Christ the King Sunday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 20, 2016 (Christ the King, Year C)

This past week, two Episcopal churches, one in Maryland and one in Indiana, were vandalized with racist messages. In Silver Spring, Maryland, parishioners at Church of Our Savior found “Trump nation — whites only” scrawled on a brick wall in their memorial garden. And the same words were written on the back of a banner advertising their weekly Spanish-language service. At St. David’s Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, the phrases “fag church” and “heil Trump” were spray painted on the exterior, along with a swastika.

bean-blossom-church-vandalismNow, it would be easy for us to ignore these incidents. I mean, they didn’t happen here in Hingham. Our sacred space wasn’t violated. We weren’t left to scrub hatred off our walls or wash contempt off our souls. In a sense, it doesn’t affect us at all.

But as the church, we are the Body of Christ. So when one of our members is wounded, we’re all wounded. When one of our members is diminished, we’re all diminished. When one of our members is demeaned, we’re all demeaned. And if we can’t share in the outrage of the denial of human dignity based solely upon race or sexual orientation, we need to question what exactly we think we’re doing sitting in a Christian church this morning; worshiping the Lord of love, the one who breaks down barriers between and among all people.

I’m not bringing this up to toss another log onto the the post-election fire that’s raging in our country. Yet hate transcends partisan politics. And there’s certainly no place for it in our world or in our church. But I think this moment in our national life serves as a clarion call to what we must do as a community of faith in divided times, as the hands and heart and voice of Jesus in the world. Because that’s precisely what and who we are.

Our call, as always, is to be a beacon of light that shines amid the darkness of a broken and sinful world. It is to stand with those on the margins of society, the weak and the vulnerable, the fearful and the dispossessed. It is to listen to the cries of those outside the traditional power structures, and to heed their voices. It is to embrace hope and the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, even in the face of darkness and despair. It is to tear down the walls between people who differ from us, politically, racially, culturally, and religiously. It is to make sacrifices, individually and communally, to insure social and economic justice for the poor and downtrodden.

These aren’t merely suggestions to consider, these are gospel mandates to live into. And it’s not easy. But then we worship a king who ushers us into a kingdom of radical transformation through divine encounter, not a life of leisure through a path of least resistance. On Christ the King Sunday we are reminded that we worship a king who is not of this world; a king whose very existence strikes fear into the hearts of the powers and principalities of the ruling class. A king of disruption and change rather than a monarch of structure and stability.

And so, we’re confronted with a challenging question: how will we claim our role as loyal subjects of Christ the King? In a world where might generally does make right, how do we follow the Prince of Peace?

Well, we can start by proclaiming our faith in ever-bolder ways. So that, in a sense, we should be asking ourselves, why didn’t this vandalism that touched the Church of Our Savior and St. David’s happen here at St. John’s? If we are preaching the gospel by word and action as a church community, if we are living out our baptismal vows to respect the dignity of every human being — not just some human beings or only the human beings who look like us and act like us and believe what we believe — we should be the target of vandalism. We should be reviled by the darker forces of this world, those who fight against love and justice and peace.

Do I want our sacred space to be vandalized? Of course not. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not and never has been an easy path to follow. We worship a king, yes. But a king who was strung up on a cross to suffer and die, not one who prances around in royal robes. That’s the great paradox of the Christian faith. That out of death there is life; out of darkness there is light; out of crucifixion there is resurrection. And that sacrifice is always involved in following the divine call to love your neighbor as yourself.

So, in order to be loyal subjects of Christ the King, what are we as a community willing to sacrifice? What privileges are we as individuals willing to sacrifice? These are the hard questions of being disciples of Jesus in an increasingly polarized world. It may be a sacrifice to give up your time to stand with the dispossessed. Or to share your financial resources — your hard-earned money — with the church and other charities that do kingdom work. It may be leaving your comfort zone to enter into hard conversations with those with whom you disagree or differ from in order to see life from another perspective.

These are the kinds of things that we as Christians must do now more than ever. We must proclaim as a church and as individuals that we will not stand for the demeaning of any human being for whatever reason. To stand idly by is to be complicit. It is to condemn Jesus to the cross again and again and again.

My friends in Christ, this is not an easy time to be a Christian. But it is an important time to be a Christian. We have such an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless and to offer hope to the hopeless. Never has your commitment to this place mattered so much as it does in this very moment.

You know, I was in Arizona for a few days this week to attend a conference on church leadership. And one of the attendees was Kirk Smith, the Bishop of Arizona. I’ve met Bishop Smith several times over the years and we’ve interacted over social media, but he said something that startled me. At the end of the conference he shared some thoughts with the group and in reflecting on the church’s role in the days, months, and years to come, he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to jail.” This wasn’t uttered as a badge of honor, there was great heartache in his words. But also deep conviction. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to jail because I’ll be standing with the immigrants.” This is precisely where the church needs to be, standing with the marginalized. Working for the kingdom of God always entails some suffering along the way. But in the saints of the church, we have plenty of powerful examples of perseverance and endurance we can always look to for inspiration, right along with a vision for bringing us ever closer to realizing God’s kingdom here on earth.

I’m proud to engage in this struggle with all of you. Because of it, we will grow spiritually; our minds and hearts will be expanded; our comfort zones will be extended. We’re not in this alone. Jesus, our royal brother, is with us at every step of the way. And there is great comfort, if not always solace, in this.

At St. David’s in Bean Blossom, they left the hateful messages up in hopes of fostering dialogue. And at Church of Our Savior, in Silver Spring, the community pulled together the evening of the attack and packed the regular Spanish-language mass in a show of support and solidarity. Attendees wrote messages of love on the sidewalk in chalk and covered the vandalism with signs saying “love wins.”

May we, like those seeking reconciliation, look to the courage of our convictions. And may we never, ever back down from following Christ our Lord and our King.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

All Saints’ Sunday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 6, 2016 (All Saints’ Sunday)

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for president because the Sermon on the Mount would make a lousy stump speech. I mean, it’s got a nice rhythm to it with the memorably repetitive “Blessed are those who…for they will…” trope. But we want our candidates to project an image of strength and power; we want to see leadership and action. We want messages of confidence and abundance and optimism. We don’t want to hear about the meek and the poor and the persecuted and the hungry. We want uplifting rhetoric that inspires and reminds us of our national supremacy on the global stage. We want someone who will make the kingdom of heaven great again! Not someone who will highlight the as-of-yet unrealized dream of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Now you might have heard that we have an election coming up. In two short days we, as a vote_2016_morrisnation, will head to the polls to elect our next president. For many, it will be a relief to put this particularly nasty election cycle behind us. Sure, it’s been entertaining in an I-just-can’t-avert-my-eyes kind of way but it hasn’t exactly displayed the best of human nature. The bitter divides in this country have come into stark relief. And the election process has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of hatred and bile that I fear will be difficult to contain in the years ahead, no matter who wins on Tuesday.

More than ever, we need role models to serve as beacons of hope amidst a sinful and broken world. And this is why I love that a mere 48 hours before Election Day we are gathered together in this place to celebrate the great feast of All Saints’ Sunday. We can put aside the vitriol and the partisanship and the insults and focus on humanity’s better nature. Because this is where, if we invite them into our lives, the church’s saints offer us such promise and guidance.

These men and women we call saints lived in a variety of times and circumstances — some walked this earth during periods of great turmoil; some were reviled for their faith; some were ardent in prayer; some were strong leaders; some helped us experience God in new and profound ways. But their greatest virtue is not that they were somehow holier-than-thou or that they displayed pious perfection. They were flawed human beings just like you and me — just like our presidential candidates. They sinned, they messed up, they lost hope. But ultimately, often in the midst of great difficulties, they were faithful. Faithful in the ways they sought to follow Jesus. Faithful in their devotion to our Lord despite what they encountered. Faithful in their seeking after God again and again and again.

And this is a timely reminder that there is an antidote to the darker forces at work in the world. Which is the whole point of the baptismal rite. Water, that powerful and life-giving element, is used to cleanse and renew and wash away and give new life. Once blessed, this water of divine relationship changes everything. And while it doesn’t suddenly and magically erase the darkness that seemingly surrounds us at every turn, it does offer hope. And it helps us tap into this witness of the the saints who surround us like so great a cloud of witnesses. Saints who, just like us, have passed through this very water of baptism into deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, politics are a funny thing when approached from the pulpit. I’ve never suggested how anyone should vote. That’s not my calling or my function within this community of faith; I’m not a public policy analyst. That doesn’t mean I don’t get political on occasion but my calling is simply to preach the gospel of Jesus and trust that this contributes to the enlightenment you bring to the voting booth. Yes, Jesus himself was exceedingly political, in a subversive, fight-power-with-truth kind of way. But my calling is less partisan than it is, as the saintly Dorothy Day put it, one of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” And that, like hearing a political position with which we disagree, can make us uncomfortable.

But then, being a disciple of Jesus brings us into some uncomfortable places. The baptized life challenges our preconceived notions and often our very human nature. It lifts up the lowly and tears down the powerful. It challenges our assumptions and helps us see life not through a human lens but a divine one. The Beatitudes are radical because they flip over everything we think to be strong and powerful and instead underscore the qualities of faithfulness. For faith is ultimately what this life is about, not winning. And that’s a tough sell in our winner-take-all culture and political climate.

So today, we’re invited to look back towards those who have come before us in the faith, while also looking to the future. Even as we look to the saints, we don’t live our faith in the past tense. We revel in their good example and their witness to what really matters in this life. But our faith isn’t a museum exhibit. Something that we can only gaze upon but not touch, for fear of setting off an alarm or raising the ire of a guard. There is beauty in a museum and history and a sense of connection to past civilizations. But you can’t actually use that hand-painted vase from antiquity.

So we link this to the forward thrust of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who…for they will…” They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will receive mercy; they will be called children of God.

And the same could be said about the baptismal rite. As we bless the water, we look simultaneously backwards and forward as we recall all the ways that water has been present throughout our salvation history — as Moses crossed the Red Sea, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. We look back but we don’t keep our gaze fixed behind us. We look ahead to new relationship in Christ, to living out our faith in the world around us.

Jesus does invite us to look forward by holding before us the vision of the Beatitudes. To see a world where fear and hatred are driven out by compassion and love. We often need to pause for inspiration along the way, to look back to those who have endured hardships and come out all the more blessed for the experience. But the vision of peace and justice and love abides. And we’re reminded once again, that God doesn’t demand perfection but faithfulness. And there’s something so merciful and loving about that, isn’t there?

Unless you’ve already done the early voting thing, please do get out to the polls on Tuesday. And bring with you the spirit of the Beatitudes. Bring with you the poor and dispossessed, the meek and mournful, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart. Together and with God’s help, we can build up the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Because as Christians living out our faith in the world, we can collectively do infinitely more good than we could ever possibly imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 30, 2016 (Proper 26, Year C)

You can’t just invite yourself over to somebody else’s house. I tried that in kindergarten because my friend Michael had a much bigger box of Legos than we had at our house — including a bunch of those rare flat ones that you could build stuff on top of. And I was quickly chastised by my mother for being rude. Maybe I tried to pull this off in front of the grown-ups and my mother wanted to make it very clear to Michael’s mom that she was not raising an ill-mannered cretin.

But isn’t this precisely what Jesus does when he sees Zacchaeus up in that sycamore tree? rf“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now, Son of God, aside, you just can’t do that. Right?

I mean, that’s intrusive. And rude. And presumptuous. And speaking of intrusive and rude and presumptuous, today I’m talking about money (how’s that for a stellar stewardship segue?). And I’m not just talking about money in general. I’m talking about your money in particular and the church’s need for it. Now, the good news is that St. John’s has all the money it needs to survive and thrive and do the ministry it has been called to do in 2017. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all in your pockets. Hence the need for the annual stewardship campaign.

Now, it’s easy to take this place for granted. And it’s even easier to make assumptions. It’s easy to think, “Oh, the church doesn’t really need my money. Look at all the people here. Things must be going really well. And this building is so beautiful — that stained glass itself must be worth a mint. In fact from Main Street the church looks like an imposing stone castle — I’m sure they have all the money they need. And anyway, there are a lot of rich people around here. We’re in Hingham after all.”

Just as it’s easy to make assumptions about St. John’s, it was easy to make assumptions about Zacchaeus. Everybody hated this short, rich, tax collector. And, remember, tax collectors in ancient Palestine weren’t the IRS bureaucrats we’ve come to know and love. As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus would have contracted with Roman officials to collect all the taxes and tolls in a given area. He would have then employed others to collect these fees and, by skimming off the top, a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus could end up a very wealthy man.

To his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus was a traitor to his own people; someone who made his money as a collaborator with the despised Gentile oppressors. He may have been rich but he was reviled. But even worse, in the eyes of the religious leaders, tax collectors were viewed as ritually impure. Because his work took him into all sorts of homes and businesses, the tax collector came into contact with all the unclean elements of society. And so religious, upstanding Jews, like the Pharisees, treated tax collectors like lepers. They avoided contact with them and would certainly never eat a meal with them.

So, of all the people Jesus could single out, why mess with this social outcast? Jesus, as he always did, saw beyond the externals and the conventional wisdom and got right to the heart of things. Remember, Jesus was at the height of his popularity as he walked through the streets of Jericho. He had great crowds trailing after him, trying to touch the hem of his garment or maybe shake his hand or simply wanting to catch a quick glimpse. There’s a reason Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see him — and not just because he was short.

Think Red Sox World Series parade going down Tremont Street, the crowd five and six people deep and all those people climbing up telephone poles to get a glimpse of Big Papi. That’s the scale we’re talking. And imagine Papi looking up, pointing at you, and saying, “Hey, I’m coming over to your house for dinner tonight!” That wouldn’t be intrusive; that would be a huge honor. Imagine the pictures you could post on Facebook!

So it wasn’t so much bad manners as a special invitation to spend time with a superstar. But, to take this silly analogy further, imagine if Papi pointed at someone who was a despised Yankee fan. The only one in your neighborhood. An arrogant, brash New Yorker transplanted into Red Sox Nation. That would just make you cringe, wouldn’t it?

That was basically Zacchaeus’ standing in the community. And this is the one Jesus picked out of the crowd to honor? What kind of lousy judgment is that! But again, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus someone yearning to change; someone seeking transformation through relationship with the divine; someone hungering for justice and truth.

And the appearance of a flush church without any financial need is deceiving as well. Once you look a bit closer you realize that the annual budget is tight; that costs continue to rise; that we have a $7,000 budget deficit this year; that we don’t have some massive endowment funding our ministry; that we rely on your generosity to do the work we have been given to do in this community and in the wider world; that your financial commitment to St John’s matters; that we, quite literally, couldn’t do this without you. And, frankly, I prefer it that way. Because this is your church, not someone else’s. The worship and ministry that takes place here happens because of you, not someone else. This place survives and thrives only because of your generosity.

Like Zacchaeus, one of my jobs around here is to climb up into the trees and take in the view. To take stock of what’s going on and report back to all of you what I perceive. And it’s a stunning vista. I see Jesus himself working through a thriving, growing, energetic parish with a talented staff and committed volunteers. It’s an exciting time to be at St. John’s. But membership means commitment and we all have a spiritual need to give generously of ourselves in all that we do. That means, among other things, financial generosity, so that we can share this gospel message of love with one another and with those who have not yet learned just how much God loves them. This is important work that you are called to be a part of and to support with generous hearts.

And while the total number of pledged money is at an all-time high, we’re trying to invite more people into partnership with the parish. 198 families or individuals pledged to support St. John’s in 2016. I want us to increase this participation and our goal is 217 pledges in 2017. I think we can do this if everyone here makes a financial pledge to the parish, of whatever amount. If you’ve never pledged before or haven’t pledged in recent years, please consider it this year. Pledging is ultimately an act of faith; an act of discipleship. A way of driving a stake into the ground and saying, “I believe in this community and want to be part of it in a tangible way.” We want you and we need you to be an active member of this parish. And I for one, am exceedingly grateful that you are a part of this community.

The reality is that Jesus is always inviting himself over. Not because he’s ignorant of social convention but because he is urgently and passionately seeking to be in relationship with you. Not just a piece of you. Not just the public persona but the interior soul at the very core of your being. The relationship he so desires transcends the too-often superficial nature of human interaction. And it goes to the depths of your identity; the place where all desires are known and no secrets are hid. So come down from whatever tree you may be sitting in. And allow Jesus to be your guest.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year C)

 A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 2, 2016 (Proper 22, Year C)

“Super Size our faith!” That’s basically what Jesus’ closest disciples are asking him to do this morning. And in a world where bigger is better and might makes right and to the victor goes the spoils and the one who dies with the most toys wins, more faith is surely better than less faith. More always trumps less. Which is why we love all-you-can eat buffets and McMansions and ordering the Big Gulp at 7-11.

“Increase our faith,” they plead. And who wouldn’t want more of a good thing? More supersize-fries-2abundant blessings, more amazing grace, more fruits of the spirit, more abiding faith.

If more is always better why should it be any different when it comes to faith? More faith must equal more blessing and more peace and more spiritual clarity and more holier than thou moments. That’s how it works, right? Well, not exactly. At least according to Jesus.

He points out that for one thing, faith isn’t a zero sum game. Faith isn’t a limited commodity that the wise disciple hoards like food before a famine. More faith for me doesn’t mean less faith for you. There aren’t winners and losers when it comes to faith. The Christian life is not a spiritual version of The Hunger Games or Survivor.

And for another thing, time and time again, Jesus reminds us that the Christian life runs counter to the mainstream. What may be seen as victory in the eyes of the world, often isn’t in the eyes of God. And what may be seen as failure in the eyes of the world, often isn’t in the eyes of God. You need look no further than the cross for the ultimate example of the human perspective versus the divine outlook; as Easter people, we see in the hard wood of the cross an implement of death transformed into an instrument of life.

This isn’t to say that the notion of abundance isn’t a powerful image of faith. Sometimes more is better. For instance we can’t fully grasp God’s never-ending, ever-flowing, unconditional love for us. It’s like trying to comprehend the infinite nature of the cosmos — a concept the human mind can’t ever completely understand. God’s love is over-the-top and unending and more than we could possibly ever ask for or imagine or deserve. God’s love is not in limited supply or available for a limited time only. God’s capacity to love is a metaphor of more.

And the same idea of abundance encompasses the realm of prayer. It blows the mind to think that God is in relationship with and responsive to every single person in the entire world at the same time. That is some serious multitasking. I mean, I get distracted if I try to check my email while I’m on a conference call — not that I ever do that if I’m on a conference call with any of you. But you can think of God’s capacity for relationship as a kind of miraculous unlimited bandwidth. The more users, the better the service, not worse.

One of the abiding Scriptural images of God’s kingdom is the heavenly banquet. A feast where all our needs are met and satisfied in stunning fashion. But I envision this more as a table to which everyone is invited, not a table where the select few gorge themselves into a food coma while the rest gather up the crumbs that fall from the table. More means more for all. And we see that faith itself, the very notion of belief in God, is based upon a model not of scarcity but abundance.

So how much faith do you actually need? Not that you can really quantify it, but Jesus tells us that a little goes a long way. That we already have all that we need. That the faith of the tiny mustard seed, an ancient metaphor for smallness, is enough. And isn’t that good news? It means that we can stop the commodification of faith, we can stop the pursuit of “more” faith and work with what we have. And, despite our faith insecurities — ‘I’m terrible at praying, I’m not faithful enough’ — and despite our faith guilt — ‘I really need to get to church more often, I never make time to pray’ — we have all the faith we need. That was conveyed to us through the water of baptism, the water of indelible relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of tapping into it and nurturing it and allowing it to flourish, something we all seek to do through our involvement in and with the community of St. John’s.

So how does faith manifest itself if it’s not about quantity? Faith is realized primarily when you reach out to Jesus. The simple act of reaching toward the divine, even if you don’t know why you’re doing so or you’re not sure of the “right way” to do so, is an act of faith. When you reach beyond yourself, when you recognize you can’t do everything on your own (and you most certainly cannot), you are being faithful. Being here this morning is an act of faith whether you came here willingly and joyfully and intentionally or out of habit or whether you’re here grudgingly and under duress. It doesn’t matter because you’re here. And that only takes a small amount of faith.

The thing is, faith is most often realized in small, everyday acts. I think this is where we get hung up and start feeling unworthy. We hear about “faith that moves mountains” and we get frustrated when our faith can’t even seem to move to the next room. Or we hear that old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and we think, that’s nice, but my faithfulness feels not so much “great” as rather mediocre. And I’m convinced, this is why Jesus brings us back to the mustard seed; to remind us that faith is so often found not in the large things, but in the small ones.

Let’s be honest; sometimes the demands of the Christian life can feel overwhelming, like an impossible ideal. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be merciful, give away your possessions, feed the poor, etc, etc. Living up to such lofty ideals of faith can feel like an impossible proposition. It’s not easy stuff and we all stumble on a daily basis.

And maybe this is what the disciples were experiencing. Maybe their words weren’t so much asking Jesus to supersize their faith as much as they were a simple plea to help them with it. Maybe they needed some bucking up in the face of feeling unworthy in their faith. That even after leaving family and friends to follow him, the demands were just too much for ordinary people. And sometimes we need the same reassurances.

I do think we over-complicate things sometimes; we forget the lesson of the tiny mustard seed. Remember, when it all seems so hard and complicated, Jesus distills everything down to the basics: love God, love neighbor. That’s it. So you can think of the small ways in which you do just that and you start to see ways in which you are already exercising your faith in remarkable, if small, ways.

You only need a little bit of faith. And the good news is that you already have all the faith you will ever need.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 25, 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Once upon a time, when I was a fraternity pledge, one of the brothers came up to a group of us and demanded to know the lyrics to the song “Louie, Louie.” We had one hour to present them. Or else…well I don’t know what, but something bad. Now, if you know the song, which has been played by every garage band that ever played in a fraternity basement, you know that the lyrics are unintelligible. I mean, nobody has any idea what they say beyond “Louie, Louie” and “we gotta go” and “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This was before the magic of the internet, of course, so 10 of us crammed into a dorm room, played the cassette over and over again, and argued about the lyrics. Little did we know that it really didn’t matter; that we’d been sent on a fool’s errand. Not only did no living person, including the lead singer, have any clue what the lyrics really were but by the time we presented our interpretation to the brother in question, he’d forgotten he’d even asked us in the first place. Such was life as a pledge in the Delt house at Tufts University.

I thought about this for the first time in years as I read through and reflected on the lessons appointed for this morning. The gospel passage from Luke in particular, this peculiar parable about the rich man who is condemned to eternal damnation and the poor man who is carried away by angels into heaven. Their earthly lives were as diametrically opposed as their everlasting fates. At the end of the reading the rich man pleads to have the poor man, whose name was Lazarus, return to earth and warn the rich man’s brothers to turn their lives around so they don’t also end up, like him, in the place of torment. To which the reply comes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In other words, they have been warned over and over again about changing their ways and behaving differently towards the less fortunate. And they simply will not listen; they refuse to heed the call to a life of compassion. You could send Jesus Christ himself and they would rebuff him too, in favor of self-justification and comfort.

For some reason, I couldn’t get the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence” out of 5a824a200fcdcb8a68d1ef78d314ef0fmy head as I sat with this passage. In particular, the line about that sign that said, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls. And whispered in the sounds of silence.” The “words of the prophets.” Like the rich man in this story, like the Israelites time and time again, we so often ignore the words of the prophets.

Often we ignore them because they’re not the messages we want to hear. They may be challenging or off-putting. They may be messages from the margins of society; messages that advocate for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless; messages that tell us that black lives do indeed matter. The prophetic voice is not a mainstream voice. It often shines a light into areas that, all things being equal, we’d rather not see. Out of sight, out of mind, under the rug. It’s the voice of the prophet Amos, a powerful voice for social justice that we’ve heard the past two Sundays. There’s a note of warning in this morning’s reading to the rich and powerful that continues the prophet’s harsh words about those who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor.”

Why didn’t this rich man heed the warnings of Moses and the prophets? Probably because it would have forced him to look in the mirror and make some lifestyle changes. And when you’re living high on the hog, why would you possibly want to change anything? Why would you want to make sacrifices to help others at the risk of losing some of your own authority or wealth or comfort? Well, you probably wouldn’t. And so you ignore messages to scale back or readjust or give back or repent. And you do so, according to Jesus, at the loss of your very soul.

The point of this parable isn’t to condemn the wealthy — as Father Noah reminded us last week “God doesn’t hate the rich.” But it is to highlight the evil in our self-centered lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters. Apathy or indifference to those in need is sinful. Ignoring those who stand begging outside our proverbial gates distances us from God. And this story reminds us that what we see and how we respond in this world impacts our standing in the world to come.

The rich man wasn’t damned because he was wealthy or because he wore fancy clothes or lived in a mansion. He wasn’t damned because he lived in luxury and dined sumptuously. He was damned because he wouldn’t even look at the poor man who lived in abject poverty outside his very gates. He wouldn’t even look at the pile of dirty, smelly rags he considered inhuman; an ugly “thing” rather than a fellow child of God, a human being made in the image of God.

Those who originally heard this parable would have been shocked. They assumed that blessings in this life were signs of God’s favor while poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure. Beggars didn’t get to heaven, while rich men were assured priority seating at the heavenly banquet.

Do we believe in the hidden world of righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy? Or do we put our hope in the fleeting pleasures of worldly wealth? This is the choice that is set before us. Just as much as the choice proffered last week between serving God and wealth.
Like the words of Louie, Louie, the sound of silence can be interpreted in multiple ways. It’s easy enough to use silence as a false sense of security. Burying your head in the sand certainly brings about silence. Despite the warnings, despite the words of the prophets, it’s easy enough to ignore them. Hear no evil, see no evil.

Yet there’s another approach to silence, a spiritual embrace of silence that isn’t about ignorance but listening. Prayer is the Christian disciple’s sound of silence. It’s a silence that troubles the water; a silence that allows us to hear the cries of the distressed and downtrodden and voiceless; a silence that opens the heart in gratitude and thanksgiving and compassion. A silence that can’t help but lead to action in the name of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to enter into this sound of silence that is prayer and reflect upon the messages you may be ignoring. They may indeed be written on subway walls or tenement halls. But mostly, they’re written on your heart. And it takes prayerful silence to hear and interpret them. May God be with you, and all of us, in that sound of silence.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 11, 2016 (Proper 19, Year C)

When I was in high school, a small group of us would often gather on the roof of my friend Matt’s apartment building in Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure we were allowed up there, but to gain access we had to travel up a sketchy, poorly-lit staircase that led to an old, battered door. A few furtive glances to make sure no one was looking, you know just in case, and suddenly we had again attained access to our urban refuge. Nothing illicit went on up there, though we did haul up a hibachi at one point.

But what was so striking about this special retreat was the view. The building, you see, was67906-050-cb0f6f1f-420x280 on the last street in Brooklyn Heights. It overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River and it offered a panoramic view of lower Manhattan. You could see the Statue of Liberty, South Street Seaport, and, most prominently, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I will always cherish the memories of being up on that rooftop, laughing with good friends and discussing life, as the sun set over that stunning skyline.

I’ve been thinking about that view and reflecting on the gift of perspective this week. Because today is a funny mixture of joy and anticipation and excitement as we return to the fall routine and embrace what we call Homecoming Sunday. It is such a joy to reconnect with familiar faces and welcome new ones; to hear the full choir return in all its musical glory; soon we’ll watch the children march in from Sunday School — one of the great highlights of Sunday morning at St. John’s. But given that this is the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it’s also tinged with a nagging sense of despair that exists just below the surface, at least for many of us.

Like a skyline, our perspective changes over time. Buildings are erected and razed, morning breaks and the sun sets. The view changes sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A skyline indelibly linked to the prosperity and confidence of a nation morphs into a symbol of humanity and vulnerability.

The story of the golden calf from Exodus reminds us just how easy it is to run after idols and false gods. You remember the story — Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai to get the 10 Commandments and he was gone for a pretty long time, the ubiquitous “40 days and 40 nights.” Out of fear that he wouldn’t return and that they’d be abandoned in the wilderness, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make for them a calf of gold to worship in place of God.

It’s a familiar human sin; the temptation is so strong to put our faith in things that are fleeting. Like money or the allure of success or tall buildings; seemingly impenetrable symbols of strength and stability. And that can work for awhile. At least until it suddenly doesn’t; and our perspective changes once again.

Homecoming Sunday helps us to keep our lives in perspective. It helps us to be reminded that our faith is what matters and that everything else will pass away. Because by being here this morning and committing yourself to your faith in a tangible way, you are playing an active role in the narrative of perspective. You are claiming faith as an integral piece of your perspective on life. You are opening yourself to the counter narrative of love and hope in a sinful, broken, and overcommitted world. And while I commend you for it, God loves you for being here, for answering the divine call, and for seeking to follow Jesus in ever deepening ways.

Now, I’m not unaware that we hear the Parable of the Lost Sheep on Homecoming Sunday. I didn’t plan it this way, that’s just how the three-year lectionary cycle of readings lined up. If you haven’t been to church for awhile you may think Jesus is speaking directly to you; that you alone are the single sheep that has strayed. You’re not. And if you’ve been coming all summer, you may feel like one of the 99. You haven’t wandered away, you’ve endured those July and August sweat-fests, you’ve been faithful in your attendance, you’ve received spiritual nourishment, and that’s great. But in some ways today, as the name implies, today is a time to welcome home those who may have strayed just a bit. We’re not changing the name from Homecoming Sunday to Lost Sheep Sunday — bad marketing. But we are delighted to welcome those who haven’t been here in a while and it’s great to get everything cranked up again.

Yet in a very real sense, wherever we’ve been this summer, whether here or elsewhere or nowhere on Sunday mornings, we are all that single lost sheep. There’s a vulnerability that comes from acknowledging that we, too, are the lost sheep. And this has absolutely nothing to do with church attendance. We all fall away, we all lose our way, we all go astray. That’s the nature of humanity’s relationship with God — the story of the Israelites and the golden calf is our story. And it’s why Jesus calls after us again and again. Like that lost sheep of the parable, Jesus actively comes searching for us. He doesn’t just say, “Whatever. I have 99 other sheep.” Which, practically speaking, would have been the much more prudent course. It’s risky to go after the one when you have 99 others to tend to. But we worship a risk-taking Lord. One who never writes us off but rather pencils us into his very heart and never, ever lets us go.

That’s the miracle of faith: that God in Christ yearns deeply for you. You! Whoever you are, whatever you have done or failed to do, Jesus yearns for you and seeks after you like the Good Shepherd who goes to the ends of the earth to track down his single lost sheep.

Thinking about that view from the rooftop of my friend’s place in Brooklyn, I realized that on that day 15 years ago, a certain perspective had been irrevocably altered; partly because a dominating piece of the skyline had fallen, but mostly because our sense of invincibility had been toppled along with it. What we see with our own eyes is not the full extent of reality. So often, what we hold up as idols of strength and stability are fleeting. And we are reminded that God is the only permanent fixture of our lives; that we can rely on nothing we build with our own hands or create out of our own sense of self. Everything that is earthly will pass away. Everything. No matter how tall or how wide, no matter the cost or the beauty. And what remains is our relationship with God, our relationship with the eternal ruler of all creation. That is the bedrock upon which all else stands. And I am delighted you are here to recapture and recommit to the divine perspective.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 28, 2016 (Proper 17, Year C)

One of the things churches take very seriously is the whole notion of the Sunday morning welcome. We have ushers and greeters and newcomers’ packets and welcome tables during coffee hour. Recognizing that walking into a church for the first time can be intimidating, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making visitors feel welcome.

Now some parishes do this better than others. I’ve personally had every experience from being completely and utterly ignored to being treated like a minor celebrity. There’s a fine line between genuinely feeling as if people are glad you’re there and feeling as if the congregation is simply desperate for new blood — in a vampire, blood-sucking kind of way. As I like to tell people on our newcomer’s committee, there’s a fine line between “welcoming” and “stalking.”

But this whole idea of welcome isn’t simply a veneer of good manners. And hopefully it’s not just the adoption of certain best practices from the hospitality industry, as passed on through the filter of church growth consultants.

Rather, if it’s authentic and not just self-serving, welcoming the stranger is a spiritual endeavor. We hear much about this topic in the Bible. The people of Israel are reminded again and again to treat the aliens who reside in their lands with dignity and respect. God reminds them that they, too, were once aliens in a foreign land when they lived in the land of Egypt. And it is a Scriptural mandate modeled by Jesus himself, over and over again. We don’t get to choose who shows up but we do have a choice in how they’re treated once they arrive.

Given this emphasis on welcoming, you can understand how shocked my friend Laurie was last Saturday when she awoke to find graffiti all over the front doors of her church in Lexington, Kentucky. Now to set this in context, remember that down South there’s no great dividing line between pre and post-Labor Day. Things are in full swing down there. Vacations are over, school has started, everybody’s already back in the fall routine. In fact, at St. Michael’s where Laurie is the rector, they had a big Sunday planned with a service to welcome all the entering students from the University of Kentucky. It would be like me waking up the morning before Homecoming Sunday to find graffiti all over the doors and the front driveway. In other words, this wasn’t some lightly attended August Sunday in New England (glad you’re all here by the way, and it’s great to be back).

Now, Laurie texted me photos of the graffiti. And I assure you, this wasn’t just your garden variety, colorfully creative 1970’s New York City subway graffiti. This was crude, hateful stuff that invoked the political, the satanic, and the, um, anatomical. So what do you about this? Well, the first thing you do is alert the parish and suddenly power washers appear and chemicals you didn’t even know they sold at Home Depot show up and there’s a whole group of parishioners cleaning and scrubbing and washing away the hate. In several hours it’s all gone, with nary a trace left.

GodIsLoveWhich is great. Except that the emotional scars of hate-speech scrawled across the entrance to your sacred space remain etched in the community’s consciousness. And I love what Laurie did the next day. She amassed several buckets of sidewalk chalk and, as part of the liturgy, she invited everyone outside to cover the sidewalk and driveway with messages of God’s love. Parishioners of all ages expressed their own responses through words and art to the hate that just 24 hours before had been scribbled all over the front of their church.

To me, this is what faith is all about. It’s not about ignoring hateful rhetoric but responding in love. It’s not about being reactionary in the face of evil but being proactive in the name of God. It’s not about rejecting others but accepting them as fellow children of God.

As Laurie said to the news media when they inevitably showed up, “The vandalism is not the story. That’s a part of it. The end of the story is always love in the Christian faith. When people send out into the world hate and violence, our responsibility is to respond with love.”

In a lot of ways, this is why it’s so important to welcome strangers. We never know where people are in their respective journeys or what they’re going through. As we heard this morning in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It’s the whole idea of treating one another as if we are encountering Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed when he says, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” So we see again and again that welcoming the stranger is not just about being polite, it’s about being a Christian.

And we can’t pick and choose who to welcome. We can’t only welcome people who look like us or act like us or talk like us. That’s too easy. And true hospitality is hard work. Think about the dinner party Jesus wants us to hold. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Every time we gather to worship, we are hosting a dinner party in Christ’s name. That’s why we seek to be intentional about our Sunday morning welcome. We fling open the doors and open ourselves to being transformed by those who enter. We offer them something to be sure — our understanding of Jesus’ love for us. But we also receive something in return as we become a more diverse and complete community of faith. The church as the body of Christ is not intended to be static, but a dynamic reflection of the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Two weeks from today, when we get that post-Labor Day crush and people scramble to return to the fall routine, I encourage you to be welcoming (yes, even if someone you don’t recognize sits in your pew). It’s not just the responsibility of the ushers or the clergy to welcome strangers into our midst. It’s up to you. Even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to reach across the aisle and offer words of introduction and encouragement. Remember, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby,” as we hear in the more poetic King James Version, “some have entertained angels unawares.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016