A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 30, 2022 (Rector’s Annual Address)
We haven’t been singing many communion hymns during this pandemic, but one I love begins, “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face.” There’s an intimacy conveyed in it, along with a recognition that all we really need to make it through this life is Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure how Moses would experience this hymn, however. Because he was never allowed to see God face-to-face. With our Exodus reading we find ourselves with Moses up on Mount Sinai, the site where the 10 Commandments were given. Now, at this point, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge between God and Moses. God called Moses to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt; and Moses led them through the Red Sea, beyond Pharaoh’s reach; Moses and the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years; the people had mistreated and mistrusted Moses; they had built the golden calf.
And here they were, getting ever closer to the Promised Land, when Moses boldly asks to see God’s face. He’s basically saying, ‘I know your name and you’ve been with me all these years, but isn’t it about time you fully revealed yourself to me? I want to see your face.”
And God says, ‘I will always be with you, but you cannot see my face.’ There is just too wide a chasm between humanity and God. ‘But I’ll tell you what,’ God says. ‘I’ll hide you behind a rock and cover you while I pass by. You can see my back, a part of me, but not my face. Not the fullness of my glory.’
It’s a curious story, one that reminds us that while God is always present with us, God can never fully be known to us. At least not in this world. The Jesuit writer James Martin shares a story in his book Learning to Pray that offers some helpful insight into this passage. He tells of an abbot in the Middle Ages who was asked by one of his monks if he had ever encountered God. In other words, he was asking the abbot if he had ever had a vision or seen God face-to-face. “After a long silence the abbot answered frankly: no, he hadn’t. But, said the abbot, there wasn’t anything surprising in this because even to Moses in the Book of Exodus God said, ‘You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ God says that Moses will see his back as he passed by him. Thus, looking back over the length and breadth of his life, the abbot could see for himself the passage of God.”
And I find this insight so helpful. We don’t always see God right in front of us. But so often we see God in retrospect. We can look back on events or seasons of our lives and see God’s hand so clearly.
Which is helpful as we look back upon another year of pandemic life and ministry at St. John’s. We began the year still in the midst of our 62-straight weeks of worshiping exclusively online. Holy Week and Easter services were all online. Though at least this time around we were able to offer outdoor communion on Easter Day. On Pentecost, we held our first in-person service with limited capacity and online reservations. After getting our bearings and watching the Covid numbers plummet, we even had nearly two months without masks, before the Delta variant arrived. And we finished the year with the Omicron surge, and a variety of Christmas services offered inside, outside, and online. And throughout this time, we made the decision to continue live-streaming our 10 am service as we fully embraced hybrid worship — one congregation with two audiences.
We may not have always been able to see God clearly in the midst of the frustration and anxiety and stress of this second year of pandemic ministry, but God has been with us through it all. Which, like Moses, we often only recognize after the fact; after looking back at the blessings that have emerged despite the hardships; after seeing how this community has not just survived the past 12 months, but has faithfully followed Jesus in the midst of all the uncertainty and fear.
This has felt like a transition year in many ways. We did take that monumental step of moving from online worship to once again gathering in person. But it has also been a year of reimagining what it means to be a community of faith. We’re still a bit awkward as we find our footing in a world that is neither fully online nor fully in person. Please know that whether you worship in person or online on Sunday morning, you are a full member of this community. The virtual pews are just as important as the wooden ones. This sense of worshiping with some we cannot see takes some getting used to. But at one level, with the communion of saints that surrounds us, the church has been worshiping with those it cannot physically see for thousands of years.
And while we’re not “back to normal,” this year was one of return in modified form. There has been great joy in once again seeing and hearing the choir and choristers, albeit in masks; the revised Holiday Boutique was a triumph of flexibility; our Stream Team and Digital Ushers have forged new ministries of keeping people connected; our Anti-Racism Ministry continues to raise awareness and help us confront our own complicity in unjust systems; Free., our ministry that addresses period poverty by providing free menstruation supplies to those in need, has both taken root and taken off; we implemented Godly Play as our new Sunday School curriculum and have already witnessed the engagement and enthusiasm of our children (and just as an aside, introducing a new curriculum in the midst of a pandemic was a bold move — but I’m so grateful to Jack, our Sunday School Leadership Team, and our teachers for making this happen); Youth Ministry and Confirmation Class have seen some of the largest numbers we’ve ever had; we have continued to reach out our hands in love to those in need — from food drives to Laundry Love to B-SAFE.
The Vestry also made the decision to invest in our first ever full-time Sunday School Director. This is a major step forward for this community and Bird Treacy will help us live into our goal of passing on the faith to the next generation in creative, fun, and life-giving ways.
We did start the year by boarding up the Great West Window. Many of the Cornerstone Campaign projects were begun in 2021 — the widening of the driveway; masonry work; the heating system upgrades, adding air conditioning, which may not seem like a big deal today but talk to me in July. But the window restoration was the most visible of our capital campaign projects. They were gone for eight months and I’m actually glad we were able to regather while the windows were still boarded up. It made the windows’ return that much more meaningful, a powerful and bright symbol of the importance of our sacred space from which we were exiled for so long.
On behalf of the entire community, thank you to everyone who has helped make these projects possible. We’re not done though! We have some roofing work to do and we’ll be refreshing our beloved worship space with a paint job and better lighting and some work on the floors. But I still look at this campaign that started for a building we could not yet be in, as a campaign of hope for this community. I’m proud we were able to successfully pull this off and incredibly grateful to our campaign co-chairs Jane Carr and Barbie Dwyer.
In the midst of the ways in which God has blessed this community over the past year, it’s still important to acknowledge the disappointments and grieve that which we have missed. It was rather demoralizing to have yet another online Easter; we couldn’t hold our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House for the second year in a row; SummerFest feels like a distant memory; we miss our blow-out coffee hours and festive parish picnics; not seeing all the children come into the service after Sunday School still stings; and I know I miss the days of walking into a packed church and actually seeing all of your faces, rather than just your eyes. In the grand Covid scheme these are relatively minor when compared to the ways we have continued to love one another, grow in God, and serve the wider community during this time. But it is painful nonetheless.
A word about a major staff transition. Dorothy, our beloved sexton for the past 25 years has finally and officially retired. She was planning to retire just as the pandemic hit but, Dorothy being Dorothy, she hung on in a limited capacity to get us through that time. Always giving of herself to others, always with good cheer and a smile, always with a heart for service, Dorothy has long been part of the fabric of St. John’s. Most of us, myself included, haven’t even been able to envision a St. John’s without Dorothy. But the time for her to bid farewell to this place she served so faithfully for so long has arrived.
Of course, Dorothy being Dorothy, she was adamant that we not do anything to publicly celebrate her ministry among us. But she has been so moved by the cards and the collection we took up as a goodbye gift. And of course, with her daughter Myriah taking up the Sexton’s mantle, we’ll still be able to ask Dorothy where to find the Advent wreath. Or that giant wooden cross we bring out for Good Friday. And we can give thanks to God for sending Dorothy to serve among us this past quarter century.
I remain so grateful to the lay leadership of St. John’s, from committee chairs to Vestry leaders to those who serve in various ministries in ways both seen and unseen. Regathering has meant a pretty serious volunteer deficit — for a variety of reasons. And if you are interested in getting involved in a particular ministry, please do reach out!
I mention a number of thank you’s in the written version of my report, but I did want to publicly thank our Wardens, Deb Hayes and Tom Pyles for their ministry. Their passion for St. John’s is a big reason why we continue to thrive as a community of faith. No one signs up to be a Warden during a pandemic. Yet they have handled this time with deep commitment and profound grace, always acting in the best interests of this community.
After two years as Junior Warden and two years as Senior Warden, Deb Hayes will be leaving the Vestry. Few have approached parish leadership with Deb’s level of passion and care and I know you join me in gratitude for helping us navigate this unprecedented time in the life of this parish. If I know anything about Deb, it’s that she’ll bring her energy and compassion to a whole host of new ministries in the days ahead. St. John’s is better for Deb’s presence in our common life. And I will personally always value her leadership and friendship.
In the end, please know that your faith in God and your love for this community continue to inspire me every single day. Be Faithful, Be Flexible isn’t just a motto, it’s a mantra. One that has seen us through some difficult times, and one that is ultimately rooted in hope. Rest assured that here at St. John’s we will keep looking ahead and moving forward.
My friends in Christ, whatever the future holds, we are sustained by the love of God in Jesus Christ. That is the bedrock upon which we live and move and have our being. Our love for one another, sometimes tested amid trying circumstances, is what binds us together as a parish community. It remains a privilege to serve with and among you as your rector. May God bless us all in the year ahead. And through our ministry, may we continually seek to come face-to-face with Jesus Christ.