Second 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 1, 2015 (II Lent, Year B)

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably don’t reflect with great fondness upon the Bobby Valentine era. When Terry Francona was unceremoniously pushed out as manager after leading the team to two World Championships, Bobby Valentine was brought in to restore order following the fried chicken and beer flavored collapse of 2011. In his one and only season as skipper of the Sox, Valentine managed the team to a last place finish and their worst record in 50 years.

valI’m bringing this up because one of the things Valentine did early on in his tenure was alienate veteran 3rd baseman Kevin Youkalis by publicly questioning his motivation and ability. The whole scenario backfired with Dustin Pedroia coming to Youkalis’ defense and saying about Valentine’s approach, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Well, it only got worse for Valentine and the Red Sox and the season quickly spiraled out of control.

In his defense, Bobby Valentine was probably just trying to light a fire under Youk who’d gotten off to a slow start. As a motivational technique, going public is risky business when dealing with the big yet often fragile egos of sports superstars. The big contracts can’t hide the human emotions that lurk below the surface. One size of motivation doesn’t fit all.

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus also goes public. Not through the media, of course, but by publicly calling Peter out for his behavior. I admit I’d never really noticed the public nature of this encounter. Well, I mean besides the fact that it’s in the Bible — the most popular, translated, purchased, visible, and, yes, shoplifted book in the entire world.

Jesus had just offered his disciples what Biblical scholars refer to as a passion prediction — foretelling his impending suffering, rejection, and death along with a veiled, incomprehensible reference to his resurrection. And immediately after this, we hear that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” So Peter was doing with Jesus precisely what Bobby Valentine did not do with Kevin Youkalis: Peter pulled Jesus aside to have a private conversation about the issue at hand. In other words, he kept this little chat inside the locker room rather than airing out his grievances on SportsCenter.

And for Peter, the issue was clear: don’t say such things about your suffering and death because a) I don’t want to hear it — the thought alone is terrifying and what will become of all of us and b) It’s not only dispiriting for those of us already in your camp, but also makes a lousy recruiting tool for those who are not.

But here’s what I never noticed before about this story. I’ve always focused on the private conversation between Peter and Jesus but you could argue that Jesus turns it right back into a public moment. Mark writes, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus said this loudly enough for the other disciples to hear. Most people wouldn’t whisper, “Get behind me satan!” It would be said forcefully and with great intention and conviction. And if that’s the case, why would Jesus seemingly publicly shame Peter? Why would Jesus pull a Bobby Valentine (which is a sentence, I assure you, I never dreamed I’d utter from a pulpit).

Well, for one thing, people already knew about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. His name itself came from Jesus when he said about Simon-Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church.” And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t actually calling Peter “satan” here but rather making his point with maximum emphasis and even shock value.

Jesus often used hyperbole to make important points and nothing could be more important than changing people’s expectations about how the divine plan would all unfold. Were used to hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion – we know how it ends. But imagine if you didn’t have a copy of that bestseller — the one that tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry? Imagine being drawn to this unique teacher and healer who simply said “follow me” and you had dropped everything to do just that.

Suddenly you’re part of a movement unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. You see first-hand the miracles and the enthusiastic crowds and the charismatic personality that draws them. You’re filled with hope that this new savior would finally lead your people in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors who had kept your community under foot for so many years, trampling you down economically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And just as events begin to move towards a great crescendo of expectation and fervor, this leader in whom you have placed all your hope and longing announces that he will suffer and be murdered. As everyone else stood around in shock, Peter alone was courageous enough to say to Jesus, “Stop! Don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious quality here — that if you don’t say something negative out loud, it won’t come to pass and if you do, it will. So just keep a lid on it, boss.

And the response is loud and clear: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s not a private message meant just for Peter but a public message meant for everyone — for the disciples, yes, but just as much for you and me. True discipleship is not all sunshine and unicorns, it is often a tough road; one that requires all of us at various points to pick up our respective crosses to follow Jesus.

We will all be crucified in some sense. Hopefully not in the literal sense — though this still happens in the world. Christians are even today being persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. Just this week we heard reports that ISIS had kidnapped and is threatening to kill hundreds of Assyrian Christians. And last month over 20 Coptic Christians in Egypt were slaughtered by the same group.

For us, the crucifixion can be of our own selfish desires; of our inability or unwillingness to fully follow Jesus with our whole heart and mind and soul; of our self-centeredness and inward focus; of our setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.

To deny ourselves and pick up our crosses doesn’t mean groveling or engaging in false humility or living into a martyr complex. It is about living our lives in harmony with Jesus’ message of love — love of God and love of one another. That’s the point. Jesus wants us to know the cost of discipleship and he makes the point to Peter and the disciples in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth remembering, I guess, that the Red Sox did win the World Series the year after Bobby Valentine was fired. They literally went from worst to first. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I can’t in good conscience use this as a resurrection analogy. But abundant life does await all who accept Jesus’ invitation to self denial and discipleship. There is joy and a victory parade of fruitful relationship with God not just on the other side, but right here, right now. And I invite you all to embrace it during this most holy season.

First 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 February 22, 2015 (I Lent, Year B)

Wilderness. The word alone evokes so many images and feelings; positive and negative, awe-inspiring and frightening. You can get lost in the wilderness yet it can also be a place of stunning beauty. At its root is the word “wild,” so “wilderness” derives from the notion of “wildness.” Which really means that which cannot be controlled by humans.

While we’ve all spent time out in nature, most of us haven’t ever experienced a true wilderness. A place where we are physically isolated with even odds that we’ll ever make it out alive. Or if we have, it’s been awhile. A true wilderness is tough to find here on the South Shore. Sure, you might get slightly turned around out at World’s End but keep going and you’ll eventually find your way back; or run into someone walking their dog. For a lot of us the wilderness may mean little more than spotty cell phone coverage. Or it might mean we’re on vacation surrounded by mountains or beautiful natural scenery — a sort of genteel wilderness with a rustic lodge waiting for us when we tire of all that nature.

So at one level it’s tough to relate to Jesus’ being cast out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. But at an emotional or metaphorical level, we all know exactly what it’s like to have a wilderness experience. There are times in our lives when we’ve felt alone or emotionally isolated or cut off from those we love. There are times when we’ve known the depths of despair. Times when we have been gripped by such a deep and visceral grief that we question whether we’ll ever be able to climb out of it. Some of you may even be in such a state this morning, doing your best to hide it from the world.

Yet precisely because of Jesus’ humanity and his experience in his own wilderness, can he relate to us and ours. Jesus never set himself above humanity but right in the midst of it; which is the true miracle of the incarnation.

Christ tempted by SatanEvery year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear the story of Jesus being tempted by satan out in that wilderness. In Matthew and Luke we hear the familiar repartee between Jesus and the devil: “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread” with the reply “Man does not live by bread alone.” Back and forth they go with Jesus being tempted by the allure of wealth and power yet not giving in to the wiles of the evil one.

But in Mark’s gospel, we get the trimmed down version. I’ve always thought of Mark as the Ernest Hemingway of the four evangelists. He’s brief, to the point, and in a hurry. There’s an immediacy in his words, the oldest and shortest account of Jesus’ life. When it comes to this story upon which the season of Lent is based, all we hear is that Jesus was “driven out” into the wilderness for 40 days, was tempted, and then the angels waited on him following the ordeal.

This gives us an opportunity to press the pause button and look at the whole notion of how Jesus ended up in the wilderness in the first place. It’s fascinating to note that Jesus doesn’t just saunter into it or decide to go for a weekend camping trip. He’s not a contestant on Survivor or just trying to commune with nature for a bit.

No, we hear that he is “driven out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. There’s a certain violence to that act, isn’t there? It’s interesting that the same verb used here is also used later in Mark when Jesus drives out evil spirits. So it’s as if the Holy Spirit possesses Jesus after his baptism and compels him out into the wilderness. And Jesus gives himself over to this divine possession, says “yes” to it, recognizing it is all part of his mission in the world.

All of which points to the fact that this temptation in the wilderness was an integral part of forming Jesus’ identity. It is only after this time spent in the wilderness that Jesus begins his public ministry. Something significant happened out there — something we may never fully comprehend — as Jesus comes out and immediately begins proclaiming the good news. And away we go.

The brevity and pared down nature of Mark’s account is actually consistent with the season of Lent. Mark strips away all the externals and gets right to the heart of the matter just as Lent is all about getting back to the basics of our faith.

A few years ago, I found a small wooden coffee table at the dump. It had layers and layers photoof chipped paint but the wood seemed to be in pretty good shape. We were looking for a table for one of the upstairs rooms anyway so I picked it up and shoved it into the back of my car. I thought I’d do some quick sanding and be done with it. Well, it was a much longer project than I thought. I used sandpaper, I borrowed a heat stripper, I used an electric sander, I used some sort of liquid recommended by the guy at Hingham Lumber. Then I launched a vendetta against the stubborn layers of paint at the bottom. Especially the ones on the legs. Eventually I got (most of) the paint off and decided the rustic look was exactly what I was looking for.

Like stripping furniture, Lent is a time to whittle down the layers of our lives that build up over time. The layers that distract us from the love of God; the layers that take us out of the habit of regular worship and prayer; the layers that make us lose sight of what’s truly important; the layers that cause us to be so self-absorbed; the layers that draw us away from living lives consistent with Jesus’ message to love one another as he loves us. There are a lot of layers that build up almost imperceptibly — we don’t even notice them at first. And, like those layers of paint, some of them can be quite stubborn.

But Lent is an opportunity to take stock of our spiritual lives. To take a step back and think about how our priorities might have gotten a bit out of whack and do something about it. The invitation to observe a holy Lent is extended to you today. A spiritually fruitful time beckons and I invite you to immerse yourself in this season or self-examination and repentance. To discover the true joy at the heart of renewed relationship with God. And to enter into the wilderness of this season not in isolation or fear but with one another, with Jesus, and with the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that is to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Ash Wednesday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)

The evening of my very first Ash Wednesday as a priest, as I was driving back from Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore to our little red brick rowhouse on Keswick Road, I remember having one predominant thought. It had been a long day with four very well attended services including a huge one at St. Paul’s School for Girls, a private school the parish had founded a few generations ago. Ash Wednesday is always a full day at major downtown churches as office workers come streaming in for services throughout the day.

baltimore-0643At first my one thought didn’t seem particularly profound or theological in nature. It wasn’t a reflection on repentance or the sinful nature of humanity. My thought was this: “I have never in my life physically touched so many people in a single day.” And I probably still haven’t.

I think Ash Wednesday, even with lots of snow on the ground and in the middle of school vacation week, is still the one day in the year that I touch the most number of people. I’m not generally such a touchy feely kind of guy.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the priest says as the sign of the cross is traced with a thumb dipped in ashes. At some level it’s odd that the one day in the year that clergy physically touch the most people, the message to them is that they will one day die. That was also part of my thought process after that first Ash Wednesday. That I had just told a whole bunch of people, including hundreds of young students, that they would die and that their bodies would return to the dust from whence it came.

But the thing about the Christian faith is that you can’t talk about death without also, literally in the same breath, talking about Resurrection. Ashes aren’t just flung at you. They are very intentionally made into the sign of the cross. The cross, that implement of torture and death that has been transformed by Jesus into an instrument of Resurrection and life.

And Ash Wednesday is not the only time in your life when you have a cross traced upon your forehead. At your baptism the sign of the cross was also made as you were “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Indelibly marked as Christ’s own. Not temporarily or for a limited time only but irrevocably and forever.

But this day reminds us of the stark reality of our lives — that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing partakers of this mortal life. We are all marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death — that message is literally in and on our faces as we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. The ashes are the start of our Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season there is hope. Through the promise of Christ’s resurrection, we will indeed rise out of the ashes. We will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday and be drawn into the glorious light of Easter.

But not yet. Because in order to rise, we must first die. Just as at baptism we die to the old life of sin and death, before we experience the joy of Resurrection, we walk this Lenten path. We strip away all the clutter of our lives and return to the basics of our relationship with Jesus. It’s not easy, of course. It takes the hard work of self-examination leading to true repentance and amendment of life. But Ash Wednesday is the window into the season of Lent; a season that is not all doom and gloom but rather a wilderness experience of relationship with the living God who invites us into an ever-deepening encounter.

And so the ashes, this very tangible and visceral evidence of our own mortality, draw us into the impending death of Jesus Christ. But through these ashes we are also drawn into the impending resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, new life to new life. It’s all part of our inheritance as people of faith. These ashes mark us for death but they also mark us for resurrection. We are marked for death, yes, but also for new life in the risen Christ.

And it all begins with a physical touch. An incarnational moment that stands as an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ love for you. A love that transcends everything even, and most especially, death.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Last Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 15, 2015 (Last Epiphany, Year B)

Enough is enough. The novelty has worn off. Just make it stop. Please. The snow I mean; not this sermon. People sometimes jokingly say to clergy, “Can’t you do something about the weather? You must have some connections, right?” And I always remind them that I’m in sales, not management. So I just want to reiterate that point this morning. I am officially washing my hands of the extreme weather we’ve been having. It’s not my fault. Call the bishop.

IMG_1218We’ve all been staring up into the sky a lot in the last few weeks. Watching in disbelief as the snow just keeps falling. Liturgically, we started this Season after the Epiphany by gazing up at a bright light in the sky right along with those three wise men making their way to the manger. And the season concludes with us staring up at another bright light in the form of the transfigured Jesus. This morning we hear Mark’s account of the story that appears in slightly different forms in all three of the Synoptic gospels.

It’s tempting to try and deconstruct this story and search for metaphysical answers or rational explanations. But that won’t get us very far. It’s safer to speak about it as a metaphor for the divinity of Christ and the Transfiguration is a manifestation and affirmation of the divine character of Jesus. But there are times when it’s okay to just stand back and gaze in wide wonder at the astonishing nature of God. Times when it’s okay to simply revel in the wonder of the divine. Times when it’s okay to just be in the presence of something beyond all human comprehension.

Let’s face it, we’re not very good at sitting still and contemplating the presence of God. Our minds wander; we get distracted; our phones buzz; we have stuff to do; the kids are hungry; the driveway needs shoveling (again); it’s not on our to-do list; we’re not monks or nuns — well, some of us are but most of us are not; time is money; the game’s on; Downton Abbey’s on; I have a headache. There are so many reasons we don’t have the bandwidth to still our minds and revel in God’s presence.

But holy contemplation is an important spiritual discipline. It reminds us that, despite everything else going on in our lives, nothing is as important as spending some quality time with God. It anchors everything else and helps us keep our lives in perspective; it reminds us that our anxieties and stresses are all relative; it encourages us to reflect upon the great stretch of humanity that has come before us and will come after us.

Granted Peter, James, and John weren’t having such deep thoughts in the moment. They were terrified! And you can’t blame them. Blinding light, voice from on high, visions of two long-dead prophets. The other-worldly nature of the whole experience was precisely the point. It was other-worldly because the fullness of God is other-worldly.

At one level, I have to admit, and this is a little embarrassing, but I have transfiguration envy. I don’t mean I want to be transfigured, but I’m envious of the three disciples who witnessed this event. I mean talk about wiping away all the doubts you’ve ever experienced in a single moment. Seeing Jesus all lit up in the fullness of his resurrection glory and taking the time to just revel in the wonder of it all would forever change how you experienced God in your life.

The good news is that we are offered glimpses of the resurrection in our own lives. Not as often as we might like, perhaps, and not necessarily accompanied by the drama of a bright light; but we do have such moments. I talked about this a bit at longtime parishioner Bill Austin’s funeral in December. I still miss seeing Bill here on Sunday mornings and thought I’d share this story.

The day before he died, I went to South Shore Hospital to be with Bill and his family, and while he was physically weak, he was quite lucid and very much still Bill. I thought I’d say a few prayers, give Donna a hug, and let him rest. But Bill had other ideas. He wanted to talk. And he asked me a question no one else ever has in the waning moments of an earthly pilgrimage. Bill looked at me intently and asked “What are some moments where you have experienced God in your life?”

And after taking a deep breath, I talked about what I like to call “resurrection glimpses,” times when we encounter the divine in brief moments of conversation or interaction. They often happen at moments when you least expect them. Sometimes it’s a feeling that washes over you, sometimes it’s in serving someone in need, sometimes it’s in an encounter with the natural world, sometimes it’s in an interaction with a loved one or a stranger. To me these are moments when the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into the visible world and they keep us going until that time when we will revel in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection in the age to come.

I’ve found over the years that these resurrection glimpses often happen in moments that, on the surface of things, feel hopeless. Like dying in a hospital room. Until you sit up and, like Bill, recognize the depth of love and prayer that surrounds you; and you realize that your family, even in their grief, will be okay; and you become aware of a deep and abiding sense of peace that allows you to let go; and you truly know and feel that the presence of God isn’t just pie-in-the-sky fantasy but something real, tangible, and life-giving even in the face of death.

These mini-moments of transfiguration really can keep you going when things are difficult. It’s no accident, Jesus was revealed to the disciples in this way, just before heading into Jerusalem for the Last Supper, his trial, and crucifixion. Amid the despair, they had that resurrection glimpse to hold onto; to keep hope alive amid the darkness. Just as we’re given this gift of the Transfigured Jesus to cherish as we move into the wilderness of Lent.

So, keep open to the resurrection glimpses in your own life. Look for them; they’re out there waiting to be discovered. Make room for at least a bit of holy contemplation. You may not get the bright light and voice from heaven but I guarantee you’ll experience the presence of God in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 8, 2015 (Epiphany 5, Year B)

There are times when you write a sermon and it flows seamlessly from one point to the next. Times when it becomes an integrated whole. Times when the poetry of the words blends beautifully with the theology of the text. Times when there is great synchronicity between the Scripture and the preacher and the congregation.

This is not one of those times.

I’m not sure if it was the cold I had all week or the realization that we are woefully understaffed at the moment — though I generally don’t recommend it as a coping mechanism, denial has carried me a long way the past few months. And then there was the burst pipe in Upper Weld Hall yesterday just before a major funeral which included three bishops and a whole bunch of nuns. But whatever the reason, I invite you to think of these reflections on this morning’s gospel as snapshots. Which beats the less forgiving term “disjointed.”

mrs-slaghoopleI do love this story of Jesus healing Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law on so many levels. First of all, mothers-in-law generally get short shrift in popular culture. Now, if you are a mother-in-law yourself, I’m sure you’re the perfect model — you never meddle in your daughter’s marriage or google all of her wildly successful former boyfriends in order to tell your son-in-law all about them. But think about some of the examples that first come to mind. Fred Flinstone’s mother-in-law, Pearl Swaghoople; Marie Barone, the mother-in-law in the sit-com “Everybody Loves Raymond;” Jane Fonda even played to obnoxious stereotype in the 2005 romantic comedy “Monster-in-Law.” Which I thankfully never saw but the title fits into my larger point.

Before I go on, for purposes of self-preservation, I should mention that my mother-in-law, Rosalie, is terrific. Even if she did live with us for seven months after she moved up here from New York before settling in a condo in Hull. Seven long months.

What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, but that he had a relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother. This relationship was such a non-factor that there wasn’t even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter treated this woman, to whom he had no emotional or fiscal responsibility, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. Sound familiar? They’re all dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry.

Now, at first glance this illness doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever. Give her some Tylenol and send her to bed. For us, the word “fever” minimizes the potential dire consequences of the situation. Depending on its nature and cause, fevers could be fatal in the ancient world. You couldn’t just go to Urgent Care and leave with a prescription for penicillin. So this was a potentially life-threatening illness that chicken soup in itself wouldn’t cure.

Unlike Jesus’ many public healings, it’s significant that he enters the home of someone so close to him. Peter must have been distraught to hear about the suffering of someone he loved dearly — I think we can all relate to such feelings. And Jesus leaves the public square to minister to one with whom there is a personal connection. A reminder that Jesus’ life and ministry isn’t just a good example for people in general but for you in particular. Jesus makes it personal here for Peter just as he makes it personal for you and me.

I have to admit that one reason I like this story so much is that it turns church hierarchy on its head. I mean, if we look to Peter as the foundation of apostolic ministry and trace the lineage of bishops all the way back to his being set apart by Jesus as the rock upon whom he will build his church; and if popes in particular are viewed as direct successors to the throne of Peter; then why exactly can’t some clergy get married? Peter had a mother-in-law! Which means he had a wife!

The stumbling block when we examine this story in a bit more depth is always that one line that sticks in the craw of us enlightened, modern folks: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Nice. So basically Jesus healed her so he and his buddies could sit back and have this woman bring them nachos and beer. I mean, if we’re honest, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, right? Where’s the recovery period? Where’s the TLC? Where’s the Saltines and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup?

But that’s just our own cultural filter. The story in context is actually quite progressive on several levels. Let me explain. Besides demonstrating the complete nature of the healing itself, so much so that no recovery period was necessary, it’s a powerful statement about the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Her act of loving service shows to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, can be disciples of Jesus. This wasn’t a given — no teacher would take on women as students or followers. It would have been scandalous! So taken in context this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. 

Nonetheless, we need to be very careful about perpetuating outdated and harmful gender stereotypes when we look at this passage. As much as we talk, truthfully, about the shame of not serving a guest in your own household and how her act of humble service honors Jesus and how it was a sign that her both her health and dignity were restored, the traditional gender roles need to be intentionally shattered here lest we fall back into old patterns by mere inertia.

Epiphany-6-Icon-Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-lawThe final snapshot here is what I see as an incredibly moving act of pastoral care. Jesus, we hear, came, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. That healing touch is both palpable and indicative of a larger movement. Not only is this woman lifted up physically but even more importantly, spiritually. She is raised to the status of disciple, as one who serves the Lord; again both physically and spiritually. It is the transformative moment of her life; she is forever changed. And we can be too, by allowing Jesus to take us by the hand, to lift us up, and to restore us to the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit that only comes through faith in him.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

2015 Patronal Feast (Annual Parish Address)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 26, 2014
(St. John the Evangelist)

If you’ve ever seen the Broadway musical or the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” you know the iconic opening number includes the refrain “Tradition!” The main character, Tevye, sings about the reason various societal roles exist in his village, from the matchmaker to the Rabbi. The refrain sets the tone for the rest of the show as the characters struggle with how to maintain their traditional values as the inevitable change swirls around them.

As I thought about my annual state-of-the-parish report — this refrain kept running through my head but with a slight twist. If we were to come up with one word to describe this year, and in particular the last few months, it would be “Transition!”

Just to review, starting in mid-October, our deacon left to take a job in New Hampshire; our assistant rector left to take her own church in Oregon; our organist left to take a position in Illinois; our youth minister left to pursue graduate studies, and the boiler died. “Transition!”

I have never experienced such transition in such a short period of time in a parish setting and yet, as tempting as it is, I will demonstrate heroic restraint and not refer to this whole situation as staff “deflation.” Usually such staff turnover would be the direct result of conflict but the good news in our situation is that all of it was for good reasons and so we sent Geof, Anne, Fred, and Ken off with our prayers and best wishes. The boiler, however, is another matter and I still have not forgiven it.

But amidst all of the change, I am truly excited about the opportunities that are ahead as we rebuild the staff to better reflect the priorities that came out of the Charting Our Course strategic planning process. So rather than spend a lot of time looking back, I thought I’d spend this time looking ahead to share my vision for what this reconstituted staff might look like. The Vestry and I have been discussing and strategizing how we can best meet the needs of the parish moving forward while embracing what we perceive to be God’s plan for St. John’s.

One thing that’s become clear to me is that having a very part-time youth minister is not a model that works in this community. Since youth ministry is above all relational, we need someone running the youth groups who is local, around, and available. The position description for the next curate has been written with youth ministry as a priority. This person will be a generalist, a priest for the entire congregation, but with an emphasis on youth ministry. Whatever other gifts this person may bring, a passion for youth is non-negotiable.

Because of this, the part-time youth minister position will be morphed into a part-time Church School Director. We rightly place a high priority on this program aimed to strengthen the spiritual lives of our youngest children, yet we’ve never had a staff position to be accountable for Church School, to work with, train, mentor, and inspire our volunteer teachers, and to bring new energy and creativity to the program. The Church School Leadership Team has done tremendous work and I like that model a lot — we just need someone to work with and support them in ministering to our children and their families.

The organist-choirmaster position is another terrific opportunity to bring in someone to work with the adult choir, reinvigorate the children’s choir, and offer a level of excellence in the Anglican musical tradition. I want the St. John’s music program to be the gem of the South Shore; a ministry of our parish that will appeal to a wide audience of people who value and appreciate excellent choral music. We have the singers, we have the instrument, now we need the right person to bring this program to new heights.

There are search committees in place to help me find the right people to fill these positions and I am committed to taking my time in building the ministry team here at St. John’s. We’re not going to hire anyone out of desperation — nothing good ever comes out of that. And, while I appreciate your prayers and patience in the meantime, I do not intend to do five services in 20 hours by myself next Christmas. Get a good look at the back of the bulletin — because, God willing, the staff listing will be a lot different in the months ahead.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the top priority of our strategic planning process: pastoral care. The feedback from the parish indicated we could be doing a better job in this area. Pastoral care is, in many ways, the heart of what we do as a parish community because it’s about relationships. I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know many of you in deeper ways over the past year; I love to hear your stories and visit with you and find out what’s going on in your lives, and learn about your hopes and dreams and fears and passions. There’s a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in this for me personally and I hope you will reach out to me for whatever reason or even if there is no specific reason at all. I love serving as your rector primarily because I truly do love all of you.

While I encourage people to contact me anytime, I’ve also decided to keep a two hour block open every week for anyone who wants to drop in to chat. To keep it informal, I’m going to hold this at my “satellite office” — Redeye Roasters. Obviously if you have something of a more confidential nature to discuss, you can make an appointment to meet at church. But starting next month you can stop in on Fridays between 10:00 am to noon for “Redeye with the Rector.” If no one shows up, that’s okay since I’ll likely be finishing my sermon. But I do hope you’ll stop by sometime and we’ll just see how it goes.

As I’ve said often over the past year, pastoral care is about clergy/parishioner interaction, yes, but it’s also about all of us taking care of one another. I am particularly pleased with how this has played out with the newly formed Pastoral Response Team. You’ll find details about this in convener Kim Roell’s report but it’s all about communication and coordination of services for parishioners in any kind of need or adversity. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Practically speaking, this is precisely what we’re doing — with prayer, meals, conversation, and communion. I am most proud of this community for embracing the Charting Our Course charge to be more intentional about caring for one another.

As far as one of the key markers of congregational vitality goes, our Average Sunday Attendance is down a bit this year. We still have over 200 people at worship on any given weekend but there’s always room for more — both numerically and spiritually. What this doesn’t measure is the passion for the gospel and the many initiatives taken by members of this community who see a need and take action.

425980_10152932448010909_2753728607219259727_nHere’s a concrete example. Last month a couple of parents with younger children told me they wanted to put together a Sunday movie night. I thought it was a great idea especially because it was consistent with one of my mantras: “never let the clergy get in the way of ministry.” In other words, if you see an opportunity for creative ministry, go for it. Before I knew it, they had made an announcement that they’d be screening the Polar Express, encouraged kids to come in their PJs, and even arranged with the North Pole for Santa to make an appearance. The organizers were a little worried that only a few families would show up but in the end they had about 50 joyful children eating popcorn, drinking hot chocolate, and having a grand time. Which fit right into another one of my mantras of parish ministry: “kids having fun in church is a good thing.” I came in just as the kids were convinced that Santa Claus was really “Father Tim” — which threw them for a major loop.

This is the kind of story that will never find its way into an annual report — it can’t be measured by statistics — but it is precisely why we can come together to celebrate this community in all its joyfulness and holiness. Stories like this fill me with hope as I spend the next few months juggling various search committee and seeking to put together a ministry team that will help us move ever deeper into our communal relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

Tradition holds that in his old age St. John the Evangelist preached the exact same short sermon every week: “Brothers and sisters, love one another.” When members of his community asked why they couldn’t, at least occasionally, hear a different message, he replied, “When you have mastered this lesson, we can move on to another.”

We can never hear that message of love too often — of Jesus’ invitation to “love one another as I have loved you.” And I think St. John’s in Hingham is a pretty good place to do just that.

© Tim Schenck 2015

Second Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 18, 2015 (Epiphany 2, Year B)

If all I knew about Christianity was what I learned through the media, I think it’s safe to say that I would not be a Christian. Think about it. From the outside looking, what do you see?

Westboro Baptist Church — a hate group unworthy of the name “church.” Creationists living in utter denial of the value of scientific inquiry. Sexual predators masquerading as priests. Homophobic and jingoistic rants in the name of Jesus by pastors with bad hair and 900 numbers. Crazy people waiting for the Rapture. Just this week there was a story about a group of Christian legislators in Mississippi pushing to get the Bible named the official state book. Now, I love the Bible as much as anyone, but when it’s used as a cudgel to whack those who disagree with you, you might just be missing the whole point.

headlines360pOr put another way, if you went up to a bunch of non-church-going strangers and asked them what came to mind when they thought of Christians you’d likely hear: Judgmental. Hypocritical. Holier than thou. Irrational. Out of touch. Intolerant.

And lest you think I’m ignoring the Episcopal Church, some of you know the tragic episode that took place two days after Christmas in the Diocese of Maryland where the newly consecrated assistant bishop hit and killed a 41-year-old cyclist. After a few days sitting in a jail cell, she’s out on bail facing charges of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, drunk driving at three times the legal limit, and texting while driving. I doubt anyone in Baltimore tentatively thinking about returning to church heard this story and declared, “Yup. That’s the denomination for me.”

Recent studies show that negative views of religion in general and Christianity in particular are on the rise. Following Jesus is increasingly counter-cultural. So what do we do about this? How do we change this perception? Well, we can become defensive and start pointing accusatory fingers of judgment at those who don’t believe what we believe. We can rail against the forces of secularism and can hunker in our stained glass bunkers and just ignore everything that’s being said “out there.”

Or we can follow Philip’s example in this encounter with Nathanael from the first chapter of John’s gospel. We can simply, humbly, respectfully invite people to “Come and see.”

I admit that Nathanael’s initial response to Philip’s invitation is one of my favorite lines in the entire Bible. It’s snarky and dripping with sarcasm. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is not some passive, goody-two-shoes, who’s gonna get suckered into some overly pious religious encounter. Yes, Nathanael was just as expectant about the arrival of the Messiah but he seems to have brought his own preconceived notions as to how this would all go down. And however this would play out, there’s no way the Savior of the world is coming from Nazareth.

Basically Nathanael was asking, ‘What could possibly come out of this two-bit town?’ Nazareth wasn’t exactly a thriving, sophisticated metropolis. It was the boonies, the sticks, the backwoods, hicksville. The Messiah couldn’t possibly come from Nazareth. Jerusalem, sure, the big city. But Nazareth? That’s about as ridiculous an idea as the Savior of the world being born in a stable to an unwed teenage mother. Nazareth. Please.

So, Nathanael’s first response to Philip’s sharing the incredible news that he had met the One who was to Come, this Jesus from Nazareth, wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. And given the perceptions of Christianity floating around today, I think we can all relate to this response. You could certainly understand getting a negative reaction to inviting someone who is not part of a faith community to church. This church or any other church. You’d be met with skepticism perhaps; it might put a chill on your relationship with this person; maybe induce anger; or an attitude of ‘what’s wrong with me the way I am?’

But how do you think people get to know Jesus? It’s by invitation only — not in the sense of an exclusive after-party following the Oscars, but by invitation only from someone who has already made his acquaintance. Like you. “Come and see.”

comeandseeAnd it’s always been this way. None of us were born knowing Jesus — either our families were churchgoers and we were brought up with the stories and the relationship developed over time. (And, yes, we are in great need of Church School teachers for the spring term). Or we met someone later in life who shared their faith with us. For over 2,000 years, people have shared their faith just like Philip; by invitation only.

As uncomfortable as this may make us — the whole concept of talking about our faith — and I can see a few of you squirming in your pews, the good news is that extending an invitation is simple. You don’t have to memorize large chunks of the Book of Deuteronomy or have all the answers to the existential questions of faith or hand out tracts as people board the commuter ferry at the Shipyard or walk around Stop ’n Shop wearing a “Jesus Saves” sandwich board. I mean, you can if you want. But there’s a much simpler way to share this Good News of Jesus Christ with which we have been entrusted. Following Philip’s example with Nathanael, we can just say, “Come and see.”

That’s it. “Come and see” and meet Jesus. God can take care of the rest — meeting the person wherever he or she may be; the conversion of the heart, the loving presence. All of that’s above our pay grade anyway. We just point to the divine presence and offer the invitation to come and see.

Come and see that the heart of the gospel has nothing at all to do with the negativity and judgmental attitudes that hover over the surface. Break open the defensive human shell and encounter the risen Christ who stands at the core of our faith, patiently awaiting your arrival.

Come and see and you will be both surprised and transformed. Come and see and you will find deep meaning and mystery. Come and see and your heart will overflow with peace and gratitude. Come and see and your soul will sing with praise and joy.

You see, this invitation isn’t just for those who have never encountered the transforming power of faith. It’s for all of us and it’s extended again and again and again. We proclaim a God of love and justice and inclusion; a God who is accessible and inviting and compassionate. A God that is full of joyful surprises and absolutely nothing like the God of the headlines. Come and see.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck