Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 10, 2017 (II Advent, Year B)

If you’ve ever been to the opera, you know that they always begin with an overture. The anticipation first begins to build as you are shown to your seat by the tuxedoed usher. You take out your opera glasses, flip through the libretto, and settle in for the show. Suddenly the lights dim and the orchestra, which you can’t see because they’re in a pit below the stage, starts to play.

The overture often hints at the various musical themes to come and helps set the stage 12193f36ef8c92f35e9ba968c58b9611--royal-opera-house-london-royal-housefor the drama that will soon unfold. Backstage it signals the singers to take their places so that, at the conclusion of the overture, as the curtain opens, the action may begin.

In the four accounts of Jesus’ life that make up the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are different approaches to what might be thought of as literary overtures. Luke opens with the beautiful and familiar birth narrative — we’ll hear from Luke on Christmas Eve with Mary and Joseph, the manger, and swaddling clothes all playing prominent roles. Matthew begins with a genealogy as Jesus’ birth is put into a wider context that highlights his royal Davidic lineage. And on Christmas Day we’ll hear John’s poetic prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

In the opening of Mark’s gospel, which we hear this morning, there is no overture. There is no flowery language to set the scene or allow readers to settle into their seats. The curtain is ripped open and, ready or not, the action begins.

The start of Mark’s gospel is abrupt and jarring and immediate. It sets the tone for the frenzied, urgency of his unfolding narrative. And we are reminded that there is an inherent urgency to the life of faith. Who dares stand idle when there is so much work to be done? There’s no time for complacency when the kingdom of God is at hand; there’s no time to dawdle when people are lost and suffering; there’s no time to delay when our very salvation is at stake.

And as the curtain is torn open, we encounter John the Baptist. Rather than the dulcet tones of an aria, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is the perfect character for such an abrupt opening. John reminds us, in his inimitable way, that the life of faith is not just about pious thoughts, fancy robes, and needlepoint kneelers. It is about action. Immediate action. John the Baptist cuts through all the saccharine, sentimental sweetness of the secular season to remind us that there is work to do. Urgent work.

In the first chapter alone Mark uses the word “immediately,” euthus in Greek, eleven times. And the word appears throughout the fast-paced 16 chapters of his gospel. The action moves rapidly from one scene to the next and all we can do is hold on for dear life as Mark takes us on a full tilt journey through Jesus’ life and ministry.

So, what’s the rush? What’s wrong with sitting back, taking a deep breath, and soaking in God’s abiding presence? Well, nothing of course; slowing down is an important spiritual discipline, something to be cultivated over time. But for Mark, the fast pace highlights the importance of Jesus’ message, the short earthly window with which he had to share it, and the urgency for the reader — that’s you and me — to accept it and act upon it

Now it’s true that there are a lot of “immediatelys” in our lives this time of year. So just hearing the word may raise our collective anxiety level. As December unfolds, we race from one thing to the next. If Mark was writing down a record of our lives he would be sticking “immediatelys” in-between everything we had to get done — the Christmas shopping, the cards, the tree, the parties, the trips to the post office and grocery store. We are basically all living the Gospel of Mark! Well, sort of. We have the frenzy and the immediacy part down. But what about the meaning? Is the urgency focused on something beyond ourselves or are we just feeling harried and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd?

The thing is, urgency must be balanced with contemplation. Usually, I encourage people to find space for silence, to take a break from the pace and volume of daily life, and to savor time spent in prayer. But today, I’m encouraging you to embrace the immediacy of this season — not in order to cause you more stress. You have plenty of that, I’m sure. Not in order to add to your to-do list. You don’t need any more tasks. But in a way that, I promise, will cause you more joy. Because adding a sense of urgency to your faith life always brings you closer to Jesus.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Look Busy, Jesus is Coming.” I don’t where it too often since, well, I’m not sure what the proper venue would be. Mowing the lawn, maybe? And while it’s meant to be humorous, there is some underlying truth. Not in looking busy but in doing the hard work of preparation for Jesus’ return. This is where spiritual immediacy comes in.

Because this immediacy I’m talking about isn’t simply something else to do. It becomes our identity as Christians living out our faith in a sometimes dark and distressing world. So when we see injustice, we are called to immediately rectify it; when we encounter sinfulness in our selves, we are called to immediately confess it; when we get complacent in our worship, we are called to immediately get down on our knees. It is an immediacy of serving God and neighbor, which is the very heart of what we do. There is immediacy in feeding and clothing and visiting and welcoming the lost and the least among us. And there is immediacy in building up our relationship with the one for whom we wait with such expectant and hopeful hearts this Advent season.

Mark’s writing style reminds us that Jesus came into the world to, among other things, light a spiritual fire under each one of us. We could all use a few of Mark’s “immediatelys” when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. We could all use some more urgency in our faith lives; something to give us a little kick, something to shake us out of our comfort zones. That’s what John the Baptist helps us to do. The immediacy is all about preparation for the good news that is soon to enter, once again, into our midst. If Advent is the overture to Incarnation, the themes of hope and joy — in all their immediacy — continue to resound.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017


Third Sunday of Advent 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2016 (III Advent, Year A)

What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday we encountered a very different John the Baptist. We met him on the banks of the Jordan River and he was loud and large and very much in charge as he brought his message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to the crowds that had gathered to witness this spectacle of religious fervor. He was self-assured as he claimed his Forerunner status by pointing away from himself and towards the one who was to come — the Messiah, the one who’s sandal he felt unworthy to untie, the one who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

We encounter a very different John this morning. Gone are the crowds and the river and img-01-0fb197ef-f4d0-43a9-8192-632a321449efthe self-confidence. He’s been unceremoniously tossed into prison and his booming voice has been reduced to a whisper as he asks Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

So often bluster masks insecurity or uncertainty. That’s certainly the case with playground bullies. The book on bullies is the moment you stand up to them, they back down, revealing cracks in the facade. That so much of a bully’s persona is built on inner turmoil posing as outer intimidation.

And, not to psychoanalyze John the Baptist, but I don’t think that’s the case here. John is not a religious bully intent on getting his way. He’s not pointing to himself, after all. He’s simply passionate about his message and his calling as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. So this moment of questioning doesn’t make John’s ministry any less authentic. If anything it makes this traditional Advent figure even more real for us. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There’s a spiritual vulnerability here to which most of us can relate.

At least if we’re honest with ourselves. Because we spend an awful lot of time and energy tamping down our own spiritual uncertainty. It’s easy to mask our doubts about the entire Christmas story, including the theological crux of God entering the world in human form, with all the rushing around we do this time of year. The lists, the sales, the cards, the parties, the general din of December that keeps beating at an increasingly-fevered pitch like a stress-inducing holiday soundtrack.

We may despise and denounce this seasonal anxiety and yet we also seemingly can’t do without it. We complain about the stress of it all, but we don’t actually do anything to stop it. Which is why the season of Advent is so important both to our spiritual and emotional health. It allows us to cut through the noise and focus on what really matters. And what really matters is the spiritual preparation that allows us to welcome the Christ-child into our hearts anew at Christmas.

Now, part of this time of Advent is spent in expectation — we expect the arrival of Jesus at a manger in Bethlehem; we expect to come to church during Advent to hear about John the Baptist and Mary and readings from the prophet Isaiah; we expect to be slightly frazzled as the shopping days until Christmas dwindle; we expect there will be presents under the tree on Christmas Day.

Expectations, of course, don’t always exactly line up with reality. The time of John the Baptist was also ripe with expectation. It was less about expecting packages from Amazon and more about the expectations of what kind of reign the arrival of God’s Messiah would usher in. Different groups had different expectations. Some were met, others were left unfulfilled. But everyone who anticipated a savior had different hopes and dreams and expectations.

For some, it was the expectation of a military messiah who would arrive on a white steed and drive out the Roman oppressors. For those choked by the yoke of political, economic, and societal oppression, there was tremendous hope wrapped up in such a savior. Things were bad now, but once the messiah arrived, well, things would instantly change. We’d finally be in charge and the roles would be reversed. We’d be on top and those who did us wrong would pay the price.

It’s understandable, frankly. If you were treated as a second class citizen for so long, you, too would revel in the idea of radical retribution.

And there was certainly some of this in John the Baptist’s approach. As the one who boldly proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah, we heard him announce that while he was baptizing with water, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. For those expecting a certain type of savior, you can see John’s words only affirming their unfolding vision of an avenging savior arriving from on high with a flaming sword ready to do battle with the forces of evil.

And what we get instead is a vulnerable infant lying in a feeding trough. So we begin to see that our expectations don’t always meet with God’s reality; that human expectations are so often subverted by divine reality.

And this morning we encounter not a John the Baptist full of bluster and evangelical fervor but a hesitant, imprisoned, vulnerable, confused shell of a man. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, has my whole life’s work been in vain?

This is the Baptist’s Doubting Thomas moment. He seeks assurance and verification about Jesus’ true identity. He’s pretty sure, but just needs to hear it from the Messiah’s mouth. And again, Jesus shifts the expectations. As his humble birth would indicate, his reign is a different kind of kingdom than many expected. His is a rule not based on weapons but mercy; not based on the sword but peace; not based on an iron fist but the gentle hand of God.

And Jesus sends word back to John that echoes with the prophetic voice of Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Yes, the kingdom of God is at hand; no, these may not be the signs you or anyone else were expecting. But these are the signs and wonders of a seismic shift in perspective and expectation. This kingdom is about lifting up the lowly and proclaiming hope to the poor and offering wholeness and salvation to all God’s people rather than a select few. It is about love and justice and peace and things broken being made whole.

And even now our Advent expectations and hopes are placed on the ultimate fulfillment of these kingdom promises. Even amid the waiting for Christmas that is the hallmark of this season, we are not waiting for another. Like John the Baptist, we have met the one who is to come and his name is Jesus. His yoke may be gentle but we still must intentionally reach for it and place it upon our shoulders as a mantle of relationship. Only then will our human expectations meet divine reality. Only then will the long-expected promise be fulfilled. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 20, 2015 (Advent IV, Year C)

With a curate who actually played football at a high level, it’s become increasingly harder for me to throw football analogies into my sermons. Sure, I have a monopoly on pop culture references from the ‘80s but unless it’s Super Bowl Sunday, the football analogies lose something in translation. However…I did want to talk about one particular play that seems relevant to this morning’s gospel reading. And, no, it is not the Hail Mary, thank you very much.

I want to talk about the reverse. You don’t see it a whole lot in the NFL — reverseit’s more suited to high school football. But the reverse is basically a trick play where the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back who goes one direction, drawing the defense his way before suddenly handing the ball off to a teammate going in the opposite direction. When the deception works, the reverse can lead to a huge gain down the opposite sideline. (I thought about inviting Noah to do a demonstration with me but after yesterday’s grand ordination, it may be beneath his priestly dignity — not mine, mind you).

But much of the story of the Christian faith is a spiritual reverse. Not the deception part necessarily, but certainly the change of direction. The reversal of preconceived notions; the flipping of assumptions; the overturning of the status quo. And we’re reminded that just when we think we’ve figured out the direction we’re supposed to be headed, just when we think we have our lives properly in order; we realize we’ve been grasping at something that has changed direction. Because God doesn’t follow precise patterns, discipleship — the process of following Jesus in our lives — isn’t linear. So just when we think we’ve got God precisely where we want him — contained, domesticated, willing to suit our own purposes — we realize God has run a reverse and has, once again, completely overturned our expectations.

And this morning we meet two women who experienced such dramatic reversals of spiritual fortune first hand. All the while, pointing us toward God’s ultimate reversal as made manifest in the Incarnation, of that moment when, against all common sense and good order, God enters the world in human form.

First there’s Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. Hers had been a hard life. In a culture where the primary role of women was to marry and bear children, Elizabeth was ostracized for her own barrenness. Elizabeth was married, to a Temple priest named Zechariah, but was beyond child-bearing years. And as an old woman without children — she was an expendable member of the community. Shunned; a failure; a woman without identity and status.

When she miraculously becomes pregnant, with the child who would become the Forerunner to the Messiah, known to all as John the Baptist, her entire life’s situation is reversed. She who had been rejected suddenly gains favor. She who had felt abandoned by her people and by God, suddenly had a role to play in the divine plan. Elizabeth, in her maturity, had experienced both public shame and public favor. And this experience is brought to bear in her encounter with her cousin. She opens her home and her compassionate heart to Mary.

And this act was certainly not a given. How often have you experienced someone who was pushed down, gets lifted up, and suddenly acts as if they’ve always been blessed or fortunate? It’s not unusual that someone who wins the lottery suddenly has no time for any of his former “poor” friends. But this isn’t the case with Elizabeth — she welcomes Mary, whose pregnancy, by all external indicators, should have brought shame upon her.

Because Mary’s baby bump and the acknowledgment that her betrothed, Joseph, was not the father, could mean only one thing in the eyes of the community, in a culture where engagement was as binding as marriage: Mary was guilty of an adulterous relationship. The source of shame would have been different from Elizabeth’s but the feelings of isolation were surely not.

In Mathew’s gospel, an angel appears to Joseph and assures him of Mary’s virtue by sharing the inconceivable news that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit; that this was God’s son. Joseph keeps his pledge to marry Mary and help raise her unborn child. But that didn’t stop the whispers or the rumors. And, truth be told, they haven’t ever stopped.

So as Elizabeth greets Mary with honor — Mary who may have come seeking solace in her shame — Elizabeth signals a reversal in Mary’s fortunes. The rigid social expectations are shattered as Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaims, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Blessed. The same word Jesus will use in the Beatitudes. Blessed. This young, unmarried, pregnant woman who by every external indicator should be put to shame is blessed. Again, God runs the reverse.

And then Mary unleashes what has become known as the Magnificat, her great song of praise, one that has reverberated throughout the last two millennia on the lips of choirs and individuals and in the hearts of so many from all generations. “The almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.” And in remembering the lowliness of his handmaiden, God’s great reversal continues: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

And through Mary’s words, we begin to see the seeds of reversal that come to fruition in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Think again about the Sermon on the Mount and those Beatitudes. With Elizabeth’s words ringing in our ears — “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” — and Mary’s words — “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” — we now hear the heart of Jesus’ message of justice and blessedness.

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are the meek.” In other words, blessed are all those whom the world puts down yet God raises up. The God of surprises for whom we so fervently await this Advent season runs the reverse over and over and over again.

I invite you to keep your eyes open for the great reverse that is run on Christmas Eve. Or for that matter, not long from now up on the stage in Upper Weld Hall as our youngest children tell the Christmas story. Keep your eyes peeled for the way God may just surprise and delight and challenge you with a change of direction. Reversals aren’t always comfortable — sometimes we get tackled for a loss. But in time, if they are truly of God, they lead us to new and unexpected places. Like a manger. In a stable. In a little town called Bethlehem.

© The Rev.  Tim Schenck 2015

First Sunday of Advent 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 29, 2015 (Advent I, Year B)

Have you ever tried to roust a teenager on a school morning? Oh, I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhave. Early and often. It generally starts with a soothing voice and a gentle nudge. A verbal reminder that it’s time to wake up and start the day; a forgiving prompt that while you’ve slept through your alarm clock, again, it’s time. You don’t want to be late for school, after all. And you need those 11 essential vitamins and minerals that are part of a complete breakfast! Well, this goes on and on until it eventually devolves into threats of phones being confiscated and a grounding that will last until either their sophomore year of college or the apocalypse — whichever comes first. This is followed by yelling and blankets getting ripped off the bed. All in all, not the most relaxing way to rise and shine and rejoice in the day that the Lord hath made.

This morning, on this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus issues us all a wake up call. And we’re well beyond the soothing voice stage. Because while gentle suggestions are easily ignored, it’s much more difficult to sleep through a bucket of ice water being dumped on your head. Which is basically what Jesus is doing here. And, frankly, as you would expect, it’s pretty jarring.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But did we mention that Santa will be at the mall later today?

So what do we do with this passage and why are we hearing it as we begin this season of hope and expectation? Well, the first thing we need to do is remind ourselves that Advent is by its very nature counter cultural. It may coincide with a time of shopping and decorating and holiday parties — all fine things when kept in proper perspective — but as Christians this is primarily a time of spiritual waiting rather than consumer anticipation.

The second thing we need to do is to put these challenging words from Jesus into some context. What we have here, folks, is an example of apocalyptic language. Yes, we tend to cede the entire genre to late night Christian radio hosts and Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but we do so at our own peril because it leads to the rampant misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Scripture.

Since we tend to ignore or at least marginalize such readings, you should know that the word apocalypse doesn’t mean “the end of the world;” it simply means “revelation.” In modern parlance it’s become associated with a dramatic final destruction of the world, but that’s a later interpretation. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been around for centuries before Jesus, and one of the major themes was that as bleak as things appeared in the present, the future held great promise. The “revelation” was a vision of what God would do for his people in the future. So, embedded within apocalyptic literature was a comforting message of hope; something especially important to the people of Israel during the long years of the Babylonian exile, when they were separated from their homeland and everything that was familiar.

And if you think about the communities in question who were hearing these messages — both the ancient Israelites and the early Christians — you can see how they would have been drawn to such visions. Visions which painted a vivid picture of a time when the present age of suffering would end and good would ultimately triumph over evil.

And while many of the prophetic visions of apocalyptic literature are as poetic as they are bizarre to our ears, Jesus’ original hearers were familiar with the genre and would have immediately recognized the themes Jesus speaks of here — the language of impending wars and natural disasters; of fear and foreboding. And also the note of hope.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ words, and apocalyptic writing in general, weren’t meant to be taken literally — which is precisely the mistake made by Biblical literalists and street preachers. They love this stuff — the Book of Revelation, portions of Daniel and Ezekiel, the verses we just heard from Jeremiah, and passages like this one from Luke’s gospel. They’re all about the interpretation of these so-called signs in order to pinpoint the precise date of the Second Coming of Christ. Which, of course, is futile. Jesus himself says, “about that day or hour no one knows.”

And here’s where it all ties into the season of Advent: In Advent we anticipate not just Jesus coming to a manger in Bethlehem but also that time in the future when Jesus will return to redeem the world.

So in Advent we enter something of a time warp. We are asked to wait for something tangible, the birth of our Lord, even as we are asked to wait for something intangible, the return of our Lord. None of which follows a logical, linear sequence. Welcome to God’s time; a way of being that transcends all human constructs.

And adding to the confusion, Jesus, oddly enough, wakes us up and bids us to wait. Which seems absurd on the surface of things. We’d never wake our kids up five hours before school just so they could sit and wait for the bus for hours on end. But Jesus rudely rousts us from our reverie with this apocalyptic language and then invites us to enter into a time of two-pronged waiting.

In Mark’s gospel, the passage we heard a couple of weeks ago, the one upon which today’s reading from Luke is most likely based, he writes that these signs of which Jesus speaks are just the “beginning of the birth pangs.” And that’s certainly an appropriate theme for Advent as we await the birth of our Savior. As anyone who has experienced pregnancy or has lived in a home with a pregnant woman knows, everything is about to change. During this period of waiting, you live in a time of anticipation but with a tinge of the fear of the unknown. Expectant parents know that change is coming but they just can’t fully comprehend exactly how this watershed change will play out. And the same could be said of our waiting time during Advent. Everything changes when the Savior arrives; we’re just not certain how that change will be enacted in our own lives.

So this time warp Jesus beckons us into of having arrived yet still to come, leads to yet more confusion. And what do we do? Jesus seems to encourage us to look for the familiar. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So even as things feel out of sorts and uncertainty rules, in our lives and in our world, God is everlasting, unchanging, and eternal.

And perhaps that’s the good news for this day. We have a rock to hold onto amid any storms that may come our way, globally or personally. And as difficult and as confusing as waiting may be for us, perhaps there’s some comfort as well in times when everything feels like it’s collapsing around us. We could all use a comforting message of hope.

As we move deeper into this season, we will be encouraged to “keep awake” and “be alert.” We enter a time of watchfulness as we prepare to receive Jesus into our hearts anew. But it begins with a wakeup call. A call not to rise and shine, but a call to rise and wait.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 21, 2014 (Advent IV, Year B)

Step away from the kitsch. The Mary kitsch, I mean. The glow-in-the dark night-lights, the dinner plates from the Franklin Mint, the Zombie Virgin Mary cigarette case (yes, it actually exists). In order for us to really see Mary for who she is, we have to strip away all sorts of cheesy religious products right along with our preconceived notions. Because many of us do approach Mary with a lot of baggage.

If you grew up Roman Catholic — and I know many of you did — Mary may well hold a
virgin-mary-night-lightspecial place in your heart. You’re certainly able to recite the Hail Mary and perhaps you can even expound on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or you have a prayer card extolling the Sacred Heart of Mary tucked into the sun visor of your car. Or maybe you took a u-turn and intentionally left all that Mary stuff behind when you started coming to the Episcopal Church.

If you grew up in a more Protestant tradition, maybe you’ve never given Mary much consideration beyond finding her a little “too Catholic.” Having her show up once a year in a Christmas pageant is quite enough, thank you very much. Or perhaps you’re overtly suspicious of those bathtub statues in people’s front lawns and alleged Virgin Mary sightings in everything from grilled cheese to water stains.

But wherever you are on the Mary continuum, I’m going to ask you to suspend your judgments and biases and preconceived notions so that we can truly encounter Mary. This morning we hear the story of the Annunciation, that moment when the Angel Gabriel shares the news with Mary that she will bear God’s son. Now, in case you’re doing the math, this doesn’t mean we’re fast-tracking this pregnancy. Four days from conception to birth! It’s a Christmas miracle! Yes, Gabriel proclaims that “With God all things are possible,” but this might be a stretch. The Church actually celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 — exactly nine months before Christmas Day. But today we hear this story not just because she play an obviously integral role in the birth of Jesus but because Mary matters.

Textually speaking, in looking at the Annunciation story, in just a few short verses Mary is transformed from peasant to prophet. From “How can this be?” to “Here I am.” In the end it’s all about saying “yes” to God. Mary says yes and the world changes forever.

But I’d like to press pause on this for a moment. We tend to skip over Mary’s disbelief and shock and just barrel ahead to the manger. Yet in the text we hear that she was “perplexed,” that she “pondered,” that she was “afraid,” all of which points to her absolute incredulity. And who can blame her? From a rational perspective none of what she’s hearing makes any sense at all.

0325-annunciation-theotokosWhat is perfectly reasonable is Mary’s confusion. Yes, about the whole idea of giving birth but even before that by the Angel Gabriel’s words that she is “favored.” On the exterior, this young teenaged girl was anything but favored. At least societally. She was poor, she was young, she was from the other side of the tracks, and she was a she. This wasn’t exactly a recipe for power and status in the ancient world. In fact, it would be hard to find someone more marginalized than Mary.

But there’s a reason Mary is revered for her humility, thoughtfulness, and discipleship: she is so fully human in this encounter with Gabriel. There is something incredibly authentic in her uncertainty and hesitation. The range of emotions flash through her and she needs the angel’s assurance to “not be afraid” and his gentle reminder that “with God all things are possible.” But her first response is not immediate acquiescence. Rather it’s to take a step back and ponder. Hers is a thoughtful and discerning faith, not a hasty or blind one. So what gets lost in the popular image of Mary — with the statuary and the necklaces and the prayer cards — is the thing that matters most: her humanity; the very quality that makes her one of us.

Yes, giving birth to Jesus is an important part of what makes Mary so special. But I’m pretty sure God would have had a Plan B if Mary refused. Maybe we’d be talking about the Blessed Virgin Mildred or the Sacred Heart of Betty. Or, who knows? Maybe Mary was Plan B or C. But in the end it is Mary who is remembered and revered as the Theotokos, the God Bearer.

But Jesus himself commends her for something even more important. There’s a brief, often neglected interaction later in Luke’s gospel that is telling. At one point, right after Jesus has taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer and driven out an unclean spirit, a woman in the crowd yells out, “‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’” And instead of saying, “Yes, my mom is awesome!” Jesus contradicts her saying “‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’”

And that is precisely what Mary did. She heard the word of God and obeyed it. Not without hesitation or discomfort or anxiety — things we can all relate to — but she said yes to God. That’s what makes her a worthy role model for each one of us. Let’s face it, none of us are ever going to give birth to the Messiah. We’re never going to be physically related to Jesus. We can’t emulate Mary that way but, like Mary, we can listen, hear, and obey the word of God.

Ultimately, the Christian family is not based on biology but faith. In other words, as a Church we’re less nuclear family and more Modern Family. We act in dysfunctional ways, our family structures aren’t always clear, we have a complicated relationship with our mother, we have a gay uncle or two. But we are all, every single one of us, God’s adopted sons and daughters. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes that we are all children of God through a “spirit of adoption.” And that when we cry out to God our Father it is the Spirit bearing witness that we are indeed children of God.

We are God’s children by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is baptism that has made us everlasting members of Jesus’ family, right along with Mary. And by our actions and through our worship we are invited to renew our family heritage on an ongoing basis.

Over the next few days, I encourage you to join Mary and ponder in your own heart the ways in which you might open yourself up to saying “yes” to God. It may mean leaving your comfort zone — it certainly did for Mary. But it may well lead you into a renewed relationship with God in ways you can’t possibly even imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 14, 2014 (Advent III, Year B)

If John the Baptist was born a couple millennia later, we all know what he’d do when the long-anticipated Messiah finally showed up along the banks of the River Jordan: he’d take a selfie with Jesus and post it to Twitter. Hashtag #theonewhoistocome. And it would go viral.

john-the-baptist-bearing-witness-by-caracciThe image is absurd, of course, precisely because John continues to be a counter-cultural figure. Yes, he cuts through all the external trimmings and trappings of the Christmas-Industrial Complex to get right to the heart of the season. But in this age of selfies and self-promotion, John the Baptist again does the unthinkable — he points not to himself but to another. He draws the attention away from himself and places it firmly on the one who is to come: the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.

And that stands out for most of us since we humans are, by nature, a rather self-centered lot. Technology doesn’t help — and in full disclosure I did take a selfie with Santa last week and put it on Twitter. But the selfie culture simply highlights and makes visible our own unflattering tendencies. I mean, be honest, how many of you, since arriving in your pew this morning, have thought about things you need to get done later today or this week or before Christmas? That’s not a terrible thing — we’re all striving to be productive and we have stuff to do. But even when we intentionally set aside time to reflect on life beyond the visible world, we often have trouble being fully present.

Or how many of you have checked your phones since entering this sacred space? I haven’t, mostly because it would be embarrassing if I got caught. Which is why I never bring my iPhone into worship — lead us not into temptation and all that.

And I imagine it would have been tempting for John to get caught up in the moment here. His presence and actions had attracted a large crowd and a lesser person couldn’t help but say to himself, “Look at all these people who have come out into the wilderness to check me out.” What preacher doesn’t get jazzed by a larger than usual audience? Especially one who’s been plying his trade in relative anonymity. And then suddenly a big crowd gathers — granted with a mix of motivations. Some have come with open hearts and minds, some have come out of curiosity to gawk at the spectacle of the popular preacher du jour, and some like the ones in this encounter have come to look for heresy in order to condemn and discredit.

But John doesn’t want to talk about himself; he wants to talk about Jesus. You know when you go to a dinner party and get seated next to someone who only wants to talk about him or herself? Someone who not once asks anything about your life but continues on in a mind-numbing monologue? John the Baptist is the opposite of that dinner guest. Because it’s not all about John, it’s all about Jesus.

Of course if you sit down at a dinner party and the person next to you oj and m selfienly wants to talk about Jesus, that’s a whole other issue. And it’s true that when I walk into a crowded coffee shop and can’t find a table, all I have to do to get one is go up to another patron and ask if they’d like to talk about Jesus. But that’s not the point here.

The point is, we could all stand to point away from ourselves more often than we do. It’s not all about us. Ever. Even though we so often act as if it is — in our self-centeredness, our inward focus, our fear of looking foolish. Ultimately, it is all about Jesus Christ. So John brings that ever important gift of perspective. He models for us a way of thinking beyond ourselves. And he does this simply by living into his calling as the one who prepares the way for the one who is to come.

There’s a word for what John is showing us here: humility. I think our culture sometimes views genuine humility as a sign of weakness. To be humble is seen as subjugating the fullness of your unique personality or allowing someone to run roughshod over you. Yet John offers us a model of faithful humility that isn’t weak or groveling. There was certainly nothing timid or faint-hearted about John the Baptist. At all.

But this single-minded devotion to his task as the preparer of the way, didn’t depend on how many or how few people came out to listen to him. Even if he was literally a voice of one crying in the wilderness, he would have gone about his calling with passion and conviction. Yes, you can fully be yourself, in all your unique glory, even as you point to Jesus as the source of all life.

But still, those who gathered to witness him preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, were certainly confused about his identity. And they start peppering him with questions, the upshot of which is ‘Who are you?’ Followed by ‘Who do you think you are?’

The indignant ones questioning John’s credentials were part of the religious establishment and they were none too pleased about this extra-curricular activity happening out in the boonies. Yes, there was general hope that the messiah would show up but surely the ones wearing the fancy robes would be the first to hear of it. Not some locust-eating crazy guy in the wilderness. But then God rarely does things by the book (well, besides the Bible).

So who was this man we know as the Forerunner of the messiah? In John’s gospel we hear a lot about who he was not. In these few verses we hear that John is not the light, not the messiah, not Elijah, not Moses. It’s almost a comical exchange as John keeps saying “no” over and over again. But then a picture begins to emerge. John is a witness. John is a testifier. John is a voice. In some ways he’s like a giant neon arrow pointing to Jesus; a spiritual road sign pointing the way.

And we do well to follow John’s direction. Because when we do, two things happen. We’re reminded that we’re not actually the center of the universe. And we begin to move our inward focus out to other people. This is what makes following Jesus possible. And when we do so, we can’t help but have compassion for those in need. For the poor and downtrodden, the hungry and oppressed, the homeless and voiceless.

John reminds us to see things from above, not just from our own limited perspective. He reminds us to turn our lenses outward, to move beyond ourselves, to view the world with compassion, to see everyone around us as a fellow child of God. Which is hard to do when we’re taking literal or metaphorical selfies all the time.

As the light continues to build on the Advent wreath, I encourage you to tune in to John’s voice crying out in the wilderness, let it reorient you, and I promise you will be drawn ever closer to the messiah.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 7, 2014 (Advent II, Year B)

There’s an old axiom used in the military known as the Five P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Actually in some circles it was known as the Six P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. But the basic premise is that preparation is important. If you want to achieve excellence or reach your full potential, you must first do the hard work of preparation. There are no shortcuts or easy answers.

I was reminded of the 5 P’s as I was preparing this sermon on one of the major themes of the Advent season: preparing. We’re bid to be ready, to stay alert, to keep awake, to be prepared.

untitledSo how are your preparations going? Just look around town — people are awfully busy. If an alien suddenly dropped into our midst, from the moment he stepped out of his UFO, he couldn’t help but notice the flurry of activity and sense that something major was about to happen. We’re stringing lights, tying Christmas trees to the tops of cars, methodically placing white lights in all our windows — for fear of reprisals from the Hingham Christmas police, shopping — online and at stores, wrapping presents, hanging ornaments, baking cookies, writing Christmas cards, polishing silver, sending out invitations, cleaning the house, putting up garland. And if you haven’t started yet, well, get cracking — there are already two candles lit on the Advent wreath!

These are all outward and visible signs of how we prepare for Christmas. And from a global perspective, we must all look a bit like the Whos down in Whoville “who liked Christmas a lot,” scurrying around getting things ready, preparing for the big day.

But how is your interior preparation going? How are you preparing not just for the coming of Christmas Day but for the coming of Jesus Christ? That’s often a more difficult question to answer. You don’t see people racing around to get to an Advent retreat down at the convent in Duxbury or rearranging their schedules around their prayer lives or stressing out about making time to listen to Handel’s Messiah.

But when it comes to the preparation of our souls, we do have some help. John the Baptist always shows up this time of year to remind us, in his inimitable way, of what really matters here. And, believe it or not, it’s not large inflatable snowmen (which, again, would warrant a visit from the Hingham Christmas police).

One of the reasons I love the Baptist’s presence during Advent is his unique ability to cut johntbthrough all the exterior trappings and get right to the heart of the matter. That’s not to say that all our yuletide preparations aren’t important. They are. But they’re meaningful only when they’re connected to the broader context of the season. And when John shows up channeling an Old Testament prophet in his camel hair clothes and leather belt with locusts and wild honey stuck in his unruly beard, you can’t help but take notice.

Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John the Baptist is God’s Preparer in Chief. And the message is simple: repent. Get down on your knees and ask for forgiveness. Clean out your soul and make room for God. That’s how we engage in spiritual preparation — by un-cluttering and unburdening our souls to make room to receive God in a new way.

Of course, this means thinking about things we’d rather avoid. Things that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is never easy. It involves a turning of the heart and an acknowledgment that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But as the Forerunner of Jesus, as the Preparer of the Way, John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And he makes it very clear that this repentance is precisely what prepares us to accept the offer of salvation that is to come.

When we truly and authentically engage the season, we realize Advent is not a comfortable season in the conventional sense. When we hear God say through Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” the comfort isn’t about lounging in a Laz-y-Boy recliner in front of a roaring fire while sipping 18-year-old single malt Scotch. That’s a fine thing and perhaps after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I’ll do just that. But we don’t talk about comfort when things are going well. We deeply crave comfort when things are broken and falling apart. It’s into this dis-comfort in our world and in our hearts that God offers true comfort.

So for those of us fortunate enough to live in communities like the ones on the South Shore, it’s not enough to sit in our beautiful churches with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. For Christians, Advent means so much more. Because preparing to meet Jesus is not always easy. We will be asked about what we’ve done to comfort others. About what we’ve done to change a society where racism and injustice continue to run rampant; where the inequality between rich and poor is staggering; where addiction and violence are so prevalent. And I know that I, for one, often come up short.

Now, we may not want to hear this “intrusion” into our seasonal preparations. But then again Advent is not all peppermint lattes and gingerbread. It’s about preparing to meet Jesus anew both at the manger and in our everyday lives.

The good news is that God, too, is preparing. And thus the Baptist is charged with getting things ready. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.”

There’s an urgency to this preparation. And God’s urgency is an urgency of love for each one of us. John the Baptist prepares, we repent, and Jesus arrives in order to bring salvation to the whole world. To comfort the poor and marginalized, to inspire in us a passion for justice, to reconcile us to God, and to bring peace both to our hearts and to all of humanity. That’s the urgency. That’s why the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low — so that God can make a bee line to your very soul.

As faithful Episcopalians know, we don’t sing Christmas carols during Advent. This sometimes comes as a surprise to visitors who show up in December expecting to hear Christmas music. It’s not that we’re particularly grinchy, it’s just part of our spiritual preparation to say, “wait, the celebration is coming, but not quite yet.” So while you’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve to sing “Joy to the World,” there is a line in there that speaks to what we’ve been talking about this morning. In the first verse we sing “let every heart prepare him room.” Which doesn’t mean to change the sheets and put out fresh towels in the guest room. It means opening your heart to let Jesus in; to make space for God in your life.

That’s my prayer for you this season and for all of us. That we will prepare for the coming of Christ not just externally but also where it truly matters; in the very depths of our souls.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck