Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 19, 2023 (Last Epiphany)

Preachers often like to connect the appointed readings to a story in their own life. When it’s done well, this can help illuminate the text, give it some texture, and make it relevant to modern listeners. When it’s done poorly, the sermon becomes less about pointing everyone towards Jesus and more about pointing everyone towards the preacher. Which is decidedly not the point.

When it comes to the story of the Transfiguration, however, I got nothing. It’s hard to point to a time in my life where I had a similar experience to Peter, James, and John up on that mountaintop. The blinding light, the appearance of long-dead prophets, the booming voice from the heavens. On those rare occasions when I’ve hiked up a mountain, the only thing I ever encountered at the peak was a nice view and a Cliff Bar.

But while this dramatic and rather confusing story may not be entirely relatable to experiences in our own lives, it does hold some key lessons for us as followers of Jesus. It also brings to a close this season after the Epiphany, this season of light that began with a star hovering over the manger, and ends with the blinding light of the transfigured Jesus. Just as the incarnation of Jesus was revealed by the Star of Bethlehem, the resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed by the transfiguration. And it sets us up to carry that light with us into the wilderness of Lent, as we make our preparations for Easter. But all of that is ahead of us. We have one more Sunday to belt out the Alleluias before silencing them for 40 days and 40 nights.

The point is, that when Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white and his face shines like the sun, the disciples are given a glimpse of the resurrection right here on earth. They are privileged with a foretaste of the reign of Christ that is to come. And they receive that undeniable affirmation of Jesus’ identity when they hear God’s voice proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

The Transfiguration is quite literally a mountaintop experience, a moment when a great truth is revealed. As bewildering and disorienting as it all is, it offers clarity about who Jesus is. And Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a nice guy or someone who likes to subvert the status quo. He is the son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. And that is the only explanation for what takes place on that holy mountain.

We actually get two mountaintop experiences this morning. In addition to Jesus’ journey with his most trusted disciples, we hear the story of Moses heading up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. And light continues to be a major theme here. Besides Jesus’ face shining like the sun and a bright cloud overshadowing them, in Exodus we hear that the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. In Scripture, seminal and life-changing events take place on mountaintops. 

But the true miracle of the mountain isn’t just what transpired and what was transfigured up on that holy hill. It’s also a mountaintop experience for you and me; we are spiritually transported up the mountain to take in the stunning vista of Christ’s resurrection glory. A glory foreshadowing the resurrection to Peter, James, and John, and a glory foretelling Jesus’ eventual return to us. And that’s an awful lot to take in. 

Yet the beauty of this moment for us is that it doesn’t require us to “do” anything. We can simply stand in awe and contemplate the mysteries of the divine. Sometimes that is enough. And in that sense, we do have relatable moments. When we walk on the beach in the morning and take in the sunrise, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. When we spend time on a mountaintop or out on the water or in the memorial garden, we have an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God. Mountaintops are all around us if we’re willing to see them.

So, the transfiguration is ultimately a symbol of hope. For the disciples, it was a form of encouragement. A recognition that while things would soon get dark — Jesus would be crucified, the disciples would be scattered — resurrection was coming.

And we need to hold onto hope in our own lives. When life is hard and we’re suffering, when the news is full of the latest mass shooting or the unfathomable destruction of a devastating earthquake, it’s helpful to fix our eyes on that mountaintop and take in the image of Jesus in all his glory. Sometimes that’s all we have to cling to. And it is enough. Jesus is enough. But when we’re still unsure, when we’re still uncertain, that voice from the heavens serves as a reminder: “Listen to him.” If you endure, if you hold onto hope, Jesus will draw you to himself and you will be not only embraced by his resurrection glory, but transformed through it. You will become a new creation, born of the spirit and sanctified by his presence.

And through this process of transformation, you can then embody what it means to live a transfigured life. You can be salt and light in the world. You can be illuminated by Christ’s presence in your life and shine forth with God’s love in the world around you. 

After all of the drama, we hear that the disciples were “overcome by fear.” Now, in our recent Sunday forum on Wisdom literature in the Bible, the concept of holy fear came up several times. There’s that line from Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This doesn’t mean we’re supposed to tremble in fear at the thought of God. In this case, fear is best thought of or translated as “awe.” And to hear that Peter, James, and John were overcome by fear at the wonder and awe of God is right. But let’s be honest. They were also terrified. Jesus was glowing, they saw two long-dead prophets, and then that voice boomed out of the heavens. I don’t know about you, but I’d be cowering behind the nearest boulder.

So, it’s no wonder the disciples fell to the ground in fear. But what does Jesus do? He comes over to them, gently touches them, and says in a quiet voice, “Get up and do not be afraid.” What a touching, intimate, pastoral moment. After the sound and light show, Jesus’s compassion in the face of fear is so powerful. Human touch is powerful. 

I think about those dark days of the pandemic when human touch was eliminated from our common life. And how painful that was for so many of us. Not just the “huggers” among us, but the heartbreaking situations when families couldn’t gather to hold their loved ones at the end of life. Those final farewells said over Zoom, rather than with hands being held. Jesus reaches out and touches the terrified disciples. 

Allow Jesus to reach out and touch you. To place his hand upon your shoulder, gaze deeply into your eyes, and fill you with his peace. Jesus wants nothing more than to drive away the fear from your life. To love you unconditionally. To bring peace to your soul. To illuminate your heart with light and joy.

That’s the power of the transfiguration. That’s the joy of the journey. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”


5th Sunday after Epiphany 2023

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 5, 2023 (Epiphany 5A)

One of the things I love to do around here is walk down South County Road at night and see The Breakers all lit up. Every night it’s beautifully illuminated and you can almost feel the spirit of Henry Flagler emanating from those two towers.

But then as I walk back towards Barton Avenue, I’m also keenly aware that the graceful and majestic Bethesda tower is shrouded in darkness. Not only is it not lit up, but unless you’re looking for it, you could easily pass right on by and not even notice it.

One of the things Jesus says in this morning’s gospel passage is, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” In other words, light is to be revealed, not concealed. The message of Jesus must be shared widely rather than kept hidden. It must see the light of day, rather than remain in the shadows.

Now, I’d love to see Bethesda all lit up at night. Not just because it would be dramatic, but because it would be tangible evidence that Bethesda stands as a beacon of hope and love for all the world to see. For that is what this place both is and aspires to be. To serve as a light in the darkness, to offer grace and compassion to a broken and hurting world, to inspire us all to love and serve the Lord.

But in order to fully make this happen, we need your help. No, I’m not trolling for a donor for for new exterior lighting. But, hold onto your wallets, because today is Stewardship Sunday, which means I’ll be talking about money.

There’s an old stewardship joke — and, believe me, stewardship jokes are a pretty niche thing — but the preacher gets up into the pulpit and he says, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the church has all the money it needs. It has enough to take care of our buildings, enough to fund our outreach ministries, enough to provide for excellent worship, enough to add some needed staff. That’s the good news. The bad news is that’s it’s all in your pockets.”

Here at Bethesda, as in all Episcopal parishes, we hold an annual campaign that invites people to make a financial pledge to support the ongoing ministries of the parish in the coming year. This is how we keep the lights on and pay staff and maintain our buildings. It’s how we formulate our parish budget. Some of you have pledged for many years — and I’m grateful. Some of you are new to Bethesda and perhaps new to the whole concept of pledging at a church — and so this is an invitation. And some of you, perhaps, used to pledge but either got out of the habit or haven’t been here in a while — and I welcome you back.

But beyond the fact that the church needs financial resources to make a difference in the world, making a pledge — for whatever amount — is a statement of faith. It’s an articulation of your values. It’s a way of driving a stake into the ground and proclaiming that Bethesda matters to you. It’s a tangible declaration that you are an integral part of this vibrant community of faith. It’s an affirmation that you belong here, that you are inspired by what happens here, that this is your spiritual home. And so, I invite you to give generously this year.

You know, sometimes in church we don’t want the preacher to talk about money. But the reality is that Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. He knew that we often have complicated relationships with money. When we turn it into an idol, it can have destructive consequences. When we recognize it as a gift from God, sharing our resources can bring us great joy and freedom. Money has the potential to unleash so much good in the world. But its pursuit can also destroy lives — both physically and spiritually. And so in church, it’s essential that we occasionally talk about money. Not just because the church needs it to function and thrive, but because we all have a need to give it away; to live with generous hearts.

Please know that I will always be transparent about the financial needs of this community. Obfuscation has no place here. This year’s budget is lean, and it’s not a sustainable model in the long term, not if we want to build the programs that will allow us to thrive as bearers of the gospel in this community and beyond. We were able to pull a few levers and draw on some untapped funds, but our collective giving needs to increase by a minimum of 20% in order to reach our full ministry potential. Our overall giving number is budgeted at $2.5 million this year. But it really needs to be closer to $3.5 million if we want to really light this church up, illuminate the hearts and minds of those who call Bethesda home, and reach out to those who have not yet found a home here.

As I mentioned at last week’s Annual Meeting, one of my initial observations in my first few months as your rector is that there are several hires we need to make in order to fully live into our potential. We need the right staffing to work with and support our lay leaders in several key areas. One of these is development and engagement, which is non-profit-ese for fundraising and keeping people connected. We need someone to engage with parishioners and build relationships and work with me and our Vestry to lay out a strategy for sustaining Bethesda in the long term. 

Another area is children’s ministry — we have some wonderful, committed families at Bethesda. But we need a vibrant program in order to draw in new families. I know that we often shrug our shoulders and talk about “demographics” when we bemoan the lack of families around here, but they’re out there. And they continue to move to this area. We need to invest in the human and programmatic resources to draw them here. 

One of the important points in reading this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is that it isn’t addressed to individuals. He’s not telling just you or me to be salt and light in the world. He’s speaking to a community. In the same way, the financial stewardship of this place doesn’t just fall on a few of us, but it is the responsibility of all of us. Collectively, as a community of faith, we can be salt and light in the world at all times. And collectively, we can use our resources to propel Bethesda into a vibrant and faithful future, to be a light in this community and beyond.

Thank you for generously supporting this place, even if that means stretching just a little bit. I get so excited thinking about all that we can accomplish together in Jesus’ name. And I hope you do too. May God bless us all in the year ahead.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 15, 2023 (Epiphany 2A)

My first car was a used 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit. It was bright red with a five-speed manual transmission and black vinyl seats, which would get so hot in the summer, it was basically like sitting on top of an incinerator. Despite its obvious flaws — the dents, the way it ran — I was so proud of that car. I would wash it and lovingly detail it way beyond what it deserved. I mean, I would even scrub the tires. And nobody who owned a car in New York City scrubbed the tires. 

I remember when I first got the car, after spending way too many hours shining it up, I wanted everyone I knew to come out to the street to behold this automotive beauty. Family, friends, neighbors, girls (there were no girls), but I wanted everyone to come and see my pride and joy. 

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus invites some of the first potential disciples to “come and see.” Not out of a vain desire to be popular or because he had some shiny new object to show them, but because he wanted to transform their lives. He wanted them to come and see a life bathed in the Spirit, a way of living that offered freedom and joy, one that provided salvation and hope. He wanted them to come and see what it meant to live in loving relationship with the living God. Which certainly transcends my desire to impress people by the way I Armor All’ed the dashboard. 

But this brief interaction speaks to the invitational nature of our faith. Jesus doesn’t compel people to join his movement or even condemn them if they don’t. He simply invites them to come and see. He lovingly and gently encourages them to join him on the journey of life and faith. Just as he does for each one of us.

Here at Bethesda, as we seek to live into this invitational approach of our Lord, we have embraced a way of being church called Invite, Welcome, Connect. It’s a way to invite people to come and see all that takes place within these walls, to warmly welcome all who enter our space regardless of background or where they live or where they may be on their spiritual journey, and to connect people to programs and ministries that enable them to love and serve the Lord in this place. And it all starts with Jesus’ invitation to come and see. That’s the foundation upon which we build relationships with God and one another. We invite, we welcome, we connect.

But this invitational posture isn’t just an institutional responsibility. It’s incumbent upon each one of us to invite people to come and see what’s happening at Bethesda. It may be a friend or a neighbor or someone who used to come here, but I encourage you to invite others to come and see. Not because we simply want more people in our pews — which we do — or because we want more people to watch our livestream — which we do — but because we want people to come and see Jesus. To encounter the one who loves them unconditionally and will walk with them through all the joy and pain and laughter and tears that make up the human condition. We want them to come and see Jesus, because the peace that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ is not something to hoard, but to share.

After Jesus invites Andrew to come and see, Andrew then brings his brother Simon Peter to Jesus. “We have found the Messiah,” he tells him. Andrew’s immediate response is to share what he has seen with someone else — in this case his brother. And we’re called to do the exact same thing. To share our faith with someone else. Now, I know Episcopalians aren’t always great at inviting people to church. There’s some apocryphal statistic that says the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 21 years. And, I know some of you are thinking, ‘Phew! I don’t have to invite anyone for another 12 years.’ And some of you are thinking, ‘I’ve actually never invited someone to church.” But invitation is how the church grows; it’s how our faith is passed on; it’s how we share the love of Jesus with the world.

So, here’s a charge for you: invite someone to church. Think about who you might invite to come and sit with you. And if asking someone to join you for worship feels like a bridge too far, invite them to a lower threshold activity like the upcoming organ recital or a Men of Bethesda gathering or a St. Mary’s Guild lunch or just to join you on a walk of the church grounds. In other words, it doesn’t have to be an eight-hour service on Good Friday. Not that we offer one of those…

But I encourage you to think about ways of living into the invitational nature of our faith. Not just by extending invitations to others, but also recognizing that Jesus extends this invitation to you. Jesus wants you to come and see. Over and over again he invites you to come and see what the abundant life of faith brings to your very soul.

The thing is, Jesus wants us to lay aside the myriad distractions of our lives and to go deeper with him. Imagine Jesus reaching out, grabbing you by the arm, staring intently into your eyes, and saying, “Come and see.” This is an invitation not in the abstract or for someone else, but very clearly for you. In this moment, in whatever is going on in your life. Come and see Jesus. Again and again. Come and see Jesus.

Come and see Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture. Come and see him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Come and see him as the Messiah, the anointed one of God who fills us with hope and fulfills all our expectations. Come and see him as the Savior of the world, the one who draws us into eternal life. Come and see him as the Son of God, who reveals and makes known the divine presence in our very midst. 

Come and see, and then accept his invitation to follow him. To live your life as a disciple of Jesus. It’s not always easy. It often puts you into conflict with the powers and principalities of this world. But following Jesus is the place where true freedom resides. The place where you can let go of the many demands and pulls of this world, so that you can faithfully and humbly and doggedly follow the way of Jesus, the way of love. Come and see. And experience first-hand the life-transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ.

7th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 20, 2022 (Epiphany 7C)

This may not be popular, but I’m about to throw the Golden Rule under the bus. Now, I like the Golden Rule. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us is a good thing, a holy thing. It’s also something that transcends every boundary of faith. All the major religions have their version of the Golden Rule: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. Every single one includes the Golden Rule in its scriptures. The idea of treating others as we want to be treated is the ultimate universal truth.

Jesus himself proclaims the Golden Rule as part of both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. This morning we get the latter. Jesus channels thousands of years of moral teaching when he says quite plainly, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” There’s not much wiggle room there.

The problem is, the Golden Rule doesn’t go far enough. There’s a certain implied reciprocity embedded within it. I will treat you a certain way because that’s the way I want and expect to be treated. There’s an implication of return. If I treat you generously, you will treat me generously. If I am merciful to you, you will be merciful to me. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

But when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he takes this entire concept to the next level. He frames the Golden Rule by saying this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus is saying, treat people a certain way, not because you expect similar behavior in return, but because this is how God treats you. God is merciful and generous and loving, so you should be generous and merciful and loving. And do it no matter how you’re treated in return. Be merciful and generous and loving especially to those who hate you and curse you and abuse you. 

And that’s the rub. That’s the hard part. That’s the piece where it all breaks down for us. To treat people as we would have them treat us, yes. But even if they don’t, even if they return evil for good, keep on loving them. Keep on treating them the way you would want to be treated. And do it not because this is how you yourself want to be treated, but because it’s how God treats everyone. God’s love must be the source of our behavior towards others, not our own self-interest. 

So we should love one another not as we want to be loved, but as God loves us. And that changes everything. Because God’s love is never conditional. God’s love is never subject to review. God’s love is never reliant upon certain behaviors or outcomes. God’s love simply is. 

And so if there was a single teaching of Jesus that had the potential to flip the world on its head right now, a teaching that would change the way we interact with one another, it would be the way he frames the Golden Rule: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” This call is life changing, world changing. And it doesn’t come with any hedges or caveats. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Love your enemies, unless they really cross the line.’ Or ‘Love your enemies unless they post something offensive on Facebook.’ 

Jesus says simply and clearly and maddeningly, “Love your enemies.” Could you imagine if our deeply divided country actually embodied this teaching? What if we approached every interaction with love and compassion, rather than malice and suspicion? How might that change the ways we communicate and relate to one another? How might that impact our political discourse and our relationships with those with whom we disagree?

Now, most of us don’t have actual enemies. At least not in a dualistic, good vs. evil Superman vs. Lex Luthor kind of way. Or even in an antagonistic Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote kind of way. But we all have plenty of people that annoy us. Boy, do we have people that annoy us. And we all have people whose beliefs or practices or worldview doesn’t align with our own. People we don’t even necessarily know or associate with. The “those people” we like to lump together into a nameless, faceless crowd. It’s so much easier to tear down people and ideas when we’re able to dehumanize them. That’s certainly the bread and butter of cable news shows and social media. “Those people” may be out of sight, but they’re certainly not out of mind.

But Jesus wants us to love even them and bless even them and pray for even them. And I encourage you to actually do this. Not just in a dismissive “thoughts and prayers” way, but by getting down on your knees and praying fervently and without ceasing. We may not be able to change the world with small acts of love and prayer, but we can start by changing ourselves. We can change the tone. And that’s a good place to start.

Imagine what our current political climate would look like if we treated one another as God treats us. There would be no vilification or dehumanization. There would be no racist tropes or fear mongering. If we treated one another as fellow children of God rather than as punching bags, we might actually do some good in this world. The thing is, God didn’t create humankind so that we would all agree with one another. God created us to love one another. And with that love comes peace and compassion, justice and joy. 

You know, our baptismal covenant doesn’t offer any caveats or conditions. It doesn’t say, ‘Respect the dignity of every human being…as long as they agree with you.’ Or ‘Seek and serve Christ in all persons…unless they really get under your skin.’ None of this is easy, of course. Which is why the answer is always, “I will, with God’s help.” We can’t always do this by ourselves, nor are we asked to do so.

Perhaps Jesus’ framing of the Golden Rule finds its fullest expression in the New Commandment Jesus offers us at the Last Supper. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love one another, not because you expect something in return or because it will make life easier or more pleasant. Love one another because Jesus himself has loved us. Unconditionally and completely and with reckless abandon. Ultimately, that’s why we treat others with love and respect. Because God first loved us and continues to love us and will always love us.  My friends, the Golden Rule is an excellent credo by which to interact with our fellow children of God in this life. But only when we turn things around and begin with God rather than ourselves as the primary actor, will we be able to most fully live together as God’s beloved children.

6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 13, 2022 (Epiphany 6C)

The Sermon on the Mount gets all the publicity. It’s basically Jesus’ version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Nobody wants to talk about King’s other speeches, and nobody wants to talk about Jesus’ other sermons. But this morning we hear what’s known as the Sermon on the Plain. 

There are certainly parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, beginning with the traditional form of the beatitude, which they both employ: “Blessed are the fill-in-the-blank.” Both sermons also include a number of other sayings beyond the Beatitudes, but Luke’s version just doesn’t get the same recognition as Matthew’s. Partly because the Sermon on the Mount is much longer, and maybe also because mountains seem so lofty and plains so…plain.

It does make sense that there would be similarities between the two sermons, however. Obviously Jesus preached a lot and, if he’s like all the preachers I’ve ever known, he had some themes that he went back to again and again. Themes that were so important that he said them in different ways to different audiences at different times.

Or think about a politician who gives a stump speech. The themes are the same when he visits different towns, but the delivery varies based on the circumstances and context of the audience. There may be certain messages to highlight with one crowd over another; the candidate’s schedule may allow for an extra five minutes in one place and slightly less in the next one. But thematically, people running for office try to stay “on message.”

So, while it’s no surprise that these two sermons were similar, it’s also important to pay attention to the differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the topography. The Sermon on the Mount takes place on, well, a mountain. Jesus evokes Moses handing down the 10 Commandments from atop Mount Sinai, as he offers the traditional and well-known Beatitudes. “Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the meek, and so forth.” Jesus’ words are written on the human heart rather than on stone tablets, but they are equally central to our faith. 

The Sermon on the Plain or, literally, the sermon on the “level place,” was delivered after Jesus spent the night praying on a mountain with the 12 apostles. We hear that he came down from the mountain and preached to a great crowd. And the location matters here. Jesus came down to meet the people where they were, both literally and metaphorically.

What’s interesting is that the phrase “level place” in Scripture often refers to places of suffering and hunger and mourning. It is the level place where you find corpses or people making idols or those in distress. And we’re reminded that Jesus isn’t above death and sin and destruction. He wades right into these level places, bringing healing and hope and forgiveness. To me, this is what makes the Sermon on the Plain so powerful, even before any words are even uttered. The fact that Jesus not only doesn’t avoid the level places, he actively seeks them out as places to offer words of comfort and inspiration.

We all find ourselves in those level places at various times in our lives. Whether it’s mourning the loss of a loved one, asking forgiveness for something we have done or left undone, feeling hopeless and defeated by the circumstances of our lives, being isolated and disconnected from our faith. You may find yourself in a level place at this very moment, at least in some aspect of your life. And these level places can be painful, lonely places. 

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t abandon us to the level places of our lives. Just as he comes down the mountain to address the crowd that has gathered on the plain, Jesus comes to us in the level places. He beckons us towards him and then stands with us; reaching out to us, inviting us, loving us into new ways of being.

Of course, focusing exclusively on the topography of these two versions of the Beatitudes distracts us from focusing on the words themselves. And in our context, perhaps that’s an easier path. Because those four “woe to you’s” that follow the four “blessed are you’s” seem to be aimed squarely at us. With laser-like focus, Jesus calls out the well-fed and the wealthy, the respected and the rewarded. And, while we may not be there all the time, I think most of us identify less with the ones Jesus calls blessed — the poor, the hungry, the excluded, the reviled — and more with the ones to whom he issues warnings. Which is what those “woes” really are, caution signs for the contented. 

The great leveling of the human condition may well be that we all encounter those level places. Rich or poor, hungry or well-fed, respected or reviled, at times we all find ourselves in those hard places. Which isn’t to undermine or spiritualize the call to action embedded in Jesus’ words. The Sermon on the Plain remains a wake-up call to restore the balance of inequity that is a hallmark of our very existence. It is a call to generosity, a call to love our neighbors, especially those among us who are hurting. It is a call to justice. But it is also a reminder that all of us have the potential to hurt emotionally and spiritually, if not materially. No one is exempt from the level places.

You know, just as we need the differing perspectives of the four gospels to offer us a complete picture of Jesus, we need both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain to offer us a complete visual of his message. We need the transcendence and mystery of the God who comes to us from on high. And we need the immanence and intimacy of the God who meets us in our brokenness.

There is room in our faith lives for both transcendence and immanence; for awe-inspiring mystery and intimate presence; for the God who speaks to us from the heavens, and the God who speaks to us through everyday interactions. We encounter God on the mountaintop and we encounter God on the plain. 

To focus exclusively on the mountaintop is to miss the Jesus standing right in front of us. To focus exclusively on the plain is to miss the Jesus who comes to us in glorious majesty. But when taken together we’re drawn into the fullness of God. We encounter the divine presence in both God’s love for all of humankind, and in God’s love for each one of us. We need the mountaintop; we need the plain.

The Sermon on the Mount will always get more press and more love than the Sermon on the Plain. It’s rightfully seen as one of Jesus’ greatest hits. But don’t neglect the plain. Remember those level places, and know that whenever you find yourself deeply embedded inside of one, Jesus is standing right beside you.

5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 6, 2022 (Epiphany 5C)

When I was in seminary, I had a wise professor who taught a lot of the parish leadership courses. He was a priest and he loved the church, but he used to roll his eyes whenever the church would function in ways where it simply couldn’t get out of its own way. One of the cartoons he shared to illustrate this point showed two men in a row boat using oars on opposite sides. One man was rowing forward and the other was rowing backwards, causing the boat to go in endless circles. And as they were straining at their oars, the one yells to the other “Row harder!”

At times we all fall into this trap. Setting ourselves up in circumstances that need a big picture adjustment, rather than simply putting more effort into an untenable situation. Rowing harder, rather than rowing smarter.

And at first glance that’s what seems to be happening in this call story from Luke’s gospel. This seems like the ultimate “row harder” situation. These experienced fishermen had been out all night. They knew the waterways around their village better than anyone. Their families had fished in this spot for generations. They knew every nook and cranny, jetty and sandbar. And if the fish weren’t biting, they simply weren’t there. These veteran fishermen knew they’d find them the next day, or the day after that. But that sometimes you just need to head back to shore, wash your nets, and live to fish another day.

And just as they’re finishing up with the nets, just when they’re ready to take a load off and get some breakfast, Jesus shows up. He steps into Simon Peter’s boat and asks him to put out a bit, so he can address the crowds that were pressing in on him. Which is a smart move; the ancient equivalent of a politician speaking from the back of a pickup truck. And when he’s done, he tells this small group of fishermen to get back out there and catch some fish. Which must not have gone over so well. No fisherman wants to be fish-splained by a carpenter. And Jesus’ request must have basically come across as “fish harder!” Why would you keep doing the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

“Put your nets out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” They’d literally been doing just that all night long. No one would have blamed Peter and James and John for walking away; for going home to take a nap. But there must have been something about this Jesus. Maybe he captured their imaginations when he addressed the crowd, maybe there was a certain look in his eye when he told them to go back out there. But for whatever reason, they consent to going back out into the deep water. They agree to “fish harder.” 

And by some miracle, they do catch fish. Lots and lots of fish. So many fish, their boats nearly sink. But, of course, as you may have noticed, this story really isn’t about the fish. These suddenly successful fishermen aren’t racing off to the market to make a big profit on their catch. In fact, we hear that when they returned to shore they dropped everything — which presumably includes all those fish — to follow Jesus. And Jesus even tells them they’re done with fishing, that they’re out of the fishing business; that from now on they’ll be fishing for people. They’ll be walking and working with Jesus to transform the lives of everyone they meet by sharing the good news of God’s abundant and abiding love for all people. This is not a fishing story, but a call story. And it all hinges on the fact that they listened to Jesus and agreed to take a chance to put out, once again, into that deep water. 

Now, for Jesus’ hearers and even for the most experienced fishermen, “the deep” was an ancient symbol of primordial chaos. We see this in the words of the psalms: “Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord” and “I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me.” And so Jesus isn’t simply calling the disciples out to a good fishing hole. He’s calling them to confront their deepest fears. He’s calling them to put out into the deep water not to terrify them, but as a reminder that he will remain with them whatever chaos or uncertainty they encounter. The same one who would later calm the storm upon the sea and walk upon the water, forever changes humanity’s relationship with the deep.

So, through his presence, the deep is suddenly transformed from a place of fear to one of hopeful abundance. Jesus can take the scariest places, the hardest places, the deepest places and turn them into places of profound encounter and relationship. Deep water becomes living water, chaos becomes comfort. 

And seen through this lens, at this stage of the pandemic, after two years of chaos, we could all use some of that deep water, the deep water of relationship and renewal. Because emotionally and spiritually, many of the reserves we look to call upon are depleted. The signs of exhaustion are legion. No one is operating at their highest or best level right now. But Jesus beckons us out to the deep water, to move away from the familiarity and safety of the shallow places. Past what we know and into the promise of deeper relationship. 

It’s no easy thing to leave the familiar behind, even if we know it’s time. Even if we know staying in place is unsustainable. When I as in my 20s, I worked on political campaigns for a living. Some of you know this. I worked in various places around the country for candidates on the federal, state, and local levels. I was good at it and I had a fair amount of my identity wrapped up in it. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was making the conscious decision to get out of that business. I didn’t know what would be next for me, but I also knew I couldn’t remain in a field where people were treated as stepping stones rather than as children of God. Eventually this led me to seminary, but at first it merely led to uncertainty about what would be next. Like these fishermen, I dropped my nets, but had no idea where this would all lead, or what the deep water would bring.

Jesus’ call to “Put out into the deep water” is an invitation, not a demand. You can stay in the shallow water. You don’t have to follow Jesus. Those fishermen could have easily and understandably said, “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re tired.” But when you do consent to the invitation, there is peace, joy, and abundance even for the weary soul. Even in this moment when the thought of doing one more thing is exhausting. Even on those days when it feels like a major victory simply to come up with what’s for dinner tonight. 

We don’t have to fish harder. We just need to listen to that voice of Jesus. The one who calls us in loving invitation. The one who leads us to deep and still waters. Jesus himself is that deep water. And when we heed the invitation, when we follow his call, we find ourselves in a place of refreshment and nourishment and renewal. I know that more than ever, I could use some of that deep water right now. And I’m guessing you could use some as well.

3rd Sunday after Epiphany, (Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 23, 2022 (Epiphany 3C)

One of my preaching mantras is, “Nobody every complained about a sermon being too short.” But, wow, does Jesus take this to heart. This morning, we hear him stand up, read two sentences from the prophet Isaiah, and then preach an eight-word sermon. Altogether the whole thing took about 22 seconds. I know because I timed it.

And I doubt he got a whole lot of “Amens” for this one. Okay, I’m sure he didn’t, because afterwards the people were filled with rage and wanted to throw him off a cliff. Which leads to another one of my preaching mantras, “If people don’t occasionally storm out while you’re preaching, you’re probably not preaching the Gospel.” I don’t encourage that, of course, and it’s been awhile since that’s happened here at St. John’s, but the point is that sermons should also challenge us, not just provide comfort and solace.

Jesus understood this better than anyone. And in Luke’s gospel, this sermon is Jesus’ very first public act. He returns to his hometown and goes to the synagogue. Which makes sense. He’d been baptized by John, filled with the Holy Spirit, driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by satan, and then what? Well, he started teaching in houses of worship. That’s where you would go to tell people about God and to share the good and powerful news of God’s love for all people.

And when he goes home, Jesus doesn’t need to introduce himself. He doesn’t need to stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Jesus and I have a few things to share with you this morning.” Everybody already knows his name; they know that this is Jesus, the carpenter’s son. But he does need to introduce what it is he has been sent into the world to do. Something has changed since Jesus left. When he returns, he’s no longer merely the carpenter’s son, who will settle down to a nice, quiet life in Nazareth. 

Through his baptism, Jesus has claimed his identity as God’s son. When the heavens broke open  and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and he heard that voice proclaiming, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased,” things changed. And so this brief sermon at the outset of his public ministry is a statement of Jesus’ purpose; an outline of the mission he has been called to fulfill and the promise he has been sent to embody.

He unrolls the scroll and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

That’s the text. That was the bulk of those 22 seconds. And then he preaches his sermon: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Coming from anyone else, from any other preacher, this would be wildly delusional. For Jesus, it is the self-revealing of his very identity. Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Jesus has indeed been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. This is why he came into the world. This is the promise he came to fulfill.

I admit I always laugh to myself just a bit whenever I hear this passage — this piece and what follows when Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown.” Because after leaving Baltimore and going off to seminary for three years and coming home and getting ordained and being called to serve as the curate at a big downtown parish, the very first time I got up into that large, ornately carved pulpit, the reading was…”A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown.” 

Now, nobody wanted to throw me off a cliff afterwards, but it was a great dose of humility. A reminder that the preacher should never point to himself, but always to the one he serves; always to God. And that no matter how big the pulpit or how fancy the vestments, we’re all on this journey of faith together. Living, learning, loving Jesus Christ with all our heart and soul and mind. That’s the goal. That’s why we gather for worship whether in person or online week after week after week. That’s why we break open the Scriptures together.

Karoline Lewis, who’s a preaching professor at a Lutheran seminary in Minnesota and a Facebook friend, draws a direct line from the Magnificat, to these first words of Jesus’ ministry. And I think she’s on to something. The Magnificat contains the words spoken by Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel after she learns that she will bear God’s son. They are bold and radical words which speak of a great reversal where the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things. Mary’s words look back towards God’s ancient promises, while simultaneously looking forward to the promises being fulfilled through her unborn son. We just heard it on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The words of Isaiah that Jesus both proclaims and embodies continue this trajectory of God’s promise to the least, the lost, and the lonely. Jesus’ mission will be to bring good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free, to give sight to the blind. This all points to God’s vision for the world and it is a big, bold, beautiful vision. 

Unless, of course, you love the status quo. Unless you want to keep things the way they’ve always been. Unless you’re one of the proud and mighty who has no intention of being cast down from your throne. Unless you’d just assume keep the oppressed under your heel and the poor in their place.

So you start to see why Jesus’ message of radical inclusion may not have always been so well received. Why preaching the Gospel sometimes causes people to storm out. Why the Magnificat has been banned at various moments in history. And why Jesus was strung up on a cross to die. 

And it begs the question, how are we contributing to God’s promise to those on the outskirts of society? How are we serving those for whom the status quo is not comfortable, but destructive? How are we living into the big, bold, beautiful vision that lifts people up rather than tearing them down? These are hard questions, because they force us to confront that gap between God’s vision and our reality, between God’s promise and our actions. 

We can always do more. We should always do more. As both individuals and as a community of faith. We need to mind that gap. To keep striving to minimize the space between the words of Isaiah and Mary and Jesus and the injustice we see in our midst. That’s the work of the Christian. That’s our calling as followers of Jesus: to both mind and minimize the gap between God’s vision and our world.

I encourage you to live by that 22 second sermon. Let the words get deep into your soul, even if they occasionally get under your skin. And know that Jesus came into the world precisely to enact God’s big, bold, and beautiful vision for all of us.

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B, 2021)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 24, 2021 (3 Epiphany, Year B)

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” The apostle Paul writes these words at the end of this very brief passage we just heard from First Corinthians. “For the present form of this world is passing away.” It sure feels as if the present form of our world has been “passing away” these past months. In so many aspects of our lives, the present form of this world has been passing away in ways both painful and necessary, challenging and hopeful. External traditions and assumptions have been overturned even as our internal priorities have been reset and redefined. 

Presumably…hopefully…at some point this year, we’ll begin to emerge from this pandemic. It will be an opportunity to return to some things we’ve so longed for and, at the same time, open us up to a new world view. There will be both a reckoning and a recognition that some things will never be the same. Which is both exciting and a bit terrifying. Change always is. And this will impact nearly every aspect of our lives — the ways in which we work and play and worship. “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

St. Paul wasn’t speaking of a post-pandemic world, of course. He was pointing to a world that had been utterly changed and transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he writes in another passage to the church in Corinth, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Now, it would be easy to view this passing away that Paul speaks of as something to fear. Or mourn. Or at least to be depressed about. Paul lays it all out — he advises the married to act as if they have no spouse, mourners not to mourn, the joyful not to rejoice, purchasers as if they had no possessions. In a word, as the writer of Ecclesiastes might say, it’s all vanity. Relationships, emotions, material things, they’ll all pass away right along with the world. So what’s the point, really?

Well, it would be incredibly pull-the-covers-over-your-head depressing if that’s all there was to it. But Paul writes these words in the context of relationship with Jesus Christ. The point is really that our world — the visible world in which we live and move and have our being — is not nearly as substantial and knowable and controllable as we seek to make it. We are utterly dependent upon a world we cannot see, upon a creator so often hidden from our eyes. Without faith, life would all be a vain, purposeless flailing of limbs and emotions.

But it’s not. Because our hope is not grounded in what we see or do in this present time. Which doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter or that we shouldn’t attend to our relationships or that we shouldn’t feel deeply and emotionally connected to the things around us. Everything we do matters. Our actions matter. Our values matter. Our concern for others matters. It’s just that what is to come, matters more. In the human experience, we encounter things both seen and unseen, visible and invisible. And faith is about allowing the unseen things to impact our interactions with the seen things. 

This may all sound a bit ethereal and abstract, but the whole concept finds its expression in the specificity of Jesus Christ. When Jesus calls the first disciples he looks at them and says, “Follow me.” With those two little words, he’s inviting Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him in the here and now. He’s inviting them to literally drop their fishing nets and follow him as he preaches and teaches and heals; as he challenges the princes and principalities of this world; as he exposes the hypocrisy of the religious establishment; as he embodies God’s dream for a just world right here on earth. And he’s inviting them into a deeper life of abundance and joy and meaning that transcends all that they can see and hear and feel and touch. He’s inviting them into the very heart of God. He’s inviting them into the mystery of God’s eternal grace. He’s inviting them into a world they can know but not see. “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

And this sense of expectation, of anticipation at the unseen and untold joys that are to come, is where hope abides. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus has ushered in a new era. One that has started the clock running on Christ’s eventual return. Jesus has died and has risen and will come again. And while we know neither the day nor the hour when this will take place, still it puts us on a trajectory of hope.

And I would argue that we, too, are on a trajectory of hope. Both as Christians awaiting those unseen things, and as Americans, as people of St. John’s, awaiting a post-pandemic world. We may not know precisely what it will look like, but we do know that it will be infused with God’s love.

I was thinking this week about the first time I wore a mask in public. It was early on in the pandemic, when we were all quarantined and Bryna sent me out to the Fruit Center in what felt like a full suit of body armor — mask, gloves, hat, clothes that would go straight into the laundry — to pick up groceries that would then be wiped down with antibacterial spray in the garage before being put away in the kitchen. And, if I was lucky enough to find it, at least one rare and glorious roll of toilet paper. I remember feeling quite foolish and very self-conscious as I walked up and down the aisles viewing my fellow shoppers less as other people and more as threats to my health and well-being. There was much we still didn’t know about this mysterious new virus. 

What’s amazing to me is how quickly we all got used to doing things in new ways. We settled into routines that would have been unimaginable less than a year ago. Our old world passed away. And although we trust that this is all temporary, we still don’t know what changes to our routines and traditions will remain. 

In the end, unless we recognize that everything in front of us will pass away, we can’t begin to fully live. Only then can we say along with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul in silence waits, truly my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.” 

We are on a trajectory of hope, even as what we think is so important in our lives passes away. All is not vanity. Because all is grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ, the one who pierces us with his knowing eyes and says, “follow me.”

Last Epiphany (Year A, 2020)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 23, 2020 (Last Epiphany, Year A)

I don’t know about you, but as a kid, The Wizard of Oz totally creeped me out. I think I wicked-witchwas forced to watch it by some babysitter when I was way too young, and the whole wicked witch thing and the flying monkeys gave me nightmares for years.

This may be why my favorite part of the entire movie actually has nothing to do with tin men or cowardly lions or even good witches. It was when Dorothy woke up from her dream and everything returned to normal. You remember that scene, right? Auntie Em is there comforting Dorothy, and all the people in her life — her family and friends, who were the characters in her dream — crowd around her. Toto jumps up on the bed. And Dorothy continues her mantra, “There’s no place like home.”

I think about that scene as Jesus heads down the mountain with Peter, James, and John in the aftermath of that miraculous moment of transfiguration. Suddenly everything returns to normal. We move from the transcendent to the ordinary; from the luminous to the everyday; from Technicolor to black and white. That was literally the technique used in the 1939 film where everything that happened in Oz was filmed in color while everything in Kansas at the beginning and the end of the movie was filmed in black and white. In that final scene when the dream — or for me, the nightmare — is finally over, everything returns to the way it was. And that’s how I imagine it felt to Peter, James, and John as they walked back down the mountain with Jesus.

I mean, what happened up there was kind of scary! Not in a Wicked Witch of the West kind of way, but it was certainly unsettling. And at one level the story of the transfiguration reads like a film script that makes liberal use of Hollywood special effects. Their friend Jesus’ appearance is transformed before their very eyes. His face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, two long-dead prophets appear, and the voice of God comes booming out of the sky. The disciples are naturally confused by all of this and we hear that “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” So at the same time that Jesus is transfigured in glory; the disciples are disfigured by fear. And then just as suddenly, everything returns to normal; the film reverts to black and white.

But you can’t just experience the miraculous and then get back to everyday life as if nothing happened. A divine encounter changes everything. And that’s what this was. The three disciples caught a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrection glory; they are offered a rare, this-side-of-heaven window into the very divinity of Jesus. That’s what these “special effects” are all about. And Peter, James, and John are forever changed by the encounter. Just as Dorothy’s outlook on life and home has been forever changed by her dream, the disciples are transformed by their experience. When you’ve had a life changing experience — that’s precisely the point. Your life irrevocably changes. 

Now, we hear the story of the transfiguration, this literal mountaintop experience, every year on the last Sunday before Lent. But as it’s a bit confusing, both for the three disciples and for us, I’d like to just take a moment to talk about what exactly is going on here. Jesus has led these three up a mountain. Not that Jesus plays favorites, exactly, but Peter, James, and John have a privileged role, like an inner circle of discipleship. In addition to this experience, it’s these three who are with Jesus when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and prays in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he’s crucified. They are special witnesses to the ministry of Jesus in all of its divinity and humanity. They’ve seen him do the miraculous; they’ve seen him experience the miraculous; and they’ve seen him at his most achingly vulnerable, praying before his arrest and crucifixion. 

So, while it makes sense that Jesus would take Peter, James, and John with him on this arduous trek up the mountain, at first glance the figures they encounter offer much less clarity. The disciples look up to see Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah, two long-dead prophets of old. If Jesus’ glowing face wasn’t disconcerting enough, seeing these two heroes of the faith must have been terrifying. Which may be why Peter starts babbling about building three dwellings.  

But there’s significance here. These weren’t random choices. The presence of Moses, the great Hebrew prophet and Law-giver and Elijah, a prophetic leader of the Hebrew people, point to Jesus’ own role in salvation history. As God’s son, he is the revealer and fulfiller of the Law of Moses. And he is also one specially chosen to speak truth in the face of oppression; one who reveals the will of God for all people, especially those living under the yoke of injustice.

So, to transfigure is also to reveal. Through this moment of transfiguration, Jesus’ true identity as God’s son is revealed; Jesus’ message of bringing hope and salvation to all people is revealed; Jesus’ mission to lift up the least and the lost is revealed. And not just revealed but given God’s divine stamp of approval. That’s what’s happening, albeit in dramatic fashion, up on that holy mountain.

ozOne of the details I love about this story is how, after the disciples are overcome with fear, and cowering on the ground, Jesus comes over to them, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When the excitement is over and everything returns to normal, when the disciples return to Kansas, Jesus reaches out and touches his friends. It is such a gentle, compassionate, loving gesture. One easily skipped over in the afterglow of what the disciples have just witnessed and what we have just heard. 

But that’s the thing about this faith of ours. The smallest and most compassionate acts coexist with the greatest glory. Transfiguration and touch. A simple act of tenderness paired with a glimpse of the resurrection.

Like those of us preparing to enter the wilderness of Lent, the disciples are about to enter their own wilderness. A time when they will be separated from Jesus by his death. This glimpse of resurrection glory will see them through this dark time, offering them an olive branch of hope through the flood of darkness and despair. And while we know the end of the story, I encourage you to hold on to the image of the transfigured Jesus up on that holy mountain as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. Let it shine in your soul as we anticipate and wait for the glory of Easter. Be aware of Jesus’ loving touch on your own heart. Allow it to help you survive whatever troubles you may encounter in the wilderness of this mortal life.

And then hold on to those vibrant colors of resurrection glory when everything returns to normal. There’s comfort in normal; there really is no place like home. But let the dream of God’s love for you live on, even as we place all our hope in the coming resurrection of Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, (2020, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 9, 2020 (Epiphany 5, Year A)

On March 21, 1630, at Holyrood Church in Southampton, England, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony spoke to the group of colonists who would set sail upon the Arbella to settle in the New World. Referencing the passage we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, Winthrop famously proclaimed to his fellow Puritans that their new settlement would be “as a city upon a hill.” 

And while we’ve come to see this phrase as one of soaring inspiration, Winthrop’s use ofCityOnHill it was a warning, really. A reminder that, as he put it, “the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken…we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” 

This notion of a “city upon a hill” is a wonderfully vivid and powerful image, a fitting metaphor for Jesus to include in his Sermon on the Mount, from which this text is taken. Jesus uttered this phrase in the context of encouraging his followers to be as salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

He’s talking about discipleship. He’s talking about the great responsibility that comes with hearing the Good News and then dedicating your life to following Jesus. It’s not enough to just hear Jesus’ message, we’re called to heed it. To live out our faith in the world as examples and agents of God’s holiness; to live as Christ’s own hands and feet in the world; to claim our identity as followers of Jesus, and then to act upon our faith; to let the light of Christ that shines within each one of us, shine forth into the world.

That’s the spiritual context of this “city upon a hill.” It’s an invitation — a command really —  from Jesus to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

And, frankly, I’m not sure whether this whole notion of a “city upon a hill” is better known because of the Sermon on the Mount, or because it’s become part of the mythology of America. A mythology first lit by Governor Winthrop, but a torch carried by politicians of every persuasion ever since. A belief that we, as Americans, have a responsibility, a God-given duty, to be a beacon of hope to the world. 

Soon after his election as President, John F. Kennedy spoke of America as a “city upon a hill,” first saying, “I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.”

Ronald Reagan said this in his farewell address: “I‘ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” A poignant thought in our current political climate. 

But there’s an inherent spiritual arrogance embedded in thinking about this nation as a shining “city upon a hill.” The idea that God’s favor has been specially placed upon America, making this nation a model for all the other nations of the world; that our way and culture is somehow better than anyone else’s. Many of us grew up on this narrative of American exceptionalism and have simply assumed that it was true. We have embraced this elevated sense of nationalistic pride because, after all, who doesn’t want to feel special and morally superior? 

But our whitewashed mythology fails to mention some hard truths. Like the native people who were pushed off the hill upon which our shining city was built. Or the black slaves who were relegated to the valley below. Or the women who were left voiceless as the bricks of this city were being laid. If these stories are left untold, the narrative is an incomplete manuscript at best; and a work of fiction at worst.

The words we speak, of course, don’t always live up to our noble ideals. Rhetoric doesn’t always match reality. This is true of the Declaration of Independence — “All men are created equal” — really? Then why are white men the only ones who can participate in government. The Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — really? Then why are we building walls to keep people out? And, yes, the Bible — “Love your enemy as yourself” — really? Then why are we bombing them? 

We love lofty language, but we often shy away from the hard work to enact it. We love soaring rhetoric, but we don’t always want to roll up our sleeves to turn dreams into reality. The personal cost is too great. We fear a loss of privilege and prestige. And this is the hard work of faith — aligning our words with our actions. Proclaiming Jesus not only with our lips but in our lives. 

Now, I still love that image of a “city upon a hill.” But it remains aspirational and unrealized. Both spiritually speaking, and as it relates to the ways in which we think about this country. The prophet Isaiah reminds us in our Old Testament passage this morning that until we “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses, and cover the naked,” this city remains an unfulfilled dream. So we have some work to do.

But when we do it, says the prophet, when we take steps to enact justice in the world, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Then, as Jesus says, “your light will shine before others.” And that’s where this image of that shining city upon a hill brings hope and salvation to bear. Not when we attempt, in our hubris, to shine a light upon ourselves and our own goodness. But when we recognize that God alone is the source of this light. And that ours is to walk humbly in the warm glow of God’s reflected glory. 

So this is the question for all of us this morning. How will you act as salt and light to the world? How will you turn rhetoric into reality? How will you let the light of Christ that burns brightly within you, shine before others? I think Isaiah offers us a pretty clear roadmap for taking those first steps.

The thing is, we are all works in progress, collectively a city that is still under construction. Serving God means acknowledging just this. That we are broken vessels in need of the healing that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. And that, with God’s help, we will continue to  build that city upon a hill. As individuals, as a community of faith, and as a nation.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020