Fifth Sunday of Easter 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 14, 2017 (Easter 5, Year A)

As a society we have an endless fascination with pirates. Not actual, modern-day machine gun toting pirates — they’re scary — but the romanticized pirates of yore. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and Long John Silver and Captain Hook. Okay, maybe not Captain Hook — he was kind of a doofus in Peter Pan.

But there’s something freeing about the whole notion of raising the Jolly Roger and 659aef03b6a626bc2eceee2000aede2c.jpgheading out for adventure on the high seas. Children are especially drawn to the idea of a life without rules, where no parent is around to make you brush your teeth or go to sleep at a reasonable hour and anyone who irritates you is simply made to “walk the plank.” Actually, there are days when that last part sounds pretty good…

And we all love the whole lexicon of piratey words and phrases like “shiver me timbers” and “scurvy dog” and “arrgh.” There’s something especially satisfying about saying “arrgh.”

But when it comes to pirates, ultimately it’s all about one thing: the treasure map. That rough drawing on parchment that remains the pirate’s most prized possession. Why? Because it points to the booty! Follow the directions to where “X marks the spot” and all that treasure is yours. The bounty of gold coins and jewels, all buried deep inside that wooden treasure chest.

In a sense, this is how we spend so much of the energy of our lives: seeking treasure. Now, when we get off track we tend to focus on the financial rewards; seeking happiness through material wealth. But I think the deepest yearnings of our hearts are really about finding meaning in this life. Searching for that often elusive sense of contentment. Yearning for authentic relationship with God. Seeking divine treasure. And we so desperately crave a map with a giant, impossible-to-miss “X.” We want a definite location where we can take out our metaphorical shovels and enthusiastically and with great expectations start digging.

This, I think, is at the heart of Thomas’ question to Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas literally wants a map! He wants directions to this place where Jesus is going. This place, he imagines, of deep serenity and profound peace; a place of answers and spiritual certainty. ‘It must be around here somewhere.’

And Jesus does hold out a vision of what this looks like in the afterlife — this passage is part of Jesus’ long Farewell Discourse as he prepares the disciples for his impending death. There’s a reason this is often read at funerals — though we tend to use the more familiar and majestic language of the King James Version. “In my Father’s house are many mansions” — rather than the more pedestrian “dwelling places.” But the concept remains the same — that Jesus goes ahead of us to “prepare a place for us.” Just as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus is the forerunner of our heavenly future. And this must have been of great comfort to the disciples, as it is to us during times of grief.

So in his blundering way, Thomas stumbles on the very crux of the spiritual life, the question at the heart of it all: “How can we know the way?” In other words, ‘Please, Jesus, just tell us where to go and what to do and how to get to this dwelling place of yours.’ We so desperately crave a map or some easy-to-follow directions. I think this is why so many Christians seek to turn the Bible, our sacred, nuanced, beautiful, heart-wrenching story of humanity’s relationship with God, into a map. Follow these steps, follow these laws, follow these directions, and you will know the way.

But that’s not how it works. Authentic relationship transcends step-by-step instructions. And so you can almost imagine Jesus grabbing Thomas by the lapels and getting in his face and saying, “Hello! Don’t you see? I am the way. And the truth. And the life. Stop searching. Stop looking. You don’t need a map. I am here. You have already arrived. You are home.”

But the stumbling around continues, as is often the case with the disciples, as Philip immediately pipes up and says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Again, not getting it; again wanting a map. And Jesus must be at least slightly exasperated by now — I mean, Son of God or not, this lack of understanding has got to get frustrating after awhile. So you can almost hear him taking a deep breath before plaintively asking, “You’ve been with me all this time and still you don’t get it?” Remember, this interaction is all taking place at the Last Supper so both Thomas and Philip aren’t new here. They’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry. They should know the way. At least by now.

And Jesus basically says the same thing to Philip, “Know me and you will know God. Pay attention to what I’ve been saying all along and you will see God.” And this points to so much of why Jesus came into the world in the first place: he came to reveal God. To be the face of God in the world. To incarnate God’s love. To show us the way.

And so this isn’t just a place accessible only off in the future in some distant way. It is open to those who believe in Jesus and follow him as Lord in the here and now. Because this “mansion” or “dwelling place” isn’t some sort of divine housing complex in the sky. It is about being in the presence of God. It is about being held in intimate relationship with our divine parent. One who holds us and nurtures us and forgives us and admonishes us and builds us up and loves us.

Jesus is pointing the disciples and us to a place that transcends death. He is preparing his disciples for the end of his earthly existence but he is also pointing beyond it — to that place he has prepared for each one of us. That’s the promise of the resurrection; that’s the promise of the Christian faith; that’s the promise of new life beyond the visible world. And it is because of this promise that we don’t need a treasure map to unearth spiritual riches. We just need to look toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

So we can say “arrgh” to our hearts content. But we don’t need a treasure map because we have Jesus. Jesus is the treasure. Jesus is the way, and the life, and the truth. X marks not the spot but Jesus himself. And we are invited to dwell with Jesus, to abide with Jesus, to follow Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Easter 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 30, 2017 (Easter 3, Year A)

Twenty-five years ago, I went out to California to work on a congressional race. This was back when I did this for a living so it wasn’t completely on a whim. But my dad had just died and I was looking for a change of scenery so when a campaign manager friend of mine called and asked if I’d come out to run the field operation, I said “why not?” Of course he wanted me there immediately, so I hopped in my Ford Bronco II and drove to California. By myself. In three days.

4.1.2Now this candidate was a pretty well-known and successful divorce lawyer in the East Bay area. It was also the first time he’d ever run for office so we had some educating to do. Like when you go to knock on doors in a rougher part of Alameda County and you’re trying to position yourself as a man of the people, you probably shouldn’t show up driving your sporty new Mercedes.

This wasn’t the only problem with this particular campaign or this particular candidate. When we would organize phone banks to call voters, his wife would invite a bunch of her friends…which was good. But she’d also bring cocktails…which was bad. So it started out fine but by the end of the night, they were basically drunk dialing potential voters. Let’s just say I was not entirely sorry when we lost a close primary and I hopped in the old Bronco and headed back East.

I mention this because when we’d be arguing with this guy about his choice of car — and he had a lot to choose from — he would always refer to his Mercedes as his “battle vehicle.” It was the car he’d take whenever he had to be in court. And that phrase — and more importantly that mentality — has always stuck with me.

So often we approach life as if we need to wear “battle armor” — which is actually what he called the expensive suits he’d wear to court. We want to project an image of strength or of power or of great confidence. We don’t want anyone to detect even a hint of insecurity or weakness. And so we go to great lengths to enter into situations on our own terms, with great bravado. Driving battle vehicles and wearing battle armor.

The problem is that this isn’t any way to go through life. We can only keep up such images for so long because they don’t reflect reality. We are not the images we project and eventually the walls do come a-tumblin’ down. Weakness and brokenness, rather than strength and wholeness, more often reflect the reality of our lives.

Which is one reason I so love the Resurrection story we hear this morning. The seminal moment is when this stranger whom the disciples meet on the Road to Emmaus breaks the bread and they immediately recognize him as the risen Christ. In an instant, all is revealed and the very heart of our faith is opened for all to see. And it’s all about relationship with Jesus. It’s not about keeping up appearances or projecting images; rather it’s about being broken open and being present with the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

In order to be our most authentic selves, we must allow ourselves to be broken open. And that means putting away our battle vehicles and our power suits and standing naked before God. Recognizing that not only are we unable to control every situation, we shouldn’t even bother to try. Because it doesn’t work. And the only thing we end up battling is our own integrity.

Now I realize a priest standing in a pulpit wearing the ecclesiastical version of body armor doesn’t, at first glance, project the image of vulnerability I’ve been talking about. Bad optics. But if you look beneath the vestments; if you look at the symbols underneath the fancy robes you see that this is precisely what is going on. Because this stole — the defining priestly garment — brings to mind the yoke. The priest is yoked to Christ in a way that demands humble discipleship. And the collar, recalls the dress of a slave. So it’s all there. The symbols of vulnerability and humility and weakness. Clergy — like everyone — would do well to be in better touch with the brokenness of our humanity. We all, like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, can more fully know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

So for all of us, I see this morning as an invitation to brokenness; a call to authenticity. Allow yourself to be broken open. Allow yourself to embrace your vulnerability. Allow yourself to welcome your weakness. Allow the armor piercing love of Jesus to open your heart and mind and soul to the possibility of new relationship with the divine.

The “genuine mutual love” that Peter writes about must be exactly that: genuine. And the only way for it to be genuine on our side is to be in touch with and know and not be ashamed of our true selves. Like the bread that is broken, we too are broken. Despite our desire to project Christmas card perfection, our children aren’t perfect; our relationships aren’t perfect; our jobs aren’t perfect; we aren’t perfect.

But in the recognition of our brokenness, we are made whole by Jesus. Jesus fills the broken parts of our hearts and souls with the genuine love of God. A God who loves us despite our imperfections and weaknesses and desperate need for healing.

In our liturgy, it’s no surprise that the culmination of our worship, the peak of the eucharistic crescendo, is the moment when the bread is broken at the altar. It is evocative of Jesus’ breaking of the bread at the Last Supper and it recalls this moment of recognition in the bread Jesus broke with the disciples after walking with them along the Road to Emmaus. When we break the bread, something we do “in remembrance of” Jesus, we are made whole. A moment of brokenness becomes the fullest moment of wholeness.

Just at the moment the disciples recognize the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, he both disappears from their sight and is most fully present with them. This is the paradox of faith. That Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness; that out of grief there is hope; that out of death there is life; that out of brokenness, there is wholeness.

On the cross, Jesus has been broken open for you. On his resurrected throne of glory, we can, then, be broken open for him. Broken open and made whole by his never failing love. That’s the great gift of this Easter season. That through the agony of Good Friday and into the joy of the empty tomb we know for certain that “By his blood he reconciled us.” And that “By his wounds we are healed.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Easter Day 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 16, 2017 (Easter Day)

You gotta hand it to them. When it came to rubbing out rebellion, the Romans were the gold standard of the ancient world. They did not tolerate dissent and were experts at squashing it the moment it reared its insurgent head.

In the case of this rabble rouser from Nazareth who kept stirring things up with his crazyIMG_3646 notion of justice in the face of imperial power, everything was going according to plan. They certainly made an example out of this Jesus with his very public and brutal execution and his frightened followers had all fled. Chalk up another victory for Pax Romana and rest secure in the knowledge that this whole Jesus thing would now just die down and go away. An aberration, surely, but ultimately just more evidence that when you fought the establishment, you lost. Every single time.

The Romans were so good at this because they meticulously followed certain protocols. In such high profile cases, in addition to crucifixion — which was itself a pretty powerful deterrent to dissent — they were diligent about securing the tomb, which they did in several ways.

First, a large stone was rolled against the entrance. Second, the tomb was sealed. And finally, guards were posted outside. Those are some pretty serious security measures.

But let’s look at this for a moment. First the large stone that was rolled across the entrance — that in itself was a major stumbling block. And it shows just how silly the women were who went to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning. After all the men had fled (sorry, guys, that’s our Easter legacy), Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb not expecting a miracle but simply to honor him in death by properly and ritually anointing his body. They figured it was the least they could do for this man who had so transformed their lives.

And they weren’t engaged in any wishful thinking about this. In Mark’s gospel account of the Resurrection, they spend much of the journey wondering among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” A valid question.

But this wasn’t the only problem. We hear that the tomb was “sealed.” This doesn’t refer to some industrial-grade caulk. It was a sign of authentication that the tomb was occupied and the power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal. Anyone found breaking or tampering with the Roman seal would be put to death.

But even that wasn’t all. No, if the large stone and seal weren’t enough, there were also guards stationed at the entrance to the tomb. In fact, there may have been more than a few Roman soldiers. A “Roman Guard” referred to a 16-member unit governed by very strict rules. The guard members could not sit down or lean against anything while they were on duty. If a guard member fell asleep, he was beaten and burned. Needless to say, they were a vigilant bunch.

So to review: dead, giant boulder, sealed, soldiers. No way in, no way out. The end. But there’s a slight problem. Because we’re still here, over 2,000 years later, gathered to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Something rolled away the stone, something broke the seal, something stunned the soldiers. We hear about an earthquake but however things went down, Jesus was not inside the tomb. And suddenly everything changes.

And we start to realize that the stone, the seal, and the soldiers, weren’t breached on that first Easter morning to let Jesus out. Nothing could have stopped that. But it was to let us in. To let us in to the miracle of Christ’s resurrection; to let us in to a vision of humanity where peace, joy, and love abide; to let us in to a life where death is not the end; to let us in to a new worldview that drives out fear and ushers in hope.

And we need that hope now more than ever. Because in a world where chemical weapons are used to destroy innocent children in Syria, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where faithful Christians in Egypt are slaughtered in their own churches on Palm Sunday, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where the poorest among us are left to drink contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, we need the hope of Jesus.

You know, so often we act just like the Roman authorities. Trying to control every situation; trying to contain that which can never be contained; giving in to fear at the expense of spiritual freedom. The miracle of this day happens when we let go of our need to control everything in our midst. Try as we might to take every precaution, we inevitably come up short. And that’s okay. Because Jesus always helps us find a way out; Jesus breaks the seal of our captivity and shows us the way to faith, hope, and love. Every single time.

With all their precautions and protocols, the authorities had indeed made an example of Jesus. It just wasn’t the example they had envisioned. Through his glorious resurrection, Jesus became an example not of foolishness or misguided passion, but an example of peace in the face of violence; an example of mercy in the face of injustice; an example of love in the face of hate; an example of life in the face of death; an example of hope in the face of despair.

May you be inspired by the living example of Jesus Christ as you find your way into the empty tomb this Easter. And in so doing be reminded that even in the darkest moments of life, even when the world feels like it’s on the verge of destruction, hope is alive, love conquers fear, and life vanquishes even the power of death. Alleluia and Amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday of Easter (2016)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 1, 2016 (Easter 6, Year C)

Carnivorous sea snail mucus. That was the source of the highly prized purple dyes used in sea snailthe ancient world. The process of turning the carnivorous sea snail mucus into a usable dye was, not surprisingly, slow and arduous. And expensive. It’s the reason the color purple became associated with royalty. Kings and queens were among the few who could afford to have clothing and textiles dyed purple.

We see vestiges of this in our own liturgy as the color purple is used during the season of Advent.  Purple vestments may no longer be seen as luxury items, but during the period before Christmas in which we await the birth of the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, we dress the altar in royal purple.

But why am I talking about this? Partly it’s because I’ve always wanted to utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” from the pulpit. And partly, with this week’s premature death of Prince — true music royalty — the color purple has been in the news.

But the main reason is to highlight a fairly obscure Biblical character named Lydia. She only appears once in all of Scripture and we hear about her in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She was a wealthy merchant, a woman who made her money as a dealer in purple cloth. But just because you’ve perhaps never heard of Lydia, or at least skipped over her brief Scriptural mention, doesn’t mean she was insignificant.

She’s featured in just four sentences and yet we can glean much from them. Paul writes, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

From this we can tell that Lydia was a faithful Gentile woman who worshipped the Jewish God; that she eagerly listen to the preaching of Paul; that God opened her heart to Paul’s message about Jesus; that she was wealthy, as a seller of purple cloth; that she lived in present-day Greece in a town on the Agean Sea — she needed access to those sea snails; that she was likely the head of her own household, as no husband is mentioned; that she was baptized by Paul; and that she was hospitable, as she opened her home to Paul and his companions.

In a culture that rarely mentioned women by name, or that only did so in relation to a husband or father, Lydia stands out as a powerful force in the early church. She is recognized as the first documented convert to Christianity on European soil and it is through this encounter that the church in Philippi was born. It thrived, likely with Lydia’s passion and financial support, to the point that Paul wrote to the community, and we have his beautiful Letter to the Philippians to show for it.

In his earthly life, Jesus so often brought women and others marginalized by society out of the shadows and into the light. He broke convention by conversing with women in public places, entered their homes, listened to what they had to say. At his death it was the women at the empty tomb who first learned the good news of the resurrection and Mary Magdalene is proclaimed as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” And now we see this same movement of the spirit continuing in the early church as Lydia became a prominent member and driver of the budding Christian community in Philippi. And yet, how many of you had ever even heard of Lydia? We as an institutional church and as a society still have much work to do.

As a case in point, there’s been another woman in the news recently who has similarly been kept in the shadows. The shadows of slavery and racism and sexism. Harriet Tubman, who will soon take her place as the first woman represented on U.S. currency.

Putting Harriet on the $20 bill hasn’t been without controversy. Whether due to simple resistance to change or darker forces isn’t for me to know or judge. But I will say this: if you know of anyone opposed to Harriet Tubman on the $20, please encourage them to get rid of these bills by sending them to the church. We’d be more than happy to convert Tubmans into ministry here at St. John’s.

tubmanBut what’s not often discussed is what allowed Harriet to live her courageous life: her deep, abiding faith. Like Lydia, Harriet was a strong, smart, able, and passionate woman. Nicknamed “Moses” for her work in leading slaves from captivity to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she was also profoundly faithful. It’s what kept her going as a freedom fighter throughout her varied life as an abolitionist, suffragist, nurse, spy, soldier in the Union Army.

In addition to everything else, Harriet was a woman who persevered in everything she did. One of my favorite stories involves her doggedness as a fundraiser for her work on the Railroad. It’s said that one day she approached a well-known abolitionist in New York, and informed him that God had told her that he “had twenty dollars to give her to free the slaves.” The man was not convinced. So Harriet staged a one-woman sit-in in his office. She sat down, and calmly continued to sit throughout the day, as the man went about his business. People came and went, wondering about this determined black lady sitting in the corner. By the time it was over, the man had given sixty dollars to Harriet. Or the equivalent of three Tubmans.

Of course women like Lydia and Harriet Tubman don’t do what they do in order to be publicly recognized. And yet by lifting up the saints among us, we are able to draw deep inspiration from their lives and from their devotion. We can learn lessons from how to follow Jesus amid challenging circumstances.

Harriet’s challenges are well-known but being a woman of means, Lydia also had a lot to lose by following Jesus. It would have been safer not to. There’s a reason most business owners don’t advertise their religion or put campaign signs in their store windows — why risk offending paying customers? But Lydia saw the bigger picture and her hospitality amid the persecution of the early church never wavered. Soon enough Paul and his companions would be arrested, jailed, and beaten but they headed back to Lydia’s home to be fed, welcomed, and tended to.

I may never again utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” during a sermon. But the next time you order escargot in a fancy restaurant or pay for something with a $20 bill, I do hope you’ll consider the life and witness of these two incredible women. And consider how you, too, can follow Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Easter 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 17, 2016 (Easter 4, Year C)

How do you cultivate a sense of belonging? For many of us, we become joiners. We join political parties; fraternal groups like the Masons; professional organizations like the Rotary Club; volunteer societies like the Junior League; service organizations like the VFW. If you think about the number of clubs or groups you’ve belonged to over the years, it’s probably a long list. And much of our personal identity comes from such organizations.

Now, part of me can’t help but think of these traditional societies or associations as CgPeiBtUEAE-g14.jpg-largeobituary filler. And maybe that’s not fair but if you’re a reader of obits, like I am — it’s a professional hazard — these are the things that end up in there. “Bob was active in the Republican Party, a member of the Moose Lodge, and served as past-president of the Kiwanis Club. The funeral will be held at St. Peter’s by-the-Turnpike, where he served on the Vestry.”

That’s not to minimize or make light of causes or institutions which we care about, but rather to highlight how much we all crave a sense of belonging. It’s human nature to seek connection and acceptance and value; and political, religious, social, and professional organizations often help fill that deep yearning.

Now, usually when it comes to joining an organization, the process is fairly straightforward. In some cases you either qualify or you don’t. As a veteran I could join the American Legion but as someone who drives a Honda I would not be welcome in the Ferrari Club of America. But once the basic qualifications are met and you have established a common affinity, you typically sign up, pay your membership fee, and you’re in. You often quite literally become a card-carrying member.

Religious denominations have certain guidelines as well. Some are more rigid than others — but often you have to adhere to a particular set of beliefs or give a particular percentage of your annual income or maybe undergo a formal rite. Or perhaps it’s less structured. Just come occasionally, give what you can, and try your best not to break any Commandments — at least the big ones.

That’s how it works, right?

Well actually, no. That’s not how it works. At all. At least according to Jesus. Jesus says that you already belong. That you belong to Jesus simply because you exist. There’s nothing to sign, no hidden fees, no hoops to jump through, no catch. Your belonging doesn’t depend on what you believe or what you say or what other people think. Your belonging doesn’t take into account your socioeconomic class, your gender, your sexual orientation, or your level of education. Your belonging doesn’t hinge on whether or not you’ve experienced doubts or what you’ve done or left undone. Your belonging has nothing to do with past or future accomplishments or how hard you’ve worked.

Your belonging, in fact doesn’t depend upon you at all. You belong because Jesus has chosen you, not because you have chosen Jesus. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, tells us “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” That’s it. You’re in. You belong. You are part of the flock.

And at one level, isn’t this so freeing? You belong to Jesus just as you are; even despite who you are. You are loved, included, invited into the green pastures and still waters of the Good Shepherd.

Yet this can also be a hard message to accept. Because if we belong, everybody belongs. If we belong, that annoying neighbor who mows his lawn before 7:00 am on Saturday mornings also belongs. If we belong, our meddling sister-in-law also belongs. If we belong, the guy at work who’s always stealing our ideas and passing them off as his, also belongs. For better or worse, everybody means everybody.

belonging-1You know, it should come as no surprise that religious groups are some of the worst offenders of seeking to create belonging by less-than-gracious means. The worst of human nature often means inclusion at the expense of others. Creating group identity by excluding others. This invites the notion that in order to create a sense of belonging you must intentionally keep others out. “It’s us against the world!” It’s a dangerous and, I’d argue un-Christian, model around which to build community. And there’s not too much of a leap from the in-group/out-group paradigm to David Koresh and the debacle in Waco or anti-Muslim fervor in our present day. Belonging at the expense of others is not the kind of belonging into which Jesus beckons us. His is a belonging without walls; an inclusion without barriers; an invitation without limits.

But it’s also an invitation not devoid of identity. Because as we crave a sense of belonging, it’s important to remember that our identity is wrapped up in Jesus’ identity as God’s son.

You’ll note in this passage from John’s gospel that those seeking straight talk about Jesus’ identity are not his followers. Those who have tracked him down at the Temple to demand information about who he really is, are the religious authorities, the same ones whose rigid standards of belonging are being subverted. And Jesus says two things: ‘First, I’ve already told you who I am and you don’t believe me so why should I waste my time and second, the works that I’ve been doing all along in God’s name — teaching and healing and preaching — already speak to my identity.’

You see, Jesus understands our profound need to belong. He recognizes this yearning that stands at the very depth of our souls. It’s why he called the first disciples into community, into a group. He could have saved himself a whole lot of heartache if he’d just gone around the countryside by himself, rather than with a bunch of devoted, if often misguided, disciples.

But he understood the human need for connection; the human need to stave off crushing feelings of isolation and loneliness. We crave connection and relationship and when we feel it slipping away we can easily become depressed and fall into despair. Wardens — and in this case I’m talking about prison wardens, not church wardens — are well aware that one of the most dehumanizing things you can do to a person is put them into solitary confinement; to take away their sense of belonging.

Jesus is calling out your name. Not to artificially create in you a sense of belonging, but because you already belong. We, like sheep, can and do go astray. There’s no doubt about that. We wander off, we get lost, we encounter danger. But the Good Shepherd continually, lovingly, gently calls upon you to return; not because you don’t belong, but precisely because you do.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after Easter (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 3, 2016 (Easter 2, Year C)

I’m pretty sure the most anticlimactic thing I have ever witnessed in my entire life, happened on live TV in 1986. Some of you may remember the great hype for a program hosted by Geraldo Rivera called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” This was a live two-hour special at the conclusion of which Geraldo was to open a newly discovered stone vault underneath the Lexington Hotel in Chicago.

Most of the show, which was also watched by 30 million other suckers, was spent The_Mystery_of_Al_Capones's_Vaultsspeculating on what might be inside the vault. Cash, bodies, liquor, gangster secrets. Just in case, Geraldo had a medical examiner on hand to inspect any rotted corpses as well as IRS agents to deal with any unclaimed piles of money.

Once the audience had been worked up into a lathered frenzy, the moment came for Geraldo to open the vault. There were a series of detonations and then a giant chain yanked open the vault. After two titillating hours spent rehashing the glory days of Al Capone and the Untouchables, once the smoke cleared, Geraldo had unearthed…absolutely nothing. Well that’s not entirely true; he did find two empty gin bottles and a stop sign. But that was it. Perhaps the greatest anticlimax ever.

Which brings us to the Sunday after Easter. In many parishes this day is referred to as “Low Sunday.” Certainly in comparison to Easter, the “highest” feast on the Christian calendar, anything might be considered “low.” And in many places everything about the day is low — the attendance, the energy, the music, the preaching. The whole day can feel like one giant holy hangover.

And as long as we’re on the subject of liturgical minutiae, you may be interested to know that this day was also traditionally known as Quasimodo Sunday. Not because there was a lot of bellringing, but because the Latin introit for the day started with the words quasi modo geniti enfantes, “as newborn babes.” That bell-ringing hunchback from the Victor Hugo novel? He was abandoned as an infant at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on, you guessed it, Quasimodo Sunday; hence his name. But in comparison to the day we celebrate the miracle of the empty tomb, Low Sunday can feel like an empty vault. Unsatisfying; anticlimactic.

But not here! We have baptisms and Bible presentations and a full choir and pancakes after the service! This morning at St. John’s we are sticking it to the Low Sunday Man!

And one of the great things about this day is that it reminds us that resurrection, like baptism, takes time to live into. Yes, there is a decisive moment involved. “The tomb is empty — alleluia!” or “Let’s splash some water on you — you’re a Christian!” And while these are indeed once-and-for-all events — in resurrection, Christ vanquished the power of death for all eternity and in baptism, the newly baptized are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever — we never stop living into our Christian faith and identity. We continue to be formed in the ways of Jesus Christ day after day, week after week, year after year. By listening to God’s word and being drawn to the altar; through prayer and by sharing the journey of our common life with one another.

So, far from suddenly solving everything all at once, these life-changing moments draw us ever deeper. We are invited deeper into living a life of resurrection; deeper into the waters of baptism; deeper into our relationship with God.

This doesn’t make Easter or baptism anticlimactic. But it does bring us to the realization that these defining moments are beginnings, not endings. Easter is a 50-day season, not just a single day; baptism is a lifetime, not a single moment.

And of course we can and should revel in those climactic moments — jelly beans or a fancy brunch, the sugar high of celebration. It’s important to mark and enjoy such joyous moments. Too often we skip over the celebration and just move on to the next thing. Like Bill Belichick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning yet another Super Bowl while his thoughts immediately move on to the NFL draft or next year’s training camp. It is a good and joyful thing to revel in the moment.

And yet we can’t stay there forever. Life moves on. The dishes get cleared, the chocolate gets eaten, the dog needs a walk, a diaper needs changing. And we have a need to get on with things, to move past the initial euphoria and into something deeper. That’s what this day is all about.

Of course when you go deeper in your faith, when you move beyond the surface, you do encounter doubt. Perhaps this is why every year on the Sunday after Easter the unfortunately and unfairly named “Doubting” Thomas shows up. The poor guy who missed the disciples’ resurrection party and simply wanted a side of proof to go along with the joy.

He’s certainly not the only one of the disciples to have doubts about this crazy resurrection story. As you may recall from the Easter gospel, Peter and the other other male disciples didn’t believe the women’s eyewitness account of the resurrection. They, too wanted proof before they would deign to believe that Jesus had risen. But it’s Thomas who gets saddled with this unflattering moniker. History doesn’t speak of Doubting Peter or Doubting Bartholomew or Doubting James but Doubting Thomas.

But I love Thomas because he reminds us that doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have a tendency to shove it away; to lock it up, to try and keep it inside a tomb. We feel it’s safer that way. Ignoring any seeds of doubt. But in the long run, it’s much healthier to embrace the doubt; to acknowledge it; to engage with it. Like the disciples we are both doubters and believers. These are not mutually exclusive; there is nuance involved in faith. Shades of gray in the midst of a world that so desperately craves black and white.

capture1But that’s the thing about going deeper. Faith no longer just bubbles on the surface. And suddenly you find yourself in church not just on Easter Day but the week after as well, wrestling with the deeper issues of faith that lurk beneath the surface. That’s what it means to be a practicing Christian. Walking with Jesus even when it’s not all joy and jelly beans.

Now, I don’t recommend it, but you can watch the full two-hours of “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” at geraldo.com. That’s the epitome of anticlimax. But today, we stand firm in our faith; a faith that transcends any potential anticlimax. Because the life-giving, death-conquering empty tomb, has absolutely nothing in common with the disappointment of an empty vault. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Easter Day 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 27, 2016 (Easter Day)

Isn’t Easter great? The colorful dresses and joyful music; the dignified processions and the slightly less dignified Easter egg hunts; the fancy brunches and half-eaten chocolate bunnies.

12513731_10207827867766183_4654086190179414197_oThere sure is a lot of pageantry and tradition involved for what was originally dismissed as an “idle tale.” That’s what the male disciples called the initial reports from the women who gathered at the tomb on that first Easter Day. They dismissed their eyewitness account of the resurrection as utter nonsense; feminine foolishness. And you can almost hear the condescension in their voices, dismissing both the fanciful story and the women themselves.

Culturally, this dismissive attitude made sense. Despite Jesus’ constant attempts to break down the false barriers between people, despite his continued drive to include rather than to exclude, despite his constant challenge of social norms, despite his clear mandate to love one another, despite his living example of shattering our preconceived notions, the disciples still didn’t get it. Even on that first Easter morning, Peter and his companions just couldn’t accept the first-hand account of the women who witnessed the empty tomb. They couldn’t believe the message; they wouldn’t believe the messengers.

So what were these women doing hanging around Jesus’ tomb in the first place? With heavy hearts these female disciples had made their way to the burial site, not because they expected a miracle but simply to give Jesus’ body the dignified burial they felt it deserved. They brought embalming spices in order to anoint the body. Remember the myrrh from the Christmas story? The gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the three kings? The three worst baby gifts ever? Well, myrrh was an expensive, spiced embalming oil. Foreshadowing the crucifixion.

But an odd thing, a perplexing thing, a confusing thing took place when they entered the tomb. It was empty. And it’s tough to embalm a body that simply is not there. So as they raced back to tell the others this stunning news about what they had seen and heard, they were met with hardness of heart. “But these words seemed to the male disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

There are still many who dismiss the Easter story as an “idle tale.” This is nothing new. An increasing number of people have built walls around what feels rational and logical in order to keep out that which they deem irrational and illogical. It’s easier that way. To dismiss the miraculous, to cling to the power of our own minds, to hold onto only that which we can see with our own eyes. It’s become almost fashionable to reject the resurrection.

And I get that. We, like the male disciples, want to run back to the tomb to verify things for ourselves. We want to treat the empty tomb like a crime scene. To dust for prints; do some DNA testing; analyze the data. But there are certain things in life that defy logic; things that rise above the rational. Like love and forgiveness and faith — things that we feel and know in our hearts, even when we can’t quantify them or plot the data on a graph.

The resurrection is one of these things. Yet if we open our hearts and minds to the power of Christ’s resurrection, to the irrational notion that God loves humanity not just in general but you in particular, we come to see deeply embedded and eternal truths.

Because the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God works in ways that transcend human comprehension. That God is not limited by human logic or mortal constraints.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God works through the disenfranchised and marginalized. In revealing the resurrection first to women, God shows us that God is not bound by the prejudice of society in any age.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that, in the end, fear never wins out over faith. That nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that there is a better way. That life doesn’t have to be a slog to get through but a joy to enter into.

Yes, the sugar high of Easter Day eventually wears off. The organ is powered down. The trumpets are silenced. Candles are extinguished. Colorful dresses return to the closet. Brunch is digested. Peeps get stale — actually that never happens. They have an indefinite shelf life. But we’re left with a clear path. Jesus beckons us to follow in his footsteps, either confidently or haltingly; often in equal measure.

Of course, you can ignore the invitation. You can hop right back on the hamster wheel. You can fill your days with endless activity and noise. You can find yourself, once again, with no time for silence or reflection. It’s safer that way, really. You can spend most of your life avoiding the larger questions of life; ignoring questions about the eternal and your place within it.

But, like a boomerang, eventually these questions return with ever increasing intensity. CelScRlWIAA-NAO.jpg-largeLife, death, faith. Walking the path of Jesus gives us answers — not easy ones mind you — but his path anchors our life, roots it in hope and meaning. Offers us peace even in the midst of anxiety; laughter even in the midst of tears; life even in the midst of death.

When you take those first tentative steps to truly follow Jesus, a funny thing happens: an idle tale becomes transformative. The “proof” of the resurrection is seen in lives that have been changed and healed and made whole through encounter with the risen Christ. We see resurrection not just in an empty tomb once a year, but in one another each and every day. We see resurrection in fear driven out; in hateful rhetoric denied; in equality achieved; in discrimination overthrown; in the crumbling of walls that seek to divide us one from another and in the tearing down of obstacles that seek desperately to separate the rational from the mystical.

As you walk through the rubble of these torn down walls, may this “idle tale” fill you with all hope in the power of the resurrection. May the joy of this Easter day open up for you an ever deepening relationship with the living God. And may Christ’s victory over the grave open for you the very gates of heaven. Alleluia and amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck