Baptism of Our Lord 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 8, 2017 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

When I returned from my October pilgrimage to Jordan I vowed that I would not begin every subsequent sermon with the words, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I mean, let’s be honest. That would get pretty old, pretty quickly. And I’ve dutifully kept this promise. Even during Advent when I preached about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, I didn’t once mention that I’d been to the site of King Herod’s palace. Or that I’d seen with my very own eyes the caves that were used as prisons along the hillside leading up to the palace. I could have painted a vivid picture of that cave in all its isolated glory and talked about the amazing selfies I took among the palace ruins. But, for the sake of not coming across like a pompous, know-it-all preacher, I demonstrated heroic self restraint and kept my mouth shut.

Well, that ends this morning. Because, say it with me, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I 14589893_10210706753690840_204573456376960638_owent to the very site on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. And I had the great privilege of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of Episcopalians right along the banks where Jesus himself was baptized. And we renewed our baptismal covenants — as we will all do in a few moments — while actually standing in the river. It was a magnificent, profoundly moving, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience.

Now, because there are a lot of hymns and spirituals that describe the Jordan, I kind of felt as if I’d already been there before. We tend to sing them during Advent as John the Baptist engages his forerunner role pointing not to himself but to the one who is to come. We sing, “On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh” and “What is the crying at Jordan?”

The most well-known song, though it’s not in our hymnal, is probably “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” — which, if you listen to all the verses, is less a children’s song and more a rip-roaring spiritual in which we hear that the Jordan River is both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold.” Hallelujah. Well, I’m here to report to you, once and for all, that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide, nor chilly, nor cold. So let’s just get that out of the way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; but singing about a river that’s “tepid and narrow” just kind of loses something in translation. But the particulars of the river itself don’t really matter. Because what matters is that the place in question is holy ground. Something remarkable happened down by that riverside.

Now, the baptism we hear about this morning is…rather confusing. At one level, we rightly ask ourselves, why Jesus even needed to be baptized in the first place. If this ancient purification ritual is being offered by John as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would one who lived among us yet without sin, need to be baptized at all? Perhaps it’s an expression of his solidarity with us; a connection between Jesus’ humanity and our humanity.

But I think this whole scene in Matthew’s gospel illuminates the question of Jesus’ identity. John had been pointing to the one who is to come, the Messiah, God’s anointed, the person whose sandal he is unfit to tie. And suddenly here he is, in the flesh. Asking John to baptize him! Well, this certainly threw John off his voice-of-one-crying-in-the-wilderness game. He wanted Jesus to baptize him. And in the natural order of things, that’s what we’d expect. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we would expect that the master would baptize the servant; just as at the Last Supper, we would expect that the servant would wash the feet of the master.

But even as Jesus is claiming his identity as God’s son, even as the heavens rip apart and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and we hear the voice of God affirming Jesus as his beloved son, the hierarchical norms are flipped upside down. And the forerunner baptizes the Messiah; just as the Messiah will wash the feet of his disciples.

For us, too, baptism is about identity. Identity as God’s beloved children; identity as members of a faith community that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; identity as Christ’s own not for a limited time only but forever. That’s what happens when we wade in the water of baptism, whether we’re baptized as an infant or as a child or as an adult. Our primary identity becomes one who is a beloved child of God.

You know, I returned from that 10-day trip to Jordan late on a Saturday night. And as I stumbled into church the next morning, tired, overwhelmed by the entire experience, and severely jet-lagged after a sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York, a three-hour layover at JFK, and a post-midnight cab ride from Logan, I admit I was just trying to get through Sunday morning without falling asleep at the altar. And I just assumed that after that spiritual high of celebrating the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan, doing the same thing here, more or less along the banks of Hingham Harbor, would be incredibly anticlimactic. In my mind, the words “celebrate the eucharist” were replaced with the more pedestrian “get through the eucharist.”

But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. Just as the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up at the altar before which I stood.

Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.

Now, I’m not sure what others experienced that morning in October, but that’s where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people I love who seek, with me, to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.

That’s the baptismal identity we share; an identity that flows straight out of the Jordan and into our collective souls. Sometimes it’s transcendent. Sometimes it feels rather pedestrian. But through it all, we stand secure in our identity as beloved children of God; baptized into indelible relationship with our Savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Christmas Day 2016

Christmas Day Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2016

One of the things I love about the Christmas Day service is that it always feels like the calm after the storm. You don’t have to look too hard to see evidence of the Christmas Eve tornado that blew through here last night. You can probably spot a strand of tinsel from one of the angel’s halos leftover from the Christmas pageant. Or there’s some wax that dripped onto the pew in front of you from midnight mass. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stray bulletin tucked into the hymnal racks that the ushers forgot to collect after one of the four services.

But here we are. The calm after the storm. And there’s something wonderfully wrapping-paper-messcontemplative about Christmas morning. All is finally, calm; all is finally bright. Some might call it anticlimactic — I mean, if you have kids at home, they’ve undoubtedly already ripped everything open and no matter how many gifts graced the tree, the phrase, “Is that it?” eventually rings out.

And at one level, that is it. The presents have been opened; the decorations will soon enough be hauled back up to the attic; the wreath will be taken off the front door. Maybe you have Christmas dinner to get to or to host but that will come and go soon enough. And you’ll be faced with a bit of a holy hangover — something that affects both children and adults. I know by Christmas morning I personally always feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a giant candy cane. But that may just be an occupational hazard.

And I can talk all I want about the 12 Days of Christmas — the partridge in a pair tree and the maids-a-milking and all that, about how Christmas is a season that starts rather than ends today, how we can finally start singing those Christmas carols in church that the rest of the world has been singing since Halloween. But there’s still an “is that it?” moment to December 25th.

What abides, of course, is Jesus’ entrance into the world. What remains is our relationship with the God who entered the world in human form. What stays with us is God’s love for all of humanity. Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to dwell among us. So, no, that is not “it.” The joy of Christmas is just beginning and we’re invited to embrace each day as if it was Christmas morning. Which doesn’t mean you’ll get to sleep in every day or open presents every day or enjoy a great feast every day. But it does mean that every time you wake up, every time you step out of bed, every time your feet hit the floor, you can be secure in the knowledge that God is with you. On good days, on lousy days, and all those days in between.

That’s what St. John is getting at, I think, in the familiar passage we hear every year on Christmas Day. That beautifully poetic prologue to his gospel speaks of Jesus entering the world as “the light of all people.” We hear in those stunning words that this “light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.” Think about that for a moment. No matter how dark life sometimes may feel, there is a light shining in the darkness that can never be extinguished. That’s the light we celebrate this morning and every single day. And it is a most glorious light.

It’s a light that has nothing to do with white lights in windows or colored lights on Christmas trees. It’s a light that can never be turned off with a switch or become unplugged. It is the light of Christ.

And this light is not merely metaphorical. It is the light that burns brightly within us, the light that fuels our desire to know God through Jesus Christ. It is the light that illuminates our minds and warms our souls as we enter into deeper relationship with the incarnate and risen Christ. It is the light that scatters the darkness from before our path, the light that enables us to step into uncertainty without fear of stumbling. We may not always recognize it or fully nurture it but this light is always present within us. And that’s the miracle of Christmas: that Jesus entered our world and sustains us with his very real presence.

A presence this world so desperately needs. I’m aware that while it’s easy enough for us to revel in the calm after the storm and enjoy the warm glow of the holiday, for so many of our brothers and sisters, there is no calm after the storm, because there has been no respite from the storm. In places where gun violence is a daily threat, there is no calm; in places where terrorism is an everyday reality, there is no calm; for those who live in fear because of the color of their skin or their way of life, there is no calm. For those facing crippling poverty with no hope of economic justice, there is no calm.

Calm is a luxury that we all too often take for granted. My abiding prayer is that we can use the hope we feel at Christmas as fuel to go out and make a difference in the world. To comfort those who seek solace; to relieve those who suffer; to assist those in despair. If Jesus’ birth means anything, it must be in the way we reach out to our fellow human beings, especially those not able to afford the luxury of calm and peace and joy this season.

So I do invite you into the calm after the storm. But I also encourage you to share this calm with those whose souls are disquieted within them; with those who aren’t able to sing “Joy to the World” at this moment in their lives, for whatever reason.

The joy of Christmas is indeed a wondrous thing. But we can’t just leave it lying under a decorated tree in the privacy of our own homes. Like that light of Christ, it must be shared abundantly and with reckless abandon to be made fully manifest in our nation and in our world. Only then will all be truly calm and truly bright.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Christmas Eve 2016

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, 2016

Not to pump up your ego too much, but you are one good looking Christmas Eve crowd. Yes, I do notice the Christmas ties and the fancy dresses and the brilliant Yuletide accessorizing going on here. Maybe you’ve come from dinner parties or you’re headed to an open house or you’ve hosted some family and friends. But wherever you’re going and wherever you’ve been, you look mighty fine this evening. And, not for nothing, but you may have noticed that even I dressed up for the occasion. Just saying.

Now, in this sense I think we have a lot in common with that great figure from Luke’s 2016-latest-design-printing-children-font-b-christmas-b-font-font-b-tie-b-font-arrowgospel story. The one mentioned in the very first sentence of the birth narrative. The one who wielded great power and was revered by all. Because I’m almost positive that Emperor Augustus was looking particularly regal on the night Jesus was born. Perhaps he was hosting some foreign dignitaries at the palace or was wandering the halls in a fancy new royal robe. So I think we should all be commended for dressing up like one of the characters in the well-known and beloved Christmas story. Much more appropriate than showing up to a Christmas Eve service in Hingham dressed like a shepherd. Or, God forbid, smelling like one.

One of the fascinating and telling things about the nativity story is that the arrival of this child is set right in-between glimpses of power and status on the one hand and vulnerability and humility on the other. The birth of Jesus is bracketed by rulers and shepherds. As he sets the context of this birth, St. Luke mentions by name the Emperor Augustus and the Governor Quirinius — a nod to the powers and principalities of the ancient Roman world. Then we hear about those tending their flocks by night — a group that couldn’t possibly be further removed from the halls of power.

And wedged right in-between kings and shepherds is that birth. Quite an ordinary birth, really. As momentous an occasion as it is for an individual family, the birth of a child is nothing special in the grand scope of human history. Billions of children have entered this world over the years. There were, presumably, other children born that very same night.

So what is it about this particular birth, in this particular place, on this particular night? What is it that has caused generations and generations of Christians to gather year after year to listen to the account of the birth of this particular child?

Well, no one knew at the time that the world was being transformed before their very eyes. Even the words we hear about the birth itself are, though well known, rather pedestrian. “While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” Besides the manger part, that could have described the birth of any child of any era.

But I think the juxtaposition of rulers and shepherds offers us a clue. The thing is, God comes to us not in royal robes but swaddling clothes. We may dress up to receive him at Christmas, and that’s a fine thing, but remember he didn’t come to an Emperor, he came to shabbily dressed shepherds. The birth was announced to the humble, not the mighty.

And herein lies the miracle of Christmas: God comes to us not in the public images we seek to project, but in our vulnerability; in our brokenness; in our insecurity; in our weakness. In other words, God comes to us in our very humanity. And God still loves us. That’s the miracle.

Because underneath our fancy clothes, resides our true selves. The part of us that may be grieving the first Christmas without a loved one; or mourning a broken relationship; or reeling from a recent medical diagnosis; or fearing for the future.

Jesus comes to our shepherd side. The side of ourselves that is not spit and polished but hurting and vulnerable and in desperate need of love. The side of ourselves that is not outwardly put-together but inwardly broken.

And in that place is hope. Out of the depths, hope is unleashed. Not a things-are-bound-to-start-looking-up hope. Not a false hope. Or an overly optimistic hope. But a hope born of God’s love for us even in the midst of tragedy or despair. A hope born of a Savior who came not to a pristine palace among the well-dressed but right into the muck of the stable among the shepherds. A hope born out of the comfort and joy of serving and standing with the marginalized, the lost, and the downtrodden.

And on this night we witness and experience the trajectory of hope in a broken world. We see the light shining in the darkness. We see the miraculous residing even in the midst of the mundane. And that’s why we remember this ordinary birth that unleashed the extraordinary power of God’s love for all humanity.

This holy season, may you experience the gift of God’s saving grace; may your heart overflow with the hope born of our Savior’s love; and may you have a very Merry Christmas.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Third Sunday of Advent 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2016 (III Advent, Year A)

What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday we encountered a very different John the Baptist. We met him on the banks of the Jordan River and he was loud and large and very much in charge as he brought his message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to the crowds that had gathered to witness this spectacle of religious fervor. He was self-assured as he claimed his Forerunner status by pointing away from himself and towards the one who was to come — the Messiah, the one who’s sandal he felt unworthy to untie, the one who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

We encounter a very different John this morning. Gone are the crowds and the river and img-01-0fb197ef-f4d0-43a9-8192-632a321449efthe self-confidence. He’s been unceremoniously tossed into prison and his booming voice has been reduced to a whisper as he asks Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

So often bluster masks insecurity or uncertainty. That’s certainly the case with playground bullies. The book on bullies is the moment you stand up to them, they back down, revealing cracks in the facade. That so much of a bully’s persona is built on inner turmoil posing as outer intimidation.

And, not to psychoanalyze John the Baptist, but I don’t think that’s the case here. John is not a religious bully intent on getting his way. He’s not pointing to himself, after all. He’s simply passionate about his message and his calling as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. So this moment of questioning doesn’t make John’s ministry any less authentic. If anything it makes this traditional Advent figure even more real for us. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There’s a spiritual vulnerability here to which most of us can relate.

At least if we’re honest with ourselves. Because we spend an awful lot of time and energy tamping down our own spiritual uncertainty. It’s easy to mask our doubts about the entire Christmas story, including the theological crux of God entering the world in human form, with all the rushing around we do this time of year. The lists, the sales, the cards, the parties, the general din of December that keeps beating at an increasingly-fevered pitch like a stress-inducing holiday soundtrack.

We may despise and denounce this seasonal anxiety and yet we also seemingly can’t do without it. We complain about the stress of it all, but we don’t actually do anything to stop it. Which is why the season of Advent is so important both to our spiritual and emotional health. It allows us to cut through the noise and focus on what really matters. And what really matters is the spiritual preparation that allows us to welcome the Christ-child into our hearts anew at Christmas.

Now, part of this time of Advent is spent in expectation — we expect the arrival of Jesus at a manger in Bethlehem; we expect to come to church during Advent to hear about John the Baptist and Mary and readings from the prophet Isaiah; we expect to be slightly frazzled as the shopping days until Christmas dwindle; we expect there will be presents under the tree on Christmas Day.

Expectations, of course, don’t always exactly line up with reality. The time of John the Baptist was also ripe with expectation. It was less about expecting packages from Amazon and more about the expectations of what kind of reign the arrival of God’s Messiah would usher in. Different groups had different expectations. Some were met, others were left unfulfilled. But everyone who anticipated a savior had different hopes and dreams and expectations.

For some, it was the expectation of a military messiah who would arrive on a white steed and drive out the Roman oppressors. For those choked by the yoke of political, economic, and societal oppression, there was tremendous hope wrapped up in such a savior. Things were bad now, but once the messiah arrived, well, things would instantly change. We’d finally be in charge and the roles would be reversed. We’d be on top and those who did us wrong would pay the price.

It’s understandable, frankly. If you were treated as a second class citizen for so long, you, too would revel in the idea of radical retribution.

And there was certainly some of this in John the Baptist’s approach. As the one who boldly proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah, we heard him announce that while he was baptizing with water, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. For those expecting a certain type of savior, you can see John’s words only affirming their unfolding vision of an avenging savior arriving from on high with a flaming sword ready to do battle with the forces of evil.

And what we get instead is a vulnerable infant lying in a feeding trough. So we begin to see that our expectations don’t always meet with God’s reality; that human expectations are so often subverted by divine reality.

And this morning we encounter not a John the Baptist full of bluster and evangelical fervor but a hesitant, imprisoned, vulnerable, confused shell of a man. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, has my whole life’s work been in vain?

This is the Baptist’s Doubting Thomas moment. He seeks assurance and verification about Jesus’ true identity. He’s pretty sure, but just needs to hear it from the Messiah’s mouth. And again, Jesus shifts the expectations. As his humble birth would indicate, his reign is a different kind of kingdom than many expected. His is a rule not based on weapons but mercy; not based on the sword but peace; not based on an iron fist but the gentle hand of God.

And Jesus sends word back to John that echoes with the prophetic voice of Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Yes, the kingdom of God is at hand; no, these may not be the signs you or anyone else were expecting. But these are the signs and wonders of a seismic shift in perspective and expectation. This kingdom is about lifting up the lowly and proclaiming hope to the poor and offering wholeness and salvation to all God’s people rather than a select few. It is about love and justice and peace and things broken being made whole.

And even now our Advent expectations and hopes are placed on the ultimate fulfillment of these kingdom promises. Even amid the waiting for Christmas that is the hallmark of this season, we are not waiting for another. Like John the Baptist, we have met the one who is to come and his name is Jesus. His yoke may be gentle but we still must intentionally reach for it and place it upon our shoulders as a mantle of relationship. Only then will our human expectations meet divine reality. Only then will the long-expected promise be fulfilled. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Christ the King Sunday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 20, 2016 (Christ the King, Year C)

This past week, two Episcopal churches, one in Maryland and one in Indiana, were vandalized with racist messages. In Silver Spring, Maryland, parishioners at Church of Our Savior found “Trump nation — whites only” scrawled on a brick wall in their memorial garden. And the same words were written on the back of a banner advertising their weekly Spanish-language service. At St. David’s Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, the phrases “fag church” and “heil Trump” were spray painted on the exterior, along with a swastika.

bean-blossom-church-vandalismNow, it would be easy for us to ignore these incidents. I mean, they didn’t happen here in Hingham. Our sacred space wasn’t violated. We weren’t left to scrub hatred off our walls or wash contempt off our souls. In a sense, it doesn’t affect us at all.

But as the church, we are the Body of Christ. So when one of our members is wounded, we’re all wounded. When one of our members is diminished, we’re all diminished. When one of our members is demeaned, we’re all demeaned. And if we can’t share in the outrage of the denial of human dignity based solely upon race or sexual orientation, we need to question what exactly we think we’re doing sitting in a Christian church this morning; worshiping the Lord of love, the one who breaks down barriers between and among all people.

I’m not bringing this up to toss another log onto the the post-election fire that’s raging in our country. Yet hate transcends partisan politics. And there’s certainly no place for it in our world or in our church. But I think this moment in our national life serves as a clarion call to what we must do as a community of faith in divided times, as the hands and heart and voice of Jesus in the world. Because that’s precisely what and who we are.

Our call, as always, is to be a beacon of light that shines amid the darkness of a broken and sinful world. It is to stand with those on the margins of society, the weak and the vulnerable, the fearful and the dispossessed. It is to listen to the cries of those outside the traditional power structures, and to heed their voices. It is to embrace hope and the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, even in the face of darkness and despair. It is to tear down the walls between people who differ from us, politically, racially, culturally, and religiously. It is to make sacrifices, individually and communally, to insure social and economic justice for the poor and downtrodden.

These aren’t merely suggestions to consider, these are gospel mandates to live into. And it’s not easy. But then we worship a king who ushers us into a kingdom of radical transformation through divine encounter, not a life of leisure through a path of least resistance. On Christ the King Sunday we are reminded that we worship a king who is not of this world; a king whose very existence strikes fear into the hearts of the powers and principalities of the ruling class. A king of disruption and change rather than a monarch of structure and stability.

And so, we’re confronted with a challenging question: how will we claim our role as loyal subjects of Christ the King? In a world where might generally does make right, how do we follow the Prince of Peace?

Well, we can start by proclaiming our faith in ever-bolder ways. So that, in a sense, we should be asking ourselves, why didn’t this vandalism that touched the Church of Our Savior and St. David’s happen here at St. John’s? If we are preaching the gospel by word and action as a church community, if we are living out our baptismal vows to respect the dignity of every human being — not just some human beings or only the human beings who look like us and act like us and believe what we believe — we should be the target of vandalism. We should be reviled by the darker forces of this world, those who fight against love and justice and peace.

Do I want our sacred space to be vandalized? Of course not. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not and never has been an easy path to follow. We worship a king, yes. But a king who was strung up on a cross to suffer and die, not one who prances around in royal robes. That’s the great paradox of the Christian faith. That out of death there is life; out of darkness there is light; out of crucifixion there is resurrection. And that sacrifice is always involved in following the divine call to love your neighbor as yourself.

So, in order to be loyal subjects of Christ the King, what are we as a community willing to sacrifice? What privileges are we as individuals willing to sacrifice? These are the hard questions of being disciples of Jesus in an increasingly polarized world. It may be a sacrifice to give up your time to stand with the dispossessed. Or to share your financial resources — your hard-earned money — with the church and other charities that do kingdom work. It may be leaving your comfort zone to enter into hard conversations with those with whom you disagree or differ from in order to see life from another perspective.

These are the kinds of things that we as Christians must do now more than ever. We must proclaim as a church and as individuals that we will not stand for the demeaning of any human being for whatever reason. To stand idly by is to be complicit. It is to condemn Jesus to the cross again and again and again.

My friends in Christ, this is not an easy time to be a Christian. But it is an important time to be a Christian. We have such an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless and to offer hope to the hopeless. Never has your commitment to this place mattered so much as it does in this very moment.

You know, I was in Arizona for a few days this week to attend a conference on church leadership. And one of the attendees was Kirk Smith, the Bishop of Arizona. I’ve met Bishop Smith several times over the years and we’ve interacted over social media, but he said something that startled me. At the end of the conference he shared some thoughts with the group and in reflecting on the church’s role in the days, months, and years to come, he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to jail.” This wasn’t uttered as a badge of honor, there was great heartache in his words. But also deep conviction. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to jail because I’ll be standing with the immigrants.” This is precisely where the church needs to be, standing with the marginalized. Working for the kingdom of God always entails some suffering along the way. But in the saints of the church, we have plenty of powerful examples of perseverance and endurance we can always look to for inspiration, right along with a vision for bringing us ever closer to realizing God’s kingdom here on earth.

I’m proud to engage in this struggle with all of you. Because of it, we will grow spiritually; our minds and hearts will be expanded; our comfort zones will be extended. We’re not in this alone. Jesus, our royal brother, is with us at every step of the way. And there is great comfort, if not always solace, in this.

At St. David’s in Bean Blossom, they left the hateful messages up in hopes of fostering dialogue. And at Church of Our Savior, in Silver Spring, the community pulled together the evening of the attack and packed the regular Spanish-language mass in a show of support and solidarity. Attendees wrote messages of love on the sidewalk in chalk and covered the vandalism with signs saying “love wins.”

May we, like those seeking reconciliation, look to the courage of our convictions. And may we never, ever back down from following Christ our Lord and our King.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

All Saints’ Sunday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 6, 2016 (All Saints’ Sunday)

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for president because the Sermon on the Mount would make a lousy stump speech. I mean, it’s got a nice rhythm to it with the memorably repetitive “Blessed are those who…for they will…” trope. But we want our candidates to project an image of strength and power; we want to see leadership and action. We want messages of confidence and abundance and optimism. We don’t want to hear about the meek and the poor and the persecuted and the hungry. We want uplifting rhetoric that inspires and reminds us of our national supremacy on the global stage. We want someone who will make the kingdom of heaven great again! Not someone who will highlight the as-of-yet unrealized dream of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Now you might have heard that we have an election coming up. In two short days we, as a vote_2016_morrisnation, will head to the polls to elect our next president. For many, it will be a relief to put this particularly nasty election cycle behind us. Sure, it’s been entertaining in an I-just-can’t-avert-my-eyes kind of way but it hasn’t exactly displayed the best of human nature. The bitter divides in this country have come into stark relief. And the election process has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of hatred and bile that I fear will be difficult to contain in the years ahead, no matter who wins on Tuesday.

More than ever, we need role models to serve as beacons of hope amidst a sinful and broken world. And this is why I love that a mere 48 hours before Election Day we are gathered together in this place to celebrate the great feast of All Saints’ Sunday. We can put aside the vitriol and the partisanship and the insults and focus on humanity’s better nature. Because this is where, if we invite them into our lives, the church’s saints offer us such promise and guidance.

These men and women we call saints lived in a variety of times and circumstances — some walked this earth during periods of great turmoil; some were reviled for their faith; some were ardent in prayer; some were strong leaders; some helped us experience God in new and profound ways. But their greatest virtue is not that they were somehow holier-than-thou or that they displayed pious perfection. They were flawed human beings just like you and me — just like our presidential candidates. They sinned, they messed up, they lost hope. But ultimately, often in the midst of great difficulties, they were faithful. Faithful in the ways they sought to follow Jesus. Faithful in their devotion to our Lord despite what they encountered. Faithful in their seeking after God again and again and again.

And this is a timely reminder that there is an antidote to the darker forces at work in the world. Which is the whole point of the baptismal rite. Water, that powerful and life-giving element, is used to cleanse and renew and wash away and give new life. Once blessed, this water of divine relationship changes everything. And while it doesn’t suddenly and magically erase the darkness that seemingly surrounds us at every turn, it does offer hope. And it helps us tap into this witness of the the saints who surround us like so great a cloud of witnesses. Saints who, just like us, have passed through this very water of baptism into deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, politics are a funny thing when approached from the pulpit. I’ve never suggested how anyone should vote. That’s not my calling or my function within this community of faith; I’m not a public policy analyst. That doesn’t mean I don’t get political on occasion but my calling is simply to preach the gospel of Jesus and trust that this contributes to the enlightenment you bring to the voting booth. Yes, Jesus himself was exceedingly political, in a subversive, fight-power-with-truth kind of way. But my calling is less partisan than it is, as the saintly Dorothy Day put it, one of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” And that, like hearing a political position with which we disagree, can make us uncomfortable.

But then, being a disciple of Jesus brings us into some uncomfortable places. The baptized life challenges our preconceived notions and often our very human nature. It lifts up the lowly and tears down the powerful. It challenges our assumptions and helps us see life not through a human lens but a divine one. The Beatitudes are radical because they flip over everything we think to be strong and powerful and instead underscore the qualities of faithfulness. For faith is ultimately what this life is about, not winning. And that’s a tough sell in our winner-take-all culture and political climate.

So today, we’re invited to look back towards those who have come before us in the faith, while also looking to the future. Even as we look to the saints, we don’t live our faith in the past tense. We revel in their good example and their witness to what really matters in this life. But our faith isn’t a museum exhibit. Something that we can only gaze upon but not touch, for fear of setting off an alarm or raising the ire of a guard. There is beauty in a museum and history and a sense of connection to past civilizations. But you can’t actually use that hand-painted vase from antiquity.

So we link this to the forward thrust of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who…for they will…” They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will receive mercy; they will be called children of God.

And the same could be said about the baptismal rite. As we bless the water, we look simultaneously backwards and forward as we recall all the ways that water has been present throughout our salvation history — as Moses crossed the Red Sea, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. We look back but we don’t keep our gaze fixed behind us. We look ahead to new relationship in Christ, to living out our faith in the world around us.

Jesus does invite us to look forward by holding before us the vision of the Beatitudes. To see a world where fear and hatred are driven out by compassion and love. We often need to pause for inspiration along the way, to look back to those who have endured hardships and come out all the more blessed for the experience. But the vision of peace and justice and love abides. And we’re reminded once again, that God doesn’t demand perfection but faithfulness. And there’s something so merciful and loving about that, isn’t there?

Unless you’ve already done the early voting thing, please do get out to the polls on Tuesday. And bring with you the spirit of the Beatitudes. Bring with you the poor and dispossessed, the meek and mournful, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart. Together and with God’s help, we can build up the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Because as Christians living out our faith in the world, we can collectively do infinitely more good than we could ever possibly imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 30, 2016 (Proper 26, Year C)

You can’t just invite yourself over to somebody else’s house. I tried that in kindergarten because my friend Michael had a much bigger box of Legos than we had at our house — including a bunch of those rare flat ones that you could build stuff on top of. And I was quickly chastised by my mother for being rude. Maybe I tried to pull this off in front of the grown-ups and my mother wanted to make it very clear to Michael’s mom that she was not raising an ill-mannered cretin.

But isn’t this precisely what Jesus does when he sees Zacchaeus up in that sycamore tree? rf“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now, Son of God, aside, you just can’t do that. Right?

I mean, that’s intrusive. And rude. And presumptuous. And speaking of intrusive and rude and presumptuous, today I’m talking about money (how’s that for a stellar stewardship segue?). And I’m not just talking about money in general. I’m talking about your money in particular and the church’s need for it. Now, the good news is that St. John’s has all the money it needs to survive and thrive and do the ministry it has been called to do in 2017. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all in your pockets. Hence the need for the annual stewardship campaign.

Now, it’s easy to take this place for granted. And it’s even easier to make assumptions. It’s easy to think, “Oh, the church doesn’t really need my money. Look at all the people here. Things must be going really well. And this building is so beautiful — that stained glass itself must be worth a mint. In fact from Main Street the church looks like an imposing stone castle — I’m sure they have all the money they need. And anyway, there are a lot of rich people around here. We’re in Hingham after all.”

Just as it’s easy to make assumptions about St. John’s, it was easy to make assumptions about Zacchaeus. Everybody hated this short, rich, tax collector. And, remember, tax collectors in ancient Palestine weren’t the IRS bureaucrats we’ve come to know and love. As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus would have contracted with Roman officials to collect all the taxes and tolls in a given area. He would have then employed others to collect these fees and, by skimming off the top, a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus could end up a very wealthy man.

To his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus was a traitor to his own people; someone who made his money as a collaborator with the despised Gentile oppressors. He may have been rich but he was reviled. But even worse, in the eyes of the religious leaders, tax collectors were viewed as ritually impure. Because his work took him into all sorts of homes and businesses, the tax collector came into contact with all the unclean elements of society. And so religious, upstanding Jews, like the Pharisees, treated tax collectors like lepers. They avoided contact with them and would certainly never eat a meal with them.

So, of all the people Jesus could single out, why mess with this social outcast? Jesus, as he always did, saw beyond the externals and the conventional wisdom and got right to the heart of things. Remember, Jesus was at the height of his popularity as he walked through the streets of Jericho. He had great crowds trailing after him, trying to touch the hem of his garment or maybe shake his hand or simply wanting to catch a quick glimpse. There’s a reason Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see him — and not just because he was short.

Think Red Sox World Series parade going down Tremont Street, the crowd five and six people deep and all those people climbing up telephone poles to get a glimpse of Big Papi. That’s the scale we’re talking. And imagine Papi looking up, pointing at you, and saying, “Hey, I’m coming over to your house for dinner tonight!” That wouldn’t be intrusive; that would be a huge honor. Imagine the pictures you could post on Facebook!

So it wasn’t so much bad manners as a special invitation to spend time with a superstar. But, to take this silly analogy further, imagine if Papi pointed at someone who was a despised Yankee fan. The only one in your neighborhood. An arrogant, brash New Yorker transplanted into Red Sox Nation. That would just make you cringe, wouldn’t it?

That was basically Zacchaeus’ standing in the community. And this is the one Jesus picked out of the crowd to honor? What kind of lousy judgment is that! But again, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus someone yearning to change; someone seeking transformation through relationship with the divine; someone hungering for justice and truth.

And the appearance of a flush church without any financial need is deceiving as well. Once you look a bit closer you realize that the annual budget is tight; that costs continue to rise; that we have a $7,000 budget deficit this year; that we don’t have some massive endowment funding our ministry; that we rely on your generosity to do the work we have been given to do in this community and in the wider world; that your financial commitment to St John’s matters; that we, quite literally, couldn’t do this without you. And, frankly, I prefer it that way. Because this is your church, not someone else’s. The worship and ministry that takes place here happens because of you, not someone else. This place survives and thrives only because of your generosity.

Like Zacchaeus, one of my jobs around here is to climb up into the trees and take in the view. To take stock of what’s going on and report back to all of you what I perceive. And it’s a stunning vista. I see Jesus himself working through a thriving, growing, energetic parish with a talented staff and committed volunteers. It’s an exciting time to be at St. John’s. But membership means commitment and we all have a spiritual need to give generously of ourselves in all that we do. That means, among other things, financial generosity, so that we can share this gospel message of love with one another and with those who have not yet learned just how much God loves them. This is important work that you are called to be a part of and to support with generous hearts.

And while the total number of pledged money is at an all-time high, we’re trying to invite more people into partnership with the parish. 198 families or individuals pledged to support St. John’s in 2016. I want us to increase this participation and our goal is 217 pledges in 2017. I think we can do this if everyone here makes a financial pledge to the parish, of whatever amount. If you’ve never pledged before or haven’t pledged in recent years, please consider it this year. Pledging is ultimately an act of faith; an act of discipleship. A way of driving a stake into the ground and saying, “I believe in this community and want to be part of it in a tangible way.” We want you and we need you to be an active member of this parish. And I for one, am exceedingly grateful that you are a part of this community.

The reality is that Jesus is always inviting himself over. Not because he’s ignorant of social convention but because he is urgently and passionately seeking to be in relationship with you. Not just a piece of you. Not just the public persona but the interior soul at the very core of your being. The relationship he so desires transcends the too-often superficial nature of human interaction. And it goes to the depths of your identity; the place where all desires are known and no secrets are hid. So come down from whatever tree you may be sitting in. And allow Jesus to be your guest.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck