Seventh Sunday after Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 17, 2015 (Easter 7, Year B)

why_am_i_talking_office_coaching_latestI had lunch with a parishioner this week who told me about an acronym he had recently learned at a business seminar. It was W.A.I.T. — and it stood for Why Am I Talking? Something you may well be wondering at this very moment. But the basic premise was a reminder to talk less and listen more.

That’s always good advice and we hear it in a variety of ways. People often quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus who proclaimed, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Or the Mark Twain corollary, “If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.”

Many of us find ourselves in vocations or family interactions or social situations where we are expected to talk. It comes with the role of being a leader or an expert or a teacher or a parent or just a polite member of society. So one problem is that we sometimes feel the need to speak because we think it’s expected. And we find ourselves talking just for the sake of talking while drowning out other voices and perspectives from which we could learn so much more. A couple weeks ago I went to the annual clergy conference for the Diocese of Massachusetts. I won’t share exactly how this relates, but just imagine being in the same room with 200 priests…

The whole idea of the acronym W.A.I.T. is to speak only when we actually have something to contribute. And it helps to recognize that we’re not God’s gift to the conversation — whether in the board room, at the dinner table, or at coffee hour.

The other thing we often find ourselves doing in group settings is formulating what we plan to say rather than listening to others. This happens in class rooms, in Bible studies, at work, in vestry meetings. In our effort to sound eloquent and project the right image, we ignore true interaction and the conversation devolves into a bunch of individual monologues. W.A.I.T. — Why Am I Talking?

I’m pretty sure this principal was at work as the disciples gathered in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension to choose a replacement for Judas. And, let’s be honest, those are pretty small shoes to fill — as long as you don’t betray Jesus you’ll be considered a smashing success. But it was an important decision for the future viability of this movement and it was the first major decision the church had to make without Jesus, so I’m sure tensions were high.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that Peter stood up to address the crowd of 120 believers on this issue. You gather 120 Christians together and you get 120 opinions. We have at least 120 people here this morning (well, at least by the time the Church School kids come in) and so you can imagine that coming to some sort of consensus on a question of leadership would be difficult.

But after the initial back and forth and talking over one another, Peter is able to settle the crowd and set some parameters for the one who would take over for Judas. They agree that it should be someone who has been with them from the beginning; from Jesus’ baptism at the hand of John the Baptist to his ascension into heaven. And two men are proposed — Barsabbas and Matthias. But before there is any debate, you can almost envision Peter raising his hand and saying “W.A.I.T.”

Now the one thing you may know about the choosing of Judas’ replacement is that he was chosen by casting lots. And it’s hard not to hear that and think, “Wait a minute. One of the most important leaders of the early church was chosen by gambling? I knew there was Scriptural warrant for Powerball!”

Actually, casting lots was used as a method throughout Biblical times as a way to discern 6f6d0b95f3facf25e7bb21422a8d3808the will of God. Either sticks with markings or stones with symbols on them would be cast in to a small area and “read” to determine the answer. As with most things, casting lots could be done with good intent — like choosing the next apostle — or ill intent — like the Roman soldiers who cast lots for Jesus’ clothing during the crucifixion.

But even if it seems to us like flipping a coin or playing Keno, casting lots was not viewed as haphazard or based entirely on luck or superstition. It was an accepted practice used throughout Scripture to determine the will of God. The Israelites used the method to divide land and determine who would get certain positions in the Temple and the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to figure out who had brought God’s wrath onto their ship — that would be Jonah, who they then pitched overboard.

But what gets lost in this whole process is that they didn’t just set up a craps table to determine Judas’ successor. They began with prayer. They heeded the call to W.A.I.T. — to stop talking and listen not to the sound of their own voices, but to God.

The thing is, this whole concept of asking ourselves “why am I talking” is the first and greatest commandment of prayer. Generally speaking when we pray, we’re yappers. We talk way too much. We try to name every person we’ve ever met or every situation we can think of that needs healing. We mentally run through our world atlas, thinking hard about all the hotspots where there’s war or conflict or natural disaster. We try to remember all the tragedies we’ve heard about on the news in the last 24 hours. Or our friends on Facebook who broke legs, lost jobs, or had kids home sick from school. The list goes on and on and on. The end result being guilt when we later remember we forgot to pray for Aunt Millie’s upcoming procedure to remove that pesky toe fungus.

These are all good prayerful thoughts, of course. But we can get so caught up in telling God what to do that we neglect the most important part of prayer, which is listening. And we forget that God already knows all our needs before we ask. And doesn’t that take all the pressure off? We don’t have to run down the shopping list of prayer requests, living in fear that we’ll forget to pick up the sour cream or pray for peace in Uganda. To mix metaphors.

When Jesus ascends into heaven, there’s an angel standing among the disciples. As they’re silently gawking up at the sky — and who can blame them — he says, “Why are you looking up to heaven?” In other words, stop staring dumbly up into the sky and get to work. Our mission and ministry is right here, before us. It doesn’t make for a memorable acronym — “Why are you looking up to heaven? spells W.A.Y.L.U.T.H. But when we W.A.I.T. in our prayer lives and W.A.Y.L.U.T.H in our interactions with one another, it allows us, like the leaders of the early church, to fully engage the work we have been given to do.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday after Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 10, 2015 (Easter 6, Year B)

In the old rambling house my family moved into when I was four, there were little doorbells 8102921459_b368f46869_moutside all the upstairs bedrooms. They didn’t work but I was fascinated with them. As I stood on my tiptoes to press the buttons, I couldn’t, in my wildest imagination, figure out why you would possibly need to ring a doorbell once you were already inside the house. And not just inside the house but on the second floor! Then there was question of who would actually show up if you did ring the bell. It was pure mystery. Like something out of Narnia.

Eventually my parents explained that these bells were once used to call the servants. And that I could push them to my heart’s content but I still had to go downstairs to eat breakfast — it would not be delivered to my room. I learned early on that I was born in the wrong era. And of the wrong social class.

I was actually talking to Father Robert just last week about these call buttons — I have no idea how we got on the topic — but he lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood I did when he was a boy and his house had them as well. Minus the servants, of course — his father was a priest. And he told me that before the renovation, the rectory used to have those little buttons too. Granted, I’m still trying to find the butler that apparently did not come with the butler’s pantry. And once again, I find that I still have to go downstairs to eat breakfast.

But I think of those little doorbells whenever I hear Jesus tell the disciples at the Last Supper that he no longer calls them servants but friends. There is a major difference between being someone’s servant and being someone’s friend. A servant acts out of duty. A friend acts out of love. You can be a great servant but not care about or even like the person to whom you report. You just have to, regardless of your personal feelings, “Do your job,” as Bill Belichick likes to say (which is as close as I’m getting to a Deflategate reference this morning). A friend, on the other hand, acts purely out of love and devotion. And so the distinction between servant and friend is great.

Of course, not many of us have servants anymore so this is a tougher analogy to conceptualize. If you were living on Beacon Hill a few generations ago, this might be more relatable. But actually, in the Biblical world, the whole notion of a servant didn’t have such a negative or menial connotation. There was honor and identity in serving a master. Jesus’ disciples would have considered themselves servants of Jesus. They learned from him, they took direction from him, they were sent out by him, and they served him. And they did so willingly and with great loyalty and affection. There’s a reason they’re all so shocked when Jesus declares he’s going to wash their feet during the Last Supper. That’s something a master would never do for his servants! So we have to suspend our notion of servants as lowly, cow-towing people who live in cramped “servant’s quarters,” answer the bell 24 hours a day, and do all the jobs no one else wants to do.

And when we take a step back and think about it, we recognize that we are all servants in the sense that our primary aim in life is to serve God — through worship, through the selfless service of others, through seeking justice for all. So when Jesus announces this transition in his relationship with the disciples, it’s not that he’s saying, “Congratulations, you’ve all graduated from servanthood. Now go relax and let people bring you breakfast in bed.”

So this movement from servant to friend changes and transforms the relationship but it’s not an abdication of duty. Instead, it shifts the motivation for service from duty or obligation to love.

One of the other main distinctions between a servant and a friend is the ability to see the big picture. Servants generally focus on a single task. And so the servant asked to prepare the house for visitors, for instance, doesn’t necessarily know who those visitors are. Or if he does, he doesn’t know the visitors’ business with the master. He’s not invited to take part in the conversation once the visitor arrives. Friends, on the other hand, are brought into the conversation. They are able to share in the broad view not just a single contributing piece, as important as it might be.

And so as Jesus prepares to leave his earthly life, he is inviting the disciples into a new, more intimate relationship. Remember this passage is all part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel. And it is a looooong goodbye. We’re on week three and it goes on for four chapters. But that transition from servant to friend is an important one because it gives us all a new perspective. We are invited to zoom out and see why Jesus’ life and ministry matters. It wasn’t just about healing a few people a couple thousand years ago. It was about the salvation of the world.

Some of this is a natural transition — when Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, ready or not, the situation changed. Jesus is preparing to hand over the earthly work of serving God to the disciples. As his time on earth draws to a close, he’s inviting his disciples, who have been in a servant-master relationship with him, into one of inheritance. They are to be stewards of the fledgling community that would become the Church. He is entrusting them with the most precious thing there is — the care of God’s people. He is offering his love — the love of a friend — as he bids them to love one another as he loves them.

lrgscalebreakfast-in-bed-coasterWhere does this leave us in our own relationship with Jesus? Surely, Jesus isn’t just our buddy. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” yes, but we’re still not exactly peers. There’s that whole Son of God thing. But I think Jesus’ invitation makes us servant-friends. We serve Jesus by serving others even as we are drawn into intimate relationship with the one who loves us unconditionally. In our prayer lives we can have conversations with Jesus that transcend the superficial because we have been brought into a more adult, friend-to-friend way of relating to Jesus. And what an incredible gift! We are offered this intimate relationship with the Son of God, even as we listen for ways to serve him anew.

I know some of you may have actually gotten breakfast in bed this morning. Or remember getting breakfast in bed in years gone by. Or remember providing breakfast in bed to your own mothers. It may not always go so well but it’s a good thing to occasionally be served, especially if it reminds us of the importance of serving others in Jesus’ name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fourth Sunday after Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 26, 2015 (Easter 4, Year B)

“Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them. Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. Baa baa black sheep have you any wool, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

Unless you’re a farmer — and, you’ll be surprised to learn, I’m not — it’s hard to think about sheep without reverting to childhood nursery rhymes. So it’s no wonder that when we arrive at what is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday we’re transported back to the realm of Mother Goose.

Good_shepherd_02b_closeThe whole idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is actually an ancient and beloved image. In fact, one of the oldest known depictions of Jesus, a third century fresco from the Roman catacombs, shows him with a lamb over his shoulders. And we often read this passage from John’s gospel at funerals — the idea of Jesus tenderly caring for his sheep has been a source of deep comfort to generations of Christians.

The problem is that we tend to sentimentalize this image and in the process we end up shearing its power. One of the reasons we do this is that we take the passage out of context. We neglect the fact that it was born out of conflict and so it’s helpful to take a step back and see why Jesus is using this image in the first place.

Jesus doesn’t just show up one day and start talking about himself as a shepherd. The whole conversation is in response to an ongoing dispute with the religious authorities — the Pharisees — and it begins in the previous chapter when Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath day. Jesus, in classic fashion, tells the leaders who oppose him that while they have physical sight, they remain spiritually blind. And the whole idea of the good shepherd contrasts with their own self-serving leadership which Jesus refers to as the hired hand who flees when danger arises. The good shepherd, on the other hand, loves them to the end and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep — an obvious reference to the impending crucifixion.

What we lose amid the saccharine images of Jesus holding little lambs on decorative plates put out by the Franklin Mint, is the radical nature of this statement. “I am the good shepherd.” ‘Wait a minute. What do you mean you’re the good shepherd?’ Everyone was familiar with Psalm 23 — both disciple and Pharisee. Everyone knew the opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd.” ‘How can Jesus call himself the good shepherd? God alone is our shepherd!’

To those opposed to Jesus, this was pure blasphemy. To those who followed Jesus, this was pure revelation. So ultimately this statement is a question of identity — Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. After three weeks of hearing post-resurrection appearances — the women at the empty tomb on Easter Day, Doubting Thomas the Sunday after Easter, and Jesus on the beach eating broiled fish with his disciples last week — on this Fourth Sunday of Easter we zoom out and reflect on what this all means. And what it means is that Jesus is indeed the shepherd of humanity. The one who calls us each by name; the one who cares for us; the one who protects us; the one who seeks us out when we go astray; the one who loves us unconditionally.

So if Jesus is the good shepherd; if Jesus is our good shepherd, the natural question that arises is, how are we doing as his flock? Now, that’s a broad question with many possible avenues but this morning I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of our relationship to Jesus as the Good Shepherd: what happens when we wander away from the fold? Of course, we can’t really think about this without revisiting the Parable of the Lost Sheep from Luke’s gospel:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

When we wander, and we all do either spiritually or physically, Jesus comes searching for us. Now, I realize it’s hard to preach about wandering away to people who are actually here. But we all wander away from God at various points in our lives. The Bible itself is basically a story about people like you and me who have known God, strayed, did things they shouldn’t have, repented, and returned to the Lord. Then the cycle repeats itself. Over and over again. We wander, we repent, we return.

But what’s amazing about this process is that Jesus doesn’t just sit around waiting for 11150862_10206414572153879_7705964650501442138_nyour return. Jesus goes out to find you. He seeks you out. He goes to the unsavory places of your soul and lovingly calls you back by name. He enters your apathetic heart and lovingly calls you back by name. He chases you down wherever you may be and whatever trouble you may have found and lovingly calls you back by name.

You may not know this, but I am the undisputed king of awkward grocery store conversations. I’m picking out bananas at the Fruit Center and a parishioner who hasn’t been to church in a long time sees me and is suddenly stricken with guilt. I get embarrassed looks and the excuses come fast and furious.

Please know that I don’t actually take attendance. It’s not my job to cruise around town looking to guilt people back into the fold. You don’t have to explain yourself or make excuses. I’d love it if you were here more often. The community is diminished when you’re not present at worship. But I’m not the Good Shepherd of Guilt.

Know this, however: Jesus, the true Good Shepherd is patiently seeking you out. Calling you by name; lovingly beckoning you home. Reminding you that the door is always open and that the gate to the sheepfold is never locked.

One of my favorite musicians is the late Texas blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughn. He does a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that I’ve been thinking a lot about and listening to this week. I think I like it so much because he takes a simple, non-threatening children’s song and turns it completely upside down. When you listen to Stevie’s version you can’t help but hear the cute little ditty in a new way.

And I’d like you to think about Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a new way as well. Reflect on this image not as something divorced from its context but set within it. The fleece may be as white as snow but sometimes it gets dirty. Sometimes the fleece literally gets dragged through the mud. It’s not light and fluffy as much as it is wet, smelly, and filthy. Yet, that’s precisely when Jesus seeks us out, reaches out to us, and holds us in his arms. It’s easy to be a good shepherd when the sheep are fluffy and docile and the sun is shining. It’s a different vocation entirely when the storms arise and the wolf encircles the flock. That’s when the Good Shepherd makes his identity known. And that’s when Jesus lovingly calls you back by name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Easter, Year B

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

“You are witnesses of these things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Easter Day 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Tim Schenck

Good Friday 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck