Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 14, 2018 (Proper 23B)

A few weeks ago, I was rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from the Hingham Fire Department. The alarm was going off at the church, and by the time I rolled out of bed and threw on sweats and a hat, the entire parking lot was lit up with emergency vehicles. When the call goes out, they don’t ever just send a single truck, they send the cavalry. 

Now, this was a Saturday night because, as I’ve learned over many years working in churches, it’s always a Saturday night. The boiler never dies on, say, a Thursday at noon. Pipes don’t burst on Mondays at 10 am. It is always a Saturday night. 

After walking up to the church and letting the guys in, thankful they didn’t splinter the oak doors with their axes, they mercifully shut off the alarm and determined there was a problem with our sprinkler system. The pressure had dropped which set off the alarm. So I spent a good portion of the rest of the night on the phone with the sprinkler company as the technician walked me through how to drain the system. Apparently I slept through that class at seminary. Now, he did warn me that draining the system might set the alarm off again — which it did. But fortunately, they only sent one firefighter the second time. 

I’m not sharing this story to complain — I do live next door to the church — or to apologize to our 8 o’clock parishioners for being particularly cranky the next morning. Or to tell you that this happened two other nights the following week before the problem was finally diagnosed and repaired. And I’m not telling you this story because it’s Stewardship Sunday and I’m begging you for money to fix the problem. It’s been resolved.

But I think what happened is an apt metaphor for an important aspect of our spiritual IMG_8343lives. Because as the pressure built up in the clogged pipe, it had nowhere to go. You don’t think of galvanized steel as being particularly brittle but over time, probably years, the pressure built up to the point where it split the pipe. A tiny seam at first but eventually big enough to wreak havoc with the entire system. 

I think this is what happens to our souls when we neglect generosity. When we hold on tightly to our money and act like misers, our souls get clogged and the pressure builds. Generosity acts as a release valve, allowing the system of our humanity to run smoothly and efficiently and joyfully. Money itself has the power to do great good and to do great harm. It can build up and it can tear down. It can empower and it can destroy. It can lead to freedom or imprisonment. Our relationship with money, that complicated relationship we all have with the things of this world, can either be life-giving or soul-sucking. Because, at one level, we can never have enough, and at the same time we can never give enough away.

Today we hear the story of the rich young ruler form Mark’s gospel. In many ways this reading is an impossible passage. Unless you’re St. Francis, most of us aren’t taking Jesus’ words about selling everything and giving the money to the poor literally. We can justify this in all sorts of ways: this is just a metaphor, Jesus doesn’t really expect us to sell all our worldly possessions; it’s a hyperbolic rhetorical device used to make a larger point about our attachment to material goods. And that image of a camel going through the eye of a needle? Surely that only applies to really rich people and, since there are always people richer than us — like the family with that giant house at the end of the block — we don’t qualify as Jesus’ target audience.

What was shocking to Jesus’ hearers was partly about giving things away, but the real scandal of his words were that wealth was seen as intricately linked to God’s blessing. The rich were blessed, went the conventional wisdom, while the corollary was also true — the poor were cursed. To give away all your possessions, then, was to spit in the eye of the God who had lavishly bestowed all of these things upon you. 

In the modern world, we have a slightly different take. Many don’t see wealth as something bestowed by God but as something we earned all on our own. ‘I worked hard to get where I am. God didn’t give me that big screen TV and Mercedes, I earned them and I deserve them. I am entitled to have as many fancy things as I want because I am self-made.’

So whether from an ancient or modern perspective, Jesus’ words are troubling. And uncomfortable. And we’d prefer to avoid them. And ignore them. What we can’t do is resolve this tension on our own. The tension of what we possess and what we are asked to give away is something we all live with. As Christians, we understand that all we have comes from God and that our faith compels us to share our resources with those who are less fortunate.

And I think most of us want to give more away — to the church, to charities. But then we start thinking about our families and our futures and things we want and vacations we really want to take, and fear grips us and prevents us from being more generous. Our pipes get clogged and the pressure builds, the pressure of fear that we won’t have enough. And we forget to put our faith in the God who loves us and will not forsake us.

But I’m not inviting you to consider a pledge to St. John’s simply because it’s good for your blood pressure. Though it may be. Rather, I’m inviting you to invest in this community because it makes a difference — in your own life but also in the lives of others. This parish impacts people in ways visible and invisible, in ways tangible and intangible. And everyone here plays an integral role in carrying out the life and mission that pulses through these walls and beyond.

The thing is, St. John’s is sacred space set on holy ground. But more to the point, it is your sacred space and your holy ground. It is the place you come to be inspired through liturgy and music and preaching, the place you come when you feel beaten down by events in our world, the place you come when things in your life go sideways, the place you come to laugh with friends in times of joy and shed tears in times of grief, the place you come to mark important moments in your life, and the place you come to know Jesus through the gentle rhythms of the liturgical year.

Granted, it’s sacred space that has some less-than-holy needs. Like sprinkler systems and boilers  and insurance and salaries and electric bills. It’s a place that needs your generous financial contributions to continue to thrive as a spiritual center of hope and healing on the South Shore. We are no less than that. A beacon to those in our pews and also to those who have yet to enter our doors.

This is a place I love dearly and a place that I hope you do as well. Your generosity matters. It is good for the soul and it is good for St. John’s. And I remain both grateful and inspired by your passion for this place.

In a few minutes, as you leave the communion rail and go down the hallway to return to your pew, just before you get to the narthex, you’ll notice a light fixture hanging down from the ceiling. It’s a little darker right there, not because we wanted to provide spiritual mood lighting, but because that’s where the sprinkler pipe ruptured. Liquid started oozing through the fixture and down the walls as the leak finally revealed itself. Which was fortuitous, and not just because I could finally start sleeping through the night again. 

But until we get that light fixture repaired, which is indeed on the list, I hope you’ll use it to think about what kind of pressure is building in your own soul on the generosity front. I encourage your generosity to this place and I am confident that through it, you will see the very face of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 23, 2018 (Proper 20B)

When I was a kid in Sunday School, all the children filed past a large painting of Jesus on the way into the classroom area. In the painting, Jesus was sitting in a field, surrounded by young children about my age; speaking with them, engaging with them; interacting with them. He was even holding a small child in his arms. I came to really like that painting and it was an important part of my experience as a young Christian. I’d look up at Jesus and know that he was always watching over me; and that he wasn’t for adults only. Over the years the painting became a familiar, comfortable, and visible sign that when I came to church, I was in a safe place. 

But as I got older and learned to read, I had a startling and troubling epiphany. You see, FullSizeRender-2there were words underneath this painting, a Bible verse. And suddenly I could read them. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” it proclaimed.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “Why would Jesus want little children to suffer?” That wasn’t my experience with Sunday School. I liked going; I liked learning about God, I liked my friends. All the teachers seemed nice, but maybe we were all just being set up for some great suffering to come. Maybe one day, I’d walk in and instead of a doing a craft and singing a song, we’d be strung up by our feet and tortured with boiling oil. 

Fortunately, my parents talked me off the ledge, and I soon learned my first lesson about the King James Version of the Bible. In old English “suffer” meant to permit or allow. So this verse didn’t have anything to do with children suffering in Sunday School, but was translated as “Let the little children come to me.” Now that, I could get behind, and suddenly all was again right with the Sunday School world. 

This morning, we get a similar verse, one in which Jesus again interacts with children. He picks up a young child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Some cultural context is helpful to see just how radical a statement this was. In the ancient world, children weren’t valued nearly as much as they are now. We hold our children in great esteem, caring for them, giving them trophies, and spending endless hours stressing about their futures and making sacrifices in our own lives to give them things we never had. The children of Ancient Palestine weren’t going on school trips to Hawaii or getting ferried to hockey practice in the back of a Cadillac Escalade. 

I’m not saying these are bad things or that our approach is wrong, I’m just saying things were different back then. There was no Babys-R-Us in the Biblical world and the concept would have been completely foreign. Childhood was not particularly valued, partly because the infant mortality rate was so high, but also because unwanted children were seen as a huge drain on a family’s resources. There was no child tax credit or government assistance for families and there was certainly no birth control. So child abandonment was relatively common and there was no real social stigma around it. Some died trying to fend for themselves, others were forced into slavery, or what we would now call the sex trade. Simply making it to adulthood was a feat unto itself.

Sure, many people of faith saw every human being as a precious creation, made in the image of God. But Jesus took this to another level. Because even when children weren’t being abandoned, they were still considered of little value. Children had no rights, no social status, no standing in the community. The Biblical shorthand for the most vulnerable population is “widows and orphans.” You hear this phrase again and again — and with good reason. Neither widows nor orphans had anyone to protect them or care for them or meet their basic human needs. And this is precisely the population that Jesus advocates for and ministers to and lifts up time and time again. 

You know, when I had young kids I often found myself on the kitchen floor for no apparent reason. I mean, there was a reason — we were playing with trains or roughhousing or drawing on the Etch-a-Sketch. But eventually they’d get distracted and move on to the next thing. And I’d find myself all alone on the floor. Invariably, Bryna would then wander in, stare at me, shake her head, and leave.

Now, the kitchen floor is a great place to have an existential crisis or reflect on the meaning of life, but being on the floor is actually a great posture for being more child-like in our relationship with Jesus. Just as we get on the floor to engage kids at their level, Jesus does the same for us. In grand theological terms, the Incarnation was all about God entering the world at our level. But practically speaking, Jesus wants to engage with us, to be in our lives in very real and tangible ways, to mix it up with us and be in relationship with us. 

As adults, this is the spiritual challenge. We don’t want to appear undignified or child-like, but this is precisely the way we need to approach Jesus. On the floor, as vulnerable children. Open to the wonders and joys of creation. Accessible to a relationship that has the power to move and transform us and fill us with that awe-inspiring feeling of being loved not for what we do or accomplish but for who we are as beloved children of God. We need to hear that message again and again and again.

When we’re hurting or in need of emotional or spiritual healing, there is no need for us to “suffer” in isolation. Regardless of age, we are all being watched over by a God who loves us not hesitantly or conditionally or with reservation, but with reckless abandon.

IMG_8287Here at St. John’s, our children may not encounter a painting with a confusing snippet of Scripture, but we’ve undertaken a bold painting project of our own in the Sunday school wing. We’ve engaged a local artist to paint words and phrases from the Bible and the Prayer Book in the hallways in a fun, colorful style. It’s about halfway done and you’ll see this as we hold Coffee Hour downstairs this morning as part of our Sunday School Open House. Now, I’ll warn you that the art is a little edgy, a bit out of the box, as you might expect when you hire a graffiti artist — which we did. But I think it’s fun, it adds “a little sparkle” as Fr. Noah put it when he took a peek this week, and I’m grateful to Alexis and the Sunday School Leadership Team for dreaming up this concept. I also literally had a dream the other night that the artist got confused and started painting the walls up here in the church.

One of my mantras for ministry has always been “Children having fun at church is a good thing.” And I’d like to think this project reflects that. It highlights just how much we value the spiritual education of our children while at the same time allowing them the space to explore their faith in fun and creative ways.

We talk a lot about becoming more Christ-like as a sign of spiritual maturity; of growing in our faith and living it out in ways that impact those around us. But we could also stand to be more child-like in our approach to the Christian life. To embrace that sense of spiritual wonder and awe that comes naturally to children but that often feels beat out of us as adults. Spend some time on the metaphorical floor, interact with Jesus in playful, creative ways. And know that when Jesus says, let the little children come to me, he is also speaking directly to you.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 9, 2018 (Proper 18B)

A few years ago a video made the rounds on social media about a pastor named Jeremiah Steepeck who disguised himself as a homeless man before his first Sunday at his new 10,000-member mega church. He walked around with his thick, unruly beard and ratty clothes as people were filing in before the service. Only three people talked to him. He asked parishioners for money to buy food. No one in the church gave him any. He sat down in the front row. The ushers asked him to sit in the back. 

After listening to the announcements at the start of the service, the church elders images_This_Pastor_Disguised_As_Destitute_to_His_Church_and_Members_Refused_To_Help_Him_670096500introduced the new pastor and everyone started clapping with joy and anticipation. As the homeless man in the back slowly started walking down the aisle, the clapping abruptly stopped and everyone stared at this unkempt, foul-smelling man. He took the microphone amid the awkward silence and started reciting Scripture: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” 

Then he told the congregation what he had experienced that morning, and many were moved to tears. Finally he said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will you decide to become disciples?” Then he dismissed the congregation until the following week.

This is a powerful story; one that can’t help but force you into the shoes of that congregation; one that makes you confront your own potential actions and biases and prejudices. Alas, it turns out that it is just a story. Snopes.com has since discredited this tale. There was no pastor by the name of Jeremiah Steepek. But the message and the concept remains a powerful allegory of how we treat people in our midst. It may not have been factually true, but the story highlights several deep truths. And I recalled this erstwhile parable after reading our lesson from the Letter of James. 

Tradition has it that James was the brother of Jesus, the one who kept the early Jesus movement going in Jerusalem following the crucifixion. James was respected by everyone — both Jews and followers of Jesus alike — for his piety, devotion, and unwavering concern for the poor. It’s said he spent so much time in worship that his knees grew as hard as a camel’s. He was known to all as James the Just and his passion for the poor and downtrodden and those on the margins of society comes through loud and clear in this passage.

“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

This could well have been the passage recited by the disguised pastor in our story. Because it’s precisely how his new congregation acted towards the poor man in the dirty clothes. They made him invisible; they took no notice of him; and when they did, they pushed him away into a corner. Out of sight, out of mind.

This passage from James is a tough lesson to hear, especially on a day dedicated to welcoming people back to church. Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to be more comfortable with people who look like us and act like us and drive cars like us and live in neighborhoods like us. We shy away from difference — difference of opinion, of values, of socioeconomic class, of race, of religion. And we turn away to our detriment, as it limits the fullness and imagination of God’s kingdom while simultaneously stunting our own spiritual growth.

If we insert ourselves into this story — and maybe I should start calling it the Parable of the Disguised Pastor — most of us wouldn’t have spoken with him or offered to help him. There would have been plenty of excuses — and valid ones. We have to get the kids down to Sunday school or put on our robes or grab a bulletin or talk to a friend we haven’t seen all summer. I know I couldn’t possibly have helped; I mean, I have a service to lead, a flock to attend to. 

And so this story, like James’ letter, convicts us. It exposes our lesser angels. It reminds us that we have a long way to go to truly become Christ-like in our interactions with others. We are not bad people; but when it comes to discipleship, to following Jesus, we are all works in progress, rather than finished products. 

Yes, we are made in God’s image, but sometimes we want to make the church in our image. One that only includes people like us. And that’s a pretty dangerous spiritual game to play. It’s more comfortable that way, of course. It’s easier to think about the church as a club for like-minded individuals rather than as a sanctuary for all. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to start a club; he came to start a movement. One that transcends the external trappings of wealth; one that gets at the inner workings of the soul.

The thing is, the church must serve as a magnet to pull people in from the margins. People who may not look or think like the majority, yes, but also people taking that first tentative step back to church; people seeking a new community of faith; people who have been burned by religion; people in need of emotional and spiritual healing; people who don’t fit the perceived parishioner prototype. 

This is why we hear so many stories about Jesus healing people. These faith healings Jesus is always performing — like the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf man in today’s gospel reading from Mark — were physical healings, sure. And we can give thanks for someone made physically whole. But they were also, perhaps more importantly, symbols of bringing outsiders in. Into community, into relationship, into a life of freedom and joy. 

Think about just how isolated these two people would have been. A woman considered ritually impure by virtue of her genetics with a demon-possessed daughter who likely caused a scene wherever she went. A deaf man, cut off and unable to communicate with others, kept out of the worshipping community as physical disability was considered a sign of sinfulness. 

Jesus heals them, in large part, to bring them in from the margins of society; to include them in the larger community; to make them feel loved and cared for. It really is a beautiful act of divine, unconditional love. And he encourages us to do likewise. Not by giving sight to the blind or driving out a demon, but by reaching out our hands in love to those who most need it. By welcoming the stranger and breaking down the barriers that divide us one from another. When we do that — when we follow Jesus in heart, mind, soul, and action — then we can authentically claim to be his disciples. The world indeed has enough people, but not enough disciples.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 26, 2018 (Proper 16B)

Over the years I’ve only had a few people storm out during one of my sermons. I remember distinctly the first time it happened, though. The United States was careening towards war in Iraq, about to invade that country, and the Old Testament reading appointed for the day was the binding of Isaac. That’s a tough reading at any time, but it felt as if as a country we were, like Abraham, standing precisely at the moment when the knife was raised. In a split second we could relent or we could murder. I spoke as someone who served in the military but primarily as a Christian, making the argument that Jesus would not lower that knife.

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Polishing the pulpit at St. John’s.

Well, obviously this was controversial and a parishioner walked out in the middle of my sermon. And he didn’t just sneak out, it was loud and theatrical with lots of harrumphing. Later that day, I reached out to him and offered to have a conversation; starting with “I couldn’t help but notice…” I also sent him the full text of my sermon because he missed some key pieces of what I meant to convey, since he wasn’t there to hear it.

But he never came back. And that was hard for a young preacher desperately trying to unite and inspire people rather than divide and anger them. In my uncertainty about how to move forward, I sought out the counsel of a wise, older priest. And he put his arm around me and said, “Tim, if they aren’t occasionally walking out, you’re probably not preaching the gospel.” I’ve held on to that over the years as, every once in a while, someone expresses displeasure with what I’ve proclaimed from the pulpit. Though it’s been a number of years since someone’s actually stormed out. So I’m probably due.

But I bring this up, not to encourage you to leave, but as a reminder that the gospel is full of hard truths. Words and lessons we’d rather avoid than confront. Like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and sharing your possessions with others, and all the other sayings that run counter to our cultural norms.

Jesus hits this point in this morning’s gospel reading when he asks the disciples, after a difficult teaching, “Does this offend you?” 

Now, some people argue that what’s wrong with America today is that people are too easily offended. There’s a tremendous amount of offense and outrage that gets generated on all sides of every issue. All you need to do is turn on cable news or log onto Twitter. Being offended and expressing outrage has become a cottage industry, with pundits earning a nice living getting people riled up about all sorts of issues. Even preachers sometimes feed into this.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s not talking about small things being blown out of proportion; he’s talking about the most important and profound truths of this mortal life being difficult to hear. The gospel, the “good news” of Jesus Christ, can be offensive. At least to our human sensibilities. Because it draws us into uncomfortable places, it challenges our notions of fairness, it speaks truths we’d rather not hear, and it demands action and response. And sometimes it’s easier to just walk out; to plug our ears; to stop coming to church; to toss out the proverbial baby with the baptismal water. 

“Does this offend you?” Sometimes it absolutely will. But when it does, when Jesus’ words make you want to leave the building or shut the Bible, that’s precisely when you need to listen closely. And ask yourself, why does this offend me so much? What does it say about me and my worldview? What is it that makes me feel so uncomfortable? Often the things that make us the angriest or the most defensive, are the exact things we most need to hear, whether it comes to our  personal relationship with money or serving the poor or dealing with people we can’t stand.

And Jesus certainly doesn’t sugar coat his message. There’s no false advertising when it comes to following Jesus. He’s not looking to draw people in with smooth words and sleight of hand. He’s very upfront that it won’t always be easy for those who choose to follow him. At times they will be mocked and derided and even killed for their beliefs. And he certainly didn’t expect everyone to be drawn to what he was preaching. We hear that, “Because of this” — these hard lessons — “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 

There is indeed a cost to discipleship. Not just for Jesus’ initial followers but for us as well. It is hard work; it is counter-cultural; it is uncomfortable. Churches don’t mention this in their over-produced welcome packets, but maybe we should, as a way to set expectations about what it means to be a Christian and what’s involved in following Jesus with heart, mind, and soul. 

Maybe instead of the usual “Look how great we are! Choose us!” the welcome packet should say something like: “Welcome to St. John’s. We are delighted you’re here and we welcome you into our community of faith. There are lots of great programs for all ages, but there are also some things Jesus demands of you. That you set your mind on heavenly things rather than earthly things; that you strive for justice in the world, not just with your lips but in your life; that you confess of your complicity in systems that imprison and impoverish others; that you love your enemies; that you share your God-given financial resources generously with both the church and the world; that you seek to deepen your spiritual life through regular prayer, worship, and the reading of Scripture; that you joyfully share your faith with others.”

Or, if that’s too wordy, maybe we should just put a warning label on the outside of the packet, letting people know that they may be offended by what they encounter here. I think we’re sometimes so concerned with not offending people that we don’t do Jesus justice. 

That’s the problem with preachers who never offend their congregations. They aren’t getting at the crux of the gospel, at that place where the spiritual rubber meets the road. When you remain in the realm of platitude without ever truly addressing the difficult concepts of sin, death, and salvation, you stay safely on the surface of things. Never offending, but never leading anyone to the transformation that comes through profound encounter with the risen Christ. The message from the pulpit shouldn’t be pleasant and nice and inoffensive — at least not all the time. At least not if it seeks to lead people to follow Jesus in authentic and life-giving ways.

In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear that marvelous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. And while it sometimes feels necessary to put on armor to endure the fullness of the gospel of Christ, to seek protection from the parts that offend, that’s not the point. The armor itself is the message — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. When we put on the armor of God by immersing ourselves in Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and salvation, we are then ready to hear and embody even the hard truths of the Christian faith. 

So don this gospel armor and be surrounded by the words of our Lord. And then please, as the writer of Ephesians says, “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” It may be offensive at times. You may want to walk out. You may even actually walk out — though hopefully not. But therein lies both the gospel’s power and its glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 12, 2018 (Proper 14B)

Liturgically speaking, this is a tough time of year to be on the Atkins Diet. Every three years, amid the heat of the summer, the lectionary gods give us week after week of readings about bread. Maybe you’ve noticed. It started the last Sunday of July with the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish; it continued last week with Jesus talking about “bread from heaven;” today we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the bread of life;” next week he’ll tell us he’s “living bread;” and the week after that he’ll say, “the one who eats this bread will live forever.” That’s a lot of carbs! I’ve taken to calling these five weeks Bread-a-palooza. Though that phrase doesn’t seem to have caught on in church circles

Bread is a major theme in the Christian faith. In addition to all these references, we pray20140810-workhorse-bread-vicky-wasik-3-1500x1125 in the words of the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” At the Last Supper Jesus takes bread, breaks it, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples with the words, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And each week we come to this altar and reach out our hands to receive “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

It is impossible to separate bread from faith. Physically, it sustains us. Theologically, it nourishes us. Sacramentally, it saves us. 

This morning, we get the first of the famous I Am statements from John’s gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Keep reading and you get a flurry of other, similar statements: I am the Good Shepherd; I am the light of the world; I am the true vine; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth, and the life.

These are metaphors, of course. Ways of highlighting Jesus’ identity in familiar terms; methods of connecting Jesus’ divinity to images we can relate to. Jesus is not actually made up of wheat and yeast. But when we believe in him, when we come to him in faith, when we feed upon his Word, and ingest his body through sacramental bread, we no longer go hungry. We are nourished and sustained, able to grow into the full stature of Christ, as we claim our identity as followers of Jesus.

But these I Am statements, like “I am the bread of life,” also transcend metaphor. Remember when Moses encountered God in the burning bush? God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and set his people free; and before Moses agrees he says, “But what is your name? Who should I tell the Israelites will lead them out of slavery and into the Promised Land?” And God says to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Which is confounding and confusing, at least at one level. “‘I am sent me.’ What does that even mean?” Yet it at another level, it makes perfect sense. Because how could you possibly define the God and Creator of the universe? God just is. “I am who I am.”

So these I Am statements of Jesus connect back to this I Am statement of God. Jesus can say I am the bread of life and I am the Good Shepherd and all the rest. He can simply say, I am. Because he is.

These I Am statements are to be taken both metaphorically and literally. Which is an unusual linguistic scenario. Physically and spiritually speaking, Jesus is and is not bread. When we feed on him by faith with thanksgiving in the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, he is fully present. This bread is not merely symbolic of Jesus’s life. When we receive communion, we do this in memory of Jesus, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s not just a way to remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; we receive the Eucharist in a way that makes Jesus present, right here and right now.

There’s a fancy word for this that, while it’s mostly tossed around in seminaries, is critical to understanding our Eucharistic theology. Anamnesis is a Greek word meaning “memory,” but it transcends our own understanding of the word. When we think about memory, we use it as a way of recalling past events. Something that happened years ago, like being forced to drink powdered milk in the woods at summer camp, may be a distant memory. Remembering that you had chicken quesadillas for dinner last night would be a recent memory. But the powdered milk and quesadillas are both events firmly rooted in the past. They happened, they’re done, hopefully no one will make you drink powdered milk in the future.

In some, more Protestant traditions that’s what people would say happens at communion. The minister says some words, people share bread and wine, or grape juice, and it’s all about remembering a past event, the Last Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me” is said as a way of keeping Jesus’ memory alive today, but it’s still memorializing an event that took place in the past. 

Our theology is slightly different. Through the concept of anamnesis, we remember in such a way that the past event is actually made present once again. So up at the altar we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but we also join ourselves to it now, at this moment, in a very real and tangible way. It’s not merely something that took place in the past, but also something that continues in the present. It makes present again what took place in the past so that our celebration around the altar becomes a living memory. Not a distant memory or a recent memory but a living memory that continues to shape our identity and draw us together as a community that worships both with Jesus and in Jesus’ name.

That can be a tough concept to wrap your mind around, like reflecting on the never-ending universe or the theory of infinity. This idea that the historical sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of the Eucharist, that will happen in a few moments, are both part of a single event is mind-blowing. But that’s precisely what happens when we gather together to share this bread of life, this bread of heaven, this living bread. 

And it doesn’t help that the Greek word is basically untranslatable in English. When you see words in the Eucharistic prayer like “memorial” or “commemoration” or “remembrance,” they really mean anamnesis. In every single one of our eucharistic prayers there is a line that liturgical scholars refer to as “the anamnesis” — it’s an integral part of the consecratory prayer said over the bread and wine.

For instance, during the summer we’ve been using Eucharistic Prayer A. Here’s the line I want you to listen for when Father Noah says it, “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” What this means, at the deepest level, is that we celebrate the anamnesis, this re-presenting, of our redemption in this act of communion. And that, as we make present again, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer these gifts of bread and wine.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of this concept takes place at the Eater Vigil — the holiest and most ancient, and certainly the most dramatic, liturgy of the church year. You know, the service I’m always nagging you to attend, if you’ve never been before. The one where we offer a champagne and jelly bean reception afterwards as an added enticement — because it’s so awesome! In a darkened church, a fire is kindled, the paschal candle is lit, and the cantor sings the Exsultet with the refrain “This is the night.” “This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life…This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.” 

Jesus is passing over from death to resurrection not just in the past but also right here, right now, on this night. This is the night. That’s anamnesis defined. An articulation that these events have happened in the past, are still happening in the present, and will happen in the future. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s the kingdom into which Jesus beckons us; that’s the power of the cross; that’s the glory of the Christian life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 29, 2018 (Proper 12B)

I’ve always been intrigued by character actors. They aren’t the leading men or leading ladies of the summer blockbuster movie you just saw at The Shipyard. You’ll never see their names on the marquee. You probably wouldn’t even recognize them if you bumped into them in the theater lobby while picking up your overpriced and oversized box of Milk Duds.

Character actors are critical to a movie’s success, giving the film texture and color. We just don’t recognize their names, even if they look vaguely familiar in an I-think-he-once-played-a-creepy-killer-on-Law-&-Order kind of way.

But the thing about character actors, besides their incredible range and ability to inhabit a wide variety of roles, is that they tend to blend into the background. You don’t leave the theater saying, “Wow, the woman that played Tom Cruise’s Aunt Suzy was amazing.”

Yet if you read the Bible, really read it deeply and with intention, you start to see some incredible character actor-type figures emerge. People who aren’t necessarily front and center but who play minor, if indispensable, roles in the stories. The bystanders, the witnesses, those who stand on the margins of the narrative. The men who lowered the paralytic down through the roof to be healed by Jesus; the parents who brought their children to be blessed by Jesus; the widow who placed two copper coins in the collection plate at the Temple.

You can learn a lot from these obscure characters if you choose to notice them. It takes a bit of imagination, but that’s half the fun. You begin to wonder, what happened to them? How did their lives turn out following an encounter with Jesus? Some may have dropped everything and followed Jesus. Others undoubtedly returned to their daily lives, touched and transformed by the experience. Still others may have quickly forgotten the interaction and went on living as before — fearfully, hopelessly, mindlessly. There are as many reactions to meeting Jesus as there are people who meet him.

5000Today, as we hear the famous story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, I keep coming back to the boy who showed up with five loaves and two fish. He doesn’t speak in this account, but as Jesus engages two of his apostles, Philip and Andrew, over what to do about this increasingly hungry crowd, the unnamed boy plays a crucial role in the forthcoming miracle of abundance. Because, apparently, he was the only one who brought anything to eat.

Of course, as Andrew notes upon spotting the boy and seeing his food, “But what are they among so many people?” Andrew says this to Jesus after gazing out over the large crowd, and it’s a wistful line. One rooted in reality, yet tinged with a hint of defeat. For, indeed, what is so little food among a throng of hungry people? A few folks may be satisfied, but it’s a drop in the bucket, really.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone tried to take my food — that I alone had the foresight to bring — I would have put up a fight. Once I realized what was happening, I would have at least tried to hide my food. Maybe share it with a few close friends so at least we didn’t go hungry. It’s hard to imagine the emotions the boy must have felt as Jesus took the food from him. And that’s the word that’s used here “took” — that’s different from saying the boy donated or offered up or gave freely. Jesus took the loaves and fish, before saying grace and distributing it to the crowd.

Perhaps the boy was stunned into silence; maybe he felt bullied. It’s possible he volunteered his food for the greater good but, then again, “What are they among so many people?” Jesus answers this question by using the boy’s small amount of food to feed the masses. A symbol of loving abundance, a demonstration that Jesus’ love for humanity overflows with grace upon grace, an expression that our Lord’s heart cannot be contained or constrained by human constructs of scarcity.

Which leads us back to this young boy. How was he changed by this encounter? After rushing home to tell his friends and family about his incredible day, how did the rest of his life unfold? We don’t know, of course. But it’s in the wondering that we can meet Jesus. Which is why I encourage you to seek out the characters on the periphery. Look for those on the margins. The people in the crowds. Insert yourself into the scene. How would you feel if you were there that day? How would you react? If you let your imagination blossom, this can be a profound spiritual exercise.

Here’s something we can try this morning to show you what I mean. This may or may not resonate with you, but we’ll give it a shot. I’m going to invite you to close your eyes for a moment. Go ahead and get comfortable. Take a few deep, slow breaths. And imagine yourself sitting on the grass, on a hillside. It’s hot. Beads of sweat form on your forehead as you swat away a gnat that just landed on your nose. There are people sitting all around you. Lots of them. In front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You can sense them; you can smell them; you can hear them. You catch snippets of conversation, disagreements about the identity of the man you’ve come to hear; this Jesus you’d heard so much about recently.

In front of you, is a stunning vista of the Sea of Galilee. Its deep blue water shimmering with the light of the setting sun. It’s been a long day. A full day. A hot day. If you strain your eyes just a bit, you can make out the man everyone’s come to see, down near the water. He had been speaking for awhile — all afternoon, really. Sharing some comforting words along with a few shocking insights. That was the thing about this Jesus, you could see it in his eyes. Even with the huge crowds, it felt as if he was speaking directly to you. At times, making your heart swell; at others, bringing tears to your eyes; and at still others making you laugh. His stories just felt so true and made you feel so alive. Simply being in his presence was somehow transformative.

Suddenly, for the first time all day, your stomach growls. You had been so enthralled with Jesus’ words, that you didn’t notice you were hungry. Frankly, you didn’t think you’d stay this long. But most of the town went out to listen to him. Everyone seemed to have the same thought at the same time and there’s some nasty grumbling as people around you begin to get restless. But, wait, what’s this? There’s a basket full of bread and fish being passed out. It’s unclear where this bounty came from but suddenly everyone is eating and laughing and content; filled with food and a deep abiding sense of peace.

Now, that’s just a taste of what I mean (you can open your eyes). A way to insert yourself into the stories you’ve heard many times before, and hear them in new ways. It’s also a reminder that we aren’t just passive observers of Jesus’ life, but active participants. Jesus is speaking not in the abstract to people who lived thousands of years ago, but to you. Right here. Right now.

The thing is, when it comes to the spiritual life, we’re all character actors. Embrace your role. Embody it. Live it. It is indeed the role of a lifetime.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 22, 2018 (Proper 11B)

I love Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s always the Fourth Sunday after Easter, so we’re still riding the sugary resurrection high as we hear the poetic passage from John’s gospel about Jesus tending his flock, calling them each by name, seeking out the lost, cradling them in his loving arms.

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is an ancient, beloved, and enduring metaphor 534_Psalm23_Shepherd-Lamb-628x417of our Lord’s tender care for each one of us. You see it in Christian art and statuary; you see it in one of my favorite places in the world to pray — the tiny Good Shepherd Chapel in the undercroft of the Washington National Cathedral; you can even see it, as I did last month, in the Roman catacombs, those early Christian burial sites located deep beneath that ancient city.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, sheep abound. They’re all over our readings, sure, but then there’s the music. We sing such sheep-inspired hymns as “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “The King of Love my Shepherd Is;” the choir anthem is inevitably “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” And then, just when we’re edging toward sheep overload, we recite the beloved 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” In the King James Version, if we’re lucky.

This morning, we also get a lot of sheep running around. Fewer than on Good Shepherd Sunday, but we still get Psalm 23 and a few sheepish hymns. But if you look closely, you’ll notice a difference. Things are a bit darker; not quite as fluffy. It doesn’t officially exist on the church calendar, but based on the readings, we might call today Bad Shepherd Sunday. That passage from Jeremiah sets up the contrast between the Good Shepherd and the bad shepherd. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” proclaims the prophet.

The thing is shepherds are given great responsibility. They are entrusted with caring for God’s creatures, who depend upon them for their very survival. They can choose to use their authority responsibly or they can abuse it. They can nurture their flock and lead the sheep to safety; or they can ignore their flock and lead them to destruction.

If you were to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle and label one side “Good Shepherd” and the other side “Bad Shepherd,” it might look like this: Good Shepherd: compassionate, loving, nurtures, protects, guides, gathers, lays down his life for his sheep. Bad Shepherd: inattentive, self-serving, uncaring, cruel, sows division, scatters, flees when danger arises. The contrast is stunning. To use the parallel imagery of the 23rd Psalm, good shepherds lead their flocks to green pastures and still waters and right pathways; they protect them with their rod and staff and guide them through dangerous valleys. Bad shepherds, on the other hand, lead their sheep into mayhem, disaster, and death.

Today is less about shepherds faithfully tending their sheep and more about wolves in sheep’s clothing seeking to dupe and destroy the sheep.

So what’s Jeremiah talking about? It’s helpful to know that in the ancient world, the image of the shepherd wasn’t limited to religion. For us, unless we’re actually out tending sheep — which we’re probably not —  we exclusively associate pastoral imagery with the ecclesiastical. The word “pastor” means shepherd; when we care for others we call this “pastoral care;” bishops literally carry a shepherd’s staff as a symbol of their pastoral authority.

Yet, if you asked the average person in Jeremiah’s day about earthly shepherds, they would have named not clergy, but rulers. Kings were the ones seen as the chief shepherds of the people, providing for their needs, protecting them, guiding them. Which is why Jesus proclaiming himself as the Good Shepherd was both radical and controversial. In doing so he was taking a secular image of kingship and applying it to himself in a new way. The kingship of Jesus was not of this world, but encompassed a different realm entirely. We’re used to the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but his original hearers would have been scandalized by the image. “Are you claiming to be a king? There’s only one king – and he’s certainly not a poor, itinerant rabbi. That’s ridiculous.”

So, in this passage about bad shepherds, Jeremiah is holding the political leaders of Israel to a higher standard and condemning them for failing the people in their care. The kings of Judah had been lousy shepherds, allowing the flock to be scattered and exiled from their homeland. This failure of the political leadership 600 years before the birth of Jesus, is what led to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the sacking of the Temple, and the forced exile of the Israelites from their homeland for 70 years.

That’s what Jeremiah was talking about. And as he was writing this, the people of Israel were scattered. They were, as Jesus puts it, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Certainly sheep without a good shepherd. They were driven from their homeland, persecuted, vulnerable, separated from family and friends, living in fear and scarcity. The lack of faith in God, coupled with the leaders’ faith in themselves, got them into this mess. And we see the contrast between leaders who don’t care about the people and the loving, compassionate nature of God who will never forsake his beloved children.

Jesus, of course, is the only true good shepherd. He alone embodies all the characteristics and traits on the left side of our list. So, when we put our faith in human shepherds, no matter how good their intentions, we will invariably be disappointed. We get in trouble when we confuse our one, true Good Shepherd with those who shepherd congregations. Present company included.

Earthly ecclesiastical shepherds must always and consistently and faithfully point to Jesus, not to themselves. When clergy begin to proclaim themselves rather than Christ, or start to put their own needs ahead of their flock, they’re heading down the road of the bad shepherd. It doesn’t take much to think about the damage bad shepherds have done to the church over the years. Clergy sexual abuse scandals are exhibit A, perhaps, but laziness or a lack of faith or a failure of leadership all diminish congregations and prevent them from becoming the beloved communities that Jesus so desires them to be.

But the church is not the only earthly vessel where bad shepherds can do damage. We may no longer look to political leaders as shepherds, but the same contrasting list can be held up for our elected officials. We desperately crave leaders who are compassionate and loving; leaders who guide and protect rather than those who are self-serving and cruel; uncaring and divisive. Jeremiah was railing against a crisis in temporal leadership and it would be interesting to hear what he would have to say about the current state of political leadership in this country.

Where you stand on this issue may depend on where you get your news, but I think we can all agree it would be nice if our political leaders, from the President of the United States right on down to our town selectmen, embodied more qualities of good shepherds. Acting with compassion in accordance with the values of the Good Shepherd; tending to the lost and the lonely and the vulnerable. I do worry that we are drifting into a place of cruelty and division rather than compassion and unity. That we are scattering the flock rather than gathering it. That we are sowing seeds of fear rather than binding up the brokenhearted.

I don’t think Bad Shepherd Sunday will ever become a thing. No one’s going to write a hymn for Bad Shepherd Sunday. And that’s probably a good thing. But I appreciate the contrast, because it serves as a reminder that ultimately, it is the Good Shepherd alone who brings healing and wholeness to situations of isolation and brokenness. And we need this Good Shepherd in our lives and in our world now more than ever.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018