Christ the King 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 26, 2017 (Proper 29A)

There are certain children’s toys that make me feel incredibly smart. One of these is the shape sorter. You remember that one. It has simple shapes in primary colors like blue circles and red triangles and green squares. Placing the correct shape in the correct slot triggers a sense of great triumph and glee in the child while unleashing unsurpassed affirmation from mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and everyone else who has gathered to watch the scene unfold on the living room floor.

It’s used as a tool to teach young children shapes, colors, and fine motor skills but as I 951e2da7cc2887182443c4229a969993watch a child struggle and ultimately conquer the shape sorter, I sometimes think to myself. “Big deal. I can do that in my sleep. No one’s clapping for me.” But seriously, I am really good at sorting shapes.

There is some sorting going on in this morning’s gospel passage from Matthew and it’s a bit trickier than a child’s toy. Jesus talks about the coming end of the age when all of humanity will be sorted and separated one from another “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” It’s a disturbing image for those of us who like to imagine that, ultimately, we’re all headed to the same place. That we will all share in the heavenly banquet. So this kind of sorting gives us pause. We don’t want anything to do with being sorted, for fear of ending up in the wrong pile.

And yet, ironically enough, we love sorting other people. We sort them into social classes and tax brackets; we sort them by ethnic group and skin color; we sort them by class rank and education level. We like to put people into buckets because it’s easier to judge them that way. That’s really why we put so much energy into sorting others — it makes us feel better about ourselves.

And you need look no further than the church itself. If we want our parishes to reflect the wideness of God’s mercy and the diversity of God’s kingdom here on earth, we’re not very good at including all sorts and conditions of people. If you don’t look a certain way or believe a certain way or act a certain way, you won’t fit in. So you end up with churches filled exclusively with red rectangles in one neighborhood and ones filled only with blue circles in another. And you know from that child’s toy that no matter how hard you try, unless the shape fits the correct hole, it won’t get inside. That red rectangle just won’t go into the circular hole. Surely this is not the sorting God has in mind. A sorting that minimizes and marginalizes God’s creation.

The thing is, when it comes to sorting, we like to be the sorters not the sortees. But of course we are not the sorters. Separating people into groups and judging them is not a human function or role. It’s above our pay grade. And that’s a good thing because we’re pretty lousy at it. Though not for lack of trying.

But what about this whole notion of divine judgment? We want to think about God as a uniter, not a divider. We want to think about God bringing people of all different backgrounds together, not putting them through some sort of celestial strainer where the good ones go in one pile while the bad ones end up in another. What about that “amazing grace” we like to sing about? Or the “unconditional love” preachers always talk about?

Well, this is a parable about judgment. And we can’t shy away from that, even if it makes us uncomfortable. But it is a judgment rooted in mercy. A judgment based upon serving the least of these. A judgment established in seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

And at one level this sorting to which we submit is easy. There’s a litmus test for whether you’re a sheep or a goat. You’re a sheep if you have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended to the sick, and visited the prisoner. If you haven’t, you’re a goat. Sorry you weren’t a better person; good luck with your eternal punishment.

But what about those of us who have at times fed the hungry, but at other times failed to feed the hungry? What about those of us who have at times welcomed the stranger, but at other times failed to welcome the stranger? What about those of us who have at times tended the sick, but at other times failed to tend the sick? What about those of us who, in other words, are not perfect? Those of us who are human? Those of us who strive to follow Jesus in word and deed, but fall short? If perfection is the criteria, we can all cash in our goat chips and prepare for a bitter end.

The reality is that we are all hybrids — some combination of sheep and goat. We’re all Shoats or Geep or whatever the term would be. We have all followed in Jesus’ path and we have all stumbled along the way. The good news is that Jesus continually invites us to get up and try again. Jesus continually extends the invitation and offers us opportunities to serve the lost, the lonely, and the least. Those on the margins don’t need our sorting and our judgment, they need our love. The same love that Jesus offers all of us is what he expects us to show to others, by feeding and welcoming and clothing and visiting.

In our temptation to sort others, we sometimes forget that we, too, at times, are the lost, the lonely, and the least. Look at the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them…I will feed them…I will seek the lost…I will bring back the strayed…I will bind up the injured…I will strengthen the weak.” We have all strayed like lost sheep and yet God seeks us out and binds us up; God rescues us and strengthens us. And there is comfort in that.

Just as there is comfort in knowing that we are more than individual shapes in primary colors to God. We are more than sheep and goats. We are complex kaleidoscopes of humanity. Some aspects of our lives will be separated and judged, others will be affirmed and anointed. With God’s help, we will continue to be shaped and formed in God’s image. And with God’s help, we can let go of the sorting we do to others and focus instead on serving them in Christ’s name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 22, 2017 (Proper 24A)

Occasionally the weekly cycle of lectionary readings rains down upon the preacher a gift from above; like manna from heaven. Sometimes the synthesis between what’s happening in the world and the texts we’re dealt to preach on is so great, it feels like nothing short of divine intervention. Like, say, in the aftermath of a divisive election when the demonization of the other side reaches great heights and we come to church and hear Jesus’ call to “love our enemies.” Or like when we’re wrestling with a particularly thorny issue of inequality and we get that passage from Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Or like this morning on Stewardship Sunday when Jesus talks about…money. Thank you, Jesus!

But before we get into that — and, yes, I’ve asked the ushers to bolt the doors — let’s take g2858a look at this passage. It’s one of my favorites because Jesus just nails it. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with the perfect retort to a sticky situation, but six hours too late, you have to admire what Jesus says here. The Pharisees, who have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus, are convinced they finally have him this time.

After sugarcoating their intentions with false flattery, they ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. They have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason. 

The problem is, they’re messing with the wrong guy. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, that’s the well-known King James Version. We get “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s perfect. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. After Jesus spoke, we hear that the Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.” Foiled again.


But it also flips our entire relationship with money. It creates distance between our money and our identity. If we are to live faithful lives, money should not and cannot define us. Money in itself is not a bad thing, of course; it can be a wonderful thing. Last week Father Noah talked about the idols that can isolate us from God. And money is one of the big ones. When it’s used to build up, it can be a great gift. When it’s used to deny and destroy, it can be a great evil.

On Stewardship Sunday we encourage one another to give money to St. John’s. To render to God what is God’s. When we pledge to support the mission and ministry of this place, our identities become wrapped up in Jesus. We become “imitators of the Lord,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the early Christians in Thessalonika. We are proclaiming that love is what matters most in this world; we are trusting that God’s love for us will see us through any hardship; we are offering our own love to a sinful and broken world.

This time of year I often ask people the question, “Why do you give to St. John’s?” I ask because I’m genuinely curious and am often inspired by the answers. Yet while I talk a lot about the importance of pledging and why the church needs your money and how it’s spent, I’m not sure that I’ve ever answered this question directly myself.

So, why do I give to St. John’s? You may not even know that your clergy pledge to the church. I mean, it’s not like the ushers pass the collection plates our way in the middle of the service. We’re not reaching deep into our robes looking for our wallets (“I know it’s in here somewhere”). And at one level, it’s kind of odd, right? We get paid to be here, why would we give any of it back? That just seems rather…circular.

But I give for several reasons. I give because this is what Christians do to support the community in which they live out their faith. From the earliest days of the church, when being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death, they gave a portion of their income to support those in need. And I love feeling connected to the generations of Christians who have come before me. Faithful Christians who have generously given of themselves to build up the body of Christ. Of course the early church existed in an era before deferred maintenance and staff salaries and ever-rising insurance premiums. But they gave in proportion to their means to make sure people both within their community and beyond were taken care of. So giving to St. John’s reminds me that I am connected to something greater than what I can see with my own eyes. And I find deep meaning in that.

I give because I believe in the mission of St. John’s. I see first-hand the incredible ministry that takes place here and I feel compelled to support it financially. I see Sunday School rooms bursting with joy; I hear music that inspires and delights; I see sacred space that serves as holy ground in a world that desperately craves it; I watch people growing in their spiritual lives through liturgy and prayer and educational offerings; I see teenagers building houses in Appalachia and forging relationships with their peers in South Africa; I watch people opening their hearts to people in need here in America and throughout the world; I hear incredible preaching (just kidding).

I give because I love the people of St. John’s. This community brings me great joy because of all of you. I see the commitment you have to this place and it inspires me to pitch in and do my part. The ways in which you volunteer at events like the Holiday Boutique and our crazy haunted house; and in classrooms and around the altar and in building budgets and in planting bulbs and in bringing finger foods for coffee hour. I see you sharing Christ’s message and values and love with one another and the broader community in ways both seen and unseen. And I want to be a part of that. I want to continue to dream with you about where God is calling us as a community of faith; about where the Spirit may lead us in the years ahead; and this both inspires and excites me.

But mostly I give because it connects me to Jesus. It allows me to render to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is your very life. When you give generously you are giving a piece of yourself back to God. You are rendering to God your identity as a child of God. You are turning your life over to the one who loves you with reckless abandon, the one who is with you through all of life’s ups and downs, the one who never forsakes or abandons you whatever you have done or failed to do, the one whose loving kindness never ends.

I know giving money away can be hard. I’m paying college tuition. I worry about the future. There’s stuff I want. It can be a leap of faith when we so crave certainty and control. But there is such freedom in letting go of the death grip we use to cling to the idols of our lives and putting our trust in God. Freedom that truly is priceless.

This stewardship season, I invite you to join me in rendering your money unto God with joy and generosity. It feels good. It does good. And it is good.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 24, 2017 (Proper 20A)

One of the insidious foundations of Apartheid in South Africa was the system of racial classification. There were three official races and the government took great care in classifying people as white, black, or colored. The first two are pretty self-explanatory but “colored” was a catch-all grouping which included people of mixed race. Under Apartheid, race was everything — it determined where you could live, who you could marry, the types of jobs you could hold. The system wasn’t built on principles of common humanity but on difference and division.

There were actually government bureaucrats whose entire job was to determine people’s609apartheid_sign2 races in order to make sure they were put into the “correct” racial bucket. They primarily looked at things like skin color and facial features but the most infamous racial assessment was known as the pencil test. The group of us that went on the parish trip to South Africa in February learned about this while touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. And I still haven’t been able to shake the blatant disregard for humanity.

This humiliating test decreed that if a person could hold a pencil in their hair while shaking their head, they could not be classified as white. Literally, people had to stand in front of a panel of white government officials and shake their heads with a pencil stuck in their hair. Of course these tests were so imprecise and absurd that members of the same extended family were sometimes placed in different racial groups.

But beyond the inherent shame and degradation of this system, the architects of Apartheid used these racial classifications to pit the races against one another. The whole premise was to create inequalities among the races to keep them fighting with one another rather than uniting against the minority whites, who held all the power and enforced the system with utter brutality.

I have been reflecting upon this, not just because of the current state of race relations in America, but also in light of this morning’s gospel passage. Here it’s not about race, as far as we know, but about power and privilege. The owner of the vineyard had all the power and wealth and status while the laborers were left to fight over the inadequate resources left over by the elites.

At least that’s one way of looking at this parable. The traditional interpretation is that God is the owner of the vineyard, the laborers who came early were the Jews and the ones who came later were the Gentiles. Inherent in this message is that it doesn’t matter at what point you come to Jesus; as long as you eventually do, you will be rewarded. I’ve preached on this text out of this framework, highlighting the amazing grace of God’s love. And that’s a safe enough interpretation; no one’s going to argue with a preacher highlighting the limitless capacity of God’s grace.

But, as with all the parables, there are different meanings and levels of interpretation and messages. And I’ve been thinking about the owner of the vineyard from another perspective; viewing his actions through the lens of how it impacted the laborers in the story.

At one level, the owner of the vineyard is being generous — paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they worked out in the field, when the norm would have been to pay them proportionally based on how much work they had put in. That’s the fair way to do it. But it’s his money; he can do whatever he wants with it. Isn’t that one of the joys of being wealthy? You can do whatever you want with your money. If you want to build Neverland Ranch on your property complete with your own petting zoo and ferris wheel, who’s to stop you?

But at another level, by paying the laborers the same amount regardless of the hours they worked, the owner is sowing discord among them. His actions are dividing them and pitting them against one another and causing jealousy and anger. Can you imagine the walk back into town at the end of the day? The words that must have been exchanged? The violence that may have ensued?

Again, race may not have played any part in this but I think there are some parallels between what the government in South Africa tried to accomplish by sowing distrust among the races and what the owner tried to do in pitting the laborers against one another. In focusing on their own financial inequalities, they were being distracted from the broader inequality of the system.

And that’s one of the privileges of power. At the end of the day, the owner can just go back to his large, comfortable estate, put his feet up, light a cigar, and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. Why should he give any of this a second thought? Why should we? Seeing this from our own place of privilege, these laborers all got paid for an honest day’s work. Some received more than they should have. The story should be about the johnny-come-latelies being exceedingly grateful for receiving more than their usual share and for even having the opportunity to work.

But Jesus is always flipping things around and upending our pre-conceived notions and so I want you to see things from a different perspective, perhaps through a filter that is not your regular lens. To be challenged and changed and transformed.

Which is why I want you to think hard about the workers in this story. These day laborers, regardless of how long they worked out in the master’s fields, were only earning enough to get through another day. They still had to return to their humble homes — if they even had homes — and try to feed their families. They were all-too-familiar with food scarcity and the anxiety of simply trying to survive. These workers comprised the invisible under-belly of the ancient economy in a way that mirrors our own modern society.

And so we must ask ourselves, in what ways do our own actions and choices mirror the owner of the vineyard? We may well take satisfaction in our efforts to help those in need — we may even post about it on Facebook — but is it to make ourselves feel better about our own wealth and privilege or is it to make a difference in the lives of others. Are we simply perpetuating a system that benefits us at the expense of the poor? Do the people who make the things we buy or grow the food we eat have any share in the hope we proclaim on Sunday morning? We pray that the hope of the poor shall not be taken away but are we contributing to doing just that?

These are hard questions. Questions many of us would rather avoid than answer honestly, for fear of what we might discover. But Jesus keeps bringing these questions up again and again and holding a mirror up to our actions. It’s what he does. But he doesn’t condemn us when we fall short, as we inevitably do, but rather he keeps speaking the words and trusting that we will listen and change and grow ever closer to the very heart of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 10, 2017 (Proper 18A)

Ah, Homecoming Sunday. From my perspective up here in the pulpit, it looks like the Rapture…in reverse. Instead of souls being plucked up into heaven, they seem to have been deposited right back here in our pews.

But whether you’re back from summer vacation, rededicating yourself to your spiritual life, here for the first time, or if you’ve never left, I am delighted you are here this morning. It’s great to get things cranked up again with Sunday School, the choir, and all sorts of opportunities to deepen our relationships with God and one another. So, welcome; or welcome back. I’m glad you’re here.

Open any Psychology 101 textbook — as many college Freshmen are doing right now 51SKKEpdW2L._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_(well, maybe not exactly now since it’s Sunday morning, but hopefully later today) — and you’ll read about the concept of conflict avoidance. As the name implies, it’s a method of reacting to conflict which attempts to avoid directly confronting the issue at hand. It’s something we all do at times when certain situations arise. Like when your mother puts unreasonable demands on your time during the holidays or your spouse cancels the newspaper without consulting you or a co-worker is slacking off and not pulling his or her weight. We change the subject, we put off the hard conversation, we ignore the matter and hope it just goes away.

The trouble with conflict avoidance — in marriages, in the workplace, in families, in church — is that the problems we ignore generally don’t go away; they fester. And when they fester, the void in the relationship can fill with feelings of resentment and anger and betrayal. We definitely can’t live out our best lives filled with such negative emotions. They tear us down in ways that transcend whatever problem we’re dealing with.

Now, maybe this comes as a surprise, but Jesus was not a conflict avoider. At all. There’s a misperception that Jesus always turned the other cheek or that he was meek and mild; a spiritual doormat. But of course conflict avoiders don’t get themselves crucified.

Look at what he tells the disciples in this morning’s passage from the gospel of Matthew: “If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In other words, deal with it. Confront it. Name it. He did this with Pharisees who put on spiritual airs, with demons he cast out, with disciples who thought they were better than others, and with temporal authorities who questioned his motives.

Jesus didn’t address tough questions about healing on the sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners by talking about the weather. He didn’t shy away from telling his disciples exactly what the life of faith would entail — that it wouldn’t be easy; that they, too, would need to pick up their crosses in order to fully and authentically follow him.

Jesus didn’t seek out conflict but neither did he avoid it. He spoke the truth, he stood up for the vulnerable, he worked for justice — all of which brought him into direct conflict with the powers that be. And, let’s face it, it would have been much easier, much safer if Jesus had just kept his mouth shut and his head down; if he had danced around the tough topics and controversial subjects. He probably would have lived a lot longer. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid conflict, but to overcome it. And to overcome conflict, you must confront it. That’s not easy — for any of us — which is why conflict avoidance ends up in textbooks.

Now, when we hear this passage and listen to the very practical prescription for dealing with difficult situations, we usually identify with the person who has been wronged. We can all relate to a situation — either at work or with a family member — where we have felt minimized or demeaned or taken advantage of. In our minds we boldly confront the person to remedy the situation and maintain our own self-respect. We imagine ourselves getting up the courage and resolve to deal with the current situation that’s on our mind. And that’s good. I want you to think about how to address whatever it is that’s festering for you and tearing down your dignity.

But I also want you to flip this whole scenario around and identify, if just for a moment, with the other person. The person who has committed the wrong. The one who is being called out for their actions. Because we all hurt others, intentionally or not. There are others who see your actions as harmful to their dignity. And we see that the process of confronting someone is not done in isolation. Pointing out the fault in another person is a conversation, not a monologue.

So we need to be open to the criticism of others even if our first response may be defensiveness and anger. Constructive criticism helps us grow as individuals and as Christians. Because we can’t possibly see ourselves objectively, we need others who care deeply about our self-worth and who love us to point out our growing edges. Four times in these few sentences, Jesus uses the word “listen.” Being open to the loving, constructive feedback of others is so important in this life — for me, for you, for everyone in this community.

And when we do our best to grow on both sides of the equation, we’re better equipped to follow Jesus’ example of never standing idly by in a world where injustice can feel all pervasive. Which is hard. It flips people’s perceptions not just about Jesus himself but of Christians in general. There’s a deep-rooted fallacy that real Christians never get upset with others. That to be a “good” Christian is to smile a lot and be “nice” to everybody. The problem is this reduces a powerful faith to mere pleasantries; it diminishes a bold gospel of love to insignificant niceties.

Now, I’m not advocating being mean to one another — that wouldn’t exactly set the right tone for the church year. And kindness is a Christian virtue. But, as this passage demonstrates and as Jesus models, we must be honest and truthful with one another, even if that occasionally leads to some discomfort. Paul writes to the Romans that we “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Having direct conversations, leaning into difficult situations rather than avoiding them, is an act of love. And that’s the broader context here. Love is not always easy; but it is the path of Jesus.

Before I stop talking and sit down and let the service continue I did want to address one more topic. I am aware that many of you have been tracking the path of Hurricane Irma these past few days. Waking up to images of destruction in Florida this morning — despite a beautiful day here in Hingham — has felt incongruous. There is no way to avoid conflict in the form of a hurricane if you’re in its path and I know you join me in praying for the many lives that have been and continue to be affected by the spate of natural disasters that have hit our world in recent weeks: hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires. It all feels rather apocalyptic.

But I do want to be clear about one thing: none of this is God’s retribution for anything we have done or failed to do. God doesn’t toy with humanity that way. God is present in the midst of any storm — whether emotional or physical. God weeps with those who weep and lovingly wipes away every tear from our eyes. Sometimes we see the best of humanity in the most difficult circumstances. The light of Christ shines most brightly in life’s darkest moments. Hope bursts forth at times when it feels utterly lost. So we pray, we ask for mercy, and we give thanks for the very gift of life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 24, 2017 (Proper 16A)

So, did you see the eclipse? Did you catch Eclipse Fever or experience Eclipse Mania? Maybe you drove out to Carbondale, Illinois, to get the full effect. Or down to Nashville.

Now, I didn’t really get caught up in the hype. I didn’t pick up a pair of the special glasses eclipseor stare at it through a cereal box. The eclipse happened on my last day of vacation and so at the appointed time I went out into the backyard and waited. And kept waiting. At one point it seemed to get a little overcast. But that’s all I noticed.

For me the whole thing was rather…underwhelming. Like opening-Al Capone’s-vault underwhelming. I know plenty of people who had a different experience, especially my friends who geek out on astronomy and drove miles to catch the eclipse in all its “totality.” And some of you may have had a life-changing eclipse experience for all I know.

But the thing I really appreciated about the whole event was how it united people all over the country. In increasingly divided times, there was something comforting about the unity inherent in seeing everyone looking up and focusing on something bigger than themselves. For two brief minutes, the divisions among us ceased and people everywhere were suddenly all facing the same way, looking up. Sure, it took a rare, cosmic, celestial event to get people thinking beyond themselves but it was a start. It offered a moment of hope amidst the partial darkness.

Another rare, cosmic, celestial event took place a couple thousand years ago when God took on human form. I’m not really talking about the Star of Bethlehem but the Incarnation itself; of God entering our world as Jesus Christ. And just as you might have been slightly envious of those lucky enough to live in that 70-mile wide eclipse-viewing path, it’s hard not to envy those first disciples a little bit. They stood right in the path of this Jesus and experienced first-hand and in real time the Savior of the world. Yes, there was a price to pay — and they all paid it — but for a few fleeting years they stood staring at the Son of God, absorbing his teachings, basking in the warm glow of the Word made flesh.

But it’s not just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. They had to grapple with the question that continues to be asked of each one of us. A question of identity and faith and discipleship. The question Jesus pointedly asks Peter in this morning’s gospel passage: “But who do you say that I am?”

This question gets to the very heart of it all. And we can’t just sit back at a safe distance with our noses in our bulletins and read the question. We have to answer it! Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you say that Jesus is a nice guy famous for a bunch of memorable sayings? Do you say that Jesus is great, as long as he works around your own busy schedule? Do you say that Jesus is the Light of World, but only on your terms or when it’s convenient?

Or do you say, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of the living God, upon whom your entire life revolves? This confession of Peter is bold and dramatic and clear. “Jesus,” Peter seems to answer, “You. Are. The. Man.” And he means it. With all his heart he means it.

And yet Peter doesn’t always act as if he does. Totality of relationship with Jesus is the goal, but partiality is the reality. Even for Peter, “the rock” upon whom Jesus built his church, total relationship is elusive. Peter stumbles and falls and denies. And so do we. Over and over again. We strive to “not be conformed to this world” as Paul writes to the church in Rome. But it doesn’t always go very smoothly. Why? Because, in a word, we are human. That’s not an excuse; it’s a reality.

But the good news in this, the mercy in this, is that this isn’t a one-and-done question. “Who do you say that I am” is a constant refrain in the life of every Christian. It is a question that we must encounter and wrestle with and answer every single day of our lives. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Well, one way we answer this question is by coming here. And this is where the recent eclipse becomes a helpful model. Think about it. This is one of the few places where we get people with diverse opinions in the same room, facing the same way. We don’t need to wait 100 years for the stars to align — or the sun and moon in this case. We don’t even need goofy looking glasses. We can simply show up and together face this altar. Together we can answer that seminal question of faith identity that undergirds our gatherings: “But who do you say that I am?”

The catch is we can’t do this by ourselves or alone or in isolation. Individually we stumble; together we lift each other up. Individually we don’t have all those gifts Paul talks about — of prophecy and teaching and exhortation and generosity and compassion — but together we do. Individually we worship in partiality; together we worship in totality.

You know, for all my mildly curmudgeonly attitude towards the eclipse, I did hear stories of great joy surrounding the rare event. Communities gathered in anticipation and expectation and wonder to witness the event not in isolation but together. This is precisely what we do when we gather as a community. We set aside our differences and focus on something larger than ourselves. And by doing so, we gain perspective on what really matters in this life. We incorporate Jesus’ values of love and compassion and generosity into our very souls. We take on his message of self-sacrifice and repentance and mercy into our hearts.

Here on the South Shore we may have only experienced a partial eclipse. But that’s okay. It’ll be better for us in 2024. In the meantime we can keep striving to move beyond partial relationship with Jesus Christ. Moving ever closer to totality.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 23, 2017 (Proper 11A)

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves calling upon angels. I remember one such time in my own life quite vividly. I was a newly ordained priest in Baltimore just getting used to wearing a collar in public when I stopped by my mother’s house on the way home from church one afternoon. 

She lived — and still lives — in Bolton Hill, a dense city neighborhood of tall, victorian-era townhouses. I can’t remember why I stopped by; maybe she had a gift for Ben who was then one and-a-half or perhaps I was feeling guilty about not having visited lately.

But she had recently adopted a small, energetic, fluffy, white dog. Along with the dog, she inherited the dog’s name — something she definitely would not have chosen. Now I admit I’m not a big fan of small, energetic, fluffy, white dogs. But I’d forgotten all about her recent acquisition and so when I opened the door, the small, energetic, fluffy, white dog ran out. And suddenly there I was on a busy city street, wearing my clerical garb and yelling, “Angel! Angel!”

After a few strange looks, I realized just how bizarre this must have looked. A priest quite literally calling upon angels. So I quickly and unceremoniously scooped the thing up and brought it back to my mother.

I thought about this story this week because we tend to have an uncertain relationship cherubswith angels. We’re not quite sure what to do with them. Are they real? Are they kind of like friendly ghosts? Why are they so often depicted as chubby cherubs with wings and golden harps flying around the clouds?

In the popular imagination they’re meant to provide comfort, I guess. People like the idea of guardian angels providing protection through the valleys of life. There’s something about being “touched by an angel” that evokes a warm, fluffy embrace, like spiritual cotton candy. And there’s a whole cottage industry of bad angelic art coupled with saccharine sweet sayings fueled by religious superstition.

But where does this notion come from? How did this whole angel-industrial complex arise? 

Well, it doesn’t come from the Bible. In Scripture, angels are many things but sweet, gentle, harmless creatures is not one of them. Angels are bold and daring; they bring messages of glad tidings and comfort but also messages that turn life as we know it upside down. They are warriors and comforters and deliverers of both good news and bad. So I want you to set aside your preconceived angel notions as we take a closer look at these divine creatures.

The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” And angels are, above all, just that — messengers of God. And they are all over Scripture doing all sorts of things and delivering all sorts of messages — none of which involve strumming harps. In the Old Testament we hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River; we hear about angels in the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Daniel encouraging Daniel during times of struggle.

And in the Christian tradition, think about the Annunciation — it is the angel Gabriel who brings word to Mary that she would bear God’s son; and it is Michael who fights and destroys the forces of evil in the Book of Revelation. Angels tend to Jesus after his trial and temptation in the wilderness; an angel comforts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his crucifixion; an angel announces the Resurrection at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

These are not Hallmark moments! And so it’s less of a surprise when we encounter angels in this morning’s parable not doing stereotypical angel things. They are not flying around with golden halos and gently serenading everyone with harp music. In this story about the wheat and the weeds being sown together, the angels are the reapers. The ones who separate the good from the bad. The ones who bind up the good wheat and store it in the barn and the ones who bundle the weeds and toss them into the fire. 

This is a parable about judgement — merciful judgment — a reminder that there is both good and evil in the world. But here’s the thing we often forget and why I want to stress that this sorting is the work of angels: we are not the reapers. It is above our pay grade to decide who is good and who is evil; who is wheat and who is weed. For all the judging we do of one another — the snap judgments, the gossip, the ways we evaluate and assess one another — that’s not our job. We can leave all that to God’s angels, these divine messengers and servants of God. And there’s great freedom in that, isn’t there? We can simply seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We can worry about ourselves and serve others while forgetting all about the judging part. 

This is precisely where I think so many Christian communities go astray — they spend all their time and energy worrying about who’s in and who’s out. We love being the sorters — putting people into categories like “saints” and “sinners,” “us” and “them,” “believers” and “non-believers.” But it’s more complicated than that — the wheat and the weeds grow together. Sometimes you can’t even tell the two apart. In fact most Biblical scholars believe Jesus was talking about a particular type of weed in this parable. Bearded darnel was a weed grass that looked just like wheat. Until it matured, it was impossible to tell wheat from weed. So you couldn’t go in and do the weeding before the harvest because you couldn’t tell whether you were yanking out the bad stuff or the good stuff. Yet another reminder that we shouldn’t even try. Our job in this life is to simply invite everyone and leave the rest up to God and to the angels God entrusts for the task at hand.

So where did this notion of chubby cherubs arise? In the ancient classical art of Greek and Roman mythology, flying babies represented nature spirits of some sort. Renaissance artists like Donatello and Raphael coopted these images into Christian iconography as a way to depict the transcendent balance between heaven and earth and the image stuck. For better or worse.

So the next time you watch a Christmas pageant and you see all of the adorable and proud angels strutting around in their tinsel halos trying not to get their wings entangled, enjoy the view. Then think about the angels of Scripture. And know that we are indeed in good hands.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 16, 2017 (Proper 10A)

One of the few things I remember from middle school biology — besides dissecting that fetal pig (which was both disgusting and the precise moment I realized I would never become a doctor) — is the concept of photosynthesis. In order to grow something you need seed, sun, and water. Whether you’re trying to grow a flower or a tree or a tomato plant you need all three for horticultural success.
 
This isn’t to suggest I’ve been particularly effective at this over the years. For someone who spends a lot of time reading agricultural parables — about reaping and sowing and mustard seeds and vineyards — I’m a lousy gardener.
 
But we’ve actively participated in the process of photosynthesis here at St. John’s the last couple of months as we’ve been growing some grass out front. A number of you have volunteered to help water and it has actually worked. What once was dirt, now is grass. And we are reminded again of the miracle of creation and the beauty of the natural world and the rising cost of Aquarion’s water.
 
This morning we hear the Parable of the Sower. And one of the great things about this story is that it’s one of the few parables Jesus tells and then immediately interprets for the disciples. So he’s basically already done the work of the preacher — in no uncertain terms he’s explained what it all means. Jesus has spelled out the metaphorical meaning behind seeing receptivity to God’s word as the seed sown on the path and the rocky soil and among the thorns and on the good soil. I should probably just sit down and let him have the last word.
 
But that’s not my way. And, as always, there are nuances here that begin to emerge beneath the surface of the text. Because, of course, life isn’t so neat and ordered. Our spiritual lives don’t categorically fit into one of four quadrants. You can’t go up to a crowd of people, share this story, and say, “Okay, everyone who considers themselves rocky soil stand over here. And if you identify as thorny soil, go into that corner. Sown on a path? Go there. And those who see themselves as good soil, stay right here.” And while we all like to think of ourselves as the good soil, it’s always more complicated than that.
 
The reality is that our lives are made up of a patchwork of different soils. We bear more or less fruit at different times. Some days we’re particularly receptive to hearing God’s word and acting on it; on other days it gets choked by the pressing concerns and distractions of our over-scheduled lives. Some days we just don’t understand or can’t hear God’s word; on other days we receive it joyfully but it doesn’t stick.
 
In a sense, the soil of our lives is like fill dirt. That’s the dirt that’s taken from one Fill-Dirtconstruction site where holes are being dug — like to put in a pool or excavate for a building’s foundation — and taken to another site where earth is needed for regrading or landscaping. Sometimes you’ll see signs around town at houses where construction is being done: “Free Fill Dirt” or “Fill Dirt Wanted.” And so this dirt gets repurposed and reused and moved from project to project. Basically fill dirt is the poor stepchild of the soil world. It’s necessary, but it’s not pure in any form. There’s often some good soil mixed in along with rocks and sand and weeds.
 
We like to think our receptivity to God is more like a bag of potting soil from Home Depot. Rich earth, chock-full of nutrients that has been specifically engineered to encourage the greatest growth. That’s what you sink your geraniums into or use when you plant sweet-smelling herbs like basil or lavender. We like to think that, because we usually come to church or say our prayers or occasionally pick up the Bible, we are always receptive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives.
 
And we’re often right. But not always. Sometimes we do all the right things to nurture our faith and yet nothing takes root. At other times we do nothing to put ourselves in a particularly prayerful posture and we suddenly have a powerful and surprising encounter with God. And what you start to realize is that we’re not the ones actually in control here. That we have a role to play in the process of spiritual growth but it often happens in ways that are well beyond our control.
 
The truth is, we can’t control all the variables needed for spiritual photosynthesis, but we can help tend the garden. Your spiritual garden begins with baptism — that’s the seed, the spirit of God that has been lovingly sown within your heart. And we’ll be sowing some of this seed in just a few moments when we baptize Miles and Julia and George.
 
One of the things we sometimes overlook in this story is the sowing itself. We focus on the soil. But when the guys came to spread grass seed around here, they put it exclusively on the bare spots in the lawn; they concentrated it on the areas where we wanted to grow grass. They weren’t spreading seed on the driveway or on areas where the lawn was already lush or in the flower beds or behind the church back in the woods or on the front steps. They put the seed where we wanted grass to grow.
 
That’s pretty obvious, right? It would be a waste of seed and therefore a waste of money to do it any other way. But isn’t that precisely what the sower in this story is doing? If we view the sower as a metaphor for God, then God is a pretty lousy gardener. Or at least a wasteful one. Old MacDonald himself would never sow seed in places he knew it would never grow — like on paths or rocky ground or among thorns. Again, I’m not a great gardener, or farmer, but even I know this is not how you sow seed. You don’t just recklessly throw it all over the place — seed is a precious commodity. It must be sown with care and intentionality.
 
But the point Jesus is making here is not about efficient gardening techniques. He’s talking about the abundant grace of God; a God who spreads love with reckless abandon; a God who opens his heart to everyone.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized – when that seed is sown in your soul – it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the seed of relationship with the risen Christ has been indelibly sown within you.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017