2016 Patronal Feast (Rector’s Annual Adress)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 31, 2016
(St. John the Evangelist)

What a difference a year makes! Last year at this time we were in the midst of a great transition at St. John’s; a tidal wave of transition. We were juggling search committees — for a new organist, a new curate, and a new church school director. We were raising money for a new boiler. We were shoveling snow. Again. And, while I’m not sure it always showed on the outside, staff and volunteers alike were scrambling to keep things running relatively smoothly during what was an unusual period in the life of the congregation.

Now, the transition was all due to “natural causes” — a deacon, curate, organist, and 12509625_10208293170037652_7598648998966109163_n
youth minister all happened to leave within the same few months and all for good reasons. It was unusual, to be sure, but it also afforded us a great opportunity to reevaluate our staffing needs in light of the priorities we outlined through the Charting Our Course strategic planning process.

Through the congregational feedback process, at both the vestry level and for me personally, we heard what was important to all of you and we acted on it: youth ministry, adult education, pastoral care, music — all of the priorities we identified have been addressed either programmatically or through staffing. And while I have my own opinions about how things are going these days, I most value what so many of you have told me: that the parish has never felt so active and vibrant, that there is a spirit at St. John’s that feels both holy and energizing; that the worship and music are transcendent; that we’ve assembled an inspired team of staff members to help us carry out our mission; that the presence of God has infused this community in very tangible ways.

All of which is testimony to the fact that we have emerged from a period of great transition and, if we’re honest with ourselves, a fair amount of uncertainty, stronger, more faithful, and better positioned to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ on the South Shore. Yes, I feel a sense of relief at having made it through a trying year and also a great deal of satisfaction as I look around this place and soak in all the good things that are happening.

Last year, during my Annual Address, I encouraged you to “Get a good look at the back of the bulletin — because, God willing, the staff listing will be a lot different in the months ahead.” Oh, and it is. If the previous year was all about “goodbyes,” this year we did a lot of welcoming. We welcomed Buffy Gray as our organist-choirmaster, we welcomed Noah Van Niel as our curate, we welcomed Alexis MacElhiney as our church school director. And I have to say, I much prefer the welcoming. Especially when it comes to welcoming such extraordinarily gifted and committed people to St. John’s.

One of the things I love about having Father Noah around here — besides getting to hang out with Vincent on a regular basis — is the fresh perspective he brings. Yes, to the parish and to our collective spiritual life — but also in the ways he invites me to think about situations and experiences that I may have taken for granted. In one of our weekly mentoring sessions, he asked me, “How do you approach the Annual Meeting?” And my first answer was fairly flip — “stressfully.” I mean, there are reports to collect and collate and proofread and there’s a lot of work that goes into the whole process and there’s always the deep rooted, if irrational, fear that something will arise to divide the congregation.

But then as we talked more about it, I started focusing on the things I love about the Annual Meeting. So much of life in ministry is deadline driven — sermons, bulletins, newsletters, planning for the next liturgical season — in other words just trying to make it through the week. And it occurred to me that what I really appreciate about the Annual Meeting isn’t so much the meeting itself but the preparation involved. Because in order to prepare for it, you must take a step back, you must go to the mountaintop to see the bigger picture, to get up into the balcony and reflect upon the whole operation — in order to get an authentic grasp on how things are going; to see what opportunities await and what challenges might arise.

photo 4-1And so taking the time to head up to the mountaintop, whatever the impetus, is important. And it’s a pretty nice view these days. Here are some things that I’ve observed.

  1. We have an incredible group of parishioners at St. John’s. People who are passionate about their faith — not just in the abstract — but who are living it out in their daily lives. People who care deeply for one another. People who are eager to engage with and deepen their faith. People who want to make a difference in the world.
  2. We have a truly amazing staff. People who view their work in the church as a calling. People who take the initiative and are willing to try new ideas and take new approaches to ministry. People who are willing to work within the guidelines of our broader mission while not being afraid to fail. People who enjoy doing ministry with one another and with all of you.
  3. We have been drawing many new individuals and families to St. John’s over the past several months. This is, of course, a sign of vitality and growth but also a reminder that, in Jesus Christ, we are offering something that people so deeply desire.
  4. We are blessed with many generous parishioners who take their financial stewardship seriously. People who give from their hearts because they believe in the mission of St. John’s and recognize that we can only do what we do here because of one another.
  5. We have a beautiful church. I mean, the landscaping project out front — wow. It was funded by several parishioners who saw a need and decided to do something about it, so it wasn’t funded out of our operating budget. Not everyone can see a need and address it on that scale but we can all see things that need doing and, rather than complaining, just take care of it (with proper committee approval, of course). And so I continue to be inspired not just by the greater curb appeal itself but by the process by which it came about.

So how do we keep this moving forward? How do we insure that this moment of satisfaction doesn’t morph into complacency and spiritual lethargy? Well, that’s easy, really. We focus on those two simple words Jesus speaks to Peter, as recorded by John the Evangelist: “Follow me.” Because when we take seriously Jesus’ call to discipleship, there’s no time to pat ourselves on the back.

And so, embedded within these observations are four goals that I have discerned for the year ahead. Goals that, with some prayer and hard work, are utterly attainable.

  1. We must continue to do exactly what Jesus invites us to do; to “follow” him. Deeper discipleship is an abiding goal of every individual Christian and Christian community. And so, going deeper through devotion and embracing opportunities to be formed more profoundly in Christ, remains our first priority.
  2. Related to this, we can’t let this parish become a “staff run” church. Yes, we have some incredibly talented and committed folks here. But their jobs aren’t to do everything for us but rather to enable us to grow in faith. They are here to support and lead but also to nurture and raise up. They are partners with us in ministry not doers of ministry for us.
  3. It’s fabulous that we have more people coming to St. John’s. Attendance is up, participation in programs is up, giving is at an all-time high. But we must all be attentive to newcomer incorporation. We can’t let new members of the parish navigate the wilderness on their own and hope they find their niche here. We all must be better at engaging and inviting and connecting new members to ministries at St. John’s. That’s not someone else’s job, that’s your job.
  4. This is an expensive place to run. The buildings — the church, the parish hall, the rectory, and the curate’s residence aren’t getting any younger. And being fully staffed, the personnel costs, including benefits, continue to rise. While we had a balanced budget last year, we are presenting a slight deficit budget in 2016. I’m confident we will make up the difference but with rising costs, we need to face reality about our financial future. We need to grow the endowment and encourage those who can give more but are not, for whatever reason, to increase their annual financial commitment to St. John’s if things are to remain financially sustainable in the long run.

“Follow me.” There’s a holy urgency to this command. “Drop everything and follow me.” Not after we’ve finished doing the dishes or figured out how to balance the budget or put the baby down for a nap. But right now, in this very moment. Following Jesus is precisely what has brought us to this point. And following Jesus is what will allow us to thrive in the days, months, and years ahead.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. And to share the peace of God that truly does surpass all understanding.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 24, 2016 (Epiphany 3, Year C)

If you’ve ever applied for a job and read the accompanying position description you know that most employers want…everything. They require a dizzying array of skills that no single person can possibly have. Now, most jobs require some general competence or technical skill that you either have or you don’t. I’d never get hired as, say, a carpenter — since the worst grade I ever got in my entire life was in 6th grade shop class — or a dance instructor — since the last time I danced was at my wedding.

But in addition to specific skills, many jobs put seemingly unrealistic expectations on candidates. They want a detail oriented visionary; a diligent and painstaking researcher who is also an outgoing people person; someone young and energetic but with 40 years experience.

A church succeeds because of the talents and skills of many, not just the clergy or staff, but everybody who brings different gifts and experiences and opinions which, when offered up to the glory of God, strengthen and enrich the Body of Christ that is the church.

I mean, if we were all carpenters, we might have the most beautiful pews in the world, exquisite hand-crafted kitchen cabinets, a bathroom with a dazzling tongue and groove toilet paper dispenser, but our financial records might be in disarray. Or if we were all bankers, we might have beautifully organized spreadsheets outlining a diverse portfolio of investments but the altar flowers might be a disaster. Of course some carpenters are also wizards with a spreadsheet and some bankers can arrange flowers like Martha Stewart. But the point is, there are a variety of gifts and skills needed for a community to thrive. Collectively we have them but individually we do not. This is the joy of being part of a community; we are stronger together than we are as isolated individuals.

body-of-christAnd it’s what St. Paul is driving at in his First Letter to the Corinthians; this “body language” discourse in which he memorably tells us that, just as the body is one yet has many members, so it is that we are collectively the Body of Christ. The idea is to recognize and enable the gifts in one another and then offer them all to the glory of God through the mission and ministry of the church.

As is often the case with Paul’s letters, he was writing to an early Christian community in Corinth that was getting it wrong. The epistles weren’t written simply to say “hello;” Paul didn’t write his letters just to “check in” or tell people that the weather was beautiful in Thessalonika. He was usually writing to address a specific issue that had come up in the community. In this case, the Corinthians were using their spiritual gifts to “compete” with one another. To lift themselves up as individuals rather than the community as a whole. A practice that had led to the divisions which Paul sought to address.

It’s also helpful to remember that Paul points us to unity not uniformity. And there’s a big difference here. We can be as one in the Spirit yet disagree. That’s one of the things I love most about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican theological tradition. That while we hold core beliefs that bind us together, there is room to debate and disagree and that this is not discouraged but rather embraced as it allows us to rejoice in the diversity of our differences.

Nothing has been a better reminder of this than the recent actions taken by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion. You may have seen some of the headlines about the Episcopal Church that made the rounds last week. “Anglican Leaders Suspend Episcopal Church” or variations on the theme. It’s not everyday that we make CNN or The New York Times, so this tends to stand out. The problem is that the headlines weren’t just misleading, they were wrong. The Episcopal Church wasn’t “suspended” — the leaders of the member churches don’t have that authority and nothing will change here at St. John’s or in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

But, based on the actions of last’s year’s General Convention that approved same sex marriage rites, we were asked not to participate in several global ecclesiastical meetings for the next three years. Which may not sound like much of a consequence. I mean, only in the church would not being allowed to attend church meetings be seen as some sort of punishment. But, while not a suspension, it was an attempt to censure us for acting in a way that is not accepted by the majority of Anglican bishops.

Of course relationship is much more nuanced than any headline can convey. So here’s the deal. The worldwide Anglican Communion is made up of 38 autonomous provinces, each headed by an archbishop or, in the case of our own Episcopal Church, what we call the Presiding Bishop. They gathered in Canterbury, England, the titular seat of the Church of England, the tradition out of which the member churches derive. While some of the churches agree with us, notably the Church in Canada and Australia, many of the other church leaders, especially those from parts of Africa and Asia, oppose the action the Episcopal Church took. Hence the unfortunate headlines.

973a855c-a839-4e9e-9898-9e15f6aa765bOur own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, like any good leader of a Christian community, brings us back again and again to the heart of the gospel. In light of the actions and accusations of the bishops of the global south he said, “ Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

In other words, we, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, are seeking to follow Jesus in the most faithful way we know how. And I hope we will continue to walk with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree. But it’s complicated. Interwoven into the relationship between and among members of the Anglican Communion are contextual and cultural differences. There remains the heavy weight of colonialism and the hubris of the modern Western world. There are differing world views based upon the interpretation of Scripture and the context in which one’s faith is lived out.

Now, in the end I do think the Episcopal Church’s stance will be seen as prophetic. Love will win. Though probably not in my own lifetime and perhaps not even in the next generation. But in the meantime we will stay in relationship with our Anglican brothers and sisters because we are poorer without them, just as they are poorer without us. We need all of our body parts, as Paul might put it, in order to fully be the Body of Christ that is the holy Church of God in the world. Because relationship matters; the Anglican Communion matters; and I believe we have a responsibility to keep speaking up for the dignity of all human beings, regardless of sexual preference or identity.

So to me, staying in relationship is the greater spiritual challenge. As with any relationship it’s often easier to storm off and leave when disagreements arise. Staying and working things out is the hallmark of a valued relationship. It takes being vulnerable and listening and not rushing to judgment even if we are convinced beyond all measure that we are right. There are things we can learn from one another, and there are things we can teach one another.

As Bishop Curry put it to his colleagues at the end of the meeting in Canterbury: “God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow church leaders [Primates] in the Anglican family.” And to that we can all say ‘amen.’

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after Christmas 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 3, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year C)

Every Christmas, Bryna and I spend some time looking at old Christmas pictures of the boys. We have a few photo albums we cherish but increasingly these are all online, embedded in old Facebook posts. We look at pictures of Ben and Zak and reminisce about simpler times — times when I was still taller than Ben and times before Zak had discovered video games. The chaos of the toddler years melts away and all we see are the sacred memories of that young family that was.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have the luxury of photographs to remember Jesus B and Zas a cute infant or a rambunctious toddler. But I’m sure, like all parents with growing children, they occasionally stole a quiet moment to reflect on their rapidly maturing son; to fondly recall rocking him to sleep or telling him a favorite bedtime story.

Of course, we know nothing of Jesus’ life from after the birth narrative until this story when we briefly meet the 12-year-old Jesus. After this fleeting glimpse, that’s it until his baptism in the River Jordan at the hand of John the Baptist — an account of which we’ll hear next week. And at one level, that’s too bad. How great would it be to have some anecdotes that foreshadow his future ministry? Healing a friend on the playground who accidentally got hit in the head with a rock or changing water into Kool Aid.

But while we’re not left with much, we are left with this one story of the “tween” Jesus. A story that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and certainly resonates with parents of middle schoolers everywhere. Because as we know, the image of our cute, young toddler doesn’t last forever. They mature, they grow, they seek and gain increasing amounts of independence and responsibility.

So it is that Jesus acts like, well, a teenager and ditches his parents after the annual family trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. He stays to teach in the Temple, like the precocious adolescent that he must have been. And when they find him, he gives them that great line which only the Son of God could ever get away with: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He may sound like a weisenheimer, but in reality he is forging his own identity and taking the first steps to claiming his calling as God’s son.

Mary and Joseph were no doubt hurt by Jesus’ words and actions but no more than every parent is hurt the first time our sweet young child doesn’t want to be seen with us when they run into friends at the mall. “What happened?” we ask ourselves. And the answer is simple, if heart-wrenching: they’re growing up. The distance they’re placing between them and us is unsettling, if developmentally appropriate. And we head back to the photo album.

Obviously Jesus didn’t go straight from the manger to telling off Pharisees at dinner parties. He, too, had to grow into and then claim his own spiritual authority. He, like every child, had to go through a maturation process and find his way outside of his parents’ purview. And no matter how many old pictures we look at, for better or worse, we can’t ever get that genie back in the bottle.

But in a sense, we often try to do this very thing when it comes to our faith. In the warm glow of Christmas, it’s worth noting that we often do leave our faith lying in the manger. We memorialize it in our minds. Keeping it as a precious memory rather than a living force of inspiration and transformation.

Frankly, it’s safer that way. To keep Jesus in the manger; to freeze frame our faith in the form of an infant. I mean, a newborn doesn’t challenge us or question the priorities of our lives. The adult Jesus may rail against hypocrisy and challenge us to renounce sin but the newborn Jesus just coos and nestles against his mother’s breast. Right?

Whenever I think about metaphorically keeping Jesus manacled to the manger, what comes to mind is Will Farrell’s character in the 2007 movie Talledega Nights. There’s a great scene where race car driver Ricky Bobby says grace before a family meal in which he makes it very clear that he only prays to the “baby Jesus.”

ricky bobbyHe begins, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.” This goes on for awhile before he continues with, “Dear Tiny Infant Jesus…” at which point his wife interrupts him to say, “Hey, um…you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.” And Ricky replies, “Well, look, I like Christmas Jesus best when I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

And Ricky keeps it going: “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled-up fists…” It’s a great comic scene but it speaks a deeper truth about our own propensity to stunt the growth of our own spiritual lives.

We may not pray to “Christmas Jesus,” exactly, or, as Ricky Bobby also puts it, “Dear eight pound, six ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly but still omnipotent.” But so often our faith doesn’t mature much beyond our understanding of the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School. And that’s a shame.

It’s fine to receive Jesus as a helpless infant as we do each Christmas, but don’t keep him there, immobilized in your mind and trapped in a manger. Adorable but ultimately powerless. The challenge for us is to allow our faith to mature. Just as Mary and Joseph gave space to Jesus to grow; we need to give him space to grow in our own hearts. To allow him to be not just a precious figure in our nativity set, but our Lord.

I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions but the timing is right as we turn the page to a new calendar year to recommit to our spiritual lives. To commit to growing in God in 2016; to seeking out opportunities to go deeper; to meet Christ anew.

The good news is you don’t have to do this alone. You have a community to support you in deepening your faith; you have parish clergy and faithful lay leaders to help you grow in God; you have programs and resources and worship opportunities here to inspire you and assist in moving your spiritual needle. But it’s up to you. Like a teenager forging an identity, we are invited to forge our spiritual identity. We may make mistakes or stumble along the way, but Jesus lovingly and mercifully lifts us up time and time again.

Even though we aren’t privy to exactly how it happened, the 12-year-old Jesus will continue to grow and mature until he claims his calling as God’s Son. And we, too, are invited to continue to grow and mature in order to claim our own calling as God’s children.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Christmas Eve 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2015

Entrances matter. Just ask Gisele or Cindy or any other supermodel who images-2knows how to own the runway. Or Kramer from Seinfeld who would come crashing through Jerry’s door as if being chased by an unruly mob; even if he was just looking to borrow a cup of milk. Or the high school football team at homecoming that bursts through a banner and runs through a funnel of cheerleaders. Even at church we process in rather than just showing up and casually starting the liturgy. Entrances matters.

And let’s face it, God could have done a much better job with his son’s entrance into the world. Jesus’ entrance was, in a word…underwhelming. There was no fanfare announcing Jesus’ birth. No trumpets or fireworks. No marching bands or pyrotechnics. Jesus slipped into the world quietly, silently, humbly.

And it all took place not in a castle or a palace — places that would make grand entry points — but in a stable. Which, despite our fancy china nativity sets was really just a filthy barn. And after his birth, Jesus was laid in manger. Which, as quaint as it sounds, is simply a euphemism for “feeding trough.” There’s good reason we don’t sing “Away in a Feeding Trough” on Christmas Eve. All of which is to say that you would think the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World, the Messiah could have made a much grander entrance.

And yet, never in the history of the world, has there been a more dramatic entrance. Jesus’ entrance into our world, into our lives, is the most dramatic entrance imaginable. And we see from the very beginning that Christ’s kingdom would be different from any other kingdom. A kingdom whose humble origins belie its ultimate majesty.

The fancy name for what takes place at Christmas — of God entering the world in human form — is Incarnation. Through it God literally “takes flesh” in the form of Jesus. The Incarnation of Jesus is what’s behind that seemingly odd verse we’ll soon be singing: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.”

And with the Incarnation everything changes. Because at the root of the Incarnation is relationship. Nothing speaks to the loving relationship between God and God’s people more than the sending of God’s son to live among us. Nothing. The true miracle of Christmas is this gift of relationship; relationship that offers us access to the divine. Not in the abstract or in theory or philosophically but in actuality. God dwells with us not in a sterile birthing room or an untouchable hand-painted nativity set but right in the midst of the messiness of the human condition; right in the mud and muck of the stable.

And at its heart, the root of relationship with God made manifest in Jesus Christ is hope. Which we could sure use in our world right now. The good news for us is that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all hope. And as this night shows us, hope doesn’t burst onto the scene so much as it slips into the world under cover of darkness. It appears to a people who crave hope, who need hope, and who must then proclaim hope to the world.

Because even amid the world’s darkness, the light of Christ, the light of hope, shines brightly. Hope heals, hope inspires, hope gives life. Hope invites us to dream of that which appears impossible. Hope is not fantasy or delusion or wishful thinking. Hope isn’t about wishing upon a star but trusting in one particular star to guide us to the manger, to lead us to Jesus, to lead us to a place of hope even when we feel utterly hopeless.

Gerard_van_Honthorst-web-art-academy-1024x816And this hope, this most precious and life-giving force arrives in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who offers us a vision of a different way of life. A way that puts love over fear; a way that includes rather than excludes; a way that affirms rather than destroys; a way that invites rather than denies; a way that opens the heart rather than closes the mind; a way that builds up rather than tears down; a way of hope.

On this most holy night, I bid you the courage to say yes to hope; to say yes to God entering the world in unexpected, if less than dramatic, ways; to say yes to God entering your life and delighting in relationship with you.

May you experience the warmth of the light of Christ this season. May you rejoice in the joy and the hope of Christ’s incarnation. And may you all have a very merry Christmas.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 20, 2015 (Advent IV, Year C)

With a curate who actually played football at a high level, it’s become increasingly harder for me to throw football analogies into my sermons. Sure, I have a monopoly on pop culture references from the ‘80s but unless it’s Super Bowl Sunday, the football analogies lose something in translation. However…I did want to talk about one particular play that seems relevant to this morning’s gospel reading. And, no, it is not the Hail Mary, thank you very much.

I want to talk about the reverse. You don’t see it a whole lot in the NFL — reverseit’s more suited to high school football. But the reverse is basically a trick play where the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back who goes one direction, drawing the defense his way before suddenly handing the ball off to a teammate going in the opposite direction. When the deception works, the reverse can lead to a huge gain down the opposite sideline. (I thought about inviting Noah to do a demonstration with me but after yesterday’s grand ordination, it may be beneath his priestly dignity — not mine, mind you).

But much of the story of the Christian faith is a spiritual reverse. Not the deception part necessarily, but certainly the change of direction. The reversal of preconceived notions; the flipping of assumptions; the overturning of the status quo. And we’re reminded that just when we think we’ve figured out the direction we’re supposed to be headed, just when we think we have our lives properly in order; we realize we’ve been grasping at something that has changed direction. Because God doesn’t follow precise patterns, discipleship — the process of following Jesus in our lives — isn’t linear. So just when we think we’ve got God precisely where we want him — contained, domesticated, willing to suit our own purposes — we realize God has run a reverse and has, once again, completely overturned our expectations.

And this morning we meet two women who experienced such dramatic reversals of spiritual fortune first hand. All the while, pointing us toward God’s ultimate reversal as made manifest in the Incarnation, of that moment when, against all common sense and good order, God enters the world in human form.

First there’s Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. Hers had been a hard life. In a culture where the primary role of women was to marry and bear children, Elizabeth was ostracized for her own barrenness. Elizabeth was married, to a Temple priest named Zechariah, but was beyond child-bearing years. And as an old woman without children — she was an expendable member of the community. Shunned; a failure; a woman without identity and status.

When she miraculously becomes pregnant, with the child who would become the Forerunner to the Messiah, known to all as John the Baptist, her entire life’s situation is reversed. She who had been rejected suddenly gains favor. She who had felt abandoned by her people and by God, suddenly had a role to play in the divine plan. Elizabeth, in her maturity, had experienced both public shame and public favor. And this experience is brought to bear in her encounter with her cousin. She opens her home and her compassionate heart to Mary.

And this act was certainly not a given. How often have you experienced someone who was pushed down, gets lifted up, and suddenly acts as if they’ve always been blessed or fortunate? It’s not unusual that someone who wins the lottery suddenly has no time for any of his former “poor” friends. But this isn’t the case with Elizabeth — she welcomes Mary, whose pregnancy, by all external indicators, should have brought shame upon her.

Because Mary’s baby bump and the acknowledgment that her betrothed, Joseph, was not the father, could mean only one thing in the eyes of the community, in a culture where engagement was as binding as marriage: Mary was guilty of an adulterous relationship. The source of shame would have been different from Elizabeth’s but the feelings of isolation were surely not.

In Mathew’s gospel, an angel appears to Joseph and assures him of Mary’s virtue by sharing the inconceivable news that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit; that this was God’s son. Joseph keeps his pledge to marry Mary and help raise her unborn child. But that didn’t stop the whispers or the rumors. And, truth be told, they haven’t ever stopped.

So as Elizabeth greets Mary with honor — Mary who may have come seeking solace in her shame — Elizabeth signals a reversal in Mary’s fortunes. The rigid social expectations are shattered as Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaims, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Blessed. The same word Jesus will use in the Beatitudes. Blessed. This young, unmarried, pregnant woman who by every external indicator should be put to shame is blessed. Again, God runs the reverse.

And then Mary unleashes what has become known as the Magnificat, her great song of praise, one that has reverberated throughout the last two millennia on the lips of choirs and individuals and in the hearts of so many from all generations. “The almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.” And in remembering the lowliness of his handmaiden, God’s great reversal continues: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

And through Mary’s words, we begin to see the seeds of reversal that come to fruition in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Think again about the Sermon on the Mount and those Beatitudes. With Elizabeth’s words ringing in our ears — “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” — and Mary’s words — “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” — we now hear the heart of Jesus’ message of justice and blessedness.

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are the meek.” In other words, blessed are all those whom the world puts down yet God raises up. The God of surprises for whom we so fervently await this Advent season runs the reverse over and over and over again.

I invite you to keep your eyes open for the great reverse that is run on Christmas Eve. Or for that matter, not long from now up on the stage in Upper Weld Hall as our youngest children tell the Christmas story. Keep your eyes peeled for the way God may just surprise and delight and challenge you with a change of direction. Reversals aren’t always comfortable — sometimes we get tackled for a loss. But in time, if they are truly of God, they lead us to new and unexpected places. Like a manger. In a stable. In a little town called Bethlehem.

© The Rev.  Tim Schenck 2015

First Sunday of Advent 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 29, 2015 (Advent I, Year B)

Have you ever tried to roust a teenager on a school morning? Oh, I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhave. Early and often. It generally starts with a soothing voice and a gentle nudge. A verbal reminder that it’s time to wake up and start the day; a forgiving prompt that while you’ve slept through your alarm clock, again, it’s time. You don’t want to be late for school, after all. And you need those 11 essential vitamins and minerals that are part of a complete breakfast! Well, this goes on and on until it eventually devolves into threats of phones being confiscated and a grounding that will last until either their sophomore year of college or the apocalypse — whichever comes first. This is followed by yelling and blankets getting ripped off the bed. All in all, not the most relaxing way to rise and shine and rejoice in the day that the Lord hath made.

This morning, on this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus issues us all a wake up call. And we’re well beyond the soothing voice stage. Because while gentle suggestions are easily ignored, it’s much more difficult to sleep through a bucket of ice water being dumped on your head. Which is basically what Jesus is doing here. And, frankly, as you would expect, it’s pretty jarring.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But did we mention that Santa will be at the mall later today?

So what do we do with this passage and why are we hearing it as we begin this season of hope and expectation? Well, the first thing we need to do is remind ourselves that Advent is by its very nature counter cultural. It may coincide with a time of shopping and decorating and holiday parties — all fine things when kept in proper perspective — but as Christians this is primarily a time of spiritual waiting rather than consumer anticipation.

The second thing we need to do is to put these challenging words from Jesus into some context. What we have here, folks, is an example of apocalyptic language. Yes, we tend to cede the entire genre to late night Christian radio hosts and Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but we do so at our own peril because it leads to the rampant misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Scripture.

Since we tend to ignore or at least marginalize such readings, you should know that the word apocalypse doesn’t mean “the end of the world;” it simply means “revelation.” In modern parlance it’s become associated with a dramatic final destruction of the world, but that’s a later interpretation. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been around for centuries before Jesus, and one of the major themes was that as bleak as things appeared in the present, the future held great promise. The “revelation” was a vision of what God would do for his people in the future. So, embedded within apocalyptic literature was a comforting message of hope; something especially important to the people of Israel during the long years of the Babylonian exile, when they were separated from their homeland and everything that was familiar.

And if you think about the communities in question who were hearing these messages — both the ancient Israelites and the early Christians — you can see how they would have been drawn to such visions. Visions which painted a vivid picture of a time when the present age of suffering would end and good would ultimately triumph over evil.

And while many of the prophetic visions of apocalyptic literature are as poetic as they are bizarre to our ears, Jesus’ original hearers were familiar with the genre and would have immediately recognized the themes Jesus speaks of here — the language of impending wars and natural disasters; of fear and foreboding. And also the note of hope.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ words, and apocalyptic writing in general, weren’t meant to be taken literally — which is precisely the mistake made by Biblical literalists and street preachers. They love this stuff — the Book of Revelation, portions of Daniel and Ezekiel, the verses we just heard from Jeremiah, and passages like this one from Luke’s gospel. They’re all about the interpretation of these so-called signs in order to pinpoint the precise date of the Second Coming of Christ. Which, of course, is futile. Jesus himself says, “about that day or hour no one knows.”

And here’s where it all ties into the season of Advent: In Advent we anticipate not just Jesus coming to a manger in Bethlehem but also that time in the future when Jesus will return to redeem the world.

So in Advent we enter something of a time warp. We are asked to wait for something tangible, the birth of our Lord, even as we are asked to wait for something intangible, the return of our Lord. None of which follows a logical, linear sequence. Welcome to God’s time; a way of being that transcends all human constructs.

And adding to the confusion, Jesus, oddly enough, wakes us up and bids us to wait. Which seems absurd on the surface of things. We’d never wake our kids up five hours before school just so they could sit and wait for the bus for hours on end. But Jesus rudely rousts us from our reverie with this apocalyptic language and then invites us to enter into a time of two-pronged waiting.

In Mark’s gospel, the passage we heard a couple of weeks ago, the one upon which today’s reading from Luke is most likely based, he writes that these signs of which Jesus speaks are just the “beginning of the birth pangs.” And that’s certainly an appropriate theme for Advent as we await the birth of our Savior. As anyone who has experienced pregnancy or has lived in a home with a pregnant woman knows, everything is about to change. During this period of waiting, you live in a time of anticipation but with a tinge of the fear of the unknown. Expectant parents know that change is coming but they just can’t fully comprehend exactly how this watershed change will play out. And the same could be said of our waiting time during Advent. Everything changes when the Savior arrives; we’re just not certain how that change will be enacted in our own lives.

So this time warp Jesus beckons us into of having arrived yet still to come, leads to yet more confusion. And what do we do? Jesus seems to encourage us to look for the familiar. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So even as things feel out of sorts and uncertainty rules, in our lives and in our world, God is everlasting, unchanging, and eternal.

And perhaps that’s the good news for this day. We have a rock to hold onto amid any storms that may come our way, globally or personally. And as difficult and as confusing as waiting may be for us, perhaps there’s some comfort as well in times when everything feels like it’s collapsing around us. We could all use a comforting message of hope.

As we move deeper into this season, we will be encouraged to “keep awake” and “be alert.” We enter a time of watchfulness as we prepare to receive Jesus into our hearts anew. But it begins with a wakeup call. A call not to rise and shine, but a call to rise and wait.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 8, 2015 (Proper 28, Year B)

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
 
On Friday, an earthquake hit Japan, bombings in Baghdad killed or wounded 50 people, CTuyLoTUEAAVQuMsuicide bombers in Lebanon killed over 40 people and injured 200 more, and over 120 people were gunned down in Paris leaving 350 more wounded, many in critical condition.
 
The last few days do indeed feel like we have entered into a time of biblically proportioned horror. Images from around the world weigh on our souls and hope seems elusive. And as we individually and collectively seek to process all that we have witnessed and encountered, we’re left with more questions than answers. How do we deal with these events, how do we go on living while others suffer; when will the killing end; what can we do to help?

We come to church perhaps to hear a word of comfort. We look to our faith even as words feel insufficient to express our outrage and fear and helplessness. We seek a place of dry ground amid the quick sand of global tragedy. And I think it’s helpful to be reminded of just what it is we, as Christians, are called to do in such situations. In my mind, there are three things: We pray, we love, we act.

We pray for those affected by tragedy. We pray with all our heart and mind and soul; corporately here on Sunday morning and individually throughout the week. We pray for those who remain in harm’s way; we pray for healing; we pray for those who grieve; we pray for our leaders; we pray for doctors and nurses; we pray for first responders; we pray for those in the grip of evil; we pray for our enemies. And when words don’t suffice we simply sit in silence and allow Jesus, who already knows what is on our hearts; to do the praying for us. So we pray.

And we love. We love those who differ from us; we love those who do not share our beliefs; we love those who are convinced they are unloveable; we love those near us; we love one another; we love God; we love those who hate us. And when our hearts feel too small to love so many beyond ourselves we remember that God is love. That God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus so that we may believe in God through him. So we love.

And we act. We act by sharing our resources with those in need; we act by reaching out to a friend who is struggling with all that is going on in the world; we act by comforting a child; we act by sharing our faith with a world that may not comprehend it. And when we don’t know how to act we look to Jesus who reached out his hands in love and compassion to heal a broken and sinful world. So we act.

And all of these — prayer, love, and action — point to hope. That’s the hallmark of our faith. There’s no doubt that it’s hard to watch the news and hear about the carnage and not be discouraged and disheartened. And while some may view all that’s happening in the world and turn to utter despair, we cannot. And we cannot because we believe in a God of hope. We believe in a God who rises victorious in the face of death and destruction. We believe in a God who drives out evil with love. We believe in a God who relieves suffering and binds up the wounded. We believe in a God who is present among us even in the darkest of moments.
 
You know, in times like this, I often turn to the Baptismal rite. It stands at the very heart of our identity as people who seek to follow Jesus. And I’m immediately drawn to the six questions that get asked of the parents and godparents — three renunciations followed by three affirmations. And if there is ever a moment that reminds us that baptism isn’t a cute little rite of passage for babies but rather a powerful rite of commitment for Christians, it is found in these questions.

The harsh language of the renunciations make clear that there is evil in the world: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

And the affirmations make clear that there is another way; that there is an antidote to the evil of the world: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

hqdefaultThese questions are familiar to many — not just regular churchgoers who’ve seen a lot of baptisms — but from the original Godfather movie as they make up one of the most dramatic scenes in cinematic history. Michael Corleone participates in a baptism as his nephew’s godfather. And as he answers the baptismal questions — the renunciations and the affirmations — his men are executing the heads of rival families to consolidate his power. The camera cuts back and forth between Michael renouncing evil and affirming his faith in Jesus Christ as the gruesome mob hits are being carried out. Violence is set against the backdrop of sacrament.

All of which highlights that evil is alive, well, and thriving in this world. And that it is our faith in Jesus Christ that is held over and against the evil of this world. It is also a reminder that what we have witnessed in recent days has nothing to do with anything remotely related to the divine purposes of God. There is a perversion of faith that has taken place in the name of God but this is not in the least of God. Christians have been and continue to be guilty of violence in God’s name — and yet this doesn’t adequately reflect our faith. Muslims have been and continue to be guilty of violence in God’s name — and yet this doesn’t adequately reflect their faith.

The many Muslim leaders throughout the world who have condemned the acts of terror in Paris keep pointing to this verse from the Quran: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.” Islam is not synonymous with terrorism but terrorism is synonymous with evil. And we can and must join with our fellow brothers and sisters of faith across all races, creeds, and cultures to condemn it.

In the meantime, I will continue to encourage us all to pray, to love, and to act. It is the only way forward as we seek, with the help of our Lord, the Prince of Peace, to move from despair and darkness to hope and new life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015