Third Sunday after Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 19, 2015 (Easter 3, Year B)

“You are witnesses of these things.”

Lisa_on_the_witness_standI’ve never had to take the stand as a witness at a trial. Let alone the star witness. The one who fingers the accused mob boss in dramatic testimony or the one who provides the crucial piece of evidence that puts away the pyramid scheming shyster who’s been preying on trusting pensioners. I’ve watched enough Law & Order to know how these things go down and we’ve had our share of high profile trials around here of late. We seem to be on a continual loop of real life court drama from Whitey Bulger to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Aaron Hernandez.

Jesus, in one of his final post-Resurrection appearances, tells the disciples that they are “witnesses of these things.” It’s a curious word, “witness.” While we immediately think of the legal system, the Greek word for witness shares the same root as the word for martyr. So to take it to its extreme, to be a witness is to hold such strong belief in your account that you would be willing to die for it. The Latin word for witness derives from the word for testimony, meaning to give evidence of.

Jesus, then, as he prepares to take his leave of the disciples, is telling them to testify to the faith they have seen and experienced first-hand. And that their testimony matters so much that they must be willing to stake their life on it.

And certainly many of the disciples would do just that. They would literally be put on the stand for their faith — accused and killed for sharing their beliefs, for “witnessing” to the power of the risen Christ. So Jesus, fully aware that some of his disciples would suffer for their faith, tells them that they are not only witnesses of the faith but that they are to witness to the faith. That these “things” they have seen and heard are not only to be pondered but shared. The disciples were literally witnesses of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection. But they were also witnesses to the cosmic interaction between God and humanity in the unfolding of these events. And thus they cannot remain silent.

In many African-American churches the preacher will invite congregational participation by asking, “Can I get a witness?” If the congregation agrees with what’s being proclaimed from the pulpit, the call-and-response answer is usually “Amen!” or a “Preach it, brother.” In the Episcopal Church, the appropriate response to “Can I get a witness?” is generally awkward silence. And we typically don’t use “witness” as a verb around here. If I asked if anybody would like to come forward and witness to their faith this morning, I’m reasonably confident I wouldn’t get any takers. Though I’m open to it if anyone wants to come up here and finish the sermon…

Fortunately there are many ways to follow Jesus’ invitation to be witnesses to the faith that don’t involve standing up in church and sharing your personal testimony. For those of us who aren’t always comfortable witnessing with words, Jesus also invites us to witness with action. Words are sometimes necessary but action is always required. We witness to the power of the resurrection when we forgive those who hurt us, when we love those who hate us, when we fight injustice, when we work for peace.

So while Jesus was basically asking the disciples, and by extension us, “Can I get a witness?” he didn’t necessarily need a verbal answer. He was looking beyond words to action.

“You are witnesses of these things.” There’s a responsibility that comes with being a witness. If you see a crime being committed, you have a responsibility to report it even when it pushes against your natural inclination to “not get involved.” And if you are called to take the stand, you have a responsibility to accurately describe what you have seen. To truly serve as a witness you can’t keep silent. It doesn’t work that way. Because a witness is powerful only when he or she speaks of that which was witnessed.

The thing is, when it comes to our faith, we can’t just remain innocent bystanders. We must be witnesses. Witnesses to the good news of salvation; witnesses to the resurrection; witnesses to divine forgiveness; witnesses to God’s abiding love; witnesses to Jesus’ presence in the world. Yet when it comes to sharing our faith, far too many of us seem to be members of the Witness Protection program. We would rather move, have plastic surgery, and change our names than talk about Jesus with our friends or invite someone to church. And that must change.

Because, in a sense, your entire life is lived on a witness stand. And God invites you to give compelling testimony to what you have seen and heard about the faith that burns within you. You may get cross examined by those who don’t understand or are threatened by your work for justice and peace in the name of Jesus. But you simply stick to the truth of what you have witnessed and share it honestly and authentically. So help you God.

imagesThis week we all encountered a powerful courtroom witness named Ursula Ward. She wasn’t actually on the stand when she gave her testimony. But she offered the world a powerful witness to her faith. You see, Ursula was the mother of Odin Lloyd, the young man murdered by former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. And in the immediate aftermath of the guilty verdict being handed down, she was given the opportunity to speak. She spoke openly, honestly, gracefully, faithfully, and with great dignity.

She didn’t try to hide her pain, tearfully expressing that “The day I laid my son Odin to rest, I felt my heart stop beating for a moment. I felt like I wanted to go into that hole with my son, Odin.”

And then, standing in the same room as the man convicted of her son’s murder, a man who not once ever expressed any remorse, Ursula Ward spoke some courageous and powerful words:

“I forgive the hands of the people who had a hand in my son’s murder…and I pray and hope that someday everyone out there will forgive them also.” And then she sat down.

When I heard it I was personally blown away by this woman’s witness. It wasn’t until I blogged about it and shared a video link to her statement on Facebook that a member of the diocesan staff told me that Ursula Ward is actually an Episcopalian; a faithful member of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan.

So we can do this. As difficult as it may be to witness to the power of Jesus Christ, we have a role model in Ursula Ward. As Christians we have inherited this incredible faith; as disciples of Jesus we have a responsibility to share what we have seen and experienced in our daily lives.

“You are witnesses of these things.” Go. Tell the world.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 12, 2015 (Easter 2, Year B)

Although it’s been a few years since I’ve preached on “Doubting” Thomas, he is one of my all-time favorite Bible characters. He always shows up on the Sunday after Easter and, well, let’s just say that preaching on this day typically falls to the curate. Except this year. Since Noah won’t be starting until June.

doubting-thomasBut as I was thinking about this passage through my post-Easter fog, one quote kept coming back to me. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I’ll say that again: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” It’s been attributed to a bunch of people, from the theologian Paul Tillich to the modern spiritual writer Anne Lamott. But it’s worth exploring a bit.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” It implies that doubt is not only a natural part of faith but an essential part. To doubt, to question, to test, is integral to a mature faith. It means that it has been examined and considered rather than blindly accepted.

Though at one level, it’s odd that Thomas and the whole notion of doubt shows up so soon after Easter Day. After the euphoria of last week’s celebration, it would be understandable if we tried to just smooth over any cracks in the facade of our faith. Plug them up with Cadbury Eggs or hide them behind a giant Easter lily.

But this story of Thomas is a tangible reminder that doubt is an important piece of a healthy, vibrant faith. Doubt is not the Baby Ruth bar in the swimming pool of faith, to throw in a Caddyshack reference. And I think that’s freeing because so often we seek to suppress our doubts rather than embrace them; to deny our doubts rather than acknowledge them.

At least publicly. We may well question things or wrestle with our beliefs in the middle of the night but surely not on Sunday morning. Not during coffee hour. Not while basking in the warm glow of the Resurrection, with the altar still dressed up with Easter flowers. Surely not today. But then Thomas shows up.

The thing is, faith isn’t a smiley face mask that we put on when we come to church; or the plastered-on smile of a celebrity who overdid the Botox. Like the human face, faith is full of changing emotions and nuance. It can express joy and fear and grief. It can exhibit love and anxiety and peace. Faith encompasses the full range of human emotion.

Which is precisely why I love Thomas and the prominent role he plays on the Sunday after Easter. Because there’s something comforting about the fact that even an apostle of Jesus, one of the twelve, had serious doubts about his faith. Words were nice, the testimony of his friends were fine but Thomas wanted proof. You could argue that he should be the patron saint of skepticism, a man of reason before the Age of Reason. He didn’t just fall into line with the others and put on his smiley face mask. He’s not known to history as “Get With the Program” Thomas. He was true to himself, authentic in his skepticism, not afraid to raise his objections. Thomas speaks for all of us who, even as we belt out Easter hymns and affirm our faith in the ancient creeds, can’t help but say “wait a minute, I have a few questions.” And for that we can give thanks. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

Because if the opposite of faith is indeed certainty, Thomas proves his faithfulness by not being certain. He has the spiritual need to test and question the assumptions of others. And over the years, I’ve found that God is often most present in the struggle; in the wrestling with our faith. Believe me, God can take it. God isn’t a precious china doll sitting inside a locked case to be observed and admired rather than played with and engaged.

The problem with certainty is that it can quickly devolve into rigidity and self-righteousness. If I am certain that I have all the answers, then you are surely wrong. And a living faith quickly becomes a fossilized faith with no room for a new revelation or the influence of the Holy Spirit to blow in and make all things new.

This doesn’t mean that doubt is always easy. There are times when we really do struggle with faith. There’s that passage in Mark that I think captures the dual nature of faith. A man brings Jesus a boy who has been possessed by a demon. Jesus heals the child and the father immediately exclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Faith and doubt all wrapped up in a tangle of emotions. And yet the desire to believe is stronger than the doubts. Even in, or maybe especially in, those moments when we cry out to God, “help my unbelief!”

As we think about the miraculous events surrounding that first Easter Day it becomes clear that sometimes our faith is lived in an “If only” mindset. If only, I had been there at the empty tomb, I would be much more faithful. If only, I had been able to look into Jesus’s eyes or see him heal that blind man, I would be much more faithful. If only, I had been there for the Sermon on the Mount and heard Jesus preach, I would be much more faithful.

But that’s not our place in the whole expanse of God’s creation. We stand at this moment of time in the ever-unfolding plan of salvation. And Jesus offers us a final Beatitude. You know the Beatitudes, from the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

That’s us! You are blessed in a special way for your belief, for your presence here this morning, for your seeking after God even when doubts persist. And God rejoices in that relationship with you, wherever you happen to be along the continuum of your faith at any given time.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” As with life itself, faith is not all black and white. There is nuance and there are shades of gray. And God is right in the midst of it all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Easter Day 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 5, 2015 (Easter Day)

Some of you know that this has been a year of great transition here at St. John’s. All for good reasons, but just to recap, if you’re visiting with us this morning, starting in the fall our assistant priest left to take her own church in Oregon, our deacon moved to New Hampshire, our organist went to a parish in Illinois, our youth minister left to pursue a degree in social work, and the boiler died. And, then there was a bunch of snow and a pipe burst but I don’t need to get into all that.

Needless to say it’s been a bit crazy around here. Now, the good news is that we’re putting together an incredible ministry team that I’m very excited about — our new organist starts next month and our new assistant priest, who will also lead the youth group, is starting in June. So the cavalry will be arriving shortly.

10561825_10152283007651198_1996964952654161501_nBut I’m sharing this because one of our young acolytes, nine-year-old Will Buckley, knowing that I’d be overloaded this week with the ten services in four days, decided to take pity on the rector. He wrote an Easter sermon for me. And I was so very grateful, I almost decided to just sleep in this morning.

One of the themes Will hit on was the confusion that some people have when it comes to Easter. And I thought I’d read a paragraph of what he wrote since, you know, it’s been a pretty busy week.

“We all know the story of Easter. I know someone who was a little confused. He was arguing with my teacher because he thought Jesus was born on Easter and died on Christmas. My brother, Andrew, thought that too.” [it’s always good to celebrate the resurrection by throwing a sibling under the bus]. “My teacher said that Jesus was born on Christmas and died on Easter. I would say she got it really wrong. [it’s also great when you can contradict your teacher] We all know that Jesus was born on Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose again on Easter.” [duh — no that wasn’t Will, I added that part].

Now, this is not the usual conversation that takes place in the Hingham public schools. But I do thank Will for setting everyone straight. I also think the women who approached Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter Day had a lot in common with Will’s teacher; they, too, naturally assumed Jesus was dead. They had witnessed the crucifixion, after all, and no one just comes back to life after their body has been so fully broken.

In Mark’s gospel we hear of three reactions to the surprising events: alarm, terror, and amazement. And you can certainly add confusion to the emotional mix here. And while you can understand this response to seeing an angel dressed in white sitting in Jesus’ empty tomb, alarm, terror, amazement, and confusion aren’t usually the emotions we associate with Easter.

For us, standing as we do on this side of the Resurrection, we think about victory and joy and love and fulfillment and, perhaps, Peeps. Okay, definitely Peeps. But the women at the tomb had a different experience. They weren’t exactly singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” as they processed to Jesus’ grave site. There were no fancy hats or chocolate bunnies or Easter egg hunts. Peeps wouldn’t even be invented for another 1,933 years (bless you, Google).

So the women were a bit freaked out by the whole thing. And with good reason! Their
expectations of what they would encounter came nowhere near the reality. They simply wanted to anoint the body of Jesus and prepare it for burial. They were blinded with grief and went about their task with a single-mindedness of purpose. After all, Jesus was dead.

In fact, their biggest concern along the journey was over who would roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb. Because, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, the men were nowhere to be found. By Sunday morning, they’d all fled; driven out by despair and fear and grief. So the women couldn’t even get one of the guys to stick around and help them. But something drew them back to the tomb; something drew them back even as the doubts lingered about whether they could actually get inside it to perform the proper burial customs. 

And we, too, are drawn back to the empty tomb. Year after year we return; even with doubts rattling around our rational minds, we return. And in the encounter with the risen Christ, alarm becomes joy; terror is driven out by love; confusion is replaced with an abiding peace. And we’re left with hope and meaning and the blessed assurance that Jesus Christ’s love for us is the bedrock of all that matters in this life.

I’ll end with another quote from Will’s Easter sermon. “My brother Henry made a joke. Why did the chicken cross the road? The answer is, to see what heaven is like.” Evidently there was a lot of traffic. Now, I’m not going to get into the theology of chicken resurrection, but the beauty of Easter is that death is conquered once and for all; that line between life and death is erased which means that whether we live or die, we belong to God. And that is the good news of this day — that Jesus’ love for you is stronger even than death.

May this Easter Day fill you with all hope in the power of the resurrection. May the joy of this day open up for you an ever deepening relationship with the living God. And may Christ’s victory over the grave open for you the very gates of heaven. Alleluia and amen.


© Tim Schenck

Good Friday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 3, 2015 (Good Friday)

One of the aspects of the Good Friday liturgy that never fails to get to me is entering the church and seeing the altar stripped bare. There’s a visual emptiness as well as a spiritual one that is so poignant on this day. The crucifixion leaves a gaping hole in our hearts and whenever I walk into the church on Good Friday, I always experience a visceral, if virtual, slug in the gut.

Each church space is unique. The parish I served in New York for seven years was a small stone structure. At the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy, when everything was stripped away except for the stone walls and the dark wood of the altar, it literally looked and felt like a tomb. And I knew it was Good Friday.

IMG_1424Here at St. John’s, the large wooden cross that is placed in front of the altar has become an important part of my Good Friday experience. It’s the cross itself, yes, but more than anything, it’s the subtle shadows it picks up and projects onto the high altar. If you look closely you can see three crosses — the traditional symbol of Jesus being crucified with a criminal on either side.

The thing is, we so often avoid the shadow side of the cross — we don’t want to dwell on Christ’s suffering, we want it to go away, we want to press fast forward and skip over the pain to get to the victory of the cross. We want to sing “Jesus Christ is risen today” and avoid “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

It’s a natural inclination. When we get a shot at the doctor, we want to “just get it over with” we don’t say “oh, could you just leave the needle in there a little longer, maybe move it around a bit — go ahead, take your time.”

But today we can’t avoid the shadows; we can’t avoid the broken body of our Lord — because this is a day that exposes the shadow-side of humanity. The arrogance and ambition, the greed and denial, the insecurity and blindness, the cruelty and sin. All of these characteristics come out in the human actions and interactions of the Passion narrative. And we can’t help but see them reflected so clearly in ourselves.

There are shadows in our midst. Deep, dark, unforgiving shadows. Every year on Good Friday we hear the Passion according to St. John. And with John we know that darkness is a metaphor for evil — the hope of our faith is precisely that the light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it. Yet the human condition is rife with dark shadows and our world offers us clear glimpses of them. Just pick up a newspaper or watch the news. There is inequality and suffering and despair. There is terror and violence and extreme poverty. The shadows seem to get longer as the days go by.

But the good news is that the shadows can’t hold a candle to the light of Christ. Because even in the darkest shadows of the cross, there is hope. Christ’s love for us transcends the horror and the suffering. That’s the power of the cross; the shadows don’t get the final say. “It is finished,” yes, but it is not the end of the story. The shadows don’t get the last word; the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us does.

Through Jesus Christ the cross is transformed from an implement of death and shame to an instrument of hope and salvation. Which means we aren’t destined to stay in the shadows, we’re called to live in the light. Even if, on this day, we must confront the darkness that surrounds us and come face-to-face with the shadows of our humanity.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Maundy Thursday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 5, 2012 (Maundy Thursday)

Tonight we begin a journey. Over the next three days, the Three Great Days, as they are often called, we’ll move from Lent to Easter, from darkness to light, from death to resurrection. We’ll walk with Jesus and his disciples through the last days of his life. We’ll travel to the Upper Room for the Last Supper and foot washing; we’ll enter the Garden of Gethsemane to watch and pray; we’ll meet the one who will betray Jesus; we’ll witness the indignity of Jesus’ trial; we’ll come face-to-face with the agony of the crucifixion as we move to the Foot of the Cross; we’ll gather with the women at the empty tomb to encounter the risen Christ.

And as we begin this journey, it’s important to recognize that we don’t just gather to remember long ago events. This isn’t a dramatic but ultimately benign bedtime story. We’re not passive onlookers standing by to watch the drama unfold before our eyes.

Nor are these three days a re-enactment of past events. We’re not play-acting or role-playing or merely pretending that we’re part of the action. The altar is not a stage; the congregation is not the audience. This isn’t stage left or stage right. We don’t dim the lights to call us back from intermission after the Peace.

Rather it is a journey into the very heart of the salvation story. A story that forms our identity as Christians. A story that is our story. So we’re not just hearing about dramatic events that took place a couple thousand years ago or observing them from a safe distance. As believers, we are deeply embedded in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are part of the story. Which is precisely why we are all here this evening and it’s why we will gather over the next several evenings.

It’s helpful to think about the services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter as one liturgy in three movements. To miss any of them is like missing one act of a three-act play. But when you go “all in” and commit to the fullness of the story, you come out the other side both spiritually renewed and spiritually transformed. That, at least, I can guarantee.

Meister_des_Hausbuches_003You may know that the word “maundy,” from which derives the name “Maundy Thursday,” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. It’s where we get the English word “mandate.” And we call this day Maundy Thursday because Jesus gives us a new commandment: That we love one another as Jesus loves us. Or as he put it after washing the disciples feet, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s quite a charge and it’s significant that Jesus calls this a “commandment.” This was a word dripping with meaning for the disciples — the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Law of Moses. So the fact that Jesus points to the call to love one another as an imperative command highlights its importance. Maundy Thursday could just as easily be called “New Commandment Thursday.” Because, for Jesus, love is not optional. This isn’t Suggestion Thursday; it’s New Commandment Thursday and that commandment is abundantly clear: “love one another as I have loved you.”

Love is the central theme that we will carry along on our journey over the next three days. And I encourage you to hold on to this commandment in your heart. Refer to it often as you reflect on the events that unfold. Think about how Jesus loves us unconditionally despite what he endures; view the crucifixion itself as the ultimate act of love that it is. Look at the ways in which the participants in this story live up to the command to love, and the ways in which they fall short. And examine your own life under the same light.

The thing about the foot washing that is so powerful is that Jesus doesn’t just talk abstractly about love. He doesn’t write a position paper on the concept or merely pay it lip service. When Jesus stands up in the middle of the meal, strips off his outer robe, wraps a towel around his waist, takes that pitcher of water in his hand, and bends over to wash the feet of his disciples, his actions become the ultimate example of someone practicing what he preaches. He doesn’t just talk about loving one another, he embodies it — through the foot washing tonight and, soon enough, on the cross.

But there is resistance to this outpouring of love. Peter reacts strongly against what Jesus is doing for several reasons. First, such a ritual washing as a sign of hospitality would have taken place before the meal. Jesus standing up in the middle of the meal to wash the disciples’ feet was out of order. So right from the start there was something not quite right about this; something that stood out as not being “by the book.”

Of greater significance and what made this even more uncomfortable and distasteful for the disciples, was the fact that masters or teachers never washed the feet of those below them in the social order. They were the ones who had their feet washed by servants or students — not the other way around. So there was a complete role reversal going on that bucked all social norms and conventions. By radically overturning the way things were always done, Jesus’ actions highlight that this was indeed a very new and slightly uncomfortable commandment.

In a few moments we, too, will wash one another’s feet in a tangible sign of the mandatum to love one another. And whether you choose to participate or simply observe, the message is the same: we serve one another as Christ himself serves us; we love one another as Christ himself loves us. The foot washing is Jesus’ gift to his disciples, just as the giving of his life will be a gift to the entire world.

So while the foot washing at this service is optional, the commandment to love one another is not. “Love one another as I have loved you.” May this new commandment, remain with you this night and throughout our journey to the cross and beyond.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

5th Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 22, 2015 (V Lent, Year B)

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A couple years ago I was asked to preach at All Saints’ Church in Ashmont. If you’ve never been there for a service it is one of the true Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Episcopal Church. During the liturgy, especially on feast days, there is so much incense billowing you can barely see the person in the next pew. I think there were a bunch of people at the service but I’m really not sure since I couldn’t actually see the congregation from the pulpit.

IMG_1353But I could see the pulpit itself very well. And what I remember most is that there was a brass plaque on it — right on the lectern part so it was visible only to the preacher — that bore the King James Version of the words from this morning’s gospel: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” To a guest preacher, it was both inspiring and intimidating. A charge to preach the gospel boldly and passionately and with clarity. Or else.

Of course this statement should be the goal of every sermon — to make Jesus known to the people who have gathered to catch a glimpse of the divine presence in their own lives. But unfortunately we’ve all heard sermons where this doesn’t work out so well. Sermons that are more about the preacher than Jesus; sermons that are more platitude than proclamation.

When I was first ordained I created my own version of the reminder I encountered on the pulpit at All Saints’, Ashmont. by putting a yellow sticky note on the computer where I wrote my sermons. It was phrased less poetically, perhaps. And, although, it was inspired not by St. John the Evangelist but rather James Carville, the idea was the same. It read, “It’s the Gospel, stupid.” Just to keep me focused on the task at hand.

I think if we scratch the surface just a bit, we all have a deep desire and yearning to see Jesus. We can be pretty good at covering up that desire with busyness and activity and binge watching TV shows on Netflix and our addiction to social media and driving kids all over tarnation to get to soccer practice and ballet lessons and tutoring. But that deep yearning to encounter something beyond the visible world is part of what it means to be human.

Maybe a good analogy around here would be the many layers of snow that have piled up with each subsequent storm the last couple of months. Even at the height of it, with the MBTA spiraling out of control and our backs aching from all the shoveling and water dripping down the walls of the kitchen from ice dams and risking our lives every time we gingerly pulled out of the driveway trying to see around that six foot mound of snow — despite all that — we were all reasonably confident that there was grass under all that snow. Somewhere.

The season of Lent is a time to let some of those layers melt away. Yes, for us, this is a season of both metaphorical and literal melting but I’m really talking about the metaphorical melting this morning. For the most part. Because at its heart, Lent is a time to get in touch with your desire to see Jesus and to be intentional about seeking him out — through prayer, worship, and introspection.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It is all part of our responsibility as Christians to both know Jesus and make him known; to see him ourselves and to help others to see him as well. In Lent we tend to focus on knowing Jesus, on renewing and nurturing our own relationships with him. But that second part, of making Jesus known, is equally important and it takes action. Think about the events at the start of the interaction in this morning’s gospel. These “Greeks” came to Philip and told them they wanted to see Jesus. Philip doesn’t serve as a gatekeeper. He doesn’t judge their motives or question their standing in the community. He acts. He grabs Andrew and together they go tell Jesus.

And when it comes to making Jesus known to others — whether they’re aware of and in touch with that deep desire to know Jesus that is so often buried beneath the surface, or not — we also must act. That’s the thing about the church. Not just St. John’s, but the Church in general — we collectively gather to know Jesus and we are collectively sent out to make Jesus known. We keep one foot firmly planted within our four walls — to worship together and care for one another and deepen our faith. And one foot outside our four walls, to share Jesus with those who seek him or those who do not yet know him.

And let’s face it, we’re a whole lot better at keeping that one foot inside the church than dealing with that other foot. For many of us, our natural inclination is to keep both feet firmly planted right here on this hill. Perhaps we’re willing to tentatively stick a toe out into the community. Like we’re testing the water at Nantasket Beach for the first time after a long, cold winter. The tendency is to flee back to the safety of the sand rather than dive right in. But we can’t just stick our head in the sand and hope that people will find their way here. If we truly believe that to know Jesus is to be transformed, we can’t help but invite others to join us on our collective journey of life and faith. Even if that puts us slightly, or even a whole lot, out of our comfort zones.

Yet if this church, both locally and globally, is to survive and thrive we must get out there into the world. It is a gospel imperative, as I like to say, to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted rather than hoard it. But this means taking risks and trying new things. You know, I don’t write that monthly column for the Hingham Journal because I like to see that lousy picture of me in the paper. I started writing it the month after we moved here 5 1/2 years ago because I felt it was important to reach beyond our walls and give people a glimpse of what goes on inside “that stone church on the hill.” Yes, it’s now syndicated and runs in tiny newspapers all over the country — I’m huge in rural Iowa. But that’s precisely the point. Trying new things to get God into the public conversation and inviting others to come and see, is all part of living into our responsibility to make Jesus known to the world.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yes. Yes, they do. We all do. And it is our great privilege and responsibility to both know Jesus ourselves and to make him known to others.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 8, 2015 (III Lent, Year B)

The summer before I started 8th grade, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. In a lot of ways this was a major shock to my system but in retrospect one of the most broadening experiences of my life. I went from a house in a suburban neighborhood and a school with a vast expanse of athletic fields to a row house in Queens and a school that was a thirteen story building. Goodbye carpool lines, hello subway.

One of the many decisions that year was choosing a church soon after we got settled. My parents decided this would be a family decision — sort of a small bone to toss the kids after ripping us away from all that was friendly and familiar and devoid of Yankee fans.

So over a number of Sundays we went church shopping. Since we lived in Sunnyside, just over the 59th Street Bridge, we started with visits to some of the stunning churches in Manhattan. We went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue and Grace Church in Greenwich Village. All impressive examples of church architecture with incredible music and clergy straight out of central casting.

Setting was important to me. We left a beautiful church in Baltimore with gorgeous stained glass windows and thick interior columns and marble floors; a place that oozed holiness and just looked, felt, and even smelled like church. But after going to all these fancy places we always left feeling like something was missing and would start plotting our venue for the next week. As we started to run out of ideas, one of my parents suggested we at least try the small Episcopal church that was walking distance from our house.

w_dio-directory-exteriorFrankly, I didn’t even know it was a church. It didn’t really look like one from the outside — it sort of blended in with the other red brick buildings on the block. No flying buttresses or soaring spires. Just a squat building with a little garden on the side. Entering All Saints’ that first Sunday morning was equally uninspiring. The floor was red asbestos tile — that was my first impression. And they had, horror of horrors for a music-loving family, an electronic organ. Not that there was a choir. The place wasn’t shabby, it just wasn’t my idea of what a church should be.

But there was something about the young, energetic rector and the welcome we received from the small and very diverse group of parishioners that brought us back the next week. And the week after that. Suddenly I was acolyting every week and my mother was singing in the newly formed choir of three people and my father was reading lessons and my brother and I made up half the youth group.

The point is that this completely changed the way I understood church. It dawned on me that it wasn’t about Tiffany stained glass or acoustics or silver chalices. It was about two things: the community and Jesus. That’s it. That’s what church is really all about. But it took a process of grieving the reliance on outward beauty to get to that place. It was something I knew intellectually — that church isn’t ultimately about the building or any of the external trappings — but it took this experience to learn it internally.

We often approach the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple with preconceived notions and it’s easy to foist our own expectations upon him. “See, Jesus got angry too — he’s just like one of us” or “That Jesus was such a rebel — look at him sticking it to the man.” But one of the major themes of this somewhat jarring story is what Jesus is saying about how and what we worship.

For Jews — including Jesus — the Temple in Jerusalem was the very heart and epicenter of their faith. According to Scripture the original Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BC. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments — the Temple was built and it served as the literal House of God. And, according to the renderings and models that have been created by architectural historians, it was a most impressive structure.

The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 when the city was sacked. After the fall of the Babylonian empire, a second Temple was completed in 515 BC. This one stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

This history is important because many Jews, including Jesus’ original disciples, couldn’t Model-of-the-Templeimagine worshipping God without the Temple. In other words, like me, those who worshipped at the Temple probably had strong ideas about what a house of worship should look like. And here was Jesus not only saying the Temple would turn to rubble but that he would raise it up in three days.

The problem with the Temple worship, and this was Jesus’ point, was that the Temple had become an idol in and of itself. And it’s understandable. We fall into the same temptation with our churches. We get attached to them. We love our sacred space here at St. John’s; it’s been an inspiration to generations of worshippers over the years; we’ve all donated time and effort and money to maintain it. And theologically, it makes sense — this is holy ground. And an incarnational faith encourages the embodiment of the holy. This space is sacred because it is where we gather week after week to encounter the divine presence. It is our Temple.

But here’s a secret: the Christian faith isn’t about the building. It took me a long time to figure this out. And it took Jesus’ followers a long time to figure this out as well. It was only in light of Jesus’ resurrection that they understood what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed on that day, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Oh really? came the reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

If Lent is a time to strip away the external trappings of our faith to focus more intentionally on our relationship with Jesus, this account fits right into the season. Now, I’m not suggesting we should ignore the stewardship of this building and let it fall apart from neglect. We need this special setting and it is indeed a sacred place. But if we spend too much time and attention on the practical at the expense of the spiritual, the balance can pretty easily get out of whack.

Yes, we need to have the roof shoveled and the ice dams broken and the snow plowed and the parish hall repaired. Yes, we need to pay for the boiler that gave up the ghost a couple months ago (you’ll be getting a letter about that this week). And as long as the church building points us toward God rather than serving as a distraction from God, we’ll be just fine.

Because ultimately we don’t need a building. We just need one another and Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck