Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 4, 2018 (Epiphany 5B)

A stomach virus is a miserable thing. A nasty strain has been going around this winter and a good number of us have succumbed to it. The reason I’m up here in the pulpit this morning and not Natalie — as it says in your bulletin — is because she was stricken this week. Please keep her in your prayers and good wishes.

But if the flu gods have passed you over this year — I mean, there’s still plenty of flu season left — but if you’ve been lucky so far, chances are you can vividly recall a time when you weren’t so lucky. It truly is miserable. The nausea, the fever, the achy-ness. The writhing uncomfortably on the bathroom floor as death seems like a more attractive option than another round of, well, you get the picture. 

Not to get too graphic, but this must have been what Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law was Thermometergoing through when Peter and and his brother Andrew showed up with James, John, and this Jesus fellow. Mark’s gospel brings us into this story at the worst possible moment for this poor woman. She’s burning up with a high fever, probably drenched in sweat, weak and woozy. And as she contemplates the relative merits of living versus dying, she must have been just thrilled to hear that company had arrived. Her son-in-law barges in unannounced with his entourage. And at one level this woman must have thought to herself, and probably not for the first time, “I cannot believe my daughter married that fool!”

In a state of barely feeling human, quite possibly actually on the verge of death, she must have been further outraged to hear footsteps coming toward her. Her daughter had actually married a man who would introduce someone to her in this state? It’s hard to know exactly what happened next. Jesus approaches this woman and takes her hand. Without a word he lifts her up. And the fever immediately leaves her. In an instant she is restored to health and wholeness. And in an instant she has become a disciple of Jesus. Like her son-in-law Peter, who just a day or two before dropped his fishing net to follow Jesus, this woman, too, experiences a profound moment of healing and conversion. 

Now, at this point, the story seems to take an offensive twist. At least to our modern ears, attuned as they are to issues of gender equality. Because the instant Peter’s mother-in-law is cured, she begins to serve the men who had arrived. You can almost hear one of them saying, “Now that your fever’s broken and, well, as long as you’re up, could you maybe hook us up with some nachos?” And in other ways, too, the whole story isn’t exactly a paragon of women’s liberation. The men are named, the woman is anonymous, identified only in relation to her son-in-law. The men are healthy, the woman is sick. We hear no mention at all of Peter’s wife, who was presumably also in the house. And then this whole business of leaping to her feet after she’s cured, to bring them some food. 

But despite the difficulty of hearing this through the filter of our own culture, the story is actually quite progressive. What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, which in itself goes against our own Fred Flintstone-inspired stereotypes, but that he had any relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother.

This relationship was such a non-factor that I don’t think there was even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter refused to be bound by the cultural norms of the day. He treated this woman, to whom he had no obligation, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. All dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry. And all themes we continue to struggle with in our own supposedly more “enlightened” cultural context.

The other important lesson in this story is that the woman’s act of service showed to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, could be disciples of Jesus. This was not the norm. Men formed communities of learning around teachers in the ancient world. But the women were not invited into these circles of intimacy and discipleship. Yet we see Jesus again and again subverting this through his interactions with women: Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, Mary Magdalene. So taken in context, this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. Lessons we are still learning and issues we are still struggling with in every single facet of society, including the church.

But back to those nachos. On one level it’s still just so hard to reconcile this story with our modern value structure. But on another level the newly healed woman’s immediate response to serve makes perfect sense. She was called by Jesus and her response is to serve. Just as we are all called by Jesus and our response is to serve. We do this in different ways but when Jesus took this woman’s hand and lifted her, she was tangibly touched by Jesus and called to service in his name.

Like Peter’s mother-in-law we, too, are touched by Jesus and called to service. We are touched by Jesus through our common worship, through prayer, and through acts of kindness done by our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life. We are called to service in his name each day and our response must be to serve Christ. That’s why we’re here this morning: to be touched by Jesus, to be lifted up by him, and then to be sent back out into the world to reach our hands to others in his name.

It’s a work in progress, no doubt. And Jesus may reach for our hands when we’re feeling least prepared to look up and take it. But he’s always in our midst, always reaching out that hand to lift us up, to heal us, to convert us, and to call us to service in his name. So, take his hand. Stand up. And serve.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018


Baptism of Our Lord 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 7, 2018 (Baptism of Our Lord)

Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I mean, it’s been a week so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put anyone on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick. Which is why I pre-empted the whole thing by not making any.

But as I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it 167baptireminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. This doesn’t make us bad or weak. Rather, it binds us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.

Because we all go though periods of reengagement with our spiritual lives or renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. That it’s easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship.

And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life: Avoid silence. Shun introspection. Over-schedule yourself. Stay online. Keep the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula.

The thing is, we follow a Lord who invites rather than compels. You don’t have to follow Jesus. No one can make you. Children may be forced to go to church but you aren’t. No one’s threatening to take away your phone if you don’t show up. Jesus so desires to lead you into joy and fullness of life. But he’s not going to yank you along like a petulant child. Jesus requests the pleasure of your company but he doesn’t insist upon it. That’s not his way.

Even John the Baptist in his loud, urgent, impossible-to-miss proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was simply issuing an invitation on the banks of the Jordan River. He wasn’t grabbing people and forcibly dunking them; baptism isn’t some sort of water torture.

So what’s the point of baptism? Well, it initiates an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, sealing us as Christ’s own forever with a mark that never fades away. And this permanence of divine relationship is the key. Again, we may fall away — we will fall away — in our relationship with God. But God never falls away from us. That’s the power and the promise of the baptismal waters through which we all emerge. That no matter what we do or fail to do, Jesus never forsakes us. God’s invitation is always extended.

And I think that’s the difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. And it all begins with the relationship initiated at baptism, this sense that God never gives up on us.

The other difference is that we don’t need to wait until January to recommit to God. We can do that right now. Or tonight or tomorrow or next month or next year. Or any day in between. One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again. To renew right relationship with God. And isn’t that an amazing and inspiring notion? That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. Waiting for us to return. Patiently and eagerly yearning for us to follow him.

You know, I love that we have baptisms in early January each year. Just when we think we’ve seen the last of John the Baptist, this seminal figure of Advent who prepares the way for the arrival of Jesus and figures so prominently in our Christmas preparations, he returns to baptize Jesus. And there is something about new beginnings and baptisms that go together.

I have to admit, however, that I’m a little intimidated at the prospect of baptizing Arthur Van Niel this morning. Not because he’s Father Noah’s son. That’s the cool part. I love that. But I’m a bit intimidated because on Christmas Eve, Arthur played Jesus in the pageant. And who am I to baptize Jesus?

Actually the Baptist wondered the same thing. In Matthew’s account of our Lord’s baptism, John basically says to Jesus when he asks him to baptize him, “What are you nuts? You’re the one who’s supposed to baptize me!” Nonetheless the Baptist consents. And so will I. But you can understand John feeling completely unqualified to baptize the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. And yet Jesus still extends the invitation. He lovingly invites John to baptize him, to be in relationship with him. In the same way he invites relationship with you.

IMG_8646Making new Christians through baptism on the very day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism does remind us of the power of every baptism we do here at St. John’s. It it not a cute little rite of passage but a bold rite of commitment. We should all be a bit intimidated in the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down upon us through the waters of baptism. Or if not intimidated at least in awe of the power of divine relationship that takes place here. The permanent bond of this relationship that takes hold in these children and that we all renew in ourselves when we join in saying the baptismal covenant. We are witnesses to this; and how incredible is that?

Yes, the newly baptized will fall down in their relationship with God, just as we all do. No matter how much they or we resolve to stay the course of faith. But the good news of this day is that “even when we fail, always we begin again.” We can do this but only with the support of one another and only with God’s help. The true gift of baptism is the power of God’s love for us. And that never, ever fades away.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (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 12, 2017 (6 Epiphany, Year A)

“I hate people.” Now, that’s not a direct quote from me, so relax. But this is something a friend of mine says on a fairly regular basis — whenever I tell him about a particularly challenging encounter with a stranger or a tough situation with a family member or sticky circumstances with someone at church, (not this church, of course). “I hate people” is kind of his misanthropic mantra. It’s a rather dark view of human nature, to be sure, but there are times when, if we’re pushed, we can’t help but agree. At least for a moment or two.

Now, if you really unpacked this idea using a theological framework, I guess you could get into the fall of humanity and its utter depravity and the absolute need for redemption. Though I don’t think this is really the spiritual takeaway I want to leave you with this morning.

But much of our anxiety in this life is caused by other people. By the way they treat us or hurt us or act towards us. And things would be so much easier and run so much more smoothly if other people didn’t get in the way, right? If they just left us alone to do things our way, on our schedule, to our liking. But life doesn’t work that way. Despite all our talk about “rugged individualism,” we’re rather dependent upon one another; we live interdependent lives woven into communities based on family and proximity and vocation and interest and faith. We are, for better or worse, a communal species.

In this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount — and by the way, this sermon has "Sermon on the Mount"been going on for three weeks now, so just remember that when you want to complain about the preaching around here — but in today’s section, Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see that every action we take impacts those around us. The life of faith isn’t an individual proposition.

Jesus may have looked deep into the soul of each individual when he called them with the words, “Follow me,” but he invited them to become a community of disciples. He didn’t ask them to be spiritual lone rangers but to follow him together; to care for one another, to support one another, to love one another. Because Jesus knew that humans can’t live fruitful, faithful lives in isolation. We need others to reach our fullest spiritual potential, as it’s set out in our Baptismal covenant. And so, as he continues this famous sermon, Jesus talks about the different relationships we have — with friends and spouses and strangers and family members. And he’s well aware of just how complex, how potentially damaging, and how life-giving, our interdependence can be.

Ultimately, this whole notion of interconnectedness revolves around accountability. We are first and foremost accountable to God, of course. Everything we do or fail to do impacts our relationship with the divine. Our actions either bring us closer to God or distance us from God. And that places a burden of responsibility upon us — our actions matter, our words matter. They matter to God.

Which brings us to the other side of this accountability equation: because we live in various communities made up of people, we are accountable to one another. Being accountable to others is not always easy. Our interconnectedness can be messy. It can mean directly confronting those whose actions hurt us, and it can mean being confronted when our own actions don’t live up to the standards of civility and good citizenship.

It’s why Jesus speaks about being reconciled to one another — something especially important in a faith community but equally important in every aspect of our lives. Allowing things to fester below the surface, in any relationship, always proves toxic. Most of us are conflict averse, but if we are to be accountable to one another and move beyond the hurtfulness, open and honest dialogue is the only way forward.

Here’s an example of how accountability works in the church. At least in the Episcopal Church. Because you may not know this, but you can’t just decide to become a priest. You can’t just enroll yourself in seminary and come out wearing a collar a few years later. It doesn’t work that way.

Of course, these days you can just go online and get ordained. Not in the Episcopal Church, mind you, but if you have an internet connection you, too, could become an ordained minister — of some sort — by the time I finish this sermon.

But an authentic calling, as the Church understands it, is a matter of communal discernment not individual preference. For instance, when something started to stir deep inside my own soul in my mid-20’s, I went in to talk to my parish priest. And after he first counseled me to think about doing something, anything, besides ordained ministry, we started meeting regularly. Eventually, when he recognized a call, he enrolled me in the diocesan discernment process which involved all sorts of holy hoops and hurdles. A group of fellow parishioners was set up to help me test and explore this sense of call; I met regularly with others around the diocese who felt similarly called; there were physicals and psychological tests and internships in nursing homes and parish settings and meetings with panels of lay people and clergy from throughout the diocese and eventually with the bishop, who ultimately had the authority to decide whether or not to allow me to move forward in the ordination process and go on to seminary.

Among other things, this was a process of accountability. A mutual process that allowed the community to explore the sense of call along with the person discerning that call. They could have said, “We think you have some gifts but we don’t think ordained ministry is where they lie.” And that certainly happens. And should happen. But everyone I encountered in this long process was seeking to be accountable to me, to the Church, and to God. And that takes hard, brutally honest work. It’s not a perfect process but, when done with authenticity and deep faith, it does help raise up faithful, competent, committed clergy.

The point isn’t to teach a How to Become a Priest 101 class. It’s to highlight the centrality and importance of community and accountability in our faith lives. We are all accountable to one another and to God. There are no lone wolves in a community of faith. It doesn’t work that way. There are certain spiritual checks and balances that keep everyone open and honest and accountable to one another. Which is precisely Jesus’ point.

Again, Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals but into a community of fellow believers and strivers. Sometimes we may drive one another crazy; sometimes we may disagree; but in the end we are all there for one another. We lift each other up when times are difficult and celebrate with each other in times of joy. That’s the gift of our interconnectedness; that’s the gift of being accountable to one another; that’s the gift of the community into which Jesus beckons us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Epiphany (3 Epiphany, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 22, 2017 (3 Epiphany, Year A)

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

How’s that for a timely passage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 21-womens-march-pink-01-w710-h473President on Friday and protests all over the world on Saturday? “Be in agreement” with “no divisions among you” and “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Yeah, there hasn’t been so much of that of late. We seem to have more disagreements than ever, we’re more divided than ever, and disunity rules.

In other words, the United States of America at this moment in history has an awful lot in common with the early church. Paul’s letters were written to the burgeoning but small communities he had started — in this case to the Corinthians but also the Thessalonians and Ephesians and Philippians and all those other names readers in church have been saying and sometimes stumbling over for generations. 

And we often put a gloss on these first communities of Jesus followers. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘it must have been great to be a Christian back then. Everyone agreed on everything, there was no conflict, it was all so spiritual and peaceful.’ But then you start reading Paul’s letters and a different picture emerges. Because based on his epistles, these folks argued about everything from worship to sexual ethics to socio-economic class to what they could and couldn’t eat. Literally, the moment Paul left one of these communities, the divisions would break out.

These were faithful people, seeking to follow Jesus, who simply disagreed on what this looked like in practice. Remember, there was no rule book to follow. No “What Would Jesus Do” wristbands. Yes, there was Hebrew Scripture to look to but there was not a New Testament to consult because it hadn’t yet been written. And even if there had been, the Bible itself was never intended to be God’s rulebook.

And I think that, for the most part, as citizens of this country we are decent people who want to help others while maintaining a certain amount of autonomy for ourselves and our families. We often disagree on the specifics of what this looks like. Hopefully with civility, but that seems to be increasingly rare.

Paul was quite aware of the nature of humanity — our pettiness and shortcomings. Our yearning to put our own interests above those of others. Our desire to subjugate the vulnerable and weak. Paul was certainly no saint himself — well, I mean he was in the church sense, which is why he’s known as “St. Paul.” But he had his own personality quirks that rubbed people the wrong way. You can’t by sheer force of will and personality almost single-handedly spread a religion across the known world without annoying some people along the way. Or running afoul of the governing authorities. And Paul endured the beatings and imprisonments and eventual martyrdom to prove it.

So, knowing all this, Paul’s call to the Corinthians to “be in agreement” with one another despite all their differences sounds, at one level, rather Pollyanna-ish. Let’s just all come together for a group hug. Well, Paul’s answer, despite appearances, was not “Let’s all just get along.”

The unity he’s talking about transcends viewpoint and perspective and party. Because unity in Christ transcends all of these petty particulars. That’s what Paul is trying to convey here. That there is something so much greater that binds us together; and that something is Jesus Christ. And this is precisely what we can learn as we gather in the months following a bitter, divisive election season. That if we keep Jesus at the center of our lives, it doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or any other label we use to describe our viewpoints. It’s not that these differences don’t matter; it’s that Jesus exposes all of our labels and self-identifiers as false and fleeting constructs. The cross of Christ transcends whatever banner under which we choose to march. And in divisive times in our national political life, we do well to remember this.

I admit I’ve personally had a rough week wrestling with the ways the Episcopal Church has been part of the Inauguration festivities in Washington. And this has nothing to do with who won or lost this particular election — it’s bigger than that. Because one of the great debates is about the often uneasy relationship between church and state. Yes, the Constitution is clear about separation and yet tradition often belies this. There is a great tradition that the morning of the Inauguration the President-elect attends a service at St. John’s, Lafayette Square, which is across the street from the White House. It’s an Episcopal church informally known as “The Church of the Presidents” — there’s even a pew specially reserved for the president and every president since James Madison has worshipped there on occasion.

photo1At one level, this practice brings pride to Episcopalians everywhere, even as it hearkens back to a bygone era when we were associated with the political and cultural elite. And then there’s the other tradition of the prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral — the Episcopal cathedral in the Diocese of Washington — that takes place the day after the Inauguration. It’s hospitable, perhaps, to offer our space, but at what cost?

For instance this year’s preacher at the president’s private service at St. John’s was an inflammatory Southern Baptist who has made disparaging remarks against gays and Catholics and Mormons and Muslims, among others. Hardly what I would expect to come from the pulpit of one of our churches. Now, as an Episcopal parish, the rector has the authority to invite an outside preacher with the consent of the bishop. Usually, the President-elect’s transition team chooses the lineup and this gets signed off on as a formality. But what happens when you bring in a divisive preacher whose interpretation of Scripture is antithetical to our own. Yes, we welcome all people into our churches but that shouldn’t mean inviting them to preach in our pulpits. And so I struggle with this.

It’s been argued that when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, paving the way for it to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it was a Faustian bargain. Yes, it ended the persecution of Christians and allowed the faith to come out from the underground into large, state-sanctioned sanctuaries. But as an official religion, we gave up our status as followers of the one who spoke truth to power and advocated for the poor and downtrodden and ministered among outcasts and sinners. The church was vaulted from outsider status to being the ultimate insider. Suddenly bishops took on the trappings of princes and the church in many ways became complicit with the powers and principalities it sought to stand against.

As a denomination I think we need to rethink this relationship. And this has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office. That changes. But the Church as an institution must be free to call out our leaders when actions stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Complicity is not an option. You cannot be both prophet and king. And the Church must maintain its prophetic voice in the world if it’s going to have any relevance at all. We must be able to speak out in defense of the poor and vulnerable and downtrodden and those on the margins of society — whatever the political cost — or we fail to live up to our high calling.

So all this tribal warfare — and at a base level that’s what politics is — is folly to Paul. He doesn’t care what camp you’re in. Literally could not care less. Because he sees it all as a distraction from what really matters. And what really matters is preaching the gospel and living out Jesus’ words in the world as faithful Christians. Period. The cross always transcends the flag. It must overshadow the flag or we have no business claiming to be the hands and heart of God in the world.

So unity, yes. But not allegiance unless it is to Jesus. We will not always agree but we must always be one in Christ. That’s the calling of our baptism; that’s our challenge; that’s the unity to which Paul beckons.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Baptism of Our Lord 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 8, 2017 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

When I returned from my October pilgrimage to Jordan I vowed that I would not begin every subsequent sermon with the words, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I mean, let’s be honest. That would get pretty old, pretty quickly. And I’ve dutifully kept this promise. Even during Advent when I preached about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, I didn’t once mention that I’d been to the site of King Herod’s palace. Or that I’d seen with my very own eyes the caves that were used as prisons along the hillside leading up to the palace. I could have painted a vivid picture of that cave in all its isolated glory and talked about the amazing selfies I took among the palace ruins. But, for the sake of not coming across like a pompous, know-it-all preacher, I demonstrated heroic self restraint and kept my mouth shut.

Well, that ends this morning. Because, say it with me, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I 14589893_10210706753690840_204573456376960638_owent to the very site on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. And I had the great privilege of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of Episcopalians right along the banks where Jesus himself was baptized. And we renewed our baptismal covenants — as we will all do in a few moments — while actually standing in the river. It was a magnificent, profoundly moving, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience.

Now, because there are a lot of hymns and spirituals that describe the Jordan, I kind of felt as if I’d already been there before. We tend to sing them during Advent as John the Baptist engages his forerunner role pointing not to himself but to the one who is to come. We sing, “On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh” and “What is the crying at Jordan?”

The most well-known song, though it’s not in our hymnal, is probably “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” — which, if you listen to all the verses, is less a children’s song and more a rip-roaring spiritual in which we hear that the Jordan River is both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold.” Hallelujah. Well, I’m here to report to you, once and for all, that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide, nor chilly, nor cold. So let’s just get that out of the way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; but singing about a river that’s “tepid and narrow” just kind of loses something in translation. But the particulars of the river itself don’t really matter. Because what matters is that the place in question is holy ground. Something remarkable happened down by that riverside.

Now, the baptism we hear about this morning is…rather confusing. At one level, we rightly ask ourselves, why Jesus even needed to be baptized in the first place. If this ancient purification ritual is being offered by John as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would one who lived among us yet without sin, need to be baptized at all? Perhaps it’s an expression of his solidarity with us; a connection between Jesus’ humanity and our humanity.

But I think this whole scene in Matthew’s gospel illuminates the question of Jesus’ identity. John had been pointing to the one who is to come, the Messiah, God’s anointed, the person whose sandal he is unfit to tie. And suddenly here he is, in the flesh. Asking John to baptize him! Well, this certainly threw John off his voice-of-one-crying-in-the-wilderness game. He wanted Jesus to baptize him. And in the natural order of things, that’s what we’d expect. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we would expect that the master would baptize the servant; just as at the Last Supper, we would expect that the servant would wash the feet of the master.

But even as Jesus is claiming his identity as God’s son, even as the heavens rip apart and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and we hear the voice of God affirming Jesus as his beloved son, the hierarchical norms are flipped upside down. And the forerunner baptizes the Messiah; just as the Messiah will wash the feet of his disciples.

For us, too, baptism is about identity. Identity as God’s beloved children; identity as members of a faith community that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; identity as Christ’s own not for a limited time only but forever. That’s what happens when we wade in the water of baptism, whether we’re baptized as an infant or as a child or as an adult. Our primary identity becomes one who is a beloved child of God.

You know, I returned from that 10-day trip to Jordan late on a Saturday night. And as I stumbled into church the next morning, tired, overwhelmed by the entire experience, and severely jet-lagged after a sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York, a three-hour layover at JFK, and a post-midnight cab ride from Logan, I admit I was just trying to get through Sunday morning without falling asleep at the altar. And I just assumed that after that spiritual high of celebrating the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan, doing the same thing here, more or less along the banks of Hingham Harbor, would be incredibly anticlimactic. In my mind, the words “celebrate the eucharist” were replaced with the more pedestrian “get through the eucharist.”

But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. Just as the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up at the altar before which I stood.

Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.

Now, I’m not sure what others experienced that morning in October, but that’s where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people I love who seek, with me, to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.

That’s the baptismal identity we share; an identity that flows straight out of the Jordan and into our collective souls. Sometimes it’s transcendent. Sometimes it feels rather pedestrian. But through it all, we stand secure in our identity as beloved children of God; baptized into indelible relationship with our Savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Third 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 24, 2016 (Epiphany 3, Year C)

If you’ve ever applied for a job and read the accompanying position description you know that most employers want…everything. They require a dizzying array of skills that no single person can possibly have. Now, most jobs require some general competence or technical skill that you either have or you don’t. I’d never get hired as, say, a carpenter — since the worst grade I ever got in my entire life was in 6th grade shop class — or a dance instructor — since the last time I danced was at my wedding.

But in addition to specific skills, many jobs put seemingly unrealistic expectations on candidates. They want a detail oriented visionary; a diligent and painstaking researcher who is also an outgoing people person; someone young and energetic but with 40 years experience.

A church succeeds because of the talents and skills of many, not just the clergy or staff, but everybody who brings different gifts and experiences and opinions which, when offered up to the glory of God, strengthen and enrich the Body of Christ that is the church.

I mean, if we were all carpenters, we might have the most beautiful pews in the world, exquisite hand-crafted kitchen cabinets, a bathroom with a dazzling tongue and groove toilet paper dispenser, but our financial records might be in disarray. Or if we were all bankers, we might have beautifully organized spreadsheets outlining a diverse portfolio of investments but the altar flowers might be a disaster. Of course some carpenters are also wizards with a spreadsheet and some bankers can arrange flowers like Martha Stewart. But the point is, there are a variety of gifts and skills needed for a community to thrive. Collectively we have them but individually we do not. This is the joy of being part of a community; we are stronger together than we are as isolated individuals.

body-of-christAnd it’s what St. Paul is driving at in his First Letter to the Corinthians; this “body language” discourse in which he memorably tells us that, just as the body is one yet has many members, so it is that we are collectively the Body of Christ. The idea is to recognize and enable the gifts in one another and then offer them all to the glory of God through the mission and ministry of the church.

As is often the case with Paul’s letters, he was writing to an early Christian community in Corinth that was getting it wrong. The epistles weren’t written simply to say “hello;” Paul didn’t write his letters just to “check in” or tell people that the weather was beautiful in Thessalonika. He was usually writing to address a specific issue that had come up in the community. In this case, the Corinthians were using their spiritual gifts to “compete” with one another. To lift themselves up as individuals rather than the community as a whole. A practice that had led to the divisions which Paul sought to address.

It’s also helpful to remember that Paul points us to unity not uniformity. And there’s a big difference here. We can be as one in the Spirit yet disagree. That’s one of the things I love most about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican theological tradition. That while we hold core beliefs that bind us together, there is room to debate and disagree and that this is not discouraged but rather embraced as it allows us to rejoice in the diversity of our differences.

Nothing has been a better reminder of this than the recent actions taken by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion. You may have seen some of the headlines about the Episcopal Church that made the rounds last week. “Anglican Leaders Suspend Episcopal Church” or variations on the theme. It’s not everyday that we make CNN or The New York Times, so this tends to stand out. The problem is that the headlines weren’t just misleading, they were wrong. The Episcopal Church wasn’t “suspended” — the leaders of the member churches don’t have that authority and nothing will change here at St. John’s or in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

But, based on the actions of last’s year’s General Convention that approved same sex marriage rites, we were asked not to participate in several global ecclesiastical meetings for the next three years. Which may not sound like much of a consequence. I mean, only in the church would not being allowed to attend church meetings be seen as some sort of punishment. But, while not a suspension, it was an attempt to censure us for acting in a way that is not accepted by the majority of Anglican bishops.

Of course relationship is much more nuanced than any headline can convey. So here’s the deal. The worldwide Anglican Communion is made up of 38 autonomous provinces, each headed by an archbishop or, in the case of our own Episcopal Church, what we call the Presiding Bishop. They gathered in Canterbury, England, the titular seat of the Church of England, the tradition out of which the member churches derive. While some of the churches agree with us, notably the Church in Canada and Australia, many of the other church leaders, especially those from parts of Africa and Asia, oppose the action the Episcopal Church took. Hence the unfortunate headlines.

973a855c-a839-4e9e-9898-9e15f6aa765bOur own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, like any good leader of a Christian community, brings us back again and again to the heart of the gospel. In light of the actions and accusations of the bishops of the global south he said, “ Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

In other words, we, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, are seeking to follow Jesus in the most faithful way we know how. And I hope we will continue to walk with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree. But it’s complicated. Interwoven into the relationship between and among members of the Anglican Communion are contextual and cultural differences. There remains the heavy weight of colonialism and the hubris of the modern Western world. There are differing world views based upon the interpretation of Scripture and the context in which one’s faith is lived out.

Now, in the end I do think the Episcopal Church’s stance will be seen as prophetic. Love will win. Though probably not in my own lifetime and perhaps not even in the next generation. But in the meantime we will stay in relationship with our Anglican brothers and sisters because we are poorer without them, just as they are poorer without us. We need all of our body parts, as Paul might put it, in order to fully be the Body of Christ that is the holy Church of God in the world. Because relationship matters; the Anglican Communion matters; and I believe we have a responsibility to keep speaking up for the dignity of all human beings, regardless of sexual preference or identity.

So to me, staying in relationship is the greater spiritual challenge. As with any relationship it’s often easier to storm off and leave when disagreements arise. Staying and working things out is the hallmark of a valued relationship. It takes being vulnerable and listening and not rushing to judgment even if we are convinced beyond all measure that we are right. There are things we can learn from one another, and there are things we can teach one another.

As Bishop Curry put it to his colleagues at the end of the meeting in Canterbury: “God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow church leaders [Primates] in the Anglican family.” And to that we can all say ‘amen.’

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Last Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 15, 2015 (Last Epiphany, Year B)

Enough is enough. The novelty has worn off. Just make it stop. Please. The snow I mean; not this sermon. People sometimes jokingly say to clergy, “Can’t you do something about the weather? You must have some connections, right?” And I always remind them that I’m in sales, not management. So I just want to reiterate that point this morning. I am officially washing my hands of the extreme weather we’ve been having. It’s not my fault. Call the bishop.

IMG_1218We’ve all been staring up into the sky a lot in the last few weeks. Watching in disbelief as the snow just keeps falling. Liturgically, we started this Season after the Epiphany by gazing up at a bright light in the sky right along with those three wise men making their way to the manger. And the season concludes with us staring up at another bright light in the form of the transfigured Jesus. This morning we hear Mark’s account of the story that appears in slightly different forms in all three of the Synoptic gospels.

It’s tempting to try and deconstruct this story and search for metaphysical answers or rational explanations. But that won’t get us very far. It’s safer to speak about it as a metaphor for the divinity of Christ and the Transfiguration is a manifestation and affirmation of the divine character of Jesus. But there are times when it’s okay to just stand back and gaze in wide wonder at the astonishing nature of God. Times when it’s okay to simply revel in the wonder of the divine. Times when it’s okay to just be in the presence of something beyond all human comprehension.

Let’s face it, we’re not very good at sitting still and contemplating the presence of God. Our minds wander; we get distracted; our phones buzz; we have stuff to do; the kids are hungry; the driveway needs shoveling (again); it’s not on our to-do list; we’re not monks or nuns — well, some of us are but most of us are not; time is money; the game’s on; Downton Abbey’s on; I have a headache. There are so many reasons we don’t have the bandwidth to still our minds and revel in God’s presence.

But holy contemplation is an important spiritual discipline. It reminds us that, despite everything else going on in our lives, nothing is as important as spending some quality time with God. It anchors everything else and helps us keep our lives in perspective; it reminds us that our anxieties and stresses are all relative; it encourages us to reflect upon the great stretch of humanity that has come before us and will come after us.

Granted Peter, James, and John weren’t having such deep thoughts in the moment. They were terrified! And you can’t blame them. Blinding light, voice from on high, visions of two long-dead prophets. The other-worldly nature of the whole experience was precisely the point. It was other-worldly because the fullness of God is other-worldly.

At one level, I have to admit, and this is a little embarrassing, but I have transfiguration envy. I don’t mean I want to be transfigured, but I’m envious of the three disciples who witnessed this event. I mean talk about wiping away all the doubts you’ve ever experienced in a single moment. Seeing Jesus all lit up in the fullness of his resurrection glory and taking the time to just revel in the wonder of it all would forever change how you experienced God in your life.

The good news is that we are offered glimpses of the resurrection in our own lives. Not as often as we might like, perhaps, and not necessarily accompanied by the drama of a bright light; but we do have such moments. I talked about this a bit at longtime parishioner Bill Austin’s funeral in December. I still miss seeing Bill here on Sunday mornings and thought I’d share this story.

The day before he died, I went to South Shore Hospital to be with Bill and his family, and while he was physically weak, he was quite lucid and very much still Bill. I thought I’d say a few prayers, give Donna a hug, and let him rest. But Bill had other ideas. He wanted to talk. And he asked me a question no one else ever has in the waning moments of an earthly pilgrimage. Bill looked at me intently and asked “What are some moments where you have experienced God in your life?”

And after taking a deep breath, I talked about what I like to call “resurrection glimpses,” times when we encounter the divine in brief moments of conversation or interaction. They often happen at moments when you least expect them. Sometimes it’s a feeling that washes over you, sometimes it’s in serving someone in need, sometimes it’s in an encounter with the natural world, sometimes it’s in an interaction with a loved one or a stranger. To me these are moments when the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into the visible world and they keep us going until that time when we will revel in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection in the age to come.

I’ve found over the years that these resurrection glimpses often happen in moments that, on the surface of things, feel hopeless. Like dying in a hospital room. Until you sit up and, like Bill, recognize the depth of love and prayer that surrounds you; and you realize that your family, even in their grief, will be okay; and you become aware of a deep and abiding sense of peace that allows you to let go; and you truly know and feel that the presence of God isn’t just pie-in-the-sky fantasy but something real, tangible, and life-giving even in the face of death.

These mini-moments of transfiguration really can keep you going when things are difficult. It’s no accident, Jesus was revealed to the disciples in this way, just before heading into Jerusalem for the Last Supper, his trial, and crucifixion. Amid the despair, they had that resurrection glimpse to hold onto; to keep hope alive amid the darkness. Just as we’re given this gift of the Transfigured Jesus to cherish as we move into the wilderness of Lent.

So, keep open to the resurrection glimpses in your own life. Look for them; they’re out there waiting to be discovered. Make room for at least a bit of holy contemplation. You may not get the bright light and voice from heaven but I guarantee you’ll experience the presence of God in new and life-giving ways.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck