Christmas Day 2017

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

John’s gospel would make a lousy Christmas pageant. No swaddling clothes or mangers. No sign of Mary and Joseph. No wise men or shepherds. It’s pretty much just the Word of God and a bunch of light.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It’s beautiful and poetic, but what’s a pageant director supposed to do with that? You could have a kid shining a flashlight around, I guess. And another one dressed up as the Word of God wearing a costume with a big W on it. But the whole scene just doesn’t make for a compelling visual.

Which is one of the reasons I so love being in church on Christmas Day. After the pageants and the pageantry of Christmas Eve, we are left to contemplate all that has taken place. With bits of tinsel still on the rug and wax drippings still on the pews and perhaps a hint of incense still in the air, we are left to reflect upon what God has wrought in sending his Son into the world. There is a more cerebral approach to the meaning of the incarnational event that took place in a stable in Bethlehem a couple thousand years ago.

Despite our preference for hand-carved nativity sets with figurines placed just so on our mantle-places, God entering the world in human form was a messy affair. As you would expect from a birth taking place among farm animals. The chaos of Christmas pageants hints at this. And it’s an important part of the Christmas story and our annual devotions. But so is zooming out and reflecting on the cosmic meaning of the events that are such beloved aspects of the Christmas experience.

This morning, as we take a step back from the manger, perhaps having left wads of lightswrapping paper on the living room floor, I want to focus particularly on the image of light. Light is a major theme in John’s gospel and it is indelibly intertwined with his theology of Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. John boldly proclaims that Jesus is the light of the world. In these first few paragraphs alone John calls Jesus the “light of all people,” the “true light,” and tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But first, let’s acknowledge that the image of light and dark just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. Despite the sun setting before 4:30 these past few weeks — which is rather depressing, frankly — it’s easy enough to take light for granted in our modern world. If we want light, we flick a switch and behold! Let there be light! When the sun goes down there are streetlights and headlights and exterior lights and, if we’re fumbling around for our keys, flashlights on our cell phones. We basically have the power to turn night into day if need be and we are rarely ever inextricably cast into a darkness that we cannot illuminate.

So at first glance, John’s image of the light coming into the darkness of the world loses something in translation. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what it was really like before the advent of electricity. Trying to get everything done before nightfall. Getting lost in the woods on a dark night. Reading by candlelight.

But even though we can’t necessarily relate to the primal interplay between light and dark, we can very much relate to metaphorical darkness. To the forces of darkness that are unleashed upon the world in the form of bigotry and hatred and violence. That kind of darkness is alive and well and terrifying. It is this darkness that cannot overcome the light of Christ. The light of Jesus Christ that entered the world can never be extinguished. And that’s what Christmas is all about. This light that shines in the darkness is the light of hope.

And if there is anything we could use right now, if there is anything we crave, it is hope. The hope that justice will prevail; the hope that our lives have purpose and meaning; the hope that darkness will be driven out.

This is the thing about light. It dispels darkness and illuminates truth. It makes visible that which was previously obscured. When hope — that beautiful life-giving emotion — is hidden by the cares and occupations of our lives, we live a dimmed existence. All that is lovely and holy is hidden from our eyes. When we allow the light of Christ to shine forth, joy flows abundantly, bursting through the darkness. This is hope. The recognition that even amid darkness, the light of Christ will prevail.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who could not abide the song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Annoying tune aside, he insisted it was heretical. When the subject of the song came up, he would proclaim with righteous indignation to anyone who would listen, “This light is neither little, nor yours.” He was right, of course. The Light of Christ is the greatest light the world has ever known. And we do not own it or control it. On our best days, we stand in its warm glow, experience it, and share it with others. This light that entered the world in the form of Jesus changed everything. And it is by this light that our lives are defined and illuminated.

That’s the reminder for us on Christmas. So often we focus on the darkness of this world — the fear, the violence, the injustice — and fail to see the light in our midst. The light that stands in contrast to the darkness; the light that illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and souls. On Christmas Day we testify to this light; we give thanks for its never-ending presence in our lives; and we revel in the Light of Christ that sustains us with peace, hope, and joy.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017


Christmas Eve 2017

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

When my brother Matt was in middle school he took up the trumpet. We were a pretty musical family — at least in theory. Dad was a symphony orchestra conductor and mom sang in the church choir. My brother and I mostly just quit a bunch of instruments over the years. Between the two of us we blasted through the violin, piano, French horn, cello, guitar, and the aforementioned trumpet.

What I remember most about Matt’s trumpet playing days is that he could only play one trumpet-christmas-ornamentsong. It was in the key of C so it was a fine song for a beginner to learn on. The first eight notes were simply a descending scale. But there’s only so much Joy to the World you can take. Especially in July.

After hearing him play this incessantly and at top volume for weeks, the point came when I’d finally had enough. Now, they do make mutes for the trumpet; devices that go into the horn to dampen the sound. If you’ve ever seen an old video of Dizzy Gillespie you’ve seen these things. Matt’s rental trumpet came with one but he refused to use it because it made the instrument much harder to play.

Well, one day, after hearing Joy to the World a hundred more times, I grabbed the trumpet and shoved that mute so far in, that it never came out again. Ever. And that was the end of Matt’s trumpet playing career.

The lesson here is not that I was a jerk as an older brother. Although I had my moments. Or that hearing the same song over and over again isn’t incredibly annoying. It is. Rather I share this story as a reminder that no matter how hard we try, the joy brought to the world this night can never be muted. No matter what darkness we confront, no matter what evil we encounter, no matter what hardships we endure, the joy of God’s love can never be silenced. The joy of the Lord will not be muted.

Maybe this is why the message of Christmas is always so loud. In churches and homes all over the world, the joy of this night rings out at great volume. We go tell it on the mountain, we repeat the sounding joy, heaven and nature sing, a multitude of angels and archangels proclaim the good news; tidings of comfort and joy are enthusiastically shared; and un-muted trumpets blare Joy to the World. We share the news of Jesus’ birth with great fanfare because it fills us with such joy.

So what exactly is this joy we proclaim from hills and valleys and from everywhere in between? Well, the joy of the Lord is not something that we create ourselves. We aren’t the generators of this joy. Which is a good thing. Because if this joy was up to us, we’d inevitably be disappointed every Christmas. This joy is not dependent upon our shopping or our cooking; it has nothing to do with what Santa may or may not bring; it’s not concerned with what we wear or how we look. The joy that emerges from Mary’s womb in a humble stable on that first Christmas Day transcends our own strivings and desires. It is a joy that shines like an eternal flame illuminating the darkness of our lives and filling us with hope founded on divine relationship.

It is a joy born of God’s love for us. A joy that allows us to feel and know that God loves us for who we are in all our imperfections and shortcomings and failures. That no matter what we do or fail to do, God loves us unconditionally and without reservation.

It is a joy rooted in God’s presence among us. A joy that reveals in Jesus Christ a tender reminder
that we will never be forgotten or forsaken. That no matter the tears we shed, whether tears of laughter or tears of sorrow, the loving embrace of our Lord always awaits us.

It is a joy based on God’s hope for us. A joy that promises that when natural disasters strike, or violence shatters the sanctity of our world, or when hatred and bigotry arise, all is not lost. That even as we work for justice and pray for a better world, we are not abandoned by God.

The joy of the Lord — this joy that recognizes meaning even in confusion, life even in death, hope even in despair — will never and can never be muted. And this is why the message of Jesus’ birth is shared with trumpets blaring and angels singing. This joy, this precious, never-ending, always-abiding joy will not be silenced.

You know, even after I jammed that mute into my brother’s trumpet, I could still hear Joy to the World ringing in my ears. The joy of the Lord is like that. No matter how much we try to silence this joy by ignoring it or avoiding it, the joy still rings out. Loudly, boldly, and, on this night, merrily.

Please know that whatever drew you to this particular place on this particular night is a reflection of the divine joy that lives deep within you. Nurture that joy. Experience that joy. Share that joy. And on this Christmas night, sing Joy to the World with reckless abandon! For the Lord has indeed come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Christmas Day 2016

Christmas Day Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2016

One of the things I love about the Christmas Day service is that it always feels like the calm after the storm. You don’t have to look too hard to see evidence of the Christmas Eve tornado that blew through here last night. You can probably spot a strand of tinsel from one of the angel’s halos leftover from the Christmas pageant. Or there’s some wax that dripped onto the pew in front of you from midnight mass. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stray bulletin tucked into the hymnal racks that the ushers forgot to collect after one of the four services.

But here we are. The calm after the storm. And there’s something wonderfully wrapping-paper-messcontemplative about Christmas morning. All is finally, calm; all is finally bright. Some might call it anticlimactic — I mean, if you have kids at home, they’ve undoubtedly already ripped everything open and no matter how many gifts graced the tree, the phrase, “Is that it?” eventually rings out.

And at one level, that is it. The presents have been opened; the decorations will soon enough be hauled back up to the attic; the wreath will be taken off the front door. Maybe you have Christmas dinner to get to or to host but that will come and go soon enough. And you’ll be faced with a bit of a holy hangover — something that affects both children and adults. I know by Christmas morning I personally always feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a giant candy cane. But that may just be an occupational hazard.

And I can talk all I want about the 12 Days of Christmas — the partridge in a pair tree and the maids-a-milking and all that, about how Christmas is a season that starts rather than ends today, how we can finally start singing those Christmas carols in church that the rest of the world has been singing since Halloween. But there’s still an “is that it?” moment to December 25th.

What abides, of course, is Jesus’ entrance into the world. What remains is our relationship with the God who entered the world in human form. What stays with us is God’s love for all of humanity. Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to dwell among us. So, no, that is not “it.” The joy of Christmas is just beginning and we’re invited to embrace each day as if it was Christmas morning. Which doesn’t mean you’ll get to sleep in every day or open presents every day or enjoy a great feast every day. But it does mean that every time you wake up, every time you step out of bed, every time your feet hit the floor, you can be secure in the knowledge that God is with you. On good days, on lousy days, and all those days in between.

That’s what St. John is getting at, I think, in the familiar passage we hear every year on Christmas Day. That beautifully poetic prologue to his gospel speaks of Jesus entering the world as “the light of all people.” We hear in those stunning words that this “light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.” Think about that for a moment. No matter how dark life sometimes may feel, there is a light shining in the darkness that can never be extinguished. That’s the light we celebrate this morning and every single day. And it is a most glorious light.

It’s a light that has nothing to do with white lights in windows or colored lights on Christmas trees. It’s a light that can never be turned off with a switch or become unplugged. It is the light of Christ.

And this light is not merely metaphorical. It is the light that burns brightly within us, the light that fuels our desire to know God through Jesus Christ. It is the light that illuminates our minds and warms our souls as we enter into deeper relationship with the incarnate and risen Christ. It is the light that scatters the darkness from before our path, the light that enables us to step into uncertainty without fear of stumbling. We may not always recognize it or fully nurture it but this light is always present within us. And that’s the miracle of Christmas: that Jesus entered our world and sustains us with his very real presence.

A presence this world so desperately needs. I’m aware that while it’s easy enough for us to revel in the calm after the storm and enjoy the warm glow of the holiday, for so many of our brothers and sisters, there is no calm after the storm, because there has been no respite from the storm. In places where gun violence is a daily threat, there is no calm; in places where terrorism is an everyday reality, there is no calm; for those who live in fear because of the color of their skin or their way of life, there is no calm. For those facing crippling poverty with no hope of economic justice, there is no calm.

Calm is a luxury that we all too often take for granted. My abiding prayer is that we can use the hope we feel at Christmas as fuel to go out and make a difference in the world. To comfort those who seek solace; to relieve those who suffer; to assist those in despair. If Jesus’ birth means anything, it must be in the way we reach out to our fellow human beings, especially those not able to afford the luxury of calm and peace and joy this season.

So I do invite you into the calm after the storm. But I also encourage you to share this calm with those whose souls are disquieted within them; with those who aren’t able to sing “Joy to the World” at this moment in their lives, for whatever reason.

The joy of Christmas is indeed a wondrous thing. But we can’t just leave it lying under a decorated tree in the privacy of our own homes. Like that light of Christ, it must be shared abundantly and with reckless abandon to be made fully manifest in our nation and in our world. Only then will all be truly calm and truly bright.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Christmas Eve 2016

Christmas Eve Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2016

Not to pump up your ego too much, but you are one good looking Christmas Eve crowd. Yes, I do notice the Christmas ties and the fancy dresses and the brilliant Yuletide accessorizing going on here. Maybe you’ve come from dinner parties or you’re headed to an open house or you’ve hosted some family and friends. But wherever you’re going and wherever you’ve been, you look mighty fine this evening. And, not for nothing, but you may have noticed that even I dressed up for the occasion. Just saying.

Now, in this sense I think we have a lot in common with that great figure from Luke’s 2016-latest-design-printing-children-font-b-christmas-b-font-font-b-tie-b-font-arrowgospel story. The one mentioned in the very first sentence of the birth narrative. The one who wielded great power and was revered by all. Because I’m almost positive that Emperor Augustus was looking particularly regal on the night Jesus was born. Perhaps he was hosting some foreign dignitaries at the palace or was wandering the halls in a fancy new royal robe. So I think we should all be commended for dressing up like one of the characters in the well-known and beloved Christmas story. Much more appropriate than showing up to a Christmas Eve service in Hingham dressed like a shepherd. Or, God forbid, smelling like one.

One of the fascinating and telling things about the nativity story is that the arrival of this child is set right in-between glimpses of power and status on the one hand and vulnerability and humility on the other. The birth of Jesus is bracketed by rulers and shepherds. As he sets the context of this birth, St. Luke mentions by name the Emperor Augustus and the Governor Quirinius — a nod to the powers and principalities of the ancient Roman world. Then we hear about those tending their flocks by night — a group that couldn’t possibly be further removed from the halls of power.

And wedged right in-between kings and shepherds is that birth. Quite an ordinary birth, really. As momentous an occasion as it is for an individual family, the birth of a child is nothing special in the grand scope of human history. Billions of children have entered this world over the years. There were, presumably, other children born that very same night.

So what is it about this particular birth, in this particular place, on this particular night? What is it that has caused generations and generations of Christians to gather year after year to listen to the account of the birth of this particular child?

Well, no one knew at the time that the world was being transformed before their very eyes. Even the words we hear about the birth itself are, though well known, rather pedestrian. “While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” Besides the manger part, that could have described the birth of any child of any era.

But I think the juxtaposition of rulers and shepherds offers us a clue. The thing is, God comes to us not in royal robes but swaddling clothes. We may dress up to receive him at Christmas, and that’s a fine thing, but remember he didn’t come to an Emperor, he came to shabbily dressed shepherds. The birth was announced to the humble, not the mighty.

And herein lies the miracle of Christmas: God comes to us not in the public images we seek to project, but in our vulnerability; in our brokenness; in our insecurity; in our weakness. In other words, God comes to us in our very humanity. And God still loves us. That’s the miracle.

Because underneath our fancy clothes, resides our true selves. The part of us that may be grieving the first Christmas without a loved one; or mourning a broken relationship; or reeling from a recent medical diagnosis; or fearing for the future.

Jesus comes to our shepherd side. The side of ourselves that is not spit and polished but hurting and vulnerable and in desperate need of love. The side of ourselves that is not outwardly put-together but inwardly broken.

And in that place is hope. Out of the depths, hope is unleashed. Not a things-are-bound-to-start-looking-up hope. Not a false hope. Or an overly optimistic hope. But a hope born of God’s love for us even in the midst of tragedy or despair. A hope born of a Savior who came not to a pristine palace among the well-dressed but right into the muck of the stable among the shepherds. A hope born out of the comfort and joy of serving and standing with the marginalized, the lost, and the downtrodden.

And on this night we witness and experience the trajectory of hope in a broken world. We see the light shining in the darkness. We see the miraculous residing even in the midst of the mundane. And that’s why we remember this ordinary birth that unleashed the extraordinary power of God’s love for all humanity.

This holy season, may you experience the gift of God’s saving grace; may your heart overflow with the hope born of our Savior’s love; and may you have a very Merry Christmas.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016

Second Sunday after Christmas 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 3, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year C)

Every Christmas, Bryna and I spend some time looking at old Christmas pictures of the boys. We have a few photo albums we cherish but increasingly these are all online, embedded in old Facebook posts. We look at pictures of Ben and Zak and reminisce about simpler times — times when I was still taller than Ben and times before Zak had discovered video games. The chaos of the toddler years melts away and all we see are the sacred memories of that young family that was.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have the luxury of photographs to remember Jesus B and Zas a cute infant or a rambunctious toddler. But I’m sure, like all parents with growing children, they occasionally stole a quiet moment to reflect on their rapidly maturing son; to fondly recall rocking him to sleep or telling him a favorite bedtime story.

Of course, we know nothing of Jesus’ life from after the birth narrative until this story when we briefly meet the 12-year-old Jesus. After this fleeting glimpse, that’s it until his baptism in the River Jordan at the hand of John the Baptist — an account of which we’ll hear next week. And at one level, that’s too bad. How great would it be to have some anecdotes that foreshadow his future ministry? Healing a friend on the playground who accidentally got hit in the head with a rock or changing water into Kool Aid.

But while we’re not left with much, we are left with this one story of the “tween” Jesus. A story that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and certainly resonates with parents of middle schoolers everywhere. Because as we know, the image of our cute, young toddler doesn’t last forever. They mature, they grow, they seek and gain increasing amounts of independence and responsibility.

So it is that Jesus acts like, well, a teenager and ditches his parents after the annual family trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. He stays to teach in the Temple, like the precocious adolescent that he must have been. And when they find him, he gives them that great line which only the Son of God could ever get away with: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He may sound like a weisenheimer, but in reality he is forging his own identity and taking the first steps to claiming his calling as God’s son.

Mary and Joseph were no doubt hurt by Jesus’ words and actions but no more than every parent is hurt the first time our sweet young child doesn’t want to be seen with us when they run into friends at the mall. “What happened?” we ask ourselves. And the answer is simple, if heart-wrenching: they’re growing up. The distance they’re placing between them and us is unsettling, if developmentally appropriate. And we head back to the photo album.

Obviously Jesus didn’t go straight from the manger to telling off Pharisees at dinner parties. He, too, had to grow into and then claim his own spiritual authority. He, like every child, had to go through a maturation process and find his way outside of his parents’ purview. And no matter how many old pictures we look at, for better or worse, we can’t ever get that genie back in the bottle.

But in a sense, we often try to do this very thing when it comes to our faith. In the warm glow of Christmas, it’s worth noting that we often do leave our faith lying in the manger. We memorialize it in our minds. Keeping it as a precious memory rather than a living force of inspiration and transformation.

Frankly, it’s safer that way. To keep Jesus in the manger; to freeze frame our faith in the form of an infant. I mean, a newborn doesn’t challenge us or question the priorities of our lives. The adult Jesus may rail against hypocrisy and challenge us to renounce sin but the newborn Jesus just coos and nestles against his mother’s breast. Right?

Whenever I think about metaphorically keeping Jesus manacled to the manger, what comes to mind is Will Farrell’s character in the 2007 movie Talledega Nights. There’s a great scene where race car driver Ricky Bobby says grace before a family meal in which he makes it very clear that he only prays to the “baby Jesus.”

ricky bobbyHe begins, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.” This goes on for awhile before he continues with, “Dear Tiny Infant Jesus…” at which point his wife interrupts him to say, “Hey, um…you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.” And Ricky replies, “Well, look, I like Christmas Jesus best when I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

And Ricky keeps it going: “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled-up fists…” It’s a great comic scene but it speaks a deeper truth about our own propensity to stunt the growth of our own spiritual lives.

We may not pray to “Christmas Jesus,” exactly, or, as Ricky Bobby also puts it, “Dear eight pound, six ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly but still omnipotent.” But so often our faith doesn’t mature much beyond our understanding of the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School. And that’s a shame.

It’s fine to receive Jesus as a helpless infant as we do each Christmas, but don’t keep him there, immobilized in your mind and trapped in a manger. Adorable but ultimately powerless. The challenge for us is to allow our faith to mature. Just as Mary and Joseph gave space to Jesus to grow; we need to give him space to grow in our own hearts. To allow him to be not just a precious figure in our nativity set, but our Lord.

I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions but the timing is right as we turn the page to a new calendar year to recommit to our spiritual lives. To commit to growing in God in 2016; to seeking out opportunities to go deeper; to meet Christ anew.

The good news is you don’t have to do this alone. You have a community to support you in deepening your faith; you have parish clergy and faithful lay leaders to help you grow in God; you have programs and resources and worship opportunities here to inspire you and assist in moving your spiritual needle. But it’s up to you. Like a teenager forging an identity, we are invited to forge our spiritual identity. We may make mistakes or stumble along the way, but Jesus lovingly and mercifully lifts us up time and time again.

Even though we aren’t privy to exactly how it happened, the 12-year-old Jesus will continue to grow and mature until he claims his calling as God’s Son. And we, too, are invited to continue to grow and mature in order to claim our own calling as God’s children.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Christmas Eve 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2015

Entrances matter. Just ask Gisele or Cindy or any other supermodel who images-2knows how to own the runway. Or Kramer from Seinfeld who would come crashing through Jerry’s door as if being chased by an unruly mob; even if he was just looking to borrow a cup of milk. Or the high school football team at homecoming that bursts through a banner and runs through a funnel of cheerleaders. Even at church we process in rather than just showing up and casually starting the liturgy. Entrances matters.

And let’s face it, God could have done a much better job with his son’s entrance into the world. Jesus’ entrance was, in a word…underwhelming. There was no fanfare announcing Jesus’ birth. No trumpets or fireworks. No marching bands or pyrotechnics. Jesus slipped into the world quietly, silently, humbly.

And it all took place not in a castle or a palace — places that would make grand entry points — but in a stable. Which, despite our fancy china nativity sets was really just a filthy barn. And after his birth, Jesus was laid in manger. Which, as quaint as it sounds, is simply a euphemism for “feeding trough.” There’s good reason we don’t sing “Away in a Feeding Trough” on Christmas Eve. All of which is to say that you would think the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World, the Messiah could have made a much grander entrance.

And yet, never in the history of the world, has there been a more dramatic entrance. Jesus’ entrance into our world, into our lives, is the most dramatic entrance imaginable. And we see from the very beginning that Christ’s kingdom would be different from any other kingdom. A kingdom whose humble origins belie its ultimate majesty.

The fancy name for what takes place at Christmas — of God entering the world in human form — is Incarnation. Through it God literally “takes flesh” in the form of Jesus. The Incarnation of Jesus is what’s behind that seemingly odd verse we’ll soon be singing: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.”

And with the Incarnation everything changes. Because at the root of the Incarnation is relationship. Nothing speaks to the loving relationship between God and God’s people more than the sending of God’s son to live among us. Nothing. The true miracle of Christmas is this gift of relationship; relationship that offers us access to the divine. Not in the abstract or in theory or philosophically but in actuality. God dwells with us not in a sterile birthing room or an untouchable hand-painted nativity set but right in the midst of the messiness of the human condition; right in the mud and muck of the stable.

And at its heart, the root of relationship with God made manifest in Jesus Christ is hope. Which we could sure use in our world right now. The good news for us is that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all hope. And as this night shows us, hope doesn’t burst onto the scene so much as it slips into the world under cover of darkness. It appears to a people who crave hope, who need hope, and who must then proclaim hope to the world.

Because even amid the world’s darkness, the light of Christ, the light of hope, shines brightly. Hope heals, hope inspires, hope gives life. Hope invites us to dream of that which appears impossible. Hope is not fantasy or delusion or wishful thinking. Hope isn’t about wishing upon a star but trusting in one particular star to guide us to the manger, to lead us to Jesus, to lead us to a place of hope even when we feel utterly hopeless.

Gerard_van_Honthorst-web-art-academy-1024x816And this hope, this most precious and life-giving force arrives in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who offers us a vision of a different way of life. A way that puts love over fear; a way that includes rather than excludes; a way that affirms rather than destroys; a way that invites rather than denies; a way that opens the heart rather than closes the mind; a way that builds up rather than tears down; a way of hope.

On this most holy night, I bid you the courage to say yes to hope; to say yes to God entering the world in unexpected, if less than dramatic, ways; to say yes to God entering your life and delighting in relationship with you.

May you experience the warmth of the light of Christ this season. May you rejoice in the joy and the hope of Christ’s incarnation. And may you all have a very merry Christmas.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after Christmas 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 4, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year B)

“Wise men from the East.” There’s something exotic about “the East” from whence these Wise Men came. For Westerners, the Orient has long held a certain mystery or mystique. Sure this has abated with the advent of air travel and globalization but even still, and certainly for those in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, encountering three strangers from a faraway land was shrouded in intrigue and curiosity.

Unlike the poor shepherds who first arrived at the manger, these were men of means and WiseMenstatus. The gifts they brought may have been lousy baby gifts — gold’s a choking hazard, a flaming pot of incense is just a bad idea, and what infant really needs expensive embalming fluid — but these gifts were both lavish and symbolic. Gifts that foretold the child’s kingship, priestly life, and crucifixion.

The Magi were astrologers, the scientists of the ancient world; versed in magic and the interpretation of dreams. The word “Magi” itself referred to members of an ancient Persian priestly class for followers of Zoastrianism and it’s where we get the English word “magic.”

And, as long as we’re talking about language, I recently read that the Greek word used for “East” in this text literally means “the Rising.” In other words, these men came from the place where the sun rises. Directionally, the East; physically, the source of light; spiritually, the place of enlightenment.

There are, of course, layers and layers of metaphor and imagery about light and dark in Scripture. Just last Sunday we read the prologue to John’s gospel which includes the phrase, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The prophet Isaiah writes, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” So, light is an ancient metaphor for salvation and this Incarnational event of Christmas, which we continue to mark and celebrate, is primarily about the salvation of the world.

Hence, the Star of Bethlehem. Now, everything I know about astronomy I learned on a sixth grade field trip to the planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. So I can’t really speak to the intergalactic phenomenon of this star that famously guided the three Wise Men beyond calling it the original GPS and one heck of a birth announcement.

But there is tremendous spiritual significance to this bright light announcing the birth of our Savior. This light was a signal that salvation wasn’t meant for just a select few but the entire world. Because the other thing about these Wise Men is that they were Gentiles — not only did they travel a great distance, but they also stood outside the original covenant between God and God’s Chosen People, the Jews. So we see in this encounter, the broad reach of God’s embrace of all humanity. Yes, Jesus came first to the people of Israel, in the form of those shepherds watching their flocks by night. But also to those beyond the covenant, to those who did not yet know and worship the God of the Law and the prophets.

Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “private” star. No one can claim possession or sole ownership of a celestial body. So this bright light that announced the entrance of the Light of the World was there for all to see. And that’s the thing about salvation — it’s freely offered to all who seek its light. Jesus didn’t come into the world to have his light be hidden under a lampstand but to be seen and proclaimed to all people.

The other thing this star signals is something much more personal. Something that resides deep within our souls. Because it’s one thing to notice an unusual phenomenon in the sky. These days we’d probably whip out our phones and take a picture of it or take a quick star selfie. But in the end the Magi didn’t just note the star or comment on it. It moved them to action.

So what would make these men pack up their camels and follow this star? I think they’re not much different from you and me in this regard. Because at the heart of their journey and ours is a deep yearning for communion with the divine. We all have a yearning to be closer to God that resides deep in our souls. The powerful pull of relationship with God draws us to follow that star in ways seen and unseen. Simply being here this morning is one tangible way that you continue to follow that star. Every week it alights directly above this altar and you can experience the pull of this star in the same way as those three Wise Men so many years ago.

As I wrestled with this very familiar text this week, and thought about the literal translation of “the East” as “the Rising,” I couldn’t stop thinking about that Bruce Springsteen song “The Rising.” It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and ended up with a couple of Grammys. It tells the story of a firefighter climbing one of the towers after the planes had hit. It speaks of the darkness and confusion and rising despair as he continues his ascent.

And yet, there’s also a note of hope sounded throughout the song. If September 11, 2001, was our national day of Good Friday, the song sounds the Easter message of deliverance amidst the ashes. There’s even an overt reference to Easter morning and Mary Magdalene’s recognition of Jesus, “I see you Mary in the garden, in the garden of a thousand sighs. There’s holy pictures of our children, dancin’ in a sky filled with light.” And that haunting, building chorus, “Come on up for the rising” can easily be interpreted as a call to resurrection.

Some of you may well be thinking, “Why is he talking about Easter imagery on the 11th day of Christmas?” But it’s all about two sides of the same salvation coin. The Incarnation and the Resurrection are both ends to our our salvation and not ours only but the salvation of the whole world. You can’t have one without the other.

So as we come to the close of our annual celebration of Christmas — and I do hope you’ll all take some of these poinsettias after the service (not during communion — after the service) — I encourage you to be aware of the “rising” in your own heart. Pay attention to it this year; nurture it; allow it to illuminate your soul and inspire your actions. Allow that star to draw you ever nearer to the heart of God. Watch for it, give yourself over to it, and let its light shine upon you.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck