Fifth Sunday after Easter, Year A

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 7, 2023 (Easter 5A)

“Are there Froot Loops in heaven?” I was once asked this by a young child whose grandfather had just died. We were talking about Jesus and heaven and what happens when someone dies, and that was one of his questions for me. “Are there Froot Loops in heaven?” 

Of course, he was really asking whether there were things that would be familiar and comforting amid all of the uncertainty of this transitory life. In his own way, he was giving voice to questions that we all ponder, at least occasionally: is there life after death and, if so, what does it look like? My answer to his question was “Absolutely, there are Froot Loops in heaven.” And baseball and hugs and dogs and anything else you love. I make no apologies that my answers to questions about the kingdom of heaven are generally one big “Yes.” It will be more than we could ever ask for or imagine, because in it we will abide with Jesus. That’s the promise upon which all our hopes are founded. The promise laid out by Jesus himself.

This morning in John’s gospel, we get that well-known passage, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Well, we heard “dwelling places,” not “mansions,” But for many of us, it’s hard not to hear the more majestic King James Version ringing in our heads. This passage is often read at funerals, offering a word of hope amid the chances and changes of life. Along with the knowledge that through the resurrection, Jesus himself has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. But Bible translations are funny things; a word or two can completely change how we perceive and understand what Jesus is saying. 

At one level, I’ve always liked “mansions,” because for me it connects with heaven as that place of true abundance, a place where Froot Loops and perhaps even caviar are served on demand. In comparison, “dwelling places” seems rather pedestrian. Like a studio apartment or a college dorm room. 

But actually, neither “mansions” nor “dwelling places” really get at what Jesus is talking about here. Heaven is not some version of Ocean Boulevard in the sky. Nor is it simply a utilitarian place where we’re housed for eternity. The better translation of the Greek word is “abode.” Not because it’s a physical place where we live, but because in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus abides with us and we abide in him. 

That’s the point. That’s why heaven is one big “Yes.” Because Jesus abides in us and we in him. And it is that abiding presence of Jesus, that connection with our Lord, that marks our celebration of his resurrection throughout this 50-day season of Easter.

You know, the first week of May has become known as Star Wars Week in popular culture. It all began a number of years ago when someone realized that May the fourth had a certain ring to it. And so on Thursday many people were greeted with “May the Fourth be with you.” The answer for Episcopalians is, of course, “And also with you.” 

But in a very real way this passage from John, like the first Star Wars movie — not the 1977 original, mind you, but the first one in the sequence — is a prequel. Throughout this Easter season we’ve been hearing a series of post-Resurrection appearances. Doubting Thomas, the road to Emmaus. And now we go back to Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, as he offers his disciples encouragement for the time, in the very near future, when he will no longer physically be with them. Not even the impending crucifixion can break this connection between Lord and disciple. Jesus is reminding them that he abides with them no matter what, both in this world and the next. And that he is going to prepare a place for them where they will be united for all eternity. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. This is the abiding promise of relationship, the abiding promise of connection, the abiding promise of faith in Jesus Christ that is freely offered to each and every one of us. And it is a marvelous and joyful thing.

The other thing that happened during this Star Wars Week, besides my wanting to show a Star Wars movie out in the courtyard and call it Darth on the Garth, is that the Surgeon General released a report on the epidemic of loneliness that has taken hold of our country. It was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, but its roots are deeper than that. Our relationship with and reliance on technology, the decline of social groups like faith communities, the rapid pace of change in our lives, as well as our country’s fetishization of the values of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But the upshot is that so many among us are quietly suffering. And this epidemic of loneliness crosses all boundaries of race and age and economic status. We are isolated and disconnected, and it’s impacting our collective mental and physical health. 

And, as the Surgeon General put it, “you can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections.” Which means you can feel lonely even sitting in church or attending a social gathering. 

One of the ways we can counteract this epidemic of loneliness is by creating a culture of quality connections. And that is where the church in general, and Bethesda in particular, can have a huge and very practical impact on society. Connection is what people seek and connection is ultimately what we have to offer. Connection with Jesus, connection with one another. If you are feeling isolated or lonely, please do reach out to us. We want to get you connected at Bethesda. We want to be a place that facilitates and encourages deep and meaningful connections. We want to be a place that creates space and opportunities for people to move beyond superficial cocktail party conversation to creating profound connections based on authentic relationships. We are already doing that, and we hope to do more of it in the coming years. Because we all crave and need connection.

Last Sunday I sat in on our confirmation class and, in between enjoying a wide-ranging conversation about belief, we talked about what it means to be religious. And I shared with our confirmands that embedded within the word ‘religion’ is the root for the word ‘ligament’ — that’s the ‘lig’ in the middle of the word. And so religion itself is about being connected. Not connecting bone to bone, but connecting us to God and one another. We talked about how Jesus called the disciples not to follow him in isolation but he called them into a community. And I love that. Because it is all about connection.

Okay, we’ve gone from Froot Loops to Star Wars to loneliness to confirmation class this morning. But the connective tissue here is the importance of connection. Our connection with Jesus and our connection with one another. Jesus abides with us and encourages us to abide with one another. That’s the important stuff of life. Connection is what offers hope and gives life meaning. And I encourage you to seek out connections in your life, to cherish them, and to allow them to bring you ever closer to the very heart of God.


Third Sunday in Easter (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 23, 2023 (Easter 3A)

If I ever run into you in the parking lot at Publix and don’t immediately recognize you, please forgive me. It’s not just that I’m still pretty new around here — though, did I mention I’ve now made it through both Christmas and Easter at Bethesda? But there’s something about seeing someone out of context that seems to play tricks on the mind. Like when you see someone you know from the gym at the Green Market. Or when you run into your accountant at the beach.

But sometimes we never do make the connection until later in the day. We finally remember where we know that person from who looked so familiar to us. Right! That’s the woman who sits three pews in front of me every Sunday. Or around here, right! That’s the social media influencer I’ve seen on Instagram.

This story of Jesus and the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus, is predicated on the fact that the two men don’t immediately recognize their traveling companion. We hear that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” If only Jesus had been wearing his Bethesda name tag! 

But at one level you can’t blame them. Jesus was, after all, supposedly dead. The disciples were blinded by their profound and utter grief. They were demoralized, disappointed, dejected. Their hopes were dashed, everything they had believed about the one who was to redeem Israel, had not come to pass. Their lives were completely turned upside down. And they failed to recognize the stranger who joined them on their journey to Emmaus on the afternoon of that very first Easter Day.

But Jesus doesn’t get indignant or angry with them. He doesn’t grab them by the lapels, shake them, and say, ‘Hello?! It’s me!’ Rather he just keeps walking with them and talking with them. At one point we hear that, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Now, that must have been one heckuva Bible study. 

But this story always reminds me of the times in our own lives when we are utterly convinced that God is nowhere to be found. Times when we feel lost or lonely or abandoned. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve lost our faith or lost our way. But there are times and circumstances and situations when we simply can’t see or feel the divine presence in our lives. And those are hard moments. Like those two disciples walking along the road, we start to question what’s real and what we know to be true.

I’ll say this about those moments: they are often when Jesus is most fully present with us. Walking with us, encouraging us, loving us. Even when we don’t recognize him. Even when we are blind to his presence. And I, for one, take great solace in this.

The other truth is that so often it is only in retrospect that we recognize God’s hand at work. I’ve often questioned where God was, or what the heck he was doing, at particular challenging times in my own life, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s hard to see God when we’re in physical or emotional pain. When a loved one dies, when things in your life don’t go as you had hoped, when a relationship fractures.

And yet, so often when we look back, we can see Jesus. Leading us through the pain, guiding us to new perspectives, opening our hearts to his love. Even when we can’t see him in the midst of a particularly trying time, we can later see that he led us on a new or unexpected path. Or allowed us to experience God’s love in unanticipated ways.

The ongoing spiritual challenge is to see God at work in the present, not merely in retrospect. To migrate at least some of those moments of divine recognition to the here and now. To be reminded even in confusing times that Jesus is walking beside you. Like those two disciples walking along the road, you may not always be able to see him, but he is always able to see you. And we do well to remember this, even if it’s after the fact.

One of the things I think about sometimes is how amazing it would have been to have lived in first century ancient Palestine. I mean, it would have had its challenges — like leprosy, the lack of indoor plumbing, King Herod. But the opportunity to have actually met Jesus is pretty compelling. Frankly, it’s hard to read all these stories about him and not be at least a little jealous of the first followers of Jesus. 

But the Easter miracle is that coming face-to-face with the risen Christ is not limited to the first Christians, to the actual witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s not a matter of being in the right place at the right time. They’re not “luckier” than those of us who follow him today, or somehow more blessed. We too come face-to-face with the risen Christ. Jesus is made known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, just as he is made known to us in the breaking of our communion bread. The presence of Christ transcends the experiences of the first disciples, and what an incredible thing! We get to both know Jesus and have indoor plumbing.

And I’m reminded of that great Celtic poem known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate – words attributed to the saint himself – which speaks of Christ’s powerful presence in our lives. A wonderful reminder of Christ’s place along our own roads and journeys. You can find it in our Hymnal — number 370. But I love this section that speaks to the omnipresence of Jesus in our lives: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” 

Our journey itself is the Breastplate. We can walk boldly with faith, despite any obstacles we may encounter along the way, precisely because Christ is behind us and before us and beside us. That’s the power of the resurrection. Whether we recognize or fail to recognize the risen Christ, he is with us. Just as he was with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, just as he was revealed to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, so is the risen Christ with each one of us. 

Easter Day 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 9, 2023 (Easter Day)

Back when I was in the Army — and, frankly, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — but we used to have activities on the training calendar we affectionately referred to as “forced fun.” This usually consisted of some sort of competition between platoons – tug of war, relay races, things like that. They were supposed to build unit cohesion and boost morale, but everyone involved really just wanted to go back to the barracks and take a nap.

Forced fun, of course, doesn’t work. When you resort to using “forced” as an adjective, what follows is anything but fun. What we all knew, even if we didn’t quite articulate it this way, is that unless something is authentic, it falls flat. Fun can’t be forced any more than you can force joy. It must be spontaneous and organic. It must come from deep within. 

Here at Bethesda, there are so many outward manifestations of Easter joy this morning. The flowers, the music, the hats — I love the hats. And there will surely be others today — Peeps and jelly beans, Easter egg hunts, delicious brunches. And I love all of these things! Except Peeps. I’m really not a big fan of Peeps.

But on Easter, it’s important to take a step back and reflect upon the true source of our joy. Easter is indeed joyful — but not because of all those Easter-y things. Because in the end, Easter is not about the flowers, even though I’ve never been surrounded by such beautiful ones. Easter is not about the fancy clothes, though you all look fantastic. Easter is not about the music, stunning as it may be. Easter is not about the photo op, though I’m sure there will be plenty of pictures shared on Instagram today (please tag us). And it’s certainly not about the Peeps.

The source of our deep joy and gladness this day is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The joy of Easter is about the victory of life breaking the bonds of death; the triumph of hope over despair; the way of love conquering fear. The miracle of the empty tomb is what fuels and gives meaning to our celebration this morning. And there is nothing at all “forced” about that. 

Because there is nothing forced about the joy of knowing that Jesus loves you. And he loves you not in theory or in the abstract. Jesus loves you. Not part of you or only the parts you’re proud of. Jesus loves all of you. Despite what you’ve done, despite what you’ve left undone. Jesus loves you for who you are, for what you are. And who and what you are is a beloved child of God. Forgiven, redeemed, and loved with abundant abandon. 

That’s the good news the women at the empty tomb first discovered. And later shared with the male disciples. Who had all fled, by the way. If it weren’t for the women we heard about this morning, we wouldn’t even be here — with all our flowers and hats and Peeps. And it is this very good news of the resurrection that has been handed down to us over so many generations, the good news that has been preached in this place for nearly 100 years, the good news we have been entrusted with, to reflect upon, to revel in, and to share with others. 

You know, the beauty of the Christian faith is that when the sugar high wears off, when the Peeps have become stale (sorry, I seem to be a little obsessed with them), when the organ has been powered down, when brunch is over, when the euphoria of Easter Day subsides, we’re left not with emptiness, not with a great void but with something that abides. Something that endures. Something that transcends the transitory, fleeting nature of life – and that is our relationship with the risen Christ. 

That, my friends, is what the empty tomb is all about; it’s about unparalleled and unheard of intimate relationship with the God who so loved the world, that he gave his only son to live among us, and to die for us, and to be raised for us. And it’s why we delight in all the trappings of Easter joy. Even the Peeps.

May this Easter Day fill you with the joy of the risen Christ. May it open up for you an ever-deepening relationship with the God who banishes death and despair and offers us new life and hope. And may Christ’s victory over the grave remind you that you are indeed a beloved child of God. Alleluia and amen.

Good Friday 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 7, 2023 (Good Friday)

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” 

And so the words of a familiar hymn, often sung at Christmas pageants announcing the arrival of the three kings, come back to us on Good Friday. The Magi’s gift of “bitter perfume,” this embalming oil, finally makes sense. The foreshadowing of the seemingly odd gift of myrrh is realized on this day when we mark our Lord’s crucifixion. His broken body is taken down from the cross and prepared for burial with myrrh before being “sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

And just as myrrh itself has a bittersweet aroma, so is this day bittersweet to Christians throughout the world. Bitter in its agony; bitter in its indignity; bitter in its shamefulness. Yet sweet in its necessity for the redemption of the world; sweet in its act of love for all humankind; sweet in its atoning, once-for-all sacrifice. Good Friday is and must be bittersweet. For to minimize the bitterness of the cross is to gloss over its power. And to minimize its sweetness is to neglect its love. 

I’ve always thought the Good Friday symbolism of the Orthodox Church beautifully and poignantly captures this duality. As worshippers enter for the evening liturgy they encounter a rough-hewn wooden cross placed in the middle of the church, surrounded by Easter lilies. A compelling visual manifestation that the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is both bitter and sweet; that death and resurrection are intertwined and can never be separated. On Good Friday we anticipate our Lord’s resurrection, even as we reflect on the hard wood of the cross.

So amid all the images of crucifixion – the crown of thorns, the nails, the indignities, and the mockery – everything points forward to the resurrection. We know that soon enough, Jesus will be released from his three days’ prison. And to pretend we don’t would delve into the realm of play acting. Come Easter Day, we know the tomb will be empty and we can’t make believe that we don’t. Good Friday is not a “funeral” for Jesus. But even still, the violence of the cross is a bitter pill. The image of our Lord’s broken body hanging on a cross is seared into our consciousness. And we can imagine what those first disciples must have felt – the anguish, the loneliness, the feelings of abandonment, the despair, the heartbreak. 

Because in our own lives we are all familiar with such emotions. We have all experienced loss and pain and grief. Perhaps the whole notion of Good Friday is an apt metaphor for the human experience. Because life itself is often bittersweet. Our dreams are dashed; our expectations don’t meet reality; our hopes are met with disappointment. 

As we gather today, some of these wounds may still be open and raw for you; some, over time, may have built up scar tissue around them. But our very humanity binds us to the anguish of Good Friday. And the cross stands as the great connector that links the suffering of Jesus to our own suffering. Jesus’ humanity touches our own very human hearts.

And the good news embedded in the agony of our Lord’s death, is that we can leave our pain, drop our burdens, release our sorrows, shed our grief right there at the foot of the cross. We don’t have to hold it alone. Jesus, our constant companion, bears it with us and for us. He walks with us through the valley that can indeed feel like the shadow of death. And so even in the depths of our pain and brokenness, hope exists. A deep and abiding and life-giving hope. A hope that transcends even the most seemingly hopeless situation.

And so, even as the Savior of the world hangs upon the cross — bruised and broken, reviled and forsaken — the cross of Christ invites us into a place of hope and meaning. A place where salvation is freely offered and grace is abundantly poured out. Which is what makes this day “Good” Friday or, as the Orthodox call it, “Great” Friday.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Jesus’ death and burial is not the end of the story, merely a piece of it. It is bittersweet, yes, but it is decidedly not yet finished. Our journey continues.

Palm Sunday 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 2, 2023 (Palm Sunday)

This is a day of liturgical whiplash. We rapidly move from palms and shouts of “Hosanna” to the cross and cries of “crucify.” In an instant, we go from triumph to tragedy, from palms to Passion. And it’s a bit jarring, frankly. The swirl of emotions, the wild mood swings, the changing tone of the readings and music. In a single service we get the whole breadth of human emotion: joy, pain, elation, hope, discouragement, compassion, grief. And everything in between.

But this makes sense, when you think about it. Because the Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way, and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion. And in order to engage this way, we can’t leave our emotions out of the equation. That’s just not how the life of faith works.

Which is why it’s so painful to join in those cries of “crucify!” We don’t want to. It sticks in our throat. Like Pontius Pilate, we don’t want to take responsibility for Jesus’ death. We want to blame someone else, anyone else, for the crucifixion. The crowds, the chief priests, the Roman authorities. The Church itself has a long and shameful history of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death — which is a sordid and sinful misinterpretation of Scripture. And anyway, we weren’t even there. This all happened 2,000 years ago, after all. How could we be to blame?

And yet we are indeed complicit. Every time we stay silent in the face of injustice, we crucify Jesus. Every time we fail to lift up the downtrodden, we crucify Jesus. Every time we victimize the marginalized and innocent, whether intentionally or not, we crucify Jesus. And that is a bitter pill to swallow on a day that started with such enthusiastic waving of palms.

The good news is that this doesn’t make us horrible people. It’s just a reminder of our sinful, flawed humanity. And it points us back towards Jesus and our desperate need for a Savior. That’s where the hope of this day comes bursting through, and it sets us up for what is to come.

Because Palm Sunday stands as an entryway, a portal into the holiest week of the Christian year. Holy Week invites us to step into the very heart of the Christian story, the heart of our story. And when we join Jesus and one another on this journey, that’s when true transformation happens. That’s when our relationship with Jesus Christ grows in ways that are beyond what we could ever ask for or imagine. 

And so I invite you to embrace this journey. To walk with this community from the Upper Room at the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to the cross on Calvary, to the empty tomb. Whether this is your first Holy Week or your 80th, you will emerge with new insights and a changed heart. And over the next seven days, I encourage you to immerse yourself in the story, the liturgy, the music, the drama of the Christian faith. This is what it’s all about. This is why this church exists. And I look forward to walking this path with each and every one of you in the days ahead.

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 19, 2023 (Lent 4A)

So, if you’re a real student of the eucharistic lectionary — that three-year cycle of Sunday morning readings — and I’m sure that you are, you would know that last Sunday, this Sunday, and next Sunday give us the three longest gospel passages of the entire lexicon. (Well, besides the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday, but you get to sit through most of that). Last Sunday it was the woman at the well, today it’s the man born blind, and next week it’s the raising of Lazarus. All from John’s gospel. And all very, very long. Like, longer than the typical sermon long.

And these long passages in the last weeks before Palm Sunday and Holy Week signal that something is different. We’re preparing for something big and bold, something miraculous and holy. But in the meantime, we’re going long. 

But sometimes compelling stories just take a while to tell. It’s why the Cliffs Notes versions of books are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much is sacrificed on the altar of brevity. Unless you’re in middle school and you just don’t care enough to actually read through the entirety of Wuthering Heights. That’s totally hypothetical, by the way.

But this story about the man born blind is an engaging tale with a number of characters playing prominent roles. There’s the man himself and Jesus, of course, along with his disciples. But along the way we also meet his parents and a group of Pharisees. The story takes time to unfold and there are many layers to it.

And this particular very-long-passage involves a miracle story. Now, miracles are funny things. The danger is that we spend either too much time trying to explain the mechanics of them, while ignoring their overall significance. Or we spend too much time on metaphorical interpretations, while minimizing the truly miraculous. We can’t explain how this particular miracle of sight took place any more than we can explain how water turned into wine or how five loaves and two fish fed 5,000 people. That’s the thing about miracles: they defy human logic and explanation. And so rational, thinking Christians tend not to dwell upon them. ‘They’re fine for Sunday School lessons,’ we think, ‘but let’s just move on to something a bit more…tangible.’ This, of course, doesn’t do justice to the ministry of Jesus; nor does it leave open the possibility for the miraculous to touch our own lives. Our lack of faith, in other words, limits the power of God. Or at least attempts to.

What sets this story apart from other miraculous healings is that Jesus does something physical — he uses something other than his voice. And it even happens in two parts. The application of mud and spittle are followed by a wash in the pool of Siloam. So Jesus isn’t even present when the man’s sight is restored. His other healings take effect immediately with a simple word, a look, a touch, or a command: “Take up your mat and walk,” “Be opened,” “Go, your faith has made you well.” But the end result is the same. Someone is healed; a life is transformed.

But we also can’t ignore the metaphorical implications of this story. They are so prominent and such an integral part of this passage. Jesus has come into the world to give sight to the blind — quite literally in this story. But he has also come into the world to make God known to humanity. To open our eyes to see the hand of God at work in the world, and to offer salvation to those who have eyes to see. Our response is to either accept that which is set before us by Jesus, or close our eyes tightly like the Pharisees in this story and remain blinded by our own sinfulness.

And, of course, physical blindness, the inability to see with one’s eyes, has nothing to do with the blindness referred to by John. The Pharisees may have had 20/20 vision but they remain blind to the saving power of Jesus Christ. They turn a blind eye to Jesus. An action even more dramatically emphasized by the driving away of this formerly blind man. Out of sight, out of mind. 

So, blindness is not determined by physical sight but by the revelation of the works of God through the ministry of Jesus. And this point is made at the very beginning of this story. As the disciples come upon this blind beggar they ask Jesus whether this man or his parents sinned because he was born blind. Jesus tells them neither, that he was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The man is transformed from physical blindness into a person who can see, but the critical point for Jesus is his movement to spiritual sight. He now knows through personal experience, the saving power of Jesus Christ.

But it’s also worth pausing to examine the Pharisees’ initial question. Because there was an assumption in the ancient world that physical limitations or disabilities were the cause of sin. Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Our theology, thanks to Jesus, has moved beyond this limited perspective. But there’s still a nagging sense that someone who doesn’t meet the physical ideals of perfection is somehow weak or less than whole.

In my own case, you can’t help but notice that I have some palsy on the right side of my face. I don’t have a traditional “winning smile.” I recently heard speculation that it was the result of my time in the Army — that an unspecified accident was involved. And as much as I’d love a glamorous backstory, the reality is that I was simply born with some nerve damage on that side of my face. I rarely think about it, these days. And, frankly, when I was growing up, more people made fun of my last name than my mouth. 

When I was in my early 20s, a doctor told me that they could probably minimize the appearance through surgery. And I thought a lot about whether to pursue that. But in the end, I just thought this is part of who I am and how God created me, and decided not to do anything about it. Has it impacted me? Sure. It’s probably contributed to my rather dry sense of humor. But more importantly, I think it’s given me compassion for those who are different — physically or emotionally — than what’s held up as the Madison Avenue vision of perfection. The reality is that we are all flawed by virtue of our humanity, whether on the inside or the outside. And Jesus loves us anyway; Jesus loves you anyway. Thanks be to God.

The truth is that we all spend a lot of time in blindness. We’re blind to the suffering that surrounds us in our world and in our communities. We’re blind to the miraculous in our midst. We’re blind to the love of Jesus that pervades our lives. And blindness, like ignorance, can be bliss. It’s much easier to remain isolated and stay within our own carefully constructed worlds than it is to open our eyes to the pain and sin that surrounds us. 

Yet Jesus invites us to do just that. He invites us to open our eyes to the miracle of his presence in our everyday lives. To open our eyes to the opportunities to serve others in his name. And sometimes it takes a rather long story to help us see and experience the full power of his love.

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 5, 2023 (Lent 2A)

There was a big trend a number of years ago — starting in about the mid-1980s — towards so-called seeker services. The premise was that there were large groups of people who were curious about the Christian faith, but not fully committed to it. Perhaps they used to go to church but just didn’t feel like it was relevant to their lives, or maybe they hadn’t grown up with any religious tradition, but were seeking some sort of a connection with God.

Seeker services tried all sorts of different ways to draw people in. The thought being that the traditional liturgy and music of the church either didn’t resonate or was just too old-fashioned and boring to be relevant to today. No one could ever really agree about what would entice these seekers to come to church and get them to stay. But many of these services were full of contemporary music or praise bands, the clergy didn’t wear vestments or clerical collars, there were no vested choirs, the sermons — or talks, really — were informal and relied heavily on multimedia presentations. Now if this all sounds amazing to you, you might just be in the wrong place this morning.

But the prevailing wisdom was that unchurched people were turned off by tradition and formality, and so churches tried to create alternative worship experiences, with an emphasis on popular culture, coffee bars, and comfortable seats. Now, that part doesn’t sound bad.

But I think these efforts minimized the fact that, at heart, we are all seekers. Whether this is our first Sunday at church in many years, or we’ve been faithfully coming every Sunday for generations, not a single one of us has it all figured out; we are all seeking answers to life’s deepest questions. Jesus says, “Seek and ye shall find.” And that is a large part of our job as Christians. To keep seeking answers, to keep seeking Jesus. And I trust that that’s part of what draws us to this place. To stand at the intersection of ancient tradition and cultural relevance. And   together, to seek out the one who calls us each by name and and loves us unconditionally and with reckless abandon. 

This morning we encounter Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus was quite clearly a seeker. He was intrigued by what he’d heard about Jesus and wanted to learn more. He was a seeker of the truth, a seeker of the meaning of life, a seeker of a deeper spiritual connection to God.

He also, very significantly, came to Jesus at night, by cover of darkness. As a leader in the Jewish community, Nicodemus wielded both religious and political power. He was a member of the establishment, a Pharisee, and it would have been rather scandalous for him to be seen with Jesus, this man who was upsetting the status quo and turning tradition on its head. People in Nicodemus’ circle were certainly talking about Jesus, and the talk was not positive. He was a threat to their authority, a loose cannon, someone who often broke religious norms in order to make God more readily known. All of that healing on the sabbath and eating with the wrong people — and not only that, he was popular! Crowds were drawn to him, people were listening to him, which undermined the Pharisees’ grip on religious authority and made people question the long-standing traditions of the religious elite. 

So, at one level it would have been easy for Nicodemus to just stay in his own world, certainly safer. He was a big shot, after all, with a lot to lose. But something was sparked deep in his soul when he first heard about Jesus. And he wanted to learn more. He didn’t want to necessarily risk his standing in his own community, but still, he was drawn to this new teacher. A new truth was emerging, and Nicodemus was seeking after it.

I think we can all relate to Nicodemus in the sense that we’re sometimes hesitant to fully commit, to fully give our lives over to Jesus Christ. Because we know if we do, it will lead to sacrifices. To fully be a disciple of Jesus, we need to give some things up — control, for one. “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Comfort, for another. Jesus so often calls us out of our respective comfort zones, out of our insular and safe worlds. He challenges our assumptions about the world and the people around us. But also the way we live and order our lives. Because to follow Jesus is to constantly be examining the priorities of our lives; it forces us to think about the ways in which we interact with other people. 

And, here’s the really hard part, we can’t make life all about us; rather it must be all about God. And that runs counter to so many of our instincts. So, while we crave control and comfort and continuity, Jesus calls us out of all that. To a place of deep connection with the divine, to a place of hope and meaning and love. And ultimately, that’s what we all, like Nicodemus, seek. That yearning is what makes us seekers. Seekers of Jesus. People who seek to follow Jesus. People who often stumble along the way or make a mess of things. But then the one who calls us each by name, invites us to keep seeking after him. Day after day, month after month, year after year.

You know, while we may not have a praise band or a giant video screen, I still like to think of what we do here as a seeker service of sorts. Not because we’re trying to use market research or consumer trends to figure out what people are looking for in a worship experience, but because we all remain seekers of a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And this place, through architecture and music and liturgy, through the relationships we have with one another, this place helps orient us towards God. It captures the mystery of the divine presence in our lives, which is something that can never be contained or quantified. 

When I was a dashing young curate at Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore — the ‘dashing’ part was a joke — we did start what was basically a seeker service. But in light of what was happening in mega churches around the country, we thought of it as something of an anti-seeker service. It was a short 30-minute service of ancient chant led by a small schola of singers, with candlelight, and just a hint of incense. There was very intentionally no sermon or collection.We called it Vespers and it basically followed the structure of a sung service of compline, the  church’s night prayers. We held it on Sunday evenings and advertised it in the local paper with the tagline “God’s Not Just a Morning Person.” I’m not sure if they’re still doing it, but it really resonated, especially with younger folks — students and people living downtown. I’m not sure what that might look like in this context, or if it makes any sense to try something like that, but Nicodemus at least got me wondering and pondering. So, who knows?

In the end, of course, Nicodemus leaves the cover of darkness to follow Jesus. He walks boldly into the light as he very publicly removes Jesus’ body from the cross and lays it in the tomb. He is no longer a secret follower of Jesus, but a true disciple. He remains a seeker, as we all do. He keeps seeking after Jesus, as we all do.

Ash Wednesday 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 22, 2023 (Ash Wednesday)

I’m not a big fan of makeup mirrors. The only time I ever see myself in one is when I accidentally, and horrifyingly, glance over at one in a hotel bathroom. Now, I realize some of you are used to this view, but I’m not. And so it’s always rather jarring when I look up and come face-to-face with that magnified, hyper close-up image staring back at me. It’s shocking to see all of those blemishes in high definition, and I quickly avert my eyes.

In a sense, Ash Wednesday is a makeup mirror kind of day. Our entrance into the season of Lent compels us to take stock of our lives and gaze deeply into the intentions of our hearts. We can’t just take a superficial glance in the mirror, as we might check our hair in the hall mirror on our way out the door. Today requires a deeper look. 

And the reality is that it’s not always a pleasant view. We are sinful beings in need of repentance. That doesn’t necessarily make us bad people, it’s just a reality of the human condition. 

But one way we authentically look into the mirror, as the ash Wednesday liturgy starkly highlights, is by confessing our sins. We do this every Sunday, of course, as part of the General Confession. We look in the mirror and acknowledge those things we have done, and those things we have left undone. We say we’re sorry, we promise to do better, and we are absolved of our sins in the name of Jesus. And this cycle of confession, repentance, and the assurance of forgiveness should be, must be, a regular part of our spiritual lives. It both holds us accountable and reminds us of God’s loving mercy; of God’s joy for the one who repents and returns to the Lord. 

But today is a makeup mirror kind of day. And so we can’t just say the words and move on with the service which, if we’re honest, sometimes happens on Sunday mornings. As we prayed at the start of this service, we gather today to “lament our sins” and “acknowledge our wretchedness.” That’s hard language. But it does shake us out of the complacency of confession that often marks our words on Sunday morning. It helps to both pierce and open our hearts.

On Sundays one of the priests says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” We usually leave at least a few moments of silence before launching into the confession. “Most merciful God…” But if you’re really struggling with something you’ve done or left undone, those few moments aren’t really enough space in which to fully reflect and repent. Before you know it, we’ve confessed, been absolved, moved on the Peace, and suddenly someone’s trying to shake your hand while you’re still trying to acknowledge your wretchedness.

Ash Wednesday spreads this out. In many ways it’s an extended version of that brief silence between the bidding of the confession and the confession itself. And I encourage you to embrace it. To spend the time to lament and acknowledge that which stands between you and God. That’s what sin is, after all. It’s that which separates you from the love of God.

And God wants to remove any barriers, anything that keeps you at a distance. God wants you within reach, not at arm’s length. Which is why confessing our sins, removing those obstacles, brings us into deeper relationship with the risen Christ. And it’s precisely why I don’t think you can talk about sin without talking about love. 

That may sound counterintuitive. But Lent in general, and Ash Wednesday in particular, isn’t merely a time set aside to feel bad about ourselves. We may all be “miserable offenders” with “no health in us” as the old confession from the 1928 Prayer Book put it. But that’s not our full identity. We are beloved children of God who, out of shame or fear, fall away and turn away and run away from God’s deep and abiding love for us. In a word, we are human. And God loves us anyway. Deeply and unconditionally.

In a few moments, you will be invited, in the name of the Church, into the observance of a “holy Lent.” And I think it’s helpful to reflect upon what this means. And to remember that, popular misconceptions aside, we are not invited to keep a miserable Lent or a guilt-ridden Lent or a gloomy Lent or even a wretched Lent, but a holy Lent. And holy simply means “set apart for God.” You, in all your imperfections, have been set apart for God. Because God loves you. And in the same way, we are invited to set apart some time for God. Through prayer, worship, reading, whatever your particular Lenten devotion may be. Whatever allows you to set apart some time to spend with God.

As you enter into this holy season, I invite you to acknowledge not just your sinfulness, but God’s loving grace. These ashes aren’t just a reminder of your own mortality, but a sign of God’s abundant and abiding love for you. Remember that you are dust, yes, but remember also that you are God’s beloved child. That Jesus rejoices at your presence this day; forgives you when you humbly repent of your sinfulness; and seeks after you in goodness and mercy all the days of your life. 

I look forward to walking into the wilderness of Lent with all of you this year. May we emerge emboldened in our faith, and be drawn ever nearer to the heart of Jesus.

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 19, 2023 (Last Epiphany)

Preachers often like to connect the appointed readings to a story in their own life. When it’s done well, this can help illuminate the text, give it some texture, and make it relevant to modern listeners. When it’s done poorly, the sermon becomes less about pointing everyone towards Jesus and more about pointing everyone towards the preacher. Which is decidedly not the point.

When it comes to the story of the Transfiguration, however, I got nothing. It’s hard to point to a time in my life where I had a similar experience to Peter, James, and John up on that mountaintop. The blinding light, the appearance of long-dead prophets, the booming voice from the heavens. On those rare occasions when I’ve hiked up a mountain, the only thing I ever encountered at the peak was a nice view and a Cliff Bar.

But while this dramatic and rather confusing story may not be entirely relatable to experiences in our own lives, it does hold some key lessons for us as followers of Jesus. It also brings to a close this season after the Epiphany, this season of light that began with a star hovering over the manger, and ends with the blinding light of the transfigured Jesus. Just as the incarnation of Jesus was revealed by the Star of Bethlehem, the resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed by the transfiguration. And it sets us up to carry that light with us into the wilderness of Lent, as we make our preparations for Easter. But all of that is ahead of us. We have one more Sunday to belt out the Alleluias before silencing them for 40 days and 40 nights.

The point is, that when Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white and his face shines like the sun, the disciples are given a glimpse of the resurrection right here on earth. They are privileged with a foretaste of the reign of Christ that is to come. And they receive that undeniable affirmation of Jesus’ identity when they hear God’s voice proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

The Transfiguration is quite literally a mountaintop experience, a moment when a great truth is revealed. As bewildering and disorienting as it all is, it offers clarity about who Jesus is. And Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a nice guy or someone who likes to subvert the status quo. He is the son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. And that is the only explanation for what takes place on that holy mountain.

We actually get two mountaintop experiences this morning. In addition to Jesus’ journey with his most trusted disciples, we hear the story of Moses heading up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. And light continues to be a major theme here. Besides Jesus’ face shining like the sun and a bright cloud overshadowing them, in Exodus we hear that the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. In Scripture, seminal and life-changing events take place on mountaintops. 

But the true miracle of the mountain isn’t just what transpired and what was transfigured up on that holy hill. It’s also a mountaintop experience for you and me; we are spiritually transported up the mountain to take in the stunning vista of Christ’s resurrection glory. A glory foreshadowing the resurrection to Peter, James, and John, and a glory foretelling Jesus’ eventual return to us. And that’s an awful lot to take in. 

Yet the beauty of this moment for us is that it doesn’t require us to “do” anything. We can simply stand in awe and contemplate the mysteries of the divine. Sometimes that is enough. And in that sense, we do have relatable moments. When we walk on the beach in the morning and take in the sunrise, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. When we spend time on a mountaintop or out on the water or in the memorial garden, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. Mountaintops are all around us if we’re willing to see them.

So, the transfiguration is ultimately a symbol of hope. For the disciples, it was a form of encouragement. A recognition that while things would soon get dark — Jesus would be crucified, the disciples would be scattered — resurrection was coming.

And we need to hold onto hope in our own lives. When life is hard and we’re suffering, when the news is full of the latest mass shooting or the unfathomable destruction of a devastating earthquake, it’s helpful to fix our eyes on that mountaintop and take in the image of Jesus in all his glory. Sometimes that’s all we have to cling to. And it is enough. Jesus is enough. But when we’re still unsure, when we’re still uncertain, that voice from the heavens serves as a reminder: “Listen to him.” If you endure, if you hold onto hope, Jesus will draw you to himself and you will be not only embraced by his resurrection glory, but transformed through it. You will become a new creation, born of the spirit and sanctified by his presence.

And through this process of transformation, you can then embody what it means to live a transfigured life. You can be salt and light in the world. You can be illuminated by Christ’s presence in your life and shine forth with God’s love in the world around you. 

After all of the drama, we hear that the disciples were “overcome by fear.” Now, in our recent Sunday forum on Wisdom literature in the Bible, the concept of holy fear came up several times. There’s that line from Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This doesn’t mean we’re supposed to tremble in fear at the thought of God. In this case, fear is best thought of or translated as “awe.” And to hear that Peter, James, and John were overcome by fear at the wonder and awe of God is right. But let’s be honest. They were also terrified. Jesus was glowing, they saw two long-dead prophets, and then that voice boomed out of the heavens. I don’t know about you, but I’d be cowering behind the nearest boulder.

So, it’s no wonder the disciples fell to the ground in fear. But what does Jesus do? He comes over to them, gently touches them, and says in a quiet voice, “Get up and do not be afraid.” What a touching, intimate, pastoral moment. After the sound and light show, Jesus’s compassion in the face of fear is so powerful. Human touch is powerful. 

I think about those dark days of the pandemic when human touch was eliminated from our common life. And how painful that was for so many of us. Not just the “huggers” among us, but the heartbreaking situations when families couldn’t gather to hold their loved ones at the end of life. Those final farewells said over Zoom, rather than with hands being held. Jesus reaches out and touches the terrified disciples. 

Allow Jesus to reach out and touch you. To place his hand upon your shoulder, gaze deeply into your eyes, and fill you with his peace. Jesus wants nothing more than to drive away the fear from your life. To love you unconditionally. To bring peace to your soul. To illuminate your heart with light and joy.

That’s the power of the transfiguration. That’s the joy of the journey. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

5th Sunday after Epiphany 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 5, 2023 (Epiphany 5A)

One of the things I love to do around here is walk down South County Road at night and see The Breakers all lit up. Every night it’s beautifully illuminated and you can almost feel the spirit of Henry Flagler emanating from those two towers.

But then as I walk back towards Barton Avenue, I’m also keenly aware that the graceful and majestic Bethesda tower is shrouded in darkness. Not only is it not lit up, but unless you’re looking for it, you could easily pass right on by and not even notice it.

One of the things Jesus says in this morning’s gospel passage is, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” In other words, light is to be revealed, not concealed. The message of Jesus must be shared widely rather than kept hidden. It must see the light of day, rather than remain in the shadows.

Now, I’d love to see Bethesda all lit up at night. Not just because it would be dramatic, but because it would be tangible evidence that Bethesda stands as a beacon of hope and love for all the world to see. For that is what this place both is and aspires to be. To serve as a light in the darkness, to offer grace and compassion to a broken and hurting world, to inspire us all to love and serve the Lord.

But in order to fully make this happen, we need your help. No, I’m not trolling for a donor for for new exterior lighting. But, hold onto your wallets, because today is Stewardship Sunday, which means I’ll be talking about money.

There’s an old stewardship joke — and, believe me, stewardship jokes are a pretty niche thing — but the preacher gets up into the pulpit and he says, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the church has all the money it needs. It has enough to take care of our buildings, enough to fund our outreach ministries, enough to provide for excellent worship, enough to add some needed staff. That’s the good news. The bad news is that’s it’s all in your pockets.”

Here at Bethesda, as in all Episcopal parishes, we hold an annual campaign that invites people to make a financial pledge to support the ongoing ministries of the parish in the coming year. This is how we keep the lights on and pay staff and maintain our buildings. It’s how we formulate our parish budget. Some of you have pledged for many years — and I’m grateful. Some of you are new to Bethesda and perhaps new to the whole concept of pledging at a church — and so this is an invitation. And some of you, perhaps, used to pledge but either got out of the habit or haven’t been here in a while — and I welcome you back.

But beyond the fact that the church needs financial resources to make a difference in the world, making a pledge — for whatever amount — is a statement of faith. It’s an articulation of your values. It’s a way of driving a stake into the ground and proclaiming that Bethesda matters to you. It’s a tangible declaration that you are an integral part of this vibrant community of faith. It’s an affirmation that you belong here, that you are inspired by what happens here, that this is your spiritual home. And so, I invite you to give generously this year.

You know, sometimes in church we don’t want the preacher to talk about money. But the reality is that Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. He knew that we often have complicated relationships with money. When we turn it into an idol, it can have destructive consequences. When we recognize it as a gift from God, sharing our resources can bring us great joy and freedom. Money has the potential to unleash so much good in the world. But its pursuit can also destroy lives — both physically and spiritually. And so in church, it’s essential that we occasionally talk about money. Not just because the church needs it to function and thrive, but because we all have a need to give it away; to live with generous hearts.

Please know that I will always be transparent about the financial needs of this community. Obfuscation has no place here. This year’s budget is lean, and it’s not a sustainable model in the long term, not if we want to build the programs that will allow us to thrive as bearers of the gospel in this community and beyond. We were able to pull a few levers and draw on some untapped funds, but our collective giving needs to increase by a minimum of 20% in order to reach our full ministry potential. Our overall giving number is budgeted at $2.5 million this year. But it really needs to be closer to $3.5 million if we want to really light this church up, illuminate the hearts and minds of those who call Bethesda home, and reach out to those who have not yet found a home here.

As I mentioned at last week’s Annual Meeting, one of my initial observations in my first few months as your rector is that there are several hires we need to make in order to fully live into our potential. We need the right staffing to work with and support our lay leaders in several key areas. One of these is development and engagement, which is non-profit-ese for fundraising and keeping people connected. We need someone to engage with parishioners and build relationships and work with me and our Vestry to lay out a strategy for sustaining Bethesda in the long term. 

Another area is children’s ministry — we have some wonderful, committed families at Bethesda. But we need a vibrant program in order to draw in new families. I know that we often shrug our shoulders and talk about “demographics” when we bemoan the lack of families around here, but they’re out there. And they continue to move to this area. We need to invest in the human and programmatic resources to draw them here. 

One of the important points in reading this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is that it isn’t addressed to individuals. He’s not telling just you or me to be salt and light in the world. He’s speaking to a community. In the same way, the financial stewardship of this place doesn’t just fall on a few of us, but it is the responsibility of all of us. Collectively, as a community of faith, we can be salt and light in the world at all times. And collectively, we can use our resources to propel Bethesda into a vibrant and faithful future, to be a light in this community and beyond.

Thank you for generously supporting this place, even if that means stretching just a little bit. I get so excited thinking about all that we can accomplish together in Jesus’ name. And I hope you do too. May God bless us all in the year ahead.