A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 16, 2022 (Proper 24, Year C)
On the underside of the silver chalice we use for communion at this altar each week, there’s a small screw that holds the cup and the base together. Whenever I stand at the altar and elevate the chalice for the congregation to see and reflect upon our relationship with Jesus through the sacrament of communion, my index finger touches this small piece of hardware. It’s mostly just done out of habit, holding on to something familiar amid the sacred mysteries of the eucharist. But it’s something I’ve done week after week for the past nearly fourteen years.
It’s a beautiful chalice, of course, made with precious metals and set with valuable stones. But the real value is what’s inside the cup, the gift of the communion wine, the invitation to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. For it is the very cup of salvation that we receive; along with the bread, these are the gifts of God for the people of God.
In many ways, the same could be said about the vessel that is St. John’s. It is a beautiful stone building with stunning stained glass windows and gorgeous woodwork. And now with air conditioning! But the true value is what’s inside the church building: which is all of you. People created and beloved by God, who gather week after week to find and be found by God. It is this treasure that I have come to love throughout my time among you. You are the treasure that makes this place so special. And that will never change, despite the comings and goings of clergy.
It’s been said that the clergy are the least permanent element of any congregation. They can have a powerful impact, for sure, and should. But the congregation itself is what endures and abides, even as it evolves and grows and changes. And I take great comfort in this fact, especially during times of transition. St. John’s is full of passionate, faithful, committed Christians who care deeply about God and one another. It is blessed with strong lay leaders who care deeply about the mission of the church. And as I’ve said before, we are called not just to go to church, which is important, but to be the church, within these four walls and beyond them.
But, still, goodbyes are hard. One of the things I will most miss about worshiping at St. John’s is gazing out at all of you on Sunday mornings. For in this glimpse from the pulpit or the altar or at the communion rail, I have come to see the very face of God. Each one of you has been created in God’s image. And collectively you reflect back the divine love that resides in us all individually, but that is magnified in totality. And as I look out on these pews, I see not just the living — not just all of you — but those we have known and loved and lost over the years. They are all here, part of the communion of saints that makes up the fullness of St. John’s. This community of faith is a bold reflection of God’s love because of the ways you care for one another and serve others and proclaim the gospel of love in countless ways big and small.
But please remember that the fullness of this community is predicated upon your presence. And that the community is diminished when you are not here. We worship together not because the priest wants you to, but because God does. Because our common life is at its richest and most vibrant when we gather with one another to love and serve the Lord. And in the days ahead St. John’s will need you more than ever. Participate in worship, send your children to Sunday School and Youth Group, get engaged in ministries that build up the body of Christ that is the church. If I have one request as I leave St. John’s, it’s that you continue that process of regathering in earnest. Well, it’s also to increase your pledge for 2023. But that’s a whole other topic.
There is a natural feeling of uncertainty that accompanies a time of transition. But the reality is that you are the constant. Your presence and involvement and resources will sustain St. John’s in the interim period, which is really an opportunity for the parish to take a step back and decide what it wants to be and where it wants to go. And it will set the parish up for the incredible things I know God has in store for this place.
In the kaleidoscope of images dancing through my head, I see the joy on the faces of children going through the Not-So-Spooky Haunted House; I see the spirited bidding from the stage of the Holiday Boutique auction — I kind of feel like I should be auctioning off Christmas Eve pews right now; I see the children walking in from Sunday School, I see the countless number of folks who have joined me serving at the altar, I see our faithful assisting clergy, I see the only choir that actually grew during the pandemic, I see incredibly faithful Vestry members and Wardens who have been sources of profound counsel, wisdom, and leadership over the years.
But the image that I will most carry with me is the view at communion. I love watching this whole community come up to the communion rail with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Sunday School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers. But everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: Jesus.
We can do so every single week as we reach out our hands to receive the body of Christ. If we truly open our hearts to divine relationship, this becomes a moment of transformation. Precisely how, is the stuff of mystery. But when we reach out our hearts as well as our hands to receive the living Christ, an astounding thing happens. Burdens are lifted, sins are forgiven, grace amazes, joy thrives, and peace abounds. Keep reaching out your hands to receive Jesus. Whatever is going on in your life, keep coming to this rail and reaching out your hands. Keep searching for the divine encounter that gives life hope and meaning.
Please know that I will always love you. That I have been indelibly changed by my time at St. John’s. That I will always carry you in my heart. I may no longer be your priest, but I will always be your friend. This congregation will be just fine because God will continue to richly bless such a faithful community. Of that I have no doubt. And I look forward to hearing about the new chapter that awaits St. John’s. It has been my deepest honor and privilege to serve as your rector. Thank you for entrusting me with the care of your souls on this leg of our spiritual journey. It has been a blessing beyond all measure.