Pentecost 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 15, 2016 (Pentecost, Year C)

Imagine, if you will, a box. It’s quite a large box. In fact, it’s so large that you are actually sitting inside of this box. Now, it’s not your average cardboard box. It’s a nice box, a fancy box. A box made of stone and wood and stained glass. You’re sitting inside this box with about 150 other people, some of whom you know, some you don’t; some look familiar but you can’t actually remember all their names. A lot of the people inside this box are wearing red, for some reason. 

Early on in your time inside this box, a colorful parade went past with a couple of kids redboxholding sticks of fire and others holding books. At certain, apparently pre-designated, points they stand or kneel or sit. A lot. Sometimes, with no warning whatsoever, they start singing. And a couple of them walk up to a big wooden bird and start reading.

Some of the people, the ones who were in the parade, wear white robes and one person prances around in a bright red poncho. They appear to be inside this box willingly; though, in fairness, some seem to be inside more willingly than others. The facial expressions of those inside the box vary. Sometimes they close their eyes, sometimes they smile or nod their heads or look very serious. All in all, they seem rather content, though it’s not at all clear what they are doing and why they are inside this box.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It’s hard to know what the first followers of Jesus would make of worship in the 21st century. They may well recognize it as some sort of religious rite or ritual. But would they connect it to their own experience of Jesus of Nazareth? Would they see their own passion for the words and wisdom of Jesus inside this box that we call the Church?

On Pentecost, we get a glimpse of the early church, and what we do on a Sunday morning here at St. John’s may well look just as unfamiliar to them as their experience looks to us. Because this Pentecost event is a little wild. There was speaking in tongues and loud sounds and general chaos. In other words, just like Sunday morning worship at St. John’s.

In fact there was such commotion, the crowd of onlookers that gathered to rubberneck even thought these followers of Jesus were drunk. Of course the gathered disciples weren’t drunk. Drunk on the Holy Spirit perhaps but as Peter points out, it was 9:00 o’clock in the the morning; not exactly prime time for engaging in those kinds of spirits.

But the accusations leveled at these Christians who had come together 50 days after that first Easter Day, were just the start. For the next three hundred years they would be persecuted for their strange behavior and unusual beliefs. Even as the Christian message spread and more adherents came to know Jesus through the testimony of others, even as they gathered under cover of darkness to remember Jesus and hear stories about him and break bread together, rumors spread about this strange group. They were accused of being cannibals — there were whispers about eating body and blood; they were accused of engaging in orgies — they heard about the exchange of the “holy kiss of peace;” they were accused of being unpatriotic atheists — they refused to worship the Roman gods. Like Jesus himself, these early Christians were reviled, and mocked, and arrested, and killed. And yet they kept at it.

Now in some respects, the Church is coming full circle. Christians are no longer being persecuted, at least here in the United States, but increasingly what we do on Sunday morning is looked upon as being odd. And as society changes and becomes more and more secular, we may well have more in common with the early church than we think. The reality is that church-going, at least here in the Northeast, is no longer the norm. In a Pew Research survey that was released earlier this year, Massachusetts was tied with New Hampshire for being the least religious state in the union.

I see evidence of this all the time at weddings and funerals. It used to be that people, even if they weren’t regular church-goers, had a general idea of how to act in the pews. It might not be entirely familiar, but they would follow along, sitting, standing, kneeling. You know, when in Rome and all that. But increasingly people show up who literally have no clue. People don’t know how to open a hymnal, don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, don’t get references to basic Bible stories, don’t know what to do once they arrive at the communion rail. It’s not their fault and I don’t blame them for it — many of them didn’t grow up going to church or they haven’t been to church in a long, long time. In other words, many people experience church as something completely foreign — like the experience of those first Christians wandering into the box of the modern church. 

pentecost11Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The early church, and the current and future church, will have a lot more in common with one another than the intervening 1,700 years when Christianity not only became legal but also took on the cloak of respectability. People who show up on Sunday morning these days want to be in church, rather than feeling obligated to be in church. And there’s a big difference. You no longer face the social wrath of your neighbors if you don’t take your faith seriously. Indeed most of your neighbors probably don’t even go to church.

So rather than being coopted by culture, going to church has become countercultural. And that’s as exciting as it is daunting for the institutional church. The future church, like the early church, will be smaller but it will also, like the early church, be more devoted. You know, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, Jesus didn’t come into the world to start an institution; Jesus came into the world to start a movement. And you, my friends, are part of this movement. A movement driven by and given life by and animated by the Holy Spirit; that life-giving force that is the very breath of God.

So Pentecost, the great movement that created the Church in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection, offers us an opportunity to be the Church in a new way. Through the Holy Spirit, that indefinable, mysterious force that binds the Church together, we have a unique chance to experience knowing Jesus and sharing Jesus with others.

Because just as Jesus sent out the Holy Spirit to those first disciples, who were then sent out to live their faith in the world, so does the Holy Spirit send us out. Out to do the work we have been given to do. Out to spread the joy of Christ in the world. Out to stand up for justice in the face of injustice. Out to weep with those who weep. Out to rejoice with those who rejoice. Out to lift up the poor and downtrodden. Out to be the hands and feet of our Lord in a world that so desperately craves reconciliation and healing. 

As much as we want to turn inward and focus on ourselves, the Spirit keeps pushing us out, beyond ourselves. Out of our comfort zones; out into the world; out of the box.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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Pentecost 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2015 (Pentecost, Year B)

My mother-in-law, like James Bond, is very particular about her martinis. Actually James Bond is low maintenance in comparison: Shaken. Not stirred. Done. Rosalie, on the other hand, gives very precise instructions on everything from the number and type of olives (three and green — and God forbid if they’re bruised) to the brand of vodka and degree of dryness (Grey Goose and very). I generally hold my breath from the moment she orders it to the moment it touches her lips. And given that it takes about 10 minutes to place the order, I’m nearly blue by the time her drink arrives.

Btx-r6RCQAAiQgb.jpg-largeNow, before any rumors get started or I get myself into a heap of trouble, I should say she only orders these on special occasions. This isn’t a nightly occurrence at the local watering hole. But I was thinking about Rosalie’s martinis this week because when it comes to experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives, the encounter often leaves us both shaken and stirred.

If we pull out some key words and phrases from the reading describing the Pentecost event in the Acts of the Apostles, it’s clear that the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit was disconcerting: “Suddenly, violent wind, tongues as of fire, filled with the Holy Spirit, bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” You don’t hear any words like “calm, serene, peaceful, relaxing” — that’s not part of the Pentecost vocabulary.

Sometimes when the Holy Spirit is at work in our individual or communal lives, it’s not comfortable. Actually, it’s rarely comfortable because the Spirit takes us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit can’t do a new thing without first leveling the old. And that can be incredibly disorienting because it literally throws everything up for grabs.

Because when the Spirit blows through our lives, nothing remains untouched. The Spirit pays no heed to structure or norms or routines. There is no “we’ve always done it that way” when the Holy Spirit shows up. The Spirit is described as a powerful wind that blows where it will, turning deeply held beliefs upside down and inside out. The Spirit is described as a raging fire that burns away that which obstructs God’s desires. Resisting the Holy Spirit is a bit like trying to stand still during a powerful hurricane — you can try, but it just can’t be done.

Around St. John’s it does feel like we’ve all been thrown into a shaker over the past eight months. With all the staff transitions and building challenges and the crazy winter and ripping out all the bushes on the front lawn, we’ve definitely been shaken and stirred. It looks different around here; it feels different around here. We’ve experienced some unexpected turbulence and we’ve created some of our own.

But when the ice and vermouth and vodka are put into just the right ratios, what emerges when it’s poured into a frosted martini glass and garnished with the correct number of olives is a creative thing of beauty. And that’s what I’m confident will come out of this season of controlled chaos at St. John’s. I see the Spirit at work; I see a new exciting phase of ministry emerging with new energy and new ideas and new life bursting forth. And that’s exciting, if somewhat disorienting. Being shaken and stirred by the Spirit has that effect on people and institutions.

So, as we mark and celebrate this day, it’s important to remember that Pentecost wasn’t just a single event that happened in the days immediately following Jesus’ ascension. If that was the case, it would be an interesting historical moment to read about. Certainly a dramatic one with the languages and the tongues of flame descending and the general chaotic nature of that day.

Part of the problem is that reading about such an event or viewing artistic renderings can never tell the whole story. To fully comprehend and grasp the power of the Holy Spirit, it must be experienced.

One of the exercises I did with the confirmation class this year tried to get at the power of experience. We were talking about the sacraments and to make a similar point, I had them all sit in a circle and we blindfolded one of them. I then passed out a particular food — in this case cheese puffs, because that’s what I had — and I asked them to describe to their blindfolded peer what they were eating without naming it. They described the taste and the texture and the color as best they could and eventually the one who was blindfolded was able to guess the food in question. Not the precise brand, but the food. The point was that words and language only go so far — you have to experience something yourself to fully grasp it.

The same is true with the Holy Spirit. I can talk about it. I can describe it. I could even draw a picture of it — not a good one mind you. But unless you experience the Spirit at work in your own life, you can’t understand its power. So, how can you tell if the Spirit is at work in your life?

smart7-2It’s different for everyone but for me it usually starts with that sense of confusion. With not being sure that something that’s taking me out of my comfort zone is indeed of God. It could be, of course, but then it might just be something annoying. But then something amazing happens — if it truly is the Spirit at work. If I begin tentatively moving in the direction I think God is calling me, suddenly the door opens. And I can take a few more halting steps. And then another door opens. And eventually it starts to feel like the opening scene from the old 1960s TV series Get Smart where all those different doors start opening as I walk down a long corridor into the unknown. Minus the theme music.

How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life? How do you know when God is acting or challenging you to try a new thing? I invite you to reflect on this and I’d love to hear your stories. We all stumble on occasion or misinterpret the signs. But then there are other times when God’s presence and purpose for us is unmistakably clear. We may start out feeling, like Jesus’ disciples that day, “bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.” But if the experience is truly of God, that all fades away and the never-changing nature of God remains, even as the Spirit infuses us with something new and utterly beyond anything we could ask for or imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Pentecost 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 8, 2014 (Pentecost)

There is some really bad Pentecost clip art out there. I know, because after seeing someone post what looked like a flaming pigeon on Facebook, Google and I did a little poking around.

Now in fairness, the Holy Spirit is hard to conceptualize. Traditional imagery includes flames, as we heard in our reading from Acts that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among the disciples.” Wind, as in “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” A dove, as when Jesus is baptized and we hear that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove.” So wind, fire, dove. Kind of like Earth, Wind, and Fire but different.

All of these are metaphors, of course, as we hear the Spirit described “as of fire,” “like a violent wind,” and “like a dove.” If teachers were allowed to talk about the Holy Spirit in a middle school English class, this would be a textbook lesson on the use of the simile. So the Spirit is tough to pin down both as an image and as a concept. You can’t hold onto or grab ahold of wind or flame and neither can you control them. I guess you could theoretically grab a dove but I think you get the point. If there was ever a strong reminder that we’re not actually in control of the things that happen in our lives, the Holy Spirit is Exhibit A.

Because the Holy Spirit blows where it will. It can churn things up inside, it can knock you off your feet, it can blow the lid off our preconceived notions, it can challenge us with new ideas whether or not we’re ready for them. An encounter with the Spirit in your life isn’t always a comfortable experience but I find that once we stop resisting, once we stop fighting a battle we can never win, we’re often left with that elusive sense of peace that surpasses all human understanding. And we can start living again.

I’ve been thinking about my own personal metaphor for the Holy Spirt especially in light of
82nd_Airborne_Mass_Jump-JSOH2006 Friday’s 70th anniversary of D-Day. 25 years ago this August I found myself at Fort Benning, Georgia, having volunteered to go to Airborne School to be trained as a paratrooper. I was an Army ROTC cadet at the time and afraid of heights so naturally I decided I needed to jump out of an airplane.

The “friendly” instructors stress two things over the first couple of weeks of ground training before you make your five jumps to qualify for your Airborne Wings: how to exit the aircraft and how to land. Since it’s the equivalent of jumping off a ten foot wall, you spend a lot of time learning how to land. And it’s painful. But I want to focus on the other piece of this — learning how to properly jump out the door.

There’s a training apparatus/torture device called the 34-foot tower. Why 34 feet? Because Army engineers determined that this was the precise height where fear was maximized — you’re not so high up that everything on the ground looks fake and you’re not so low that it looks safe. Now, it doesn’t help that these wooden towers were built during World War II and they kind of sway back and forth as you climb up the rickety stairs with a bunch of other nervous soldiers.

When it’s your turn, you get hooked up to a harness and free fall about four feet before your line catches and yanks you back down on a zip line. Chin down, eyes open, feet and knees together, count to four. Each exit gets evaluated by one of the instructors and you have to do it properly three times in a row before you “pass” that portion of the training. Which generally ends up taking a few days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnyway, when you’re actually up in the airplane and standing in the door, it’s loud, it’s windy, it’s unnerving and then suddenly the green light goes on and you leap out into what feels like the abyss. We were taught to leap out rather than to just fall out to make sure your lines don’t get caught in the big propellers of that massive C-130. That would not end well. And in those four long seconds before your parachute deploys, you feel like a rag doll caught in a tornado (that’s another simile for those keeping score).

And to me that is precisely what it feels like when the Holy Spirit grabs ahold of you. Sometimes it takes you where you’d rather not go; sometimes it completely disorients you; sometimes its sheer force overwhelms you; sometimes it makes you feel utterly powerless.

So how is the Spirit working in your own life? It may be urging you to take a new career path or join a ministry at church that might be out of your comfort zone or pursue a passion you’ve neglected or reach out to an estranged friend or family member. Sometimes the Spirit moves like that violent wind but sometimes it’s more of a gentle breeze.

But how do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit or something of your own invention? Something you’ve made up out of thin air? A reflection of your own desires rather than God’s? That’s where listening and discernment and testing come in. First, we can’t listen unless we make room for some intentional silence in our lives. Second, we need to have conversations with wise friends or counselors. Third, we need to try things out. If it’s not truly of the Spirit, God will let you know. And if it is, I guarantee that powerful feeling of discombobulation will yield to an overwhelming sense of peace.

After you leap out into that violent rush of wind known as the prop blast and you’ve gotten separation from the airplane and your chute opens up, the contrasting silence and peacefulness of the descent is remarkable. It’s just like what happens after the Holy Spirit knocks you down and you suddenly find yourself exactly where you need to be doing exactly what you need to be doing. You enter into that sense of peace and let it wash over you and know that Jesus is with you.

Now, the ground starts to come up awfully quick so you can’t stay in this state of reverie British Paratrooper Landing During Exercisefor very long. The whole point of military jumps is to get as many people onto the ground in as short a time as possible so you’re only in the air for about a minute before reality starts to rapidly rise up to meet you.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just about some individual, personal spiritual experience. We take the experience and hit the ground running; sharing our faith with others; opening our hearts to one another in Jesus’ name; becoming part of a faith community that acts as Jesus’ own hands and heart here on earth. And so on this day we say, whether we’re ready or not, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Pentecost 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 19, 2013 (Pentecost)

“Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.” Occasionally, it’s worth judging a book by its cover and reading it based solely on the title. Books like “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” or “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” or “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers” is the title of a popular book on church growth and, although I bought it because of the catchy title, there’s actually some good stuff in it.

I’ve always been intrigued by the whole notion of sacred cows. The concept itself derives from the Hindu tradition of venerating cows. In Hinduism cows are seen as matriarchal figures, revered for their gentleness and qualities of nurture. They are symbols of the sanctity of all life and of the earth that gives much while asking nothing in return. Hindus do not literally worship cows, yet the cow holds an honored place and the sacred cow is thought to be more important than any human life. But there’s a dark side to this as when during times of severe famine people literally starve to death while surrounded by their sacred cows. No one ever suggests using the cows for food since, of course, to do so would be sacrilege.

In our own culture, we use the term “sacred cow” to refer to something immune from criticism or attack. It’s fascinating to me how certain programs or traditions become sacrosanct within an organization. Sometimes there’s good reason and sometimes it’s part of a community’s own cherished narrative even though the reasoning no longer applies or it made sense fifty years ago but rationally and logically time and energy and resources could be better spent elsewhere.

Churches, not surprisingly, are infamous breeding grounds for sacred cows. Resistance to change and the attitude of “we’ve always done it that way” are especially powerful forces in communities of faith. The reason the classic “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb” joke is amusing is because there’s some truth in there. The answer, of course, being “Change?! My grandmother donated that light bulb!”

But if there’s anything that this day of Pentecost demonstrates it’s that God isn’t interested in manmade sacred cows. Yes, tradition is important but nothing is off the table when it comes to our individual or communal faith lives. After Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, the disciples didn’t gather with the intention that they’d start speaking in tongues. They got together, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and look what happened — the gathered disciples were transformed into the Church, that holy and sacred and sometimes frustrating mystery.

But before we go on it’s worth asking what exactly is this Holy Spirit that we celebrate today? As with anything termed “spirit” it can feel fairly elusive. It’s hard to get our minds around let alone our hands. The Holy Spirit is kind of like a holy vapor or, more theologically, the breath of God. John calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, indicating Jesus’ continuing presence in the Church. Paul describes it as the force that unites us to Christ and gives each one of us various talents and abilities to be used for building up the Church as the Body of Christ. In Acts it’s the power of God, a burning fire that brings the church to new and unexpected places.

One thing’s for sure. We can’t control the Holy Spirit. It blows where it may; it can’t be tamed or contained or controlled and that makes us a bit wary of it. When it comes to both our own lives and the church, we like to call the shots. We like to plot our course and make our own decisions — we’re Americans for God’s sake! Manifest Destiny, bootstraps, independence. We’re not going to let some ephemeral wind get in the way of our best laid plans.

The problem is, we have no choice. If you remember the old King James Version of the Bible you’ll recall the phrase from John’s gospel: “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” which basically means the Holy Spirit can do whatever the heck it wants. And that can make us uncomfortable, a reminder that we’re not fully in control of either our own lives or the life of the church.

One of the few definitions I actually remember from sixth grade science is the one for inertia. Mr. Knipp taught us that anything at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. He also had a habit of smacking a yard stick on the desk of anyone not paying attention which is why I remember this. In other words, inertia is a powerful force. If left alone, nothing will move an object. Our spiritual lives can quickly become inert if we don’t tend to them and nurture them; if we don’t actively participate in the life of a faith community; if we don’t intentionally set aside some time for prayer and reflection and silence, as elusive as that may be.

But the true outside force is the Holy Spirit. It’s what draws us deeper into relationship with Jesus and makes us take notice of the divine presence. Sometimes subtly, like a gentle breeze; sometimes blatantly, like a violent wind. It counteracts our tendencies toward spiritual apathy and inertia and keeps us alive and vibrant. But not without some risk as the Spirit has no problem whatsoever leaving even our most beloved sacred cows in its wake.

Ultimately, the coming of the Holy Spirit transforms us from people who passively follow Jesus into a faithful community of disciples poised to act in his name. God calls us not just to go to church but to be the church — and that’s a major distinction. We are not passive observers of holy things but active participants in Christ’s message of peace and salvation. We are baptized into a living faith, not one based on nostalgia. We may well have happy memories of the way things used to be and tradition is a bedrock of our faith. But the Holy Spirit continually blows new life into the Church, challenging us, drawing us out of our comfort zones, and generally wreaking havoc with the mantra of “we’ve always done it that way.”

Sacred cows do pervade our lives. And they can be dangerous to our spiritual health because they often leave out any room for growth. Our own sacred cows tend to crop up in areas where we seek control; where we try hard to control situations even when we know they’re ultimately out of our control. And so we cling to the identity we derive from our jobs or our hobbies or our educational accomplishments or our money or our relationships. None of which are bad things – but all of which need to be seen in the context of the only thing that is truly sacred: our relationship with Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck 2013