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.

Rector’s Annual Address

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2023 (Rector’s Annual Address)

Welcome to Annual Meeting Sunday. Frankly, sharing my Annual Report as I like to do in the context of the sermon, is a little bit awkward since I was only here for 12% of 2022. But I love the Annual Meeting, because it allows us to take stock of the year that is past, celebrate all the many and varied ministries that take place here, and look towards the future. And I have to say, the future at Bethesda is bright, it’s exciting, and along with all of you, I am so glad to be a part of it.

I have spent much of my first few months among you asking questions and listening and learning and building relationships. You can’t chart a course for the future without first getting to know ministries and people, without experiencing the traditions of a place, and discovering what draws people here and what keeps them here.

And let me first say and openly declare that I love Bethesda. This is a place teeming with faithful and passionate parishioners, a place with a talented and dedicated staff, a place where worship stands at the very heart of what we do, a place where Jesus is praised and followed, a place where apparently the rector skips.

So much of a rector’s role is simply setting a tone and helping to create a culture. What I hope to do in the coming years is to be part of a joyful community, one where people care about one another — even when they disagree, where people are committed to growing in their relationship with Jesus, where people want to both serve the church and serve those in need, a place where generosity is cultivated, a place where people are welcomed and loved. And I want to do this together, with each one of you.

But, since I’ve only been here for a short time, let me offer a few initial observations about life at this very special place, along with a few hopes. 

The first is that this is a place where Jesus is encountered. Through liturgy and music, through prayer and Bible study, through sacred space and holy grounds, through service to others, Jesus’ presence is revealed in so many ways around here. And my hope is that collectively we will go even deeper in the coming years. That our faith will broaden and deepen, that we will see and know and serve Jesus in new and creative ways. That we will embrace the values of the Beatitudes we heard this morning as people who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

This is also a place where people are welcomed. I’ve been so impressed by the Ambassador program and by the intentionality of making all who enter these doors feel and know that they are loved by God, not for what they do or who they are or what they’re worth, but simply because they are children of God. That is a rare thing indeed. But the warm welcome can’t be the end goal. We must all continually strive to draw people deeper into their faith. And so connecting people to ministries that create even more committed disciples of Jesus is a major part of our work together.

Related to this, I would love to see some areas of church life that incorporate more lay involvement and leadership. From communications to outreach to finance to education, there are so many gifted parishioners around here and more people should be drawn into the creative and life-giving ministries of this parish. This not only allows people to share their gifts in meaningful ways, it also deepens our connections to God and one another. So my hope is that we will find a healthy balance between staff and volunteer leadership, one that lifts up and empowers lay ministry and recognizes that all ministry is rooted in our baptismal covenant.

This is a place with deeply held and beloved traditions. I love the traditions at Bethesda. Take Boar’s Head. Yes, the spectacle of it all was amazing to behold — the music, the costumes, the plum pudding. But what really inspired me was the sheer number of people who participated in the show over what was a very full weekend. I loved the intergenerational community building and the sheer joy in pulling this all off. 

One of my mantras is “Never let the clergy get in the way of ministry.” And what I mean by that is I don’t have to be, nor should I be, nor could I possibly be, in the middle of everything that takes place here. I love it when people take up the mantle of ministry and simply make things happen. And that’s something else I loved about Boar’s Head — it could have been done without any clergy involvement at all. In reality, my only role was to not trip.

So, my hope is that we will lean into the strong traditions at Bethesda, while being open to creating new ones. Traditions that point firmly to God are worth holding onto and cherishing. The key is not allowing traditions to become idols in and of themselves, and that takes continued attention and discernment. 

This is a place of great generosity. People are generous with both their financial and spiritual gifts. And that is because they care deeply about this community. When people feel connected, they contribute. Our overall giving goal for 2023 is $2.5 million. In order to fully fund the ministry that takes place here and the staffing we need to add to support it, this should really be at $3 or 3.5 million. We’ll talk more about this next month, but as you discern your 2023 pledge, I encourage your continued generosity and commitment to Bethesda.

This is a place with an incredible asset in The Church Mouse. Beyond the over $500,000 it raises for our outreach ministries, it stands as an outpost of Bethesda in the community and offers meaningful volunteer opportunities for our parishioners. I would like to see this bond between parish and Mouse strengthened even more, so that everyone beyond our walls will know that it is a ministry of this church. To this end, we are pulling together an advisory committee to support staff and improve communications to the wider community.

This is a place that takes seriously its commitment to those in need. Through our outreach grants and several hands-on ministries, we are following the way of Jesus in serving the least of us. My hope is to put together a robust outreach committee to help lead us towards a more focused approach to serving others, and to provide even more opportunities to roll up our sleeves and do god works. As a parish we have a huge opportunity to make a significant difference in our wider community — the needs are great. And I wonder if we might channel some of our resources into a signature outreach effort, one that people will identify with Bethesda. But that will take some true discernment. 

My whole approach to ministry has always been about keeping one foot within the four walls of the church, and one foot beyond its walls. And so we have programs and educational opportunities that will deepen our faith as disciples of Jesus; we look to worship as the primary way that we gather; we maintain our buildings and grounds as sacred spaces that offer solace and inspiration. 

And then we move outward to live out our faith in the world. We serve others through outreach programs, we invite people to come and see and experience the ways we meet Jesus at Bethesda, and we hold up Bethesda’s mission of love, inclusion, and grace as a beacon of hope that our broken and divided world so desperately needs. Through technology, Bethesda has an opportunity and, I’d say, a responsibility, to make a significant impact upon our local community, but also the wider church and the nation, bringing the message of God’s love well beyond our walls. And that excites me.

When I was in middle school, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. We left a beautiful  church which we loved and, although it was hard to say goodbye, we looked forward to trying out some new parishes and finding a church home. We went to some of the biggest, most famous churches in the city — including the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. One Sunday we decided to at least try the tiny, nondescript Episcopal church in our neighborhood, with its red linoleum floors and electronic organ. 

But there was something about the young, new rector that brought us back the following week. And then we got to know the people. And suddenly my parents made up 2/6 of the choir and I started acolyting every week. What I learned through this experience is that a church, is not the building. No matter how grand or how humble, a church is not the physical brick and mortar, but the living, breathing, flawed, forgiven people who consider it their spiritual home. 

And ultimately, that’s what makes Bethesda so special. You make Bethesda so special. And it is a privilege to join each and every one of you on this journey of life and faith. I’m energized and inspired by what God is doing in this place, and I can’t wait to see what the Spirit has in store for us in the years ahead.

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2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 15, 2023 (Epiphany 2A)

My first car was a used 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit. It was bright red with a five-speed manual transmission and black vinyl seats, which would get so hot in the summer, it was basically like sitting on top of an incinerator. Despite its obvious flaws — the dents, the way it ran — I was so proud of that car. I would wash it and lovingly detail it way beyond what it deserved. I mean, I would even scrub the tires. And nobody who owned a car in New York City scrubbed the tires. 

I remember when I first got the car, after spending way too many hours shining it up, I wanted everyone I knew to come out to the street to behold this automotive beauty. Family, friends, neighbors, girls (there were no girls), but I wanted everyone to come and see my pride and joy. 

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus invites some of the first potential disciples to “come and see.” Not out of a vain desire to be popular or because he had some shiny new object to show them, but because he wanted to transform their lives. He wanted them to come and see a life bathed in the Spirit, a way of living that offered freedom and joy, one that provided salvation and hope. He wanted them to come and see what it meant to live in loving relationship with the living God. Which certainly transcends my desire to impress people by the way I Armor All’ed the dashboard. 

But this brief interaction speaks to the invitational nature of our faith. Jesus doesn’t compel people to join his movement or even condemn them if they don’t. He simply invites them to come and see. He lovingly and gently encourages them to join him on the journey of life and faith. Just as he does for each one of us.

Here at Bethesda, as we seek to live into this invitational approach of our Lord, we have embraced a way of being church called Invite, Welcome, Connect. It’s a way to invite people to come and see all that takes place within these walls, to warmly welcome all who enter our space regardless of background or where they live or where they may be on their spiritual journey, and to connect people to programs and ministries that enable them to love and serve the Lord in this place. And it all starts with Jesus’ invitation to come and see. That’s the foundation upon which we build relationships with God and one another. We invite, we welcome, we connect.

But this invitational posture isn’t just an institutional responsibility. It’s incumbent upon each one of us to invite people to come and see what’s happening at Bethesda. It may be a friend or a neighbor or someone who used to come here, but I encourage you to invite others to come and see. Not because we simply want more people in our pews — which we do — or because we want more people to watch our livestream — which we do — but because we want people to come and see Jesus. To encounter the one who loves them unconditionally and will walk with them through all the joy and pain and laughter and tears that make up the human condition. We want them to come and see Jesus, because the peace that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ is not something to hoard, but to share.

After Jesus invites Andrew to come and see, Andrew then brings his brother Simon Peter to Jesus. “We have found the Messiah,” he tells him. Andrew’s immediate response is to share what he has seen with someone else — in this case his brother. And we’re called to do the exact same thing. To share our faith with someone else. Now, I know Episcopalians aren’t always great at inviting people to church. There’s some apocryphal statistic that says the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 21 years. And, I know some of you are thinking, ‘Phew! I don’t have to invite anyone for another 12 years.’ And some of you are thinking, ‘I’ve actually never invited someone to church.” But invitation is how the church grows; it’s how our faith is passed on; it’s how we share the love of Jesus with the world.

So, here’s a charge for you: invite someone to church. Think about who you might invite to come and sit with you. And if asking someone to join you for worship feels like a bridge too far, invite them to a lower threshold activity like the upcoming organ recital or a Men of Bethesda gathering or a St. Mary’s Guild lunch or just to join you on a walk of the church grounds. In other words, it doesn’t have to be an eight-hour service on Good Friday. Not that we offer one of those…

But I encourage you to think about ways of living into the invitational nature of our faith. Not just by extending invitations to others, but also recognizing that Jesus extends this invitation to you. Jesus wants you to come and see. Over and over again he invites you to come and see what the abundant life of faith brings to your very soul.

The thing is, Jesus wants us to lay aside the myriad distractions of our lives and to go deeper with him. Imagine Jesus reaching out, grabbing you by the arm, staring intently into your eyes, and saying, “Come and see.” This is an invitation not in the abstract or for someone else, but very clearly for you. In this moment, in whatever is going on in your life. Come and see Jesus. Again and again. Come and see Jesus.

Come and see Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture. Come and see him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Come and see him as the Messiah, the anointed one of God who fills us with hope and fulfills all our expectations. Come and see him as the Savior of the world, the one who draws us into eternal life. Come and see him as the Son of God, who reveals and makes known the divine presence in our very midst. 

Come and see, and then accept his invitation to follow him. To live your life as a disciple of Jesus. It’s not always easy. It often puts you into conflict with the powers and principalities of this world. But following Jesus is the place where true freedom resides. The place where you can let go of the many demands and pulls of this world, so that you can faithfully and humbly and doggedly follow the way of Jesus, the way of love. Come and see. And experience first-hand the life-transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ.

Feast of the Holy Name

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 1, 2023 (Holy Name)

One of the greatest responsibilities a parent has is the naming of a child. I remember feeling the pressure when Bryna was pregnant with our first one. I felt that if I gave him or her — we waited to find out the sex — the wrong name it would prove disastrous. I didn’t want to be responsible for my child getting beat up on the playground because of his name. Or not getting a promotion because no one could possibly take him seriously. And of course, if we gave the child the perfect name, it would greatly increase the chances that he or she would grow up to be the President or at least a famous actor.

In the end we named our firstborn Andrew Benedict and we called him Ben. Andrew for my late father and Benedict for one of my favorite saints — plus we just liked the name. Initially we were going to call him Benedict Andrew, but I messed up too many times while he was in utero and called him Benedict Arnold. So we saddled him with his middle name being used as his first name. What can I say? Unlike Joseph, we didn’t have an angel show up and tell us what to name him.

I have naming on my mind this morning, because today is known as the Feast of the Holy Name. Every year on January first we hear the story of Jesus being named Jesus. The reason has nothing to do with the New Year or resolutions or even hangovers — there is, by the way, a special crown of righteousness reserved for those who show up to the 8 o’clock service on New Year’s Day. It’s the Feast of the Holy Name because under the Law of Moses, a child was named eight days after the birth. Now that’s not the only thing that happened to a male child eight days after his entrance into the world. As we heard in Luke’s gospel this morning, he was also circumcised. 

And for many years this day in the church calendar was called the Feast of the Circumcision. Fortunately the Episcopal Church decided to rebrand it and it has been the Feast of the Holy Name ever since the not-so-new-anymore 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

So, about this name. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we heard an angel of the Lord appear to Joseph in a dream and say, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” That’s because the name “Jesus” derives from the Hebrew form of Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.” And of course, that’s what Jesus does. He has come into the world to save us from sin and death. So when we talk about Jesus as our Savior, when we sing “Christ the Savior is born” on Christmas Eve, we are also paying homage to his name. The name, we just heard in the letter to the Philippians, “that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

That verse is why you’ll sometimes see me and other Christians bowing their heads slightly as a form of reverence when the name “Jesus” is uttered in liturgy. There is power in the name of Jesus. When we invoke his name in prayer — either in private or as the gathered community — we are boldly proclaiming that we believe the Son of God will save us. From fear, from isolation, from sin, from death. 

But invoking Jesus’ name doesn’t just happen when we pray. We also boldly proclaim Jesus’ name through our actions. When we visit the sick or show compassion to the lonely; when we feed the hungry or share our resources with those in need; when we comfort the bereaved or show kindness to a stranger. 

The name of Jesus is a powerful name. Which is perhaps why we call him so many things in addition to Jesus: Prince of Peace, Son of God, Lord, Messiah. He is all of these things. But whatever you call him and however you address him, say his name. Often and without ceasing. In prayer and action. In so doing, you will be drawn ever closer to the very heart of Jesus.

Christmas Day 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2022 (Christmas Day)

You know, everybody told me it would be 80 degrees on Christmas. That I’d be swimming in the ocean after the last service on Christmas Day. But instead of that, I apparently have to worry about an iguana falling on my head. Actually, this being my very first Christmas in Florida, after serving a church in New England for the past 14 years, I have to say this is still lovely. I took the dogs for a walk on the beach this morning and, while it was a bit brisk, it was 15 degrees back in Boston. I checked. So, I am all in on this Florida Christmas thing. I’ll probably be stringing up lights on palm trees next year.

Many of us have, of course, celebrated Christmas in a variety of places over the years. Whether it’s a white Christmas or a hot Christmas, what doesn’t change is the timelessness of the Incarnation. God entering the world in human form transcends time and space, geography and weather. And the beautiful and poetic prologue to John’s gospel, which we hear this morning, speaks eloquently and decisively into this reality. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

And we quickly notice the parallel with the very first book of the Bible. Genesis also starts with the words, “In the beginning.” “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning was the Word.” So the birth of Jesus is indeed a beginning, as any birth is. And yet, Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, was also there from the beginning of all time and space.  At Christmas, we celebrate his birth in a manger in Bethlehem, but we also celebrate his existence as the Word of God long before the Son of God was born in a stable. 

Last night, we heard the birth narrative from Luke’s gospel — the words that form the basis of every Christmas pageant in the history of Christmas pageants. We had angels and shepherds and Mary and Jesus and the newborn child. And this morning we zoom out from the tight shot of the manger, to the wide view of God’s cosmic being. And in order to realize the fullness of God, we need both views; we need the big picture and the closeup.

It’s a reminder that God is both transcendent and at hand. We certainly experience the transcendent grandeur of God in this space — gothic revival architecture will do that every time. And the stunning music offered by our hard-working choir orients us heavenward. A parishioner told me recently that while all churches are “thin places,” places where heaven and earth seemingly come together, to him Bethesda is the thinnest place. And I know we all feel that this morning as we gather in this beautiful and sacred space. As we soak in the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, the divine presence is palpable. 

Of course, the danger of exclusively focusing on the transcendent nature of God is that God can sometimes feel like a deity removed from our daily life and struggles. And so the birth of Jesus reminds us that God is also at hand, living and walking beside us. Or as John puts it, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” 

On Christmas Day we recognize that there are times to revel in the soaring, mystical nature of God. And there are times to take comfort in the intimacy of divine love. We need both of these aspects of God in our lives, depending on the day and the moment. But when we accept God’s love, when we receive Jesus into our hearts, when we make room for the holy in our lives, suddenly our burdens are lifted, our brokenness is healed, our sins are forgiven, and our lives are enriched with hope and meaning. That’s why Christmas matters.

Now, if you’re anything like me, when you think about past Christmases it’s all rather a blur. A jumble of Christmas services and family dinners, a few gifts that I remember but most are forgotten. There’s the soundtrack of Christmas carols and the blinking of colored lights, tree trimming and a few favorite ornaments that come to mind. But in the end, the one constant, the thing that binds everything together is the Christmas story itself. The shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph, the newborn king, the Word made flesh. And the fact that love came down on that very first Christmas Day. 

In the end, Christmas is an act of love. God loved the world so much that he sent us his Son to live and dwell among us. Think about that! And the fact that Jesus is still with us. In each and every moment of our lives. At times when we are acutely aware of his presence and also at times when he feels distant or far away. And it all unfolds “in the beginning.”

The Christmas story — this story of God’s love for the world, but also God’s love specifically for you — is our story. And so we tell it again; year after year we shout it from the mountaintops and tell it in the valleys. It is the story that illuminates our lives and fills us with hope. For Christ our Savior is born.

I am glad you are here this morning. Glad you are in this place to participate in the retelling of our sacred story. Glad you are here “in the beginning” to celebrate our Lord’s birth once again. May God bless you and your loved ones this season. And may you have a very merry Christmas.

Christmas Eve 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2022 (Christmas Eve)

When I was a young rector serving at a parish outside of New York City, we held an annual Christmas tree sale on the first two weekends of December. I always spent some time working at it for several reasons: it was a lot of fun — the camaraderie was great as we greeted people and tied trees onto the tops of cars; it raised some good money for the church — we always undercut the Methodists; and I got to use a chain saw. Parish ministry is many things but it affords few opportunities to lose a limb. 

While most people were incredibly gracious and families were filled with joy as they poured out of their mini-vans to select their tree, there were always several exceptions. Invariably a few people would come looking for “the perfect tree.” They would be incredibly insistent about this. As if their entire Christmas depended upon finding the perfect Douglass fir. 

And of course no tree was ever good enough. They’d spend an hour looking through every single tree on the lot, treating our volunteers like the hired help at a high-end boutique on Worth Avenue. “No, that one’s not right. Show me that one. Turn it around. This one’s too full; that one’s not full enough. Don’t you have anything that smells better?” And there was nothing you could do but grit your teeth and keep a smile plastered on your face as they tested the limits of Christian charity.

Sometimes they’d leave with a tree; sometimes they’d go away disappointed. But I was always saddened when I encountered this because these folks were truly seeking something, trying to fill a void in their lives that can only be satisfied by relationship with Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, was that they were standing 25 feet from a church a few weeks before Christmas. And yet they were blind to Jesus’ offer of perfect salvation. 

The reality is that the picture perfect Christmas doesn’t exist. Not when we try to achieve it through human means like the perfect tree, the perfect gift, the perfect dinner. And that’s okay. Because Jesus is most often met in the very messiness of our lives. In the imperfections and failures, in the foibles and flaws of the human condition. This is precisely why God entered the world amid the mud and muck of that stable in Bethlehem. God doesn’t ignore our shortcomings and weaknesses; God is present with us both in spite of and because of them. And that is the good news of Christmas. No matter what hardships or grief or pain we bring to the manger this night, Jesus opens his heart to us and loves us unconditionally.

In tonight’s familiar Christmas gospel from Luke, the Angel of the Lord tells the shepherds to “Fear not.” And these are words to ponder in your heart. Because the need for perfection, which we all pursue to some degree, is really fueled by fear. Fear of fully trusting God, fear of letting go of the control to which we so desperately cling, fear of failure, fear of death. But we’re not left to wallow in fear and darkness. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ banishes fear; it scatters the darkness from before our path; and it allows us to walk in the light of faith without fear. “Fear not,” says the Angel, “For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.” Which doesn’t mean that life is always easy or perfect, but it does mean that God in Christ is with us at every step of the journey. And that is something in which to rejoice; that is something in which to cry out “Glory to God in the highest!”

After the Angel departs, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” In other words, they continue the journey. They set aside their fear of the unknown, they suspend their disbelief. And they continue to move ever closer to Jesus. Which is precisely what you are called upon to do this Christmas – to continue the journey of faith that has been set before you. To continue the journey towards Jesus. 

Now, we’re not asked to do this alone – there was more than one shepherd after all. But rather to walk in community. I invite you to take this journey with this particular community of faith. You won’t find perfection here — though this place looks and sounds pretty good tonight — but you will find a group of people seeking to serve Jesus as best they can. A group of people who know at their very core that they are loved by God, despite their imperfections. A group of people who want to share that love with everyone they encounter. And that’s the essence of the Christian faith; it’s what gives life meaning and purpose, which is something we all so desperately seek.

Perhaps we sanitize and sentimentalize Christmas with our hand-painted decorations neatly arranged throughout our homes. And we’re certainly good at ignoring the messiness of the stable. But it is to the brokenness of our lives that God entered the world in human form. God sent his only Son both because of and despite the fact that we are not perfect. That’s the Christmas miracle. If God wanted the “perfect” Christmas, Jesus would have been born in a palace, not a stable. He would have been born to a princess, not a poor, unwed teenage mother. But Christmas is about genuine relationship with the divine rather than superficial perfection. If that’s your goal, you’re better off buying a perfectly shaped fake tree at Target.

So, may you experience the perfection of Jesus Christ this night. May it envelop you and shine brightly upon you. And may you all have a very merry Christmas.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 18, 2022 (Advent 4, Year A)

Wait, watch. These are the themes of Advent. The church is always encouraging us to hold off on celebrating Christmas too early. On the Sundays of Advent we sing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols. We light the Advent wreath and the building light points to that grand event that is to come: the birth of our Lord. Our desire for instant gratification is put on hold, even as the world around us watches Hallmark Christmas movies. The waiting and watching is part of our spiritual discipline as we steep ourselves in hope and expectation. 

And yet, this Sunday’s gospel passage subverts all of our patient waiting. Here’s the big spoiler alert: Jesus is born! Oddly enough, we get Matthew’s birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year. So, in light of this, I think we’ll just cancel all the Christmas services and we’ll see you in the New Year. 

But before we do that, I guess we should take a closer look at this passage and see how it fits into the season of Advent. The first thing to notice is that Joseph plays a prominent role; this whole scene takes place from his perspective. In a dream, he learns that he should go ahead and marry the woman to whom he was engaged, and that this child Mary is carrying, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he is to name him Jesus. Now, that’s a lot to absorb. But when Joseph wakes up from this life-changing dream, he does what the angel says: he marries Mary, waits for her to give birth, and names the child Jesus.

Now, Joseph is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the whole nativity scene. When you set up your crèche you probably start with the manger and baby Jesus. Next comes Mary, perhaps a few angels, and then there’s always that moment of confusion when you can’t tell Jospeh apart from one of the shepherds. But eventually you figure it out and stick him in there to gaze upon the holy child, but not too close. 

Joseph is like a holy bystander. Supportive of Mary, excited and nervous at the prospect of raising this child. But he’s not exactly able to stare down at Jesus and say, “I think he’s got my eyes.” So we’re not quite sure what to do with Joseph. It’s nice to have him around, we think, but he’s not really necessary to the story. But there’s more to St. Joseph than this, and he does play a crucial role in Jesus’ life. Not only does he raise Jesus as his own, he protects him from certain death when the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath — the result of another dream. And so Joseph stands out as a model of someone who hears God’s voice and faithfully responds to it, even when what is being asked is unusual or disquieting.

In this season of waiting and watching, we could all stand to tune out the noise and listen a little more intently to God’s voice. Believe me, it’s hard to do that a week before Christmas. There is just so much noise and so many expectations. But you’re here. Which is a good place to be as we all seek some spiritual shelter from the swirling storm that is the Christmas-industrial complex. And so Joseph points us to a way of listening and responding to God’s call even when life feels too full. And we need that during this season.

The other thing about this passage and the real reason it fits into the season of Advent is that it points to questions about Jesus’ identity. We learn that he is indeed divine, being conceived by the Holy Spirit. That his birth is the fulfillment of Scripture — we get that quote from the prophet Isaiah — “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” And we see the significance of his name. The name Jesus means “to save,” and Jesus has come into the world to save us from sin and death. But also Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. Through the birth of Jesus, God enters the world in human form to live and dwell among us which, another spoiler alert, is the true miracle of Christmas.

So, in the same way that John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, this passage prepares us to meet the Christ child. It sets the stage for the entrance of the messiah into the world by emphasizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son. We’re not waiting for some wise teacher to show up on  Christmas. We are awaiting the arrival of God’s only begotten Son. The one whose birth literally changes the world. The one who sets us free from the bondage of sin and death. The one who ushers in the very kingdom of heaven right here on earth. And in so doing transforms the world and fills our lives with hope and meaning. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves — we still have a week before all of that.

But hearing this birth narrative a week before Christmas is also a good reminder that even as we await the birth of Jesus, Jesus is already here. So while the Advent police may not like you listening to Christmas carols before the 25th, it’s okay to do so. And even though I may roll my eyes at the Hallmark Christmas movies, I’m not going to turn them off in a huff while Bryna’s watching them at the rectory. Which she does. A lot. Jesus is with us right now, in this moment, in this place. Just as he always is. Even as we prepare for his arrival in a manger not long from now, and even as we await his coming again in great glory.

When our boys were growing up, they used to love setting up the crèche in our living room. They always did it with great care and reverence. Even if they often added their own figurines to the scene. There was usually a Darth Vader next to the shepherds or a Power Ranger among the sheep. But a debate would always rage about whether to put the baby Jesus into the manger before the 25th or wait until Christmas. I was always in the let’s wait camp and everyone else in the house opposed my position. So I always lost. But theologically speaking, they were probably right. Jesus is with us, even as we wait for him. Both of these things can be and are true. Just as Jesus is with us now, even as we await his coming again at the end of the age.

And in the meantime, we can look to Joseph’s example as one who listens attentively to the moving of the Spirit in his life. We can reflect upon Jesus’ identity as God’s son. And we can open our hearts to the one who is both to come and already at hand.

Third Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2022 (Advent 3, Year A)

John the Baptist looms large over the season of Advent. The Forerunner, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, this loud, larger-than-life figure who preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins along the banks of the Jordan river. And yet we don’t encounter a more counter-cultural figure in the days leading up to Christmas. You’ll never see a giant blow-up John the Baptist on anyone’s front lawn. He doesn’t feature prominently in any Christmas carols — no one’s singing “here comes John the Baptist right down John the Baptist Lane.” No one trims their tree with a John the Baptist ornament — although I would pay good money for one.

This morning, we hear Jesus ask the crowds that had sought out John the Baptist in the wilderness, what they went out to see? And it’s a good question. John, after all, was drawing ever larger crowds. Some were drawn to him because they thought he might have been the long-anticipated Messiah, some heard that he was a prophet, some of the religious elite were nervous about his growing popularity and wanted to catch him in heresy in order to discredit him, some were just interested in the spectacle of it all.

And so Jesus asks what they had gone out to see. A reed shaken by the wind? In other words, someone willing to bend to popular opinion? Someone who checked the polls before deciding what to say? Or did they go out to see someone dressed in “soft robes?” In other words, a member of the religious establishment who wouldn’t upset the status quo? Someone who wouldn’t challenge their understanding of God? Someone who wouldn’t demand much of them? 

Well, we know John is the exact opposite of that. For starters, camel skin and leather could hardly be considered soft. And a guy who subsists on locusts and wild honey probably wouldn’t fit in very well at a fancy dinner party or a charity ball. After all, he’s known as John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian. And just last week we heard John greet those gathered around him by calling them a “brood of vipers,” so we know he wasn’t just telling the people what they wanted to hear. Surely they didn’t want to hear that.

But it begs the question, what do you go to church to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Well, you can certainly see that. But what do you come to church to see and hear? Sometimes we leave feeling inspired by the music or the liturgy or even, occasionally, the sermon. Sometimes we leave feeling good about ourselves and, perhaps if we’re honest, even a little self-righteous for having done the right thing and gone to church. Sometimes we leave with hearts bursting to go out into the world to serve others. Sometimes we leave feeling challenged or uncomfortable, even angry. Sometimes we leave feeling and knowing at our very core just how much God loves us. Often it’s a whole swirl of these emotions, depending on the week.

But it’s important to examine our inner motivations about what we’re hoping to see and hear when we gather for worship. Again, we can’t just go to church to see a bunch of people dressed in soft robes, and we can’t come to church just to make ourselves feel good. Or to simply revel in sacred space and beautiful music — which, believe me, I love. And is an important aspect of the spiritual life. But it can’t end there. We are not called to be passive recipients of faith, but active participants in it. Faith is not a spectator sport, it is a way of life; a call to action. And so every time we gather, the question posed to each one of us is how will we live out this faith with which we have been entrusted? How will we turn our faith into action?

And there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, just as there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all faith. There are varieties of ways to respond to God’s word and they are ever-shifting in our lives. Someone may feel compelled to feed the hungry through St. George’s, someone else may be inspired to join a Bible study or teach Sunday School, someone may share their gifts and passions through committee work, someone may want to donate money for a new set of soft robes. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” St. Paul tells us. And there are varieties of ways to live out our faith in the world. But live it out we must. 

Around the corner from our rectory in Massachusetts lived two little girls who were also members of the parish. I’d pass by their house regularly whenever I walked to my local coffee shop. Which was often. So often that I used to refer to it as my “satellite office.” One afternoon as I was walking past, I noticed they had set up a lemonade stand. Now, that’s not a particularly unusual suburban sight. Many of us sold lemonade at the end of our driveways as kids and ended up being praised for our entrepreneurial spirit. The neighbors would stop by to purchase a cup, often telling us to keep the change; which was thrilling. And we’d keep at it until dinnertime, or until we realized we didn’t live on a main thoroughfare and standing in front of a table all day was boring. 

But in the name of supporting small business owners, I stopped at their table and bought a dixie cup full of lemonade. Before I did, they told me all the money was going not to themselves but to feed the hungry. In Sunday School they’d learned about families who didn’t have enough to eat and they had collected food items for our local pantry. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more. And the end result was that they were putting their faith into action in a very tangible way. 

We’re invited to do the same. It may not be setting up a lemonade stand — at this stage in life that might draw a few odd looks. And there’s the whole permitting process. But I encourage you to reflect upon whatever your version of a lemonade stand might be. We all set up different ones, just as we all respond to God’s call in different ways. 

John the Baptist’s unique calling was to set up his lemonade stand along the banks of the Jordan. To use his prophetic voice to cry out in the wilderness, to baptize those seeking an authentic encounter with the living God, to prepare the way of the Lord, to point not to himself but to the one who was to come.

So, what do you go to church to see and hear? Your answer informs what kind of lemonade stand you set up. And in the spirit of John the Baptist, we are drawn ever closer to the heart of Jesus. 

Thanksgiving Eve

Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service

St. Edwards Church

November 23, 2022

So, I’m the new guy at Bethesda. I’ve literally been on the job for one week. And as I was unpacking boxes and meeting staff and going over dates, they mentioned the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service. And I said, great! I look forward to meeting my new clergy colleagues and getting a better sense of the Palm Beach community. Then they mentioned that the service rotates to different congregations every year. And I said, great! I look forward to seeing all the different houses of worship on the island. Then they mentioned that the preacher rotates every year. And I said, great! I look forward to hearing different voices from the various congregations. Then they told me it was Bethesda’s turn and I was the designated preacher. And I said, wait, what?!

But it is great to be among you this evening as we gather to give thanks for God’s abundant blessings in this community, to pray together, and to revel in our unity as people of faith. 

You know, I just moved down here from Massachusetts, only about 30 minutes north of Plymouth, the site of the very first Thanksgiving. And we all know the myths surrounding the pilgrims and the native people at that gathering. The talk of sharing resources and food, the pretty picture of brotherly love and the acceptance of other cultures. It’s become part of our national narrative, handed down from one generation to another. I certainly learned all about it in school as I traced my hand to make a drawing of a turkey. So we like to hold onto this myth in our collective imagination, even as the reality of the interactions between the English colonists and the native people is much harder to face. In fact, many have called for a Day of Mourning to mark the genocide of native peoples that came about as a result of the English settlers coming to these shores. Hard truths often involve an uncomfortable reckoning. 

Now, I know it’s a lot easier to just talk about the three F’s of Thanksgiving: food, family, and football. That’s what we really want to focus on and celebrate this evening. But then we hear this passage that Rabbi Michael read from the prophet Isaiah, which gets to the heart of how we are to act as people of faith: “Here is the sort of fast I want” — and yes, it’s rather ironic to call for a fast as we prepare for a great feast — “Here is the sort of fast I want…letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you see them.” It is this call for Biblical justice that allows us to hear the cries of the native people, who deserve to be seen and recognized and lifted up. So there is challenge and a call to action in the midst of our Thanksgiving preparations.

But I also want to say how grateful I am for your presence this evening. This gathering isn’t just an excuse to escape our extended families for an hour or so — you know, those in-laws who have been in town since yesterday afternoon. No, the gathered community matters. Individually and collectively we are signs of God’s presence, signs that our common life transcends any differences, signs that despite our different beliefs — both political and religious — there is still a unity of purpose and a clarity of commitment to one another through both our common geography and common humanity. And amid these deeply divided times, when there is so much dehumanizing and demonization of others, we need to gather together now more than ever. To model what it means to be in relationship across difference. To celebrate our diversity. To build bridges between and among those who may not share our particular perspective. 

So we gather and we give thanks. And we give thanks not in the abstract or to Aunt Helen for not overcooking the yams this year or to the Detroit Lions for keeping this year’s game competitive. These are all good things, but ultimately and specifically we give thanks to God. In whatever expression or form this takes, we gather and give thanks to the God of our particular traditions. 

And when we participate in this service through prayer and song and Scripture, rather than watering down our faith or stooping to the lowest common theological denominator, our coming together hints at the very fullness of God. The fullness that speaks to the God who is beyond human expression and knowing; the God who is both transcendent and at hand; the God upon whom no single faith tradition has a monopoly; the God who knows us intimately and still loves us with reckless and unwavering abandon. And so in this spirit, I bid you all a very happy and holy Thanksgiving. 

Last Pentecost: Christ the King 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 20, 2022 (Proper 29, Year C)

Well, the phantom rector has finally arrived for his first Sunday morning at Bethesda. The one who’s been lurking in the rectory the past few weeks; the one who’s been opening countless boxes and hanging pictures and engaging in high level negotiations with the Department of Motor Vehicles; the one who’s been sneaking out to other churches on Sunday mornings; the one who survived what I’ve been referring to as our “starter hurricane;” the one who’s met a few of you along the way – at Publix or the Church Mouse or walking the dogs along Barton Avenue. Actually, I met a lot of you at last Sunday evening’s beautiful Celebration of New Ministry — but, to be fair, that was all a bit of a blur (please do keep telling me and Bryna your names — over and over again). We’ll get there.

So, I have to say it feels great to have finally and officially begun my ministry among you. To finally begin this new relationship after so much anticipation. To finally embark upon the mission to which we together have been called: seeking and serving Christ in one another and in the world. So I’ll announce right here, right now that I am officially done lurking. 

Which means we can all get on with the task at hand, of getting to know one another and living into the bold, beautiful vision God has in store for us. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, I’ll be honest. The last thing a new rector wants to hear on his very first Sunday at a new church is the story of the crucifixion. We don’t want to delve into any possible foreshadowing of how things might go. But at another level it’s the perfect gospel passage upon which to begin a new relationship, because the cross is so central to our faith. It’s what binds us to Jesus and one another. It stands at the very heart of all that we do as Christians. Without the crucifixion, we live without the hope and joy of the resurrection. And, boy, do we need the hope and joy of the resurrection in our lives. It’s what sustains us and gives life meaning. It’s what allows us to get up and keep going when life knocks us down. It’s what assures us that we are beloved children of God.

Which brings us to Christ the King Sunday, the day we mark the reign of Jesus, as we celebrate him as the King of kings and Lord of lords. You might think we’d get a reading that highlights Jesus in all his triumphant resurrected glory, rather than the story of the crucifixion. From the outside looking in, Jesus being strung up on a cross to die is hardly a victory. An ignominious death at the hands of the Roman authorities is hardly an ending fit for a king. But here’s the thing: Jesus’ reign isn’t like worldly examples of kingship. Many of the great and powerful kings we read about in history ruled by fear and isolation. They enforced their will with armies and kept the populace at arm’s length by living in moat-ringed castles. Kings like Nero or Ivan the Terrible or Henry VIII. And, yes, I know we Anglicans have a complicated relationship with Henry VIII, but of course none of us had to be one of his wives.

That’s not the kind of king we’re dealing with in Jesus. His is a different sort of realm. And so, in thinking about Christ the King, we need to undo our notions of earthly kingship. Jesus’ kingship is not about the iron grip of absolute power. It is a kingship of invitation rather than coercion; a kingship of inclusion rather than isolation; a kingship built upon peace rather than fear. In other words it is a kingship that looks nothing like what we’ve learned about in history books or seen in movies. It certainly stands in direct contrast to King Herod and the other kings of Jesus’ own day. 

And so, as Christians, we end up with what I like to call the “upside down kingdom.” A place where a king is born in a lowly stable, not a royal bedchamber. A place where a king is not King Midas-wealthy, set up in a fortified castle but a man without a spot to lay his head. A place where a king has not 12 armor-wearing knights, but 12 unarmed apostles. Everything has been flipped in this kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last; where the king came not to be served, but to serve. The reign of Christ is built on love, not fear.

And the crucifixion itself teaches us much about the reign of Jesus. It is selfless — Jesus doesn’t use his power to save himself, despite the mocking call of “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” It is built on forgiveness — Jesus forgives even those who crucify him — “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” It is rooted in salvation — he says to the repentant thief, “Truly this day, you will be with me in paradise.”

This is the kingdom into which we are invited to live and move and have our being. This kingdom that is selfless and forgiving and salvific. This is the kingdom we are called to create here on earth, to work together as partners with Jesus to make space for the least, the lost, and the lonely. To open our hands in love to those crying out for justice. To give a voice to the voiceless. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” this is what we are seeking to usher in. Not to build up thick walls between and among us, but to tear them down. This is the work to which we have been called, to bring about the very kingdom of God here on earth, and specifically here at Bethesda.

In the coming years, I look forward to worshiping with you, to serving Jesus with you, to laughing with you, to weeping with you, to drinking coffee with you, to building the kingdom of God in this place. Relationships take time, but they also take investment, whether that’s relationship with Jesus or relationship with a new rector. Let’s invest in this relationship. We won’t always agree on everything — it wouldn’t be church if we did. But God doesn’t call us to always agree with one another, God calls us to change the world. And together, we can do just that. 

Please know just how excited I am to walk with you along the pilgrim’s path as a fellow disciple of our risen Lord. By being here this morning we have all made a commitment to enter into ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and to follow him. Sometimes we do that tentatively; sometimes we do that boldly. But the good news is that we’re not asked to follow Jesus in isolation. We do so with the help and encouragement of a community of faith, with the help and encouragement of this community of faith. My friends in Christ, it will be a privilege to walk this journey with you. And to do our part to usher in the kingdom of God in this place.

19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24C)

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.