Third Sunday in Lent 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 7, 2021 (3 Lent, Year B)

It’s hard to imagine, but tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of our last in-person service here at St. John’s. It was the Second Sunday in Lent and we knew something was up. I’d sent out a communication about just waving to one another at the Peace and not shaking hands after the service. We used a lot of Purell and offered communion in just bread form, withholding the chalice. From the perspective of living the last year in the midst of a global pandemic, it all seems so quaint and naive. 

None of us owned masks, most of us thought Zoom was a PBS show for kids that came on right after The Electric Company, and we hadn’t even started hoarding toilet paper. On Friday of the following week, we made the decision to go fully remote and I even texted the bishop for permission to do so — we were the first parish in the diocese to shut everything down. And on Sunday, Jack and I were live-streaming from the chapel, mostly because that’s where we could get the strongest signal.

Well, here we are. Still fully remote one year later. With hope on the horizon, but still committed to keeping one another safe by gathering online and being together spiritually while staying apart physically. 

This morning we hear the story of Jesus flipping tables in the Temple. And just as those tables were overturned, many of our preconceived and deeply held notions about how to do and be the church have been flipped over as well during the past 12 months. We’ve realized that we can be the Body of Christ in new ways. We’ve learned that as much as we love and cherish our sacred space, we can stay connected to God and one another without it. We’ve seen that a temporary fast from Communion is hard, but we’ve learned to be fed in new ways.

But the thing about the Temple in the ancient world is that it was always more than just a building. It was God’s dwelling place. It was a tangible, brick-and-mortar sign of the covenant between God and God’s people; an external symbol of the eternal promise of divine relationship. If you asked the average person on the street where God could be found, they’d point to that massive structure and say, ‘Right there.’

And indeed the Temple housed the Ark of the Covenant, the very symbol of God’s presence, which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments, which we also heard this morning — the Temple was built, and it served as the literal House of God for generations. The point is, it was impossible to imagine worshiping God without the Temple. It was that important to religious identity and that central to the community of faith.

What riled Jesus was that corruption had crept into the Temple system. For some, faith had become transactional rather than transformative; money and preserving the institution became more important than divine relationship and living out God’s commandments in the world. The system of Temple sacrifice, originally intended to draw people to God, had become a pre-cursor to the indulgences of the Middle Ages. And few things angered Jesus more than the hypocrisy of faith leaders preying on the vulnerable in the name of God.

In keeping with this passage, I’d argue that much of what Jesus came into the world to do was to flip traditional assumptions. Assumptions about power and privilege; assumptions about who matters and who does not; assumptions about who is blessed and who is cursed; assumptions about how relationship with God is accessed. 

Jesus looks at all of the traditional assumptions and turns the entire system upside down. The cleansing of the Temple is simply a physical manifestation of this. For those who are a little slow to understand metaphor, Jesus puts on a show, embodying what it means to literally flip things over. And in this context, it makes sense. We hear John’s version of this story this morning, which comes at the beginning of his ministry, setting the tone for what is to come. In the other gospel accounts, the story takes place at the end. When time was getting short. As Jesus’ impending arrest was just days away. Either way, and maybe it happened twice, in trying to get people’s attention, sometimes theatrics speak louder than parables; sometimes bold action moves people more than sermons. I’m sure nobody who was there, ever forgot that moment when tables and chairs and coins and pigeons all started flying through the air.

But the other thing about the Temple is something that relates very clearly to our situation over the past year. As long as you have your faith, a physical place to worship is less important. Cherished, certainly. Missed, of course. Especially as a gathering place to see people we all dearly love. 

In one of his early Passion predictions, which we hear after the table flipping, Jesus invites those around him to gaze upon the majesty of the Temple. And he says, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They take him literally and are like, “Yeah, okay, Jesus. It took 46 years to build this thing and you’re going raise it in three days? Good luck with that.” But of course Jesus is talking about his Resurrection. He’s talking about his own body, crucified and risen, serving as the object of adoration and worship; his own body as the Temple; his own body as the entry point to relationship with God.

This is a radical reimagining of relationship with God. Jesus is making the point that God is not a building or a sacrificial system or a doctrine or even a book. God is not found exclusively on a mountain or in a set of scrolls or in a building. God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, in the Temple that is his body. When we gaze upon Jesus, we gaze upon God; when we worship Jesus, we worship God.

This was a stunning, table-flipping new understanding of God’s presence in the world. And that’s where this all comes back to our present day. Because through this pandemic, we too, have had our understanding of what it means to be the church, flipped on its head. Yes, it’s taken a global health crisis, rather than the flipping of tables, to shake us out of old routines and imagine the possibilities of being St. John’s in new ways. 

But the reality is that because we worship Jesus, we can do that anywhere in any form in any place. That’s what we have been doing this past year in ways that we have never done before. By necessity, that’s what we have learned to do. And as hard as it’s been, as much as we have given up through the loss of embodied community throughout this season, that’s an important lesson about what it means to follow Jesus. We don’t have to come here physically to be present spiritually.  

Now, I know the prospect of journeying through yet another Holy Week and Easter online is tough. Personally, I’ve had thoughts like “Maybe we should just show re-runs.” But that’s not what this is all about. We can do this and we will do this. And while we are getting closer to regathering in person in some form, we are not quite there yet.

It’s been a long year, a hard year. But I give thanks everyday for this extended community of faith. For your faithfulness, your patience, your forbearance, your love, and your willingness to persevere when everything around you has been flipped over. That’s the essence of faith. And it remains a privilege to continue along this journey with each and every one of you.


Ash Wednesday 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 17, 2021 (Ash Wednesday)

Ten blocks from the parish I served as a young curate in downtown Baltimore was another Episcopal church. I used to drive by it every day on my way into the office, but I never really thought much about it. It was an old, historic church with an impressive gray stone façade but, like most places or things we see every day, it just sort of faded into the background. The church, as striking as it was, never really grabbed my attention. Except on Ash Wednesday. Because on Ash Wednesday they would always put out a large sign advertising their service times. This is a fairly standard practice for churches on special days, and at first glance their sign was pretty ordinary. 

At the top, in big letters, it read “Ash Wednesday Services.” Then it listed the service times. But what always made me take notice of the sign were the two words at the bottom: “No Imposition.” They were, of course, referring to the imposition of ashes. This was a congregation that took great pride in the simplicity and non-ceremonial nature of their worship. Incense at this parish was about as likely as snake-handling would be at St. John’s. In Episcopal-slang, they weren’t just low church, they were “snake belly low.” And they always proudly held their Ash Wednesday services without ashes. 

But as much as I couldn’t imagine Ash Wednesday without ashes, at least in a pre-pandemic world, that’s not what struck me about the sign. What caused me to take notice was the whole idea of starting Lent with “no imposition.” Because for me, that’s what Lent and the entire Christian faith is all about. It is an imposition. Not of ashes, but of faith in Jesus Christ. Our Lord demands certain things of us — like time and devotion and prayer. Not out of guilt or because we have to somehow earn God’s affection. Rather, faith is an imposition of love. The season of Lent gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect upon this interior, loving imposition, and reminds us of the responsibility we have to examine ourselves and our lives in the context of our faith.

To repent and return to the Lord is the invitation, the imposition, of this day. To “return to me with all your heart” says the Lord, in our reading from the prophet Joel. To return not to a vengeful or punishing God, but to one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This imposition of faith is like the yoke’s burden of discipleship which Jesus says is easy and light and overflowing with grace. That’s what we are being called to return to.

So here we are. An Ash Wednesday with no imposition of ashes, but with a full-on imposition of faith. And as much as I yearn for the fullness of future Ash Wednesday liturgies, with the choir, the Eucharist, all of you, and those gritty ashes made in the sign of the cross upon my forehead, I’m embracing this ash-less Ash Wednesday as an opportunity to begin this Lent by focusing not on the external signs of repentance and mortality, but on the interior nature of this penitential season. And I hope you’ll join me and one another for this seasonal journey of the soul.

It’s true, I never thought I’d experience an Ash Wednesday like the one offered by that church in Baltimore. And I hope this is the last time I ever do. But, as our bishop put it last week regarding the imposition of ashes in the midst of a pandemic, “Ashes should be a sign of our mortality, not an accelerant to our mortality.” So we will allow Jesus Christ to be imposed upon our hearts this year. We will continue, out of love, to stay physically apart, yet spiritually connected. And that is enough for this particular day, in this particular year.

Frankly, there are more than enough signs of our mortality these days. The global death toll over the past 11 months is a sign of our mortality. The daily ticker on our news sites highlighting the number of deaths in the United States is a sign of our mortality. The people we’ve known and lost to the coronavirus is a sign of our mortality. We don’t need ashes on our foreheads to remind us of the grief that swirls all around us. Everyone has been touched by this pandemic, some communities are harder hit than others, to be sure. But we are all affected by the pain, suffering, and grief that surrounds us. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ.

Perhaps this year of fasting from such profound symbols and rites will make us look ever-more deeply inward. Perhaps foregoing the outward signs will allow us to focus upon our interior lives in renewed and life-giving ways. Therein lies the great opportunity of Lent. To rend our hearts and not our garments, as Joel puts it. To not practice our piety before others, as we hear from Jesus himself. But to attend with ever-greater intention to living in right relationship with God.

So, allow this imposition of faith upon your heart to guide you throughout this season. Let it be a symbol of the faith that you live out in your daily life. Let Jesus Christ impose the way of love upon you and those whom you encounter this holy season. And may God bless us all as we prepare for the coming resurrection of our Lord by accepting the imposition of the Christian faith, with joyful and expectant hearts.

Last Sunday after Epiphany (2021, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2021 (Last Epiphany, Year B)

I know someone who used to always insist that she was “great in a crisis.” I had no reason to doubt this because, well, I’d never been with her when a crisis struck. I’d never been with her during a massive earthquake or when someone came in to rob a bank and yelled at everyone to get down or when the brakes failed on the car she was driving. Since I was never with her during a crisis, and hoped I never would be, I took her at her word.

Until I ended up being with her during a crisis. It was a medical emergency. An older family member ate something too quickly at an anniversary party and started choking. It was, frankly, frightening. And in those first frantic moments, a doctor friend saw the commotion, rushed to her side, calmly took over the situation, cleared the passage, and stayed with her until the paramedics arrived. He literally saved this woman’s life.

The person who always claimed to be great in a crisis, however, decidedly was not. She basically walked in circles and started babbling nonsense. She didn’t have the wherewithal to call 911. She certainly didn’t know what to do. In a word, she was a mess.

Now I’m not judging her. In similar high stress situations, many people simply freeze or behave irrationally. When Bryna’s water broke with our first child, I inexplicably went to the stove and started boiling water. I think I saw a midwife do that on some period TV show. And while I was fiddling with the knobs, Bryna calmly picked up the phone and called the doctor’s office.

The woman who claimed to be good in a crisis but was not, and my reaction in a dizzying, emotionally fraught moment, reminds me of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James, and John had hiked up the mountain with Jesus only to be stunned and even paralyzed by a glimpse of Jesus in all his glory. We hear that as Jesus stood before them, “his clothes became dazzling white.” In Matthew’s account, we learn that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun.” And two of the great prophets of old, Moses and Elijah, suddenly appear as well.

The disciples’ reaction to this is perfectly normal and certainly quite human. Slightly comical, perhaps, as they dramatically fling themselves to the ground. And Peter’s offer to make three “dwellings,” is an absurd, deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment; an impulse to do something, anything, in the midst of confusing circumstances. It was basically the equivalent of boiling water for no apparent reason.

Fear is often our natural reaction to things that defy comprehension or logical explanation. Fear of the unknown or a discomfort with the mystical can lead to irrational behavior. Sometimes an encounter with the supernatural leads to questioning, anger, or even the reliance on a cynical rationality. In the face of mystery, we seek concrete answers. And while critical thinking is a God-given gift to humanity, it often drives the fear that stands as an obstacle to faith. An insistence that unless we ourselves have all the answers, truth cannot possibly exist.

So we want to study the physics of how Jesus could have possibly walked on water, while ignoring the broader invitation to contemplate the divine presence in our midst. We want to parse the whirlwind that swept Elijah up to heaven, instead of reveling in the relationship that brings earth to heaven and heaven to earth. We want to know the science behind Jesus’ transfiguration, how exactly his face shone and his clothes became dazzling white, rather than reflecting upon the gift of wonder and awe that comes from such a glimpse of glory.

The Transfiguration is ultimately a story, not of theatrics or special effects or God showing off, but of identity. The three disciples are offered a great gift: a glimpse of Jesus in his resurrection glory; a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus’ divinity literally comes shining forth as he is transfigured before their very eyes. It’s as fleeting as it is dazzling. And they’ll need to hold onto this glimpse of glory as they head back down the mountain, back down to reality, back down to face the crucifixion that is to come.  

This brief season of the church year, this Season after Epiphany, begins with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and ends with the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration. And these weeks lead us into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ identity, mission, and purpose. From birth to baptism to the call of the first disciples to the revelation on that holy mountain, this journey is literally an epiphany of identity. From God’s message to Jesus as he emerges from the waters of baptism, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased” to God’s message to us as Jesus emerges from the glow of glory, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” We see that Jesus is not just human, not just a holy teacher, not just an advocate for the oppressed, but the only-begotten Son of God, the anointed one of God, the Messiah. Jesus comes into the world as God’s very self, not just with ideas for how to create a better world, but with a divine mandate that wills it into being. 

As we move into Lent, we will journey from today’s mountaintop to tomorrow’s wilderness. From the grand vista of the risen Christ in all his glory, to our Lord’s temptation and ultimately to the agony of the cross. We will get back to the mountaintop, but not before first traveling through the valleys of our faith. It is in these very valleys that Jesus walks alongside us; even amid the specter of the shadow of death. He comforts us and reaches out to us, just as he comforts and reaches out to Peter, James, and John in their terror and uncertainty and bewilderment up on that holy mountain. And then he accompanies them back down the mountain. Back to the work at hand; back to sharing the good news of peace; back to the transforming work of offering justice and dignity for all people. 

I invite you to allow the bright light of the Transfiguration to illuminate your own journey. To heed God’s call to listen to Jesus. Oh, we’ll stumble along the way. We’ll make mistakes and get it wrong. We’ll mess things up and act irrationally. We’ll hurt others and ourselves. We’ll let fear of divine relationship cloud our judgment and close our hearts. We’ll boil water for no apparent reason.

But the story of the Transfiguration reminds us to allow Jesus to touch you, to lift you up, to walk with you down the mountain of glory and into the wilderness of Lent. Let him accompany you to the very foot of the cross. And from the shadow of the cross right back to the bright light of resurrection glory.

Baptism of Our Lord 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 10, 2021 (Baptism of Our Lord)

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I visited a coffee farm in El Salvador, high up in the hills near Santa Ana. The farm had been in the same family for generations and it was a beautiful piece of property with coffee plants growing under canopies of banana trees. 

At one time there was a grand manor house on the plantation, but now all that remained were the ruins. It had been destroyed in the Salvadoran Civil War that started in the late 1970s. I ran my hand along exterior walls that were still pockmarked by bullet holes. It was difficult to imagine the violence and bloodshed that had taken place just a few decades before, as I stood in front of that bombed out shell of a home, one that still echoed with grace and splendor, on a peaceful and bright spring morning in Central America.

As I watched, along with all of you, the images from our nation’s capital this past week, it was hard not to think about that day in El Salvador. Civil war, political violence, the inciting of riots, reckless rhetoric, armed gunmen, the destruction of property. All of these are things which I never thought could take place here. In our country. In our Capitol. Not because we’re better than anyone else — we surely are not — but because mob violence unleashed in the halls of Congress is inconsistent with the yearning for a more just and perfect Union. The cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric of our stated values and the reality of what we witnessed was striking. And heartbreaking.

Collectively, we watched the violation of a treasured national symbol, albeit one built by slaves, unfold in real time. The place where, most recently, John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, George Herbert Walker Bush and John McCain had lain in state, was desecrated by rioters, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and insurrectionists, some bearing Confederate flags and others wearing t-shirts with anti-semitic slogans. It was hard to watch. 

Many of you have visited the Capitol as tourists or on school trips and have stared in wonder up at the Capitol dome from inside the rotunda. As a college student, I interned on Capitol Hill for a Maryland senator one summer and regularly walked those very halls. We all have connections to this place that is the symbolic seat of our representative government. Last Wednesday was a sad day, a frustrating day, a rage-inducing day on so many levels. 

Today in the church calendar, we mark the baptism of Jesus and encounter John the Baptist along the banks of the Jordan River. One of the things I love about John the Baptist is his unvarnished and prophetic truth telling. He’s not afraid to ruffle some feathers. He doesn’t even care if anyone’s listening — nothing will deter him from sharing his message. His is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, pointing to the one who is to come, loudly and boldly proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is the polar opposite of a smooth-talking politician. He’d never get elected, because rather than telling people what they want to hear, he tells them what they need to hear. In other words, he tells them the truth. And in this way John takes his place in the long tradition of Hebrew prophets. Men and women who were accountable only to the God’s honest truth. Voices that called out leaders who had lost their way, who had been seduced by love of money or love of self. Leaders who trampled upon their own people in order to satisfy their own needs. Leaders who preyed upon the vulnerable rather than caring for them with compassion. Leaders who had gone astray by failing to keep God at the center of their lives.

Now, this was not an easy path. The average life expectancy for a prophet was rather short. John the Baptist literally lost his head for telling the truth. Truth telling won’t necessarily get you reelected or make you popular with your base. And yet, if there is anything this country needs right now, it’s more truth-tellers. Leaders with the courage to stand up, despite the political winds, and tell people the truth. Without spin or bias or personal interest. We need less flag waving — whether that’s an American flag or a flag emblazoned with the name of a particular candidate — and more truth telling. We need courageous truth tellers to hold us all accountable when we stray from our national ideals, just as we need prophets to point us back to relationship with God.

And the first truth that John the Baptist voices is a call to repent. Everything will unfold in its own time, but first get down on your knees and repent. Admit your sinful nature, admit your complicity in the trampling down of the less fortunate, admit your lack of faithfulness. Repent of the demonization of others, repent of the false narratives, repent of the violence. Repent first, and then we can move forward.

Because repentance is not just about looking back, a way of dwelling on the sins of the past. Rather, repentance looks forward, it envisions a new way of life. It involves a turning of the heart toward the future, a future dripping with hope and possibility and expectation and new life.

There’s another truth teller I’ve been thinking about this week, a modern day prophet. When I was on that coffee farm, I met the owner of the property. He was a gracious host and was proud to lead our small tour. Over lunch I asked him about Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador. I figured maybe he’d encountered him at some point and had a story to share about this saintly soul who risked everything to lift up his country’s poor and vulnerable populations. 

But at the first mention of Romero’s name, the man’s face clouded over. The charm dripped away into an icy stare and it dawned on me that, while I naively assumed everyone in the country loved and admired Romero and treasured him as a national hero, the ruling class did not. It was the rebels that had destroyed the family home. The monied class was strongly allied with the repressive military regime against which Romero had railed. Romero was a truth teller, an advocate for social justice, an ally of the oppressed, one who condemned violence and torture, and a man whose vision of equality for all people contrasted sharply with the ideology and practices of a power hungry dictator. 

The day after preaching a sermon in which he called on all soldiers, as Christians, to stop carrying out the government’s orders to violate its citizens’ basic human rights, Oscar Romero was assassinated while standing at the altar celebrating mass; martyred for telling the truth.

I’m not sure what our collective future holds as a nation. But I do know that we can disagree without demonizing one another. That we can seek truth rather than spreading falsehood. That we can repent for the ways in which we have not lived up to our values. That what we witnessed wasn’t merely an aberration, it was a reflection of America in 2021. And that if the bodies of those who stormed the Capitol building had been black and brown rather than white, those hallways would have been stained with blood. In the spirit of John the Baptist and Oscar Romero, we need to hear the uncomfortable truths. Only then can we begin to embody hope rather than despair.

That old bullet-riddled manor house in El Salvador had since been converted into an open-air nursery. Gardeners tended the young coffee plants that would soon be placed deep into the farm’s rich soil. Out of destruction, injustice, and violence, the seeds of new life and growth are literally being sown.

21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 25, 2020 (Proper 25A)

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but you may have heard that there’s an election coming up in less than a week and a half. Now, I know you don’t tune in to online church to add to your stress level. There are plenty of other ways to do that these days, between haranguing kids to log in to Zoom school, the inability to see friends and loved ones, personal economic uncertainty, and the challenges and fear of simply living in the midst of a global pandemic. But the impending election is the giant elephant, or donkey, in the room, and to ignore its implications is to avoid reality. 

Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you how to vote. And not just because doing so would put the church’s tax exempt status at risk. I have my opinions, you have your opinions, we all have our opinions. But my general approach to politics is to preach the gospel and let people decide for themselves how those gospel values align — or not — with their electoral choices. I know we collectively won’t always agree on every issue, and I actually celebrate the diversity of opinion that exists in this community. 

But I’m also aware that this is a particularly divisive moment in our country’s history. Friendships and family relationships have been frayed to the breaking point. Many of us have lost friends — good friends — over the candidates we favor or the cable news we watch or the decisions around opening schools or wearing masks. It’s been an incredibly painful time. And I’m reminded of Jesus’ warnings, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, about the persecutions his followers will face. “Brother will betray brother, and a father his child, and children will rise up against parents.” Of course he’s talking about his disciples being persecuted for their faith in God, not their faith in a particular political candidate. But sometimes it feels as if some of the people in our own lives have forgotten the distinction, if they ever really knew it.

This may seem like a non-sequitur, so bear with me, but one of the ways that non-profit organizations stay focused is by creating what’s known as a mission filter. Over the years, I’ve found this to be an incredibly helpful guide for church leadership as we decide what ministries to pursue. In other words, there are a million great ideas out there, but what is truly consistent with our parish mission statement and our organizational identity? The mission filter lets us run ideas for new ministries past our stated goals to determine whether or not it makes sense to pursue. This allows us to stay focused on the big picture of our church’s mission in the world.

I thought about this process because, at one level, Jesus gives us the ultimate mission filter this morning. It’s in response to a rather loaded question from a lawyer we hear stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 

And Jesus replies, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment,” he says. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

And there’s the mission filter: love God, love neighbor. Whatever we do, wherever we go, no matter our experience, it all comes down to loving God and loving neighbor. And while I’m not going to tell you how to vote, I will be very clear about the importance of running the candidates on your ballot through this mission filter; through the lens of loving God and loving neighbor. And if that makes you uncomfortable, it may be worth reexamining your choices. At least if you care to vote faithfully, and in a manner consistent with the values you profess on Sunday morning. 

You know, so many of the interactions I’ve seen these days — on social media and in person — have been…less than gracious. This pandemic has been revealing on a number of fronts. It has certainly thrown racial and economic inequality into stark relief. But it has also unleashed a tremendous amount of negative, fear-based emotion that has only been enhanced by our political division. Setting aside the loving God part, in many instances, we have failed to love our neighbor. We have dehumanized and demonized and debased our fellow children of God. And that grieves the Holy Spirit.

Some of the problem is that, in this highly charged environment, we often enter into conversations with an agenda. We already know the correct answer or the right position, so we have conversations not to learn, but to double down on our beliefs. And when we do so, we diminish the importance of true dialogue. Conversations end up being two people effectively yelling at each other with megaphones. 

Think about this legal scholar who tested Jesus. The word “tested” shows his heart. He’s not entering into this encounter with an open mind; he’s not seeking transformation of heart or soul or mind. He’s got an agenda. He’s a Pharisee, an interpreter of religious law, part of a religious group that actually had much in common with Jesus but they differed on matters of theology. Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat, someone whose interpretation of the law was undermining their own religious authority. He was also increasingly popular, drawing people towards him and away from the traditional, established view of the faith, of which the Pharisees were the guardians.

So his question about the greatest commandment wasn’t intended for edification or enlightenment, but entrapment. It’s perhaps more subtle than last week’s question about the legality of paying taxes to Caesar, but the desire is the same: to trap Jesus in his words and discredit him. If Jesus answers that the greatest commandment is to love God, he’s admitting the Pharisees are right. They’re very clear that the greatest commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul.” And if he chooses some other commandment, they can accuse him of sacrilege. 

In response, Jesus acknowledges that loving God is the first and greatest commandment. He agrees with the lawyer. But he doesn’t stop there. He quickly adds that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. These two things go hand-in-hand or, as Jesus puts it, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything that truly matters in this life depends on loving God and loving neighbor.

And think about it. If Jesus didn’t add the love your neighbor part and give it equal importance to loving God, where would the motivation be to reach out and help others? Where would the motivation be to act as a Good Samaritan. Why would we bother having a food drive at church? Why would we be so clear about our call for racial justice? Loving your neighbor is faith in action, it’s where the spiritual rubber meets the road. Otherwise it’s easy for religion to devolve into self-serving self-righteousness; or into holier-than-thou posturing that’s not about others, but simply about making ourselves feel better.

Love God, love neighbor. That’s the mission filter not just for this election cycle, but for our very lives. 

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 6, 2020 (Proper 18A)

“For when two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there among them.” I love that line, which comes from this passage in Matthew’s gospel and is embedded in the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, which we often recite at Morning Prayer: “You have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his name, you will be in the midst of them.” It’s especially poignant when literally just two or three are gathered together in prayer. A reminder that Jesus is present with us no matter the size of the congregation, no matter where we are, no matter how we gather. Now, I know that this pandemic and the resulting quarantine have been particularly difficult for those who live alone. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have been almost unbearable for many. Depression is on the rise and the mental health challenges are real. We are social beings built for interaction with others, and when those interactions are limited, there are consequences. I knew things were really getting bad this spring when even the introverts among us started craving cocktail party-style small talk. But also, think about the disciples. Jesus didn’t call them into isolation, but into a community of followers. And that was no accident. We need one another to encourage us and challenge us and inspire us. We are stronger together as a community of faith than we are as individuals seeking to follow Jesus. But for those of us who live with others during this time, the whole notion of two or three gathered together has gotten old. If you live in a household with two or three or four or five others, this has not been an easy time. There is definitely such a thing as too much together time. We all know one another’s buttons and we often find ourselves either pushing them or having our own buttons pushed to the point that we all crave some isolation. As much as we love our families, two or three gathered together, in the same space for months on end, has its challenges. And as the weather gets colder and another COVID spike sets in and everyone’s trapped inside on Zoom calls, the walls will once again start to cave in. The reality is that when two or three are gathered together, conflict inevitably arises. That’s just the nature of the human condition. Whether it’s family or work or school or a faith community, conflict happens. Look no further than Thanksgiving with your extended family or a board meeting or even a church committee. People’s own life experiences and passions and opinions often come into conflict with one another. Now, this can be exciting and energizing and life-giving. The back and forth exchange of ideas in a mutually respectful way adds spice to our lives. But it can also be divisive and destructive. When I was in New York I got to know an older and, frankly, wiser priest in the neighboring town. We used to regularly run together training for marathons along the trails of Rockefeller State Park. We’d talk about all sorts of things as we logged those miles, but when it came to church conflict, which was often a topic of conversation, he’d say the root of it was always the same thing. “You gotta ask the question: are people talking to one another or about one another?” And that’s exactly what Jesus is getting at here. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In other words, if you come into conflict with someone, talk to the person! Rather than complaining about them to someone else, go directly to the source. More often than not, if you speak to someone in good faith, and they respond in good faith, you can work it out. Even if it’s the old agree to disagree thing. But what’s your first response when it comes to conflict? Be honest. Do you have the uncomfortable conversation or do you let things fester? Do you speak with the person with whom you disagree or do you gossip about it with a friend? Do you confront the issue head on or do you post something passive aggressive on Facebook? If you’re like me, well…it depends. The better version of myself leans into difficult conversations by picking up the phone and addressing the matter directly. The other version sits and stews. And I’m really good at that. Now, I don’t think Jesus’ main point here is to offer a lesson on conflict avoidance. But bringing difficult things into the light is a critical component  to living an authentic life of faith. Whether that’s sin or injustice or anything that tears down rather than lifts up our fellow children of God. Jesus is all about the hard conversation. Never does he play the game of going along to get along.  He doesn’t excuse bad behavior for the sake of social graces. If you made a vaguely racist joke during a dinner party with Jesus sitting at the table, he would stop everything to call it out. Now that’s not always going to win him any friends. I’m pretty sure he was never invited back to certain people’s houses. Truth telling is hard. It doesn’t make you popular, especially when that truth disrupts the privilege of those in power. Ultimately, it led Jesus to the cross. But when it came to sharing the good news of salvation for all people, when it came to lifting up the powerless and the vulnerable, Jesus made no compromises. And he paid for this with his life. It’s safe to say that there is a lot of emotion floating around this fall. We’re in the midst of perhaps the most politically divisive era in our lifetime; we’re two months away from a presidential election with passions raging on both sides; this pandemic has been politicized to the point that basic public health measures like mask wearing have become controversial; the uncertainty of the school situation is pitting neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend as people disagree on whether to hold in-person classes or focus on remote learning; the inability to see friends and loved ones is affecting our collective mental health; depression, alcoholism, and domestic violence are on the rise; the frustration at not being able to worship in person, even as some other congregations are doing so is boiling over; the grief at not having things back to normal is stressing everyone out. All of which is to say that we are not always functioning at our best right now. We are not be-kind-for-everyone-you-meet-is-fighting-a-battle-you-know-nothing-aboutalways being gracious in our interactions with others. Intentionally or not, we sometimes tear others down rather than building them up. Every interaction these days feels particularly charged, and I invite you to simply be aware of this. No one is fully happy with the way things are going right now, and this plays out in different ways for different people. I’m not big on quoting Facebook memes in my sermons, but as one popular one puts it, “Be kind. For everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is true. As is the fact that Jesus is present with us in all our interactions. Which is why we do well to remember that when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is in the midst of us.

©The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 28, 2020 (Proper 8A)

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’ 

Most churches consider themselves to be incredibly welcoming. If you talk to parishioners at just about any church, they will tell you what a warm and welcoming congregation they are. It’s one of the things they take great pride in. People often remember their very first Sunday with fond and fuzzy feelings. They recall the smile the usher gave them when they walked through the front doors for the first time; the friendly person in the next pew who helped them figure out how to juggle the bulletin and the Prayer Book and the Hymnal; the woman who introduced herself at coffee hour and was genuinely interested to hear their story. Here at St. John’s that person even has a name, and that name is Donna Austin. I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me over the years that they came back the next Sunday precisely because Donna talked to them at coffee hour.  

Many churches even have big signs out front that proclaim, “All Are Welcome!” And mostEa5WJ_PX0AUcyo5 Episcopal churches, including ours, have that ubiquitous red, white, and baby blue sign that says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” And that’s generally true. Especially if you look like the people inside and act like the people inside and think like the people inside and believe like the people inside. 

But what if you don’t? Are you still welcome? It’s easy to be welcoming to people who are like you — racially, socioeconomically, politically, sexually. It’s a lot more challenging to be welcoming to those who are different.

About 20 years ago the phrase “radical welcome” came into vogue in church circles. St. Bart’s in New York City embraced the concept as part of their plan to infuse new energy and a new spirit into what was then a small and dying congregation with a massive building on Park Avenue. Their new rector, Bill Tully, held out a vision of “grow or go.” That was the choice. Either invite people in and embrace real change and grow the church, or shut your doors and be done with it and just go away. With this as a model and radical welcome as a philosophy, they grew into a vibrant, welcoming, thriving church.

Not long after that, Stephanie Spellers wrote a book called Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Stranger, and the Spirit of Transformation. Some of you may know Stephanie — she served at the cathedral in Boston and now works on the staff of the Presiding Bishop. She defines radical welcome as “the spiritual practice that allows us to live into the compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God.” And she says it’s a lot more than a smiling face handing you a bulletin or a giant platter of munchkins at coffee hour. “A radically welcoming community,” she writes, “seeks to welcome the voices, presence and power of all people — especially those who have been defined as The Other, pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced and closeted — so they can help to shape the congregation’s common life and fulfill the reconciling dream of God.” 

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’

I spend a lot of time thinking about being welcoming to newcomers but much of this time, if I’m honest, is spent on tactics. Where to put the newcomers table, what to put in those red visitors packets we hand out, how to respond when someone fills out a pew card. But I don’t think any of us spend enough time thinking about how welcoming The Other, how welcoming those on the margins of society, fulfills God’s reconciling dream for this place. I know I don’t. 

Yet Jesus reminds us that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. When we take that seriously, that is a stunning and radical realization. How could we not welcome God? How could we not welcome the fulness of God’s “compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream?”

Well, part of the hesitation is that welcoming other people and other voices, even if we do truly believe that to welcome them is to welcome God, changes us. And do we really want to be changed? Do we really want to invite such vulnerability? Do we really have the courage to enter into God’s “compassionate just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream” when it’s so much safer and so much more comfortable to remain on this side of the river? Boundary crossing involves risk. And the inherent admission that, perhaps, we don’t have all the answers in and of ourselves. 

The reality is that we need other voices and visions in order to mirror the fullness of God’s plan for this community. Now, we can’t simply manufacture these voices or compel others to walk with us. But we can take a hard look at ourselves and wonder just how welcoming we are. Are we welcoming in the glad-you’re-here-now-fill-out-this-pledge-card kind of way or are we radically welcoming in the sense that we are open to transformation and new ways of entering into God’s “compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream?”

I have been very aware that online church has thrown all of this up in the air. No one is able to stay for coffee hour afterwards and enjoy the high quality, fair trade coffee we serve. No one is able to pick up one of the green mugs we reserve for visitors and newcomers. No one is able to chat with me or other parishioners informally after the service to get a better sense of this place. 

But I just want to take a moment to officially say “welcome” to all of you who have joined us for our online services these past few months. I know you have many options — literally thousands of them! Some with, and I know this is hard to even imagine, better production values than we have. But before you log off and go over to the Washington National Cathedral — and actually you can do both since their service doesn’t start until 11:15 am — I want you to know how grateful I am, how grateful we all are that you have chosen to worship with us. 

We’re going to be live streaming our services for the long haul. Even when we eventually get back to in-person worship, we’ll keep showing up online on Sunday morning. I know some of you who regularly join us will return to your own parishes when it’s safe to do so. And I know some of you who are local and who started watching since the pandemic started, will join us once we regather in person. But I also know that you are all part of this community right now. And I am so glad you are walking through this moment with us — and, wow, it has been a moment. 

Thank you all for being part of this “compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream” to which we aspire. To be sure, we have some radical welcoming to do in order to live ever more fully into this vision. But if we remain open to the idea of being challenged and changed by the presence of other people and other voices — and see this as a blessing — the dream remains alive.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday in Lent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 29, 2020 (V Lent, Year A)

Whenever we come together as an online community on Sunday mornings, we alwaysIMG_3547 pray for the first responders and others who are on the front lines of this global pandemic. These folks, several of whom are members of our own congregation, are literally risking their lives to save others. And I know we are all grateful for their work and ministry during this time. 

One of the things about the story of the raising of Lazarus that stands out to me is that Jesus is in no hurry. If you call 911 and tell them someone in your home has been critically injured, you expect a quick response. They’re called emergency responders for a reason — firefighters and paramedics and police and ER doctors rapidly respond to a crisis. They race, they don’t mosey. 

Yet when Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that Lazarus — their dear friend — is gravely ill, his response is anything but rapid. He’s not like an ambulance driver careening through the streets with sirens wailing and lights flashing. He’s not throwing on boots and sliding down a pole to get to the scene. Jesus is more like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. In fact, he’s even slower than the tortoise who at least crosses the starting line. We hear that although he loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus stayed right where he was for two days. He waited 48 hours before even beginning his journey to Bethany.

And it’s hard to imagine the agony Mary and Martha experienced during that long interval. Perhaps if he left immediately and rushed to Lazarus’ bedside, Jesus would have made it on time. But by the time he arrives, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. It’s not that the sisters expected Jesus to fix the situation. I mean, when someone dies, that’s the end of it. But when someone is dying, we gather. 

Many of you have had the experience of gathering around a death bed to keep vigil with a loved one, as they slip out of this world. Time stands still, prayers are said, stories are told, hands are held, tears are shed. These are holy moments. And when it came to his friend Lazarus, Jesus missed them; he wasn’t there.

In this time of pandemic, what I find most heartbreaking are the stories I hear of families unable to gather. Of priests offering last rites over the phone rather than in person, of people dying alone, rather than surrounded by loved ones.

But even in these moments, the story of Lazarus points to something deeper. Jesus wasn’t taking his time because he didn’t care or because he too wasn’t grieving. Jesus sees beyond death. Jesus offers hope that transcends the pain of the current situation. Whether that’s the grief of losing a close friend; or the crushing reality of a pandemic that has taken the lives of so many across the world; or even being strung up on a cross to die. Jesus sees beyond death. And in so doing, he lifts our eyes up to the possibilities of new life, to a way of being that transcends even matters of life and death. 

Perhaps we’re collectively in something like that waiting period experienced by Mary and Martha. A time of keeping vigil amid uncertainty, a time of fear and grief. A time of emotional and physical isolation. A time of wondering when, exactly, God will show up. 

Yet just because Jesus isn’t physically present with his friends doesn’t mean he’s not doing anything. He is prayerful, he is calm, he is deliberate as he makes his journey to Bethany. He is with them in spirit, just as he is with us. Even in his physical absence he is walking with Mary and Martha through their grief, foreshadowing perhaps the grief they will soon feel when Jesus himself is crucified and no longer able to be physically with them.

In a word, Jesus holds out hope. That’s what it means to see beyond death. And it’s what Jesus offers to us in this particular moment. We don’t know exactly when we’ll all be able to physically be together again. It certainly won’t be in time to celebrate the resurrection on Easter Day. But the resurrection will still come. Jesus will still be present with us. That’s the hope held out to us, the hope I want you to hold onto firmly and faithfully in the days ahead.

And in the meantime, we are all in our own particular valleys of dry bones right now. For some of us, this valley involves profound isolation and loneliness and depression; for some it is a valley of competing demands between work and family and the nagging sense that we are falling short; for some it is a sense of being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. Like grief, none of this is linear and it comes in waves, often when we least expect it. 

Yet, even in the midst of these difficult times we catch glimpses of hope and joy. Again, Jesus sees beyond death. And these holy moments offer glimpses of glory. It may be Face-timing with a grandchild, or playing Scrabble with the family on a random Tuesday evening, or taking the dog for (yet another) walk and soaking in some fresh air.

Here at St. John’s, Jack threw out a Facebook challenge to invite individuals and families to post videos of themselves dancing to a Meghan Trainor song with the chorus “I thank God every day.” It’s been a joy to see everyone from three-year-olds to former Senior Wardens rise to the challenge. For some reason, I agreed to participate if we got up to 10 videos. Which, unfortunately, we did in a matter of days.

IMG_3521Now, and you may find this hard to believe, I’m not a dancer. In fact, the last time I danced was when Bryna and my brother dragged me to a salsa dancing lesson a couple summers ago on a trip to South America. And, I kid you not, it was the longest hour of my life. About halfway through, as Bryna and Matt were moving their hips to the music and having a grand time, my instructor threw up her hands and told me that I moved like “a penguin.” But a deal was a deal, so I too participated in the dance challenge. 

The point is, Jesus invites us to find joy even in the midst of what feels unbearable. And if that means a bunch of parishioners shaking it on camera to bond as a family or bring a smile to the rest of us, or me publicly humiliating myself, I am all in. 

Jesus may not be a first responder in the way that we think about them. But he is the first responder. The one who responds to our every need. Not necessarily in the ways that we wish for, or on a timeline of our own choosing, but in the ways that we need. Jesus is the first responder in love, the first responder in compassion, the first responder in hope. Jesus sees beyond death. And the vision he shares with us, is a stunning vista of resurrection glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Third Sunday in Lent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 15, 2020 (III Lent, Year A)

[note: this brief sermon was preached over Facebook Live
during a live-streamed service of Morning Prayer]

Water. It figures that as we sit here in an empty church, joined by many of you online, IMG_3383the gospel appointed for today would revolve around water. Water gives life and growth, it cleanses and purifies; through the water of baptism emerges our very relationship with Jesus Christ. And, these days, it is used to wash our hands. Again and again and again. 

But here we are at a well, a source of water, a source of life, for this encounter between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman known to us only as “the woman at the well.” 

In the ancient world, wells were critical places. With them, life could be sustained. Without them, it could not. So to have a well was literally a matter of life or death. And they were also communal meeting places. In the Book of Genesis, Isaac and Jacob both meet their future wives at wells. In Exodus, Moses meets his future wife at a well. Apparently wells were the Match.Com of ancient Palestine. And here we are at what John calls, “Jacob’s well.” This is, presumably, the very same place where Jacob first met Rachel. And so Jesus speaks to this woman at a site central to the spiritual identity of Israel.

And it’s at this well-known well, this traditional meeting place, that a scandalous encounter unfolds. So often in Jesus’ engagements with others he shatters our preconceived notions, and challenges us to think in new ways. You deem someone untouchable? Jesus touches them. You deem someone undesirable? Jesus desires them. You deem someone unlovable? Jesus loves them. 

Over and over again, Jesus breaks down barriers between and among people; he tramples upon idols made of human hands and flips our precious and deeply held notions of social decorum. This encounter with the woman at the well is no less radical than eating with tax collectors and sinners or hanging out with lepers and the demon-possessed. In fact, this may be the most radical encounter of them all. 

Because by the deep traditions and binding cultural norms of the day a Jewish teacher like Jesus would never have entered into Samaritan territory. He would never have spoken with a Samaritan. He certainly would never have spoken with a Samaritan woman. And he most certainly would never have spoken with a divorced Samaritan woman. Not in private, not in public. And the mere thought of drinking from a divorced Samaritan woman’s bucket was beyond unimaginable. You can almost hear the disciples screaming, ‘Stay away! Avoid this woman! Your reputation is at stake! What are people going to think?’ But Jesus speaks with her. He reaches out to her. He offers divine relationship. He touches the untouchable.

And that’s what Jesus does for us. Jesus knows us to the depths of our souls and loves us anyway. In the same way, he doesn’t judge this woman’s past sins. Instead he lifts her up as a model of growing faith. Which is how Jesus sees us as well. His knowledge of our inherent sinfulness doesn’t condemn us. Rather it gives us the freedom to be loved. We can’t hide anything from Jesus and that nakedness allows us to enter ever more deeply into authentic relationship with him.

Today we worship in “spirit and in truth,” as Jesus puts it. We certainly aren’t worshiping in person. But for however long this season lasts, we will continue to worship in spirt and in truth. The church is so much more than a particular building. As much as we love them and care for them and, occasionally even turn them into idols, faith doesn’t depend on physical structures. The church is not the building, but its people; it is all of you. Whether we gather in-person or remotely, Jesus walks with us and abides with us and loves us. He accompanies us through fear and uncertainty and even through the very valley of the shadow of death.  

Friends, I do mourn the loss of our communal interaction amid this time of social distancing. We are removed from one another precisely because we love one another. This morning I desperately miss being with all of you. I miss greeting you before worship, I miss celebrating and sharing the sacrament with you, I miss seeing your outstretched hands at the communion rail, I miss giving out high fives to all our children as they race past me to get the good stuff at coffee hour. 

But know this. We are gathered together this morning at a well. It may be a virtual well. But it is a deep well full of the living water that is relationship with Jesus Christ. I bid you to drink deeply of this living water. Everything else in this life leaves us thirsting for more. But faith in Jesus quenches even our deepest thirst, and quells even our deepest fears. So, drink, be satisfied, and revel in the wonder of God’s love for you.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Second Sunday in Lent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2020 (I Lent, Year A)

Mic drop. That’s what I hear in Jesus’s exchange with the devil as he’s tempted in the June+10+2018wilderness. One giant mic drop in three movements. The devil’s temptations about food, trust, and power are met each time with the perfect response from Jesus that render his tempter speechless. “One does not live by bread alone.” Mic drop. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Mic drop. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Mic drop.

And you have to admit, the witty Biblical repartee is fun to watch. It’s verbal jousting at its finest, and Jesus always gets the last word. It reminds me of watching a presidential debate and seeing your favorite political candidate land a real zinger. It’s fun and energizing and makes you want to cheer. Until you realize we’re not electing a zinger in chief; and that substance is more important than flash.

And so even in this case, it’s important to move beyond the mic drop to really hear what’s happening in this passage. Jesus didn’t enter the world, after all, to simply become known as the world’s greatest debater. I mean, he’s got some great, quotable lines! But surely that’s not the point of his ministry. It’s obviously deeper than that. 

At one level it’s hard to hear this story of Jesus’ temptation without thinking about that line in the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation.” It’s a curious phrase because, as I was once asked in a Confirmation class, “Why would God lead anyone into temptation? That just seems mean.” And, yet, isn’t that precisely what God has done here? God has seemingly led Jesus into temptation! The very thing we pray for God not to do to us. 

So why is Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil? Is God just being mean? Remember, Jesus being sent into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days and 40 nights happens immediately after his baptism. He has been anointed as God’s Son and is now driven out into the wilderness to be tested before the start of his public ministry. He will come out of the wilderness and start calling disciples to follow him. So, in context, we see that this time apart is not setting Jesus up to fail; God is not leading him into temptation, but preparing him to serve. Preparing him for the work he has been given to do. Preparing him to share the good news of God’s kingdom. Preparing him to walk the way of the cross. 

And the devil plays an integral role here, reminding Jesus that he could use his power for self-interest rather than in the service of others. In a similar way, the serpent in the Garden of Eden offers Adam and Eve a choice: follow God, or follow me. Adam and Eve are tempted in the Garden; Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. But it’s not God who does the tempting, right? It’s the devil. God doesn’t set traps for us. God’s not into “gotcha moments.” God doesn’t lead us into temptation. That’s simply not God’s way. 

But here’s the thing: temptations abound. They’re literally everywhere. On our phones, in our interactions with others, and we just listed every temptation you could possibly imagine in The (quite comprehensive) Great Litany. And temptations differ from person to person. The devil, as the personification of evil, customizes a temptation plan for each one of us. That’s some full service deviling right there. Which is why one person is tempted by chocolate cake and another by Fritos; one person by alcohol and another by lust.

Whatever it is for us that acts as a barrier to God’s love, sometimes we resist, sometimes we give in. That’s the nature of being human. It’s why one of the major themes of the season of Lent is confession and repentance. We give in, we confess, we amend our ways, and we are forgiven. And this pattern continues over and over again throughout our lives. Temptation is always with us, to varying degrees and in various ways.

That’s not to say that we should just shrug our shoulders, give in to temptation, and blame the human condition. Jesus’ time in the wilderness shows us that we can resist temptation — but, and this is the key, not by our own will. We can only successfully resist that which draws us from the love of God, with God’s help. 

When our now nearly 16-year-old dog Delilah was a puppy, I took her to obedience school. And one of the first commands we learned was “leave it.” I was taught to cover a treat with one hand and then slowly take my hand away to reveal the treat, and say “leave it!” If Delilah started to go for it, I would quickly place my hand back over it and start the process again. Once she was able to “leave it” she’d get the treat. After awhile I’d be able to put the treat in front of her, say “leave it,” and she’d just stare at it with those big puppy dog eyes until I let her have it. But as I was working with Delilah on this, all I could think about was that I was literally leading her into temptation. Dangling that treat in front of her and not letting her have it. That is not what God is doing to Jesus and that’s not what God is doing with us. 

God is not leading us into temptation, because the temptations are already there. The prayer is more lead us not into temptation alone. Lead us not into temptation in order for us to fend for ourselves. Lead us not into temptation without walking right beside us. The whole point of this wilderness experience is that Jesus is facing temptation with the support of God. He’s alone out there, but not alone out there. And when we face temptation or find ourselves in whatever wilderness we may walk in our own lives, we may be alone out there, but we’re not alone out there. God is with us at every step of the way. 

In a sense you can literally never be alone. And that’s comforting. Because whatever situation you may find yourself in, however desperate things may feel, God is with you. You don’t have to face any situation, no matter how isolating or harrowing it seems, by yourself.

So as I listen to this story of Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness, I hear a note of hope. Not because Jesus is verbally smacking down the devil, but because whatever we encounter in this life, whatever hardships or temptations we face, Jesus knows what we’re going through and walks with us through it all. The 6th century saint Gregory the Great once preached that through Jesus’ temptations “he might conquer our temptations, just as by his death he overcame our death.” So there is comfort being in solidarity with the one who was tempted in every way as we are, yet with out sin. 

May this season of Lent, which is modeled on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, prepare us for the work we have been given to do. May it prepare us to walk the way of the cross. May it prepare us for the joy of Easter and the Resurrection that is to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020