First Sunday in Lent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2018 (Lent I, Year B)

I sometimes get invited over to visit and bless newborn babies. It’s a job perk and one of the great joys of what I do for a living. There’s nothing quite so life-affirming as holding a newborn infant in your arms; and there’s nothing quite so stage-in-life affirming as handing the child back. Occasionally, especially if it’s a first-born child, the proud parents will invite me in to see the nursery. In many cases they painted it themselves and assembled the furniture and it’s clean and bright, and they like to point out, probably because I’m a priest, the Noah’s Ark mobile that hangs above the crib. The cute animals dance around the ark, and there’s music that plays, and the colorful rainbow hovers over the entire blissful scene.

And I compliment them on the set up and am genuinely happy for this new young family, noah's arkeven if they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. But as I stand amid the serene setting and gaze upon the mobile, part of me always thinks to myself, “Have you actually read the story?” Yes, there’s a rainbow involved, and animals marching two by two, and a dove with an olive branch. But in addition to all that, nearly every living creature is wiped off the face of the earth! It’s a story with death and destruction and is that really what you want your newborn looking at as you rock her to sleep?

Actually the story of Noah’s Ark is, like so many Bible stories, complex and rich in nuance and theologically profound and exciting and maddening and ultimately offers insights into the nature of God and humanity’s relationship with the divine. When we actively engage with Scripture, themes emerge that move us beyond the surface of the text and into the very heart of God. Which is why we’re always encouraging you to wade into it and read it and be transformed by it. And, yes, this is a not-so-subtle plug for our four-part adult education series on the Bible that begins this morning.

But today, as we enter into the season of Lent, I want to talk about the imagery of the ark. It’s interesting that this story is handed down to us as Noah’s Ark. I mean, why don’t we call it, Noah’s Boat? Or Noah’s Ship? In English translations, there are actually two arks in the Bible. There’s Noah’s Ark, of course, but there’s also the Ark of the Covenant, which was a chest described in great detail in the book of Exodus, that contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. Moses himself had it built to God’s specifications and it was carried by the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years as the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Once they entered into the Promised Land and built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Temple’s most sacred spot, the Holy of Holies.

In Hebrew, the two words translated as “ark” in English are different. The Ark of the Covenant translates more like “chest,” which makes sense. And the word used for Noah’s boat is used not just for that massive floating zoo but also, interestingly, in one other place. It’s also used for the small cradle upon which Moses’ birth mother sent him afloat among the reeds. So the same word used for Noah’s Ark is also used for the ubiquitous Moses basket.

But I love the idea of an ark as a place of refuge. That’s why we call it Noah’s Ark rather than Noah’s boat. It offers shelter from the storm. But beyond that, all three of these arks point to refuge and salvation. The Moses basket was used as refuge and salvation from slavery and certain death for an infant born under an abusive system in Egypt. Noah’s Ark was used as refuge and salvation from the wickedness of humanity and led towards Covenant with God. The Ark of the Covenant held the Law, the way to relationship with God for the ancient Israelites, refuge from uncertainty, and salvation as God’s chosen people. Some see the ark that is the Moses basket as a foreshadowing of the manger, another ark-like structure that leads us to refuge and salvation.

Whatever our circumstances or stories, we all crave sanctuary and refuge, safe places where we are protected and nurtured. Maybe it’s because it is our birthright — we come from the ultimate place of safe haven, the womb. And we seek the sanctuary that often remains elusive throughout our lives.

This past week amid news of another school shooting, the first instinct of parents everywhere was to protect their children. To keep them safe. To provide shelter from the chaotic and scary world that swirls around them. It’s a reflective action of every parent and it’s not just parents of young children, either. I had parents of children in their early 20’s express the same concern to me; the desire to protect their kids and keep them out of harm’s way. One of the most painful aspects of parenting is the realization that you cannot always be there to keep them safe. That evil does exist in this world and tragic things can and do happen.

I think one reason we come to church is that we seek safe haven from the storms of life. We crave the safety of an ark. And, frankly, this place even looks like the hull of an ark if you look up. Which makes sense as it is a place of comfort, a place of sanctuary, a place of peace.

But we can’t just hunker down and stay inside the ark. Noah and his family eventually had to get out and create a more just and peaceful world. We can’t stay inside the womb, or our comfortable homes, or even this church. We need these places to be inspired and rejuvenated and recharged. But the spiritual life is all about finding balance between seeking sanctuary and going out into the midst of the storm to make a difference. It’s not easy to leave the ark, but leave we must.

At the end of every service we are dismissed to go forth into the world, carrying with us the strength and courage that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We can carry the comfort and stability of the ark of our faith with us. That centeredness, the rootedness that comes with having a place of sanctuary doesn’t stay here. In this sense the image of that other ark, the Ark of the Covenant is helpful. We can carry the presence of God with us wherever we go. As we go through life, whatever befalls us, into whatever wilderness we find ourselves, we remain in the ark of God’s care. And that’s the good news of this day and of this week.

Maybe the new parents I meet have figured all this out. Perhaps it wasn’t the cute cuddly animals that drew them to the Noah’s Ark mobile but the story of the ark and the sense of refuge it offers. In this sense, there could be no better symbol to hang in a child’s bedroom or in our own hearts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

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Ash Wednesday 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2018 (Ash Wednesday)

Well, this is romantic. Spending Valentine’s Day together; talking about death. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on February 14 was 1945. A year when the destruction of World War II was still fresh even as the euphoria of victory celebrations would soon spill into the streets. And here we are 73 years later again gathered on a day stereotypically set aside to both receive chocolate and to give up chocolate.

But, regardless of the date upon which it falls, Ash Wednesday has always been a day of IMG_5694-768x512paradox. We hear Jesus warn us about practicing our piety before others, and then we put ashes on our foreheads and practice our piety before others. We proclaim our own mortality by being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and then we proclaim our share in Christ’s immortality through the Resurrection. We confess our sinfulness and the utter depravity of the human condition, and then we are assured of divine forgiveness.

This is a day of paradox, a day that points to a paradoxical faith. A faith where out of despair there is hope, out of grief there is joy, out of death there is life. A faith where we can be, as Paul writes, sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything; as dying and yet alive.

And we desperately need this paradoxical message of hope as we hear news coming out of Florida about yet another school shooting this afternoon. 17 dead was the last I heard, with images of a mother with a cross of ashes on her forehead crying out in agony being beamed all over the world. On a day we repent of our propensity for violence, our indifference to suffering, our blindness to injustice and cruelty.

Today we begin our journey into the depths of this paradox as we enter the wilderness of Lent. A journey that will take us to the cross, and the depths of despair; a journey that will culminate in the empty tomb, and the heights of exultation.

And into this paradox we hear Jesus speak about the interplay between exterior actions and interior motivations. This is the passage we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and it helps frame our own entrance into the season of Lent, this time of introspection and repentance.

Jesus holds up three pillars of the spiritual life — alms giving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ day, these were the primary external ways you could tell someone was religious. They gave money to the poor, they prayed regularly, and they fasted at the appointed times. These are all things you could do quietly and without notice, but they are also things that can be done with a bit of fanfare. You could prove your great religiosity and bring honor upon yourself if you approached the alms basin when you knew people were looking; you could pray in public places where people would see you and comment upon your great piety; you could try to look as miserable as possible when you fasted so everyone knew just how devoted you were to your spiritual disciplines. Public alms giving, praying, and fasting were the ancient version of keeping up with the Joneses.

Now I know this seems a little out-of-synch with our own context. Most of us aren’t going to stand up in the middle of Legal Seafood and make a great show of saying grace before dinner to impress family, friend, and stranger. But maybe we like having a fancy car and pulling up in front of the restaurant. Maybe we like whipping out our platinum card when the bill comes, making a great gesture of our generosity. We make shows of ourselves in different ways but the principle is the same.

And just as on Valentine’s Day, it all gets back to the heart. For Jesus, it’s not about the heart-shaped box of chocolates but the interior work of the heart. It’s about the motivations that drive us. Do our actions honor God or do they draw attention to ourselves? Are they humble manifestations of service or are they intended to puff us up?

When there is integration between our actions and our motivations, our faith is in harmony. When there is a disconnect between what we do and what we feel, well, Jesus has a word for that: hypocrisy.

Now, we’re all hypocrites to some degree. To be human is to have mixed motives. When you put money into the tip jar at Starbucks, do you wait until the barista is looking so you “get credit” for your generosity? It’s only human to seek affirmation for a kind gesture, even if you insist that you don’t want any. There’s a reason alumni magazines and symphony programs list all their donors and there’s a reason we search for our names.

Jesus is warning us against the temptation of seeking validation from others. Of measuring our self-worth by what others think. None of that matters when we are being true to God. And Lent is a time to examine our motivations and the motives of our hearts. It is an opportunity to recalibrate and rethink and retool our inner most heart’s desires. It is a chance to open our hearts and renew our faith. It is a season to bring our actions and motivations into greater harmony.

And this is where Lent’s invitation to self-examination and repentance can bring our lives into greater harmony and bring us even closer in our relationship with God. You don’t need to prove your self-worth to God. You already have God’s approval. You are already affirmed and validated and deemed worthy. God sees your hypocrisy and still loves you. God sees your strivings and still encourages you. Lent is a season to allow God into your heart and in turn, give your heart over to God.

The ashes you will soon receive are not outward marks of piety but inward signs of your own mortality. They are a reminder of what matters. That life is short and that our primary calling is to love God and love neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul. That God has marked you for both death and eternal life. That you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever and also that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is a day of paradox; but ultimately, whether or not it falls on Valentine’s Day, this is a day of love.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 22, 2017 (Proper 24A)

Occasionally the weekly cycle of lectionary readings rains down upon the preacher a gift from above; like manna from heaven. Sometimes the synthesis between what’s happening in the world and the texts we’re dealt to preach on is so great, it feels like nothing short of divine intervention. Like, say, in the aftermath of a divisive election when the demonization of the other side reaches great heights and we come to church and hear Jesus’ call to “love our enemies.” Or like when we’re wrestling with a particularly thorny issue of inequality and we get that passage from Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Or like this morning on Stewardship Sunday when Jesus talks about…money. Thank you, Jesus!

But before we get into that — and, yes, I’ve asked the ushers to bolt the doors — let’s take g2858a look at this passage. It’s one of my favorites because Jesus just nails it. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with the perfect retort to a sticky situation, but six hours too late, you have to admire what Jesus says here. The Pharisees, who have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus, are convinced they finally have him this time.

After sugarcoating their intentions with false flattery, they ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. They have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason. 

The problem is, they’re messing with the wrong guy. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, that’s the well-known King James Version. We get “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s perfect. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. After Jesus spoke, we hear that the Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.” Foiled again.


But it also flips our entire relationship with money. It creates distance between our money and our identity. If we are to live faithful lives, money should not and cannot define us. Money in itself is not a bad thing, of course; it can be a wonderful thing. Last week Father Noah talked about the idols that can isolate us from God. And money is one of the big ones. When it’s used to build up, it can be a great gift. When it’s used to deny and destroy, it can be a great evil.

On Stewardship Sunday we encourage one another to give money to St. John’s. To render to God what is God’s. When we pledge to support the mission and ministry of this place, our identities become wrapped up in Jesus. We become “imitators of the Lord,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the early Christians in Thessalonika. We are proclaiming that love is what matters most in this world; we are trusting that God’s love for us will see us through any hardship; we are offering our own love to a sinful and broken world.

This time of year I often ask people the question, “Why do you give to St. John’s?” I ask because I’m genuinely curious and am often inspired by the answers. Yet while I talk a lot about the importance of pledging and why the church needs your money and how it’s spent, I’m not sure that I’ve ever answered this question directly myself.

So, why do I give to St. John’s? You may not even know that your clergy pledge to the church. I mean, it’s not like the ushers pass the collection plates our way in the middle of the service. We’re not reaching deep into our robes looking for our wallets (“I know it’s in here somewhere”). And at one level, it’s kind of odd, right? We get paid to be here, why would we give any of it back? That just seems rather…circular.

But I give for several reasons. I give because this is what Christians do to support the community in which they live out their faith. From the earliest days of the church, when being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death, they gave a portion of their income to support those in need. And I love feeling connected to the generations of Christians who have come before me. Faithful Christians who have generously given of themselves to build up the body of Christ. Of course the early church existed in an era before deferred maintenance and staff salaries and ever-rising insurance premiums. But they gave in proportion to their means to make sure people both within their community and beyond were taken care of. So giving to St. John’s reminds me that I am connected to something greater than what I can see with my own eyes. And I find deep meaning in that.

I give because I believe in the mission of St. John’s. I see first-hand the incredible ministry that takes place here and I feel compelled to support it financially. I see Sunday School rooms bursting with joy; I hear music that inspires and delights; I see sacred space that serves as holy ground in a world that desperately craves it; I watch people growing in their spiritual lives through liturgy and prayer and educational offerings; I see teenagers building houses in Appalachia and forging relationships with their peers in South Africa; I watch people opening their hearts to people in need here in America and throughout the world; I hear incredible preaching (just kidding).

I give because I love the people of St. John’s. This community brings me great joy because of all of you. I see the commitment you have to this place and it inspires me to pitch in and do my part. The ways in which you volunteer at events like the Holiday Boutique and our crazy haunted house; and in classrooms and around the altar and in building budgets and in planting bulbs and in bringing finger foods for coffee hour. I see you sharing Christ’s message and values and love with one another and the broader community in ways both seen and unseen. And I want to be a part of that. I want to continue to dream with you about where God is calling us as a community of faith; about where the Spirit may lead us in the years ahead; and this both inspires and excites me.

But mostly I give because it connects me to Jesus. It allows me to render to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is your very life. When you give generously you are giving a piece of yourself back to God. You are rendering to God your identity as a child of God. You are turning your life over to the one who loves you with reckless abandon, the one who is with you through all of life’s ups and downs, the one who never forsakes or abandons you whatever you have done or failed to do, the one whose loving kindness never ends.

I know giving money away can be hard. I’m paying college tuition. I worry about the future. There’s stuff I want. It can be a leap of faith when we so crave certainty and control. But there is such freedom in letting go of the death grip we use to cling to the idols of our lives and putting our trust in God. Freedom that truly is priceless.

This stewardship season, I invite you to join me in rendering your money unto God with joy and generosity. It feels good. It does good. And it is good.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Trinity Sunday

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 11, 2017 (Trinity Sunday)

Trinity Sunday is generally known among rectors as “Curate Sunday.” It’s a day that often gives preachers pause since the whole mystery of Trinitarian theology is…complex and mysterious and difficult to explain and fraught with the potential to preach heresy. One wrong step and you enter the realm of Adoptionism or Arianism or Docetism or, God forbid, Modalism. All debunked Trinitarian heresies that arose before the final version of the Nicene Creed was established in 381.

Thus it often gets foisted upon the junior member of the clergy staff. Their seminary imagestraining is a bit fresher, or so the thinking goes, and thus better suited to explaining the doctrinal mysteries of the Trinity. Also, some rectors like to cop out and avoid the whole thing, figuring it’s their ecclesiastical right to throw the curate to the proverbial lions.

However, in light of a certain impending birth, we’ve been massaging the preaching schedule a bit these past weeks. With Melinda’s due date rapidly approaching, we had Noah preach last Sunday and I’m preaching this morning. Just in case.

It is difficult to wrap our heads around the fullness of God, which is what the Trinity expresses. The fullness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Preachers certainly get themselves into a lot of trouble when attempting to explain the unexplainable. And the whole concept of ‘one plus one plus one equals one’ leads to some pretty fuzzy math and a whole lot of head scratching.

Fortunately, the Trinity isn’t ultimately about archaic formulas or inscrutable theorems; it’s about love. I think that’s what our readings point us towards this morning. And it all starts at the beginning. “In the beginning,’ actually. There are few things that display God’s love in such a tangible way than the very creation of the world. This familiar — and rather long — passage from Genesis that sets the stage for all that is to come, is an act of love.

Let’s face it. It would have been a lot less trouble for God to just forget about creating the world and all those troublesome human beings that go with it. Why not save yourself a whole bunch of heartache and make something much less high maintenance. Like a paper airplane. Or a new hat. Why bother creating an entire world that will be taken for granted and polluted and plundered? Why create a humanity that will turn away from you and reject you and hurt one another over and over again? Where’s the satisfaction in that? Where’s the pride of authorship in the creation of a vexing, frustrating, ungrateful world? Why go to all that trouble? Why bother?

But here’s the thing: God creates the world not for himself, not as an act of divine vanity, but for us. It is a generous act of self-giving, hope-filled devotion. And that in itself is an incredible display of divine love. One we are hardly worthy of but one that gets at the very compassionate, loving, abundant nature of God. Which is precisely what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.

And as Christians who experience the fullness of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, this relates to that other great display of divine love, of God giving his son Jesus to this broken and sinful world in order to redeem and save the world. That’s love. That’s saying, yes, they’ve made kind of a mess of this, so let me go down there and show them how it’s done. Of course, there will be misunderstanding and rejection and even crucifixion but they will be given a living example of what it means to live a life in perfect harmony with God. And through faith in Jesus Christ they will be forgiven and made new. That’s love.

As we come to the final Sunday of the September-to-June program year and celebrate the last day of our full Sunday School program and the last day with the entire choir — and, yes, for the record, church does continue all summer long — it’s perhaps appropriate that we read the final sentences of Matthew’s gospel and hear of Jesus’s last words to his disciples as he gives them what we know as the Great Commission.

And it’s interesting how it begins: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” This line could well apply to any congregation in the history of worshipping congregations. It is not inauthentic to worship God even as some doubts about God’s very existence persist. It’s called having an authentic faith. And Jesus understood this even as he stood for this final time in-between heaven and earth, between doubt and belief. We may not fully comprehend the fullness of God — and that’s okay. All will be revealed in the fullness of time; perhaps not in this world but surely in the world to come. And Jesus doesn’t simply ignore the seeds of doubt or the possibility of misunderstanding. He leans into them and tells us that despite the tension between worship and doubt our role is to go. To go out into the world and spread this good news of Jesus that drives out fear and imbues those who follow him with a passion for justice. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The comedian Steven Wright, in his inimitable deadpan style, used to talk about wanting to name his dog, “Stay.” That way he could basically engage in psychological torture every time he called him. “Come here, Stay. Come here, Stay.”

At first glance, that’s what the Christian life can feel like. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, we hear Jesus say to the disciples, “Follow.” And here at the end he says to many of these same disciples, “Go.” To live in the fullness of God is to both follow Jesus and be sent by him. These aren’t contradictory but complementary; both equally critical sides of the faith coin. When we come to church we are here to follow Jesus. We are fed by God’s word and nurtured in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. But it doesn’t end there. At the end of our time together we are collectively told to go — to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Follow and Go don’t keep us paralyzed like that poor dog named “Stay” but empowered by the dual call to follow Jesus and to go serve Jesus in the world. The Christian faith lives on this continuum of contemplation and action. We follow Jesus and then we go forth and share the good news of Jesus.

Our faith lives compel us to “follow” and propel us to “go.” And when we do, we return God’s love with love. We become partners with God, co-creators, co-missioners; working with God to change the world.

So the Trinity is not some dusty doctrine but a dynamic driver of devotion. The Trinity is not some static theory but a stunning window into the fullness of God. And that is worthy of our utmost thanks and praise. So, follow. And go. And in so doing you will know everything you could ever possibly need to know about the mysterious and holy and life-giving Trinity that is the fullness of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fourth Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 26, 2017 (Lent 4, Year A)

One of the things about having children is you end up reliving experiences you hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes this is a blessing — like when you get to re-watch those original Star Wars movies. And sometimes this is a curse — like when you have to essentially retake geometry.

One such experience is learning how to drive. The fits and starts of those early days behind the wheel typically don’t come to mind when you hop in the car to run an errand. Unless you have a child taking Driver’s Ed. And then you suddenly have a driving expert sitting next to you criticizing your every rolling stop and commenting on your apparently lackadaisical use of the blinker.

Now I’ve blocked out most of my time in Driver’s Ed, but I particularly remember the highway_110415gnconversation about the blind spot. Barry, our rather gruff, Brooklyn-bred instructor, seemed to spend an awful lot of time on it and so I knew that, in theory, there was a spot when changing lanes that you couldn’t really see using the mirrors alone. But it seemed kind of ridiculous that you couldn’t see a big van or a truck that was right next to you. Or at least sense it — like by using The Force. But all it took was driving on the highway for the first time and not completely turning around and hearing that bus lean on the horn to realize that, oh, so that’s the blind spot Barry was talking about. It’s not merely theoretical. And with all the angles involved, maybe geometry actually is useful.

But in time you come to learn that even beyond driving, we all have blind spots. Areas of our lives that we literally can’t see. They may have to do with family relationships or politics or our vocational life. They may be based on our upbringing or gender or race or nationality or faith tradition or socioeconomic class. But these blindspots can wreak havoc on those around us, even if they don’t particularly register with us. They’re easy enough to ignore — until we wind up bumping into something and causing a metaphorical wreck or negatively impacting the lives of those around us.

Calling attention to these blind spots was one of the reasons Jesus came into the world; to help us gain a new perspective, to help us see the whole picture; to remove the scales from our eyes, to help us see those hidden in plain sight; to take away the blind spots of our lives.

And this morning we have a particularly detailed story of Jesus healing a blind man. Sometimes these healing miracles are over before you can say, “Take up your mat and follow me.” But in this one from John’s gospel, there’s a lot of dialogue and a whole host of characters, besides Jesus and this man born blind. The disciples ask questions about the man’s family; his neighbors, who knew him as a beggar, want to know who healed him and how; they bring him to the religious authorities who continue to question him about the identity of his healer; they track down his parents to get their side of the story; they keep pestering this man with questions about the how and the what and the why and they finally drive him out of town when all he wants to do is live his life with his eyes wide open, literally and spiritually.

But, boy is it easier and more convenient to keep our blinders on. To ignore the things we don’t want to see. Across the street from the church there’s a bus stop. Most people don’t notice it since, who takes the bus in Hingham? I mean a school bus, sure, but actual public transportation? Please. I hardly notice this bus stop and I both live and work across the street from it. But I’m not sure what’s more invisible: the bus stop itself or the people who occasionally stand there waiting for the bus. Usually, if there’s anyone at all, it’s a lonely soul. Perhaps a domestic worker or a laborer.

This is an overt blind spot and the real sin is when we keep other people, fellow children of God, in our bind spots. For to do so is to rip away their very dignity.

So what do we do about our own personal and communal blindspots? Well, we can be in relationship with those with differing perspectives or experiences. That’s really the best way to address them. Which is why it’s so important to have conversations with those with whom we disagree or with those whose experiences differ from our own. When we end up only staying within the confines of our own tribe, it may be more comfortable, it may be more enjoyable, but it only broadens our blind spots. And ultimately that diminishes both us and our respective communities.

Yes, it’s awkward to discover and acknowledge our blind spots. You have to crane your neck a bit and leave your comfort zone. You have to intentionally seek out a new perspective. You have to work a bit harder to see. And we can’t do it alone.

But the payoff is a fuller life; a more faithful life; a richer life. Which is precisely the life Jesus beckons us towards. Because Jesus helps us see those in society we may be blind to by insisting we look their way. That’s precisely what he did last week when he encountered that woman at the well and it is what he does in this morning’s encounter with the blind man. He interacts with people deemed insignificant by mainstream society; people few would have noticed as anything other than part of the landscape.

Two weeks ago at our Lenten Series on poverty, our speaker Matt Pritchard, the executive director of HomeStart, spoke about the utter isolation of being homeless. And he learned of this first-hand, not just in theory because when he first started working with the homeless population, Matt did something remarkable. In order to get to know the folks he would be serving, he spent a year living in the homeless shelter where he worked.

His bunk mates used to tell him about their experiences begging for change out on the streets, something they would do for most of their waking hours. In response to the question, “Can you spare some change?” they told Matt that 95 out of 100 people who walked by wouldn’t make eye contact or even acknowledge their presence; that at a certain point people didn’t even see them anymore; that the vast majority of the mass of humanity that passed them by were blind to their very existence.

They described this existence as like living in a “space bubble.” In other words, these men felt as if they inhabited a completely separate universe from every other human being. That they were aliens in a foreign land. Which, as Matt put it, became “an obstacle to feeling human, to being worth loving, and rebuilding their life off the streets.” And it must have been exactly how the blind beggar felt for much of his life, before his encounter with Jesus.

But these men also shared how big a difference it made when a person did smile or acknowledge them in some way. Especially those people who introduced themselves, shared their names, learned theirs, and would speak to them with respect. For these men, authentic attention was an incredible antidote to their loneliness and isolation.

Physical sight aside, Jesus saw this man who was, for the vast majority, an afterthought. He existed in a blind spot, in a “space bubble” that was a place of deep alienation. These are the people Jesus bids us to gaze upon and to recognize and to lift up. And to fail to do so, is to remain blind to the wonder and fulness of God’s creation.

Yes, we are the blind ones Jesus seeks to heal; we are the indifferent ones whose eyes Jesus seeks to open. May we recognize our own blindness and hardness of heart and allow Jesus to open our eyes to the cries of those in our midst who so desperately seek to be seen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 12, 2017 (Lent 2, Year A)

There’s an old Negro spiritual called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Legend has it that this song was really a musical roadmap for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. If anyone overheard slaves singing the song, it would seem innocuous enough. On plantations, a hollowed out gourd was often used as a water dipper. But in the song, “drinking gourd” had a more subversive meaning — it was code name for the Big Dipper, at the tip of which is the North Star. And so the song was all about following the North Star to freedom.

While the verses point out topographical landmarks like rivers and hills, the chorus pointsBigDipper to the ultimate goal: “Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd.” The old man is likely a reference to Moses, the one who led the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

And the religious connotations run deep along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, the famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who was herself a runaway slave, was known as the “Moses of her people.” Tales abound of her bravery and she took great pride in the fact that, in the process of bringing over 100 people to freedom, she never lost a single soul in her care.

All of this work of the Underground Railroad took place under cover of darkness. Darkness became an essential ingredient in the recipe of freedom. Runaway slaves needed darkness to avoid capture and they also needed darkness to see the North Star, to “follow the drinking gourd.”

Now, we have a complicated relationship with the whole notion of going out under cover of darkness. It feels illicit or unsavory. If I were to skulk around neighborhoods on the South Shore late at night, somebody would surely call the cops. A priest moving from tree to tree while wearing black and looking around furtively would be…sketchy.

And yet in this morning’s gospel passage, Nicodemus is doing precisely this. He’s a respected leader of the institutional faith community and yet he’s arranged this clandestine meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness. Which makes a lot of sense since Nicodemus would have been roundly condemned by his peers for even approaching this rogue teacher; this upstart who was always holding up an unflattering mirror to the religious elite and condemning their hypocrisy when it came to serving empty rituals at the expense of serving the poor. So even as Nicodemus was drawn to learn more, meeting Jesus in broad daylight would have been unthinkable. Which is why he waits for the sun to go down, puts on some dark clothes, and sneaks over to see Jesus.

It should be pointed out that in John’s gospel, the time of day is significant. At various moments, darkness serves as a metaphor for unbelief or ignorance or temptation. Indeed the interplay between light and dark has profound theological undertones in John; culminating in the fact that the women come to Jesus’ tomb while it is was “still dark” and experience the Resurrection as day breaks.

So, it’s no accident or mere happenstance that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In time Nicodemus would quite literally come to see the light but for now he remains a secret disciple of Jesus, one who, if this rather comical interaction about what it means to be born again is any indication, has much to learn.

And yet, like, those seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad, Nicodemus is also seeking freedom by cover of darkness. In time the sin of slavery will be brought out into the light and in time Nicodemus will come to Jesus by the light of day. But the road to freedom is often traveled in darkness. It’s not always a seamless journey. Sometimes you fall or fail. But we, like those who followed the drinking gourd, like Nicodemus, have a steady guide in Jesus Christ.

And make no mistake: you and I are still seeking freedom. It may or may not be based on the color of our skin or upon what others will think. But we’re all seeking spiritual freedom. Freedom from the temptations that draw us from the love of God; freedom from the crush of anxiety; freedom from the ideal of perfection; freedom from the expectations of others; freedom from the pressure we impose on ourselves to be more productive; freedom from the cultural messages that question our very self worth.

The challenge for us is to recognize our lack of freedom. And that takes acknowledging our imprisonment. Which isn’t always visible to the naked eye. We have freedom of movement. Most of us live in relative luxury; or at least comfort. And yet something still keeps us tied down. Chained to our insular opinions or limited worldview or lack of concern for others or self-centeredness. That’s the spiritual imprisonment that holds us back and keeps us from living lives of true faith and hope and joy. Something that becomes ever clearer as we take a spiritual inventory during this season of Lent.

Now I know it’s hard to try new things in the bright light of day — even things we know will benefit us and start that process of unshackling. We can be so self-conscious. We can be so aware of our discomfort in trying new things. I remember when I first starting jogging. I was in eighth grade and running wasn’t exactly as mainstream as it is now. There was that Jim Fixx book on running and that was about it. So after buying a pair or running shoes and thinking about what to wear — an outfit that surely involved tube socks — I decided to take my maiden voyage just before bedtime. I really didn’t want anyone to see me so I laced up my shoes and snuck outside for a brief run under cover of darkness. It wasn’t pretty. At one point I ducked between two parked cars — this was in Queens, New York; not exactly a lonely rural road — and I cut my leg on a piece of metal sticking out from the bumper of an old Buick. I kept going but it started bleeding and I was, once again, glad it was dark out. I still have the scar on my thigh. A reminder that there can be a cost to seeking freedom by cover of darkness.

Jesus wants us to bring our faith into the light, but he also loves our awkward, nighttime strivings. Our clumsy attempts, a la Nicodemus, to deepen our relationship with him. This Lenten season of self-renewal encourages us to try new things. Perhaps there’s a spiritual discipline you’d like to take on? Maybe there’s something you’d like to try to stretch yourself, however haltingly. Perhaps you want to put aside some dedicated time for silence or prayer — which you can literally do in the dark. Or maybe you want to step out into the light and join me and Noah for morning prayer or try out our Wednesday service in the chapel or make the effort to attend our Lenten Series on poverty. Whatever it is, know that we want to support you and help guide you along this path to greater spiritual freedom.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we sometimes do stumble around in the dark. But eventually our strivings bring us to that well-known verse we hear this morning at the conclusion of the story of Nicodemus: John 3:16. The same verse that guy with the rainbow wig used to hold up at sporting events — around the time I was wearing tube socks. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

“God so loved the world.” Full stop. Period. End of story. Tapping into that love is what true freedom is all about. Once we appropriate that love into our hearts and graft it onto our souls, and crave it not only for ourselves but those all around us, all the awkwardness evaporates. And the love of God, like the brightness of the sun, can shine fully and completely and utterly upon us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2017 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s not every day that ashwednesdaysomeone overtly reminds you of your own mortality. We generally avoid the topic of death in polite company. We’re all aware of this in a general sense — that, along with paying taxes, as the saying goes, death is the one thing we can’t avoid in life. We just don’t tend to name this inevitability in everyday conversation.

Yet the words spoken by a priest when imposing ashes may as well be, “Remember that you are going to die.” It’s a stark reality that most people spend an entire lifetime trying to avoid. Which is why we live in such a death-denying culture. One full of euphemisms for death, like he “passed away” or “bought the farm” or “gave up the ghost.” It’s why we call them funeral “homes” — even though nobody actually lives there.

But the liturgy of Ash Wednesday cuts out the flowery prose and bids us to face the reality of the human condition. That we will return to dust; that we will die. We don’t know the day or the hour but we are reminded of the inevitability. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The purpose of this day on which we are invited into the observance of a holy Lent is not, however, a gathering simply meant to state the obvious. It’s not a wakeup call of fear and trembling but a wakeup call of love and compassion. Because you cannot fully live until you recognize and accept your own mortality. Easier said than done, of course, but critical to living a life of peace and joy.

So what does it mean to fully live? How do we do this? Well, our faith has some suggestions, and not surprisingly they are rather counter-cultural. None of them revolve around bungee jumping or roller coasters or thrill rides that make us want to scream, “I’ve never felt so alive!” The adrenaline rush is temporary; fun, perhaps, but unsustainable.

No, the recipe to fully live can be found in the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. To fully live is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” It is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and to cover those who are naked.”

To fully live is to embrace justice and work to lift up the downtrodden in our midst. It is to live inter-connectedly with those who differ from us; it is to open our hearts and minds and souls to new possibilities; it is to live a life of compassion; it is to be generous; it is to forgive.

And so when we talk about dying, we are really talking about living. That’s the essence of the Christian faith. That’s the message of Jesus whose very life reminds us that we cannot encounter death without recognizing resurrection. That when we talk about death, we can’t help but talk about life. That when we talk about grief, we can’t help but talk about joy. Death and resurrection are inseparable; even on Ash Wednesday as we reflect upon our own mortality.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You know just a few days ago, 27 pilgrims from St. John’s were out in the African bush on safari. The last two days of our trip was spent at South Africa’s largest game preserve. And when you’re out among the wildest of beasts in God’s kingdom, the concept of mortality is a constant companion. There’s no euphemism involved when a hyena attacks and proceeds to eat a gazelle.

And yet there, too, is the fullness of life. And a reminder that you cannot live your life paralyzed by the inevitable end. The African bush reminds us that we are not called to live a life of cowardice and fear but of empowerment and joy. To revel in the gift of each day.

So as we enter into this season of introspection and penitence, do not be afraid. Do not allow the reality of the human condition to leave you paralyzed. Rise up; live your life in the warm glow of the resurrection; do a deep dive into Lent here at St. John’s. And most importantly, remember that you are dust; for in so doing, you will fully live as a beloved child of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck