Patronal Festival — St. John the Evangelist

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 31, 2010 (St. John the Evangelist)

The Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist. That’s quite a mouthful. It’s tough to fit all that onto bulletins and signs and, as I discovered recently, business cards. It would be a lot easier if we just called ourselves St. John’s and left it at that. But unfortunately that wouldn’t convey the fullness of our identity. We were named not for St. John the Baptist or St. John Chrysostom or St. John of the Cross but for St. John the Evangelist. And this is important both to remember and to celebrate on this the day of our patronal feast.

Now, I’m not sure precisely how the founders of this parish came up with the name or whether it was controversial but I do know that in good Massachusetts fashion it was put to a vote. I looked this up in the parish history this week and here’s how it was tallied: St. John the Evangelist received 17 votes, St. Thomas six votes, and St. Margaret four votes. And thus the new parish in Hingham was dedicated to the author of the fourth gospel. 

People are often scared off by the word “Evangelist.” It’s a bit too close to the word “televangelist.” And worship around here would be quite different if we called ourselves the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Televangelist. I’d have to get some shiny suits and a bouffant. 

But the word “evangelist” simply means one who tells the good news. In this case the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So it’s nothing to be afraid of. And when John took up his pen and wrote what would become known as the gospel that bears his name he was telling the Good News. He was sharing the story of Jesus; the story of the Son of God; the story of our salvation. An evangelist is not a biographer; the role of the evangelist is to draw people into the story of faith. And with his gift for language and symbol John continues to do just that.

Without John we wouldn’t have that soaring opening, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We wouldn’t have such phrases as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or “I am the way and the truth and the life” or “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We wouldn’t have the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the Bread of Life or the True Vine. In other words, our collective story of faith would be that much poorer without the Gospel according to St. John.

But this also gets at the main reason churches exist: to help its members to share and live into the story of the Gospel of Christ. John highlights this in the opening lines of his first letter which we heard this morning. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, 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.” We declare to you what we have seen and heard and touched. It’s about the shared story; we see it and hear it and touch it and we are transformed. When we engage it with all our senses we can’t help but be drawn ever deeper into the story itself.

And much of what we do as Christians is simply to share the story of our faith. We pass it down to the younger generations through Sunday School; we read and comment on it every Sunday morning; we sing it and proclaim it; and we share it with those who have not yet heard it. To be an evangelist, then, is to be a story teller; a teller of sacred story. The stories of Scripture become interwoven into the very fabric of our lives. Our stories become wrapped up in the stories of the gospel. In time, as we mature as Christians, the story of faith becomes our very own story. 

Which is why we need to hear them again and again and again. It’s not as if we don’t know the ending – I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that by the end of the gospel Jesus will die upon a cross and be raised up on the third day. You don’t need a spoiler alert before I tell you that at the end of the story of the Prodigal Son, the father will welcome back his lost son with open arms or that Jesus will indeed be able to feed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and two fish. The stories never get old because we hear them differently at different moments of our lives; our perspective changes even as the story itself does not. 

John the Evangelist challenges us with the question: How do you tell the good news in your own life? How do you tell the good news in word and deed? How are you an evangelist? Evangelism takes many forms. You don’t need to go knocking on doors in your neighborhood; you don’t need bad hair and a 900 number. It may simply be how you live out your life; how you treat people; how you share your resources with the less fortunate. But it must be intentional. There are no inadvertent evangelists; there are no accidental Christians.

Following this service we’re holding our Annual Meeting in Upper Weld Hall and I hope you’ll stay for it. It’s another way that we tell our collective story. We gather to look back on the year that is past even as we look forward to what God might have in store for us in the year ahead. It’s been an eventful year around here. To think that just one year ago the search process was in full swing, a deficit budget was presented, and while there was great hope there was also great uncertainty. Today there is a rector in place, a balanced budget will be presented, and there is great hope and anticipation about the future. 

And this is why it’s especially fitting to commemorate our patron this morning. Because as with St. John the Evangelist, everything gets back to the telling and sharing of our story. When we boldly tell the story through our worship and ministry we will grow both numerically and, more importantly, spiritually. Later this morning we’ll talk about some of the steps that will take us there. But it all begins and ends with the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There’s a well-known protestant hymn called “I love to tell the story.” I won’t sing it because, frankly, I really can’t stand it. But if we all embrace that; if we all start telling the story of Jesus and St. John’s with passion and clarity; if we all start living out the story of faith in our lives with intentionality; there’s no telling what God has in store for us. But I do know this: it will be infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010


Patronal Festival — St. John the Evangelist

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2012 (St. John the Evangelist)

Jesus is starting to sound like a broken record. Not that anyone under the age of 25 actually knows what a record is. But this is the third week in a row we’ve heard Jesus say “Follow me” to some unsuspecting fisherman. If you haven’t gotten the point that Jesus wants people to follow him by now, we may have a serious problem. 

So what does it mean to follow Jesus? Ultimately it all comes down to discipleship. Will you follow Jesus with all your heart, and mind, and soul, or not? And it’s hard not to imagine what it would have been like for those first disciples – maybe it would have been easier to respond to the call to follow Jesus if he himself was looking directly into your eyes. Maybe there would have been some mystic pull that would have drawn you into his inner circle. But they did have a choice. Please don’t imagine Jesus’ calling of his disciples as something out of a bad sci-fi zombie movie. With Peter dropping his nets and robotically saying, “Yes, master.”

There is evidence that not everyone did follow Jesus. In the story of the rich young man who is told to sell all he owns before following Jesus, we’re told he “went away grieving for he had many possessions.” No one is compelled to follow him.

As we hear Jesus’ words directed toward us, which is how all Christians must hear them, remember it’s not really a question, “Follow me?” but neither is it a command masking a thinly-veiled threat: “Follow me – or else.” 

Rather, Jesus’ words are an invitation. “Follow me.” An invitation not into an easy life, but a vision of hope and faith and love and justice. An invitation that rejects the evil and apathy that drags us down while raising us up to the possibility of new life and vibrant relationship in the one, true, and living God.

When you receive an invitation in the mail (again those under 25 might not have any idea what I’m talking about), it often comes with a response card. You can either check off “Yes, I’ll be attending” or “No, I am not able to attend.” As with Jesus’ invitation of discipleship, we have the choice to either accept or send our regrets. But there’s also a third option. And that’s to stick the unfilled-out response card in a pile of junk mail and let it just sit there. In the back of your mind you know it’s there but you just don’t have the energy to deal with it. You’re on the fence about whether or not to go and avoiding it means you don’t have to make a decision. You know it’s rude to the host and if you were throwing the party yourself you’d be annoyed at the person not sending in the response card but there it sits.

Sometimes we do the same thing with Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. We set it aside and we don’t deal with it. If you see Jesus at the Fruit Center you might take your cart and duck around the corner into the gourmet olive section because it would be kind of awkward if he asked you whether or not you received his invitation. 

No one is going to force you to accept the invitation, but Jesus’ great desire is that you fill out that response card and send it back immediately. Not because you have all the answers but because Jesus wants to accompany you on your journey of faith and discovery. 

Ultimately Jesus calls us into a bold discipleship. Not timid or lukewarm or occasional discipleship but bold discipleship that allows us to live out our faith not just for an hour every week but in our daily lives. To be models of God’s love in the world through word and deed.

Our patron saint, John the Evangelist, was known as the “beloved disciple” of Jesus. As an apostle and evangelist – that is as the writer of what’s known to us as the Gospel according to St. John – he embodied what it means to share the Good News of the gospel. And that’s a key component of discipleship — we are invited not just to follow Jesus, but to share the Good News of the Gospel with others.

On this day of our Annual Meeting, it’s helpful to pause and reflect upon the essence of our ministry up here on this hill. In light of this passage from John’s gospel, I think our collective ministry really comes down to two things: sharing the Good News of Christ and making disciples. And I am utterly convinced that the way you share the Good News and create new and bolder disciples is through church growth. Growing in God, growing in faith, growing numerically, growing financially. When growth is driven by the Gospel mandate to share the Good News it can’t help but take root and grow 30, 60, or 90-fold and I believe that is taking place right here, right now.

If you peruse the Annual Report (and I know you’ll read, mark, and inwardly digest every word), you’ll see the quantifiable statistics on growth: In the last 12 months, the Average Sunday Attendance grew by 8% as did the total pledged to St. John’s. But taking the broader view, in the last two years attendance here has increased 26% while giving has increased another 30%. That’s amazing. And it’s encouraging because it means that we are sharing the Good News with more people, we are impacting more lives, and those who call St. John’s their spiritual home are increasing their commitment to the parish. 

So, why are we growing? Well, as much as I’d like to think it’s because we serve excellent coffee, it’s more than this. From my perspective it’s because we are a lively, welcoming community. Each Sunday, the gospel is preached with integrity and passion not just from the pulpit but from the choir stalls and from the pews. It’s preached in the ways we care for one another; it’s preached through social events; it’s preached through committee work both visible and invisible; it’s preached through outreach; it’s preached through Christian education for all ages; it’s preached by and through each one of you. Growth happens when a congregation works in concert with the Holy Spirit to create a symphony of harmony, joy, hope, and love. That, my friends, is what is happening at St. John’s and it is quite a blessing to behold.

The next question is what must we do to sustain this growth? That’s where Jesus’ call to discipleship comes in. To be a disciple of Christ is to be growing ever-deeper in your faith and your commitment to the community through which your faith is lived out. But it’s also about sharing rather than hording the Good News. It’s not ours, we don’t own it, and Jesus bids us to give it away with reckless abandon. As difficult as it may be for some of us, invite a friend to church, encourage someone to attend a program, share your passion for St. John’s with a friend (in a subtle, non-threatening, Episcopalian kind of way, of course).

I know that growth is not always easy – there are growing pains and there are obstacles to growth. I encourage your prayers and your support and your open communication about changes you may or may not agree with. In a little while we’ll talk about some goals for the parish in the upcoming year. But in the end it all comes down to those two little words: “Follow me.” In the pause before you send back that response card, the phrase hangs out there, pregnant with salvific possibility. Join Jesus, join all of us at St. John’s, as we move ever deeper into our faith.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012

Patronal Festival — St. John the Evangelist

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 27, 2013 (St. John the Evangelist)

You’ll be glad to know this sermon will not include a single, solitary reference to my Baltimore Ravens defeating your New England Patriots last weekend. I promise. Partly out of compassion but also because I much prefer it when people don’t storm out of church when I’m in the pulpit. And anyway I’ve been thinking less about Patriots and Ravens this week than about Eagles. Not the Philadelphia variety but the eagle as the symbol of our patron saint, St. John the Evangelist. Because today we celebrate John’s living legacy even as we mark our life together at the Annual Meeting that follows this service.

The eagle has long been associated with the writer of the Fourth Gospel. The four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have ancient symbols you can spot in churches or museums. Mark is represented by the Lion, Luke the Ox, and Matthew a winged human. But John, the one who proclaims Jesus as the Word of God and whose gospel is filled with the poetic language of faith, is given the eagle.

There’s a beautifully carved and beloved eagle on our lectern here at St. John’s. Actually there are many eagle lecterns in Episcopal churches — partly because of John’s description of Jesus as the Word but also as a metaphor of God’s Word through Scripture being lifted up on eagles’ wings and spreading to all the ends of the earth.

Now if you look closely at our lectern you’ll notice something not seen in other churches. There’s a turtle being grasped by one set of the eagle’s talons. The turtle is not a Biblical symbol. In fact Father Robert told me that our lectern used to be part of a table and was not actually designed as a church lectern. It seems to be based on one of Aesop’s more obscure fables. It goes like this:

A Tortoise, lazily basking in the sun, complained to the sea-birds of her hard fate, that no one would teach her to fly. An Eagle, hovering near, heard her lamentation and asked what reward she would give him if he would take her aloft and float her in the air. “I will give you,” the Tortoise said, “all the riches of the Red Sea.” “I will teach you to fly then,” said the Eagle; and taking her up in his talons he carried the Tortoise almost to the clouds. Suddenly the Eagle let the Tortoise go, and she fell on a lofty mountain, dashing her shell to pieces. The Tortoise exclaimed just before she died: “I have deserved my present fate; why did I think I was meant for wings and clouds, when I have such difficulty moving about on the earth?’

The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for. That’s not the moral of this sermon, however. Nor is another possible interpretation: don’t trust eagles. What I’ve been thinking about, though, is the connection between John’s eagle and our parish mission statement. I won’t read it to you — it’s on the back of the bulletin — but I just wanted to highlight the first phrase from the statement we adopted nearly one year ago. “We seek to share the Good News of the Gospel.” Share the Good News; not horde it but share it.

What does it mean to share the Gospel? To me, sharing the gospel means looking outward, rather than exclusively inward. It means reaching out to the others — the less fortunate and those in need. It means communicating in creative ways to draw new people here; it means flinging open our doors and welcoming people and incorporating them into the life of the parish. It means starting a Saturday evening service that, while it looks and feels and sounds different, still reflects our core values as a Christian community. It means preaching engaging sermons that connect and relate rather than judge and deny. It means music that uplifts and inspires. It means leaving room for questions and mystery rather than providing simplistic answers. It means inviting people to partake in the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.

Over the past three and a half years together I think we’ve been doing just that. We’ve been reveling in the Good News of our faith even as we seek to share it more widely. It’s what I personally feel called to do — to share the Good News of Christ’s gospel with as many people as possible both in Hingham and beyond. And what this translates to here at St. John’s is growth.

The Annual Meeting is a time for perspective; a time to look at where we are currently as a parish and where we’re headed in the future. It’s a time for that eagle-eyed view from on high that every institution, every community needs to see from time to time.

So with this in mind, I looked at some numbers — numbers don’t tell the whole story but they’re a helpful indicator of health and vitality. Since 2009 our Average Sunday Attendance is up 35% and pledging has increased 50%. We’ve doubled the size of the staff, the operating budget has grown significantly, and we’ve added a third weekend service. While the tangible evidence of such growth is most clear in the parking lot at about 9:55 am on Sunday morning, that’s stunning growth at a time when the majority of congregations in Hingham and throughout the country are shrinking. You should be justifiably proud of what we’ve accomplished at St. John’s in the past few years and it’s okay to pause for a moment to celebrate this special community of which we are all an integral part.

Parish growth of this magnitude is not without some bumps along the journey as we all adjust to a new way of being in community. There’s a natural evolution of the roles and responsibilities of lay leadership and staff inherent in becoming a larger institution. In particular the rector’s role and relationship with the parish changes and that can be a tough transition for those who have become accustomed to a particular model of leadership. It means less one-on-one interaction with parishioners and more time spent planning with key lay leaders, running the staff, and engaging in parish-wide communications. The emphasis shifts to encouraging parishioners to connect with one another through small groups and church programs while leaving space for lay leadership to emerge in new and creative ways. This doesn’t mean I’m not available to meet with parishioners — it just might take longer to set up an appointment — nor does it mean that I won’t be there in the midst of a pastoral crisis — I always will be. But it’s important to recognize that we’re in a transitional phase in the life of our community and to retain this perspective as we continue to live into fully becoming the parish that God is calling us to be.

There is such a strong sense of joyful community in this place. And as we move forward into a new year we do so armed with a renewed sense of purpose, guided by our new Mission Statement, and led by Jesus Christ. My ongoing prayer is that St. John’s will continue to be a place of strength and comfort for those of us seeking to live faithful lives and walk with God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck