Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 19, 2023 (Lent 4A)

So, if you’re a real student of the eucharistic lectionary — that three-year cycle of Sunday morning readings — and I’m sure that you are, you would know that last Sunday, this Sunday, and next Sunday give us the three longest gospel passages of the entire lexicon. (Well, besides the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday, but you get to sit through most of that). Last Sunday it was the woman at the well, today it’s the man born blind, and next week it’s the raising of Lazarus. All from John’s gospel. And all very, very long. Like, longer than the typical sermon long.

And these long passages in the last weeks before Palm Sunday and Holy Week signal that something is different. We’re preparing for something big and bold, something miraculous and holy. But in the meantime, we’re going long. 

But sometimes compelling stories just take a while to tell. It’s why the Cliffs Notes versions of books are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much is sacrificed on the altar of brevity. Unless you’re in middle school and you just don’t care enough to actually read through the entirety of Wuthering Heights. That’s totally hypothetical, by the way.

But this story about the man born blind is an engaging tale with a number of characters playing prominent roles. There’s the man himself and Jesus, of course, along with his disciples. But along the way we also meet his parents and a group of Pharisees. The story takes time to unfold and there are many layers to it.

And this particular very-long-passage involves a miracle story. Now, miracles are funny things. The danger is that we spend either too much time trying to explain the mechanics of them, while ignoring their overall significance. Or we spend too much time on metaphorical interpretations, while minimizing the truly miraculous. We can’t explain how this particular miracle of sight took place any more than we can explain how water turned into wine or how five loaves and two fish fed 5,000 people. That’s the thing about miracles: they defy human logic and explanation. And so rational, thinking Christians tend not to dwell upon them. ‘They’re fine for Sunday School lessons,’ we think, ‘but let’s just move on to something a bit more…tangible.’ This, of course, doesn’t do justice to the ministry of Jesus; nor does it leave open the possibility for the miraculous to touch our own lives. Our lack of faith, in other words, limits the power of God. Or at least attempts to.

What sets this story apart from other miraculous healings is that Jesus does something physical — he uses something other than his voice. And it even happens in two parts. The application of mud and spittle are followed by a wash in the pool of Siloam. So Jesus isn’t even present when the man’s sight is restored. His other healings take effect immediately with a simple word, a look, a touch, or a command: “Take up your mat and walk,” “Be opened,” “Go, your faith has made you well.” But the end result is the same. Someone is healed; a life is transformed.

But we also can’t ignore the metaphorical implications of this story. They are so prominent and such an integral part of this passage. Jesus has come into the world to give sight to the blind — quite literally in this story. But he has also come into the world to make God known to humanity. To open our eyes to see the hand of God at work in the world, and to offer salvation to those who have eyes to see. Our response is to either accept that which is set before us by Jesus, or close our eyes tightly like the Pharisees in this story and remain blinded by our own sinfulness.

And, of course, physical blindness, the inability to see with one’s eyes, has nothing to do with the blindness referred to by John. The Pharisees may have had 20/20 vision but they remain blind to the saving power of Jesus Christ. They turn a blind eye to Jesus. An action even more dramatically emphasized by the driving away of this formerly blind man. Out of sight, out of mind. 

So, blindness is not determined by physical sight but by the revelation of the works of God through the ministry of Jesus. And this point is made at the very beginning of this story. As the disciples come upon this blind beggar they ask Jesus whether this man or his parents sinned because he was born blind. Jesus tells them neither, that he was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The man is transformed from physical blindness into a person who can see, but the critical point for Jesus is his movement to spiritual sight. He now knows through personal experience, the saving power of Jesus Christ.

But it’s also worth pausing to examine the Pharisees’ initial question. Because there was an assumption in the ancient world that physical limitations or disabilities were the cause of sin. Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Our theology, thanks to Jesus, has moved beyond this limited perspective. But there’s still a nagging sense that someone who doesn’t meet the physical ideals of perfection is somehow weak or less than whole.

In my own case, you can’t help but notice that I have some palsy on the right side of my face. I don’t have a traditional “winning smile.” I recently heard speculation that it was the result of my time in the Army — that an unspecified accident was involved. And as much as I’d love a glamorous backstory, the reality is that I was simply born with some nerve damage on that side of my face. I rarely think about it, these days. And, frankly, when I was growing up, more people made fun of my last name than my mouth. 

When I was in my early 20s, a doctor told me that they could probably minimize the appearance through surgery. And I thought a lot about whether to pursue that. But in the end, I just thought this is part of who I am and how God created me, and decided not to do anything about it. Has it impacted me? Sure. It’s probably contributed to my rather dry sense of humor. But more importantly, I think it’s given me compassion for those who are different — physically or emotionally — than what’s held up as the Madison Avenue vision of perfection. The reality is that we are all flawed by virtue of our humanity, whether on the inside or the outside. And Jesus loves us anyway; Jesus loves you anyway. Thanks be to God.

The truth is that we all spend a lot of time in blindness. We’re blind to the suffering that surrounds us in our world and in our communities. We’re blind to the miraculous in our midst. We’re blind to the love of Jesus that pervades our lives. And blindness, like ignorance, can be bliss. It’s much easier to remain isolated and stay within our own carefully constructed worlds than it is to open our eyes to the pain and sin that surrounds us. 

Yet Jesus invites us to do just that. He invites us to open our eyes to the miracle of his presence in our everyday lives. To open our eyes to the opportunities to serve others in his name. And sometimes it takes a rather long story to help us see and experience the full power of his love.


Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 5, 2023 (Lent 2A)

There was a big trend a number of years ago — starting in about the mid-1980s — towards so-called seeker services. The premise was that there were large groups of people who were curious about the Christian faith, but not fully committed to it. Perhaps they used to go to church but just didn’t feel like it was relevant to their lives, or maybe they hadn’t grown up with any religious tradition, but were seeking some sort of a connection with God.

Seeker services tried all sorts of different ways to draw people in. The thought being that the traditional liturgy and music of the church either didn’t resonate or was just too old-fashioned and boring to be relevant to today. No one could ever really agree about what would entice these seekers to come to church and get them to stay. But many of these services were full of contemporary music or praise bands, the clergy didn’t wear vestments or clerical collars, there were no vested choirs, the sermons — or talks, really — were informal and relied heavily on multimedia presentations. Now if this all sounds amazing to you, you might just be in the wrong place this morning.

But the prevailing wisdom was that unchurched people were turned off by tradition and formality, and so churches tried to create alternative worship experiences, with an emphasis on popular culture, coffee bars, and comfortable seats. Now, that part doesn’t sound bad.

But I think these efforts minimized the fact that, at heart, we are all seekers. Whether this is our first Sunday at church in many years, or we’ve been faithfully coming every Sunday for generations, not a single one of us has it all figured out; we are all seeking answers to life’s deepest questions. Jesus says, “Seek and ye shall find.” And that is a large part of our job as Christians. To keep seeking answers, to keep seeking Jesus. And I trust that that’s part of what draws us to this place. To stand at the intersection of ancient tradition and cultural relevance. And   together, to seek out the one who calls us each by name and and loves us unconditionally and with reckless abandon. 

This morning we encounter Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus was quite clearly a seeker. He was intrigued by what he’d heard about Jesus and wanted to learn more. He was a seeker of the truth, a seeker of the meaning of life, a seeker of a deeper spiritual connection to God.

He also, very significantly, came to Jesus at night, by cover of darkness. As a leader in the Jewish community, Nicodemus wielded both religious and political power. He was a member of the establishment, a Pharisee, and it would have been rather scandalous for him to be seen with Jesus, this man who was upsetting the status quo and turning tradition on its head. People in Nicodemus’ circle were certainly talking about Jesus, and the talk was not positive. He was a threat to their authority, a loose cannon, someone who often broke religious norms in order to make God more readily known. All of that healing on the sabbath and eating with the wrong people — and not only that, he was popular! Crowds were drawn to him, people were listening to him, which undermined the Pharisees’ grip on religious authority and made people question the long-standing traditions of the religious elite. 

So, at one level it would have been easy for Nicodemus to just stay in his own world, certainly safer. He was a big shot, after all, with a lot to lose. But something was sparked deep in his soul when he first heard about Jesus. And he wanted to learn more. He didn’t want to necessarily risk his standing in his own community, but still, he was drawn to this new teacher. A new truth was emerging, and Nicodemus was seeking after it.

I think we can all relate to Nicodemus in the sense that we’re sometimes hesitant to fully commit, to fully give our lives over to Jesus Christ. Because we know if we do, it will lead to sacrifices. To fully be a disciple of Jesus, we need to give some things up — control, for one. “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Comfort, for another. Jesus so often calls us out of our respective comfort zones, out of our insular and safe worlds. He challenges our assumptions about the world and the people around us. But also the way we live and order our lives. Because to follow Jesus is to constantly be examining the priorities of our lives; it forces us to think about the ways in which we interact with other people. 

And, here’s the really hard part, we can’t make life all about us; rather it must be all about God. And that runs counter to so many of our instincts. So, while we crave control and comfort and continuity, Jesus calls us out of all that. To a place of deep connection with the divine, to a place of hope and meaning and love. And ultimately, that’s what we all, like Nicodemus, seek. That yearning is what makes us seekers. Seekers of Jesus. People who seek to follow Jesus. People who often stumble along the way or make a mess of things. But then the one who calls us each by name, invites us to keep seeking after him. Day after day, month after month, year after year.

You know, while we may not have a praise band or a giant video screen, I still like to think of what we do here as a seeker service of sorts. Not because we’re trying to use market research or consumer trends to figure out what people are looking for in a worship experience, but because we all remain seekers of a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And this place, through architecture and music and liturgy, through the relationships we have with one another, this place helps orient us towards God. It captures the mystery of the divine presence in our lives, which is something that can never be contained or quantified. 

When I was a dashing young curate at Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore — the ‘dashing’ part was a joke — we did start what was basically a seeker service. But in light of what was happening in mega churches around the country, we thought of it as something of an anti-seeker service. It was a short 30-minute service of ancient chant led by a small schola of singers, with candlelight, and just a hint of incense. There was very intentionally no sermon or collection.We called it Vespers and it basically followed the structure of a sung service of compline, the  church’s night prayers. We held it on Sunday evenings and advertised it in the local paper with the tagline “God’s Not Just a Morning Person.” I’m not sure if they’re still doing it, but it really resonated, especially with younger folks — students and people living downtown. I’m not sure what that might look like in this context, or if it makes any sense to try something like that, but Nicodemus at least got me wondering and pondering. So, who knows?

In the end, of course, Nicodemus leaves the cover of darkness to follow Jesus. He walks boldly into the light as he very publicly removes Jesus’ body from the cross and lays it in the tomb. He is no longer a secret follower of Jesus, but a true disciple. He remains a seeker, as we all do. He keeps seeking after Jesus, as we all do.

Ash Wednesday 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 22, 2023 (Ash Wednesday)

I’m not a big fan of makeup mirrors. The only time I ever see myself in one is when I accidentally, and horrifyingly, glance over at one in a hotel bathroom. Now, I realize some of you are used to this view, but I’m not. And so it’s always rather jarring when I look up and come face-to-face with that magnified, hyper close-up image staring back at me. It’s shocking to see all of those blemishes in high definition, and I quickly avert my eyes.

In a sense, Ash Wednesday is a makeup mirror kind of day. Our entrance into the season of Lent compels us to take stock of our lives and gaze deeply into the intentions of our hearts. We can’t just take a superficial glance in the mirror, as we might check our hair in the hall mirror on our way out the door. Today requires a deeper look. 

And the reality is that it’s not always a pleasant view. We are sinful beings in need of repentance. That doesn’t necessarily make us bad people, it’s just a reality of the human condition. 

But one way we authentically look into the mirror, as the ash Wednesday liturgy starkly highlights, is by confessing our sins. We do this every Sunday, of course, as part of the General Confession. We look in the mirror and acknowledge those things we have done, and those things we have left undone. We say we’re sorry, we promise to do better, and we are absolved of our sins in the name of Jesus. And this cycle of confession, repentance, and the assurance of forgiveness should be, must be, a regular part of our spiritual lives. It both holds us accountable and reminds us of God’s loving mercy; of God’s joy for the one who repents and returns to the Lord. 

But today is a makeup mirror kind of day. And so we can’t just say the words and move on with the service which, if we’re honest, sometimes happens on Sunday mornings. As we prayed at the start of this service, we gather today to “lament our sins” and “acknowledge our wretchedness.” That’s hard language. But it does shake us out of the complacency of confession that often marks our words on Sunday morning. It helps to both pierce and open our hearts.

On Sundays one of the priests says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” We usually leave at least a few moments of silence before launching into the confession. “Most merciful God…” But if you’re really struggling with something you’ve done or left undone, those few moments aren’t really enough space in which to fully reflect and repent. Before you know it, we’ve confessed, been absolved, moved on the Peace, and suddenly someone’s trying to shake your hand while you’re still trying to acknowledge your wretchedness.

Ash Wednesday spreads this out. In many ways it’s an extended version of that brief silence between the bidding of the confession and the confession itself. And I encourage you to embrace it. To spend the time to lament and acknowledge that which stands between you and God. That’s what sin is, after all. It’s that which separates you from the love of God.

And God wants to remove any barriers, anything that keeps you at a distance. God wants you within reach, not at arm’s length. Which is why confessing our sins, removing those obstacles, brings us into deeper relationship with the risen Christ. And it’s precisely why I don’t think you can talk about sin without talking about love. 

That may sound counterintuitive. But Lent in general, and Ash Wednesday in particular, isn’t merely a time set aside to feel bad about ourselves. We may all be “miserable offenders” with “no health in us” as the old confession from the 1928 Prayer Book put it. But that’s not our full identity. We are beloved children of God who, out of shame or fear, fall away and turn away and run away from God’s deep and abiding love for us. In a word, we are human. And God loves us anyway. Deeply and unconditionally.

In a few moments, you will be invited, in the name of the Church, into the observance of a “holy Lent.” And I think it’s helpful to reflect upon what this means. And to remember that, popular misconceptions aside, we are not invited to keep a miserable Lent or a guilt-ridden Lent or a gloomy Lent or even a wretched Lent, but a holy Lent. And holy simply means “set apart for God.” You, in all your imperfections, have been set apart for God. Because God loves you. And in the same way, we are invited to set apart some time for God. Through prayer, worship, reading, whatever your particular Lenten devotion may be. Whatever allows you to set apart some time to spend with God.

As you enter into this holy season, I invite you to acknowledge not just your sinfulness, but God’s loving grace. These ashes aren’t just a reminder of your own mortality, but a sign of God’s abundant and abiding love for you. Remember that you are dust, yes, but remember also that you are God’s beloved child. That Jesus rejoices at your presence this day; forgives you when you humbly repent of your sinfulness; and seeks after you in goodness and mercy all the days of your life. 

I look forward to walking into the wilderness of Lent with all of you this year. May we emerge emboldened in our faith, and be drawn ever nearer to the heart of Jesus.

Rector’s Annual Address

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2023 (Rector’s Annual Address)

Welcome to Annual Meeting Sunday. Frankly, sharing my Annual Report as I like to do in the context of the sermon, is a little bit awkward since I was only here for 12% of 2022. But I love the Annual Meeting, because it allows us to take stock of the year that is past, celebrate all the many and varied ministries that take place here, and look towards the future. And I have to say, the future at Bethesda is bright, it’s exciting, and along with all of you, I am so glad to be a part of it.

I have spent much of my first few months among you asking questions and listening and learning and building relationships. You can’t chart a course for the future without first getting to know ministries and people, without experiencing the traditions of a place, and discovering what draws people here and what keeps them here.

And let me first say and openly declare that I love Bethesda. This is a place teeming with faithful and passionate parishioners, a place with a talented and dedicated staff, a place where worship stands at the very heart of what we do, a place where Jesus is praised and followed, a place where apparently the rector skips.

So much of a rector’s role is simply setting a tone and helping to create a culture. What I hope to do in the coming years is to be part of a joyful community, one where people care about one another — even when they disagree, where people are committed to growing in their relationship with Jesus, where people want to both serve the church and serve those in need, a place where generosity is cultivated, a place where people are welcomed and loved. And I want to do this together, with each one of you.

But, since I’ve only been here for a short time, let me offer a few initial observations about life at this very special place, along with a few hopes. 

The first is that this is a place where Jesus is encountered. Through liturgy and music, through prayer and Bible study, through sacred space and holy grounds, through service to others, Jesus’ presence is revealed in so many ways around here. And my hope is that collectively we will go even deeper in the coming years. That our faith will broaden and deepen, that we will see and know and serve Jesus in new and creative ways. That we will embrace the values of the Beatitudes we heard this morning as people who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

This is also a place where people are welcomed. I’ve been so impressed by the Ambassador program and by the intentionality of making all who enter these doors feel and know that they are loved by God, not for what they do or who they are or what they’re worth, but simply because they are children of God. That is a rare thing indeed. But the warm welcome can’t be the end goal. We must all continually strive to draw people deeper into their faith. And so connecting people to ministries that create even more committed disciples of Jesus is a major part of our work together.

Related to this, I would love to see some areas of church life that incorporate more lay involvement and leadership. From communications to outreach to finance to education, there are so many gifted parishioners around here and more people should be drawn into the creative and life-giving ministries of this parish. This not only allows people to share their gifts in meaningful ways, it also deepens our connections to God and one another. So my hope is that we will find a healthy balance between staff and volunteer leadership, one that lifts up and empowers lay ministry and recognizes that all ministry is rooted in our baptismal covenant.

This is a place with deeply held and beloved traditions. I love the traditions at Bethesda. Take Boar’s Head. Yes, the spectacle of it all was amazing to behold — the music, the costumes, the plum pudding. But what really inspired me was the sheer number of people who participated in the show over what was a very full weekend. I loved the intergenerational community building and the sheer joy in pulling this all off. 

One of my mantras is “Never let the clergy get in the way of ministry.” And what I mean by that is I don’t have to be, nor should I be, nor could I possibly be, in the middle of everything that takes place here. I love it when people take up the mantle of ministry and simply make things happen. And that’s something else I loved about Boar’s Head — it could have been done without any clergy involvement at all. In reality, my only role was to not trip.

So, my hope is that we will lean into the strong traditions at Bethesda, while being open to creating new ones. Traditions that point firmly to God are worth holding onto and cherishing. The key is not allowing traditions to become idols in and of themselves, and that takes continued attention and discernment. 

This is a place of great generosity. People are generous with both their financial and spiritual gifts. And that is because they care deeply about this community. When people feel connected, they contribute. Our overall giving goal for 2023 is $2.5 million. In order to fully fund the ministry that takes place here and the staffing we need to add to support it, this should really be at $3 or 3.5 million. We’ll talk more about this next month, but as you discern your 2023 pledge, I encourage your continued generosity and commitment to Bethesda.

This is a place with an incredible asset in The Church Mouse. Beyond the over $500,000 it raises for our outreach ministries, it stands as an outpost of Bethesda in the community and offers meaningful volunteer opportunities for our parishioners. I would like to see this bond between parish and Mouse strengthened even more, so that everyone beyond our walls will know that it is a ministry of this church. To this end, we are pulling together an advisory committee to support staff and improve communications to the wider community.

This is a place that takes seriously its commitment to those in need. Through our outreach grants and several hands-on ministries, we are following the way of Jesus in serving the least of us. My hope is to put together a robust outreach committee to help lead us towards a more focused approach to serving others, and to provide even more opportunities to roll up our sleeves and do god works. As a parish we have a huge opportunity to make a significant difference in our wider community — the needs are great. And I wonder if we might channel some of our resources into a signature outreach effort, one that people will identify with Bethesda. But that will take some true discernment. 

My whole approach to ministry has always been about keeping one foot within the four walls of the church, and one foot beyond its walls. And so we have programs and educational opportunities that will deepen our faith as disciples of Jesus; we look to worship as the primary way that we gather; we maintain our buildings and grounds as sacred spaces that offer solace and inspiration. 

And then we move outward to live out our faith in the world. We serve others through outreach programs, we invite people to come and see and experience the ways we meet Jesus at Bethesda, and we hold up Bethesda’s mission of love, inclusion, and grace as a beacon of hope that our broken and divided world so desperately needs. Through technology, Bethesda has an opportunity and, I’d say, a responsibility, to make a significant impact upon our local community, but also the wider church and the nation, bringing the message of God’s love well beyond our walls. And that excites me.

When I was in middle school, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. We left a beautiful  church which we loved and, although it was hard to say goodbye, we looked forward to trying out some new parishes and finding a church home. We went to some of the biggest, most famous churches in the city — including the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. One Sunday we decided to at least try the tiny, nondescript Episcopal church in our neighborhood, with its red linoleum floors and electronic organ. 

But there was something about the young, new rector that brought us back the following week. And then we got to know the people. And suddenly my parents made up 2/6 of the choir and I started acolyting every week. What I learned through this experience is that a church, is not the building. No matter how grand or how humble, a church is not the physical brick and mortar, but the living, breathing, flawed, forgiven people who consider it their spiritual home. 

And ultimately, that’s what makes Bethesda so special. You make Bethesda so special. And it is a privilege to join each and every one of you on this journey of life and faith. I’m energized and inspired by what God is doing in this place, and I can’t wait to see what the Spirit has in store for us in the years ahead.

Third Sunday in Lent (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 20, 2022 (3 Lent, Year C)

Route 31 in Kentucky connects the city of Louisville to Fort Knox. I traveled this road on a regular basis when I was in the Army and Route 31 was nothing if not nondescript. I mostly remember open spaces and fast food joints and used car dealers. But one establishment in particular caught my attention. It was a liquor store placed just outside the county line between dry Bullit County, where the sale of alcohol was prohibited, and wet Hardin County, where alcohol sales were legal. Driving down Route 31 through the dry county and approaching the wet one, the liquor store’s giant neon sign read “Bennie’s First Chance.” But when you traveled the opposite way on Route 31, through the wet county approaching the dry one, the giant neon sign read “Bennie’s Last Chance.” A clever marketing ploy that probably served Bennie well over the years. 

So how does a liquor store in Kentucky relate to a burning bush and a fig tree? A valid question. But the two stories we heard this morning are also about first chances and last chances. When Moses stumbles upon the oddity of a burning bush that is not consumed with fire, he does a double take. In fact, he rubbernecks. He diverts the flock he’s tending, stops, and stares at this unusual sight. Of course the rest is history. God calls to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses hesitates but responds, and then he spends the rest of his life following God and leading God’s people to the promised land. But it was in that very moment up on the mountain that Moses received a first chance to serve God. 

We, too, are continually offered first chances to serve God. We may not have such astounding encounters with God on a daily basis, but they are all equally dramatic in their own ways. Any encounter with the living God is always dramatic. If we open our eyes to God’s presence in the world and in our lives, we see first chances to serve God all day long. Each day brings fresh opportunities to serve God anew. If we allow it to be, the buzzing of our alarm clock acts as a signal calling us to God’s service in the world. Each day brings opportunity and hope to live in God’s presence, to praise God, to love one another in God’s name. And Lent in particular is an entire season dedicated to the first chances of spiritual renewal.

Then there’s the fig tree. This isn’t one of Jesus’ most easily understood parables so a bit of explanation might be helpful. In the story there are three “characters:” the owner of the vineyard, the gardener, and the fig tree. The basic point is that the owner had a fig tree planted three years ago and he hasn’t seen a single fig. Not a great return on his investment. So, he tells his gardener to cut it down. Soil is a precious commodity, it’s being wasted by this useless fig tree, so get rid of it. 

This makes a lot of sense except that the gardener seems to have some sort of sentimental attachment to the tree and asks that the tree be given a year’s reprieve. He’ll pay more attention to it, throw on some fertilizer, and if it still hasn’t produced any figs, then he’ll cut it down. The fig tree has been given a last chance, a stay of execution. 

So what’s Jesus talking about here? I don’t think he’s merely passing on gardening tips, as useful as they might be. Many see this parable in the following light: the owner of the vineyard is God, who has the authority to plant and to uproot lives as God sees fit. The gardener is Jesus, who intercedes on behalf of the fig tree. And the fig tree is seen as God’s people in the world. So, through the intercession of Jesus, God has mercy upon us, and offers us a last chance. Despite our sinfulness and our turning away from God and one another, we are offered one last chance to make amends. This doesn’t minimize the fact that we will all ultimately be judged by our actions, but it does highlight the merciful nature of God as revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

So, what would it mean to live life as if it was your last chance? Take a moment to see yourself as the fig tree in Jesus’ story. What changes would you make to insure that you would bear fruit in the coming year? How would you make the most of this last chance? 

But before you answer this, please recognize that you mustn’t do all the work alone. Jesus will fertilize you, nurture you, water you, and feed you. You have help in bearing your fruit; you don’t have to do it alone. Even though you’re down to your last chance, even though the pressure’s on to produce or be cut down, you don’t have to do all the work by yourself. After all, no tree can bear fruit all by itself. A tree needs sunlight, rain, and good soil. Only with some outside intervention can a tree bear fruit and thrive. 

And rest assured that God has given us all the ability to bear fruit. It’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Sure, we need some pruning every now and then – Lent gives us a great opportunity to think about this. We just have to trust that the gardener, who is Jesus, knows what he’s doing. And that with his help, we will indeed bear fruit. With his help, there is no way we won’t bear fruit. For it is Jesus himself who fertilizes us, nurtures us, waters us, and feeds us.

So, even though we’ve been given one last chance through the mercy of God, we’ve also simultaneously been given myriad first chances. Because God offers us a burning bush, an opportunity to serve the Lord, at every turn. We are given countless first chances even in the midst of our last chance. Paradoxical? Maybe. But as we enter more deeply into this season of Lent, we must come face-to-face with the merciful and loving judgment of God that offers us continued first chances, even while acknowledging the gravity of the last chance. 

I don’t usually offer up a liquor store in Kentucky as a metaphor for God. But Bennie does offer his customers both a first chance and a last chance. God continually offers us first chances in the midst of one last chance. Jesus intercedes for us and helps us to open our eyes to the opportunities to serve God and each other that surround us in our daily lives. Through the mercy of God, we will meet our judgment with Christ at our side, fertilizing us, nurturing us, watering us, and feeding us. And Jesus Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, will be with us through it all.

First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 6, 2022 (1 Lent, Year C)

When I was a kid I would sometimes tag along with my father to orchestra rehearsals. Some of you know he was a conductor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and so when a babysitter got sick or my mother was working, I’d accompany my dad to the old Lyric Theater downtown. When I wasn’t hanging out in the dressing room with the poker-playing horn players or wandering around backstage among the huge double bass cases and assorted tympanis, I’d be out exploring the red velvet-lined boxes in the balcony.

You could say that one of the soundtracks of my childhood was the tuning of the orchestra. If you’ve ever been to a classical music concert you know that they all start with the same ritual tuning. After a nod from the concertmaster, the principal oboe player gives them an A and then the rest of the orchestra tunes their instruments off of the oboe which, of all the instruments, provides the truest pitch. It just takes a few moments, but they would always tune up at the beginning of the rehearsal and then periodically throughout their time together if my father heard something that didn’t sound quite right.

Over time instruments naturally get out of tune if left alone. Strings, in particular, are very sensitive to cold or humidity. A violin string might stretch out, causing it to go flat; or constrict, causing it to go sharp. And so a violinist must do a bit of fine-tuning with the pegs to get the instrument back in playing condition. 

In a sense, the season of Lent is the church’s tuning peg. As our priorities become slightly off key, Lent brings us back into tune; allowing us to again live in harmony with God.  It’s easy to let our spiritual lives get away from us. We get busy; we get self-absorbed; we get bogged down by endless activities. We let the minutia of life drive our priorities and suddenly we find ourselves out of tune with the Spirit. It might be subtle to the point that we hardly notice that our spiritual life has gone a bit flat. Or it might be strident, atonal disharmony. A pandemic that has thrown our worship habits out of whack certainly doesn’t help. But either way, if we allow it, Lent holds the potential to bring our spiritual lives back into tune. It encourages self-reflection and a return to the basics of our faith.

And this season specifically set aside as a time of spiritual renewal, is rooted in the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism; the place where he was tempted by the devil, as we hear this morning. Jesus is tempted with bodily cravings, wealth, and power. The devil says, ‘You’re hungry? Turn this stone into a loaf of bread.’ ‘You want glory? Worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world.’ ‘You say you’re the Son of God? Prove it by throwing yourself off this cliff.’

In effect, the devil is holding out those words we say at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” That’s what he’s offering — kingdom, power, and glory; that’s what he’s using as a lure to tempt Jesus. You can have it all, he tells Jesus, if only you fall down and worship me. And if Jesus wasn’t Jesus, he might have gone for all this. Because the devil is holding out all the markers of worldly success: renown and riches and rule. What else even is there?

But Jesus is not about kingly treasure and worldly possessions and human glory. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Yes, that’s true. But not in the way the devil understands such things. For Jesus, it is the kingdom of God, the power of God, and the glory of God

Following his baptism, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. Jesus’ power derives exclusively from his position as the Son of God. God alone is the source of the kingdom, and the power, and the glory — not the world, not ourselves, not any institution or human being, certainly not the diabolical forces of wickedness personified by the devil.

And the devil simply couldn’t understand this. The devil can’t even relate to someone who is not driven by earthly passions and desires. So the true depth of this whole interaction takes place well beyond the surface of what we see and hear. This temptation exists on a cosmic level that highlights the choice about which kingdom Jesus represents: will he side with the powers and principalities of this world, or will he side with the reign of God and the world that is to come? 

The answer is clear to us now, but Jesus had to endure the temptation in the wilderness in order to show us what really matters in this life. And, despite the impressive Biblical repartee, that back and forth between the devil and Jesus, I don’t believe this was all just a show for our benefit. We hear that Jesus was famished and weak, and thus particularly vulnerable. He was actually tempted and part of him, the very human part, must have at least considered the devil’s offer. Who wouldn’t have?

But this scene also forces us, 2,000 years later, to decide what matters to us the most: our own needs and desires and perspective, or God’s. Whose kingdom, whose power, whose glory will we follow? That’s the choice held out to us as we enter into the season of Lent, as we seek to re-tune our spiritual lives.

Now, it’s true that these days our entire world feels out of tune. Our hearts ache for the people of the Ukraine as we watch oppression roll in and refugees roll out, literally before our eyes. Injustice and violence fester throughout the world in places both near and far. Even amid some real signs of hope, this ongoing global pandemic continues to take a toll upon our physical and mental well-being, and on that of our loved ones. In so many ways, disharmony reigns. 

And so I encourage you to use this season of Lent to re-tune your spiritual life. We can’t fix everything in the world. But we can attend to the stirrings of our souls. And by doing so, we can be bearers of God’s grace in uncertain moments. We can drive out fear with hope. We can offer love in the face of oppression. This is what will change the world: being in tune with God and walking in harmony with one another. And we begin by choosing God’s kingdom and God’s power and God’s glory. 

Ash Wednesday 2022

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 2, 2022 (Ash Wednesday)

Return. Return to the Lord. Return to the Lord your God with all your heart. That’s the Lenten call. That’s the Lenten invitation. That’s the Lenten opportunity. To return and rededicate your life to the way of God, to the way of love.

And on Ash Wednesday, we’re reminded that the first step of return is repentance. To repent and return to the Lord is the call of this day. The word “repent” itself means a turning of the heart. So it’s an inward action, an action in direct opposition to the empty, outward displays of piety against which Jesus cautions. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” His point being that faith is not about outward appearances or the image we project to the world, but the inward intentions of our hearts. Which takes contemplation and reflection and introspection.

And if we’re honest, we’re not great at repentance. For to repent is to look deeply into our souls and admit wrongdoing. We’re so much better at distracting ourselves and chasing shiny objects than we are at doing the hard, interior work of repentance. It’s much easier to give in to the external noise that is so pervasive in our lives — to go down internet rabbit holes or turn on the TV or talk about other people. Anything to avoid gazing into the mirror and taking a long, hard look at ourselves. At our complicity, at our self-centeredness, at our sinfulness. Repentance is hard work and, as with conflict, we prefer to avoid it. Afraid of what we might see or encounter in ourselves.

Which is why the Litany of Penitence we say after the imposition of ashes is so convicting. In it, we come face to face with our sinful and broken selves. We ask for mercy, we confess our utter depravity and we throw ourselves upon God’s abounding love and compassion. We repent and return to the Lord.

And if the first step of returning to the Lord is repentance, the first step of repentance is telling the truth. About ourselves and about our world.

There’s been a lot of talk these days and controversy over doing just that — over telling the truth. We see this when communities or groups seek to whitewash history or burn books. We seek to hide the hard facts that lead to uncomfortable truths. We see this when we choose what history to teach, based not on truth but on a narrative that better fits with the image we seek to convey. We see this in our country when we don’t want to face the ugly truths of Jim Crow and the lynching tree. When we don’t want to face the sometimes subtle but always soul-sucking ways in which people of color have been shut out of the American dream. 

In the same way, we often whitewash our own history. We ignore or cover up those things for which we need to repent. Those things for which we need to get down on our knees and rub ashes on our foreheads and truly and humbly say we’re sorry. Those things we have done and those things we have left undone. And when we fail to face them, we’re only fooling ourselves. We’re certainly not fooling God. The one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. 

“Rend your hearts and not your garments,” cries the prophet Joel. Tear apart the ways in which we’ve been lying to ourselves and take a good, hard look at how we have acted towards others and towards ourselves. Being honest with ourselves does not always come naturally or easily. Because the picture we see is not always flattering. And while we may carefully curate our image on Facebook, God sees right into our hearts. The first part of repentance is telling the truth. And unless we’re telling the truth in our own hearts, to our own selves, we’re always going to leave a gap between our souls and God’s love for us.

The good news of this day is that when we’re honest with ourselves, as hard and as uncomfortable as that may be — the good news is that God still and always loves us. “Return to the Lord, your God,” says Joel, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The God we return to in all our brokenness, the God to whom we repent is merciful and compassionate and abounding in steadfast love.

“Rend your hearts and not your garments.” And if it is the heart that symbolizes the core of our being, this is yet another call to strip away the external trappings of faith and focus on the inner life of Christ’s love. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the essentials. Lent does that for us. Because Lent is about claiming and then pro-claiming God as the single most important priority of your life. Everything else is tangential; everything else is external to what really matters. The sooner we actualize this in our lives, the closer we come to that elusive peace of God that surpasses all understanding. And it all begins on this day; this day when we are called upon to repent and return to the Lord.

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 26, 2021 (Proper 21, Year B)

I’m always amazed at the variety of lawn ornaments I see around town. I’m not talking garden gnomes or statues of St. Francis or, this time of year, pumpkins. I mean the big stuff. Like anchors or row boats sticking halfway out of the ground. In the winter, and I swear I’d never seen anything like this until I moved to Hingham, people put literal sleighs in their yards. As if Santa was coming through, got discouraged at the sheer volume of houses, and just abandoned ship.

But the thing that amazes me the most are the millstones. You know, those large circular stones that were once used to grind grains but for some reason ended up as lawn decorations. Every time I see one, all I can think about is this reading from Mark’s gospel: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” In related news, I’m not much fun to drive around town with.

There is some tough language in this passage. These words of Jesus are hard to hear and, if I’m honest, hard to preach on. But every three years when this particular reading comes up, I think to myself, I can’t just leave it hanging out there without saying something. And the millstone isn’t even the half of it. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out….For it is better to enter life lame than to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” 

You can’t listen to that and then just nonchalantly go to coffee hour. Or head to the Fruit Center to buy half a pound of thinly sliced ham. Because, not only is there the possibility of amputation for sinful acts, the alternative is to be tossed into a pit of fire. Taken literally, if you sin, and we all do, you have a choice: gouge out one of your eyeballs or endure the fiery furnace. Which sounds an awful lot like good, old-fashioned fire and brimstone. And we don’t get much of that around here; not from this pulpit. Over the years, you may have noticed    that we tend to preach more love than damnation.

So, if judgment and damnation are what you’re looking for, a) you may want to do some church shopping, and b) I hate to burst your hell-fire bubble but Jesus isn’t actually trying to frighten the disciples into faith. Which isn’t something that ever really works anyway. Jesus is intentionally using provocative language to get our attention, to grab us by the lapels, to shake us out of our complacency so that we won’t just hear his words but listen to them. And I’d say it’s pretty effective. Hearing the Prince of Peace talking about millstones and cutting off feet and the flames of hell certainly makes you sit up and take notice.

You should know that the phrases themselves – the whole rhythm of “If your (fill-in-the-blank body part) causes you to stumble, cut it off” – were familiar proverbs in Jesus’ day. His hearers knew they weren’t to be taken literally. Which is why the early disciples weren’t a bunch of blind amputees. Jesus, as you may know, was a master of hyperbole. He uses it to amuse and inspire and challenge. Not to scare and terrify and threaten. As when he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Or, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off,” is hyperbole. Deftly used to make a larger point.

There’s an old story about a well-known preacher who once said in a sermon, “First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a [he used a word that rhymes with ‘ship’]. What’s worse, is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said [the word that rhymes with ship] than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

This is not a rhetorical technique you could use every Sunday. And Jesus didn’t talk about lopping off limbs very often. But when he does, you take notice. In the first case, you may remember and reflect upon those 30,000 children dying. In the second, you may remember to ask yourself what you would be willing to sacrifice for your faith.

Because when we get past the shock value of the language, we see that Jesus’ larger point is all about discipleship. Jesus is really asking about the lengths we would go to follow him. Jesus is challenging the disciples to think about the commitment of their faith. Asking them, in effect, ‘Just how strong is your faith? What would you sacrifice in order to keep it? A hand? A foot? An eye?’ He’s not asking us to sacrifice a body part, but he is asking us to sacrifice something

And so the question to us is, what are you willing to sacrifice for your faith? What are you willing to give up in order to live faithfully? This question reverberates in ways great and small. Are you willing to give up 20 minutes of Netflix to read Scripture before bed? Are you willing to give up golf on a beautiful Sunday morning in order to come to church? Are you willing to say “no” to youth sports that take place at 10 am on Sunday mornings? (If not, you can always come to the 5 o’clock service). Are you willing to cut your vacation a day short and give those savings to assist people in need? Are you willing to forsake the use of plastics in order to help the environment? 

I’m sure you could come up with all sorts of other ways to sacrifice for your faith. And even if the answer to such questions is ‘no’ or ‘not entirely,’ at least you’re engaging with the issue of how your faith fits with the priorities of your life. And that’s what Jesus seeks; that’s what Jesus desires; that’s what Jesus invites us to consider. It’s not about sacrificing limbs or hanging millstones around our necks, it’s about sacrificing the things in our lives that draw us away from God’s love, while focusing on the things that draw us to God’s love. 

So the next time you see one of those millstones in a front yard, think about your faith. Think about what you might sacrifice in order to magnify your relationship with our Lord. And be thankful for those times when Jesus’ words yank us out of our complacency, and force us to focus on that which really matters in this life.

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 13, 2021 (Proper 6, Year B)

There’s some crazy statistic about how tall US presidents have traditionally been versus the general population. Height seems to matter when it comes to political success and, in fact, only six American presidents have been shorter than the average American male, the last one being Jimmy Carter, 40 years ago. And, while I obviously won’t be running for President any time soon, I have taken to telling people who have started worshiping with us online over the past year that I am much taller in person. 

But height and physical appearance, even in our supposedly enlightened age, makes a difference. Not just in politics but, studies show, in earning potential and job advancement and dating and happiness and even life span. As a society we continue to be enamored with and reward what we perceive as strong physical traits, equating them with character and leadership. Which is why there are an awful lot of really attractive mediocre leaders out there. And, no, the church is not exempt from this phenomenon. With a dash of patriarchy thrown in for good measure.

I bring this up because the exact same dynamic was at work in Biblical times. We see this in our reading from First Samuel about the anointing of David as the future king of Israel. 3,000 years ago, God was in the market for a new king. The first one, Saul, had been a terrible disappointment. And so God tells the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem, find Jesse — a prosperous and well-respected man — and anoint one of his sons. Which was a rather awkward and dangerous mission since, well, Saul was still the king. 

And at first Samuel makes the same mistake we so often do. He takes a look at the eldest of Jesse’s sons, a strapping young man named Eliab, and the guy just exudes royalty. I always picture one of those Disney princes. Tall, with a well-defined jawline, a deep voice dripping with self-confidence and decisiveness. A firm handshake, certainly. Eliab simply looked like a natural born leader which, on a superficial level, is often half the battle. 

And it’s not just his good looks. Eliab is Jesse’s first born son. And by tradition, the eldest son was the favored one. He got the lion’s share of the inheritance, the respect, and the family business. Birth order in Biblical times wasn’t just a conversation starter, it mattered. It’s why the story of Jacob and Esau and the stealing of Esau’s birthright as the first born son was such a radical and controversial breaking with tradition.

And Samuel must have thought to himself, ‘Well this is easy enough. Surely this is the new king God is looking for. Let’s just get this over with so I can get back home.’ But God, reading Samuel’s mind, reminds him that looks can be deceiving. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Which is why that prayer we often say at the start of our services, known as the Collect for Purity, is so compelling: “To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Yes, God looks upon the heart, rather than outward appearances. Which is both wonderfully comforting — God can see what’s in our heart — and incredibly disconcerting — God can see what’s in our heart?! 

So, after that first impression goes awry, Samuel realizes that what seemed like an easy enough task, will actually be a lot more difficult than he had first imagined. And he ends up observing and then having God reject all seven of Jesse’s sons. None of them get the rose, to use a Bachelor analogy. 

But fortunately there’s an eighth son. David. The youngest. He’s so insignificant in the lineage of his own family that he’s a literal afterthought. After running through and rejecting the first seven sons, Samuel has to ask Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” It’s as if he knows Jesse’s holding one back. And it’s not because he’s trying to protect or hide or shield David. The young shepherd boy is out tending Jesse’s sheep. He’s busy doing his father’s and his family’s dirty work. Jesse didn’t even bother bringing David before Samuel because, well, he was young and scrawny and certainly didn’t look like a king. Or act like one. Wandering around with his harp, singing songs to the flock, idling away his time by messing around with his slingshot. Surely, this one can’t be the next king. The whole concept is absurd.

But, of course, David was the one. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see.” The Lord does not look on outward appearances; “the Lord looks on the heart.”

And it’s telling that one of the great kings of Israel comes not from the traditional centers of power and authority, but from society’s margins; from the periphery, the edges. By human standards, he wasn’t even a consideration. By any reasonable norms of the day, when it came to power and privilege, David was bound to be on the outside looking in. But through David’s elevation, we begin to see that what matters to God is not grandeur and proud boasts, but humility and a kind heart. It’s not about the external trappings of power, but the internal stirrings of a compassionate and loving heart. That’s what God values, even if humanity rarely recognizes or honors these qualities publicly.

And we see in this story some foreshadowing of the kingship of Jesus. God’s son enters the world not from some grand palace, but through a humble stable. He’s not born into the elite ruling class, but into a family with little means and even less public stature. He is, however, born of the House of David. You’ve perhaps heard that expression on Christmas Eve. And it refers to the fact that Jesus was born into the Davidic line, of Jesse’s stem as the saying goes. And, yes, that’s this Jesse, the father of the young shepherd boy who would become the great King David. 

So what does this reveal about God that David is chosen as God’s anointed one? He’s the youngest son, he’s small in stature, insignificant. It all kind of sounds like the familiar parable of the mustard seed, which is embedded in our gospel reading this morning. From the tiny mustard seed comes forth not some massive, imposing, powerful tree like you’d find in the Redwood Forest. But the kind of large shrub you might find in your backyard. A small tree large or a large shrub big enough for birds to nest in. The tiniest seed sows life and a place for further nesting and nurturing.

And I find that to be both a beautiful image and a revelation of God’s hopes and desires for each one of us. God desires for us to be loved and nurtured and set free through the humble beginnings but mighty and loving message of Jesus Christ. Allow God to gaze upon your heart; and through the story of the anointing of David and the birth of Jesus, allow yourself in return to gaze upon the very heart of God.

Second Sunday of Easter (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of  St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 11, 2021 (Easter 2, Year B)

On Wednesday this week, just as I was emerging from my post-Holy Week and Easter haze, I had a conversation with Davis Dassori about the reading he did for our Easter Day service. It was from the Acts of the Apostles, and Peter was speaking to the Gentile Cornelius, sharing the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. You may remember it — although, in fairness, the only thing I really remember about our Easter service was that glorious Pageant put on by our children. 

But Davis was telling me that when he was filming the reading, he told Dan that the part he wanted to emphasize was the line where Peter says, “We are witnesses to all that he did.” Davis wanted to make sure he looked directly into the camera when he said this. “We are witnesses to all that he did.” 

Peter and the other disciples were indeed witnesses to all that had taken place. They were there when Jesus taught and healed and lived and died and rose again. They were witnesses to something so powerful, so incredible that they risked everything — their livelihoods, their reputations, their very lives — to share it with others. They shared it with their friends and families, they shared it with strangers, they shared it with the powerful and the powerless. And it is only because of them, because of their eyewitness accounts, that we have been entrusted with the good news of Jesus’ message some 2,000 years later.

This morning we hear the story of the apostle Thomas, and I was struck by Davis’ comment because at first, that was one thing that Thomas decidedly was not: a witness. We don’t know where Thomas was when the other disciples had initially gathered, we just know he was not with them when the resurrected Jesus suddenly appeared among them. And when Thomas finally does show up, after Jesus had left, this famously leads to some doubts.

Now, I will say that I think Thomas has been unfairly saddled with the “Doubting” moniker. We often pejoratively refer to someone as a Doubting Thomas, if they don’t share our optimism or beliefs. To accuse someone of being a Doubting Thomas is often just one step away from calling them a Debbie Downer. Using it this way isn’t fair to Thomas, but mostly I think it’s unfair to the whole concept of doubt. As if doubt were a dirty word or an unholy state of mind or something antithetical to faith. 

The thing is, authentic faith is not an on-off switch or an either-or proposition. Doubt and faith coexist on a continuum that ebbs and flows throughout our lives. Please know that doubt is an integral part of faith, something to be embraced and examined rather than stifled and repressed. Doubt plays a vital role in a healthy, vibrant, engaged, and living faith, because periods of doubt, as difficult as they may be, quite often strengthen our faith.

But the church hasn’t always done a good job of recognizing and accepting doubt as a natural part of our spiritual lives. Too often the response is “just pray harder,” and your doubts will magically go away.” Which is not exactly helpful advice, and it sends the message that doubt is a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of or something we’re doing wrong. On the surface of things, doubt certainly doesn’t pair well with Eastertide, this 50-day season full of joyful alleluias and proclamations of a sure and certain hope in the resurrection. 

And yet, year after year Thomas shows up on the very Sunday after Easter, expressing his doubts. And this is such an important reminder that faith, at least a faith truly rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not about plastered-on smiles or the suppression of true feelings, but about the full range of human emotions. Which most certainly includes doubt.

Davis told me, and said I could share with all of you, that when he begins to have doubts about this whole Christianity thing, with its absurd hypotheses and death-defying outcomes, he always turns back to those first believers, to the witnesses to all that Jesus did.

And if you are wrestling with doubt, this may be a helpful practice for you as well. To consider Peter and those other eyewitnesses whose hearts were so full of love, they couldn’t help but share it with others. To reflect upon what it was that set their hearts so ablaze that they risked everything to share it with the world. To listen to the words Skip read this morning from John’s first letter, “We declare to you…what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” That’s the witness of those who were there. They shared it because Jesus’ message of love changed their lives, filled them with hope, and brought peace to their souls. Things we all so desperately crave.

Like Thomas, we first heard about the resurrection from someone else. We’ve all come to this faith because it was shared by witnesses in our own lives. They may have been our parents or a friend, a family member or a Sunday School teacher, an author or even a priest. Most likely we received our faith from some combination of various witnesses. And, like Thomas, we don’t always believe what we hear. 

If you are struggling with your faith these days, know that you are not alone. It’s not always an easy place to be. When you walk it alone, it can sometimes feel like the valley of the shadow of death. Especially if things are feeling broken in your life right now.

I’m aware that not being able to gather in-person, not being able to worship together and be in community can amplify our doubts. We lean on one another to get through periods of doubt. Sometimes even just showing up and going through the liturgical motions even when we aren’t feeling spiritually connected, is an important way to stay grounded in God. You may be feeling disconnected and distracted this morning, but you’re here. And God is too. God’s arms are open wide in welcome, inviting you in, embracing you, loving you. Even when you’re not feeling it. Even when you turn away. Even when doubt feels stronger than faith. 

And don’t forget, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. There’s hope on the horizon, yes, but fear is fertile ground for doubt. And I don’t care how much of a brave face you’ve put on it, living through a global health crisis ratchets up our fear, whether consciously or not. All of which is to say, that if you’ve been struggling with your faith, please know that you are not the only one. Know that it’s a normal part of everyone’s faith journey; and the stressors we’ve all encountered, the isolation, and the loss of being together, have only exacerbated these feelings for so many of us.

And then remember those who were the first witnesses to these things. Revel in their sense of wonder, and perhaps their witness will leave just enough space for Jesus to enter your heart in new and life-giving ways.