A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 22, 2015 (V Lent, Year B)
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A couple years ago I was asked to preach at All Saints’ Church in Ashmont. If you’ve never been there for a service it is one of the true Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Episcopal Church. During the liturgy, especially on feast days, there is so much incense billowing you can barely see the person in the next pew. I think there were a bunch of people at the service but I’m really not sure since I couldn’t actually see the congregation from the pulpit.
But I could see the pulpit itself very well. And what I remember most is that there was a brass plaque on it — right on the lectern part so it was visible only to the preacher — that bore the King James Version of the words from this morning’s gospel: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” To a guest preacher, it was both inspiring and intimidating. A charge to preach the gospel boldly and passionately and with clarity. Or else.
Of course this statement should be the goal of every sermon — to make Jesus known to the people who have gathered to catch a glimpse of the divine presence in their own lives. But unfortunately we’ve all heard sermons where this doesn’t work out so well. Sermons that are more about the preacher than Jesus; sermons that are more platitude than proclamation.
When I was first ordained I created my own version of the reminder I encountered on the pulpit at All Saints’, Ashmont. by putting a yellow sticky note on the computer where I wrote my sermons. It was phrased less poetically, perhaps. And, although, it was inspired not by St. John the Evangelist but rather James Carville, the idea was the same. It read, “It’s the Gospel, stupid.” Just to keep me focused on the task at hand.
I think if we scratch the surface just a bit, we all have a deep desire and yearning to see Jesus. We can be pretty good at covering up that desire with busyness and activity and binge watching TV shows on Netflix and our addiction to social media and driving kids all over tarnation to get to soccer practice and ballet lessons and tutoring. But that deep yearning to encounter something beyond the visible world is part of what it means to be human.
Maybe a good analogy around here would be the many layers of snow that have piled up with each subsequent storm the last couple of months. Even at the height of it, with the MBTA spiraling out of control and our backs aching from all the shoveling and water dripping down the walls of the kitchen from ice dams and risking our lives every time we gingerly pulled out of the driveway trying to see around that six foot mound of snow — despite all that — we were all reasonably confident that there was grass under all that snow. Somewhere.
The season of Lent is a time to let some of those layers melt away. Yes, for us, this is a season of both metaphorical and literal melting but I’m really talking about the metaphorical melting this morning. For the most part. Because at its heart, Lent is a time to get in touch with your desire to see Jesus and to be intentional about seeking him out — through prayer, worship, and introspection.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It is all part of our responsibility as Christians to both know Jesus and make him known; to see him ourselves and to help others to see him as well. In Lent we tend to focus on knowing Jesus, on renewing and nurturing our own relationships with him. But that second part, of making Jesus known, is equally important and it takes action. Think about the events at the start of the interaction in this morning’s gospel. These “Greeks” came to Philip and told them they wanted to see Jesus. Philip doesn’t serve as a gatekeeper. He doesn’t judge their motives or question their standing in the community. He acts. He grabs Andrew and together they go tell Jesus.
And when it comes to making Jesus known to others — whether they’re aware of and in touch with that deep desire to know Jesus that is so often buried beneath the surface, or not — we also must act. That’s the thing about the church. Not just St. John’s, but the Church in general — we collectively gather to know Jesus and we are collectively sent out to make Jesus known. We keep one foot firmly planted within our four walls — to worship together and care for one another and deepen our faith. And one foot outside our four walls, to share Jesus with those who seek him or those who do not yet know him.
And let’s face it, we’re a whole lot better at keeping that one foot inside the church than dealing with that other foot. For many of us, our natural inclination is to keep both feet firmly planted right here on this hill. Perhaps we’re willing to tentatively stick a toe out into the community. Like we’re testing the water at Nantasket Beach for the first time after a long, cold winter. The tendency is to flee back to the safety of the sand rather than dive right in. But we can’t just stick our head in the sand and hope that people will find their way here. If we truly believe that to know Jesus is to be transformed, we can’t help but invite others to join us on our collective journey of life and faith. Even if that puts us slightly, or even a whole lot, out of our comfort zones.
Yet if this church, both locally and globally, is to survive and thrive we must get out there into the world. It is a gospel imperative, as I like to say, to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted rather than hoard it. But this means taking risks and trying new things. You know, I don’t write that monthly column for the Hingham Journal because I like to see that lousy picture of me in the paper. I started writing it the month after we moved here 5 1/2 years ago because I felt it was important to reach beyond our walls and give people a glimpse of what goes on inside “that stone church on the hill.” Yes, it’s now syndicated and runs in tiny newspapers all over the country — I’m huge in rural Iowa. But that’s precisely the point. Trying new things to get God into the public conversation and inviting others to come and see, is all part of living into our responsibility to make Jesus known to the world.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yes. Yes, they do. We all do. And it is our great privilege and responsibility to both know Jesus ourselves and to make him known to others.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck