirmation of the divine character of Jesus. But there are times when it’s okay to just stand back and gaze in wide wonder at the astonishing nature of God. Times when it’s okay to simply revel in the wonder of the divine. Times when it’s okay to just be in the presence of something beyond all human comprehension.

Let’s face it, we’re not very good at sitting still and contemplating the presence of God. Our minds wander; we get distracted; our phones buzz; we have stuff to do; the kids are hungry; the driveway needs shoveling (again); it’s not on our to-do list; we’re not monks or nuns — well, some of us are but most of us are not; time is money; the game’s on; Downton Abbey’s on; I have a headache. There are so many reasons we don’t have the bandwidth to still our minds and revel in God’s presence.

But holy contemplation is an important spiritual discipline. It reminds us that, despite everything else going on in our lives, nothing is as important as spending some quality time with God. It anchors everything else and helps us keep our lives in perspective; it reminds us that our anxieties and stresses are all relative; it encourages us to reflect upon the great stretch of humanity that has come before us and will come after us.

Granted Peter, James, and John weren’t having such deep thoughts in the moment. They were terrified! And you can’t blame them. Blinding light, voice from on high, visions of two long-dead prophets. The other-worldly nature of the whole experience was precisely the point. It was other-worldly because the fullness of God is other-worldly.

At one level, I have to admit, and this is a little embarrassing, but I have transfiguration envy. I don’t mean I want to be transfigured, but I’m envious of the three disciples who witnessed this event. I mean talk about wiping away all the doubts you’ve ever experienced in a single moment. Seeing Jesus all lit up in the fullness of his resurrection glory and taking the time to just revel in the wonder of it all would forever change how you experienced God in your life.

The good news is that we are offered glimpses of the resurrection in our own lives. Not as often as we might like, perhaps, and not necessarily accompanied by the drama of a bright light; but we do have such moments. I talked about this a bit at longtime parishioner Bill Austin’s funeral in December. I still miss seeing Bill here on Sunday mornings and thought I’d share this story.

The day before he died, I went to South Shore Hospital to be with Bill and his family, and while he was physically weak, he was quite lucid and very much still Bill. I thought I’d say a few prayers, give Donna a hug, and let him rest. But Bill had other ideas. He wanted to talk. And he asked me a question no one else ever has in the waning moments of an earthly pilgrimage. Bill looked at me intently and asked “What are some moments where you have experienced God in your life?”

And after taking a deep breath, I talked about what I like to call “resurrection glimpses,” times when we encounter the divine in brief moments of conversation or interaction. They often happen at moments when you least expect them. Sometimes it’s a feeling that washes over you, sometimes it’s in serving someone in need, sometimes it’s in an encounter with the natural world, sometimes it’s in an interaction with a loved one or a stranger. To me these are moments when the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into the visible world and they keep us going until that time when we will revel in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection in the age to come.

I’ve found over the years that these resurrection glimpses often happen in moments that, on the surface of things, feel hopeless. Like dying in a hospital room. Until you sit up and, like Bill, recognize the depth of love and prayer that surrounds you; and you realize that your family, even in their grief, will be okay; and you become aware of a deep and abiding sense of peace that allows you to let go; and you truly know and feel that the presence of God isn’t just pie-in-the-sky fantasy but something real, tangible, and life-giving even in the face of death.

These mini-moments of transfiguration really can keep you going when things are difficult. It’s no accident, Jesus was revealed to the disciples in this way, just before heading into Jerusalem for the Last Supper, his trial, and crucifixion. Amid the despair, they had that resurrection glimpse to hold onto; to keep hope alive amid the darkness. Just as we’re given this gift of the Transfigured Jesus to cherish as we move into the wilderness of Lent.

So, keep open to the resurrection glimpses in your own life. Look for them; they’re out there waiting to be discovered. Make room for at least a bit of holy contemplation. You may not get the bright light and voice from heaven but I guarantee you’ll experience the presence of God in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 8, 2015 (Epiphany 5, Year B)

There are times when you write a sermon and it flows seamlessly from one point to the next. Times when it becomes an integrated whole. Times when the poetry of the words blends beautifully with the theology of the text. Times when there is great synchronicity between the Scripture and the preacher and the congregation.

This is not one of those times.

I’m not sure if it was the cold I had all week or the realization that we are woefully understaffed at the moment — though I generally don’t recommend it as a coping mechanism, denial has carried me a long way the past few months. And then there was the burst pipe in Upper Weld Hall yesterday just before a major funeral which included three bishops and a whole bunch of nuns. But whatever the reason, I invite you to think of these reflections on this morning’s gospel as snapshots. Which beats the less forgiving term “disjointed.”

mrs-slaghoopleI do love this story of Jesus healing Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law on so many levels. First of all, mothers-in-law generally get short shrift in popular culture. Now, if you are a mother-in-law yourself, I’m sure you’re the perfect model — you never meddle in your daughter’s marriage or google all of her wildly successful former boyfriends in order to tell your son-in-law all about them. But think about some of the examples that first come to mind. Fred Flinstone’s mother-in-law, Pearl Swaghoople; Marie Barone, the mother-in-law in the sit-com “Everybody Loves Raymond;” Jane Fonda even played to obnoxious stereotype in the 2005 romantic comedy “Monster-in-Law.” Which I thankfully never saw but the title fits into my larger point.

Before I go on, for purposes of self-preservation, I should mention that my mother-in-law, Rosalie, is terrific. Even if she did live with us for seven months after she moved up here from New York before settling in a condo in Hull. Seven long months.

What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, but that he had a relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother. This relationship was such a non-factor that there wasn’t even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter treated this woman, to whom he had no emotional or fiscal responsibility, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. Sound familiar? They’re all dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry.

Now, at first glance this illness doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever. Give her some Tylenol and send her to bed. For us, the word “fever” minimizes the potential dire consequences of the situation. Depending on its nature and cause, fevers could be fatal in the ancient world. You couldn’t just go to Urgent Care and leave with a prescription for penicillin. So this was a potentially life-threatening illness that chicken soup in itself wouldn’t cure.

Unlike Jesus’ many public healings, it’s significant that he enters the home of someone so close to him. Peter must have been distraught to hear about the suffering of someone he loved dearly — I think we can all relate to such feelings. And Jesus leaves the public square to minister to one with whom there is a personal connection. A reminder that Jesus’ life and ministry isn’t just a good example for people in general but for you in particular. Jesus makes it personal here for Peter just as he makes it personal for you and me.

I have to admit that one reason I like this story so much is that it turns church hierarchy on its head. I mean, if we look to Peter as the foundation of apostolic ministry and trace the lineage of bishops all the way back to his being set apart by Jesus as the rock upon whom he will build his church; and if popes in particular are viewed as direct successors to the throne of Peter; then why exactly can’t some clergy get married? Peter had a mother-in-law! Which means he had a wife!

The stumbling block when we examine this story in a bit more depth is always that one line that sticks in the craw of us enlightened, modern folks: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Nice. So basically Jesus healed her so he and his buddies could sit back and have this woman bring them nachos and beer. I mean, if we’re honest, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, right? Where’s the recovery period? Where’s the TLC? Where’s the Saltines and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup?

But that’s just our own cultural filter. The story in context is actually quite progressive on several levels. Let me explain. Besides demonstrating the complete nature of the healing itself, so much so that no recovery period was necessary, it’s a powerful statement about the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Her act of loving service shows to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, can be disciples of Jesus. This wasn’t a given — no teacher would take on women as students or followers. It would have been scandalous! So taken in context this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. 

Nonetheless, we need to be very careful about perpetuating outdated and harmful gender stereotypes when we look at this passage. As much as we talk, truthfully, about the shame of not serving a guest in your own household and how her act of humble service honors Jesus and how it was a sign that her both her health and dignity were restored, the traditional gender roles need to be intentionally shattered here lest we fall back into old patterns by mere inertia.

Epiphany-6-Icon-Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-lawThe final snapshot here is what I see as an incredibly moving act of pastoral care. Jesus, we hear, came, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. That healing touch is both palpable and indicative of a larger movement. Not only is this woman lifted up physically but even more importantly, spiritually. She is raised to the status of disciple, as one who serves the Lord; again both physically and spiritually. It is the transformative moment of her life; she is forever changed. And we can be too, by allowing Jesus to take us by the hand, to lift us up, and to restore us to the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit that only comes through faith in him.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015