A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 30, 2011 (St. John the Evangelist)
“Do you have anything to declare?” After a long international flight the last thing anyone wants to do before finally getting home is to encounter a long line at U.S. Customs. Bleary-eyed, you root around the bottom of your carry-on bag until you find your tattered passport. You hand it to the grumpy Customs Agent who doesn’t even have to pretend to be nice because he doesn’t work for any airline and has already qualified for a government pension. Then you fill out some forms that are about as easy to decipher as the Broward County butterfly ballot and prepare to answer the inevitable question: “Do you have anything to declare?”
At that point, resisting the temptation to declare that you are thoroughly annoyed, you must confess to having that bag of mangos or the carton of Turkish cigarettes or the two bottles of Italian merlot. All of which is a far cry from the mother of all declarations: the Declaration of Independence. But a lot better than having to declare for bankruptcy.
The first letter of John offers several declarations. And as you listen to them it’s helpful to remember what a declaration really is. It’s not a casual or off-handed remark. To declare something is to make it formally known. It transcends mere announcements like the ones you hear over the airport loud speaker telling Bob Smith to meet his party at Baggage Claim D. Rather, a declaration is a statement of identity.
In this light, listen again to John’s words: “We declare to you,” he writes, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
John’s declaration is teeming with passion and holds within it a burning desire to share this faith that has been both revealed and experienced. The faith that is declared is not something abstract but one that engages all the senses – it is heard and seen and touched. And if, as tradition has held, St. John wrote this letter as an old man, he did indeed speak from experience – the experience of having known Jesus both in bodily and resurrected form. Yet his passion to share the Good News of Jesus Christ has not faded one iota in the intervening years. If anything it has grown bolder and stronger with age.
As we celebrate our patronal feast this morning – the day set aside to honor our patron St. John the Evangelist – it is worth reflecting upon just how much we as a parish community also have to declare. When you dig a little bit, John’s declarations echo our own declarations. Because our public witness to the gospel of Christ in this small piece of God’s kingdom is a declaration. We thrust our cross deep into the soil and declare to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see what we have heard and what we have seen and what we have touched concerning the Word of Life that is Jesus Christ.
We do this in a variety of ways. Through our Sunday morning worship, through our website, through conversations formal and informal, through committee work and outreach to the wider community, through the sharing of our lives with one another – in joy and sorrow, grief and laughter, spiritual hunger and spiritual nourishment. All of which combines into a lived declaration of faith. Not a faith with easy answers or pat responses to life’s difficult questions but a living, breathing, life-giving declaration that Jesus came into the world so that we might have life and have it more abundantly in him who is the savior and redeemer of the world.
At this morning’s Annual Meeting we will spend some time reflecting upon the year that is past even as we set our sights toward the future. Over the past 12 months there have been many tangible signs of our continued declaration of faith here on the corner or Main and Water Street. Both attendance and financial support for St. John’s rose over 20% in the last year. And at a time when so many churches are struggling with numbers in both categories, this is a testament to the effectiveness of the particular ways in which we declare our faith. Something in our collective approach to sharing the gospel is resonating with the wider community.
But numbers only tell a piece of the story. There is a warmth and vitality that exists within these walls – you can’t help but feel it on a Sunday morning. This is a place where all are welcomed irrespective of religious background or situation in life. Let’s face it; from the outside looking in St. John’s doesn’t seem like the friendliest place. Our façade is intimidating – from the street it looks a bit like a well-fortified castle. Inside, people are pretty dressed up and the clergy and choir and acolytes parade around in fancy vestments. But we do all this to give glory not to ourselves but to God; to draw people into the majesty and mystery that is at the heart of the incarnate God.
And this all gets back to the unique ways in which we declare of our faith. And not just from the pulpit or the altar but from the pews as well. Which is an important distinction because I can declare from up here until I’m blue in the face but unless we all declare our faith out in the community by inviting people to come and see what is taking place up here on the hill, by not being afraid to live out our faith in the world – even when it’s uncomfortable – we won’t have much to declare.
So while we have much to be proud of as a vibrant community of faith here on the South Shore, there is still much work to be done – I’ll highlight some goals for the coming year during my report later this morning. We have more to do not because bigger is necessarily better or more programs automatically translate into a deeper relationship with God. But because we are continually called to make bold and holy declarations of the Christian faith. And as we do this with spiritual authenticity, I am confident that the blessings will be more than we could possibly ask for or imagine.
In this context, when the question is posed, “Do you have anything to declare?” We can all respond with a resounding “yes” and a hearty “amen.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011