Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 29, 2016 (Proper 4, Year C)

The interaction between Jesus and the centurion in this morning’s reading from Luke is amazing. And I’m not just saying that.

There are only two recorded instances of Jesus expressing amazement in the gospels. The first one is found in Mark. Jesus had returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where he didn’t exactly get the hometown hero’s welcome, and we hear that “he was amazed at their unbelief.”

We get the second instance of amazement this morning as the centurion has second thoughts about sending for Jesus and asks a second delegation to tell Jesus not to bother. “Only speak the word and let my servant be healed,” he says. And Luke writes that “when Jesus heard this, he was amazed at the centurion, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’”

These are two very different types of amazement. It’s like the difference between me telling a friend that the concert I went to last week was amazing! And that the church meeting I went to last week was amazing…

But the only positive expression of Jesus’ amazement does make you wonder what exactly made this interaction so amazing. Certainly it was an unusual and highly unlikely exchange; an interaction that, on the surface of things, never should have taken place.

centurionThis centurion was a soldier, a Gentile, a member of the Roman occupying force. In other words, he was an enemy of the Jewish people; part of the oppressive regime that kept them in line, taxed them heavily, and insured allegiance to the emperor. There was no love lost between the typical Roman soldier and the typical Jew. The Roman army’s mission was to stamp out any seeds of dissent and nip even the whiff of possible rebellion in the bud, while the Jewish people dreamed of one day removing the yoke of oppression and regaining their religious and political freedom.

But there was clearly something different about the centurion we meet in this story. In a world of command and control and might makes right we see something in his character that didn’t fit the stereotype. First of all, he had concern for the health of one of his slaves. Most slaves were considered expendable; you certainly wouldn’t find an officer going to any lengths to save the life of a slave. So we see a mark of compassion here.

The centurion asks for Jesus’ help by sending some Jewish elders as messengers to Jesus. They ask Jesus to come and they basically give the centurion a character witness. “Not only does he love our people but he built our synagogue.” In other words, we’ve known him for a long time and even though he’s supposed to be our enemy he’s worthy of your attention. So we see a mark of faith.

I wouldn’t be surprised if people on both sides of the fence saw the relationship between the centurion and these Jewish elders as fraternizing with the enemy. It certainly raised eyebrows. The soldiers were clear about their allegiance — it was to the Roman emperor, not some obscure Jewish holy man. And the Jewish people were suspicious of anyone associated with the Roman occupying force.

So the first thing that’s amazing about this interaction is simply that there was any interaction at all. In asking Jesus for help, the centurion crosses all racial, social, religious, and ethnic barriers. And that’s usually Jesus’ job — he’s the one who’s always shocking people by eating with the “wrong” people and healing on the “wrong” day and interacting with outsiders in the “wrong” way. Jesus is the one who shatters cultural norms around gender and ethnicity and social class, tangibly demonstrating to his disciples the all-encompassing power of God’s love. While making a lot of enemies in the process.

And yet here is a Roman soldier — an enemy, an outsider — incorporating one of Jesus’ most radical teachings. One that the disciples themselves struggled with: “love your enemy as yourself.” And this is demonstrated in real life, not by one of the disciples or one of Jesus’ own people but by a Roman soldier who should be oppressing rather than seeking out the enemy.

So as much as Jesus was amazed at the hardness of heart and lack of faith displayed by the people in his own hometown, he is even more amazed at the openness of heart and the genuine faith displayed by such an unlikely source.

And perhaps he was simply amazed that someone got it. That someone — especially someone you would never expect — received his message and sought to live into it. That this soldier allowed Jesus’ message of love to break through the formidable lines of the Roman army and to break through the armor surrounding a soldier’s heart.

It goes to show that inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. That all of our preconceived notions are just that — preconceived, if not ill-conceived. And we see that no one is outside the purview of God’s amazing grace. Even those who, by all accounts, should be enemies rather than adherents.

You know, I’m aware that we’re hearing a story about a military leader on Memorial Day Weekend. Even though the Church doesn’t recognize this day on the official calendar, it seems somehow fitting. On a day we remember and pray for those who died serving our country, we also recognize that military service can stand in tension with Christian service — as someone who has served in both contexts, I feel comfortable naming this. There’s a reason many early Christians were arrested or killed for refusing to serve in the Roman army.

Military leaders are taught to both take orders — from those above them in the chain of command and to take the initiative — to use their judgment when the situation warrants it. Sometimes the acts of obeying orders and seizing the initiative act in tension. This story shows that in the life of faith we take orders — or if that word makes you uncomfortable — we listen to God and we also take the initiative by participating in God’s work. Life is a mix of contemplation and action. If we only sat around listening, we’d never get anywhere and if we only acted, we’d often do the wrong thing.

This is what I find amazing about the centurion in this story. He is both a person of faith and someone who understands his context. Our life choices aren’t always black and white. But when it comes to serving God we are invited, along with the centurion, to do so with all our heart and mind and soul. And with God’s help, we can do some pretty amazing things in the process.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Pentecost 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 15, 2016 (Pentecost, Year C)

Imagine, if you will, a box. It’s quite a large box. In fact, it’s so large that you are actually sitting inside of this box. Now, it’s not your average cardboard box. It’s a nice box, a fancy box. A box made of stone and wood and stained glass. You’re sitting inside this box with about 150 other people, some of whom you know, some you don’t; some look familiar but you can’t actually remember all their names. A lot of the people inside this box are wearing red, for some reason. 

Early on in your time inside this box, a colorful parade went past with a couple of kids redboxholding sticks of fire and others holding books. At certain, apparently pre-designated, points they stand or kneel or sit. A lot. Sometimes, with no warning whatsoever, they start singing. And a couple of them walk up to a big wooden bird and start reading.

Some of the people, the ones who were in the parade, wear white robes and one person prances around in a bright red poncho. They appear to be inside this box willingly; though, in fairness, some seem to be inside more willingly than others. The facial expressions of those inside the box vary. Sometimes they close their eyes, sometimes they smile or nod their heads or look very serious. All in all, they seem rather content, though it’s not at all clear what they are doing and why they are inside this box.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It’s hard to know what the first followers of Jesus would make of worship in the 21st century. They may well recognize it as some sort of religious rite or ritual. But would they connect it to their own experience of Jesus of Nazareth? Would they see their own passion for the words and wisdom of Jesus inside this box that we call the Church?

On Pentecost, we get a glimpse of the early church, and what we do on a Sunday morning here at St. John’s may well look just as unfamiliar to them as their experience looks to us. Because this Pentecost event is a little wild. There was speaking in tongues and loud sounds and general chaos. In other words, just like Sunday morning worship at St. John’s.

In fact there was such commotion, the crowd of onlookers that gathered to rubberneck even thought these followers of Jesus were drunk. Of course the gathered disciples weren’t drunk. Drunk on the Holy Spirit perhaps but as Peter points out, it was 9:00 o’clock in the the morning; not exactly prime time for engaging in those kinds of spirits.

But the accusations leveled at these Christians who had come together 50 days after that first Easter Day, were just the start. For the next three hundred years they would be persecuted for their strange behavior and unusual beliefs. Even as the Christian message spread and more adherents came to know Jesus through the testimony of others, even as they gathered under cover of darkness to remember Jesus and hear stories about him and break bread together, rumors spread about this strange group. They were accused of being cannibals — there were whispers about eating body and blood; they were accused of engaging in orgies — they heard about the exchange of the “holy kiss of peace;” they were accused of being unpatriotic atheists — they refused to worship the Roman gods. Like Jesus himself, these early Christians were reviled, and mocked, and arrested, and killed. And yet they kept at it.

Now in some respects, the Church is coming full circle. Christians are no longer being persecuted, at least here in the United States, but increasingly what we do on Sunday morning is looked upon as being odd. And as society changes and becomes more and more secular, we may well have more in common with the early church than we think. The reality is that church-going, at least here in the Northeast, is no longer the norm. In a Pew Research survey that was released earlier this year, Massachusetts was tied with New Hampshire for being the least religious state in the union.

I see evidence of this all the time at weddings and funerals. It used to be that people, even if they weren’t regular church-goers, had a general idea of how to act in the pews. It might not be entirely familiar, but they would follow along, sitting, standing, kneeling. You know, when in Rome and all that. But increasingly people show up who literally have no clue. People don’t know how to open a hymnal, don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, don’t get references to basic Bible stories, don’t know what to do once they arrive at the communion rail. It’s not their fault and I don’t blame them for it — many of them didn’t grow up going to church or they haven’t been to church in a long, long time. In other words, many people experience church as something completely foreign — like the experience of those first Christians wandering into the box of the modern church. 

pentecost11Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The early church, and the current and future church, will have a lot more in common with one another than the intervening 1,700 years when Christianity not only became legal but also took on the cloak of respectability. People who show up on Sunday morning these days want to be in church, rather than feeling obligated to be in church. And there’s a big difference. You no longer face the social wrath of your neighbors if you don’t take your faith seriously. Indeed most of your neighbors probably don’t even go to church.

So rather than being coopted by culture, going to church has become countercultural. And that’s as exciting as it is daunting for the institutional church. The future church, like the early church, will be smaller but it will also, like the early church, be more devoted. You know, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, Jesus didn’t come into the world to start an institution; Jesus came into the world to start a movement. And you, my friends, are part of this movement. A movement driven by and given life by and animated by the Holy Spirit; that life-giving force that is the very breath of God.

So Pentecost, the great movement that created the Church in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection, offers us an opportunity to be the Church in a new way. Through the Holy Spirit, that indefinable, mysterious force that binds the Church together, we have a unique chance to experience knowing Jesus and sharing Jesus with others.

Because just as Jesus sent out the Holy Spirit to those first disciples, who were then sent out to live their faith in the world, so does the Holy Spirit send us out. Out to do the work we have been given to do. Out to spread the joy of Christ in the world. Out to stand up for justice in the face of injustice. Out to weep with those who weep. Out to rejoice with those who rejoice. Out to lift up the poor and downtrodden. Out to be the hands and feet of our Lord in a world that so desperately craves reconciliation and healing. 

As much as we want to turn inward and focus on ourselves, the Spirit keeps pushing us out, beyond ourselves. Out of our comfort zones; out into the world; out of the box.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday of Easter (2016)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 1, 2016 (Easter 6, Year C)

Carnivorous sea snail mucus. That was the source of the highly prized purple dyes used in sea snailthe ancient world. The process of turning the carnivorous sea snail mucus into a usable dye was, not surprisingly, slow and arduous. And expensive. It’s the reason the color purple became associated with royalty. Kings and queens were among the few who could afford to have clothing and textiles dyed purple.

We see vestiges of this in our own liturgy as the color purple is used during the season of Advent.  Purple vestments may no longer be seen as luxury items, but during the period before Christmas in which we await the birth of the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, we dress the altar in royal purple.

But why am I talking about this? Partly it’s because I’ve always wanted to utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” from the pulpit. And partly, with this week’s premature death of Prince — true music royalty — the color purple has been in the news.

But the main reason is to highlight a fairly obscure Biblical character named Lydia. She only appears once in all of Scripture and we hear about her in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She was a wealthy merchant, a woman who made her money as a dealer in purple cloth. But just because you’ve perhaps never heard of Lydia, or at least skipped over her brief Scriptural mention, doesn’t mean she was insignificant.

She’s featured in just four sentences and yet we can glean much from them. Paul writes, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

From this we can tell that Lydia was a faithful Gentile woman who worshipped the Jewish God; that she eagerly listen to the preaching of Paul; that God opened her heart to Paul’s message about Jesus; that she was wealthy, as a seller of purple cloth; that she lived in present-day Greece in a town on the Agean Sea — she needed access to those sea snails; that she was likely the head of her own household, as no husband is mentioned; that she was baptized by Paul; and that she was hospitable, as she opened her home to Paul and his companions.

In a culture that rarely mentioned women by name, or that only did so in relation to a husband or father, Lydia stands out as a powerful force in the early church. She is recognized as the first documented convert to Christianity on European soil and it is through this encounter that the church in Philippi was born. It thrived, likely with Lydia’s passion and financial support, to the point that Paul wrote to the community, and we have his beautiful Letter to the Philippians to show for it.

In his earthly life, Jesus so often brought women and others marginalized by society out of the shadows and into the light. He broke convention by conversing with women in public places, entered their homes, listened to what they had to say. At his death it was the women at the empty tomb who first learned the good news of the resurrection and Mary Magdalene is proclaimed as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” And now we see this same movement of the spirit continuing in the early church as Lydia became a prominent member and driver of the budding Christian community in Philippi. And yet, how many of you had ever even heard of Lydia? We as an institutional church and as a society still have much work to do.

As a case in point, there’s been another woman in the news recently who has similarly been kept in the shadows. The shadows of slavery and racism and sexism. Harriet Tubman, who will soon take her place as the first woman represented on U.S. currency.

Putting Harriet on the $20 bill hasn’t been without controversy. Whether due to simple resistance to change or darker forces isn’t for me to know or judge. But I will say this: if you know of anyone opposed to Harriet Tubman on the $20, please encourage them to get rid of these bills by sending them to the church. We’d be more than happy to convert Tubmans into ministry here at St. John’s.

tubmanBut what’s not often discussed is what allowed Harriet to live her courageous life: her deep, abiding faith. Like Lydia, Harriet was a strong, smart, able, and passionate woman. Nicknamed “Moses” for her work in leading slaves from captivity to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she was also profoundly faithful. It’s what kept her going as a freedom fighter throughout her varied life as an abolitionist, suffragist, nurse, spy, soldier in the Union Army.

In addition to everything else, Harriet was a woman who persevered in everything she did. One of my favorite stories involves her doggedness as a fundraiser for her work on the Railroad. It’s said that one day she approached a well-known abolitionist in New York, and informed him that God had told her that he “had twenty dollars to give her to free the slaves.” The man was not convinced. So Harriet staged a one-woman sit-in in his office. She sat down, and calmly continued to sit throughout the day, as the man went about his business. People came and went, wondering about this determined black lady sitting in the corner. By the time it was over, the man had given sixty dollars to Harriet. Or the equivalent of three Tubmans.

Of course women like Lydia and Harriet Tubman don’t do what they do in order to be publicly recognized. And yet by lifting up the saints among us, we are able to draw deep inspiration from their lives and from their devotion. We can learn lessons from how to follow Jesus amid challenging circumstances.

Harriet’s challenges are well-known but being a woman of means, Lydia also had a lot to lose by following Jesus. It would have been safer not to. There’s a reason most business owners don’t advertise their religion or put campaign signs in their store windows — why risk offending paying customers? But Lydia saw the bigger picture and her hospitality amid the persecution of the early church never wavered. Soon enough Paul and his companions would be arrested, jailed, and beaten but they headed back to Lydia’s home to be fed, welcomed, and tended to.

I may never again utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” during a sermon. But the next time you order escargot in a fancy restaurant or pay for something with a $20 bill, I do hope you’ll consider the life and witness of these two incredible women. And consider how you, too, can follow Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck