Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 10, 2019 (Epiphany 5, Year C)

If you’re a woman, you’re probably well-versed in the concept of mansplaining. It’s a word that describes the unfortunate and sexist phenomenon of men explaining things to women in condescending ways.

For instance, if I were to take a mother aside and explain what happens at childbirth, I would most likely be accused of mansplaining. If I was authentically mansplaining, my limited, second-hand experience of child birth, wouldn’t stop me from arrogantly coming across like a world-renowned expert on the subject. After all, someone gave birth to me, I’ve witnessed childbirth, and I’ve read a couple of articles about it on Wikipedia. My mansplaining would be made complete if the mother I was speaking to was also an OB/GYN.

fishers-of-men-nets[1]In this story from Luke’s gospel, you could argue that Jesus engages in a bit of fisherman-splaining. I mean, it had been a long night out on the water for Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen. An exhausting and frustrating night on the Lake of Gennesaret. Over and over again they toss out their nets and haul them back in. And time and time again they come up empty. Muscles ache, the spirit is broken, and they have nothing to show for it. There are no fish. Which is a problem, because these weren’t recreational fishermen. They weren’t weekend warriors out to catch some fish so they’d have stories to tell back at the yacht club. Their very livelihood depended upon catching fish. And they simply weren’t biting.

Soon after returning from this failed fishing trip, Jesus shows up on the shore. A great crowd quickly gathers to hear his message and suddenly everyone is pressing in on him. So Jesus borrows Peter’s boat to speak to the crowd from the water. Which is a good strategy because this floating pulpit allows everyone on the banks to see and hear him.

Then, when he finishes speaking to the crowd, an unusual exchange takes place between Jesus and Peter: a carpenter tells a fisherman how to fish. And I can’t imagine the advice is particularly welcome. Jesus, this teacher that Peter had just met moments before, imparts the following wisdom, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Um, okay, Captain Obvious. Thanks for the fisherman-splaining.

Peter had been doing just this all night without success. In fact, Peter had been doing this his entire life. If there was one thing that Peter knew, it was fishing. Yet along comes Jesus with that unsolicited advice. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Probably biting his lip, Peter replies, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” If even Peter comes back empty, there must really be no fish. Of course, this isn’t really about the fish. Yes, they go back out and return with nets heavy laden with the catch, and Peter, James, and John famously drop their nets to follow Jesus. But this is about the life of abundance that comes from following Jesus, the life into which the first disciples are invited and to which we, too, are called. It is a call to walk alongside Jesus, to fish alongside Jesus, to bring others to experience the good news of God’s abundant grace and love.

Last week as I came in for coffee hour, before I had even made it to the coffee urn, I was ambushed by two young girls from our Sunday School. They had a burning question for me, and it was an important one: “Why aren’t there any female disciples?” they wanted to know. They had been learning about Jesus and the twelve apostles and it didn’t go unnoticed that no women were mentioned as being part of his inner circle.

So, we talked about the first Easter morning and how it was the women who first discovered the empty tomb. How, while all the men had fled in fear after the crucifixion, the women were the first to learn of the Resurrection. How one of the women, Mary Magdalene, is known as the Apostle to the Apostles for her role in sharing the good news with the male apostles who ran away. And we talked about the fact that men wrote the accounts of Jesus’ life and left out the names of women. There were plenty of female disciples, we just don’t know their names.

I loved this question because it was a great teaching moment. But it was also so painful to realize that this is the experience and understanding of so many — not just two brave and wondering young girls. If the church can’t be a place of empowerment and safety and aspiration for every single one of us, we’re doing something wrong.

And it made me think of all the unnamed women in the crowd pressing in on Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage. Straining to get a glimpse of him and to hear his words of compassion and love and salvation. What hurts did they bring with them that day? What painful experiences of objectification and marginalization did they hold in their hearts as they struggled and jostled to see and hear this teacher who offered such hope and wisdom.

When Jesus called the first disciples, it was into a male-dominated culture and context. Even in this story he has famously called fishermen to become fishers of men. But while the twelve who traveled with him throughout his public ministry were males, Jesus spent so much of his time shattering ethnic and gender stereotypes and breaking down walls between and among fellow children of God. He had female friends and followers, as evidenced by his relationship with Mary and Martha; he engaged in daring encounters that broke down taboos between the sexes, as evidenced by his conversation with the woman at the well; and he encouraged women to exercise spiritual leadership in the days following the Resurrection. None of this is by chance; all of it is intentional and radical and life-changing. And we still, lo these many years later, still have work to do, both in society and in the church.

Seventeen years ago, on my very first Sunday as a brand new rector at my parish in New York, I remember processing out during the final hymn and overhearing a conversation in the back of the church between a young boy and his father. My predecessor had been a woman and so was the interim minister who served before I arrived. He stared up at me, pointed, and said with great excitement, “Hey, dad, I didn’t know men could be priests too!”

This shows the possibility of changing the narrative and modeling the way we pass along the faith. But it takes hard and intentional work. It takes opening up the Scriptures and looking in the holy crevices that exist between the lines. It means lifting up and highlighting the holy women in our tradition and in our midst. It means perhaps reexamining the male-centered language we use for God; being reminded that God, in fact, transcends gender altogether. That the mythology of God as an old white man with a beard is not only an unhelpful image, it is often a harmful one. The reality is that God is so much more than any human image or language can convey.

When Jesus bids us to drop everything and follow him, sometimes that means dropping our childhood notions of God and entering into deeper relationship with the living Christ. May we, like those first disciples, have the courage and will to do so.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

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The Rector’s Annual Address 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 27, 2019 (Rector’s Annual Address)

What will the St. John’s of the future look like? I think about this often. I wouldn’t say it keeps me up at night, exactly, but I do regularly ponder the question.

Last year at this time we embarked upon a period of discernment. As a parish, we gathered in small groups to dream about the future and share our own ideas of what St. John’s might look like in the days and years ahead. There’s a physical side to this, of course, but more importantly, a spiritual side. How will we as a parish continue to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in this community and beyond? How will we be nurtured ourselves through Word and Sacrament to go out into the world and do the work we have been given to do? How will we reach out to the least and the lonely and the lost in authentic, compassionate ways? How will we continue to build up the body of Christ, whose physical manifestation in our context is the community of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts?

These were some of the questions that informed our discernment process, and continue to resonate as we determine next steps. What became clear is that any future physical improvements we choose to undertake must support the spiritual mission of this parish. 

And in this vein, I believe we are now ready to start thinking about our broader capital22549912_10214012124487939_5694482563769331061_n needs. To this end, we have a committee in place that is analyzing the discernment data, looking at our recently completed capital reserve study, speaking to those involved in various ministries, and consulting with staff on issues of space use. They will then meet with an architect to draw up some possible plans for improvements to our physical plant. These aren’t just frills or gilding the lily that is St. John’s. These will be mission-driven improvements dictated by our vibrant, Christ-centered ministry.

Once we have some renderings, we will bring them back to the congregation and ask you to rank all the possible projects as high, medium, or low priorities. Obviously we won’t be able to do everything that we have dreamed about. Which is why the next step, if we decide to move forward, would be to conduct a feasibility study. This would give us an indication of how much money we would be able to raise if we decide to undertake a capital campaign. So the results of the feasibility study paired with the ranked priorities would provide the roadmap to the projects that we, as a parish community, could fund. 

What would these be? I’m not exactly sure; and that’s a decision we would need to make as a community. But some of the things that bubbled up through our discernment phase were a choir room, expanded Sunday School space, a refurbished kitchen, additional parking, a sanctuary face-lift that might include air conditioning, enhanced lighting, and repairs to our beautiful but aging stained glass windows, a conference room, and a heated swimming pool at the rectory. Okay, one of these things didn’t actually make the list. But the possibilities are exciting and I’m eager to see how this all unfolds.

As I reflect on 2018, I also want to reiterate just how grateful I was for the great gift that was my four-month sabbatical. I have never traveled so much in such a short period of time, as my adventures took me to Florida for Spring Training with Ben, coffee farms in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Baltimore and Washington, DC to visit my mother and brother, Seattle to experience the heart of American coffee culture, an Orthodox monastery in Pennsylvania where the monks roast and market their own coffee, a video game tournament in Chicago with Zak, and Rome and Amsterdam with the whole family. All courtesy of a clergy renewal grant I received from the Lily Foundation. My time away also gave me space to finish the manuscript for my book on coffee and faith, and I look forward to sharing Holy Grounds with all of you when it’s released the first week of April.

One of the great joys for me was returning to a parish that, as I had fervently hoped, did not just tread water in my absence, but actively engaged in new ministries. I was thrilled to see a congregation with a budding sense of self-confidence in its own ministerial abilities. While I was gone you tried some new things and took a creative approach to ministry. One example was a refresh of our usual year-end picnic. Rather than grilling after church, you invented an early evening Summerfest, complete with worship, rides, food, a chowder contest, and live music. It was a great success with nearly 300 people joining in the festivities and, quite frankly, I’m sorry I missed it! You also welcomed a group of youth from South Africa, as we continued to live into our evolving global partnership. And, who could forget, you nearly burned down the church at Easter!

The Vestry also received the aforementioned discernment feedback while I was away and, following a retreat at the convent in Duxbury, focused on addressing some of the non-capital issues that arose as a way to improve life around St. John’s. Through the impetus of several Vestry task-forces, a number of small but effective changes were implemented. Streamlining the communion flow by starting from the back pews; tweaking the coffee hour circulation; forming a communications committee and conducting a communications survey to learn how we might better communicate with parishioners and with the community. I was delighted to see such spiritual and organizational maturity take place while I way away.

And, speaking of the Vestry, when Danielle Magner moved out of state, rather than wait for me to return, the leadership decided to fill the open Vestry position. They didn’t engage in hand-wringing and wait for me to come back to offer my opinion, they prayerfully charged ahead; and I was so proud of them for doing so.

2018 was also a year of transition as we bid farewell to the Rev. Noah Van Niel and his family after nearly three and a half years of ministry among us. I was pleased with the care, intentionality, and love that accompanied their leave-taking. Noah expressed just how much this place and all of you positively impacted these early years of his vocational life and we sent him forth with prayer and goodwill into the new ministry to which he has been called in North Carolina.

The Annual Meeting serves as an opportunity to look both backward at the year that is past and forward into a future brimming with hope and possibility. It is telling, perhaps, that our new Associate Rector, the Rev. Jack Clark, began her ministry the first week of the New Year. I am delighted that she has joined us on our continuing journey of life and faith. Authentic relationships take time to build and Jack has begun this work with enthusiasm, wisdom, and a gentle spirit. It will be fun and inspiring to see how this relationship evolves over the coming years. Even though it’s been barely a month, each day I am moved by Jack’s passion for justice, her deep faith, and her insights, and I am reminded that collegiality in ministry is one of the great blessings of serving at St. John’s.  

With the addition of Jack as a member of the clergy team, we have reason to be optimistic about the ways in which we will engage with God in the days and years ahead. We are poised to grow in our collective and individual relationships with Jesus — all of us. Me, you, our children, our teenagers, our young adults, those of us in middle age, and the seniors among us.

But we also have a responsibility, a deep and profound responsibility, to share this good news of Jesus Christ with others in this community and beyond. I speak often about keeping one foot firmly planted within our four walls while simultaneously stepping outside the friendly confines of this parish. Otherwise we risk becoming an insular and inward-looking club. That’s the spiritual danger for a thriving church, for people who truly enjoy one another’s company. It’s easy to ignore what goes on beyond our walls as not our concern. But we do this to our spiritual detriment. And we must continually guard against this temptation, even when it takes us outside our comfort zones. No one ever said being a Christian would be easy, that following the way of Jesus would be without discomfort. But it is the path of salvation, the way of finding meaning in the chances and changes of this mortal life. It is the way of freedom and peace.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside each and every one of you and to proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. May God bless you, and may God bless us all in the year ahead.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Baptism of Our Lord 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 13, 2019 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year C)

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” You may recognize these words as the first verse of an Advent hymn. It was written in 1744 by the prolific English hymn writer Charles Wesley and has been sung in the days leading up to Christmas for hundreds of years. We sang it here at St. John’s on the First Sunday of Advent, so just about six weeks ago. quote-come-thou-long-expected-jesus-born-to-set-thy-people-free-from-our-fears-and-sins-release-charles-wesley-79-85-55.jpg

Now, I know Advent is in the rear view mirror at this point. And so is Christmas for that matter. So it feels a bit out of order to speak of expectation — a theme we addressed throughout Advent — after the birth of Jesus. Our expectations have been fulfilled! It’s time to move on.

But this theme of expectation is strong along the banks of the Jordan River. The crowds had gathered in anticipation of their long expected Messiah. And we hear in Luke’s gospel that, “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” With the arrival of John, there was a glimmer of hope; that the one who was born to set his people free and release them from their fears and sins, this Messiah, had finally arrived.

He hadn’t, of course. Not quite yet, anyway. John tamps down those expectations that had the crowd all abuzz, by pointing the people away from himself and towards the one who was to come. The one who wouldn’t simply baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. That’s the role of the Forerunner; to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Messiah; to set expectations.

And one of the ways John does this is to shake up people’s expectations of what the Messiah would look like. The Messiah would not be made in the people’s image, but in God’s image. The Messiah would not conform to the people’s hopes and desires, but to God’s purposes. You don’t get to make your own Messiah, one that suits your own model or fits neatly into your own messianic box; you submit to the divine understanding of what it means to be a Savior.

So while many in the crowd hoped the Messiah would set their people free from the tyranny of Roman oppression, this Messiah was more concerned with setting people free from their “fears and sins,” as Wesley writes in his hymn. John the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as a way of preparing people for the arrival of Jesus. And this focus on repentance may have confused the crowds. It was the Romans who were in need of repentance! The oppressors needed to repent, not the oppressed! But, again, the expectations are being reset and reordered in real time.

It’s important to remember that repentance is not just about looking backward, a way of dwelling on the sins of the past. Rather, repentance looks forward, it envisions a new way of life. It involves a turning toward the future, a future dripping with hope and possibility and expectation and new life. And in this way, repentance is the perfect complement to the notion of expectation that held the crowd at such a fevered pitch. They both anticipate a realm where freedom from fear and sin is not just theoretical, but realized in relationship with God.

We are baptized into this hope, the hope of the Messiah whose birth we welcomed at Christmas; the hope of a new realm brought about by the arrival Jesus, but also brought about through our individual repentance along with a turning towards a future in which God rules our hearts. That’s the sense of expectation that John the Baptist invited the crowds into; the same sense of expectation with which we will, in a few moments, renew our own baptismal covenants; the same sense of expectation into which we baptize three children this morning.

Last week at our Confirmation Class, we looked at this passage about Jesus’ baptism. We often start with a brief Bible study. But before we did, I had everyone write down one negative word someone had said about them. An insult or a name they had been called. One that hurt or caused them shame or embarrassment. If you’ve spent any time on this earth, it’s not hard to come up with one. You can think back to the playground or middle school or recall a family member or former friend who blurted something out in the midst of an argument. It may be something said to your face or something you heard second hand or something someone wrote about you online. But I invite you to think of one right now. There’s no need to write it down, you can just hold it in your mind.  

I then told them I wanted to focus on one particular word in this passage: the word “beloved.” A word that means “one who is loved” but can also be translated as “worthy of love.” We see it here in the voice of God that comes down from heaven after Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism saying, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” 

God says this to Jesus but he also says it to each one of you. You are God’s beloved daughter; you are God’s beloved son. With you, God is well pleased. It is so easy to forget this fact. Or to deny it. Or to feel that you are unworthy of God’s love. 

There are so many negative messages out there; on social media, in advertising, even New Year’s Resolutions, which are generally a good thing, but the underlying assumption in making them is that you aren’t good enough just as you are. That you are inherently flawed. Yes, from a theological perspective, this is true. We are all sinners; we are all in need of repentance, the same repentance preached by John the Baptist. But we are also made in God’s image, worthy of God’s love, the God who abounds in grace and forgiveness. 

Even though we are called upon to repent, to turn away from that which separates us from God, we are nonetheless beloved by God. This is perhaps a deep paradox of faith, counterintuitive on the surface of things; that we are beloved despite our imperfections. That even as we turn away from God, God leans in to love us even more deeply.

When we were done, I asked the Confirmands to take the card on which they had written, cross out the negative word, and write instead “beloved” across it. Because that’s what you are in God’s sight. Beloved. Worthy of God’s love. And I don’t want you to ever forget that.

In the second verse of Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Wesley writes, “Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. And that’s what stands at the center of our expectation: Jesus is indeed the “joy of every longing heart.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

First Sunday after Christmas, Year C

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 30, 2018 (Christmas 1, Year C)

Well, that was quite a growth spurt. Less than a week ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and today he’s a tween; a 12-year-old boy whose behavior may well foreshadow those tough teenage years to come. Of course we don’t have any stories about Jesus as a teenager. Refusing to clean his room, playing Fortnite until the wee hours, finishing the milk and then putting the empty container back in the fridge.

This is the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood, the only glimpse into his life between birth and baptism. And in it, we see a glimpse of what it must have been like to a) parent the Messiah (not easy) and b) struggle with a growing sense of divine identity and purpose.

Mostly, I love this story because, at one level, it is just so human. While not every parent can fully relate to their child, say, turning water into wine at a wedding, we can all relate to the sense of terror at having temporarily lost them in a crowd.

I still have flashbacks to Hershey Park in the summer of 2008. Not because my brother edbd0dc8f343caf14c5547daab964e5fdared me to go on a loop-de-loop roller coaster for the first time in my life and I couldn’t refuse in front of my kids and their cousins. Not because, and I realize many of you see this as a character flaw, I don’t like chocolate, and the entire place even smells like chocolate. I mean, it’s Hershey Park!

But what really gives me nightmares is the brief period we lost Zak. It was only five minutes, maybe even less, but it felt like an eternity. That feeling of suddenly losing your child is the worst possible feeling as a parent. Gut-wrenching and helpless. Every episode of Law & Order flashes through your mind as you begin your frantic search. Retracing your steps, flagging down a security guard, calling out his name among the crowds. How could you not envision some creepy guy in a van offering your little blond boy candy — I mean, we were in the candy capital of the world! In the end, he had just wandered off. I’m not sure he even realized he wasn’t with us. But as a parent, you never forget such experiences. It’s what leads to the gray hair.

Mary and Joseph couldn’t find Jesus for three days. Imagine that! Granted, one of those days was a travel day and they assumed he was with relatives. That’s some free-range parenting right there. But two full days of sheer, unadulterated panic. Plus, having to hear God say, ‘What do you mean you lost the Messiah?!’

Jesus was fine, of course. The precocious young lad was teaching and interacting with the elders in the Temple. And we hear that all he encountered were amazed at his understanding. In the boy Jesus we see the seeds of our fully mature Lord. This is the first time he declares his divinity, but it’s also not hard to hear just a hint of pre-teen petulance in his reply. Again, the humanity. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

But besides the human element, this story plays a critical role as a bridge between Christmas and Easter, between the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It helps us to understand the importance of maturity. Not just of a boy marked for great things growing into and claiming his identity as God’s son, but as it relates to our own faith.

You see, so often we want to leave Jesus in the manger. He’s much less threatening as a harmless baby. He can’t tell us to pick up our crosses and deny ourselves or share our resources with those in need or rail against the hypocrisy of a divided heart. We want to keep him tightly wrapped in those swaddling clothes, surrounded by shepherds and angels and gift-bearing wise men. 

And there’s something wonderful about pausing to gaze upon that holy child and reflect on the great gift of the Incarnation, of God entering the world in human form. That moment that changed the world, the birth that opened up for us the way of salvation. We only have twelve days of the Christmas season and we should cherish each and every one of them. 

The problem arises when we find ourselves staring at the manger, long after it has been abandoned. Once it empties out, it’s no longer the birthplace of our Lord, but a deserted stable. An empty relic of an event that transformed the world. We need to move on; we need to mature.

This speaks to one of the great spiritual dangers, which is the temptation to infantize our faith; to keep it in the realm of the Christmas pageant. Now, I love Christmas pageants. I love that children play an active role in the story as a way of drawing them in and making it their story. I love the earnest angels and the devilish shepherds and the sheep going rogue and the missteps and the flubbed lines. All of it. I think a pageant in all its messiness often better reflects the reality of our relationship with God than the buttoned up, perfect liturgies we strive for the rest of the year. 

But our faith must mature. It must move beyond the Christmas story to embrace the fullness of the paschal mystery; the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That’s the work of discipleship that begins at baptism and must continue to evolve and grow and develop throughout our lives. 

The thing about babies is that they grow up. You blink and they’re sitting up, you blink again and they’re going to their senior prom. Our faith, like Jesus himself, must mature. It must move beyond the manger. It must go to places like the temple where the young Jesus taught, where God’s word is engaged and embraced and debated. It must go to the banks of the Jordan River where Jesus is baptized. It must go out into the wilderness to be tempted. It must go out with the crowds to listen to Jesus teach and preach. It must go to the cross and, ultimately, to the empty tomb. It begins at the manger, but our faith cannot, must not remain there. 

The story of the boy Jesus in the temple reminds us that Jesus didn’t emerge from the manger fully formed as the Messiah. He, too, needed to grow and mature into his divine calling. We also have a divine calling to become his disciples. It takes time, it takes making mistakes and getting lost, but as we stumble along the road to spiritual maturity, we do so in the knowledge that we are fully loved by God at every step of the way. And that God will continually call out our name and draw us back to his fold, until we are fully and forever, once again, resting in the loving palm of his hand.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Christmas Day 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2018 (Christmas Day)

Last year about this time, I came across a haunting black and white photograph of a A menorah defies the Nazi flag , 1931menorah sitting in a window across the street from a building displaying the Nazi flag. It was taken in Kiel, Germany in 1932, from the inside of a Jewish family’s home. A drape frames the left side of the picture and the swastika is clearly visible just above and in-between the menorah’s third and fourth candles. 

A blazing menorah lit in open defiance of the Nazi regime is a powerful image, one that speaks to history as well as the hatred that consumes so many in our own day. It is exceedingly painful to ponder the millions of innocent Jews who would be slaughtered in concentration camps between the time the photograph was taken and the end of World War II.

What struck me most about the photograph, beyond the visual, were the hand-written words on the back: “Our light will outlast their flag,” proclaims the inscription. “Our light will outlast their flag.” A phrase teeming with resistance and hope, resolution and faith. I wanted to know more about the photograph and the person who wrote these words, so I did some research. 

The menorah belonged to Rabbi Akiva Posner, the spiritual leader of the small Jewish community in Kiel. The Posner’s home was located directly across the street from the Nazi party headquarters, and the photograph was taken on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah by Rabbi Posner’s wife, Rachel, on a cold December night. 

In the ensuing months, Rabbi Posner stood as a prophetic figure for both Jew and Gentile alike in Kiel. He warned that the road of scapegoating and fear-mongering upon which they were embarking would not end well for anyone. To the Jews he warned that something wicked was brewing and advised them to leave the country. He himself fled Germany in 1933, and his foresight of the wrath that was to come, saved most of Kiel’s Jewish community. Eight Jews were killed, while the vast majority escaped Germany before Hitler’s systematic execution.

On Christmas Day, Christians around the world hear the poetic prologue to John’s gospel. And in this introduction, alive with the language of incarnation, we hear that “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For us, this is the Light of Christ; the light of God entering the world in human form. 

We need this light more than ever, this divine light that comes bursting into our midst on Christmas Day. We can certainly relate to the forces of darkness that are unleashed upon the world in the form of bigotry and hatred and violence. Darkness is alive and well and thriving in that sense. And yet it is precisely this darkness that cannot overcome the light of Christ. The light of Jesus Christ that entered the world in the form of an infant can never be extinguished. And that’s what Christmas is all about. This light that shines in the darkness is the light of hope.

And if there is anything we could use right now, if there is anything we crave, it is hope. The hope that justice will prevail; the hope that our lives have purpose and meaning; the hope that darkness will be driven out.

This is the thing about light. It dispels darkness and illuminates truth. It makes visible that which was previously obscured. When hope — that beautiful, life-giving emotion — is hidden by the cares and occupations of our lives, we live a dimmed existence. All that is lovely and holy is hidden from our eyes. When we allow the light of Christ to shine forth, joy flows abundantly, bursting through the darkness. This is hope. The recognition that even amid darkness, the light of Christ will prevail.

But beyond the specificity of this light is a universal yearning for hope, equality, and justice that transcends the lines of belief. Which is why that menorah burning brightly in a window in a small German town in the early days of the Nazi regime, offers us all hope in the face of despair. A reminder that light does indeed shine even on the darkest of nights. 

On this Christmas Day, may you revel in the warm glow of your salvation. May you be filled with the hope born of a woman And may your life be illumined by the divine light of Christ that never dims or fades away.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2018 (Christmas Eve)

“No Vacancy.” You’ve seen those signs outside motels along the highway. When you’ve no-vacancy-motel-neon-led-sign-halloween-prop-hotel-horror-moviebeen on the road for a long time and that cup of coffee you picked up at the last gas station is no longer doing the trick and your eyelids begin to droop, you start scanning the side of the road for a place to spend the night. If the sign says “Vacancy,” you stop. If it says “No Vacancy,” you keep driving and hope you can stay awake until you find a place that has an available room. 

“No Vacancy” is the modern equivalent of “No room at the inn,” a phrase that figures prominently in our Christmas story. At the end of their journey, seeking shelter in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph keep encountering No Vacancy signs. They knock, the door is answered, and they are turned away. Again and again and again they are told, there is no room at the inn. No vacancy. 

Reflecting upon the Holy Family’s experience that night never fails to break your heart. Mary, great with child, perhaps experiencing those first, early contractions. Joseph, frantically seeking a place for his young bride to give birth. Mary and Joseph, fearful and alone in an unfamiliar and unforgiving town. 

Yes, we know how the Christmas story will unfold. The manger, the birth, the shepherds and angels and kings. We know that despite the difficulties, before the night is through, Mary will hold this child in her arms and we will all lift up our voices and sing, “Christ the Savior is born.” 

But I invite you to pause and imagine the moment of rejection, the moment of No Vacancy, the moment of no room at the inn. We have all felt this void, this emptiness, this sense of abandonment in our own lives. It is precisely this brokenness that Jesus comes into the world to heal. That’s the source of our Christmas joy.

You know, you don’t often encounter a priest who actually owns a “No Vacancy” sign, but I know a priest in Vermont who recently acquired one. My friend and seminary classmate, Rick Swanson, didn’t buy his “No Vacancy” sign to put up outside his church in order to keep the pews from getting too crowded on Christmas Eve at St. John’s-in-the-Mountains in Stowe.

But he and his husband Tim recently became innkeepers. They bought a seven-room inn, renamed it the Swanson Inn of Vermont, and are now open for business. So of course, they needed a No Vacancy sign.

I called Rick last week to ask if this whole innkeeper thing was going to make it into his Christmas Eve sermon. As the source of rejection, innkeepers aren’t exactly the heroes of the Christmas story, but there is something rather Biblical about a priest who doubles as an innkeeper. At least this time of year. Plus, I was hoping he’d have some great “no room at the inn” story I could use from my own pulpit.

He told me they haven’t yet had to turn anyone away, but they did get a late night, emergency call from a couple whose car broke down and they needed a place to stay. Rick and Tim were able to accommodate them at the last minute; which is nice, but I was a little annoyed to learn that the woman wasn’t nine months pregnant, and they didn’t send her off to their ramshackle barn to give birth. 

The point is, even though Father Rick didn’t have much for me to work with, we are all innkeepers on Christmas Eve. We all have the opportunity to make room in our hearts to receive the Christ-child anew. This night is pregnant with the possibility of renewed relationship with Jesus Christ. 

We have a choice, of course. We can instead hang out the No Vacancy sign. We can insist that there is no room at the inn and carry on with our lives. But being here on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of our Lord is an important way of making room for your faith. I am delighted you are here. The saints and angels rejoice because of your presence. When you make room for Jesus in your life, you are changed and transformed and made whole through the great gift of divine relationship.

In a few moments we’ll stand and belt out Joy to the World. That’s not a great news flash — Christians have been singing that hymn on Christmas Eve for generations. But in the first verse we’ll sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.” I love this line because, in the end, it’s all about hospitality. Preparing room in our hearts to receive Jesus, while also reaching out our hands in love to those who most need it. As metaphorical innkeepers our role is to do just that: to prepare room.

Preparing room isn’t without cost in our lives. It’s much easier to turn Jesus away; to ignore the demands of loving God and loving neighbor, to hang out the No Vacancy sign. Preparing room means making sacrifices. It means looking beyond ourselves and our own self-interest. It means opening our hearts to those in need. It means prioritizing the life of faith even when it’s inconvenient, even when it takes us out of our comfort zones. By preparing room in your heart, you make room for the stranger, you make room for those who exist on the margins of society, you make room for the least and the lonely and the lost. 

Preparing room, that’s where life’s treasure resides. It’s what brings joy — not the fleeting happiness of opening the next present, but the deep, abiding joy of living life in harmony with God. It’s what offers hope in the midst of even the darkest situations. It’s what offers peace amid the unsettling busyness of our lives. Preparing room in our hearts, allowing Jesus in — that’s what Christmas is all about. There is still room at the inn; and on this night, you are invited into the comfort and joy of the one, true inn; the one that exists in a stable in a little town called Bethlehem.

May you know the joy that comes from preparing room for Jesus; may it fill you with hope and peace this season; and may you have a very Merry Christmas. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 23, 2018 (Advent IV, Year C)

Who do you think wrote the best protest song of all time? There’s no right answer, of course. Bob Dylan, maybe. Woody Guthrie. At least that’s the generation we usually identify with the modern protest song — the 60’s. For many of us, protest songs conjure images of sit-ins on college campuses or rain-soaked hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock. Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” or Jimi Hendrix wailing away on his left-handed Stratocaster playing the Star Spangled Banner or Pete Seeger singing “This Land is My Land.” 

But to qualify as a genuine protest song, you really need just two things: a righteous

woody_guthrie_nywts

Woody Guthrie

cause and an identified injustice. Protest songs have addressed various issues over the years, and have spanned every generation and every musical genre, but the most prevalent themes have been war, civil rights, and economic injustice. 

Some of these songs have been overt and others more subtle. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was an obvious anti-war song. There’s nothing understated about singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” But many of the old negro spirituals worked on two levels, with a relatively harmless or even spiritual lyrical veneer, along with a deeper cry for freedom and protest against oppression. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for instance, was full of code pertaining to stops along the Underground Railroad, references lost on slave owners, but signals of hope for their oppressed slaves.

In our passage from Luke’s gospel, we have just heard Mary sing a protest song. I’m not saying that this song of Mary’s is in exactly the same vein as Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’” or Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” or even the classic negro spirituals, but there is a subversive quality to the Magnificat that often gets overlooked. The Magnificat is not just a harmless manifestation of spirituality, it is a radical statement of a bold and hope-filled faith.

But in order to fully comprehend the impact of Mary’s words, you first need to examine the context out of which they were born; to look at the political situation of early first century Palestine. The days immediately preceding Jesus birth were fraught with political strife and uncertainty. The pressure on and the oppression of the Jewish community was at a fevered pitch. The imperial power of Rome had ruthlessly crushed the minor Jewish rebellions that had bubbled up against the Roman Empire. Between the draconian taxes and the treatment as second-class citizens and the human rights violations, life was not easy for the Jews of ancient Palestine. One of the major complaints, besides the economic oppression and day-to-day cruelty, was the holding up of the Roman emperor as a divine being. This went against everything the Jews stood for as monotheists, believing in the sole authority of a single God. To be coerced into proclaiming the emperor as divine was, essentially, religious abuse. 

At one level, the choice for the Jewish people was simple: collaborate or resist; accept the yoke of oppression in order to survive, or fight back and court death. But the moral murkiness and hardships did much to drive out hope. And it’s a dark place to live without hope. Without any sense that things would ever change; to feel emotionally and physically trapped and imprisoned by circumstances beyond your control.

One of the most ruthless displays of imperial might led to the burning of a town near Nazareth named Sepphoris. Tradition holds that this was the hometown of Mary’s parents, and may have been where the future mother of Jesus was born. This town was sacked and held up as an example of what happens when you rise up against the Empire. Its citizens were brutally killed, raped, and enslaved in a very public display of Roman power. Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth, most likely saw first-hand the violent destruction of Sepphoris; they were well-acquainted with the price of resistance.

But these events, rather than serving as a catalyst for despair, honed Mary’s understanding of hope, a concept forged not in theory but in the brutal reality that God alone had the power to emancipate her people. Painful real-life experience caused Mary to thrust all hope of deliverance upon God, rather than upon man.

Mary stands in for a people hoping that God will side with the righteous in scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. As the God-bearer, Mary is playing her part in bringing salvation to the world. Not as a passive observer but as an active participant in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. And part of that plan involves a full-on reversal. The political impact is part of it, but it’s more about what is valued in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. Mary is helping to usher in a reign where might doesn’t make right, where the vulnerable are lifted up, where justice rolls down like waters, where peacemakers are more valued than warriors, where the only question that matters is how your soul magnifies the Lord.

Now for those on the margins, from the people of Israel living under Roman rule to those who are marginalized and ignored in our own day, the Magnificat offers powerful words of hope. For those who struggle, for the exploited, for the abused and the abandoned, for asylum seekers, and for those whose dignity has been trampled down again and again, this is good news. This is the great reversal.

But if you still don’t see the Magnificat as a protest song, consider these three examples of times in the past century when the powerful have sought to ban the public recitation of Mary’s words. During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was forbidden because it was deemed subversive. To highlight this, on the very last day of British rule in 1947, Gandhi — who was obviously not a Christian — requested these words be read wherever the British flag was publicly lowered. In Argentina, the military junta outlawed Mary’s song in the late 1970s after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza to call for non-violent resistance. And the government of Guatemala, in the 1980s, found Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so revolutionary and such a threat to authority, that they banned any public recitation of the Magnificat. These are radical words, my friends. Words that have the potential to topple governments and bring down the powerful from their thrones.

Now, I know that these actions and these situations can feel distant or remote to people not being persecuted for their faith or belittled for who they are or subjected to acts of violent oppression. But if there’s anything Jesus teaches us, it’s that when one group is being ill-treated, when one part of the body of Christ is being injured, we all suffer. And so we stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized in our midst and in our world whenever we sing Magnificat.

In a very real sense, the Magnificat is the “We Shall Overcome” of the Biblical world. It is the promise that ultimate justice will enter the world in the form of this child Mary carries in her womb. That the arrival of Jesus will give birth to hope and salvation, a process set in motion by the unlikeliest of actors. Mary, this humble, Jewish maiden says yes to God and the world is both transformed and turned radically upside down. She sings a protest song, and the world awaits a savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018