About Father Tim

Tim Schenck is an Episcopal priest, author, syndicated columnist, blogger, Lent Madness creator, and the rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. He lives in the St. John's Rectory with his wife Bryna, two sons Benedict and Zachary, and their dog Delilah. When not tending to his congregation or spending time with his family, Father Tim can usually be found drinking coffee.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 24, 2017 (Proper 20A)

One of the insidious foundations of Apartheid in South Africa was the system of racial classification. There were three official races and the government took great care in classifying people as white, black, or colored. The first two are pretty self-explanatory but “colored” was a catch-all grouping which included people of mixed race. Under Apartheid, race was everything — it determined where you could live, who you could marry, the types of jobs you could hold. The system wasn’t built on principles of common humanity but on difference and division.

There were actually government bureaucrats whose entire job was to determine people’s609apartheid_sign2 races in order to make sure they were put into the “correct” racial bucket. They primarily looked at things like skin color and facial features but the most infamous racial assessment was known as the pencil test. The group of us that went on the parish trip to South Africa in February learned about this while touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. And I still haven’t been able to shake the blatant disregard for humanity.

This humiliating test decreed that if a person could hold a pencil in their hair while shaking their head, they could not be classified as white. Literally, people had to stand in front of a panel of white government officials and shake their heads with a pencil stuck in their hair. Of course these tests were so imprecise and absurd that members of the same extended family were sometimes placed in different racial groups.

But beyond the inherent shame and degradation of this system, the architects of Apartheid used these racial classifications to pit the races against one another. The whole premise was to create inequalities among the races to keep them fighting with one another rather than uniting against the minority whites, who held all the power and enforced the system with utter brutality.

I have been reflecting upon this, not just because of the current state of race relations in America, but also in light of this morning’s gospel passage. Here it’s not about race, as far as we know, but about power and privilege. The owner of the vineyard had all the power and wealth and status while the laborers were left to fight over the inadequate resources left over by the elites.

At least that’s one way of looking at this parable. The traditional interpretation is that God is the owner of the vineyard, the laborers who came early were the Jews and the ones who came later were the Gentiles. Inherent in this message is that it doesn’t matter at what point you come to Jesus; as long as you eventually do, you will be rewarded. I’ve preached on this text out of this framework, highlighting the amazing grace of God’s love. And that’s a safe enough interpretation; no one’s going to argue with a preacher highlighting the limitless capacity of God’s grace.

But, as with all the parables, there are different meanings and levels of interpretation and messages. And I’ve been thinking about the owner of the vineyard from another perspective; viewing his actions through the lens of how it impacted the laborers in the story.

At one level, the owner of the vineyard is being generous — paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they worked out in the field, when the norm would have been to pay them proportionally based on how much work they had put in. That’s the fair way to do it. But it’s his money; he can do whatever he wants with it. Isn’t that one of the joys of being wealthy? You can do whatever you want with your money. If you want to build Neverland Ranch on your property complete with your own petting zoo and ferris wheel, who’s to stop you?

But at another level, by paying the laborers the same amount regardless of the hours they worked, the owner is sowing discord among them. His actions are dividing them and pitting them against one another and causing jealousy and anger. Can you imagine the walk back into town at the end of the day? The words that must have been exchanged? The violence that may have ensued?

Again, race may not have played any part in this but I think there are some parallels between what the government in South Africa tried to accomplish by sowing distrust among the races and what the owner tried to do in pitting the laborers against one another. In focusing on their own financial inequalities, they were being distracted from the broader inequality of the system.

And that’s one of the privileges of power. At the end of the day, the owner can just go back to his large, comfortable estate, put his feet up, light a cigar, and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. Why should he give any of this a second thought? Why should we? Seeing this from our own place of privilege, these laborers all got paid for an honest day’s work. Some received more than they should have. The story should be about the johnny-come-latelies being exceedingly grateful for receiving more than their usual share and for even having the opportunity to work.

But Jesus is always flipping things around and upending our pre-conceived notions and so I want you to see things from a different perspective, perhaps through a filter that is not your regular lens. To be challenged and changed and transformed.

Which is why I want you to think hard about the workers in this story. These day laborers, regardless of how long they worked out in the master’s fields, were only earning enough to get through another day. They still had to return to their humble homes — if they even had homes — and try to feed their families. They were all-too-familiar with food scarcity and the anxiety of simply trying to survive. These workers comprised the invisible under-belly of the ancient economy in a way that mirrors our own modern society.

And so we must ask ourselves, in what ways do our own actions and choices mirror the owner of the vineyard? We may well take satisfaction in our efforts to help those in need — we may even post about it on Facebook — but is it to make ourselves feel better about our own wealth and privilege or is it to make a difference in the lives of others. Are we simply perpetuating a system that benefits us at the expense of the poor? Do the people who make the things we buy or grow the food we eat have any share in the hope we proclaim on Sunday morning? We pray that the hope of the poor shall not be taken away but are we contributing to doing just that?

These are hard questions. Questions many of us would rather avoid than answer honestly, for fear of what we might discover. But Jesus keeps bringing these questions up again and again and holding a mirror up to our actions. It’s what he does. But he doesn’t condemn us when we fall short, as we inevitably do, but rather he keeps speaking the words and trusting that we will listen and change and grow ever closer to the very heart of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Advertisements

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 10, 2017 (Proper 18A)

Ah, Homecoming Sunday. From my perspective up here in the pulpit, it looks like the Rapture…in reverse. Instead of souls being plucked up into heaven, they seem to have been deposited right back here in our pews.

But whether you’re back from summer vacation, rededicating yourself to your spiritual life, here for the first time, or if you’ve never left, I am delighted you are here this morning. It’s great to get things cranked up again with Sunday School, the choir, and all sorts of opportunities to deepen our relationships with God and one another. So, welcome; or welcome back. I’m glad you’re here.

Open any Psychology 101 textbook — as many college Freshmen are doing right now 51SKKEpdW2L._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_(well, maybe not exactly now since it’s Sunday morning, but hopefully later today) — and you’ll read about the concept of conflict avoidance. As the name implies, it’s a method of reacting to conflict which attempts to avoid directly confronting the issue at hand. It’s something we all do at times when certain situations arise. Like when your mother puts unreasonable demands on your time during the holidays or your spouse cancels the newspaper without consulting you or a co-worker is slacking off and not pulling his or her weight. We change the subject, we put off the hard conversation, we ignore the matter and hope it just goes away.

The trouble with conflict avoidance — in marriages, in the workplace, in families, in church — is that the problems we ignore generally don’t go away; they fester. And when they fester, the void in the relationship can fill with feelings of resentment and anger and betrayal. We definitely can’t live out our best lives filled with such negative emotions. They tear us down in ways that transcend whatever problem we’re dealing with.

Now, maybe this comes as a surprise, but Jesus was not a conflict avoider. At all. There’s a misperception that Jesus always turned the other cheek or that he was meek and mild; a spiritual doormat. But of course conflict avoiders don’t get themselves crucified.

Look at what he tells the disciples in this morning’s passage from the gospel of Matthew: “If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In other words, deal with it. Confront it. Name it. He did this with Pharisees who put on spiritual airs, with demons he cast out, with disciples who thought they were better than others, and with temporal authorities who questioned his motives.

Jesus didn’t address tough questions about healing on the sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners by talking about the weather. He didn’t shy away from telling his disciples exactly what the life of faith would entail — that it wouldn’t be easy; that they, too, would need to pick up their crosses in order to fully and authentically follow him.

Jesus didn’t seek out conflict but neither did he avoid it. He spoke the truth, he stood up for the vulnerable, he worked for justice — all of which brought him into direct conflict with the powers that be. And, let’s face it, it would have been much easier, much safer if Jesus had just kept his mouth shut and his head down; if he had danced around the tough topics and controversial subjects. He probably would have lived a lot longer. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid conflict, but to overcome it. And to overcome conflict, you must confront it. That’s not easy — for any of us — which is why conflict avoidance ends up in textbooks.

Now, when we hear this passage and listen to the very practical prescription for dealing with difficult situations, we usually identify with the person who has been wronged. We can all relate to a situation — either at work or with a family member — where we have felt minimized or demeaned or taken advantage of. In our minds we boldly confront the person to remedy the situation and maintain our own self-respect. We imagine ourselves getting up the courage and resolve to deal with the current situation that’s on our mind. And that’s good. I want you to think about how to address whatever it is that’s festering for you and tearing down your dignity.

But I also want you to flip this whole scenario around and identify, if just for a moment, with the other person. The person who has committed the wrong. The one who is being called out for their actions. Because we all hurt others, intentionally or not. There are others who see your actions as harmful to their dignity. And we see that the process of confronting someone is not done in isolation. Pointing out the fault in another person is a conversation, not a monologue.

So we need to be open to the criticism of others even if our first response may be defensiveness and anger. Constructive criticism helps us grow as individuals and as Christians. Because we can’t possibly see ourselves objectively, we need others who care deeply about our self-worth and who love us to point out our growing edges. Four times in these few sentences, Jesus uses the word “listen.” Being open to the loving, constructive feedback of others is so important in this life — for me, for you, for everyone in this community.

And when we do our best to grow on both sides of the equation, we’re better equipped to follow Jesus’ example of never standing idly by in a world where injustice can feel all pervasive. Which is hard. It flips people’s perceptions not just about Jesus himself but of Christians in general. There’s a deep-rooted fallacy that real Christians never get upset with others. That to be a “good” Christian is to smile a lot and be “nice” to everybody. The problem is this reduces a powerful faith to mere pleasantries; it diminishes a bold gospel of love to insignificant niceties.

Now, I’m not advocating being mean to one another — that wouldn’t exactly set the right tone for the church year. And kindness is a Christian virtue. But, as this passage demonstrates and as Jesus models, we must be honest and truthful with one another, even if that occasionally leads to some discomfort. Paul writes to the Romans that we “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Having direct conversations, leaning into difficult situations rather than avoiding them, is an act of love. And that’s the broader context here. Love is not always easy; but it is the path of Jesus.

Before I stop talking and sit down and let the service continue I did want to address one more topic. I am aware that many of you have been tracking the path of Hurricane Irma these past few days. Waking up to images of destruction in Florida this morning — despite a beautiful day here in Hingham — has felt incongruous. There is no way to avoid conflict in the form of a hurricane if you’re in its path and I know you join me in praying for the many lives that have been and continue to be affected by the spate of natural disasters that have hit our world in recent weeks: hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires. It all feels rather apocalyptic.

But I do want to be clear about one thing: none of this is God’s retribution for anything we have done or failed to do. God doesn’t toy with humanity that way. God is present in the midst of any storm — whether emotional or physical. God weeps with those who weep and lovingly wipes away every tear from our eyes. Sometimes we see the best of humanity in the most difficult circumstances. The light of Christ shines most brightly in life’s darkest moments. Hope bursts forth at times when it feels utterly lost. So we pray, we ask for mercy, and we give thanks for the very gift of life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 24, 2017 (Proper 16A)

So, did you see the eclipse? Did you catch Eclipse Fever or experience Eclipse Mania? Maybe you drove out to Carbondale, Illinois, to get the full effect. Or down to Nashville.

Now, I didn’t really get caught up in the hype. I didn’t pick up a pair of the special glasses eclipseor stare at it through a cereal box. The eclipse happened on my last day of vacation and so at the appointed time I went out into the backyard and waited. And kept waiting. At one point it seemed to get a little overcast. But that’s all I noticed.

For me the whole thing was rather…underwhelming. Like opening-Al Capone’s-vault underwhelming. I know plenty of people who had a different experience, especially my friends who geek out on astronomy and drove miles to catch the eclipse in all its “totality.” And some of you may have had a life-changing eclipse experience for all I know.

But the thing I really appreciated about the whole event was how it united people all over the country. In increasingly divided times, there was something comforting about the unity inherent in seeing everyone looking up and focusing on something bigger than themselves. For two brief minutes, the divisions among us ceased and people everywhere were suddenly all facing the same way, looking up. Sure, it took a rare, cosmic, celestial event to get people thinking beyond themselves but it was a start. It offered a moment of hope amidst the partial darkness.

Another rare, cosmic, celestial event took place a couple thousand years ago when God took on human form. I’m not really talking about the Star of Bethlehem but the Incarnation itself; of God entering our world as Jesus Christ. And just as you might have been slightly envious of those lucky enough to live in that 70-mile wide eclipse-viewing path, it’s hard not to envy those first disciples a little bit. They stood right in the path of this Jesus and experienced first-hand and in real time the Savior of the world. Yes, there was a price to pay — and they all paid it — but for a few fleeting years they stood staring at the Son of God, absorbing his teachings, basking in the warm glow of the Word made flesh.

But it’s not just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. They had to grapple with the question that continues to be asked of each one of us. A question of identity and faith and discipleship. The question Jesus pointedly asks Peter in this morning’s gospel passage: “But who do you say that I am?”

This question gets to the very heart of it all. And we can’t just sit back at a safe distance with our noses in our bulletins and read the question. We have to answer it! Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you say that Jesus is a nice guy famous for a bunch of memorable sayings? Do you say that Jesus is great, as long as he works around your own busy schedule? Do you say that Jesus is the Light of World, but only on your terms or when it’s convenient?

Or do you say, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of the living God, upon whom your entire life revolves? This confession of Peter is bold and dramatic and clear. “Jesus,” Peter seems to answer, “You. Are. The. Man.” And he means it. With all his heart he means it.

And yet Peter doesn’t always act as if he does. Totality of relationship with Jesus is the goal, but partiality is the reality. Even for Peter, “the rock” upon whom Jesus built his church, total relationship is elusive. Peter stumbles and falls and denies. And so do we. Over and over again. We strive to “not be conformed to this world” as Paul writes to the church in Rome. But it doesn’t always go very smoothly. Why? Because, in a word, we are human. That’s not an excuse; it’s a reality.

But the good news in this, the mercy in this, is that this isn’t a one-and-done question. “Who do you say that I am” is a constant refrain in the life of every Christian. It is a question that we must encounter and wrestle with and answer every single day of our lives. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Well, one way we answer this question is by coming here. And this is where the recent eclipse becomes a helpful model. Think about it. This is one of the few places where we get people with diverse opinions in the same room, facing the same way. We don’t need to wait 100 years for the stars to align — or the sun and moon in this case. We don’t even need goofy looking glasses. We can simply show up and together face this altar. Together we can answer that seminal question of faith identity that undergirds our gatherings: “But who do you say that I am?”

The catch is we can’t do this by ourselves or alone or in isolation. Individually we stumble; together we lift each other up. Individually we don’t have all those gifts Paul talks about — of prophecy and teaching and exhortation and generosity and compassion — but together we do. Individually we worship in partiality; together we worship in totality.

You know, for all my mildly curmudgeonly attitude towards the eclipse, I did hear stories of great joy surrounding the rare event. Communities gathered in anticipation and expectation and wonder to witness the event not in isolation but together. This is precisely what we do when we gather as a community. We set aside our differences and focus on something larger than ourselves. And by doing so, we gain perspective on what really matters in this life. We incorporate Jesus’ values of love and compassion and generosity into our very souls. We take on his message of self-sacrifice and repentance and mercy into our hearts.

Here on the South Shore we may have only experienced a partial eclipse. But that’s okay. It’ll be better for us in 2024. In the meantime we can keep striving to move beyond partial relationship with Jesus Christ. Moving ever closer to totality.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 23, 2017 (Proper 11A)

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves calling upon angels. I remember one such time in my own life quite vividly. I was a newly ordained priest in Baltimore just getting used to wearing a collar in public when I stopped by my mother’s house on the way home from church one afternoon. 

She lived — and still lives — in Bolton Hill, a dense city neighborhood of tall, victorian-era townhouses. I can’t remember why I stopped by; maybe she had a gift for Ben who was then one and-a-half or perhaps I was feeling guilty about not having visited lately.

But she had recently adopted a small, energetic, fluffy, white dog. Along with the dog, she inherited the dog’s name — something she definitely would not have chosen. Now I admit I’m not a big fan of small, energetic, fluffy, white dogs. But I’d forgotten all about her recent acquisition and so when I opened the door, the small, energetic, fluffy, white dog ran out. And suddenly there I was on a busy city street, wearing my clerical garb and yelling, “Angel! Angel!”

After a few strange looks, I realized just how bizarre this must have looked. A priest quite literally calling upon angels. So I quickly and unceremoniously scooped the thing up and brought it back to my mother.

I thought about this story this week because we tend to have an uncertain relationship cherubswith angels. We’re not quite sure what to do with them. Are they real? Are they kind of like friendly ghosts? Why are they so often depicted as chubby cherubs with wings and golden harps flying around the clouds?

In the popular imagination they’re meant to provide comfort, I guess. People like the idea of guardian angels providing protection through the valleys of life. There’s something about being “touched by an angel” that evokes a warm, fluffy embrace, like spiritual cotton candy. And there’s a whole cottage industry of bad angelic art coupled with saccharine sweet sayings fueled by religious superstition.

But where does this notion come from? How did this whole angel-industrial complex arise? 

Well, it doesn’t come from the Bible. In Scripture, angels are many things but sweet, gentle, harmless creatures is not one of them. Angels are bold and daring; they bring messages of glad tidings and comfort but also messages that turn life as we know it upside down. They are warriors and comforters and deliverers of both good news and bad. So I want you to set aside your preconceived angel notions as we take a closer look at these divine creatures.

The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” And angels are, above all, just that — messengers of God. And they are all over Scripture doing all sorts of things and delivering all sorts of messages — none of which involve strumming harps. In the Old Testament we hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River; we hear about angels in the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Daniel encouraging Daniel during times of struggle.

And in the Christian tradition, think about the Annunciation — it is the angel Gabriel who brings word to Mary that she would bear God’s son; and it is Michael who fights and destroys the forces of evil in the Book of Revelation. Angels tend to Jesus after his trial and temptation in the wilderness; an angel comforts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his crucifixion; an angel announces the Resurrection at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

These are not Hallmark moments! And so it’s less of a surprise when we encounter angels in this morning’s parable not doing stereotypical angel things. They are not flying around with golden halos and gently serenading everyone with harp music. In this story about the wheat and the weeds being sown together, the angels are the reapers. The ones who separate the good from the bad. The ones who bind up the good wheat and store it in the barn and the ones who bundle the weeds and toss them into the fire. 

This is a parable about judgement — merciful judgment — a reminder that there is both good and evil in the world. But here’s the thing we often forget and why I want to stress that this sorting is the work of angels: we are not the reapers. It is above our pay grade to decide who is good and who is evil; who is wheat and who is weed. For all the judging we do of one another — the snap judgments, the gossip, the ways we evaluate and assess one another — that’s not our job. We can leave all that to God’s angels, these divine messengers and servants of God. And there’s great freedom in that, isn’t there? We can simply seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We can worry about ourselves and serve others while forgetting all about the judging part. 

This is precisely where I think so many Christian communities go astray — they spend all their time and energy worrying about who’s in and who’s out. We love being the sorters — putting people into categories like “saints” and “sinners,” “us” and “them,” “believers” and “non-believers.” But it’s more complicated than that — the wheat and the weeds grow together. Sometimes you can’t even tell the two apart. In fact most Biblical scholars believe Jesus was talking about a particular type of weed in this parable. Bearded darnel was a weed grass that looked just like wheat. Until it matured, it was impossible to tell wheat from weed. So you couldn’t go in and do the weeding before the harvest because you couldn’t tell whether you were yanking out the bad stuff or the good stuff. Yet another reminder that we shouldn’t even try. Our job in this life is to simply invite everyone and leave the rest up to God and to the angels God entrusts for the task at hand.

So where did this notion of chubby cherubs arise? In the ancient classical art of Greek and Roman mythology, flying babies represented nature spirits of some sort. Renaissance artists like Donatello and Raphael coopted these images into Christian iconography as a way to depict the transcendent balance between heaven and earth and the image stuck. For better or worse.

So the next time you watch a Christmas pageant and you see all of the adorable and proud angels strutting around in their tinsel halos trying not to get their wings entangled, enjoy the view. Then think about the angels of Scripture. And know that we are indeed in good hands.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 16, 2017 (Proper 10A)

One of the few things I remember from middle school biology — besides dissecting that fetal pig (which was both disgusting and the precise moment I realized I would never become a doctor) — is the concept of photosynthesis. In order to grow something you need seed, sun, and water. Whether you’re trying to grow a flower or a tree or a tomato plant you need all three for horticultural success.
 
This isn’t to suggest I’ve been particularly effective at this over the years. For someone who spends a lot of time reading agricultural parables — about reaping and sowing and mustard seeds and vineyards — I’m a lousy gardener.
 
But we’ve actively participated in the process of photosynthesis here at St. John’s the last couple of months as we’ve been growing some grass out front. A number of you have volunteered to help water and it has actually worked. What once was dirt, now is grass. And we are reminded again of the miracle of creation and the beauty of the natural world and the rising cost of Aquarion’s water.
 
This morning we hear the Parable of the Sower. And one of the great things about this story is that it’s one of the few parables Jesus tells and then immediately interprets for the disciples. So he’s basically already done the work of the preacher — in no uncertain terms he’s explained what it all means. Jesus has spelled out the metaphorical meaning behind seeing receptivity to God’s word as the seed sown on the path and the rocky soil and among the thorns and on the good soil. I should probably just sit down and let him have the last word.
 
But that’s not my way. And, as always, there are nuances here that begin to emerge beneath the surface of the text. Because, of course, life isn’t so neat and ordered. Our spiritual lives don’t categorically fit into one of four quadrants. You can’t go up to a crowd of people, share this story, and say, “Okay, everyone who considers themselves rocky soil stand over here. And if you identify as thorny soil, go into that corner. Sown on a path? Go there. And those who see themselves as good soil, stay right here.” And while we all like to think of ourselves as the good soil, it’s always more complicated than that.
 
The reality is that our lives are made up of a patchwork of different soils. We bear more or less fruit at different times. Some days we’re particularly receptive to hearing God’s word and acting on it; on other days it gets choked by the pressing concerns and distractions of our over-scheduled lives. Some days we just don’t understand or can’t hear God’s word; on other days we receive it joyfully but it doesn’t stick.
 
In a sense, the soil of our lives is like fill dirt. That’s the dirt that’s taken from one Fill-Dirtconstruction site where holes are being dug — like to put in a pool or excavate for a building’s foundation — and taken to another site where earth is needed for regrading or landscaping. Sometimes you’ll see signs around town at houses where construction is being done: “Free Fill Dirt” or “Fill Dirt Wanted.” And so this dirt gets repurposed and reused and moved from project to project. Basically fill dirt is the poor stepchild of the soil world. It’s necessary, but it’s not pure in any form. There’s often some good soil mixed in along with rocks and sand and weeds.
 
We like to think our receptivity to God is more like a bag of potting soil from Home Depot. Rich earth, chock-full of nutrients that has been specifically engineered to encourage the greatest growth. That’s what you sink your geraniums into or use when you plant sweet-smelling herbs like basil or lavender. We like to think that, because we usually come to church or say our prayers or occasionally pick up the Bible, we are always receptive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives.
 
And we’re often right. But not always. Sometimes we do all the right things to nurture our faith and yet nothing takes root. At other times we do nothing to put ourselves in a particularly prayerful posture and we suddenly have a powerful and surprising encounter with God. And what you start to realize is that we’re not the ones actually in control here. That we have a role to play in the process of spiritual growth but it often happens in ways that are well beyond our control.
 
The truth is, we can’t control all the variables needed for spiritual photosynthesis, but we can help tend the garden. Your spiritual garden begins with baptism — that’s the seed, the spirit of God that has been lovingly sown within your heart. And we’ll be sowing some of this seed in just a few moments when we baptize Miles and Julia and George.
 
One of the things we sometimes overlook in this story is the sowing itself. We focus on the soil. But when the guys came to spread grass seed around here, they put it exclusively on the bare spots in the lawn; they concentrated it on the areas where we wanted to grow grass. They weren’t spreading seed on the driveway or on areas where the lawn was already lush or in the flower beds or behind the church back in the woods or on the front steps. They put the seed where we wanted grass to grow.
 
That’s pretty obvious, right? It would be a waste of seed and therefore a waste of money to do it any other way. But isn’t that precisely what the sower in this story is doing? If we view the sower as a metaphor for God, then God is a pretty lousy gardener. Or at least a wasteful one. Old MacDonald himself would never sow seed in places he knew it would never grow — like on paths or rocky ground or among thorns. Again, I’m not a great gardener, or farmer, but even I know this is not how you sow seed. You don’t just recklessly throw it all over the place — seed is a precious commodity. It must be sown with care and intentionality.
 
But the point Jesus is making here is not about efficient gardening techniques. He’s talking about the abundant grace of God; a God who spreads love with reckless abandon; a God who opens his heart to everyone.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized – when that seed is sown in your soul – it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the seed of relationship with the risen Christ has been indelibly sown within you.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 2, 2017 (Proper 8A)

A Reading from How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

“And the Grinch grabbed the tree, and he started to shove, When he heard a small sound How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_coverlike the coo of a dove. He turned around fast, and he saw a small Who! Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was not more than two. The Grinch had been caught by this tiny Who daughter, Who’d got out of bed for a cup of cold water. She stared at the Grinch and said, ‘Santy Claus, why,’ ‘Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?’ But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick! ‘Why, my sweet little tot,’ the fake Santy Claus lied, ‘There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.’ And his fib fooled the child. Then he patted her head, And he got her a drink and he sent her to bed. And when Cindy-Lou Who went to bed with her cup, HE went to the chimney and stuffed the tree up!”

Don’t worry, I have not completely lost my mind. We’re not celebrating Christmas in July here at St. John’s. But whenever I hear about Cindy Lou Who and her search for a cup of cold water on that fateful Christmas Eve in Whoville, I’m always reminded of Jesus who says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will be rewarded.

In the great pantheon of random acts of kindness, giving someone a cup of water is hardly the greatest act of service you can offer. Well, it depends on the circumstances, I guess. I mean if you encounter someone crawling through the desert, like in one of those comic strip tropes, it could actually be a heroic, life-saving act. But I think the point here is that even the smallest act of kindness matters. And not only does it matter, it is as if you are serving Jesus himself. It’s hard not to hear these words in Matthew’s gospel without connecting them to Jesus’ later statement in Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Seeing Christ in one another is a hallmark of our faith. It’s not a great leap from hearing that we are made in God’s image to striving to see the face of Jesus in others. But it’s not enough just to see Christ in other people and move on — as if we’re staring at them through a tank at the aquarium. No, we’re also called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To dive in and engage with others in tangible ways — both great and small.

And I think the smallest acts get short shrift. We like to focus on grand gestures; on people who are celebrated in the national media for changing the world; we like to be inspired by larger-than-life spiritual heroes. Like Gandhi or Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama or Malala.

And we need that. But Jesus reminds us time and time again that small things are just as important. It’s why he tells us faith the size of the tiny mustard seed can move mountains. And praises the lone leper who returned, after being healed, to say ‘thank you.’ It’s why Jesus himself often did the seemingly smallest and most menial tasks. Like washing feet and cooking breakfast and interacting with children. Small gestures point to a big heart. They are windows into our very souls.

In his words and in his actions, Jesus is reminding us to engage in such small acts. That they matter. That they make a difference. That even if you think something is just a drop in the bucket, it is important. These small acts are marks of a faithful life well lived.

It’s often said that if you want to see someone’s true character, watch how they treat people when no one’s watching. How they interact with people who can do nothing for them. Look at the superstar player after the game. How does he treat the guy picking up dirty laundry in the locker room? With respect and dignity? With contempt? Or does he fail to even notice him at all?

You may not be a superstar, but how do you treat people in the shadow economy? The busboy in the restaurant, the maid in the hotel, the landscaper working in your neighbor’s yard, the nanny waiting at the bus stop. Do you look for the face of Jesus in these fellow children of God or are they invisible to you? Recognizing them, acknowledging them, is the first step to leading an integrated life; one that meshes our actions with what we proclaim on Sunday morning.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus telling a big crowd of people to love your neighbor as yourself one moment, and then chewing out the disciples for overcooking his dinner the next. That’s not practicing what you preach and it leads to living an inauthentic life of disharmony. Which is the exact opposite of how Jesus lived in this world and how he invites us to live.

The juxtaposition of the Grinch’s cup of cold water with the one Jesus is talking about does force us to confront the intentions of our hearts. The Grinch did, in fact, give Cindy Lou Who a cup of cold water. He satisfied her physical need. And he even comforted her by patting her on the head. But this wasn’t a genuine act of concern. He was just doing it to get her to go away quietly so he could get back to the business of stealing Christmas.

When you do something nice for someone, it is important to examine your own intentions. Is it to get something in return? Is it to get on someone’s good side? Or is it out of genuine love and concern. Sure, a lot of good gets done with mixed intentions. The corporation that has their employees clean up the harbor is doing a good thing even as they have their PR person make sure it gets covered in the local paper.

Even here at church, when we engage in outreach ministries financially and in hands-on ways, is it all completely pure? Is it all because Jesus tells us to do this or is it at least a little bit to assuage our own guilt or to make us feel good or because we think it looks good in the community? These are hard questions of motive.

In the end, though, I think our motives are secondary. Do good. That’s the key. God knows the intentions of our hearts. Good intentions are nice but actions are what matter. And so we can instead ask ourselves in what ways do we offer others a cup of cold water? In other words, what is your version of a cup of cold water? How do you welcome those who need welcoming or reach out to those in need? It could be the giving of your time in a volunteer setting or praying for those in harm’s way or offering a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling broken and vulnerable.

Whatever that metaphorical cup of cold water is for you on any given day, just offer it. There are so many small ways in which to sow kindness in the world. And know that you are indeed doing God’s most holy work. Because these acts bind us one to another and they bind us to Jesus Christ. They build up the community that is the church and they build up our relationship with God.

You know, the Grinch eventually does have a conversion experience. And by the end of the book he’s sitting at that table carving the roast beast with Cindy Lou Who sitting at his right hand. He begins to live his life in harmony; the small acts take on greater meaning. And we are encouraged to go and do likewise.

© The Tim Schenck 2017

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 25, 2017 (Proper 7A)

If you were a child of the ’70’s, ’80’s, or 90’s you probably grew up listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. It would come on pop radio stations all across the country every weekend. I’m not sure what the exact formula used to calculate the order was — something to do with record sales and radio airplay — but that only added to the mystery as the suspense built before the grand announcement of the “Number One Song in the Land.”

Kasem had a distinct voice — kind of classic 1950’s DJ — tinged with over-the-top caseyenthusiasm. As if he himself couldn’t wait for the great reveal of the week’s most popular song. I also discovered a mind-blowing fact this week: Casey Kasem was the voice behind Shaggy on Scooby Do.

But I mention Casey Kasem and his wonderfully alliterative name and America’s fascination with lists because I started wondering about Jesus’ greatest hits. I’m not sure which of his quotes would make the top 40 but surely the list would include such popular statements as, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies” and “I am the way and the truth and the life” and maybe “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The list goes on and on. Or, put another way, the hits just keep on coming.

But what you won’t find among the top 40, is a quote we hear this morning: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Wait, what?! What happened to the “love your neighbor as yourself” thing? Or “turn the other cheek?”

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is definitely not on the list. And it’s something that, quite frankly, I really wish Jesus hadn’t said. Because as a preacher, it puts me in a bit of a pickle. I could just ignore it, of course, and hope no one noticed. I could divert your attention by talking about something completely different. Like Scooby Do.

But that’s a cop out. We can’t tune out the more challenging parts of Scripture and only deal with the parts we like; we have to lean into them. So let’s take a closer look at this passage. It’s a pretty tough one all the way around. Not only do we hear the line about this peacemaker bringing a sword, but we also hear an interesting approach to family relationships.

Jesus says in no uncertain terms, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” That doesn’t sound like what politicians and evangelicals had in mind when the term “family values” became a political buzzword in the 1990’s — around the same time as Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” was topping the charts. I might add.

But perhaps what troubles me most about this passage, and the quote at its heart, is the truth embedded within it. We want Jesus to be the Jesus of stained glass and Footprints in the Sand. We want him to be our sweet shepherd who bucks us up when we’re feeling blue and comforts us in our affliction. And he is that. But when we ignore the fact that life is difficult, that evil has the potential to ensnare us, that we need this Jesus who comes bearing a sword, we end up selling our faith short.

We end up domesticating our faith into something nice and precious but fail to recognize it for what it really is and must be: something life-giving and transformative. The sword Jesus wields with his presence in our lives isn’t a weapon of destruction. It’s not used to smite anyone or beat people into submission.

I mean, we already know what Jesus does with actual swords — he beats them into plowshares. He turns implements of violence into instruments of peace. The sword Jesus wields is not a sword that kills but rather a metaphorical sword that divides justice from injustice, faith from fear, love from hate. And in so doing, relationships based on anything but the love of God can be overturned in an instant.

So this sword isn’t used as a weapon but as an edge of hard truth. This sword Jesus bears is not turned on people, it’s not rattled to evoke fear or threaten; but it is used as an exacto knife to cut out falsehood and hypocrisy, to slice away injustice. It is a sword of truth that can and does convict us and pierce our hearts when we fall away from God or ignore the least of these in our midst.

This sword of truth is not used lightly but deliberately and reverently and with intentionality. And it sometimes wreaks havoc in our relationships and in our everyday lives. Following Jesus, following the truth is not for the faint of heart. It leads to conflict. Conflict with a cause, conflict with a purpose, but the Christian life is not about being conflict averse or avoidant. It is about standing up for what is fair and right and noble and true, regardless of the consequences. The thing is, truth telling comes with a price. Jesus came into the world to reveal the truth and paid for it with his life.

Loving Jesus and following Jesus can put you at odds with those closest to you. And that’s hard. Others may not want to hear your views on faith or justice. Consciously or not, they may want to keep the marginalized in society subjugated. And you can’t let that go. You have to speak up, even when it’s hard. Even when it strains relationships within your own circles.

When the truth gets told — the hard truth — not the sugar-coated version, powerful forces often rise up against it and seek to destroy it. Yes, this is precisely what led to the crucifixion. But it’s also what led to the assassination of Martin Luther King. To the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. To the character assassination of Anita Hill. To the murder of Harvey Milk. To the silencing of so many who work for racial, economic, and environmental justice.

When the truth confronts the evils of racism and sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and anything else that diminishes or devalues God’s creation, powerful forces are unleashed and it takes strength and courage and a warrior-for-justice mentality to drive them out.

That’s what Jesus is talking about. And he offers us a challenge: Do we as individuals and as a church speak or stay silent? Do we speak hard truths even if it will ruffle some feathers or do we go along to get along? Do we take up this sword in the form of a cross to follow Jesus or do we leave it be for fear of offending sensibilities? These are the hard questions that come with the territory Jesus beckons us into.

Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off was, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I don’t exactly know what that means but it does sound aspirational. Keep reaching. We don’t live in a perfect world. But we can do our part by raising our voices and speaking the truth even in the face of difficult situations. By picking up what may well at times be a heavy cross and continuing to follow Jesus. Day after day after day.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017