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

All Souls’ Sunday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 8, 2015 (All Souls’ Sunday)

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and hearing about and reflecting on the mysteries surrounding the end-of-life over the last few weeks. Between the Grave Matters adult education series and last Sunday’s All Saints’ celebration and this week’s commemoration of All Souls’, we’ve spent a lot of time in that liminal space between life and death. A place of deep emotion and unanswered questions; a place of hope and despair; a place of grief and joy.

And in many ways, thinking about specific loved ones that we have lost is where the theoretical and theological rubber meets the road of life and experience. It’s one thing to think about the great saints of the church, the ones who surround us in stained glass and statuary. To hear their unique stories and be inspired by their witness to the gospel. To honor those who make up the great saintly cloud of witnesses that transcends all time and space. And it’s one thing to speak of the theology of resurrection, to talk about the burial rite as an Easter liturgy, to discuss death in the abstract.

But it’s quite another thing to think not generally about the souls of all the faithful departed, but to think specifically about a particular person that we have known and loved and lost. Which is precisely what we do today. We remember and pray for people in our own lives that have died. We poke the wound of grief we thought had scarred completely over and we recognize just how raw the emotion sometimes remains.

In this spirit, I’d like to share a personal story of a particular death. One that has deeply touched my own life and continues to define who I am and what I do. And I recognize that even as I speak, your minds will be moving toward your own stories; toward an individual that particularly impacted how you experience grief and loss and life and faith. So I offer my own story as a portal into your own experience. Because it is a reality of the human condition that the experience of grief and loss binds us together; it is a shared experience for anyone who has spent any time at all on this earth.

Some of you know that my father, Andrew, was a symphony orchestra conductor. We aschenck3moved to Baltimore when I was four because he was hired as the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. He eventually went on to have a few orchestras of his own — on Long Island and San Antonio, a chamber orchestra in Manhattan.

But in the last several years of his life, he really made his mark recording music with orchestras around the world and became most closely identified with the resurgence in the work of American composers. And he was just on the verge of a major international career when the cancer first appeared.

One of the last concerts he ever conducted turned out to be his most inspired performance. And I’ll never forget it. It was a live recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring the music of Samuel Barber. On the program that night were two of Barber’s choral works. The first, The Lovers, had never before been recorded. The second was Barber’s setting of the Prayers of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian.

Professionally, this was the most significant night of his career. Here he was doing a world premiere recording with one of the best orchestras in the world. And he was dying. Telling no one but his family, he somehow summoned the strength to put his very soul into the music. It turned out to be a remarkable performance that won a Grammy Award. Something we found out on Ash Wednesday the month after he died at the age of 52.

But my father was never about the awards or the applause. He never demanded that people call him “maestro.” His life wasn’t defined by ego or the often cut-throat politics of the music industry — he refused to play that game. He was about two things: music and family. He was always a dad first and a public figure second.

l4780802n79_lYet when I look at his life as a whole, I can’t help but add a third leg: faith. Because while we always attended church as a family he was honest enough to admit that while he spoke the words and sang the hymns, they didn’t always resonate. Until those last months of his life when he experienced first-hand the peace and freedom of faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, on the surface of things, that makes absolutely no sense. His career, his life, a beautiful 25-year marriage — they were all cut short by a merciless disease that quickly ravaged his body. He conducted his last concert in late December — a Nutcracker — and was dead on February 19th. Someone who had every right to be bitter and angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love.

And as I found myself wondering where Jesus could possibly be in all of this, it took the dying man himself to make me see precisely where Jesus was. Watching my father’s response, his unwavering faith in the face of death, opened my eyes to the fact that Jesus was just as present with him on the podium, as with our family in those last days, and in his final breath. That’s where Jesus was; right there with all of us. In the tears, in the laughter, in the spark of my father’s eyes even as he neared the end, in the memories, in the grief.

My father’s last words were “Good things are happening.” Which, again, on the surface of things sounds like a cruel joke. But at another level it was unadulterated truth. Because he had entered into the peace which passes all understanding; he was ready to enter into God’s everlasting arms of mercy. Amidst the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God, with his family, and with his friends. He knew that he was soon to be with Christ, that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to life eternal. Good things were indeed happening.

And while I didn’t know it at the time, this experience of glimpsing resurrection in the midst of death propelled me onto my vocational path. It’s an experience that continues to sustain me and give me hope even in life’s darkest moments. And this is what we celebrate on All Souls’ Day — the living hope of life snatched out of the jaws of death. That’s what Jesus does for us. He allows us to wonder, right along with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And he reminds us that out of darkness there is light; out of pain there is joy; and out of death there is life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year B) – Stewardship

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 25, 2015 (Proper 25, Year B)

I love talking about money. And I love talking about it because it’s an important topic, a spiritual topic, a necessary, if challenging, topic. And, frankly, I love talking about money because it takes people out of their comfort zones, which is a place we so often encounter Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

And anyway, Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. Of his 39 recorded parables, 11 involve money. Why did Jesus talk about money so much? Well, it wasn’t because he was looking to refinance his house — he didn’t have one. Or consolidate his debt — he didn’t have any. But it was a frequent topic because he was intimately aware of the spiritual dangers and spiritual opportunities presented by our relationship with money. And that is something that doesn’t get lost in 2,000 years of translation.

The reality is that, when it comes to our finances we, like Bartimaeus in this morning’s gospel reading, have some blind spots. And those blind spots keep us from living a life of generosity and freedom. They find us clinging to our possessions and our resources with a death grip, literally holding on for dear life; focusing on our money rather than our relationships; remaining blind to everyone’s needs but our own, until life itself finally passes us by.

And the thing is, when we hoard and amass and accumulate to excess, it’s not that we’re just denying others, we’re denying ourselves. Because when we forget that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God, we end up killing our souls from the inside out. And that grieves the very heart of God. Jesus doesn’t want this for us, which is why he warns us in no uncertain terms against the love of money.

This doesn’t mean that money in and of itself is evil — that cliche “money is the root of all evil” is not actually in the Bible! In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus knows the potential power of money for doing good. Thus it is to be celebrated as a gift from God and shared freely. For our own spiritual good but also for the good of others. So money is a good thing — it’s the unchecked love of money that causes us to stumble. Which is, again, why Jesus so often addressed the topic.

Here’s the thing about stewardship at St. John’s this year. A couple years ago we engaged in a strategic planning process we called Charting Our Course. Many of you actively participated in this undertaking and we received a tremendous amount of feedback — over 800 comments based on surveys and interviews and focus groups. From this response, the Vestry charted a course for the future; one that emphasized what we were doing well and took into account important areas where we needed to do a better job.

What emerged was a plan to prioritize pastoral care, youth ministry, adult education, and music while maintaining excellence in liturgy, preaching, and outreach. And the Vestry and I made a number of decisions to refocus some mission priorities and restructure some staffing. I am thrilled with how things have turned out as the course has been charted and we are now living into the fruit of our planning and visioning. As I stand up here today, there most definitely seems to be, to quote the old spiritual, a “sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”

I know we are on the right course when I see Buffy working with the children’s choir or hear the adults singing a sublime communion anthem. I know we are on the right course when I see Noah overseeing 25 middle school students learning and then acting out and filming Bible stories. I know we are on the right course when I see Alexis and the church school teachers bringing throngs of children into church after the announcements. I know we are on the right course when I see the Outreach Committee’s new Giving Basket set up in the entryway ready to receive a variety of donations over the coming months. I know we are on the right course when I see people laughing and lingering at Coffee Hour. Tangible signs that we are on the right course abound and it is a joy to behold.

So together we have listened, we have learned, we have implemented. And now we need to pay for this if we want this sweet, sweet spirit to continue for the long term. In concrete terms, we need to annualize these new positions amid ever-rising costs. And that takes money. Not money in general, but your money in particular.

The bottom line is that I invite you to think prayerfully about your 2016 pledge to this, your parish community. We have invested in the dreams set forth in our strategic plan and we need giving to increase by 5% and 10% to avoid running a deficit next year. I know we can do this.

So many of you have been incredibly generous over the years. And we need you to continue to exhibit leadership in this area. Some of you have taken the first steps toward becoming more invested in this community — with your prayers, your presence, your passion, and your money. And some of you have never made a financial pledge to St. John’s. I invite you to do so because not only will it help us plan for the year ahead, it will make you feel better connected to God and this community.

Giving to St. John’s shouldn’t simply come out of your disposable income. Hopefully, your faith means much more than that. I mean, think about the impact it would make if you made a pledge for the very first time or if you increased your pledge for next year — especially if you’ve given at the exact same level for the past decade. And then think about giving to your church in the context of your broader life. If checkbooks are windows into our life’s priorities, how are you doing? For example, think about what you spend per year to eat out or what it costs for your family of four to go skiing for a long weekend. Is your pledge anywhere near that? And if not, what does this say about the priority faith plays in your life?

Last year the average pledge at St. John’s was $2,188. Now I know not everybody can do that — we all have different situations. But that comes to about $180 a month — again, just to put it all in perspective as you think about what this place and all these people sitting here today mean to you.

Jesus’ point when talking about money was never guilt but generosity. He may warn us against the love of money but he also encourages us to embrace a spirit of generosity. In the end, generosity is an act of love, an act of trust, an act of faith. When we take the blinders off, only then are we truly able to follow Jesus as the formerly blind Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus. As this story shows us, spiritual blindness or sight has nothing to do with actual sight. Those who see physically can remain spiritually blind just as those who cannot see physically can see very clearly when it comes to the life of the spirit. I’m simply inviting you to open your eyes and your heart and your wallet to support St. John’s in ever increasing ways. This community matters; you matter; your faith matters.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 18, 2015 (Proper 24, Year B)

If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve surely heard a bridesmaid butcher 1 Corinthians 13. Yes, “love is patient, love is kind,” but it’s hard to revel in patience and kindness when the young woman in the peach-colored dress is racing through the reading as if she she can’t wait to get the whole “religious part” over with so she can finally access the open bar at the reception. Or weeping through it as she uses an entire pack of tissues, sniffling before every word, with mascara running everywhere, and making the relatively short reading last longer than the homily.

I knew a wise priest who used to always tell couples to substitute “Jesus” for the word “love” when they heard this ubiquitous passage. Because it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Paul is talking about Jesus’ love for us, not the couple’s love for one another. So, “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind.”

But the upshot is that when we think of Jesus, patience is one of the virtues that comes to mind. We think of him as having the patience of, well, a saint. Sure, there was that little episode when he flipped over the tables in the Temple but we generally think of him as a calm, non-anxious presence, patiently and lovingly putting up with the foibles of human nature.

james&johnAnd then we get a reading like our gospel passage this morning and we know that Jesus must have also experienced total and utter exasperation. Because if there was ever a moment that would cause Jesus’ patience to run out, it would be this encounter with James and John. I mean, come on. They’d been through a lot with Jesus. These brothers, the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, were two of the first people Jesus called as disciples. They traveled with him all over the countryside, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, into towns and villages; they heard him teach and preach, they saw him perform miracles and heal all sorts and conditions of people. As two of his most valued disciples, they had quality face time with him up the mountain at the Transfiguration. And yet they Still. Don’t. Get. It.

This whole episode happens just before Jesus heads to Jerusalem to be put on trial and yet James and John, like two spoiled siblings, are still squabbling over issues of status in the kingdom that is to come. Thereby entirely missing the point of Jesus’ message and ministry. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they say. After all this time, they still think they’re going to “get something” for themselves out of this relationship. Jesus, probably first taking a deep cleansing breath, asks them if they are able to “drink the cup that I drink.” In other words, are you able to endure what I will endure? Are you able to go through what I will go through? And without hesitation they answer, in the most clueless response in the history of clueless responses, “Yup. We’re able.’

And Jesus replies with what must have been unbelievable exasperation, ‘Oh, really. You’re able to drink the cup that I will drink? Huh. Well, you will. I’ll tell you that. But you should know something. It’s not all about rainbows and unicorns and smiling emojis. It’s not about your personal glorification. You don’t get a special prize or trophy for walking this journey and drinking this cup. In fact, quite the opposite. People will trash talk you and treat you like dirt. There’s glory in this path, yes, but it’s not like anything you could possibly even imagine. And it’s certainly not to your personal glory.’

All you have to do is look at the passage we just read from the prophet Isaiah if you have any doubts about how this will all go down. If it sounds familiar it’s because we read it every year on Good Friday. And we know how that turns out for Jesus and his disciples.

As Christians, our inheritance is not to become great by human standards. Rather it is to serve others in the name of Christ. And doesn’t that just push against every cultural inclination? We may not be willing to win at all costs since, you know, we’re people of faith, but we still want to win. So when Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” that’s not something that comes naturally to us.

And it certainly didn’t come naturally to James and John. Which is something we share with them. Jesus nicknamed the two “boanerges” which is translated “Sons of Thunder.” Why? Because they were passionate, fiery, go-getters. At one point on their travels, Jesus is opposed by some villagers who refuse to let him and his disciples stay the night. And James and John say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Uh, no. But it gives you a glimpse into their no-holds-barred, do anything for the team approach to discipleship. That’s what Jesus is working with when he flips their entire notion of discipleship upside down with the whole ‘whoever wants to be great must be a servant’ thing.

In the end James and John will indeed drink the cup that Jesus drinks. Tradition holds that James was the first of the disciples to be martyred and John, who became known as the Beloved Disciple, was charged with taking Mary into his home and caring for her after the crucifixion. Eventually they do get it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try the patience of their Lord along the way.

And in this, we have much in common with James and John. Like these Sons of Thunder, there are moments when we just don’t get it. We may not want to think about this but despite Jesus’ limitless capacity to love us and forgive us, we shouldn’t get lulled into believing that he never gets fed up with us. So I do think it’s worth reflecting upon the things we do or fail to do that try the patience of Jesus. I can personally think of all sorts of things I do that might exasperate him. And I doubt I’m alone.

Because for all his talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves, how often do we turn away when we see someone in need? For all his talk about forgiveness, how often do we hold grudges? For all his talk about generosity, how often do hoard our resources? For all his talk about justice, how often do we encounter injustice and just walk away?

And yet…even when we exasperate Jesus, even when we try his patience, even when we make him roll his eyes and shake his head, he still loves us. That’s the good news for us today. That no matter what we do in our ignorance, in our blindness, in our sinfulness, Jesus looks upon us with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. Even if we sometimes drive him nuts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 4, 2015 (Proper 22, Year B)

In the marriage rite, immediately after the couple exchanges vows, the priest pronounces them husband and wife and then says these words: “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” I love this moment for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it’s the only time I ever get to say the word “asunder.” The line comes from Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel passage and it means “separate” — the more pedestrian modern translation we just heard reads, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” I prefer the word “asunder,” perhaps because it’s such a dramatic moment that it feels right to use a word that rhymes with “thunder.”quote-those-whom-god-hath-joined-together-let-no-man-put-asunder-the-book-of-common-prayer-303888

What we don’t hear about in the marriage rite is what Jesus says next. He speaks of divorce and adultery. No one wants to hear about such things — certainly not on their wedding day. And no one wants the priest to talk about divorce rates or the odds that the marriage may well be “put asunder” — that the covenant of marriage might, in time, be broken.

My guess is that everyone sitting here has been touched by divorce in some way. As a child of divorced parents, as someone who has been divorced, as a supportive friend for someone going through a divorce, as a parent whose child has been divorced. It’s not easy to talk about; it’s a topic we’d rather avoid or ignore and yet it is a reality of life, a reality of human relationships.

This passage comes up in the lectionary cycle every three years and just think for a moment about those you know who have been divorced in that period of time. I’m well aware of couples here who have been through this and on a personal level, my own brother has gone through a divorce since I last preached on the topic.

But there it is. A reality that affects all of us. And let’s face it, the Church as a broader institution hasn’t always been the most gracious on the topic. Judgment and the lack of a loving response has been the rule rather than the exception. During a painful, isolating time the Church hasn’t always modeled a merciful, loving response.

But forget about the church for a moment. What does Jesus have to say about divorce? After that line about putting things asunder, he goes on to say that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Which for many hits a very raw nerve.

But let’s take a closer look at this passage. As is usually the case, there’s a subtext that transcends the surface conversation. You’ll note Mark sets up this interaction by saying “Some Pharisees came to test Jesus.” Which, in Scripture, is a red flag for “loaded question.” They were trying to trick Jesus into saying something contrary to the Law of Moses which did indeed have a provision for divorce.

But as much as the Pharisees seek to draw Jesus into a legalistic debate, he refuses to go there; he won’t get sucked into an argument over the minutia of the Law. He takes the broad view of faith not the narrow one. So instead of engaging the Pharisees, he focuses on God’s will for all people, in this case regarding the institution of marriage. God’s will, as rooted in creation, is for marriage to bring two people closer to God and one another. It’s not about finding an easy out. And it’s certainly not about protecting a patriarchal system which made it easy for a man to cast off a woman at his convenience. Remember, marriage in Ancient Palestine was less about love than it was an economic contract between two families. To divorce a woman was to leave her as one of society’s most vulnerable members. And, as we know, Jesus’ concern was always focused upon “the least of these;” the oppressed, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak.

So Jesus isn’t saying that divorce should never happen under any circumstances – he’s not getting into that debate. He doesn’t blindly condemn those who have been divorced. Listen again to what he says, “What God has joined together let no one separate.” So many failed marriages seem, in retrospect, to have precious little of God in them. God wouldn’t join two people together in a verbally or physically abusive relationship. God wouldn’t join two people together in a relationship that didn’t lead to emotional and spiritual growth. God wouldn’t join two people together who lacked the maturity to live a life of mutual joy and respect. But unfortunately we don’t apply to God for marriage licenses.

For better or worse, human beings are free to make these unions themselves. An untenable marriage full of pain and anguish for both parties is not what God has joined together. Suffering is not what God intends for us. There may well be aspects of God’s blessing in each failed union – times of happiness or the gift of children. But God desires a life of joy for each one of us – not one without hardships, mind you – we weren’t promised a continual honeymoon. But marriages that are unhealthy are not what God wants for us. God does not “join together” two people who hurt one another. Jesus doesn’t condemn divorce; he just wishes it weren’t ever necessary.

The thing is, human relationships are, by their very nature, broken relationships. We are human, we are sinners, we are imperfect. And our relationships with one another reflect this. Marriage at its best offers us a glimpse of the divine love between God and Jesus Christ. But it also offers a glimpse into our own brokenness and serves as a reminder that the only love that is truly unconditional is God’s love for us.

Human beings may fail in their earthly relationships with one another but God never divorces us. Despite our sinfulness, our ignorance, our abuse, and our apathy towards God, God never puts us asunder. And that’s the good news that Jesus communicates in this exchange with the Pharisees. God’s love made manifest through Jesus Christ abides through all human weakness. And this is the love that Jesus points to throughout his ministry, the love into which he so fervently calls us.

As painful as divorce is, God’s love for us is greater than a piece of paper. God wants us to be fruitful and to thrive. And while divorce is not to be entered into “lightly or unadvisedly” as the marriage rite advises on entering into holy matrimony in the first place, it sometimes takes the death of a relationship for resurrection to happen.

Three years from now, there will be other relationships that have fractured. Chances are some sitting here will have experienced first hand the emotional pain of divorce and others the ripples of its impact. My prayer for every couple on their wedding day is that through their relationship they will be drawn ever closer to the risen Christ. Which is precisely the same prayer I hold out for all of you. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 20, 2015 (Proper 20, Year B)

images-5Who among us is the greatest Christian? Now this is really important so we’re going to spend a bit of time getting to the bottom of this. And just to be fair, I’ll disqualify myself. Not because I actually believe that I am holier than thou — it’s one of those employees-and-immediate-family- members-are-not-eligible-to-win things. I mean, I’m paid to be here. I’m also going to go on record as disqualifying any nuns. We have several Sisters of St. Margaret among us as we do most every Sunday and, sorry, but that’s just not fair. So they’re out.

But what should the criteria be? If we based it purely on church attendance, that might lead to some uncomfortable squirming in the pews. And, anyway, we don’t keep a giant ledger with attendance charts in the church office (as far as you know). What about average hours of prayer logged in a given month? Not bad, but we’d have to go on the honor system and I don’t want to invite prayer fraud into the equation. “Lead us not into temptation” and all that.

We need something more quantifiable. How about money? Maybe the greatest Christian here is the one who has given the most money to St. John’s over the past year. Sure, there’s the little problem of Jesus’ story about the widow’s mite; the passage where he praises the poor woman who gives only two coins but gives from her heart. But we do keep meticulous giving records.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The whole notion of competitive Christianity is absurd. You can’t win the life of faith as if it’s some sort of competition. There are no trophies or certificates of achievement handed out at the Annual Meeting. There’s no parish ranking system.

And yet this is precisely what the disciples were trying to do as they walked along that road to Capernaum with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call them out on it during the journey, even though he’s absolutely aware of what’s going on. He bides his time and waits until they’re all gathered later that evening and asks them, “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” And…awkward silence. Until they sheepishly admit that they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

Just last week we heard Jesus rebuke Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. And here’s yet another clear example of the disciples just not getting it. They’re so focused on how their relationship with Jesus will benefit themselves that they fail to grasp the heart of his message, which is to look beyond themselves. They’re more concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others than actually serving others.

And you can’t really blame them. Well, you can, but think about the ways in which we judge our own self worth. We’re culturally rewarded for focusing on being the greatest, on winning, on being successful. Think about the ways we measure ourselves against one another. What’s your GPA? What’s your salary? How many bedrooms are in your house? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you give to your alma mater? What tax bracket are you in?

And lest you think clergy are above all this, you’ve never been to a clergy conference. ‘What’s your Average Sunday Attendance? How big is your operating budget? How many programs do you have? What’s the size of your endowment?’ It can quickly devolve into a not-so-glorified pissing contest. And you realize you’ve been feeding right into the mentality against which Jesus has warned us.

number-one_foam-finger21It’s also an oppressive way to live, all this competition; over time it beats you down because you can’t win everything, you can’t be the greatest at everything. I mean go to a football game and you’ll see fans of both teams holding up those “We’re Number 1” foam fingers. Yet both teams can’t, in fact, be number one. There will always be a number two. But they don’t sell foam fingers that proclaim “We’re Number 2!” at the concession stand.

The larger point here is that in Jesus’ realm it’s not about being successful but being faithful. So much of our energy and time and effort goes into pursuing perfection and self-promotion when we should really be pursuing peace and promoting harmony. Human wisdom, human ambition only gets you so far. The portion of James’ letter we heard this morning continues the theme. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Again, it’s about seeing things from the divine perspective, not the human one. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus says, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.”

So here goes Jesus shaking up the entire order of things — something he does all the time. I mean, is there anything more counter-cultural than telling people that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?” This isn’t just to make people who come in dead last in a road race feel better. Or to buck up those at end of the buffet line. Jesus is placing all of our notions of societal order and place and status and tossing them into one of those lottery machines that mixes up all the numbered balls.

Or maybe that’s a lousy analogy, because it’s too random; but time and again those who are most honored in God’s kingdom are the servants and those who are the least. We see this all the time in the gospels. Those who are the most blessed, those who get most of Jesus’ attention are not the ones with the fattest bank accounts or the biggest houses or the most followers on Twitter. The ones Jesus blesses and commends are the sick, the blind, the lame, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, women, the elderly — in other words, those on the very margins of society.

If we’re able to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, from that divine perspective, it changes our entire outlook on what really matters. It puts into perspective our silly and ultimately hopeless strivings to be on top, to keep up with the Joneses, to be “successful” as it is defined by others. You’re already successful in God’s eyes. Being made in the image of God takes care of that. Which gives you the freedom to pursue faithfulness with reckless abandon. To spend time growing your relationship with Jesus and reaching out to those in any kind of need or trouble and being present for those who need your love. That’s what it means to focus on divine things. And in so doing, the urgent need for worldly success fades to black.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015