Fourth Sunday of 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 May 8, 2022 (Easter 4, Year C)

On this Good Shepherd Sunday we hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” This is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life: listening to Jesus’ voice and following him. “My sheep hear my voice.” We’re the sheep in this scenario, charged with listening to Jesus’ voice. 

Now, I admit that whenever I reflect on this passage I’m transported back to the battery of psychological tests I had to take when I was first pursuing a call to ordained ministry. Believe it or not, there’s a whole screening process. But one of the questions on one of the tests was, “Do you hear voices?” And at first, I was like ‘of course not. I know what you’re trying to get at here.’ But then this passage came to mind: “My sheep hear my voice.” So when the question “Do you hear voices” is asked, I might fill in ‘no’ on a psychological test, but the real answer is, it’s complicated. Jesus encourages us to hear his voice. To follow Jesus is to listen to Jesus. And regardless of vocation, that’s something we are all called to do in our lives. 

Now, at one level, it’s a lot easier for me to tell people I listen to Jesus’ voice than it is for most of you. I’m a priest, after all. I dress up in fancy vestments on Sunday mornings and stand up in a pulpit to talk about God. I wear a clerical collar around town. A few years ago the owner at Redeye Roasters found me a mug that says “Jesus and Coffee” and he trains all his baristas to serve my coffee in it whenever I show up. My Twitter handle is @FatherTim. If I post a prayer, no one thinks it’s weird or that I’m too much of a Jesus freak. The truth is, I am a Jesus freak and I get paid to be one. People don’t give me strange looks when I tell them I go to church every Sunday, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. 

And while church-going used to be much more widespread and people talking about their faith used to be more commonplace, it no longer is. How many of your neighbors go to church? How many of your co-workers go to church? Certainly a lot fewer than a generation or two ago. Or even a decade ago. And there are many reasons for this. People don’t think faith matters, they’re busy, they’re self-absorbed, they feel as if they’re the ones in control of their lives, not some God they cannot see or understand. There’s also no longer any social pressure to go to church. No one gets shamed for staying in bed and reading the paper or going shopping or heading out to the little league field.

If you told people that you both hear and heed the voice of Jesus, you might lose some friends. But this is the great challenge: how will you hear and heed the voice of Jesus not just on Sunday morning but in your daily life? At work, at dinner parties, at the playground, with your family. How will you hear and heed the voice of Jesus not just for an hour on Sunday morning but in every aspect of your life? Allowing God’s love to infuse your interactions with others, guide your financial decisions, impact the way you respect the dignity of those on the margins of society. This is what it means to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to do his will in your life.

And whether or not those around you are aware of Jesus or care about Jesus or are interested in Jesus, this is what it means to live as a Christian in the world. We hear and heed the voice of Jesus whatever else is going on around us, whatever others think of our actions. I often speak of the Christian life as a counter-cultural existence. Loving others runs counter to so many of the messages the world conveys. We are overwhelmed with messages encouraging us to be self-sufficient and self-aggrandizing and self-focused. And the voice of Jesus tells us to be outwardly focused, to be mindful of the needs of others, to love one another as Jesus loves us. This message increasingly cuts across everything we are taught about the world. And yet it endures because it is holy and true, gentle and brimming with hope. 

There is another way to live, and by hearing and heeding Jesus’ voice you are showing the world that there is another way to love. Another way to walk through this world with compassion and caring and self-giving concern for those whom we encounter on this journey of life and faith. 

The danger, or at least potential pitfall, in talking about hearing and heeding Jesus’ voice is that we can believe that we have a monopoly on hearing it and interpreting it correctly. This often gets used as a cudgel to beat back those with whom we disagree. I’m the one who’s hearing the true voice of Jesus when it comes to fill-in-the-blank issues. All you have to do is look at the headlines to see that Christians don’t always agree. This past week we saw this with a leaked document from the Supreme Court. Christians of various stripes were rejoicing and lamenting.

So, how can we be sure that we’re listening to Jesus’ voice and not our own twisted interpretation of it? I’m convinced we have a foolproof method to discern what is of Jesus and what is merely noise. We have as a filter the baptismal covenant; it’s the covenant into which we were all baptized and it’s the covenant we renew every time there’s a baptism here at St. John’s. In it, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We don’t just pay lip service to respect and dignity, this is a vow we make as fundamental to living out our lives as Christians not just inside the four walls of the church but out in the world. Where we work and interact with neighbors, where we serve others and meet new friends, where we engage in the public sphere and both agree and disagree with people. Where we are called to respect the dignity of every human being in every aspect of our lives, just as we’re called to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives. Being a Christian isn’t something we turn on and off when it’s convenient, it stands at the very core of our being, even when it’s hard, even when it goes against the cultural tide.

In the end, the filter of the baptismal covenant reminds us of Jesus’ teaching on how we treat “the least of these” in our midst. How we treat the left out and the left behind. And that comes from the unfiltered and unvarnished voice of Jesus. By this, Jesus tells us, everyone will know that you are my disciples, my sheep: if you have love for one another.


Third Sunday of 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 May 1, 2022 (Easter 3, Year C)

153 fish. In a world with a tremendous amount of ambiguity, that’s pretty specific. But that’s the number of fish we hear the disciples hauled in when the resurrected Jesus encouraged them to cast their nets. 153 fish. 

Now, I’m not sure who was tasked with counting them. And 153 isn’t some Biblically significant number, one dripping with hidden meaning. They just caught 153 fish. Which seems like an awful lot. It’s certainly a sign of abundance, considering it was just Jesus and the disciples broiling them on the beach for breakfast. 

What I love about the specificity of 153 fish is that it speaks to the specificity of God’s love for each one of us. Yes, Jesus’ resurrection was a triumph of life over death on a grand scale. Indeed, it enacts the very salvation of the world. Through it, death no longer has dominion over us and we are set free to live and love in a way that unleashes our heart’s greatest desire, which is to be in relationship with God. That’s the big picture of the Easter event that we continue to celebrate over these 50 days of Eastertide. 

But in those 153 fish, we encounter the specificity of Jesus’ love for each one of us. Jesus loves us not in the abstract, but in the particularity of who we are. In all our brokenness, in all our foolishness, in all our sinfulness. Jesus gazes into our hearts and loves us with the specificity of 153 fish. Which is good news indeed.

And if you don’t think you’re truly worthy of Jesus’ love — because of your brokenness, foolishness, and sinfulness — all you have to do is look at Peter and Paul. They play prominent roles in our readings this morning, and they play prominent roles in building up the church in the days and years following Jesus’ resurrection. They were also broken, foolish, and sinful.

Take Paul. The person who did the most to build up the early church by planting and nurturing multiple communities of Jesus followers, has a heck of a back story. And it’s not good! Before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a violent and vehement persecutor of those who followed Jesus. We hear that when he took those first steps along the road to Damascus, he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” And Paul took great pride in his diligence at exposing and arresting and punishing these Jesus followers. So this is hardly the best resumé for becoming a future fervent disciple of Jesus.

And then there’s Peter. It’s got to be tough to bounce back after famously denying Jesus, not once but three times in the run-up to the crucifixion. But it’s not just the denials that sullied his reputation. In the gospels, the rock upon whom Jesus builds his church, often comes across, quite frankly, as a buffoon. It’s hard not to laugh out loud when we hear about his actions in this morning’s gospel passage. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” That’s right. When Peter hears Jesus has appeared, he put on his clothes and jumped into the sea. That’s the rock upon whom the church is built? Peter certainly doesn’t come across as the most solid foundation.

But, as with the 153 fish, it’s the specificity of Paul’s hateful past and Peter’s utter foolishness that points to Jesus’ love for each one of us. No matter what we do or how we act, Jesus still loves us. So the question becomes, do we love him? Do we love Jesus with all our heart and mind and soul?

After that breakfast of broiled fish, this is precisely the question Jesus poses to Peter. Jesus asks him whether he loves him. Not once, not twice, but three times he asks him, to the point that Peter is rather offended. ‘Of course you know that I love you,’ he replies. Now the number three is significant in the Christian tradition — the Trinity and all that. But I think the real significance here is that Peter denied Jesus three times. And so three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. 

Again, there’s a specificity here that speaks to the intimate relationship between Jesus and his most trusted disciple. Jesus never blames Peter for the denials; it is a very human response of self-preservation in the midst of oppression and violence. But through the resurrection, through this interaction, the three denials are transformed into three affirmations of love. And then Jesus ends his interactions with Peter with the same words which began the relationship: “Follow me.”

To love Jesus is to follow him. And so these three questions are also addressed to each one of us. Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” And at first, we might shrug our shoulders and say, ‘why, yes, I love you.’ We might even think to ourselves, ‘of course I love you, I’m at church aren’t I?’ And then Jesus gazes into our eyes to really get our attention and asks us again, “Do you love me?” And that’s when we might ask ourselves, ‘yes, but how exactly am I living out this love in the world? What am I doing to demonstrate this love to others?’ And finally, Jesus asks us the third time, perhaps putting his hands on our shoulders and gazing deeply into our hearts, “Do you love me?” And just as we think, how can we possibly love Jesus enough, he says, “Follow me.”

And that’s how we love Jesus. By following him. By learning his story and then following his commandment to love one another as he loves us. We follow him by loving ourselves and by loving others. By sharing Jesus’ love with the world. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it goes against our self-interest. That’s what it means to love Jesus; that’s what it means to follow Jesus. 

And we do this not in the abstract but in the specificity of 153 fish. Which means specific actions related to specific people in specific situations. I encourage you to think about the ways that you can embrace the spirit of 153 fish. What are some ways you can love and follow Jesus in your own life and among those in your circle and beyond it? Jesus will continue to gaze upon your heart, knowing of your deep capacity to love and follow him. Sometimes it takes some encouragement, sometimes it takes asking you three times. But connecting Jesus’ love for us with specific actions of love for others is precisely how we answer that call to love Jesus and to follow him.

Easter Day 2022

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 17, 2022 (Easter Day, Year C)

There’s a certain order to Easter Day, certain traditions we follow that remind us that today is special and different. At church, we begin by singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” we let the “Alleluias” ring out, and we literally pull out all the stops. But even before the organ gets cranked up, there’s the picking out of a favorite Easter dress or colorful Easter tie. If kids are involved there’s the wrangling into the dreaded dress shoes. And then there are the daily traditions — the Easter egg hunts, the hot cross buns or Cadbury eggs, the Easter meal with family and friends, the photographs with the kids, preferably before they have an encounter with that chocolate Easter bunny. We love our Easter traditions and, especially coming out of a pandemic when so many of the most familiar things were put on hiatus, they feel particularly meaningful this year.

But that first Easter Day was anything but orderly and traditional. Frankly, the whole thing was a hot mess. It was unexpected, full of surprises, chaotic, and confusing, with nary a jelly bean in sight. In Luke’s telling of the story, a group of women head over to the tomb early in the morning with spices to anoint Jesus’ body. It’s a loving act, a traditional act of burial preparation, left to the women because the men had all fled in grief and terror. Again, we have orderly processions with crucifers and vested choirs. They had disorderly gaggles of fleeing disciples. 

And when the women arrive, they notice that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. This may have been the first clue that things were about to go off the rails. And when they encounter two angels in dazzling white clothes, the fear kicks in. They were terrified! “Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ they ask the women. In other words, why are you roaming around this tomb that clearly could not contain Jesus? There’s literally nothing to see here, because he has risen!

Of course this doesn’t exactly put the women at ease. It’s hard to imagine the dazed state they must have been in as they left the tomb to return to the disciples to share this incredible and bizarre and bewildering news of the resurrection. This isn’t just disorderly, this pushes directly against the natural order of life and death and things known and unknown. It is the ultimate reversal in the way things are supposed to go. There is nothing traditional about the resurrection.

And so the women, Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James among them, burst into where the disciples are hiding and the words come tumbling out. You can imagine the cacophony of sound as they all start speaking at once, trying to make sense of the scene they witnessed at the empty tomb, along with the at-the-time confusing words they remember Jesus saying about being crucified and rising again on the third day. What they weren’t doing was singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” 

One thing that’s as true then as it is today is that many dismiss the women’s sharing of this incredible news as an “idle tale.” The disciples certainly did. They didn’t believe the women’s words that came tumbling forth. Maybe it was misogyny, maybe it was hardened hearts, maybe it was just too much for their rational minds to take in. But for Peter, it wasn’t until he himself went to the empty tomb that the first glimmer of resurrection hope arose out of the ashes of crucifixion, that new life emerged out of death, that Easter came out of Good Friday. And we know about so-called Doubting Thomas who wouldn’t believe until he had literally put his fingers into Jesus’ side. We are a rational, disbelieving people.

Even today, some dismiss the Easter story as an idle tale or believe it to be little more than a conspiracy theory. Rationally, it makes no sense, of course. You can’t explain the unexplainable; you can’t rationalize divine mystery. But then you start to open your eyes and you begin to see glimpses of resurrection all around us. Life being snatched out of the jaws of death; hope held out amid moments of despair; joy emerging out of the depths of pain. 

Glimpses of the resurrection surround us every single day, when we open our hearts to the possibilities of new life. This is what it means to live an Easter life: to allow the impossible and the improbable to take root. To hold onto hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. To show love when the world calls for hate. 

And that, my friends, is why we can revel in the orderly processions and family traditions of this day, even when things don’t go exactly according to plan. And so, whether or not the twins end up in matching outfits, whether or not our lives feel particularly joyful at the moment, whether or not the Easter dinner comes out perfectly, Jesus Christ is indeed risen today. Out of the babble of uncertainty comes the clarity of faith, filling our lives with hope and meaning and new life.

Alleluia and amen.

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of  St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 2, 2021 (Easter 5, Year B)

Between the two passages from John this morning — his first letter and then his gospel — we heard the word “love” 27 times and the word “abide” 13 times. I know. Because I spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time counting. That is a whole lot of loving and a whole lot of abiding. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” And the corollary to this might be, “If it’s not about abiding, it’s not about John.”

But I want you to hold on to the abiding love of these two readings as we delve into the Acts of the Apostles. This book plays a prominent role in the Easter season as we hear all sorts of stories about the early church. About how Jesus’ message of God’s abiding love spread beyond a small group of disciples to communities all over the known world. About the mind-blowing and in many ways controversial and boundary-crossing power of God’s abiding love being shared with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations in all sorts of ways. 

This story of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza — from Bible study to baptism — is one that expands our notion of God’s abiding love, even as it did the very same for the two characters involved here. 

It’s difficult to place this Ethiopian court official into a box. His identity is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity and we project our own perspectives on him at our peril. Yet to the Greco-Roman context out of which Acts was written, we can understand him as being an outsider, a foreigner from an exotic land, perhaps with darker skin, a person who came from “somewhere else.” 

And as a eunuch, his gender identity didn’t fit neatly into an either/or category. Was castration a sign of respect in his culture, fitting his standing as a royal court official? Or was he meant to be pitied? In the Roman world, a eunuch would have been scorned as less than a real and virile man.

Yet he was also a person of privilege. Well-dressed and educated, wealthy, intellectually and spiritually curious. Again, it’s impossible to put the Ethiopian eunuch into neatly defined categories, which is certainly our preference. When it comes to others, we like to know what and whom we’re dealing with. We crave clarity over ambiguity. We like answers rather than questions. We prefer black and white to shades of gray. The unnamed Ethiopian doesn’t fit our human desire for clarity in identity.

And yet God’s abiding love lives and moves and has its being among and in ambiguity. We worship a God who died, yet rose. We are all sinners, yet redeemed. The reality is that discomfort with ambiguity comes from our humanity, not from God. God doesn’t require tidiness or clarity to love us. God’s abiding love exists right in the very thick of our own messy and unsettled lives. God doesn’t love us because we have it all figured out. God loves us precisely because we don’t.

But sometimes people get angry when God’s love is extended to those they deem unlovable or different. We see this in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus holds up a reviled Samaritan as the hero, the one who demonstrated God’s abiding love in word and action. We see this in the controversies between Peter and Paul in Acts, as they debated whether or not even Gentiles were included in Christ’s redeeming love. And we see it in our own day as people of faith proclaim God’s love for some — usually those who look and think and act like themselves — but not all

But who are we to control the abiding love of God? Who are we to pose limits on the abiding love of God? Who are we to stifle the abiding love of God? And yet that’s often our first impulse when God’s love is extended beyond what our human minds can fathom; when it’s extended to those we think are beyond the scope of what’s good and moral and decent and acceptable. It’s amazing how we seek to limit God’s love or put bumpers on it, to use a bowling analogy. But we do. All the time, in ways so subtle we may not even notice it in ourselves or in others.

And that’s why this story is so critical to helping us see and understand the nature of God. For in it, we see this ever-expanding circle of love made manifest. And it culminates in baptism. “Look, here is water,” the eunuch says to Philip. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And from a human perspective, there are all sorts of things to prevent this baptism. He just learned about Jesus, he’s on his way back to Ethiopia, in the early church the norm was a long preparation process before someone was admitted to the fellowship of the faith. But through Philip, God clears away all the rules and regulations, God clears away fears and hesitations, and the water of baptism becomes an open and welcoming and immediate entrance into relationship with Jesus Christ. This Ethiopian eunuch is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. And in that moment, God’s abiding love is proclaimed. 

As I was reflecting on this boundary-busting baptism, I started thinking about my own godchild. It’s funny, you’d think that as a priest I might have multiple godchildren. But I have only one. Bryna and I were lucky enough to be asked to be godparents to the child of a seminary classmate of mine. And it was a powerful thing to be on the other side of the baptismal font, answering all those questions, and promising to help this child “grow into the full stature of Christ.” It was a privilege and a great responsibility to stand up and make those vows nearly 20 years ago. 

Last year, our godchild came out as transgender. And while I didn’t see this coming, surprise quickly gave way to love. The love that we will always have for our godchild. The love that God will always extend to our godchild. The abiding love of God is not limited by our preconceived notions or societal norms. If we proclaim that the gospel is indeed good news for all people, we have to recognize that no one is outside the scope of God’s abiding love. That’s the fullness of the good news of Jesus Christ; that’s the fullness of God’s abiding love.

You know, there’s a reason I like to toss water around after a baptism. It’s been awhile, but you’ve probably seen me do this. Partly it’s just fun. I can’t deny that. But the broader point and the reason I do this, is that God’s abiding love cannot be confined or contained. When God’s abiding love is unleashed, it splashes all over the place. God’s love lands on people we think are deserving of God’s love and those we can’t imagine being loved by God. And guess what? God loves them all. And so should we.

That’s the power of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. God’s abiding love is not limited by our notions of what is right and proper. And this allows us to live our lives with the reckless abandon of total immersion in God’s abiding love. For us and for the world.

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 25, 2021 (Easter 4 Year B)

On the very day this past week that the much-anticipated verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was handed down, I was struck by another headline that crossed my newsfeed. Given the events of the day, it didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. But the home where Harriet Tubman likely grew up was discovered by archaeologists on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After years of searching, they found the remains of the place where Harriet lived as an enslaved child with her parents. The place, surrounded by woods, where the woman known as the Conductor on the Underground Railroad first learned to navigate and survive. The place where she came to the crushing realization that freedom in America was not extended to people who looked like her. And perhaps the place where the passionate drive for deliverance was kindled deep within her soul. 

The juxtaposition of these two stories resonated with me, but it wasn’t until our post-Morning Prayer discussion the next day that the real significance of this connection became clear. Those of us who gathered on Zoom spoke of the swirl of emotions surrounding the verdict, from relief to sorrow, from frustration to joy. But Holly Carter related the varied emotions we were feeling in the aftermath of the verdict, back to Harriet Tubman’s experience on the Underground Railroad. For as much joy as there may have been in leading someone from slavery to freedom, in successfully navigating that hard road from bondage to liberty, it was tempered by the fact that there were always others who remained in chains. There were always more slaves to lead into freedom; there was always more work to be done.

And even as one police officer was held accountable in the killing of one unarmed black man, there is always more work to be done. The injustice continues. Blood continues to be spilled. The deep wailing of grief continues to pierce our hearts. True equality for people of color in this country remains elusive. We proclaim “liberty and justice for all,” even as all are not experiencing liberty and justice. And that is a failure. A failure of humanity, a failure of lofty rhetoric, a failure of faith. 

Because, and I’m speaking to my fellow white people here, we cannot remain silent while our black and brown siblings are crying out for justice. We cannot stand idly by or walk on by while our fellow children of God are living in fear and crying out in pain and wailing in grief. Not if we want to fully and truly follow Jesus Christ. As we heard in John’s first letter this morning, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” For this is his commandment: that we love one another.

I’d like to take a moment on this Good Shepherd Sunday to talk about the subtle racism that pervades even our everyday language. Now, it doesn’t take a farmer to see why the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings and music are crawling with the pastoral imagery that is so prevalent in Scripture. In today’s gospel, Jesus proclaims “I am the Good Shepherd;” we get Psalm 23 which begins,“The Lord is my shepherd;” Matt beautifully sang that solo Little Lamb, Who Made Thee. There are sheep references all over this service. And these are beloved metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people. 

But it’s hard to think about sheep without thinking of the expression, “the black sheep of the family.” You know the one. The brother or the cousin who hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the rest of the family. The black sheep is the worthless one who’s been nothing but a disappointment and will never amount to anything. And then there’s the white sheep. The white sheep is the innocent little lamb Mary leads around, the one whose fleece is white as snow. Mary’s little lamb is fluffy and pure and, above all, white. Which stands in stark contrast to the black sheep. 

Now, you might think this is a silly example or that I’m just playing word gymnastics to make a broader point. But it’s not just sheep. If you don’t act a certain way, the proper way, you get blacklisted or blackballed. If you misbehave, you get a black mark. If you sell something illegally you’re doing so on the black market. And as anyone who’s ever watched a Western knows, the heroes wear the white hats, the villains the black ones. 

The point is, language matters — it’s the air we breathe and it imperceptibly forms our attitudes. Taken together, the message is clear: to be black is to be disreputable, impure, immoral, evil. To be white is to be innocent, pure, unimpeachable, and good. Think about how that lands for someone with black skin. 

And you start to see that when we talk about systemic racism, it’s deeply, if sometimes subtly, embedded in the language we use, the institutions we support, the communities we live in, the churches we attend. And while black and brown people have been living with this their entire lives, sometimes for white people, seeing this for the first time feels like the culmination of St. Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus when the scales finally fall from his eyes and he’s able to see the truth. Once you see something you can’t unsee it. And that’s what we’re all working towards when it comes to the work of anti-racism. Helping to pull the scales from each others’ eyes so that we can behold God’s vision for a just, equitable, and multi-colored society, one that reflects the fullness of God’s kingdom, where we treat one another not as threats, but as fellow children of God.

But please don’t think that the sin of racism is something that exclusively affects people of color. It is destructive first and foremost to our black and brown siblings, yes. It rips away dignity through discrimination, it bruises emotionally and physically, it tears down economically and socially. But the sin of racism also eats away at white people. It prevents us from fully living into the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth. Our complicity shuts us off from being the people of love, grace, and compassion that Jesus calls us to be. It distances us from God. And that grieves the Holy Spirit.

This week has reminded all of us that, as with Harriet Tubman — the woman known as the Moses of her People — there is always more work to be done. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a sermon on the night of the Chauvin verdict, “We must continue until no human child of God is treated as less than a child of God; until everybody is treated as God’s somebody; until this world and our communities are beloved communities, where there’s plenty good room for all of God’s children. This is our work. This is our task. This is our struggle.”

There is always more work to be done. But we owe God’s kingdom nothing less than to roll up our sleeves and continue on.

Easter Day 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 4, 2021 (Easter Day)

Well, I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to preach after that. What a beautiful and compelling re-telling of the Easter story by our Sunday School children. They have just preached the gospel in word and action in a much more powerful and eloquent way than I ever could. They have beautifully captured and conveyed the wonder of the resurrection. And, frankly, I hope that’s what you hold onto this day — the sheer joy of what we just witnessed.

So, I should really just sit down and let the story speak for itself. But, since that’s not happening, I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a few moments as we reflect upon this day of resurrection and revel in the glory of Christ’s victory over death.

You know, if there was ever a year to celebrate the resurrection, this is it. For the past 12 months we have been surrounded by gloom and doom and tombs. It has been a tough year, a trying year, a painful year on so many levels. The death toll has been relentless. Each day, each news cycle  has felt like a mini Good Friday. And we all just want it to stop; we are all so ready to get back to some semblance of the way things used to be. 

And with this as the backdrop, it is so tempting to race headlong into the arms of what might be called a societal Easter. To replace the word “hope” with “vaccine,” to swap out “new life” for “new normal,” to proclaim victory against this pandemic, and call our recaptured life “resurrection.” But resurrection, real Resurrection as made manifest in Jesus Christ, is so much more than just relief or light at the end of the tunnel or getting back to the things we’ve missed for so long.

The Resurrection we celebrate today is not found in the joy of indoor dining at our favorite restaurant; or paying $9 for cheap beer in the bleachers at Fenway Park; or even in being able to hug our grandchildren again. As wonderful as all of those things may be, and as welcome as they will hopefully soon be, they are not, in fact, what Easter is all about. Not even this particular Easter.

Because the Resurrection we celebrate this morning is not just about getting our lives back, it is about the very essence of new life. It is about the triumph of life over death. It is about the spirit of the risen Christ being made known to us not just as a distant memory, passed down through an ancient book, but as a real and tangible presence in our lives right here, right now. It is about a God who loves us, forgives us, and walks beside us, right on through that valley of the shadow of death, straight into the new life of grace and hope.

The Resurrection we celebrate this morning is a reminder that even in our darkest moments, and we’ve had plenty of them this year, Jesus is fully present among us. That he is with us through times of isolation and brokenness, through moments of doubt and despair, through painful realizations and fractured relationships. The Resurrection is a reminder that we are not alone, that we will never be alone, that we can never be alone. Because we will never, ever be abandoned or forsaken or forgotten. For Christ is alive. And that’s the power of the Resurrection we celebrate this morning.

But even in light of this reality, the truth is, the resurrected life is not easy. Following Jesus doesn’t automatically wipe away grief and pain. It may heal, but not entirely erase the scars and hurts on our hearts. The true mark of Easter joy is not a temporary sugar high, but an enduring relationship with the divine that carries us through all the trials and travails, the temptations and touchpoints of our lives. 

While the resurrected life is not always easy, it does point to a path forward. A path through the rubble and debris of our lives to a promised land of a soul at peace. A place where joy coexists with grief; a place not of denial but of perspective. That’s where true hope abides. That’s where it shines forth, illuminating and filling our hearts with love. Not despite all that we have suffered, but precisely because we have suffered and, with God’s help, found the path through. That’s true hope. A hope that moves directly through the pain of the cross, not viewing it as an obstacle to avoid, but as a mystical portal into a life of joyful obedience and abundance. That’s what the flowers and fancy vestments and jelly beans ultimately point us towards: new life in Jesus Christ.

In John’s version of the Easter story, after Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Christ at the empty tomb, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold onto me.” In Latin, the phrase is noli me tangere, [NO-lee may TANger-ray] which is literally translated as “touch me not.” And as we hold our second online Easter service in as many years, amid a hopefully waning global pandemic, that phrase, that translation jumped out at me. “Touch me not” — noli me tangere — has been our collective motto throughout the past year. Jesus is basically saying to Mary, “Hey! Keep six feet apart.”

The broader context here is that Jesus is telling Mary he has a mission to fulfill. After a few post-resurrection appearances, Jesus will ascend into heaven. He can’t stay. He can’t be in relationship with Mary and the other disciples in the same way. New life awaits. Mary must let go of Jesus physically, so that she and her friends and all of us can experience Christ’s presence spiritually. Not just in the immediate future, but for all time.

“Touch me not” in the old way, Jesus is saying, but allow yourself to be held in the palm of God’s hand for all eternity. Whenever we can fully embrace one another again, know that you have always been and will always be, embraced by the loving arms of our Lord. Arms that were once stretched out on the hard wood of the cross; arms that are now open wide in welcome, inviting you and loving you into the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. Alleluia and Amen.

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2020 (Easter 7A)

Most of you know that I’m something of a coffee geek. This is not a great news flash, I realize. When people ask the question, “What’s the one thing you miss the most during this time,” my first answer is always ‘going to the coffee shop.’ You have no idea, by the way, how difficult it’s been to write sermons from some place other than Redeye Roasters (but we all have our crosses to bear). 

One of the things I’ve done during this time is tried out a new brewing method. I’ve IMG_4023started experimenting with what’s known as a coffee syphon and it’s kind of awesome. It’s a full immersion method, kind of like a reverse French press, but with the glass tubes and beakers and butane burner, it’s more like chemistry class meets Breaking Bad.

Now, I don’t fully understand the science involved, but as the water gets heated up it miraculously rises into the upper chamber where you add the freshly ground beans. The heat is then removed, the coffee drips back down through a cloth filter, and you’re left with a beautiful, clean, delicious cup of coffee. 

I mention this because all I could think of as I was experimenting with my new toy this week was Jesus’ ascension. Sometimes we get caught up in the physics of it all, and thereby lose the ramifications of it all. The fact that Jesus is with God is the point — not the means by which he got there. Rational beings attempting to parse out the miraculous never goes very well. Which isn’t to minimize the role of scientific inquiry, something we need now more than ever these days, but rather to emphasize the fact that we don’t have all the answers. Mystery abounds in life, in faith, in coffee preparation.

One of the other stumbling blocks surrounding the ascension is that we usually associate up with away. It’s one of the reasons children cry when they accidentally let go of their helium balloon at an outdoor carnival. There’s that sense that when something floats away it is gone forever. And that usually is the case.

But the Ascension of Jesus is different. It’s not up and away, but up and being present in a new way. This is why in Luke’s account of this event, when Jesus is carried up into heaven, we hear that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They’re not weeping and mourning, as you might expect, but rather joyous and hopeful. 

And I think this time in our own situation as a community of faith parallels some of this. Just as Jesus is up but not away, so are we apart but still together. We are bound to one another in a way that defies logic and physics and all rationality. By every practical indicator our community should be fractured and divided, rather than tied together and united. But here we are. Missing one another, but loving one another more than ever. Wanting to be in the same space with one another, but connecting with one another in new ways. Hoping to be reunited with one another, but caring for one another by keeping physically apart.

There’s been a lot of talk about religious freedom this past week. It’s gotten politicized, of course, but there’s a push to open churches because there’s a perceived God-given right to worship. I see in this moment, however, a God-given responsibility to love one another, to love our neighbors, to continue to shine a light upon the economic and racial disparities playing out right before our very eyes, as this pandemic unfolds.

And I’ve tried to be clear about this from the very beginning. While the doors of the church are closed, the church itself is wide open. We are worshipping and praying and caring for one another; we are feeding the hungry and making masks and donating blood; we are preaching and teaching and forming disciples. We are serving as God’s hands and heart in this community and beyond, because that’s what we do as people of faith. The doors may be closed, but our hearts and minds and souls are open to being the church in new and creative ways. And that will continue to be the case no matter how long we refrain from in-person worship. We will continue to love one another by not being with one another. At least for now. 

But, believe me, I understand the disappointment and the longing. Tinged with the joy of Jesus’ ascension and the fulfillment of his ministry, was the disciples’ grief in no longer being able to be with him in the ways that were familiar. Of not walking the earth with him and hearing his words and looking into his eyes and breaking bread with him. 

There continues to be a bittersweet element to our online gatherings — and I get that. As much as we all love drinking coffee during church and wearing fuzzy slippers and having the ability to mute the preacher, we’d all much rather be together in person! We want things to go back to the way they were, even as we know that is unlikely. Even as we know that things will be different in the months and possibly even years ahead. We all yearn to hear congregational singing and receive the sacrament and hug one another. For human beings built for ritual and touch, this has all been disconcerting and even frightening.

Yet at the very heart of the Christian faith is sacrifice. The whole reason that Christians gather is to recall the sacrifice of our Lord upon the cross; to partake in the sacrificial meal instituted at the Last Supper. And so this time apart can be seen as a willing sacrifice we are making in order to show love for one another and for the larger community. It’s not easy. But no one ever said that walking the way of the cross would be the way of comfort or ease. 

Those joyful disciples who journeyed back to Jerusalem would face persecution and derision for their faith. Some would be martyred. But they never lost hope. They never lost the desire to deepen their relationship with Jesus and to know him in new ways. They dearly missed him, but they channeled this grief into love for one another. Which is precisely what we’re being asked to do in this moment.

We will get to the other side of this. And the faith of those first disciples offers us a roadmap — a spiritual guide to navigating the emotional roller coaster of living out our faith amid confusion and uncertainty. The love they had for Jesus, the love they had for one another saw them through a difficult time. And it will see us through as well.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Fourth Sunday in Easter (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 3, 2020 (Easter 4A)

Like many of you, I’ve always loved the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Especially in times of trouble, there’s something deeply comforting about knowing, at the very core of your being, that Jesus cares for and tends to your very soul. That he protects and revives, watches over and consoles. 

But I’ve always been a bit wary of the idea of the pastor as the shepherd of his or her own flock. I mean, we are all of us together a flock, and clergy may play a unique role in the community, but Jesus is the real shepherd here. The only shepherd here. Not me. Not any pastor. And sometimes the lines get blurred, which can cause great spiritual damage. 

I think my hesitation over this imagery, if I’m honest, goes back to the 1983 film Porky’s II. Now, I never thought I’d reference Porky’s II in a sermon. And I certainly don’t recommend this as an appropriate family bonding quarantine movie. In fact, I don’t recommend it at all. It’s trashy and misogynistic and full of stereotypes. Two thumbs down! But there’s a scene that I can never get out of my head on Good Shepherd Sunday. 

Because when the students of the Angel Beach High drama club decide to stage “An DRcvwEpUQAA3GO_Evening With Shakespeare,” a group of fanatically religious citizens object on the grounds that the works of Shakespeare are both obscene and profane. Reverend Bubba Flavel brings his flock to meet with the beleaguered principle to pressure the school into shutting down the production. And the call and response used by Reverend Bubba whenever he makes a point is, “So sayeth the shepherd” and his followers all reply, “So sayeth the flock!”

And even though this is a cartoonish caricature of conservative religion, this is not a particularly helpful model of ministry. And certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

Because Reverend Bubba makes this all about his voice, rather than Jesus’ voice. Jesus says, “He calls his own sheep by name…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Jesus’ voice is not full of bluster, but invitation. Jesus’ voice is not full of judgment, but forgiveness. Jesus’ voice is not full of division, but love. The voice of Jesus gathers and builds up, rather than scatters and destroys. 

During these times, it’s hard not to think of us as anything but a scattered flock. We have all wandered away — not on purpose — but because of circumstance. Our life right now is not a parable of lost sheep, but of sheep temporarily distanced from one another. 

But this community remains connected. Through the marvels of technology, yes, but primarily through our faith. The voice of Jesus is the connective tissue that binds us together and keeps us together and holds us together. We stay connected by listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name, wherever we may be. And by hanging on every word of the one who guides us through turbulent times, whatever that looks like for each one of us. 

So it is the voice of the Good Shepherd that keeps us bound to one another; that keeps us safe as we collectively walk through the valley of the shadow of death; that keeps us connected as one flock. But this voice doesn’t just soothe, it also challenges.

I read an article this week in a British church publication with a pretty damning headline: “YouTube sermons will not feed the hungry.” Now, the context was different, as it was written by the Vicar of a small, impoverished, mostly elderly parish in London, many of whose members are unable or unwilling to watch online services. But she wrote, “Staying at home is wonderful — when you have a home, with electricity, and food, and a job, and access to the internet, and are computer literate.” And that streaming worship, while important, assumes “that everybody is in a safe and comfortable home setting, and, therefore, the only need to be met is a spiritual one.”

Now, I’d argue that physical needs are spiritual needs. But one of the great needs to emerge out of this pandemic, here on the South Shore and all over the world, is the issue of food scarcity. People are going hungry. People who have never had to use food pantries before are lining up for groceries. And the voice of the Good Shepherd says, “feed my sheep.” 

And that’s what I am now inviting you to do. I spent time this week working with our Outreach Ministry to turn St. John’s into a community food drop-off center. We have bins outside the door leading to the Memorial Garden where people can drop off groceries. We’ll be publicizing a list of the most needed items and recruiting volunteers to drive food to one of three local pantries we support. This is holy work and I encourage your participation.

Of course, the streaming of online services and the feeding of the hungry cannot and should not be mutually exclusive. When we listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, the one who invites us to both love God and love neighbor, we can’t help but be comforted even while offering comfort to others. That’s what it means to listen to and respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd. 

The article I read ends with the author saying she cannot dream of putting a notice on the church door that says “No food here, but Morning Prayer online.” We can offer both. And with your help, we will offer both. 

This flock abides only because we listen to the voice of the one, true shepherd who calls us each by name, who cares for us, who loves us. Like sheep, our only path to survival is to put our complete trust in the shepherd. When we place our lives in Jesus’ protective custody he will keep us safe. Because authentic relationship with the risen Christ draws us into safety even when life’s challenges arise; even when we walk through that dark valley. 

Although it doesn’t always feel like it these days, we don’t remain locked up in the safety of the sheepfold. We live most of our lives out in the world, amid the dangers, and snares, and temptations that lurk at every turn. But when we listen to the gentle voice of the Good Shepherd, we can walk boldly in sure and certain hope of God’s love for each one of us; the God who calls us each by name and walks alongside us at every step of the journey.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Second Sunday of Easter (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 19, 2020 (Easter 2A)

The doors of the house where the disciples met were locked. They bolted the doors and IMG_3373pulled down the shades and turned off all the lights. They hid themselves away because they were terrified, fearful for their own lives and traumatized by the day’s events. 

It’s still Easter Day, by the way. At least according to this morning’s gospel passage that begins, “When it was evening on that day…” And what took place early in the morning on that day, was the resurrection itself. At daybreak, Jesus appeared to the women at the tomb, and charged Mary Magdalene with sharing this remarkable news that he was alive with the other disciples. The male disciples, who had all run away and locked themselves away. 

Now, I think we can all relate to days blurring together and the whole notion of losing track of time. Over the past month, time itself seems to be standing still, and many of the familiar markers of our days and weeks have seemingly evaporated overnight. Some of us — and I’m not naming names for fear of self-incrimination — have even resorted to using those nursing home-style white boards to keep us on track: “Today is Sunday.” So we can probably relate to the disciples and their experience of the longest day ever.

But they had gathered together and locked themselves away. Guilt by association, they assumed. The one they followed, this Jesus, was killed for his blasphemy, his revolutionary ideas, his challenge to the status quo. It figured that those who were his known associates would be next. Despite their denials, there were just too many witnesses. They would surely be rooted out and accused of being his most ardent followers. And so they gathered together and locked the doors on that very long and confusing first Easter Day. 

One typically human response to fear is to hide. It’s the “flight” part of the fight or flight response. To run away, to hide, to seek cover. And you can’t blame them. We would have probably all done the exact same thing. But even after the “unconfirmed” reports that Jesus was alive, the disciples remain hidden. Confused, fearful, doubtful. 

Mary Magdalene comes with life-changing, life-affirming news about the resurrection and the disciples’ response is to remain behind locked doors. She shares the news that would change everything, and the disciples burrow down even deeper. They batten down the hatches. That’s what fear does, after all. It causes us to look inward, to focus on self-interest and self-preservation. This manifests itself in some bizarre ways like the impulse to hoard toilet paper.

But it’s hard not to think about the disciples being locked away without reflecting on our own situation these days. The fear and anxiety that we lock away with us inside our homes. If you live with others, you know that the stress gets to everybody at some point. At our house, we tend to take turns, which is better than the alternative of everyone freaking out at the same time. I think. 

But you can imagine the disciples all in the same room. Huddled together in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, under their own self-imposed stay-at-home order. Some nervously pacing, some peeking out the windows, some just sitting and staring blankly into space, some arguing about petty things. We all respond to fear in different ways, and the disciples were no different.

And it’s easy to turn inward and ignore the problems of the wider world since we’re all dealing with our own stuff, sometimes just trying to make it through the day. Sometimes just trying to figure out what’s for dinner. But eventually we have to look beyond ourselves. We have to unlock the doors and venture forth. Not literally in this case, or not without a mask, but emotionally and spiritually. To leave the safe confines of our homes and start reaching out to others in meaningful ways. 

As I sat with this passage in my post-Easter haze, I was taken with a small detail I hadn’t really noticed before. Of course, at the beginning we hear that the doors were locked. It’s important to note that fact not just because it highlights the disciples’ fear, but more importantly because it makes Jesus’ sudden appearance that much more miraculous. The doors are locked and yet the resurrected Jesus comes and stands among them. The locked doors emphasize the fact that something dramatic has taken place. 

But a week later, when they’re in the same house and Thomas had finally shown up, we hear that the doors are shut — but not locked. That’s an important detail. The fear is starting to lift. Not entirely, not completely, but there’s movement. In the coming days, Jesus appears to various disciples as they fish and walk and break bread together. Gradually, the locked doors are unlocked. Gradually, the unlocked doors are opened. Gradually, the open doors are walked through. So it is with our hearts, as we let Jesus in and allow him to accompany us on our journey of life. When we let go of the fear that restricts our compassion and generosity and love.

But in order to get to that point, we have to leave room for Jesus to suddenly appear among us. The resurrected Jesus can cut through our fears and isolation and anxiety just as easily as he can show up in a locked room. 

Let Jesus break into the disruption, let Jesus intrude into your life, let Jesus show up as an unexpected guest, let Jesus break the locks of disbelief and enter your heart. These post-resurrection appearances are powerful reminders that Jesus won’t let anything stand in his way to reach us. Not our doubts, not our fears, not locked doors, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God. 

Let Jesus in. And take to heart his very first words to the disciples: “Peace be with you.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Easter Vigil 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 11, 2020 (Easter Vigil)

Many of you know that this is by far my favorite service of the year. It brings to bear all 93313236_10221223917818265_3829236319620431872_nthe powerful symbols of the Christian faith: fire and water, Scripture and song, bread and wine (well, usually). The liturgy reflects the unfolding drama of salvation as told through the foundational stories of our faith, as we literally pass-over from death to resurrection, from darkness to light, from Lent to Easter. Plus there’s a compelling element of danger to the whole thing. Not just because the singing of the Exsultet could easily go off the rails, but because priests, playing in the dark, with fire — what could possibly go wrong?

I admit I wasn’t sure how it would feel to do the Easter Vigil this year. And I do miss looking out at a darkened church and seeing your faces illuminated by candlelight; I miss the ringing of bells during the singing of the Gloria; I miss hearing the full choir belting out alleluias; I miss smelling incense and watching it waft up into the rafters; I miss baptizing new Christians into the faith; I miss sharing the first eucharist of Easter; I miss our traditional post-service Champagne and Jelly Bean Reception; I miss being in the same room with all of you.

And yet, in many ways, with everyone worshiping from home, the Vigil feels particularly poignant this year. It feels like we’re channeling the early church and getting back to the basics of our faith. You know, the first followers of Jesus didn’t have beautiful buildings or fancy vestments. There were no pipe organs or vested choirs, no silver chalices or stained glass windows. On Easter Eve, they gathered in their homes or in secret places and prayed until sunrise; baptizing new converts, reading Scripture, remembering Jesus in bread and wine.

And so while we wouldn’t write it up this way, this moment does allow us an opportunity to get to the root of resurrection. The joy of the resurrection may stand in stark relief to global anguish and isolation, but it doesn’t stand apart from it. The resurrected Christ stands right in the midst of this moment. Standing in solidarity with us, weeping with us, grieving with us. The thing is, 

resurrection and grief are not mutually exclusive — they never have been. Even as the disciples realized and then reveled in the resurrection, they still grieved for Jesus. They still grieved for the old way of being with him, even as he was present with them in a new way.

Our celebration tonight serves as a powerful reminder that resurrection isn’t all chocolate bunnies and Peeps and Easter brunch. The road to resurrection is paved with heartache and heartbreak; we don’t erase the memory of Good Friday or forget its pain when we celebrate the resurrection. Indeed, the events of the past week are what heighten and deepen our joy. A celebration tinged with grief doesn’t make Easter any less joyful. But a side of reality with our resurrection feast makes it that much more meaningful. I think this is part of what the late Bishop Barbara Harris meant when she proclaimed that “we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” Resurrection joy abounds even in a world where there is pain and loss.

Now, at one level, none of this being together while being apart thing is anything new. The resurrection has been celebrated secretly in ancient catacombs under the threat of persecution; it has been celebrated on battlefields; it has been celebrated amid plague and pestilence; it has been celebrated in prisons; it has been celebrated alone; it has been celebrated in fear; it has been celebrated whenever and wherever and however Christians have or have not been able to gather. 

The circumstances may be new for us, but Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And so, in the ways that truly matter, this Easter celebration is the same as the other 2,000 Easter celebrations that have preceded it. And I find comfort and solace and strength in this. And I hope you do as well.

Because no matter the circumstances, the power of Christ’s resurrection cannot be contained or constrained or restrained. New life came bursting through that tomb with such force that the world was forever changed. God’s people were forever transformed. That line between life and death was forever wiped away.

And to that we can say Alleluia and Amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020