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

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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

First 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 December 28, 2014 (Christmas 1, Year B)

The word “awesome” has lost much of its power over the years. What used to be a particularly vivid word to express something that creates wonder or causes excitement or leads to inspiration, has been stripped of its power by its use in popular culture.

valley_girl_1983The fourth day of Christmas seems like as good a day as any to assign blame for this. And since I can’t really indict those four calling birds, I will personally blame the 1983 movie Valley Girl and its accompanying theme song by Frank Zappa. You may or may not remember this movie, but then I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually show up on the Sunday after Christmas. So as part of your Christmas gift, I’ll remind you.

The movie itself is a formulaic romantic comedy where Julie, a girl from the valley, falls in love with Randy, a boy from the other side of the tracks, despite the opposition of her shallow, vapid, materialistic friends. But the important thing in this context is that the movie introduced us to Valleyspeak — the dialect spoken by southern California, upper-middle class, suburban, teenage, mall-going, shopping-obsessed girls. Yes, a major stereotype. But they inspired the grammatical sins of adding “like” in between phrases and the ever popular “Whatever.” Not to mention words like “tubular,” “radical,” and the aforementioned “awesome,” generally preceded by the modifier “totally” as in “That is totally awesome.” “Whatever.”

These days if you want to express something that is transcendentally inspiring you can’t really use “awesome” without sounding like Bart Simpson. You can still get away, I guess, with “awe-inspiring” but “awesome” itself has lost much of its linguistic punch.

Which is too bad. Because after the tight shot of the manger from Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve with Mary and Joseph and the swaddling clothes and all those shepherds and angels — both as read at the later services and depicted in the Christmas pageant, John helps us zoom out to see the broad view. And as we hear the poetic prologue to John’s gospel — “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” — as we do every year on the Sunday after Christmas, we do encounter the awesomeness of God. Just not in a radical, tubular kind of way.

But now that we have some perspective and distance from the intense euphoria of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we can take some time to marvel at what God has done. And we are left with a stunning vista of God’s love for us.

And we’re reminded that, yes, words matter — they’re how we express ourselves and communicate with one another. And as language is a living thing, words fall into and out of usage and their meaning can evolve and change over the years. But ultimately it’s the Word with a capital “W” that matters most. The Word, or logos in Greek, refers here in John’s gospel to the second person of the Trinity – Jesus Christ. And this Word never changes or becomes passé or loses its meaning. Rather it endures, abides, and is eternal.

John identifies Jesus as the Incarnation of the logos, through which all things have come into being. As a concept, it’s a bit esoteric – it’s a lot easier to wrap our heads around an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. But as a theological concept it’s critical to our understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and of God the Father’s relationship with God the Son.

But what truly matters, incarnationally, isn’t just that this Word existed before all time but that this Word “became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s the piece that demonstrates just how much God loves us — that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to live among us. To experience what it means to be fully human, in all its joy and in all its sorrow. That’s the miracle of Christmas.

The word in Greek that we translate as “dwelt” or “lived” among us, literally means “pitched a tent.” And I love that. Now, I haven’t gone camping in a while — not since I was in the Army actually. And was forced to. But when you go camping with someone, there’s a certain close proximity that takes place. You are literally on the ground together. And it’s this sense of intimacy that John is getting at here. Jesus doesn’t show up and stay in a fancy room at the Hilton while we’re stuck in the mud. He pitches his tent among us, not away from us or at a safe, comfortable distance from us, but right in our midst.

And this matters because by God taking on flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, the entire world is sanctified and made holy by the divine presence. Which means that wherever life may take you, you are walking on holy ground with Jesus right by your side at every step of the way. So this, for lack of a better word, awesomeness of God, is accessible and at hand.

I think it’s helpful to point out that our faith lives exist on a continuum between the nearness and transcendence of God; between the manger and the cosmos; between the God within and the God beyond. We need to experience both sides of the continuum to fully experience the fullness of God.

Now, I’m aware that for a lot of people getting out of church is the key to experiencing the transcendence of the divine. Go to the Grand Canyon or go camping in a remote rural location where you can look up at see just how many stars there really are. But liturgy and music at its best can transport us to a place beyond the visible world. Of course I’m saying this on the one Sunday we don’t have the choir here; on a Sunday that’s a bit lower key than usual. But when we use fancy vestments and sing and use a touch of incense, it’s not because we like to play dress up or parade around for the sake of our own enjoyment. It’s about offering a glimpse of the kingdom that is to come. It’s about blending the immanence and transcendence of God in a dance of divine love.

The-word-Awesome-black-fontWe glimpse the divine Word that is beyond all human words even as we see God’s image in one another. Which is why being spiritual but not religious only gets you so far. The fullness of God is experienced in the worshipping community, even in its inconvenience and imperfection. Or perhaps precisely because of this reflection of humanity.

And that, my friends, is awesome.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Christmas Eve 2014

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, 2014

Anyone who’s ever sat on Santa’s lap knows that expectations don’t always mesh with reality. As a case in point, I’m still waiting for that go-cart I asked for in 1976. My expectations did not mesh with Santa’s reality.

1501322_915584651792937_4108510203655417096_oWhen it comes to Christmas, we so often set high expectations for ourselves and those around us. We want the perfect tree, the perfect dinner, the perfect family, the perfect gift. And so often our expectations don’t mesh with the reality. You didn’t notice that giant bald spot on the tree when you picked it out at Lambert’s, the Christmas goose was overcooked, you can put your entire family in matching pajamas but it still doesn’t mask the dysfunction, and not only is that tie ugly — you don’t even wear them! The hard truth of reality often comes crashing down upon our unrealistic seasonal expectations. How’s that for a Christmas Eve buzzkill?

But maybe we’re just placing our expectations in the wrong…Christmas tree stand. Perhaps we need to rethink and reframe our expectations. Expectation is certainly a major theme on Christmas Eve. Mary was expecting a baby, of course. And after hearing that this child would be destined for great things, she certainly must have had expectations about how that would play out; about what this child would grow up to be and accomplish. Expectant parents, especially first time ones, are enamored with possibility.

And Mary got an extra jolt of this when the angel Gabriel showed up to tell her a little something about this child she was carrying: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Talk about setting some high expectations! And as Mary wondered about how this would all unfold and pondered the possibilities in her heart, I doubt she anticipated her child would one day be strung up on a cross like a common criminal. Surely that didn’t mesh with the vision of her child being set upon a throne to rule a kingdom of which there would be no end.

And so, yes, this night is about expectations fulfilled. It’s about ancient prophecies coming to fruition. It’s about hope being realized. The catch is that Christmas is not about our expectations, but rather God’s. And that goes for both Mary and for you and me.

On Christmas, yes, “Christ the Savior is born” as we will soon be singing by candlelight. Yet this Savior came into the world to show us the love of God in a new way, an unexpected way, a way that would move from manger to cross to resurrection. Not the way we would have expected but a stunning demonstration of God’s love for you and all of humanity.

And once we let go of our own expectations, we can enter into a reality that we could hardly have even asked for or imagined. And we realize that there certainly is such a thing as Christmas magic — anyone who’s ever experienced a young child dancing with glee on Christmas morning has experienced it. Or seen a heart moved to help someone in need during this season. That’s part of the expectation. But as we mature we also realize that God isn’t a magician, that Jesus doesn’t wave a magic wand to make all your dreams come true. Sometimes we don’t get the go-cart.

1538827_10205444851951480_3595706670110062967_nThe reality is that the world in which we live can be a hard place. In the last few weeks alone we’ve been confronted with the effects of racism and terrorism and unspeakable violence both at home and abroad. And it’s tempting to hunker down in our homes with the nice white candles in the windows, drink some egg nog, and allow those visions of sugar plums to dance in our heads.

But if we’re honest, we’re left to wonder “Where is God in all of this?” When so many are hurting in our world, a “silent night” doesn’t seem to do justice to the pain. Yet it is precisely into this world that Jesus comes; into the mud and muck of the stable, not a sterile movie set gleaming with fake snow. Jesus entered into the reality of a sinful and broken world — that’s what he came to redeem and save. The Light of Christ shines ever brighter amid the darkness.

So whatever our expectations were, what we receive through the gift of Christ’s incarnation, of God entering the world in human form, is so much greater. We receive the divine presence in our lives. In times of joy and in times of sorrow; in times of elation and in times of grief. Through it all, God is with us. Rejoicing when we rejoice, weeping when we weep. That’s the miracle of Christmas. That’s the source of our deep joy. That’s the fulfillment of hope. That’s the realization of expectations.

On this night, may you experience the gift of God’s saving grace, may your expectations mesh with the reality of God’s love for you, and may you all have a very Merry Christmas.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck