Christmas Day 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christmas Eve 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday After Christmas (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 2, 2022 (Christmas 2C)

It’s irrational really. Big bad Herod afraid of a tiny little baby. King Herod the Great, powerful and feared ruler of Ancient Palestine, terrified by a helpless infant lying in a manger in Bethlehem. A man who ruthlessly ruled for 37 years as the appointed Roman king, scared of a newborn child.

For all his bluster Herod lived in constant fear of losing his throne; which only made him tighten his grip, brutalize his subjects, and abuse his power. Not even his family members were safe from Herod’s paranoia. During his long reign, he had one of his wives and several of his sons murdered for allegedly plotting against him. The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, used to say that, as Herod didn’t eat pork, it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of Herod’s sons.

So, when Herod encounters these Wise Men from the East who inquire about this child who “has been born King of the Jews” Herod’s hackles are raised. Seething with anger and driven by insecurity he plots to destroy this perceived threat to his sovereignty. 

You can almost hear Herod’s internal conversation: “Newborn king? But I’m the king! This pretender must be eliminated.” So he tries to trick the Wise Men into telling him the exact location of this new king so that he, too, can go “worship” him.

But of course this child was no danger to Herod’s reign, for Jesus was a different kind of king; one not concerned with earthly power, but one possessing heavenly authority. As would happen so often in Jesus’ life, Herod misunderstood what the reign of Jesus would entail and misinterpreted the root of his authority. It was not of this world, it was never of this world.

Now what truly frightened Herod was not, obviously, a newborn child. It was the potential loss of power and control. Never mind that Jesus had no interest in overthrowing temporal rulers. Yet the mere hint that Herod would lose his grip on his kingdom led him to drastic measures. In an attempt to rid himself of this potential threat he would order the murder of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. This slaughter of those who would be known as “the Holy Innocents” gives a glimpse into Herod’s true character and the lengths he would go to maintain control of his kingdom.

Every year, the church remembers these slain children just three days after Christmas. A vivid and stark reminder that Jesus’ birth is not without cost. That it is not all lowing cattle and singing angels. That God’s entrance into the world unleashes desperate forces that oppose the way of love and compassion. Such forces still exist in our world. People who feel their grip on the traditional levers of power slipping away, often go to extreme measures to maintain the status quo. Whatever the human cost.

And, in this sense, Herod’s reaction to this perceived threat to his power is a pretty natural human response. Not the slaughter of innocent children – that’s diabolical. But we all get territorial at times; and when we get territorial we get defensive; and when we get defensive we sometimes do irrational things that push against the way of Jesus, against the way of love.

It’s said that cornered animals are the most dangerous. When an animal is feeling threatened and trapped it will attack. Even a normally sweet domesticated dog, if pushed too far, will remind us that it is first and foremost an animal driven by the instinct of self-preservation. Herod spent his entire life like a cornered animal, baring his teeth at anyone who got too close, lashing out at the slightest perceived provocation. Which sounds like a pretty miserable existence. Despite all the trappings of power, in the end, Herod was all about self-preservation and survival.

The arrival of the Christ child stands in such contrast to this fear and loathing. And we start to see that the way of Jesus is about sharing rather than hoarding, that it’s about an open hand rather than a closed fist. There’s a vulnerability in the manger that stands over and against the throne of Herod. Hay and straw vs. stone and iron. Oh, Jesus will sit on a throne one day. But it’s an eternal throne of glory in the world that is to come, rather than a fleeting throne of precious stones. It’s a throne rooted in love and compassion, rather than a throne rooted in fear and intimidation.

In the familiar story we hear this morning, Herod’s approach also contrasts greatly with that of the Wise Men. We don’t know much about these kings or their kingdoms except that they came from the East, that they were early astronomers seeking signs in the heavens. But we do know that they were on a journey; they followed a star seeking a force beyond themselves, beyond their own control. They were willing to let go and enter into the unknown. Even if it meant leaving behind the familiar and the comfortable.

Herod sought to “worship” Jesus by killing him. But the Wise Men paid him homage not only by bringing gifts but also their joy. We hear that when the star stopped over that stable in Bethlehem they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Something it’s hard to imagine Herod ever being overwhelmed by.

So these Wise Men are anything but cornered. They are free to wander and wonder; they seek truth even if it draws them beyond the familiar. From our perspective, they seem to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. They are not seeking to control outcomes, but remain open to possibilities. 

It’s worth reflecting upon the ways and situations where we act more like cornered animals in our defensiveness and acting out, and the ways and situations where we act more like the Magi, open and responsive to the moving of the Spirit. 

Being cornered usually draws us away from God because it’s such an inwardly focused and fearful posture. It’s hard to be joyful or open to the movement of the Spirit when we’re fighting for survival. Be that at work, at home, or even in church. While being free to wonder opens us up to the possibility of transformation in our lives. When we lessen our death grip on the way we think things should be, we’re able to more freely be led to where we need to be. 

It is hard to let go of control, to put our lives into the hands of a God we cannot always see or feel. The Magi listened and followed rather than seeking to corner and control. We do well to follow the star right along with them. And know that wherever it leads us, Jesus himself will be there waiting for us.

Christmas Day 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2021 (Christmas Day)

I have to admit, I never attended a Christmas Day service until I became a priest. Growing up, we always went on Christmas Eve. And if my parents had tried to drag me away from my new toys on Christmas morning, well, there would have been much weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

But I’ve come to love this service with it’s joyfully contemplative and socially-distanced vibe. There’s a sense of stillness after the storm. The shepherds have returned to their fields; the multitude of angels have dispersed; the animals have settled down; the baby has stopped crying. I imagine Joseph enjoying a moment of satisfied quiet, as baby Jesus sleeps on his mother’s breast.

It is into this tranquil sliver of holiness that we gather this morning. There’s no fanfare, beyond a few Christmas carols. It’s just us kneeling before the manger, coming into the presence of the Christ child, embodying what it means to sing, “O come let us adore him.” 

And this stillness, this understated joy beautifully reflects the humble entrance of our Savior into the world. The one who took on human flesh not in a palace, but in a stable; the one who was laid down to sleep not in a jewel-encrusted crib, but in a feeding trough. The poetic language of the prologue to John’s gospel effortlessly resounds in the stillness: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

And as we join the holy family in this moment of stillness, we can imagine the sun rising in the east on that first Christmas morning. Turning the shadow of night into the light of day. Illuminating the stillness as dawn breaks from on high. A reminder that the true light has indeed come into the world. And that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

It’s true that light shines even brighter when set against a backdrop of darkness. When you light a candle in a dark room, like when the power goes out at night, it shines so much brighter than it does when you light a few candles at the dinner table. But it’s also true that when light shines in the darkness, there are still shadows. That’s just the nature of the interplay between light and dark. Jesus’ entrance into the world doesn’t automatically wipe away the hard things in our lives. But with the light of Christ we can move through them, we can take that next step.

So this light is a reflection of the fact that no matter what is happening in your life, no matter how dark it gets, the Light of Christ is with you. Even when we can’t see it or feel it, the Light of Christ, the light that came into the world on a clear night in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago, illuminates our path. Like a lantern to our feet, this light shows us the way, serving as a reminder that God is always with us, even amid the darkness; especially amid the darkness.

I remember learning in science class that there is actually no such thing as total darkness. It doesn’t matter if you go into a hermetically sealed room without windows. What looks like complete darkness to the human eye is actually filled with an incalculable number of neutrinos. These subatomic particles, known as ghost particles, can’t be captured or seen but they are everywhere. 100 million of them pass through our bodies every second. Now, I have no idea how any of this works — I think dark matter is involved, and something about the Big Bang theory. But these neutrinos offer a form of light that we cannot see.

All of which feels an awful lot like the essence of this day: which is hope. Because in a similar way, the Light of Christ is always with us. No matter what we do or where we go, no matter what we endure or what we encounter, God entering the world in human form means the divine presence is everywhere. As John puts it, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” So Jesus entering the world reminds us that God infuses all things and all situations and all circumstances. Like those ghost particles, God is just there. Sometimes invisible to the naked eye, but always present nonetheless. 

So, I’m glad you’re here this morning to sit in the stillness of Jesus’ birth, to revel in the calm after the storm. Often it is only after the fact that we’re able to see God’s presence most clearly. I know I often look back on the day’s events or things that have happened in my life and it’s only in those moments of subsequent reflection that I can most visibly see God’s hand at work. The same is true for the miracle of Christmas — sometimes we need some space, some peace and quiet, in order to fully appreciate and delight in what God has done. 

Perhaps that’s what I most love about this service. The opportunity to step back with John the Evangelist himself and revel in all that has taken place at the manger. To gaze in wonder at this child who is the fullest expression of God’s deep and abiding love for all of humanity, and for each one of us.

Christmas Eve 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2021 (Christmas Eve)

This summer, when I was back home in Baltimore visiting family, we toured a whiskey distillery.  Now, that may seem like an odd family outing, especially since only two of the five cousins were actually of legal drinking age, but it was a rainy day and we needed an indoor activity. So after breakfast, we headed down to the Sagamore Spirit Distillery in South Baltimore. 

I didn’t realize that before Prohibition, Maryland was the rye whiskey capital of America. And that it wasn’t until after World War II that the industry became consolidated in Kentucky. But Maryland-style whiskey was a thing, and a number of boutique distilleries are seeking to bring it back. The Baltimore scribe and whiskey enthusiast H.L. Mencken was a big fan, calling Maryland whiskey “the most healthful appetizer known to man.” 

We can debate that; but I find the whole process of distilling spirits both fascinating and mysterious — with its mashing and malting, fermenting and aging. It’s part science project and part art form, often conducted by large apron-wearing bearded men. But the piece I love the most happens inside those wooden barrels. As part of the aging process, a small percentage of the liquid evaporates. In fact, 2% of what’s inside the barrel evaporates for every year that it’s aged. Which is both a blessing and a curse. It means that a portion of the whiskey is lost, but it’s only through the aging process that the whiskey develops its unique flavor and character.

Distillers refer to this lost portion of whiskey that dissipates into the heavens as the “angel’s share.” And on this night, when angels feature so prominently in the Christmas story, it’s worth reflecting upon the ways in which we are connected to the Christmas angels, and it’s worth considering our own angel’s share.

As the angels gather together to witness and testify to our Lord’s birth, there is great joy. That we know, both from Luke’s gospel and from every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace goodwill towards men!’” That’s a party to which we are all invited. We all share in the angels’ sense of joy and wonder as they gather round about God’s newborn son to witness and testify to the light that has entered the world.

The question for us on this most holy night, is how do we offer our own angel’s share? How do we give back to the world a small share of that joy, peace, and goodwill that surrounds us. How do we return a share of that spirit with which we have been entrusted by the Christmas angels? 

You know, the word angel literally means “messenger” in Greek. That’s what angels do, they bring messages from God. Like the the Archangel Gabriel who announces to Mary that she will bear God’s son. So perhaps we can offer our own angel’s share by acting as messengers in the lives of all whom we encounter. Through our actions and interactions we can bring messages of kindness or compassion, love or friendship. Opportunities to offer our own angel’s share abound. 

When we pray without ceasing, when we offer compassion, when we lift up the lowly, when we work for justice, when we reach out our hands in love to those in need, we offer up our angel’s share. When we share our faith with others, not in an overbearing way, but as an invitation to come and see what gladdens our hearts, we offer up our angel’s share. When we allow our hearts to be moved by Jesus’ message of peace and love and then act accordingly, we offer up our angel’s share.

Never forget that the Christmas angels bring this message of God’s love to you. The angels aren’t just a bunch of town criers sharing the news of the day — as incredible and noteworthy as it may be. The joy of Christmas is that this news of our Savior’s birth is given directly and irrevocably to you. The message of the Christmas angels reminds us that God doesn’t merely love the world in the abstract; God specifically and wholeheartedly and unabashedly loves you. Whether or not you feel worthy, whether or not you can even feel it at all, God enters the world in human form because God loves you…and me, and the people sitting next to you, and the people joining us online, and the people whose existence we’re not even aware of. Jesus came to us as the light of the world, because God loves each and every one of us with utter and reckless abandon.

And that’s the power of Christmas. That’s why the angels make all that racket. That’s why our angel’s share matters.

And so, we join our voices to those of the heavenly chorus in recognition that on this holy night heaven comes near to us in the birth of Jesus. And not just near us, heaven quite literally enters right into the midst of us. In all our messiness and bumbling, in all our unworthiness and stumbling, God enters the world in human form, as Christ our Savior is born.

May you share in the joy of the Christmas angels this season. May you rejoice along with the multitude of the heavenly host. And may you all have a very merry Christmas.

Christmas Eve 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2020 (Christmas Eve)

I don’t know about you but for me, all the Christmas Eve services I’ve attended or led over the years tend to blur together into one giant, joyful, ball of anticipation and hope. The big crowds; belting out the traditional carols; the intoxicating smell of incense, greens, and poinsettias; receiving communion; singing Silent Night by candlelight; handing out hundreds and hundreds of candy canes afterwards; and the unabashed joy of celebrating our Lord’s birth with people I dearly love. 

But this one is different. I know I won’t ever forget it, and I doubt you will either, as we gather virtually on this most holy night, together but apart. 

Now, I realize nobody really wants to basically be watching TV on Christmas Eve. It’s fine to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Frosty the Snowman — but there are some advantages to an online Christmas Eve service. For instance, you will never again sit in a more comfortable pew on Christmas Eve than the one you’re in right now. And, unless the server goes down, there is literally unlimited room at the inn. You don’t have to fight for a parking place or a seat in the church; and, for better or worse, each and every one of you is in the front row. Welcome. 

But despite all this, to watch church on Christmas Eve, even while in your Christmas PJs or drinking egg nog, is not ideal. We miss the joy of being together, we mourn the loss of those who have died during this pandemic, we miss lifting our voices in prayer and song in this sacred space, we grieve for the family traditions that won’t happen this year. None of this is ideal.

But then again, nothing was really ideal for Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas Eve. Finding “no room at the inn” is not ideal. Giving birth in a stable is not ideal. Laying your newborn son in a feeding trough is not ideal. 

Yet God takes all that is not ideal — the mud and muck of the stable, the sense of isolation and abandonment — and transforms it into hope. The amazing thing about the Christian faith is that we worship a God who entered into relationship with us in less than ideal conditions — at least by the world’s standards. Jesus wasn’t born behind the fortified walls of a palace, he wasn’t laid in a beautifully handcrafted crib, he didn’t enjoy the built-in advantage of wealthy and well-educated parents. 

Yet God sent his only Son into the very heart of the human condition. Jesus comes to us not in spite of, but precisely because of, our brokenness and sinfulness. He enters directly into the messiness and disarray of our lives. 

And I find that incredibly hopeful. Because God gets it. God understands our hopes and our fears, our desires and our shortcomings. And God loves us anyway. Despite whatever may not be ideal in your own life in this moment, or ever, God loves you. And delights in you. And will never, ever abandon you. 

That’s the miracle of Christmas. Not that everything is perfect — we don’t live in a Hallmark Christmas movie where there is always a predictable and happy ending — but that God sees our struggles and enters into them by walking right alongside us. God takes all that is not ideal in our own lives — the loneliness, the brokenness, the fear, the heartbreak — and through relationship with us, transforms it all into a loving, liberating, life-giving hope.

I’ve found over the years that, quite often, God is most present when conditions are not ideal. The prophet Isaiah speaks to this when he proclaims that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” That’s us! We are the people who have struggled, partly as a result of the human condition, partly due to the circumstances in which we’re now living; and even upon us, the light of Christ has shined.

We are not living in ideal conditions these days. It would be hard to claim otherwise. But that light that shines in the darkness is shining upon you. And on this holy night, I bid you to hold on to the hope of Christmas. Carry it with you through the cold, dark days ahead. Bring it with you as things begin to thaw. And let it foster in you a resilience that will inoculate you against the strong grip of hopelessness. 

In the loving arms of his mother in that little town of Bethlehem, the face of the baby Jesus shines with the bright light of hope. The shepherds recognize this; the angels recognize this; the Magi come to recognize this; and we are invited to recognize this as well. May God bless you all, and may you have a very Merry Christmas. 

First Sunday after Christmas, Year A

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 29, 2019 (Christmas 1, Year A)

In 1865, Phillips Brooks, the future world-renowned preacher and rector of Trinity Brooks-portrait-young1Church in Copley Square — the one who built that magnificent church — spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. At the time, Brooks was the 30-year-old rector of a church in Philadelphia, and I honestly have no idea how he managed to get Christmas off.

But however that played out, Brooks sent a letter home about this profoundly moving experience writing, “After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem…Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star…As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to the fold.” 

Then he wrote about attending the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity, which was built upon the site traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. While his overall experience in Bethlehem was inspiring, Brooks evidently wasn’t thrilled with the service itself. The liturgy, he wrote, “began about ten o’clock and lasted until three. It was the old story of a Romish service, with all its mummery, and tired us out.” 

I’m sharing all this because it was the experience of spending Christmas in the Holy Land — minus all the “mummery” — that compelled Brooks to write the well known and loved Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. You can just picture him on horseback in those fields as we sing “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”

He wrote the carol a few years after his trip for his Sunday School, and it was sung for the first time on Christmas Eve in 1868. The story goes that several days before Christmas he handed the text to his organist, Lewis Radner, and asked him to set it to music. Which is how the hymn came to be. And I’m aware that if I ever handed a hymn text to Buffy a few days before Christmas and told her to write music for it, I’d probably never even make it to Christmas Eve. 

But I love the fact that the organist, reflecting years later, admitted that, “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” 

Because the same could easily be said about that night over 2,000 years ago when an unwed teenaged mother gave birth in a stable. No one could possibly have imagined the improbability that this birth would be remembered. Yes, all those angels shouting “Hosanna!” may have been a clue. But, still. Who really could have imagined the impact of this child’s birth? Jesus was just one of many children born that night around the world. 

Like many Christians, I’ve been thinking about that little town of Bethlehem over the past week. But today we can think about the particularity of that town on that specific night in the context of God’s universal love for the entire world.

On Christmas Eve, we zoomed in with a tight shot of the manger. Luke’s gospel brought us right into Bethlehem, into the heart of the nativity scene, complete with swaddling clothes and tidings of great joy and shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. We saw close-ups of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Being in that place and walking upon that sacred ground must have been much of what inspired Phillips Brooks on that night in Bethlehem.

But on this first Sunday after Christmas we zoom out. The poetic prologue of John’s gospel gives us the wide-angle view to parallel the intricate detail of Luke. The particulars of Christ’s incarnation are placed into their cosmic context.

And so, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It is precisely this Word that came into the world in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. The eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And this took place in a stable in Bethlehem.

But zooming out to take a broader view of the incarnation doesn’t make it any less real or any less intimate. In fact, it highlights the power of what took place in Bethlehem. So ironically, perhaps, zooming out draws us in. 

Because the incarnation, God entering the world in human form, means God’s relationship with humanity has forever been changed. God through Jesus Christ is intimately involved in the details of our lives. Which means that we pray to a God who is not remote or distant, but one who is intimately connected to us. A God who understands the complexity of being human because he was, for a brief time, himself human.

So zooming out doesn’t mean zooming away. We need both the close-up of Luke and the cosmological vista of John. In concert they give us a glimpse of the full Christmas story: the particularity of a stable with the universality of God’s eternal Word. We can sing about a little town in Bethlehem even as we revel in the light that shines in the darkness. 

And maybe that’s where the inspiration came to write, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.”

Chapel altarYou know, we do have a connection to Phillips Brooks here at St. John’s. His relationship to Trinity Church is well known, but you may not know that for a brief time he served as the Bishop of Massachusetts — only for the last 15 months of his life. But in that capacity he visited St. John’s in 1892. The parish was just a small wooden church at that time, located across the street, and had been open for less than a decade. But in our chapel stands the small wooden altar from the original church — an altar we use each week at our Wednesday service. And at that very altar the author of O Little Town of Bethlehem, a larger than life figure in so many ways — not the least being that he stood six and a half feet tall — celebrated the eucharist. 

And in a few moments we will sing these beautiful words that so poignantly capture this holy season: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”

© The Rev. TimSchenck 2019

Christmas Day 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2019 (Christmas Day)

In 1862 Emily Dickinson wrote a short poem called “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.” 51wLok9dxrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Actually, that’s not what it was called since she never titled any of her poems. But that’s the first line and that’s how it’s become known. In her simple, yet profoundly moving way, she compares hope to a feathered bird that perches permanently in the soul of every human being. 

I’ll read the poem but there’s also a copy in your bulletin so you can follow along. And, as I know poetry, like Scripture needs to be read again and again, you can take it with you if you’d like, for further reflection once all the presents have been opened and the last guest has left.


Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words, 
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard; 
And sore must be the storm 
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm. 
I’ve heard it in the chillest land, 
And on the strangest sea; 
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

A few things to point out. This “thing with feathers,” never stops singing — “it never stops – at all.” In other words hope never dies; it is omnipresent at the deepest reaches of our souls. And this bird sings its never-ending tune “without words” — that’s what birds do after all. Which reminds me of that line from Paul’s Letter to the Romans which speaks of the Spirit interceding for us with “sighs too deep for words.” And I find that often the most effective prayers are wordless ones, the moments when we simply rest in God’s presence. Times of adoration, like the Wise Men gazing upon the baby Jesus lying in the manger. Their hearts overflowing with grace upon grace. 

And in the second stanza we hear that this bird sings its sweetest song when the storms rage. It is heard at its sweetest in the midst of the gale. So when life is hardest, when chaos reigns in our hearts and the situation seems dire at best and hopeless at worst, the thing with feathers, this personification of hope, makes its presence most fully known. And I think again of the Magi, traveling great distances, following the star, following hope even in the midst of an arduous journey. 

This is why this poem, at least to me, feels like a Christmas poem. Because this “thing with feathers” that sings sweetly in the midst of the storm, is like “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” That phrase which we hear in the poetic prologue to John’s gospel that is proclaimed each year on this day. 

And that light is the light of Christ, the light of hope, the light that illuminates the darkness, the light that has entered the world as God in human form. Despite the raging tempest, the “thing with feathers” sings its song of hope. And despite the darkness, the light of the still small voice within can never be extinguished from our souls. That’s what the nativity of our Lord is all about. The presence of hope in the midst of darkness, the song of hope amidst the storm.

In the final stanza of Dickinson’s poem, she introduces the personal pronoun for the first time. “I” makes an appearance. And we are reminded that while hope is cosmic and eternal, it is also deeply personal. That’s the beauty of coming to church on Christmas Day. After the pageants and the crowds and the four services of the night before, there’s something more contemplative and personal about this day. We can revel in the fact that Jesus came into this world for all of humanity, yes, but also for you personally. That Jesus tends the hope that has been sown in your own soul. That the “thing with feathers” flaps its wings and stirs within you. And we can rejoice with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven that Christ Jesus came into the world for each one of us.

That’s the reminder for us on Christmas. That hope is embedded in our souls. That the great gift of the Christ child, of God entering the world in human form, changes everything. So often we focus on the darkness of this world — the fear, the violence, the injustice — and fail to see the light of hope in our midst. The light that stands in contrast to the darkness; the light that illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and minds. 

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 2019

Christmas Eve 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2019 (Christmas Eve)

Shepherds don’t get a whole lot of respect in the Christmas pageant. No kid really wants IMG_2520to be a shepherd —because they all want to be kings! I mean, I guess it beats being a donkey, because at least you get to wield a stick. And it’s fun to terrorize the sheep. So there’s that. But you have to wear a dish towel on your head, there’s no frankincense involved, and to add insult to injury, when you have a live baby Jesus, as we do every year, no one’s even looking at you.

But the shepherds do play a crucial role in our Christmas story. And so, I told this year’s crop of shepherds to take heart. Because maybe next year they’ll get promoted to king. No, I didn’t say that. But I did tell them that they’re much more important than they might think. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But as with many aspects of the Christmas story, we’ve sentimentalized and sanitized the shepherds. We all have shepherds in our nativity sets. We set them up next to the fluffy white sheep. We envision them wandering the countryside with their staffs in hand, content in their pastoral duties. But shepherding was hard work! And basically no one was willing to do it except those on the very bottom rung of the social order. In a sense, shepherds were the immigrant dishwashers of their day. Working hard, getting little respect, barely even being seen, trying to support themselves and their families. Shepherds were the denigrated undesirables of society, vilified as liars and thieves, scapegoated when things went wrong. They were shepherds because literally nobody else wanted the job. It was lonely and smelly and thankless and low paying.

And the amazing thing is that the Messiah’s birth is announced first to the shepherds. The angel of the Lord comes to these poor, marginalized outsiders; to the lowest of the low; to society’s untouchables, and shares this incredible news. Those beautiful and well-known words are spoken directly to the shepherds out tending their flocks by night. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

So from the very beginning of the story of Jesus, of God entering the world in human form, something radical emerges. These “tidings of great joy” are first shared not with kings and queens, but with shepherds. To the ultimate outsiders; to the poor and maligned; the least and the lost. 

So this Christmas, we’re left with two questions. First, what does this say about God? And second, what does this mean for us? Well, the fact that the Savior of the world came first to those on the margins of society, says that God is doing a new thing; that the entire order of things is being flipped on its head. That, in the words of an old prayer, “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” And that is both exciting and terrifying.

And what does this mean for us? Well, at one level, if we want to incorporate the Christmas story into our lives, church is the last place we should be. I mean, I like singing Silent Night by candlelight as much as the next guy. That feeling of peace and fullness and joy and mystery can and should be experienced and enjoyed. And being here on this night is a good and joyful thing. For many of us, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we’ve sung all the familiar carols and seen the church decked out in all its splendor. And I am delighted you are here to celebrate Christmas with us at St. John’s.

But then we need to take it outside. We can’t afford to leave Christmas at church. The world can’t afford for us to leave Christmas at church. Remember, Jesus wasn’t born in some remote and sanitary birthing room. Jesus was born into real life, into the mud and muck of the stable. Into the midst of those who desperately needed to hear a message of hope. 

So, to truly celebrate Christmas is to take the celebration beyond these walls. To go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born. The Christmas altar compels us and propels us to bring peace and good tidings to a world that so desperately needs a word of hope and healing.

IMG_2547And we are all included in this. Because Jesus also comes to the parts of us that feel like outsiders; to the parts that feel broken and hopeless; to the parts that feel paralyzed by fear and doubt. Jesus comes first to those who need him. And we all need him. In different ways and at different times. But always and forever. And that’s the miracle; that love came down at Christmas right into the very midst of our lives.

There’s a short poem by the African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman titled The Work of Christmas. I think it speaks eloquently of what it truly means that God came first to the shepherds. And why we can’t leave Christmas at church. 

“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”

May you experience the joy and wonder of this night. May you receive the Christ child with open arms and open hearts. May you, in the words of Howard Thurman, “make music in the heart.” And may you have a very Merry Christmas. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

First Sunday after Christmas, Year C

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 30, 2018 (Christmas 1, Year C)

Well, that was quite a growth spurt. Less than a week ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and today he’s a tween; a 12-year-old boy whose behavior may well foreshadow those tough teenage years to come. Of course we don’t have any stories about Jesus as a teenager. Refusing to clean his room, playing Fortnite until the wee hours, finishing the milk and then putting the empty container back in the fridge.

This is the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood, the only glimpse into his life between birth and baptism. And in it, we see a glimpse of what it must have been like to a) parent the Messiah (not easy) and b) struggle with a growing sense of divine identity and purpose.

Mostly, I love this story because, at one level, it is just so human. While not every parent can fully relate to their child, say, turning water into wine at a wedding, we can all relate to the sense of terror at having temporarily lost them in a crowd.

I still have flashbacks to Hershey Park in the summer of 2008. Not because my brother edbd0dc8f343caf14c5547daab964e5fdared me to go on a loop-de-loop roller coaster for the first time in my life and I couldn’t refuse in front of my kids and their cousins. Not because, and I realize many of you see this as a character flaw, I don’t like chocolate, and the entire place even smells like chocolate. I mean, it’s Hershey Park!

But what really gives me nightmares is the brief period we lost Zak. It was only five minutes, maybe even less, but it felt like an eternity. That feeling of suddenly losing your child is the worst possible feeling as a parent. Gut-wrenching and helpless. Every episode of Law & Order flashes through your mind as you begin your frantic search. Retracing your steps, flagging down a security guard, calling out his name among the crowds. How could you not envision some creepy guy in a van offering your little blond boy candy — I mean, we were in the candy capital of the world! In the end, he had just wandered off. I’m not sure he even realized he wasn’t with us. But as a parent, you never forget such experiences. It’s what leads to the gray hair.

Mary and Joseph couldn’t find Jesus for three days. Imagine that! Granted, one of those days was a travel day and they assumed he was with relatives. That’s some free-range parenting right there. But two full days of sheer, unadulterated panic. Plus, having to hear God say, ‘What do you mean you lost the Messiah?!’

Jesus was fine, of course. The precocious young lad was teaching and interacting with the elders in the Temple. And we hear that all he encountered were amazed at his understanding. In the boy Jesus we see the seeds of our fully mature Lord. This is the first time he declares his divinity, but it’s also not hard to hear just a hint of pre-teen petulance in his reply. Again, the humanity. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

But besides the human element, this story plays a critical role as a bridge between Christmas and Easter, between the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It helps us to understand the importance of maturity. Not just of a boy marked for great things growing into and claiming his identity as God’s son, but as it relates to our own faith.

You see, so often we want to leave Jesus in the manger. He’s much less threatening as a harmless baby. He can’t tell us to pick up our crosses and deny ourselves or share our resources with those in need or rail against the hypocrisy of a divided heart. We want to keep him tightly wrapped in those swaddling clothes, surrounded by shepherds and angels and gift-bearing wise men. 

And there’s something wonderful about pausing to gaze upon that holy child and reflect on the great gift of the Incarnation, of God entering the world in human form. That moment that changed the world, the birth that opened up for us the way of salvation. We only have twelve days of the Christmas season and we should cherish each and every one of them. 

The problem arises when we find ourselves staring at the manger, long after it has been abandoned. Once it empties out, it’s no longer the birthplace of our Lord, but a deserted stable. An empty relic of an event that transformed the world. We need to move on; we need to mature.

This speaks to one of the great spiritual dangers, which is the temptation to infantize our faith; to keep it in the realm of the Christmas pageant. Now, I love Christmas pageants. I love that children play an active role in the story as a way of drawing them in and making it their story. I love the earnest angels and the devilish shepherds and the sheep going rogue and the missteps and the flubbed lines. All of it. I think a pageant in all its messiness often better reflects the reality of our relationship with God than the buttoned up, perfect liturgies we strive for the rest of the year. 

But our faith must mature. It must move beyond the Christmas story to embrace the fullness of the paschal mystery; the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That’s the work of discipleship that begins at baptism and must continue to evolve and grow and develop throughout our lives. 

The thing about babies is that they grow up. You blink and they’re sitting up, you blink again and they’re going to their senior prom. Our faith, like Jesus himself, must mature. It must move beyond the manger. It must go to places like the temple where the young Jesus taught, where God’s word is engaged and embraced and debated. It must go to the banks of the Jordan River where Jesus is baptized. It must go out into the wilderness to be tempted. It must go out with the crowds to listen to Jesus teach and preach. It must go to the cross and, ultimately, to the empty tomb. It begins at the manger, but our faith cannot, must not remain there. 

The story of the boy Jesus in the temple reminds us that Jesus didn’t emerge from the manger fully formed as the Messiah. He, too, needed to grow and mature into his divine calling. We also have a divine calling to become his disciples. It takes time, it takes making mistakes and getting lost, but as we stumble along the road to spiritual maturity, we do so in the knowledge that we are fully loved by God at every step of the way. And that God will continually call out our name and draw us back to his fold, until we are fully and forever, once again, resting in the loving palm of his hand.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018