Fourth Sunday of Easter 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 12, 2019 (Easter 4, Year C)

Ah, Psalm 23. Like many of you, I’ve heard it a few times over the years. And I’m not gonna lie: I tend to tune it out. Or if not tune it out, at least hear it without really listening. The 23rd Psalm is to funerals what First Corinthians 13 is to weddings. It’s hard to know what’s better known to non-regular church goers: “The Lord is my Shepherd” or “Love is patient, love is kind.”

But in honor of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, what’s traditionally known as Good good shepherdShepherd Sunday, I tried to hear it anew this past week; I sought to really listen to it and enter into it and engage with it and rediscover it. Psalm 23 is beautiful and poetic, if overused. And for so many among us, hearing that first line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” evokes strong memories of loved ones. The psalm speaks powerfully to those in the midst of raw grief – to those walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And the imagery of lying down in green pastures and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is indeed comforting.

Bob Dylan famously said, or sang to be precise, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” And you can hear that familiar first line of the 23rd Psalm in a similar vein. You’re gonna have a shepherd. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have a shepherd.

And it’s true, I think. There is a human desire to be shepherded and comforted and taken care of. And there are many potential shepherds out there other than the Lord, all competing for our attention. Our screens offer virtual comfort and relationship. Our politicians promise protection and hope. Our jobs hold out a sense of meaning and purpose. Closer to home, our friends and family members bestow love and companionship. More cynically, advertising executives offer products promising to meet our every need, want, and desire.

But all of these are, in the end, fleeting. At least in contrast to what is offered by the Good Shepherd. At least that’s how I heard this psalm as I sat with it this week — with the word Lord italicized. The Lord is my shepherd. Again, there are other shepherds out there competing for your attention. But the psalmist is stating unequivocally that the Lord is his shepherd. He has perhaps considered other shepherds, sought other ways to fulfill the deep yearning of the human heart. But with the confidence borne of a life fully, if not easily, lived, he is able to state that “the Lord is my shepherd.” And he invites us all to consider whether we will allow the Lord to truly be our shepherd.

And in order to do that, I’m going to ask you to do something very un-Episcopalian like. Don’t worry, this won’t involve hugging anyone. Or raising your hands in the air. I’m going to ask you to open up your Bibles to page…you all brought your Bibles, right? Oh, who am I kidding? Well, open up your Prayer Books to page 476 — that’s the red book — and we’ll take a look at the 23rd Psalm. And we’ll consider exactly what it is that a true shepherd offers. We may as well look at the King James Version, which is the one towards the bottom of the page, because that’s the one that rolls off the tongue; the version that more people than you’d think are convinced Jesus himself used.

So what is it that a true shepherd offers? The second verse gives us the first clue. He makes us lie down in green pastures. In others words, he offers sabbath time. He makes you stop and rest. He knows you’re weary. He doesn’t run you to the point of sheer exhaustion. He compels you to stop your racing around, because even when you yourself can’t see it, the shepherd knows that you need time for rest and renewal. And this is a gift.

And in the same vein, he leads us beside still waters. He bids us to drink deeply and slowly. To be filled up and to be nourished and nurtured and replenished. He knows our reserves have been depleted and that we need to have our energy restored.

And the shepherd restores not just our energy but, as we see in the third verse, our very souls. That transcends physical restoration and gets into the realm of the spiritual. The Good Shepherd restores us body and soul, recognizing that we are broken vessels in need of restorative healing and wholeness.

And then the shepherd leads us. Not aimlessly or in circles but in paths of righteousness. He guides rather than compels; invites rather than insists. But when we listen to his voice, when we tune out the noise and the competing demands that cry out for our attention, these paths of abundance and joy are cleared and made known to us.

Which doesn’t mean that they are always easy. The true and good shepherd knows that we will encounter things in this life which will terrify us and keep us awake at night. And so, in verse four, we hear of that valley of the shadow of death. And we are reminded that the shepherd walks with us through whatever fears and obstacles we endure. The shepherd abides with us and comforts us and stays near at hand.

And then in verse five, the shepherd prepares a table for us. He feeds us. He serves us. And he anoints us. In other words, he blesses us. He pours out such abundant blessings upon us to the point of overflowing. The vessels of our souls can’t contain such blessings and they spill out, running over, streaming down upon us. Until we are left with goodness and mercy and God’s sustaining presence until the very end of time.

So when we claim that the Lord is our shepherd, we are claiming that our shepherd will renew us and refresh us and restore us and replenish us and lead us and comfort us and bless us. That’s a tall order. And you begin to see that the only viable statement, the only one that makes any sense at all is that the Lord is our shepherd and that through him alone we will never be in want.

And so one of the things I personally discovered this week, is that I really need to stop complaining about hearing Psalm 23 all the time. There’s a circular, mantra-like rhythm to it that invites us to begin the psalm anew just as we finish that last line. The first and last lines seem to dance with one another in a way I never noticed before. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” precisely because “The Lord is my shepherd.” And because “the Lord is my shepherd, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

And so to end this sermon, let’s say this psalm together. Some of you may know it by heart. Some of you may want to turn back to page 476 of the Prayer Book…

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; *
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019


Second Sunday of Easter 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 28, 2019 (Easter 2, Year C)

Perhaps you’ve heard of the acronym FOMO, which stands for Fear of Missing Out. It’s fomothe idea, or the worry really, that others are having amazing experiences that you’re missing out on. It’s not entirely new — frankly, I think it’s hardwired into the human condition. Adam and Eve ate of the apple in the Garden of Eden because they were convinced by the serpent they were missing out on wisdom. And it’s basically the modern equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses.” You know the story — your neighbor gets the latest Tesla sports car — in bright red no less — and suddenly your late model Volkswagen Jetta seems a bit…weak. 

Which brings us to Thomas. Thomas, the much maligned doubter, didn’t just experience the fear of missing out, he did miss out. For some reason, Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them. Scripture doesn’t tell us where Thomas was exactly. Maybe he had a dentist appointment or a hot date. Who knows? My guess is that he was so consumed with grief that he just couldn’t face being with his closest friends in those early days following the crucifixion. That Jesus’ death was so raw and so painful, that he just needed to be alone for awhile. But whatever the reason, Thomas missed Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance and had to rely on the eyewitness report of the other disciples. 

And even more than the fear of missing out, this must have broken Thomas’ heart; to have missed the risen Messiah; to have been the only one of Jesus’ inner circle not to have been there; to have been self-marginalized by his own absence. And as a result, Thomas is not quite as far along emotionally and spiritually as the rest of his friends. 

And this makes sense. Because as joyful as Easter is, there’s always a bit of emotional whiplash moving so quickly from the agony of the cross on Good Friday to the unfettered joy of the empty tomb on Easter Day. Thomas stands as a bridge for us between the grief of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. 

Karoline Lewis, a preaching professor at a Lutheran seminary in Minnesota, with whom I’m friends on Facebook says that Thomas “helps us to linger, just a little bit, just for a little while; to remember that the grief was real.” 

And I really think she’s on to something here. Because the story of Thomas does allow us to linger a bit longer in the grief, before racing off to the joy. To linger at the foot of the cross before encountering the lilies and egg hunts and chocolate bunnies. A reminder that grief is never linear, but acts more like an emotional spiral. With moments of laughter interspersed with tears; with moments of confusion mingled with clarity. 

On Thursday night, I gathered at the home of longtime parishioner Edie Earle, along with Fr. Robert and Edie’s five children. We sat around her deathbed in the house her children had all grown up in, and for the next couple of hours we prayed and laughed and cried and told stories about this amazing 96-year-old woman. And, truth be told, we also toasted her and drank a little bourbon in her honor. Edie died peacefully the next morning at 6:00 am, surrounded by her children, just as the sun arose.

But I mention this, because, this must have been something of what the disciples experienced — at least in the mix of emotions that accompany death. Because despite that incredibly dramatic moment at the Easter Vigil when all the lights come on and the Easter acclamation is proclaimed, the emotions surrounding the resurrection weren’t like a light switch suddenly being tripped. There was confusion and fear and elation and, yes, grief. Because even when it all sunk in, the relationship with Jesus, their Lord and friend and master, was indelibly and undeniably changed by the resurrection. Things would be different. The journey of faith would change directions. A new path would emerge. And change, as wonderful as it may be, does inevitably lead to grief. We mourn the loss of the way things used to be, even as we joyfully embrace the future.

And I find this sense of lingering in the midst of grief particularly poignant in light of the Easter Day massacre in Sri Lanka. The news that over 350 of our fellow siblings in Christ were murdered while celebrating the resurrection, the very same thing we were doing in safety here in Hingham, was both devastating and heartbreaking. And it couldn’t help but cast a pall over our own celebration. We are one body, one spirit in the risen Christ. And when one part of the body is broken, we are all affected. We are all aggrieved. 

Which brings us to doubt. Doubt is not a dirty word. It’s often treated as such in church circles. At least implicitly. Something no one dares talk about at coffee hour. Maybe in the quiet confines of their priest’s office. Maybe. But it just doesn’t really fit in with the whole happy ethos of sharing the peace. It certainly doesn’t pair well with Eastertide, this 50-day season full of joyful alleluias. 

And yet, year after year Thomas shows up on the very Sunday after Easter, expressing doubts about the resurrection. And this is such an important reminder that authentic faith, a faith truly rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not about plastered-on smiles, but about the full range of human emotions. Which most certainly includes doubt.

Because doubt, rather than something to be suppressed, plays a vital role in a healthy, vibrant, and living faith. And I think that’s so freeing to realize, because so often in church circles, we’re taught to crush our doubts rather than to embrace them; to deny our doubts rather than acknowledge them. 

Which is precisely why I love Thomas and the prominent role he plays in the midst of our Easter celebration. Because there is 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. He didn’t just fall into line with the others and plaster a smile upon his face. 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. 

Which brings us to baptism. In a few moments, we will baptize four children. Which, although we discourage flash photography, if any pictures end up on social media will surely cause some FOMO moments for all your friends and family not able to be here. But more importantly, don’t let these children miss out on knowing God. Model for them that, like Thomas, it’s okay to have doubts about your faith. But also model for them that Jesus never has doubts about them. That he is with them in all the moments of grief and in all the moments of joy. That’s the good news of the resurrection; that’s the good news of Thomas showing up seven days later. That’s the good news of our continuing Easter celebration.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

Easter Day 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 21, 2019 (Easter Day)

Mon Dieu. My God. Those were the first words that came to my lips as I joined the rest of the world in watching Notre Dame go up in flames earlier this week. I was writing my Good Friday sermon when the news broke, and it did feel like a death of sorts was playing out before our very eyes. 

Yes, the Church transcends physical structures. Yes, Jesus came into the world to start a movement, not to create an institution. But still. This hurt. As human beings, we crave sacred space and holy ground. We seek encounter with the divine through art and architecture. We desire tangible evidence that something greater than ourselves is at work in the world. We strive to place ourselves in the context of history. 

And suddenly these deepest yearnings of the human soul were literally going up in smoke during the holiest week of the Christian year. And that hit us all at a mystical and deeply visceral level.

Two things, in particular, struck me about John’s account of the resurrection in light of the news out of Paris this week. There is a lot of running and there is a lot of weeping. After Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance, she ran to Peter and the beloved disciple. And then these two disciples ran to the tomb — raced really. We hear that the other disciple, John by tradition, outran Peter. And then after all this running, the weeping begins. Mary weeps outside the tomb. Two angels ask her why she’s weeping. Jesus asks her why she’s weeping. And then she receives news of the resurrection, which forever wipes away her tears. Running and weeping.

In Paris, as news broke of the fire at the iconic 13th century cathedral, that in many ways is the heart and soul of the nation, there was also much running and weeping. Firefighters and first responders running to the scene. Parisians running to simply be in the presence of their cathedral to pray and to sing. And then weeping over the uncertainty of the damage. Weeping over what was lost. Weeping over a structure that had, for generations, simply always been there. Running and weeping.

Now, running and weeping are often seen as unseemly acts. Or at least things not done in polite company. It’s one thing to see someone in jogging attire running down Main Street as part of the  Hingham Road Race on the Fourth of July. But it’s something else entirely to see someone in business attire running the same route on the Fifth of July. And it’s one thing to see a grieving soul weeping in the safe confines of a funeral home. But it’s something else entirely to see someone weeping uncontrollably in the middle of a coffee shop. When we see people running or weeping in unexpected places, it makes us nervous. It gives us pause.

And sometimes we treat the church in the same way. Like a place where decorum matters more than faith. Where social norms and rules matter more than relationships. Where running and weeping must be stifled in the name of etiquette. In a word, we treat the church like a museum. And when we do, when we value beauty over beatitude, we miss the point entirely. We miss the point of why Notre Dame matters. We miss the point of why Easter matters. We miss the point of why resurrection matters.

Because resurrection is ultimately about hope, not perfection. Resurrection is about a golden cross shining amid the rubble of a fire ravaged cathedral. About joy and light rising up from darkness and despair. About glory emerging from the the agony of an ignominious death. 1074165936

That’s why we gather today, with one another and with Christians throughout the world. To mark the miracle of life prevailing over death. This isn’t just a story we view from afar, like dispassionate observers gazing at a work of art from behind the safety of a velvet rope. This is our story. Like the women who first encountered the empty tomb, we are witnesses of and to these things.

We are the cross shining amid the burned out rubble, we are the light rising up out of the darkness, we are the resurrection glory emerging from the agony of the cross. 

The church must be a place to run and weep. It must be an oasis for our full selves. In all our awkwardness; in all our brokenness. Otherwise, what’s the point? If it’s simply a place of unvarnished beauty without allowing space for our unvarnished selves, then we’re getting it all wrong. 

Jesus says, “come to me all you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will refresh you.” He’s speaking not in general terms, but specifically to you and me. To each and every one of us. He wants us to run and weep on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the promise of the resurrection. That the barrier between life and death, between this world and the next is ripped away, revealing the very face of God.

May you forever run and weep in the sure and certain knowledge that the risen Christ is running and weeping right alongside you at every step of the journey. May the joy of this Easter Day draw you into ever-deepening relationship with the living God. And may Christ’s victory over death and the grave open up for you the very gates of heaven. Alleluia and amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Good Friday 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 19, 2019 (Good Friday)

A few years ago a modern sculpture suddenly appeared at World’s End. To see it, you had to enter the park, go over a footbridge, walk through a tree-lined path, come down a big hill, past what I consider one of the greatest views of the Boston skyline, and onto what’s known as “the bar,” that thin strip of trail with water on either side that connects the inner part of the nature preserve to the outermost section, the area that truly does feel like the end of the world.

I remember setting out for a walk with Bryna on a beautiful, crisp fall day to revel in the beauty of World’s End, one of the great gifts of living on the South Shore. And I admit it was a bit jarring to encounter modern art amid the natural beauty of God’s creation. The shiny, reflective, mirrored steel panels were arranged in a spiral, large enough to walk through and in and around. 

The art installation, by a Danish artist named Jeppe Hein, was provocative and c946feda7a17423acontroversial — I’m pretty sure letters to the editor of the Hingham Journal were involved. And I think that was precisely the point. It certainly got me talking as we descended the hill and the sculpture first came into view. I think my initial words to Bryna were something along the lines of, “What is that monstrosity?” 

But after visiting World’s End several more times that fall and intentionally spending some time with the sculpture, it started to grow on me. Or if not grow on me, I came to at least appreciate what the artist was trying to do.

The sculpture reflected back the natural beauty, allowing you to take in the trees and water and changing light in new ways. Depending on the time of day and the tides and the weather, the sculpture offered a shifting, ever-changing perspective. Engaging with the art and walking through it as a labyrinth, allowed me to experience World’s End as if for the first time. And that was a gift. 

It also didn’t hurt to learn that it was not a permanent installation, and would only be on display for one year.

As we gather to gaze upon the hard wood of the cross on Good Friday, I invite you to envision the cross as a mirror. Allow it to reflect back the pain of the world; the brokenness of the human condition, the fear and violence of war, the tragedies of natural disaster, and the abuse we inflict upon one another. Allow it to reflect back your own pain; the hurts and suffering of your life, the setbacks of health and age, the crippling anxiety that threatens to tear you down, the isolation and loneliness that keeps you from experiencing joy and the fullness of life.

Like the mirrored sculpture at World’s End, we experience the cross in a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives over the course of our lifetimes. Depending on what’s happening in our lives, the cross is a symbol of suffering or hope or grief or joy. The once-and-for-all act of salvation accomplished upon the cross is experienced by us in different ways, even as it remains constant as the source of God’s love and grace.

And in the mirrored cross of Christ, we see ourselves. For better, for worse. In all our pain, in all our joy. There are times when we want to avert our eyes, but those are the times we must gaze upon it even more intently and with greater focus. 

Because when we do, what is reflected back is the very hope of the world. The love that God has not just for all of creation, but for you. In all your brokenness. In all your unworthiness. In all your sinfulness. Jesus stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to usher you into his loving embrace. That is what is revealed in the mirrored cross of Christ: God’s undying love for humanity; God’s undying love for you.

Hein’s mirrored sculpture was titled “A New End.” And in many ways, that’s what Good Friday is: a “new end.” Jesus’ last words before he bows his head and gives up his spirit are “It is finished.” And at one level, it is finished. Jesus has been strung up on a tree to die, murdered by the Roman authorities, another minor rebellion crushed, and that’s that. 

But it is finished only in one sense. Because Good Friday is also a “new end.” And so what is finished in Jesus’ dying breath is merely his earthly ministry. The new end of the Christian faith brings this movement of the Messiah to a higher plane. One that will only be fully revealed to the scattered disciples on the day of resurrection.

On Good Friday, the light of hope stands in stark relief to the darkness of despair. Our suffering is reflected back in Christ’s suffering. But our glory is reflected back in Christ’s glory. That’s the “new end” of the Christian faith. That’s the joy of our salvation. That’s the good news of the mirrored cross.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 7, 2019 (V Lent, Year C)

Let’s be honest. You’re not going to remember much of what I have to say this morning. That’s not a knock on your listening skills, and it’s certainly not a reflection on my finely honed preaching prowess. But over the next couple of weeks with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter looming over the liturgical calendar, we encounter the holiest, most riveting, captivating, and compelling moments of the Christian year.

We will journey from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna” to the Upper Room for the Last Supper to the agony of the cross and cries of “Crucify” to the joy of the empty tomb. That’s a lot of holy water under the bridge to go before we get to our destination. And so this sermon, like the Fifth Sunday in Lent in general will, at best, be overshadowed. 

Which is, in many ways, how it should be. But on this particular Sunday before Palm Sunday, Jesus speaks about a group of people who often live in the shadows. People who remain invisible and unnoticed and ignored by vast segments of the population. People who themselves remain overshadowed by life itself: the poor.

But he does so in the context of a dinner party thrown in his honor, amid some of his closest friends in the days before his crucifixion. Jesus will soon be betrayed, arrested, and crucified — the very story that, as a worshipping community, we will soon enter into deeply and intentionally. Rather than run away and try to avoid his destiny, Jesus is doing what we’d probably all do if we knew the end was coming — he’s spending time with the ones he cares most deeply about. He’s at the home of Lazarus, the one whose death Jesus wept over before raising him from the dead. Martha’s running around as usual; bringing food and clearing plates. Mary is sitting at his feet. Judas is there as are, presumably, a number of the other disciples.

There’s nothing strange about this scene, with one exception: Mary is anointing Jesus’ n-5-packshot-default-125530-8817972051998feet with the ancient Palestinian equivalent of Chanel Number 5. It’s an extravagant, luxurious, exuberant, abundant display of affection. She wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair and perfume so expensive that it was roughly equivalent to the yearly wages of a day laborer.

This is when Judas pipes up, indignantly demanding to know why the perfume wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor? John quickly tells us Judas was a thief and his motives weren’t pure. But still, it’s a valid question. You could do a lot of good with 300 denarii. 

“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus replies. Now, taken out of context, that’s a terrible answer. An apathetic way of ignoring the crushing poverty that has long impacted the lives of so many. And over the years these words have been reduced to a justification of indifference. A moral shrug of the shoulders. “Well, you know what Jesus said. ‘We’ll always have the poor around,’ so it’s not like we need to completely inconvenience ourselves to deal with issues of poverty: hunger, the homeless, income inequality. Or anything else that would take us out of our comfort zones and force us to actually confront Jesus’ words about taking care of the least of these. Sure, he said stuff about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. But apparently he also said the hungry and the naked and the stranger will always be hanging around, so they can wait! And, frankly, I have places to be and things to do. I’m busy. And I’m important. Certainly busier and more important than the hungry, naked, impoverished stranger who’s sleeping outside on the heating grate I can’t even see, because I don’t live in that neighborhood.” You always have the poor with you.

If I’m honest with myself, truly honest, I’ve had such thoughts, or at least similar ones, as I’ve passed yet another homeless person on the streets of Boston or Quincy or even, yes, Hingham. I feel like I’m a better person than some because at least I feel some guilt about the situation, or mutter a prayer under my breath as I pass by. And I’m even familiar enough with Scripture to justify my indifference with this very passage: “You always have the poor with you.”

And you can’t help everyone. Most of us aren’t St. Francis. We’re not going to literally sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor and live off the goodwill of others. That’s generally not our calling, and even if it were, there would still be people who would go to sleep hungry that night. And even if you emotionally try to help everyone, pray for every person in need you encounter, pray for every situation you read about in the newspaper or hear about on the news, or scroll through on your Facebook feed, you’ll end up emotionally spent, weeping in the fetal position on your kitchen floor because it’s all just too much. With nothing left to give anyone in your own circle of friends and family.

So there’s a self-protective quality to this justification that “you always have the poor with you.” That there will always be situations that you can’t fix; that there will always be people you can’t help; that there will always be problems you can’t solve; that there will always be hurts you can’t heal; in others and in yourself. Because “you always have the poor with you.”

And, yet, Jesus’ words are not meant as a justification, but as a reminder. It’s not, give up trying to help, because you’ll always have the poor among you. But a reminder that the poor will always be among you. Jesus is telling us that poverty is part of the human condition, because we live in a broken and sinful world; that many live in conditions and circumstances that break the very heart of God. That until the kingdom of God is realized on earth as it is in heaven, injustice will abide. 

And into this pre-existing condition, he’s reminding us to never neglect the poor. To remember them even when they are invisible. To live our lives as if they are in our midst and at our table and around our altar. Jesus himself will carry them on his heart as he walks through the procession of palms and as he offers bread and wine to his friends at the Last Supper, and lovingly washes their feet; and he will carry them on his heart as he struggles to bear his cross up  Calvary’s hill, and as he breathes his last, and as he rises in glory. And he bids us to do the same as we take our journey through Holy Week and Easter.

There’s a Twitter account I follow called Invisible People. I can’t remember how I heard about it — probably someone mentioned it at a church conference. What they do, aside from advocate for the homeless, is share pictures and stories and names of homeless people throughout the country. It’s with their permission, of course, and it’s always with people they’re working with to get off the streets. But as you scroll through opinions about sports and politics and religion, you find yourself pausing and reflecting on the very real people poverty effects. Invisible People is jarring in its specificity — which is precisely the point. You can’t help but gaze upon their faces; look into their eyes; see the humanity looking back at you; see the face of Jesus. “The poor” cannot be a faceless, amorphous, other. That just keeps our fellow human siblings at a safe distance. Names and faces and stories are important — it’s why Jesus ate with the poor and marginalized again and again.

As I said, you probably won’t remember my words this morning. They’ll get mixed up in a swirl of liturgical drama and action and the haunting and glorious music that accompanies the journey of the next couple of weeks. And that’s fine. But remember this: “You always have the poor with you.” And keep them close to your heart as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

Third Sunday in Lent 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 24, 2019 (III Lent, Year C)

I’ve waited a long time for this reading about Moses and the burning bush to show up on a Sunday morning. Partly because I’ve always loved this story — the whole notion of walking on holy ground; this startling and direct encounter with the divine. But mostly, if I’m honest, because it reminds me of some Orthodox monks I met while I was on sabbatical last year. These weren’t just any monks, these were coffee-roasting monks I spent a few days worshiping with and getting to know at their monastery nestled amid the Poconos, in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania. 

Now, I didn’t know much about the Orthodox Church before I showed up the week after Easter. Actually, I knew nothing about it except what I’d learned in church history classes, along with some vague impressions about long beards and billowing clouds of incense. And it was a truly moving experience to worship with these holy men — a long experience, as none of the services were ever less than two hours — but incredibly inspiring. I listened to the monks’ hauntingly beautiful a cappella chanting, gazed upon stunning icons, inhaled fragrant incense, and participated in some of the oldest Christian liturgies in existence, some dating back to the fourth century.

But I was also there to drink coffee and learn about the monks’ coffee roasting operation, which they run out of the seminary’s bookstore/café. In many ways, it felt like the atmosphere in any other coffee shop, with the comfortable leather couches and free WiFi. Except in this case, the baristas all had black cassocks, pectoral crosses, and long ZZ Top-like beards, instead of skinny jeans, tattoos, and nose rings. 

One of my favorite aspects of the monks’ coffee business, and the reason I’ve been 54514656_10218008399592319_6806119766416162816_nwaiting for this story to show up in the lectionary, is the name of the coffee itself. The monks sell their ethically sourced beans from all over the world as Burning Bush Coffee. And that is a fantastic name for coffee.

But for the Orthodox, there’s deep theology embedded in the imagery of the burning bush, a layer that transcends the obvious connection to the story of Moses from the Book of Exodus. In the Eastern Church, they understand the flame Moses perceived as God’s Uncreated Glory. So that this event is not just a stand-alone miracle of God calling the one who would lead his people out of slavery, but an event that prefigures the birth of Jesus. Mary as the theotokos, the God-bearer, is seen by the Orthodox as the inheritor and the completion of this conceptualized Glory in the New Testament; of the bush being burned but not consumed come to life in human form.

Now, I realize that’s a lot of esoteric theology to pack into the name of a coffee. But they’re monks. That’s kind of what they do. They spend much of their time having mountaintop experiences and thinking about such things. 

And while Moses certainly spent a fair amount of his time going up mountaintops — receiving the 10 Commandments atop Mt. Sinai, viewing the Promised Land from the summit of Mt. Nebo — he made his mark coming down from mountaintops and leading the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea.

And it all starts with this burning bush. I love that it’s merely a bush. It’s not a majestic flaming oak tree, but a humble smoldering shrub. And this is an important, often overlooked detail in this story. Yes, there’s something miraculous about a bush that is on fire yet not consumed. But there’s something equally miraculous in God being made known not in the majesty of a mountaintop but in the humility of an ordinary, everyday bush. It begins to hint at the possibilities that holiness is all-pervasive. That God abides not just in the majestic, but also in the mundane. That God resides not just with the powerful, but also with the powerless. That God is alive not just with the hopeful, but also with the hopeless. Something new and radical and earth-shattering is taking place, as Moses slowly removes his sandals and tentatively takes those first steps on what he learns is holy ground.  

This is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Scripture. But, unfortunately, in some ways, we’ve trampled all over it. Over the millennia, we’ve literally put Moses on the mountaintop and left him there. And in doing so, we’ve turned turned this burning bush into a raging bonfire. And at one level this makes sense. Among the Israelites, Moses is the prophet of prophets, the leader of leaders. Merely speak his name and images of strength and power and commandments come to mind. Not to mention Charlton Heston for one generation and Disney’s Prince of Egypt for the next. Moses is a larger than life figure Biblically, cinematically, homiletically.

And yet, when you peel back the layers; when you really look at the text of this call story, which serves as a model for so many subsequent stories of God calling ordinary humans like you and me into service; when you strip away the over-varnished Moses of Sunday School and oil paintings and Cecil B. DeMille, you see the humanity of the one who encountered the burning bush, this flaming shrub, that appeared in the desert.

Because, at this point in his life, Moses hadn’t yet found himself. He had, to say the least, identity issues. When he encountered that burning bush he was literally a lost soul — a man who was born a Hebrew slave, given an Egyptian name, and was living as a shepherd in a foreign land.

You’ve seen the movie, so you remember the story: Moses was born to a Hebrew mother, placed in a basket along the Nile; found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised by the royal family; as a young man, he murdered an Egyptian overseer for mistreating a Hebrew slave and fled into the countryside, where he became a shepherd for a man named Jethro and later married one of his daughters; he was shy, filled with self-doubt, he was working a menial job, his birth relatives didn’t want anything to do with him, his adopted family wanted him arrested, and his life had completely fallen apart. 

And that was the precise moment God chose Moses to lead his enslaved and embattled people out of the grip of a powerful dictator.

You’ve probably heard that phrase, “God meets us where we’re at.” I’ve always hated that phrase. Not because of its theological or pastoral implications — those are important and powerful. I’ve always hated the phrase itself. Because when you grow up with two parents who were English majors, you know you never end a sentence with a preposition! God meets us where we’re at.

But that’s precisely what God does in this encounter with Moses. He doesn’t wait until Moses has it all figured out. He doesn’t wait until Moses has everything together in his life. God meets Moses where he’s at. In all of his messiness; in all of his brokenness; in all of his incompleteness. And that’s exactly where God meets us. On the holy ground of our lives. 

And make no mistake, it is all holy ground. Every step, every misstep, every stumble. It is all holy ground. May you keep your eyes open for the burning bushes in your own life. They’re out there. And know that God is calling you in marvelous and life-giving ways, that are unique to where you’re at, at this particular moment, at this particular time on your continuing journey of life and faith.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

First Sunday in Lent 2019

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

“Resistance is futile.” Don’t worry, I’m not trying some sort of Lenten brainwashing trick. A liturgical mind meld that will turn you all into spiritual drones for the next 40 days and 40 nights. If the Great Litany couldn’t accomplish that, nothing can.

“Resistance is futile.” I’m not really into science fiction — it’s just not my thing. And I’m certainly not a big Trekkie. But even I know, this phrase comes from Star Trek.

“Resistance is futile” is the catch phrase of the Borg. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, and ifC3TZR1g81UNaPs7vzNXHueW5ZM76DSHWEY7onmfLxcK2iPZR2cpmDqGHdB7KjesUx7E14uZ5SFRjZvvi6jSFcyHQubcBgd6TmjPDRuHfszGVxQmSns8uan2 there are any hard core Trekkies here this morning, I have no doubt that they will — because that’s what they do — but as I understand it, the Borg is the recurring antagonist in Star Trek. The Borg is a bit hard to define, but it’s linked together by a hive mind known as the Collective. It forcibly transforms individuals into drones and surgically augments them with technological components, so they end up looking like a half human and half robot.

I assume their end game is to take over the world, or the universe, as the case may be. Because when they come into contact with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, and the rest of the crew, the threat is clear: “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.”

When it comes to temptation, which is a major theme on the first Sunday of Lent, the concept of resistance plays a major role. Resisting temptation. Resisting that which leads us astray. Resisting that which separates us from the love of God.

During his 40 days in the wilderness, which serves as the basis for the season of Lent, Jesus is tempted with bodily cravings, wealth, and power. The devil says, “You’re hungry? Turn this stone into a loaf of bread.” You want glory? Worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world.” “You say you’re the Son of God? Prove it by throwing yourself off this cliff.”

Those are serious temptations. Take the first example. Jesus had been fasting; Luke tells us he was “famished.” He was feeling weak – physically and mentally — as you could imagine after wandering around in the wilderness for so long. Isolated, emaciated, exhausted. And it was at precisely this point that the devil shows up offering Jesus an out. Whether it was an actual satanic creature or just a powerful emotional feeling of temptation doesn’t really matter. Temptation tries to knock us off the path; it tries to distract us from the task at hand. In this case, there was an attempt to compromise Jesus’ time of prayerful preparation before the start of his public ministry. Through this wilderness experience, Jesus was claiming his identity as God’s Son, and resistance of the powerful forces working to undermine his future ministry of healing and his coming message of hope was critical to its success. Never before or since has one man’s resistance mattered so much.

Now at one level, I admit I’ve never been all that impressed with this story. Or this particular form of resistance. I mean, it’s easier to resist temptation if you’re Jesus, right? From a theological perspective, the humanity of Jesus was subjected to temptation but the divinity of Jesus resisted it. Or as Paul wrote in his Letter to the Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

The point is, Jesus knew temptation and experienced its powerful pull, a universal allure of the human condition. The fact that Jesus experienced temptation at all is an indication of his ability to identify and be present with us through our own dealings with temptation. And there is something so comforting in that. To know that whatever struggles we endure in resisting our own demons and temptations, that Jesus is right there with us. That he’s in the trenches alongside us; that come whatever may, he’ll never forsake us or abandon us. Because he’s been there and knows the struggle is real.

Yet raising the notion of our own struggles with resisting temptation in the context of Jesus’ resisting temptation out in the wilderness, can still feel a bit…unfair. Maybe that’s my problem with using this story as a way to talk about our own internal spiritual battles. It always leaves us feeling inadequate. Because the reality is, we can’t compare ourselves to Jesus. We can’t compete with Jesus’ literally superhuman ability to resist temptation. When we do, it sets us up for failure. At best we recognize our own frailty; at worst, we end up dwelling upon the utter depravity of the human condition.

For you and me, resistance is futile. We give in, we give up, we give out. We fall down, we fall in, we fall apart. Resistance is futile.

And, you know what? That’s okay. We may be made in the image of God, but we are not God. We are beloved by God because of our humanity, not despite it. We are beloved by God even when we fail to resist the temptations that surround us. And, friends, this is good news.

But I have even more good news to share this morning. You ready? It’s Lent! Now, Lent is many things, but it is decidedly not the church’s season of guilt. There’s enough of that to go around already — in our families, in our work lives, in our own souls. We don’t need to compound it by piling on for the next five weeks.

Lent is, however, the season of resistance and repentance and return. We often rightly emphasize resistance and repentance – when the resistance doesn’t go so well, we repent. But these must go hand-in-hand with the notion of return. Of returning to God, of returning to church, of returning to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And when we return, we leave refreshed and renewed and revitalized.

And so, while, from a spiritual perspective, the resistance of temptation is futile, returning to God is not. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to resist temptation or that we don’t succeed in various aspects of our lives. And it’s not as if we should just give in to every whim and passion. But we’re human. And so, at times, we do give in to temptation. We sin. We are not Jesus.

Without that sense of repentance and return, resistance remains futile. The Borg wins. Don’t let the Borg win this Lent. Repent and return to the Lord, when resistance fails. That’s the glitch in the Borg’s system. That’s the workaround. Resist, repent, return. That’s the recipe for keeping a holy Lent. Which is after all, what we’re invited into: a holy Lent. Not a perfect Lent. Not a sinless Lent. But a holy Lent. And that is my prayer and hope for every single one of you this season.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019