All Saints’ Sunday 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 6, 2016 (All Saints’ Sunday)

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for president because the Sermon on the Mount would make a lousy stump speech. I mean, it’s got a nice rhythm to it with the memorably repetitive “Blessed are those who…for they will…” trope. But we want our candidates to project an image of strength and power; we want to see leadership and action. We want messages of confidence and abundance and optimism. We don’t want to hear about the meek and the poor and the persecuted and the hungry. We want uplifting rhetoric that inspires and reminds us of our national supremacy on the global stage. We want someone who will make the kingdom of heaven great again! Not someone who will highlight the as-of-yet unrealized dream of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Now you might have heard that we have an election coming up. In two short days we, as a vote_2016_morrisnation, will head to the polls to elect our next president. For many, it will be a relief to put this particularly nasty election cycle behind us. Sure, it’s been entertaining in an I-just-can’t-avert-my-eyes kind of way but it hasn’t exactly displayed the best of human nature. The bitter divides in this country have come into stark relief. And the election process has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of hatred and bile that I fear will be difficult to contain in the years ahead, no matter who wins on Tuesday.

More than ever, we need role models to serve as beacons of hope amidst a sinful and broken world. And this is why I love that a mere 48 hours before Election Day we are gathered together in this place to celebrate the great feast of All Saints’ Sunday. We can put aside the vitriol and the partisanship and the insults and focus on humanity’s better nature. Because this is where, if we invite them into our lives, the church’s saints offer us such promise and guidance.

These men and women we call saints lived in a variety of times and circumstances — some walked this earth during periods of great turmoil; some were reviled for their faith; some were ardent in prayer; some were strong leaders; some helped us experience God in new and profound ways. But their greatest virtue is not that they were somehow holier-than-thou or that they displayed pious perfection. They were flawed human beings just like you and me — just like our presidential candidates. They sinned, they messed up, they lost hope. But ultimately, often in the midst of great difficulties, they were faithful. Faithful in the ways they sought to follow Jesus. Faithful in their devotion to our Lord despite what they encountered. Faithful in their seeking after God again and again and again.

And this is a timely reminder that there is an antidote to the darker forces at work in the world. Which is the whole point of the baptismal rite. Water, that powerful and life-giving element, is used to cleanse and renew and wash away and give new life. Once blessed, this water of divine relationship changes everything. And while it doesn’t suddenly and magically erase the darkness that seemingly surrounds us at every turn, it does offer hope. And it helps us tap into this witness of the the saints who surround us like so great a cloud of witnesses. Saints who, just like us, have passed through this very water of baptism into deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, politics are a funny thing when approached from the pulpit. I’ve never suggested how anyone should vote. That’s not my calling or my function within this community of faith; I’m not a public policy analyst. That doesn’t mean I don’t get political on occasion but my calling is simply to preach the gospel of Jesus and trust that this contributes to the enlightenment you bring to the voting booth. Yes, Jesus himself was exceedingly political, in a subversive, fight-power-with-truth kind of way. But my calling is less partisan than it is, as the saintly Dorothy Day put it, one of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” And that, like hearing a political position with which we disagree, can make us uncomfortable.

But then, being a disciple of Jesus brings us into some uncomfortable places. The baptized life challenges our preconceived notions and often our very human nature. It lifts up the lowly and tears down the powerful. It challenges our assumptions and helps us see life not through a human lens but a divine one. The Beatitudes are radical because they flip over everything we think to be strong and powerful and instead underscore the qualities of faithfulness. For faith is ultimately what this life is about, not winning. And that’s a tough sell in our winner-take-all culture and political climate.

So today, we’re invited to look back towards those who have come before us in the faith, while also looking to the future. Even as we look to the saints, we don’t live our faith in the past tense. We revel in their good example and their witness to what really matters in this life. But our faith isn’t a museum exhibit. Something that we can only gaze upon but not touch, for fear of setting off an alarm or raising the ire of a guard. There is beauty in a museum and history and a sense of connection to past civilizations. But you can’t actually use that hand-painted vase from antiquity.

So we link this to the forward thrust of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who…for they will…” They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will receive mercy; they will be called children of God.

And the same could be said about the baptismal rite. As we bless the water, we look simultaneously backwards and forward as we recall all the ways that water has been present throughout our salvation history — as Moses crossed the Red Sea, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. We look back but we don’t keep our gaze fixed behind us. We look ahead to new relationship in Christ, to living out our faith in the world around us.

Jesus does invite us to look forward by holding before us the vision of the Beatitudes. To see a world where fear and hatred are driven out by compassion and love. We often need to pause for inspiration along the way, to look back to those who have endured hardships and come out all the more blessed for the experience. But the vision of peace and justice and love abides. And we’re reminded once again, that God doesn’t demand perfection but faithfulness. And there’s something so merciful and loving about that, isn’t there?

Unless you’ve already done the early voting thing, please do get out to the polls on Tuesday. And bring with you the spirit of the Beatitudes. Bring with you the poor and dispossessed, the meek and mournful, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart. Together and with God’s help, we can build up the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Because as Christians living out our faith in the world, we can collectively do infinitely more good than we could ever possibly imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

All Saints’ Sunday 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish
of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 2, 2014 (All Saints’ Sunday)

“That Helen is such a saint.” Now it’s not that Helen is necessarily an extraordinary Christian — I don’t even know if she goes to church. Or a dedicated follower of Jesus — she may or may not know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. But she did do all the dishes after that hearty Thanksgiving feast last year while everyone else was lying comatose on the sofa watching football. And if that’s not a saintly act, I’m not sure what is.

But is Helen really a “saint?” She’s selfless, perhaps. Always willing to lend a hand when a task needs doing. Of course, maybe she’d just rather wash dishes than interact with her extended and somewhat dysfunctional family. It’s hard to say. But when we reduce sainthood to simply being nice or cheerful or helpful we miss the whole point of what we’re celebrating today.

all-saints-day-2014-it-celebration-all-christian-saints-particularly-those-who-have-noBecause this morning on All Saints’ Sunday we hold up examples of those men and women who have followed Jesus Christ in ways heroic and simple, prophetic and contemplative, dramatic and prayerful. We commemorate those we read about in Scripture or see in the stained glass windows that surround us every week. Remarkable people from every generation who offer inspiration and encouragement at those precise moments we need them most.

So, if it’s not about doing the dishes — although it’s true that somebody had to clean up after the Last Supper — what makes someone a saint? Well, it’s not about meeting certain legal criteria or checking off a proscribed number of boxes. Nobody runs for saint or submits an application for saint or lists “becoming a saint” as the objective at the top of their resume. Working toward sainthood is not a career path.

Yet there are certain saintly qualities that seem universal, which is why it’s no accident that we read the Beatitudes this morning. Jesus offers some insights into the qualities God desires in all of us — being pure in heart and merciful, striving to be peacemakers and hungering for righteousness. And he names as particularly blessed by God the marginalized and persecuted and reviled. In other words, not the people society generally holds up as worthy of praise — not the wealthy and comfortable and well-fed.

Nor does Jesus, I think it’s important to highlight, say ‘blessed are the perfect.’ Because God doesn’t seek perfection in his saints — which is good because, frankly, if that were the case we wouldn’t have anyone to celebrate today. I think that perhaps the greatest popular misconception of the saints is that they were perfect — meek and mild, loathe to offend, goody two shoes, head down, praying without ceasing. As someone who spends a fair amount of time with saints, let me tell you — that’s nonsense. Saints were utterly human; people who were sinners, who had vices, who didn’t always do the right thing. No, they’re were not perfect, but they were faithful. That’s the point.

And that’s all God asks of us. God desires that we do the best we can, that we strive to be faithful in all things, that we seek to find Christ in one another. And even if an unattainable “saintly perfection” isn’t the ultimate goal, Jesus does invite us to embody the kingdom values of the Beatitudes. He doesn’t command us to do so — there are no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” embedded in the Sermon on the Mount. And he knows we won’t always get it right, but he encourages us to try.

The thing is, saintly qualities flow from the heart, they can’t be bought on eBay or acquired of our own doing; they are the outward and visible signs of our inner relationship with Jesus Christ; they manifest themselves in our interactions with those we encounter in everyday life.

I have certainly met people over the years who have exhibited saintly qualities — as I’m maeda_06bishop_met5sure you have. Yesterday at Trinity Church in Copley Square I attended the funeral for Bishop Tom Shaw who, as many of you know, served as bishop of this diocese for 20 years, announced his retirement, and died of brain cancer a month after leaving office. Here was an unusual man in that he was both a monk and a bishop. Someone with a deep interior life of prayer who also had a very public role in the church. But no matter what was swirling around him, he always exuded a prayerful centeredness. His faith defined him. And it was this spiritual core that set Bishop Shaw apart in my mind. And it’s why I will continue to be inspired by him in the years to come.

And that’s one of the reasons we honor certain individuals in the first place — to be inspired along our own earthly pilgrimages. We all need examples of people who have remained faithful during difficult times. None of the saints we honor walked this journey of life and faith alone — they had people they looked to for inspiration; people who modeled what it means to glorify Christ in their own day.

And if we inspire others in the process of living out our lives, even in small ways, even just now and then, we join our souls to the great saints who have come before us in the faith. The great cloud of witnesses that unites us to all of those in every generation who have worshipped God in heart and mind and soul. That’s such a great phrase isn’t it? “Cloud of witnesses.”

The term comes from Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” And isn’t that an encouraging image? There are literally hordes of saints rooting for us, praying for us, watching over us at each moment of our lives.

In other words, we are not in this alone. Which is why baptisms are such an appropriate thing to do on All Saints’ Sunday. A central tenet of our baptismal vows is proclaiming “I will, with God’s help.” The life of faith doesn’t happen in isolation or by ourselves but only with God’s help and the help of the entire Christian community in the broadest possible sense of the word.

In a few moments, as the kids walk in from Church School we’ll belt out the classic “I sing a song of the saints of God.” And not just because it contains my favorite verse in the hymnal: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I’ve been a soldier, I am a priest, but I do hope to avoid option number three. No, we’ll sing it because of the line “And I mean to be one too.” Not because we’re hoping to end up in stained glass but so that we too can inspire and be inspired and one day take our place among that great cloud of saintly witnesses into which we have all been baptized and into which we, like Bishop Shaw and all the faithful departed from every generation before us, will one day be welcomed.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

All Saints’ Sunday 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 3, 2013 (All Saints’ Sunday)

Depending on the outcome of the World Series, this sermon could have gone either way. It could have been dripping with pastoral concern and spiritual consolation or it could have sounded a note of victorious triumphalism. Of course, as a diehard Orioles fan I’m experiencing a certain detached indifference to the whole thing. Though by virtue of a strange ‘worlds collide’ moment, I was actually downtown for the parade yesterday — the annual diocesan convention took place at the Cathedral on Tremont Street, which just happened to be along the parade route. During the proceedings I snuck out to watch the duck boats pass by from the top of the Cathedral steps — believe me, I wasn’t alone. The highlight was seeing catcher David Ross look out at a bunch of clergy in collars standing on the steps, put his hands around his neck, point, and mouth “You guys are awesome!”

Anyway, I’m glad that my flock is experiencing the euphoria of World Series victory but really I just hope your abounding joy has a positive impact on pledging.

As the whiskers are shaved and the parade route is cleaned up and everybody starts getting enough sleep again — the extra hour helped — things do quickly get back to normal. And for us here at St. John’s this morning “normal” is a glorious All Saints’ celebration with six baptisms, a full church, and the dream of an expanded parking lot.

Of course if you dig deep enough, this all connects. As we sit here surrounded by the great saints of the church depicted in beautifully crafted, colorful stained glass you’ll notice that many of them do have beards — St. Nicholas and St. Paul and St. Joseph. Granted none of them are named St. Napoli or St. Papi or St. Dustin but you get the idea.

Red-Sox-parade--We do tend to elevate popular athletes and celebrities to saintly status. If you’ve ever been to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — and it’s one of my favorite places in the world — you know that it’s a modern-day religious shrine. There are statues and paintings and plaques and holy relics in the form of cleats and gloves and uniforms. You may not see a splinter of the true cross but you will see the bat used to hit .406 in 1941 by Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter.

Now, I’m not going to stand up here and rail against the culture of sports celebrity. As a big sports fan with all sorts of Orioles and Ravens paraphernalia in my office that would be disingenuous. But perspective is important and we need to remember just how much Jesus flips over this whole concept of celebrity status.

Look at the Beatitudes — we hear Luke’s version this morning. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep. Those are the ones Jesus holds up; he doesn’t say blessed are the popular, the athletic, the stylish, the wealthy. Luke includes not just the blessings but also a set of “woes,” or curses. And it seems, both to our ears and those of Jesus’ original hearers, like some sort of typo.

“I think he got the blessings and the curses mixed up. I mean, the rich, the sated, the joyful — those are the blessed, right? And the hungry, the poor, those who weep — those are the cursed, right? There must be some mistake here. Maybe Jesus is dyslexic?”

And Jesus’ words were even more countercultural at a time when people equated being rich and having good health with being blessed by God and being poor and sickly with being cursed by God. That’s lousy theology to be sure, but it was pretty common thinking back then and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we might occasionally still buy into it. Yet here comes Jesus flipping this whole thing, the entire cultural and religious foundation right on its head.

So what do we do with this? Well, it’s important to remember that the Beatitudes aren’t a Christian “to-do list.” You can’t go down the line and start checking off boxes: “Blessed are the poor” — great! I’ll start giving all my money away. “Blessed are those that weep” — perfect! I’ll go watch Terms of Endearment. “Blessed are the hungry” — awesome! I’ll start my diet today.

The Beatitudes are about divine justice, not human standards of who’s in and who’s out. And that’s challenging for us because it forces us to rethink how we view and treat the poor and downtrodden, the weak and the vulnerable. Jesus holds us to a different standard of saintliness than popular culture might suggest — we join the great saints of the church when we do our part to reach out to the needy and less fortunate. Not in an I’m-the-great-savior-of-the-poor kind of way but in a way that, as the Baptismal covenant proclaims, “respects the dignity of every human being.”

Hearing the Beatitudes on All Saints’ Sunday reminds us that Jesus wants us to rethink the definition of a saint. We have this idea that the saints were all perfect. Perfect models of virtue; never wavering in their faith; untainted paragons of holiness. But just to let you in on a little secret, they weren’t perfect. They got angry, they let God and others down, they missed deadlines, they didn’t always finish their homework, they didn’t win the parent of the year award, they made bad decisions, they neglected to call their mother on her birthday. In a word, they were human. Acting saintly doesn’t mean perfection, it means faithfulness — and that’s the critical point here. Striving for perfection is a losing cause but faithfulness, that’s something we can all strive toward. Not alone, not in isolation, but as we say at our baptism “with God’s help.” And not just with God’s help but in the context of a worshipping community that supports us through times of joy and times of heartbreak.

And isn’t there some freedom when we set aside the rigidity of the perfection ideal? This is so important to our spiritual and emotional well-being especially as we head into the holidays. We’re not perfect and we never will be perfect — again, Jesus calls us to be faithful, not perfect.  In a sense, we are all in our own ways stumbling saints. People doing our best to be faithful to God, stumbling occasionally or often, but loved for our effort and forgiven for our missteps.

Fortunately there are stepping stones for those of us who stumble. That’s how I view the great saints of the church. Their example of faithfulness provides us stepping stones for the journey. Safe places to put our feet as we navigate this journey of life and faith. I encourage you to learn about the saints; read about them, Google them, engage in Lent Madness if you’re looking for a fun way to do this. Bearded or not, saints can inspire us and show us the way.

The great Feast of All Saints’ reminds us that God has sent his blessing upon the world. And that God’s blessing rests upon us even in the very messiness of life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

All Saints’ Sunday 2003

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 2, 2003. 
Based on Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14 (All Saints’ Sunday, Year B). 

It’s a cool logo. If you look at the inside back cover of the bulletin, you’ll see our new 150th anniversary logo. And this is an historic moment because I believe I’m the first preacher who has ever encouraged parishioners to read the bulletin during the sermon. But it’s worth drawing attention to because it’s a logo that you’ll see a lot of over the next 13 months. Today we kick off our sesquicentennial celebration. And we’re not merely celebrating this occasion for a full year to give us adequate time to learn how to spell and pronounce ‘sesquicentennial.’ We’re focusing on our 150th anniversary as a parish because it is an important year in the life of this community. And this is a community worthy of celebration.

There could be no more appropriate day to begin this celebration of 150 years at All Saints’ Episcopal Church than All Saints’ Sunday. This day is our heritage. It is our namesake. I’m not sure how the founders of this place decided on a name. But by 1854 St. Mary’s was already taken. St. John’s in Pleasantville was a year old. There was a St. Mark’s in Mount Kisco, a St. Matthew’s in Bedford, and a St. Peter’s in Peekskill. But I think All Saints’ is a perfect name because it is so all-encompassing. And so are we. We’re people with many different backgrounds and attitudes and beliefs. As our mission statement puts it, we’re “an extended family of many different people.” Plus I like it because I get to remind my priest friends that while they may serve St. Peter’s or St. whatever, I’m at All Saints’. Not just one of the saints.

So while there could be no more appropriate day to begin this celebration, there could also be no more appropriate reading than our lesson from Ecclesiasticus. Because on this day we do sing the praises of famous men and women, those who have made an impact upon this place over the generations. They may not all be known to us by name, but those who built this parish and sustained it over the years are famous to us for the legacy they have left. And, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus tells us, the deeds of faithful Christians over the generations will never be forgotten by God. Even though they may be unknown or forgotten by us. We are the heirs of their faithful commitment to this place. 

Not only are we the heirs of this legacy, we are also future ancestors to another generation of worshippers at All Saints’. No matter how young or how old we are, others will come after us. Others will remember us, maybe not by name, but by the commitment of our faithfulness. So in that sense we are the stewards of All Saints’ at this particular time in the flow of our communal history. For 150 years the gospel has been preached and lived out in this place. Not perfectly, of course, but faithfully. And if we have anything to say about it, the gospel will be preached and lived out in this place for the next 150 years and beyond.

But, you may ask, what’s the big deal? What’s so important about a number? 150 years as a parish community means more than just a nice round number. It’s about more than a cool logo. It means that we share an ongoing commitment to the service of Jesus Christ. It means that we recognize our place in this legacy whether we’ve been here for 40 years, 10 years, 2 years, or 2 months. Or, in my case, 1 year, 1 month, and 6 days (I did the math). But however long it’s been and for whatever reasons we arrived, we are all indelibly connected to this place through our faith in God. We are connected to one another and to Christ through this stone structure on the corner of Old Briarcliff and Scarborough Roads. 

But our 150th anniversary is bigger than even this. Because on All Saints’ Sunday we also recognize and celebrate our connectedness to those who have served Christ throughout all  generations. We remember those who have come before us in the faith. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, disciples, saints, and apostles. This is our family of origin. Jesus Christ is in our bloodstream. We are both heirs and evangelists of this faith. On this day we remember the saints, known and unknown, who have come before us in the faith. We reflect upon the generations of the faithful who have worshipped the living Christ and we take our place among them, adding our voices to the heavenly chorus that spans all time. On All Saints’ Sunday we don’t just remember the saints who are immortalized in stained glass. The definition of a saint is broadened. We recall the saints we have known and loved and lost in our own day.

And as we remember the dead on this day, the saints who have lived and walked among us, it’s important to remember that one day we too will be remembered on All Saints’ Day. We will pass over into larger life, into the realm of the faithful departed. And we, too, have an opportunity to make our own impact upon this place. An opportunity to leave a legacy about which future generations will be able to sing praises. Not because life is all about us and our accomplishments. But because of our deep faithfulness to God and God’s church. 

Jesus bids us not to live in fear of the day we will join the faithful departed. But to receive that day with joy. For we will never be forsaken or left alone. Christ stands with us. The heavenly chorus of angels and archangels stands with us. And all the saints throughout the ages stand with us.

So let the celebration begin. Let us praise the God from whom all blessings truly do flow. And let us give thanks for the past, the present, and the future of faith in the risen Christ.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

All Saints’ Sunday 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 6, 2011 (All Saints’ Sunday)

The Sermon on the Mount evokes all sorts of images. Especially when it’s depicted on one of those collector plates you can order from the back of Parade Magazine. In three easy payments of $19.95, the Bradford Exchange envisions a bedraggled crowd looking up at Jesus with expectant, hopeful faces. The sun is setting behind the mountain, casting Jesus in a warm glow. His long blond locks are flowing in the gentle breeze as he smiles benignly at the assembled masses through his perfectly trimmed beard. You can almost hear the soothing soundtrack in the background, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers.” Ahhhh. It’s so comforting for these poor, passive, naive souls gathered on the mountaintop with Jesus. 

But wait a minute – something’s askew. Because the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t delivered to a sad sack group of people by some benevolent teacher adept at turning a phrase while looking a lot like someone who just stepped out of a 1968 Volkswagen van. First of all, Jesus was speaking to real people. Like us, they were seeking a deeper meaning of life; like us they were pretty sure there was something greater at work in the world than what appears on the surface. Unlike us, however, they were people on the margins of society. This was not the in-crowd; these weren’t the power brokers of their day. This was a crowd searching for meaning but they certainly weren’t going to find it walking through the corridors of power or golfing at the local country club.

Nonetheless, Jesus wasn’t just offering false platitudes in a cruel world or doling out cold comfort. The Beatitudes are radical. This text completely overturns conventional wisdom. Think about it: On the surface of things none of these people are blessed – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers. These are the people who get ignored and trampled upon and kicked when they’re down. Cursed comes to mind a lot more readily than blessed. And Jesus’ words were even more countercultural at a time when people equated being rich and having good health with being blessed by God and being poor and sickly with being cursed by God. Horrendous theology to be sure, but pretty common thinking back then. And here comes Jesus flipping this whole thing, the entire cultural and religious foundation right on its head. There’s nothing the least bit worthy here of the Bradford Exchange or even the Franklin Mint.

So how is this group of people that has arrived with all sorts of emotional and economic and spiritual burdens to hear this new preacher, “blessed?” Well, I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, do any of you remember having to diagram sentences in English class? I always loved English but I dreaded having to diagram sentences. I was miserable at it and never really got it – you had to draw lines in one direction for the subject and another for the predicate and something else for a prepositional phrase or a different verb tense. The whole thing combined two of my least favorite things: grammar and geometry. And nothing sucked out the joy of a beautifully written sentence more than having to diagram it. I bring this up not because I’ve been having flashbacks while helping with the kids’ homework – I don’t think they even do this anymore. But if I did remember how to diagram a sentence, I think it would be helpful in talking about the Beatitudes. 

Listen to the formula: “Blessed are the meek, peacemakers, those who mourn, etc. for they will inherit the earth, be called children of God, be comforted, etc.” This brings the blessing into both the present and future tenses. Blessed “are” all of these groups right now and blessed will be all these same groups moving forward. Thus even as they will inherit the earth, will be comforted, will receive mercy, and will see God they are also blessed right now because they are part of God’s community. And so are we. That’s why this passage remains so relevant and beloved today; because we, too, are blessed by God and we too will be blessed by God. 

Now, you should note that Jesus didn’t “invent” this formula. Beatitudes were a known form of blessing in the ancient world. They were used to list blessings upon kings or the wealthy. But Jesus took this form and flipped it entirely upside down. Suddenly it’s the poor rather than the rich who are blessed by God; it’s the peacemakers rather than the warriors; it’s the persecuted rather than the victors; it’s the outsiders rather than the insiders. In this upside down kingdom those who are last suddenly become first. Those who are downtrodden suddenly become blessed. 

Which doesn’t mean life immediately becomes better. Being blessed by God in this world doesn’t make you wealthy or victorious by human standards; but it does usher you into the kingdom of deeper relationship with the risen Christ. Which bring us to the saints on this All Saints’ Sunday.

This morning we commemorate the great saints of the church – the ones who surround us in stained glass and statuary – but also the people we have known and loved and lost in our own lives. So we honor Saint Peter as the rock upon whom Jesus built the church even as we remember Uncle Peter as the guy who first taught us to throw a football. 

So All Saints’ Sunday is also about broadening the definition of a saint. Saints are not just people who lived in ages past, they’re not just the great heroes immortalized and in some cases immobilized in stained glass. Broadly defined, saints also include those who have died in the faith. Regular people. People you and I have known and loved and now miss. A father or brother, a friend, sister or mother. People who have known Christ and touched our lives in our own day. On All Saints’ Sunday we remember all of these saints as well; those we have known over the years, and those known to God alone. This is the full communion of saints.

And it is into this community, in the fullest possible sense of the word, that we baptize five new Christians this morning. The Christian life is many things but it’s not always picture perfect. It’s not all roses and sugar. The reality of the life of faith wouldn’t make for much of a collector plate. There are bumps in the road, there are various crises, there are chips in the bone china. Our spiritual lives tend to be more Jackson Pollack than Norman Rockwell. But the good news is that through it all, Jesus is present. And what’s even more, there are a slew of saints both the stained glass kind and the ones we’ve been privileged to know in our own lives surrounding us as well. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t a bunch of false platitudes but the powerful promise of the One who came bursting through the tomb to conquer death and the grave. Thanks be to God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

All Saints’ Sunday 2008

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on November 2, 2008 (All Saints’ Sunday) 

I took the boys on a little field trip this week to the cemetery around the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. I thought we should take advantage of the fact that we live in the Halloween capital of the world. We got there at 5:30 pm, just as the sun was setting figuring that would add to the spooky factor. Just for the record, the gates officially close at 4:30 so I guess technically speaking we were breaking and entering. I’ve always considered myself a great role model for my kids. 

So there we were lurking around the old gravestones as it got darker and darker. I picked them both up to peek inside the window of the church and talk turned to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. One of our family traditions is to read the story of the Headless Horseman the week before Halloween. And since it all took place right around the Old Dutch Church I thought it would give them a bit of context to walk the ground upon which the Horseman allegedly trod. 

But I admit I also had an ulterior motive. I wanted to link Halloween to All Saints’ Day. They both get very excited about Halloween – it’s one of their favorite days of the year and they plan their costumes months and months in advance. But All Hallows Eve exists only because it’s the night before the great Feast of All Saints’. And this fact gets lost amid the Halloween displays at Party City. In isolation, Halloween has no meaning – besides free candy and cute kids in ghoulish garb. Which is a fine thing in itself. And it’s all in good fun, unless your house gets egged or someone puts toothpaste on the door handle of your car. Something that I’ve surely never done; or surely never been caught doing. 

But beyond the Twizzlers and Snickers Bars and Harry Potter costumes, it’s a pretty empty experience unless it’s connected to something deeper. In other words, it’s all about context. We dress up in costumes to mock death – that’s the history of this practice. And that comes out of a very Christian notion. It’s the heart of our faith – the fact that through his death on the cross Jesus has destroyed death. Death no longer has dominion over us. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s,” Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. So we can mock death because it has no power over us. That’s the essence of All Hallows Eve. That’s the context; that’s the meaning. 

Which is important to remember, not just in the case of Halloween. Because it is faith alone that gives context and meaning to our very lives. Christmas devoid of the birth narrative is empty; Easter without the resurrection means nothing; life without faith is meaningless. Which is why making connections is so important. Connections between the secular and the spiritual; between holidays and holy days; between what’s on the surface of life and the deep spiritual well that runs beneath. 

This morning we hear the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel. They’re familiar; so familiar that we often fail to hear their radical nature. It should be noted that Jesus didn’t “invent” the form. Beatitudes were a known form of blessing in the ancient world. They were used to list blessings upon kings or the wealthy. But Jesus took this form and flipped it entirely upside down. Suddenly it’s the poor rather than the rich who are blessed by God; it’s the peacemaker rather than the warrior; it’s the persecuted rather than the victor; it’s the outsider rather than the insider. In this upside down kingdom those who are last suddenly become first. Those who are downtrodden suddenly become blessed. 

Which doesn’t mean life immediately becomes better. Being blessed by God in this world doesn’t make you wealthy or victorious by human standards; but it does mean that you are righteous. And it is this righteousness that will endure beyond the visible world. There’s a future tense to all this – the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will see God; they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I was recently interviewed for something called the FaithStreams Book Club. The filming process was a whole production – I even had to wear makeup for the first time in my life. Though I did stop short of getting a pedicure. I mention this because the parent organization used to be called Faith & Values Media but they recently changed their name to The Odyssey Network. Why? Because people would hear “Faith & Values” and make assumptions about the group’s political and theological leanings. And while I see their point, it made me absolutely cringe to think that the religious right has co-opted the terms “Faith” and “Values.”

The Beatitudes express, not the vaulted “Family Values,” but what I’d call Kingdom Values. And in some circles they might even be considered subversive. Because they’re all about raising up the lowly, fighting for peace and justice, and giving voice to those traditionally excluded by the mainstream. With not one word about who can marry whom or who can sleep with whom. 

The saints we celebrate on this All Saints’ Sunday, the ones for whom this church is named, are people who have incorporated these Kingdom Values into their lives in extraordinary ways. And thus they serve as examples to us who continue along the journey of life and faith. We struggle along often in need of inspiration and hope and meaning. And these saints, far from being set apart from the likes of you and me, are set within our own community. We walk alongside them as fellow members of the Communion of Saints, that mystical body that unites those who have come before us in the faith with those who are yet to come. We are part of something that transcends the ordinary and connects us to the Kingdom that is to come. We are all linked together by virtue of our baptism – which is why it is so appropriate that we welcome Daniel Santiago into the Communion of Saints on this day.

And so we are connected to something beyond ourselves; a way of keeping our lives in the context of faith; a way that offers meaning and hope amid the changes and chances of our mortal existence. A context that brings to bear the mystery and meaning of Jesus Christ right here, right now.

Making connections; giving context; expressing faith. It’s a work in progress for all of us. When we came home for dinner after our illicit visit to the cemetery, we did pray for all those whose graves we visited. Those who have come before us in the faith. Zack’s going as Jango Fett from Star Wars. Ben’s going as Jason Giambi. The conversation will continue.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

All Saints’ Sunday 2007

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 4, 2007. 
 All Saints’ Sunday

We live in the undisputed Halloween capital of the world. We may take it for granted sometimes but it’s an amazing thing to live in the shadow of Sleepy Hollow this time of year. Washington Irving, the Headless Horseman, ghosts, ghouls, goblins – this is spooky central. And we have the privilege of living and trick or treating right in the midst of it all.

This year I tried to take advantage of it more than I have in the past. We live around the corner from Sleepy Hollow Road for God’s sake! So we went to Philipsburgh Manor one evening and got to see the real-life Headless Horseman galloping past us on his trusty steed. Another night we swung by the Great Pumpkin Blaze at Cortlandt Manor in Croton and saw the unforgettable sight of 4,000 jack-o-lanterns all fired up. And of course we carved our own pumpkin at home – well Bryna did because for the last two years I’ve messed up and cut off the teeth so we’ve ended up with a toothless geriatric jack-o-lantern.
 
To cap off my new-found passion for Halloween, I read the boys the Legend of Sleepy Hollow over several nights last week. It’s a great story with all the usual suspects: Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, Katrina van Tassel, and obviously the Headless Horseman. It’s made all the more real for those of us who live in the lower Hudson Valley because we know the topography of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. We can picture the Headless Horseman riding through the cemetery that surrounds the Old Dutch Church. And as I read the story, I found myself answering the boys’ questions about what comprises a “legend.” I told the boys that legends, like the Legend of King Arthur, are often based upon some truths but that these truths have been embellished over the years. So it’s difficult to tell what’s real, what’s made up, and what’s rooted in some kernel of truth.
 
This morning as we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, the same could be said about some of the pious legends that have cropped up around the saints. There are some wonderful stories – and, again, it’s difficult to tell what really happened and what was embellished over the years. And so you have stories about saints like St. Christopher. Legend states that Christopher was a Roman of imposing stature, originally named Reprobus. At some point after his initial conversion to Christianity he sought out a Christian hermit to ask how he could better serve Jesus. The hermit took him down a path to a dangerous river crossing and suggested that the man’s great size and strength made him a good candidate to assist people crossing the river. So Reprobus began carrying people across the river on his back.
 
One day, a small child came to the crossing and asked to be carried across. Reprobus placed him on his back only to discover that the small boy was much heavier than anyone else he had taken. The child revealed that he was actually Jesus Christ, and that his unusual weight was due to the fact that he bore the sins of the world. The boy who was really Jesus then baptized Reprobus in the river, and gave him his new name, Christopher, which is Greek for “Christ-carrier.” 
Now I have no idea how much of this is rooted in fact and how much is sacred story. But in a sense it doesn’t really matter. Because when you strip everything away, saints were simply men and women who glorified God in their own day. Some were heroic and some were killed for their faith in Jesus; some were defenders of the faith and some were great leaders. Or as we just sang, “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.”
(While this is perhaps my favorite rhyme in the entire hymnal, please don’t get any ideas.) But at the heart of everything the saints simply loved our Lord passionately and with great intentionality. And that’s what we’re all called to do as well. Or, to put it another way, “There’s not any reason, no not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”
 
So the saints, if we let them into our hearts, can be compelling examples of godly living. But in order for us to allow them to inform our own lives we also need them to knock them off their pedestals. Not in an iconoclastic, sacrilegious kind of way but by remembering that these men and women had blood running through their veins, not just marble or plaster or stained glass. These were real people who struggled with their faith in the same way that you and I, at times, struggle with ours. They were heroic because of their humanity, not despite it. So in a sense we have to take the costumes and masks and capes off the saints. They’re not Christian Super Heroes with super human powers beyond anything we could imagine; but they often display a super human and heroic faith. And it is here where the example of the saints who have come before us and the living saints among us can support us in our own journey with the risen Christ. As long as we open our hearts and let them in. 
 
The one thing I didn’t do this year in my reinvigorated Halloween activities was dress up. Sometimes I like to complement the boys’ costumes. Like the year they went as Batman and Robin and I went as Alfred the butler. I got a lot of blank stares. This year they were both ninjas (pretty much anything with weapons involved is a popular choice at our  
house). But I couldn’t think of anything to go with ninjas besides being the one who gets attacked. And I already play that role on a daily basis. 

Maybe next year I could convince them to go as their favorite saint. One of the martyrs I’m sure – so they could use lots of fake blood. But if not, it’s still important for all of us to try to take on some of the attributes of saintly living. Whether you dress up or not, anything that draws us closer to God is always a good thing.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck