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

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016

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

How many different houses have you lived in over the years? As you mentally calculate this, I’ll share a bit of my own apparently nomadic lifestyle. I did the math this week and I’ve lived in 16 houses and eight states. This doesn’t include college dorm rooms or a four month stint at Fort Knox, but it does include two months working on a congressional race in California in 1993. Since it’s my life, I get to decide what’s in and what’s out.

Some of this moving around was because of my father’s career as a symphony orchestra conductor — I lived in five of those houses and three of those states before I was four. But then you add graduate school and ordained ministry into the mix and suddenly you’re up to 16 houses.

Which sounds like a lot but for me, as perhaps for many of you, there’s no ancestral family homestead or compound. There’s no single place where I’ve always lived and will always call home. This is the reality for most of us in a highly mobile society. I mean, how many of you are still living in the house you grew up in? How many of you are still living in the town you grew up in? All of which can make the idea of “home” an elusive concept, or at least a moving target.

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Parable of the Prodigal Son, with its many layers and plot lines, is really a story about home. A metaphor for what it means to truly be in a place where you are loved unconditionally and completely. A rejection of that phrase “You can’t go home again.” Because, at least when it comes to God’s love, no matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, if you choose to return, you are always welcomed home with arms wide open. When it comes to relationship with Jesus Christ, you can go home again.

As we heard, the younger son in this story is intent on leaving home. This is often a natural and healthy inclination in children — many teenagers I know, some personally, can’t wait to get out of the house; can’t wait to get out from under the repressive rule of unreasonable parents who require them to do ridiculous things like unload the dishwasher. This is part of normal human development — seeking to break free and set out on your own; to blaze your own trail apart from the familiarity of family. And the so-called prodigal son is no different.

But still, asking his father for his portion of the inheritance was unheard of. Why? Because then, as now, inheritance was given at the time of death. As the younger son, he would have been given a sizable portion, though the property and most of the assets would pass to the eldest son. That’s just the way the system worked — primogeniture is the fancy name you may remember from studying the monarchies of Europe. So rather than simply living his life, this younger son was basically trying to hit the fast forward button. In asking for his inheritance before its time, he was, in effect, saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” He wants to wash his hands entirely of his family of origin by taking his inheritance and getting out of town. He wants nothing more than to leave home.

And in some ways, you have to admire his pluck. He may not have thought his plan all the way through, but he wouldn’t be the first headstrong young person to ever act impulsively. Soon enough he would see that his grand ambition to lead a life of wine, women, and song had a fatal flaw. And as he ends up impoverished, hungry, and working on a pig farm — something that would have been absolute anathema to Jews because of the ritual purity laws — he finally comes to his senses. Whether out of true repentance or simply desperation, he decides to return home. Back to the place he had shunned; back to the family he had rejected.

And you can imagine what a torturous journey that must have been. One filled with shame and embarrassment and humiliation, with no real hope that the father whose death he had hoped for would even open the front door. Why wouldn’t this foolish child who had disavowed his father’s very life and squandered his resources, wind up metaphorically dead to him?

And on his journey, I wonder if this young man reflected on the nature of “home.” Often when you’re away from it, home becomes even more important. You begin to see the good things you may have taken for granted. How many college students come home for Thanksgiving of their freshman year and thank their parents? I mean really and truly for the first time offer gratitude for all that they have ever done for them? I know I did. And I can only hope to be on the receiving end one day.

We all yearn for home. Or at least the idea of it. Sometimes we idealize it. Or make it out to be something that’s simply the opposite of our current, trying circumstances. Sometimes we place great value on a place that is in the past; inaccessible, unattainable. Or a place that never really existed.

But where, ultimately, is home? It’s not the place we live, even if we’ve built our dream house. Or even if we actually do still live in our childhood home. Or even if we’re sitting in the family room, vegging out in front of the TV, watching our favorite show, in our most comfortable recliner. We’re still not truly home. Because once life gets in the way, and it does, we still yearn for home. True home is something that transcends even the most sacred version of our “happy place.”

In a sense we all come from broken homes. Because even when we are in our earthly homes, places we may well love, there’s still something missing. There’s still a void that all of our human efforts and strivings can’t fill.

Home is where the heart is, yes. Perhaps. But more to the point, home is where the soul is. And our soul is only fully at peace when we are in authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. Home is a place where the soul can rest.

Our true homecoming only occurs, of course, when we die. Our true home is a place we cannot access until we have arrived. There’s a reason so much imagery of heaven revolves around the concept of our heavenly home. “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. And I love the text of this morning’s offertory hymn: “Jerusalem, my happy home, when shall I come to thee? When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?” Words based on texts written by the fourth century bishop and theologian St. Augustine.

While we catch glimpses of our heavenly home at various times in our lives, there exists a deep yearning within our souls to enter that place of true home that is union with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean we should live our lives just to get them over with so we can finally go home again. All in good time. But in the meanwhile, be open to the glimpses of home that break into your daily life; enjoy the fleeting moments of refreshment when they arise. And know that when the day comes, God will rush out to meet you with arms wide open in welcome. And you will know that you are finally, truly, once and and for all, home.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 21, 2016 (II Lent, Year C)

In a few moments I’m going to invite you to close your eyes. Don’t worry, this won’t get too touchy feely — you know me better than that. And it won’t be a ploy to have the ushers rifle through your purses or lift your wallets. So relax.

But before we get there I want you to think about what first comes to mind when you envision God. Hopefully it’s not George Burns from “Oh God!” Or Morgan Freeman from “Bruce Almighty.” But, consciously or not, my guess is that it’s a male-dominated image. “Our Father who art in heaven” and all that.

For some of you, the famous Michelangelo painting that graces the ceiling of the Sistine hith-sistine-chape-E.jpegChapel may come to mind. God as an old, bearded man reaching out to touch and infuse Adam with life. In Western art, God is often depicted as an old white guy and that image, for better or worse, has been dominant in the minds of many for generations.

And so many of our images of God focus on the masculine and the immovable. God the Father; the Rock of our salvation; King; Judge; Priest.

This morning, Jesus points us in another direction and reminds us that God transcends all human projections and language and images. He tells the disciples that he desires to gather them together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” That really is a lovely, feminine image of a nurturing God. One that complements, rather than stands in opposition to, some of the more traditional images of God. And we’re reminded that God is both judge and lover; rock and comforter; king and queen; father and mother.

Now I realize that few things are more disconcerting than messing with someone’s image of God. If I told you that from now on at every service we would only be referring to God as Mother Hen rather than Father, or if I decided to unilaterally change the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Mother, who art in heaven,” I might get strung up from the rafters. So, I’m not. And I’m also not telling anyone that their image of God is flawed or wrong. I’m simply suggesting that it may be incomplete. And so I’m challenging you to expand your image of God to include some images that bring you out of your comfort zone. That’s how we grow in the spiritual life, after all. By challenging ourselves to broaden our experience of and relationship to God.

Yes, we are made in the image of God but that doesn’t mean that God is made in our image. God is neither male nor female yet in our search for descriptive language we use such metaphors. The reality is that no single image of God, or even multiple images of God, is ever complete because they are all human projections limited by the use of human language. God is like the various images we use, but God is also so much more than any one of them or all of them.

Whatever your initial image is of God, know that God is that, yes, but also so much more. Perhaps this Lent you will take the time to play with other images of the divine; images that challenge your default notion of God or bring you to new or different understandings of the fullness of God’s loving nature.

Mother-HenThis is what Jesus invites us into as he refers to God as “Abba, Father” in one breath and compares God to that mother hen in the next. In fact, our growth as people of faith necessarily finds a balance between masculine and feminine qualities. Not necessarily that only women have certain qualities but they are qualities that thousands of years of humanity have long attributed to women. God as God-bearer; God as mid-wife; God as nursemaid; God as Wisdom.

I will now invite you into a guided meditation that will hopefully help you encounter some of the more feminine aspects of the divine. A meditation that I have adapted from the work of a colleague — a female priest friend of mine [The Rev. Laurie Brock] who has done some work exploring these alternative images of God. I invite you into this time with an open heart and an open mind.

So get comfortable and close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting at the feet of God. Around you the world is busy, moving, striving.

But you are still. Still with God.

And God asks you to sit, to be, to receive an understanding of God that may be a little different.

God, after all, is not only Father. She is Mother. God is not only masculine. God is also feminine. God is not only the steadfast, firm foundation. God is also the Spirit who moves as she will.

What feelings arise in you with these insights? Comforting feelings, as a mother hen gathers her chicks and protects them from the dangers of the world? Uncomfortable feelings, as you contemplate an image new and different and perhaps unsettling?

The Holy Feminine of God asks us only to sit with these emotions, not to explain or defend them. The Holy Feminine of God gives us permission to be present with God, to be still and know that God is God.

God does not only call the world into creation. She is the the God-bearer, the Theotokos in Greek; the one who births love, mercy, and grace into the world. The God-bearer is pregnant with creation, and she allows creation to incubate, to develop, to be safe and nourished until what is being created is pregnant with holiness, nurturing it until it can be birthed into the world.

What new creation has the God-bearer sown in you? What aspect of God’s love, mercy, and grace is growing within you? Are you allowing it to grow, caring for this gift? And will you invite God the midwife to help it be born into the world when ready?

When we are tired, weary, and wounded, do we welcome the healing of God our nursemaid? The Holy Feminine of God creates and honors the qualities of stillness, of waiting, and receiving until we are ready. Too often we keep moving in our pain, deepening wounds and aggravating injuries.

Can we hear the voice of God our nursemaid reminding us to rest, to recuperate from those times when life has been hard. Can we accept her tender touch, seeing how our wounds are healing? Are we willing to admit we are in need of rest and healing?

God also comes to us as Wisdom, the wise old crone who watches Christmas become Epiphany, which becomes Lent, which becomes Easter. Winter becomes spring. Night becomes day, then returns to night again. Wisdom reminds us of cycles, of patterns, of courses that begin and end in the same place.

In these patterns, in these times and seasons, Wisdom returns us to holy lessons over and over again. A life of faith, she reminds us, is not a task to be achieved, but an experience to be embraced.

Can we allow Wisdom to show us our habits and our patterns? With her guidance, with her love, will we learn from her? Will we believe that life always follows death, that Easter always follows Lent, and that Wisdom will always have something to teach us about love?

When God comes to us as the God-bearer, the Midwife, the Nursemaid, and as Wisdom…

Will we see her? Will we listen to her holy voice? Will we welcome what her voice, her life, her love can create in us?

Or will we miss God’s holy message because God has not met our expectations to only be a man?

As you open your eyes, challenged and transformed, I invite you to remain open, during this holy season, to the very fullness of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck