Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 19, 2022 (Proper 7, Year C)

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Actually, we don’t have a problem — I don’t think. But the famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke popped into my head as I was reflecting on this passage from Luke’s gospel. In it we hear the story of the man known as the Gerasene demoniac. It’s a pretty intense story of a demon-possessed man — the ultimate hard case — whose life is transformed by his encounter with Jesus.

As the story unfolds, we become immediately aware that the whole context of Jesus’ ministry has changed. Jesus has crossed over into Gentile territory and everything just feels different. In the early healing stories we get what I like to call Jesus’ rock star phase. He wanders around towns and villages with his entourage of disciples getting mobbed by throngs of people seeking his healing touch. People go to great lengths to get a glimpse of this new teacher — they lower sick friends through roofs, they crowd around houses where he’s eating dinner, they climb trees to see him, they reach out and grab the hem of his robe. People go to extraordinary lengths for a brief encounter with Jesus.

But here, Jesus enters a desolate region alone. The crowds are gone and the people he does meet want nothing to do with him; he is an uninvited guest in unfamiliar territory. He’s gone from a fertile land with crowds of people primed to hear his message, to an unforgiving landscape full of unreceptive and skeptical people. 

What does it mean that Jesus crosses over to unfamiliar territory? Well, at one level it’s a sign that Jesus’ message of healing and salvation isn’t limited to a particular group or a particular region. Sharing his message with Gentiles, those considered unclean outsiders, is a powerful statement that Jesus came into the world to save everyone, not just a select few. There truly is a wideness in God’s mercy. 

The same author who wrote the gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. And so we see that this one lone Gentile disciple, the healed demoniac, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in Gentile territory. In Acts, we learn how St. Paul became an apostle to the Gentiles, carrying Jesus’ message beyond the Jewish communities who first received it. Paul plants churches everywhere, as the Jesus movement spreads throughout the known world. But the mission to the Gentiles had to start somewhere.

But I think there’s also something much more personal that is enacted when Jesus moves to unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we ourselves feel like unfamiliar or unwanted or unlovable territory. At times we feel uncared for and isolated, unlovable and unknown. Yet Jesus crosses over to meet even us in our unvarnished, incomplete, unholy states. Like the townspeople in this unfamiliar territory, we are often unwelcoming to Jesus. Not intentionally, but out of a misguided sense of self-protection. We fail to be vulnerable because we don’t feel worthy of Jesus’ love and compassion. And yet Jesus crosses over to be with us, to comfort us, to love us anyway. And that’s an amazing thing. Whatever we do or fail to do, however we feel or respond to the world, Jesus comes to us. Jesus never fails to make the journey to find us. He never fails to build a bridge to our hearts. Even when we aren’t ready to receive him, even when we feel unworthy to accept his love, he crosses over to meet us.

Now, I am going to get back to Cool Hand Luke. But first let’s focus on this demon-possessed man for a moment. This healing story is remarkable because this man is the most unlikely recipient of healing. He seems like a lost cause. The mother of all lost causes. He yells at Jesus; he rails at Jesus; he snarls at Jesus. He demands to be left alone, mired in isolation and torment. In his nakedness and chains he is stripped of all dignity, excluded from society, the ultimate pariah.

It’s hard to imagine just how isolated he was. Cut off from society, cut off from God, cut off from love. And while we may not be able to fully relate to his circumstances, I think many of us can relate to some of what he’s endured. We’ve all felt isolated at various times in our lives. Times where, whether through particular circumstances or a mental health crisis, we have felt cut off from feeling loved and accepted. Moments when we’ve felt isolated and alone. Times when we’ve felt hopeless and abandoned. If you’ve felt this way or have walked with a loved one during a particularly tough season of life, you know just how debilitating this can be.

It can feel like an emotional version of solitary confinement. You think you’re alone and you think it will never end. Even though you’re never alone and you will get through it. But there’s a reason solitary confinement is the cruelest punishment that can be doled out by a prison warden. It crushes the soul emotionally. Yet this is exactly the position of the Gerasene demoniac. He is objectively cut off from society — physically, emotionally, spiritually. He’s like Paul Newman’s character Luke Johnson when he gets sent to the box in Cool Hand Luke — it’s dark, it’s sweltering, it’s terrifying.

But with Jesus there are no lost causes. There’s no solitary confinement. And I, for one, find great hope and comfort in that. Because no matter how unlovable I feel at times, no matter how unworthy I feel at times, Jesus crosses over the self-imposed barriers I put up and offers his healing touch. And he does that for each one of us.

Among other religious symbolism in Cool Hand Luke, there’s one easy-to-miss subtlety. Luke Johnson’s prisoner number is 37. And Luke 1:37 tells us that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Not even healing the hardest of hard cases. Not even healing you and me when we feel isolated and alone. Nothing will be impossible with God. And that is an important message, perhaps the most important message; one that we can never fail to communicate.


Last Pentecost: Christ the King 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 21, 2021 (Christ the King)

Sometime in the 15th century, the Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favorite tea bowl. This wasn’t like one of us breaking a wine glass while doing the dishes. For a shogun, a tea bowl had near mystic qualities. It held a place of prominence in the ancient tea ceremonies of Japan. These gatherings, rooted in ritual and symbol, bound the assembled samurai warriors to their Shogun. And so the tea bowl wasn’t just a utilitarian dish, it was a sacred vessel.

Shogun Yoshimasa sent his beloved tea bowl all the way to China to have it repaired. But when it came back, months later, he was disappointed. The metal staples used to piece it back together ruined the bowl’s character, and it was just…ugly. In desperation, he sent it to a local craftsman whose solution was to fill the cracks with gold. 

And thus, a new art form was born. Kintsugi, which literally means “golden repair,” is a method of patching pottery that honors the artifact’s unique qualities by emphasizing, rather than hiding, the piece’s imperfections. When you look at bowl or a vase that has been repaired this way, the cracks look like a beautiful design feature. The piece takes on an entirely new character, even as it holds its original look and shape. And, of course, the alternative would have been to just pitch the broken vessel onto the trash heap.

What I love about this whole concept is that it views blemishes not as shameful, but beautiful. Like human scars that tell stories of courage or survival, these cracks become part of the character and history of the vessel, magnifying its storied journey through ages and empires.

On this day in the Church year, we reflect upon the kingship of Jesus and the reign of Christ. And we learn pretty quickly that Jesus is not your typical king. Birth in a stable rather than a palace is our first clue. Giving away rather than amassing power is another indication that the kingdom of heaven has little in common with the kingdom of, say, Herod. As we just heard Jesus tell Pontius Pilate in no uncertain terms, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It is certainly not the kind of kingdom where white vigilantism runs rampant and parallel legal systems exist based on little more than skin color — as was on full view this weekend. This is a different kind of kingdom and Jesus is a different kind of king.

This is a kingdom, like that broken tea bowl with its golden cracks, that embraces humility and vulnerability, blemish, and failure. Not because imperfection is the goal, but because God’s grace fills in the inevitable cracks in our facade. God’s grace mends the instability of our own foundations. 

As with Kintsugi, this doesn’t mean our cracks magically disappear. Instead they become part of who we are, part of our identity as beloved, forgiven, and redeemed children of God. The process of being cracked open is often painful and hard. That’s the nature of trauma and failure and the surrounding aura of shame. But our cracks often end up becoming avenues to know God in deeper ways. Our brokenness doesn’t define us, but it is an integral part of our story. The cracks help form our beautiful, if imperfect, identities. As human beings we are all broken, yes, but through faith in our King of kings and Lord of lords, we are healed and restored and made new in God’s very own image. 

As we look at the arc of Jesus’ life in the context of what I like to call the upside down kingdom, I’d suggest the crucifixion is the ultimate demonstration of Kintsugi. In his post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus doesn’t seek to conceal the wounds on his hands and feet, or the hole in his side. Nails were driven deep into his flesh; his side was pierced by a spear. Blood flowed, gaping wounds were opened. Yet he tells Thomas, he of the doubts, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” In other words, look at my broken body, see the cracks; but know that through the resurrection all has been made new. And that through belief in me you, too, will one day enter the kingdom of heaven.

All you have to do is pick up a crucifix to see that for generations the Church has highlighted rather than covered up the wounds of Jesus. We see the nails that have pierced his body and through the lens of Kintsugi, we can envision the holes lovingly covered with gold. We don’t deny that our king was crucified or that he suffered an ignominious and painful death. To the contrary, we acknowledge it and give prominence to it because he was crucified for us. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “He was pierced for our transgressions…by his wounds we are healed.” 

And so Jesus points the way for us to embrace our own woundedness. For it is often in our weakness, our brokenness, our pain, that Jesus is most fully present to us; that we feel most acutely his deep and abiding love for us. 

It’s true, however, that embracing rather than covering up our cracks is such a counter cultural way of imagining ourselves! Whether through concealing makeup, or Facebook posts that collectively present a carefully cultivated image, or a forced and cheerful “things are great! when asked how we’re doing, we’re quick to cover up any faults, real or imagined. Through our public personas, we don’t want anyone to think we are anything less than perfection personified. To fill in our cracks is to acknowledge that we even have any. And to acknowledge we have any cracks is to show weakness. And to show weakness is the greatest American societal “sin.” 

But I think there is great freedom found in the Kintsugi concept of embracing our flaws, rather than hiding them. Imagine all the extra breathing room you’d have if you didn’t spend all that energy trying to convince the world everything is okay in your life, at moments when it decidedly is not.

There is freedom in exposing rather than suppressing our vulnerabilities. Acknowledging our woundedness, sharing our vulnerabilities, exposing the cracks in our foundations, allows our true selves to shine even brighter. It lets us live more fully as the people God created us to be.

Now, just so we’re clear, this isn’t some new age thing that leads to staring in a mirror and reciting self-affirmation mantras. This vision of wholeness stands at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom. A kingdom, Jesus reminds us, that “is not from this world.” For the reign of Christ is built upon a realm of invitation rather than coercion; a realm of inclusion rather than isolation; a realm of peace rather than fear; a realm of truth rather than deception.

We don’t need to disguise our cracks. We can value our scars, both visible and invisible, as marks of life and relationship with the living God. And so enter the kingdom of heaven — this upside down kingdom — broken but whole, wounded yet healed. 

23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 31, 2021 (Proper 26, Year B)

It’s become a cliché to proclaim that we live in deeply divided times. Everybody knows that. And if you have any doubts about this, all you have to do is turn on the news or log onto Facebook or talk to your neighbor.

We live in a divided nation politically, economically, racially, theologically, and in pretty much every other way you can imagine. Which isn’t to say we haven’t been divided for generations, we were just better at hiding it back then. But for a variety of reasons our divisions have been revealed as never before. The emotions and political machinations surrounding the pandemic have only ratcheted up the rancor and division. 

I vividly remember those early days of the pandemic, when we really didn’t know what we were dealing with, and you’d go to the grocery store in what felt like full body armor, and view other shoppers not as fellow human beings but as potential threats to your safety and well-being.

In many ways, that continues to be how people on opposing sides of an issue see one another — as threats rather than as fellow children of God. And the ramifications are real. Think about the relationships in your own life. My bet is a number of you have lost friendships or have seen relationships with family members fracture because of opposing views about politics or the pandemic. 

So what does our faith have to say about this? How can we remain in relationship with one another despite our differences? How can we lower the temperature without compromising our values? Not surprisingly, I think Jesus offers us a path forward. In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus, echoing the ancient Jewish Law, distills the entirety of Scripture, all the Law and the prophets, and the grand arc of faith into two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” It all comes down to this: Love God, love neighbor. Which doesn’t seem to leave much room for vilifying people who disagree with you.

But if you use loving God and loving neighbor as a filter for your own actions you are on your way to living a loving, fruitful life. Regardless of what others do, everything you do, every action you take, can be done in light of the call to love God and love neighbor. It’s harder in practice, of course, and we all make mistakes along the way. But running our actions through this filter of love, pausing to reflect upon whether what we do demonstrably aligns with loving God or loving neighbor, draws us ever closer to the Kingdom.

And note that this whole love God, love neighbor thing is known as the Greatest Commandment. It’s not the greatest suggestion. It’s not the greatest recommendation. We are literally commanded to love God and neighbor. Not only when it’s convenient or when it suits us or when people agree with us. But always and everywhere and at all times. 

Today we mark Stewardship Sunday at St. John’s. For many of you, this won’t come as a particular surprise. Each fall we invite financial pledges from parishioners for the coming year. In practical terms, this is how we formulate the budget, and it is only through your generosity that we are able to fund the programs and ministries that make St. John’s the special community that it continues to be. 

Now, after doing online church for 62 straight weeks, and continuing to live-stream our services, and all the while jokingly referring to myself as a televangelist, I know talking about money may be a slippery slope. I promise there won’t be a 900-number flashing on the screen. But the reason I love this topic is that it ultimately encourages us to think deeply about what matters to us. Yes, the church needs money in order to pay staff and run programs and keep our sacred space in order. And, to be clear, it specifically, needs your money. 

But here at St. John’s, ‘What matters to you’ is a question of faith. It’s a question of contributing to a community that does all in its power to support and grow and sustain your life in Jesus Christ. A question of turning the command to love God and love neighbor into tangible practices that help transform our selves, our community, and our world.

You can’t put a price tag on that, of course. But I do invite you to reflect and pray and think deeply about your 2022 pledge to this parish. In this moment, and over the past year and a half, we have collectively seen how St. John’s has impacted our lives through community, connection, and compassion. In the days ahead, I encourage you to think about the ways in which these three C’s of community, connection, and compassion, impact your own life and relationship with the church. 

If you’re renewing a pledge, perhaps you can give a bit more this year, as our expenses continue to rise. Or if you’re new to this community or haven’t pledged before, perhaps you would be willing to walk with us on this journey in a way that drives a stake into the ground and proclaims that you are committed to this place. In either case, sharing your financial resources with the church tells the world that St. John’s matters to you. And that it makes a difference in your life.

Amid this environment of differing opinions and division, we are unified by faith and common prayer. That’s one reason why a vibrant and thriving St. John’s matters. God doesn’t call us together to agree with one another on every single issue. The Spirit often works through the diversity of opinion. But God calls us together as a church to make a difference in the world. To heal what is broken. To set our minds, as Jesus says to Peter, on divine things not human things. To build relationships with one another, not by engaging in small talk, but by engaging the real and difficult topics that matter.

The church can and should be a place of common ground where people can come not to be judged, but to enter into open and honest dialogue, to model honest and authentic relationship. Sometimes we need the church to be a safe space where we can find comfort and solace, and escape conflict and strife. At others we need it to be a place of challenge that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into new ways of thinking and being.

None of this is easy but, with God’s help, it is possible. And with your help, St. John’s will continue to be that place in the year ahead and for generations to come.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 24, 2021 (Proper 25, Year B)

There have been a lot of interpretations of The Wizard of Oz over the years. My history teacher in 8th grade laid out the theory that it was an allegory for the hot 19th century debate over monetary policy, as the country argued about moving to the gold standard. Oz being the abbreviation for ounce. Others have seen layers of religious imagery, with Over the Rainbow standing for the covenant between God and Noah after the Flood. Some see it as a feminist manifesto with Dorothy’s independence pointing towards women’s suffrage. And there are at least some people who see it as little more than a psychedelic drug trip, with the flying monkeys and technicolor fantasy.

The truth is probably somewhere in the midst of all of this. Or, more likely, there are multiple truths embedded in the story. But whenever I hear this passage about the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus, I always think about the Yellow Brick Road. 

As disciples of Jesus we are all on a path, a journey, a road. Jesus’ earliest followers referred to following Jesus as “The Way.” It was code for discipleship, and so to be “on the way” was to be walking the spiritual path with Jesus. Which is where the Yellow Brick Road obviously comes in. Dorothy and her flawed companions are also on a path, not necessarily to spiritual enlightenment, but to find the wizard who will lead them all home. They try their best to stay on the road, but through many misadventures and missteps, they often find themselves Yellow Brick off-Roading (which is a turn of phrase I probably shouldn’t have used).

Bartimaeus begins his day sitting alongside the road, the way, into and out of Jericho. Presumably, this is where he sat day after day to beg. He is not part of the mainstream, rather he stands on the margins of both the road and society. He is literally and metaphorically in the gutter — ignored, isolated, invisible, untouchable.

Besides being pushed aside and passed over, the blind or the physically disabled or the mentally challenged were also lumped together as sinners. According to the prevailing wisdom of the day, they must have done something wrong to incur the wrath of God. Which left them even more cut off from society and also victim-blamed for the very condition that kept them apart.

Our theology has evolved, of course, but we still often look at the people in need of healing in these Biblical stories with a wary eye. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Or a least we see them in the same way we might look at someone we encounter living on the street. With a mix of pity and revulsion, fear and gratitude that it’s not us. Compassion is not always our first response — which is a hard thing to admit, especially as we sit here in church.

But what we frequently fail to see in these healing stories is that we don’t just have more in common with the blind, the lame, and the leprous than we think — when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, we are the blind, the lame, and the leprous. We step off the path a lot. We lose our way and find ourselves feeling distanced from God.

Now, the Way is not always an easy path. Especially when our prayers don’t seem to be answered; the miraculous healing we so desire doesn’t happen; and we’re left to wonder if any of this stuff we profess on Sunday morning is even true. But that’s where Bartimaeus comes in. If this abandoned beggar retains faith and hope amidst his life of desperation, we can surely take even a hesitant step along The Way; to get up on that path to follow Jesus and see where it leads. To walk with him even in our spiritual blindness and neediness. With the confidence that he indeed leads us into the way of salvation and truth and hope and love.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whose photo we just this week put up in the narthex — finally, often talks about the Christian faith as “the Way of Love.” This isn’t just a generic journey we’re on. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. Or, as Bishop Curry puts it, the Way of Love is a way of life. And the first step to following Jesus along the Way of Love is to turn. Bishop Curry encourages us to everyday turn our lives “like a flower turning towards the sun, to turn our lives in the direction of God’s love.” Because when we turn towards God’s love we are stepping on the path to freedom and peace, we are walking the Way of Love.

That’s what Bartimaeus so desires and that’s why we hear him crying out to Jesus. We can take heart in Bartimaeus’ spiritual self-advocacy. When he hears that Jesus himself is walking past his usual spot on the side of the road, he doesn’t cower in intimidation, as you might expect. Quite the opposite. He causes a ruckus by yelling at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And when people in Jesus’ entourage tell him to pipe down because he’s causing a scene, he only yells louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Like a flower turning towards the sun, Bartimaeus is turning loudly and audaciously towards the Son of God.

There are times to wait patiently upon the Lord, and there are times to boldly invoke the Lord’s intercession on our behalf. These are both forms of faithful prayer. Bartimaeus reminds us that, dignified New England Episcopalianism aside, it’s okay to be loud in our devotions. To occasionally yell for Jesus’ help. I guess you could do this during the Prayers of the People, but we’re probably talking about more of an internal yelling, a crying out of the heart. 

The invitation embedded in our baptismal covenant is to repent and return to the Lord. To “re-turn” to the Lord. To once again, like that flower turning towards the sun each morning, turn back to the Way of Love that comes with following Jesus Christ. Whenever we turn away, and we all do, the invitation remains to turn around and get right back on that path, that way. Like Dorothy and her companions, we can continue to follow the Yellow Brick Road of faith or, as Diana Ross sang in The Wiz, we can “ease on down the road” with Jesus. 

So if you are feeling particularly out of sorts, or if you are feeling disconnected from your faith, today is a new day. We can turn like Bartimaeus, we can turn like a flower towards the sun, we can turn towards the Way of Love by re-turning towards Jesus Christ. The recurring invitation to walk this road is the true miracle of the story of Bartimaeus. It’s less about the transition from physical blindness and more about the transition from spiritual blindness. And the reminder that whenever we find ourselves on the wrong path, we have a standing invitation to once again take those first hesitant, halting steps along The Way. 

21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 17, 2021 (Proper 24, Year B)

One of the things our teachers always told us in school is that, “there are no stupid questions.” They’d tell us this to make sure that everyone felt comfortable participating in class discussions. And to insure that learning and conversation were never stifled because one of the students was afraid of looking foolish. It’s an important point to make, as learning is ultimately about exploration, about trying new things, about taking risks. Sometimes they’d even follow-up by saying, “The only stupid question is the question not asked.” 

But here’s a little secret our teachers never told us: there are some stupid questions. And in the Bible the case in point is right before our very eyes this morning. James and John ask Jesus the ultimate stupid question: “Grant us to sit,” they ask, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 

These two brothers just don’t get it. I mean, they’ve missed the entire point of everything that Jesus has ever said about discipleship, about ministry, about faith. And James and John aren’t just some peripheral disciples who really weren’t that into this Jesus stuff. Not only had they literally dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus they, along with Peter, made up Jesus’ inner circle. Who’s with Jesus at the Transfiguration? Peter, James, and John. Who’s with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Peter, James, and John. 

So, at one level, it must have been disheartening for Jesus to hear them ask this question. To learn that they were more concerned with the trappings of power and prestige, than being clothed in humility and compassion. James and John apparently think that proximity to the throne of Jesus will bring them benefits and status, both in this world and in the age to come. But they’ve completely misunderstood the kingship of Jesus. They’re under the mistaken impression that the crown of Jesus is a crown of jewels, rather than a crown of thorns. 

James and John were among the first to make this mistake, but certainly not the last. If you think following Jesus will get you a corner office, you’ve probably misread the signs. If you think following Jesus will put you in the corridors of power, you’ve probably misread the signs. If you think following Jesus will gain you a place of honor, you’ve probably misread the signs.

That’s not to say many in the church haven’t misread the signs over the years. Or that many who profess Jesus Christ as Lord haven’t misread the signs. Joel Osteen drives a Ferrari. There are clerics who revel in the opulence of their office, more concerned with status than service. There are politicians who speak the name of Jesus, but whose actions effectively trample all over his words.

We forget, at our own peril, that humility is a profound Christian virtue. And I think this is a particular challenge for us Americans who so often equate humility with weakness. We’re taught to seize the day, that might makes right, that only the strong survive. Which doesn’t leave much room for humility, for giving away power and prestige, rather than stockpiling it. 

One of the prayers we say at the 8 o’clock service is known as the Prayer of Humble Access. It was removed from the contemporary language rite, but part of me wishes it wasn’t. It’s prayed by the priest and people just before receiving communion. And it begins, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

I find it interesting that much of the liturgical language of humility has fallen out of favor over the years. It’s seen by some as overly penitential, even as groveling. With successive Prayer Book revisions the focus has shifted, rightly so in my opinion, to the joy of God’s presence among us rather than on the utter depravity of human sinfulness. But if we never use this language of humility before God we tend to forget our place in the world. Our self-righteousness can take over and we slowly but surely put ourselves on the same plane with God, rather than taking our place as humble servants of God.

If some of this spirit of humility isn’t retained in our spiritual lives, we are poorer for it. We are indeed worthy to stand before God, as long as we recognize our place in relationship to God. Our brief reading from Job reminds us of our place.

Job upon whom all sorts of calamities have fallen, demands that God answer his questions about why this has happened to him. And God’s response is to tell Job, with just a hint of snark, that there are things about which a mere mortal cannot possibly know. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements — surely you know!” And, of course, Job was nowhere to be found when the world was created. There’s no debate here, no possible answer to these questions. God alone laid the foundations of the earth and God alone is responsible for our very life.

Which is easy to forget in this age of self-affirmation and self-reliance and self-indulgence and self-justification. Which is why I appreciate that Prayer of Humble Access. Only by God’s grace are we worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table. Only by God’s grace are we worthy to be in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t condemn James and John for asking their stupid question. He understands the weakness and absurdity so deeply embedded in our human nature. And he tells them that they will indeed take their place with him — not through some human understanding of honor and privilege. But that they will drink the cup that he will drink and be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. This won’t involve career advancement or fancy new clothes. In the short-term, it will mean persecution and martyrdom. In the long-term it will mean taking their place with Jesus in the kingdom of heaven.

James and John will get it, eventually. But this episode shows us just how alluring are the outward signs of rank and wealth. Remember, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the devil held out before him all the kingdoms of earth. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” And Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

Despite Jesus’ clear message that he “came not to be served, but to serve,” despite all of his actions that point towards a servant ministry, from washing the disciples’ feet to laying down his life for his friends, we all seem to need constant reminders that to follow Jesus is to give rather than take, to share power rather than to hoard it. 

James and John will indeed share in Christ’s glory. They will attain that crown of righteousness that is reserved for those who follow Jesus. But they will get there not by amassing power and prestige and privilege, but by giving it away. By serving others, rather than by being served. By reveling in God’s glory, rather than their own. 

In the meantime, please do keep asking questions. Just, when you’re hanging out with Jesus, maybe not that question.

20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 10, 2021 (Proper 23, Year B)

The side door. We heard a lot about the side door when that college admissions scandal broke a couple years ago. Rick Singer, the chief architect of this scheme, talked about the three ways kids get into college. The front door, which is how people are normally admitted, through academic merit or athletic scholarships. The back door, which is what happens when your parents buy a library. And the side door, which was Singer’s bread and butter. The side door was a way in that guaranteed admission for unqualified kids through bribes and deceit and more bribes. Cheating on the SATs, paying off coaches and college administrators, fake charities, money laundering. And it all came tumbling down, taking some celebrities and a bunch of well-heeled parents with it.

Sometimes I think people look at heaven with a similar mindset. There’s the front door, where you live a good life, make some mistakes along the way, but ultimately make the cut. There’s a back door for billionaires who leave a bunch of money to fight world hunger in their will, even if they don’t do much to help people while they’re alive. And then there’s the side door, where maybe you’ve been a pretty lousy person, but you figure if you grease St. Peter’s palm, he’ll just let you in. Like paying off a bouncer at a popular nightclub. 

None of this is how it works, of course. God’s compassion and love and grace is more than we can possibly imagine. There truly is a wideness in God’s mercy. There’s no limit on the acceptance rate. There are no deals to cut, no bribes, no middle men, no shortcuts. 

Now, I’m not saying the rich young man in this morning’s gospel was definitely looking to bypass the heavenly admission requirements. Perhaps his inquiry was entirely earnest. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But when Jesus answers his question by dutifully listing off the commandments, you can almost hear the man rolling his eyes. He could have just said thank you and gone on his way. But instead he says, in effect, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve done all that.’ Or, technically speaking, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 

He seems to be looking for a workaround. I mean, he’s got means. He’s rich. He’s been able to get his way throughout his life and, perhaps he figures, why should the afterlife be any different? If nothing else, it does seem like he’s looking at eternal life as if it’s some sort of prize. Follow this formula, check these boxes, fill out these forms, here’s your ticket to eternal life. And if that doesn’t work, there must be a loophole, a side door.

But then Jesus, as he so often does, flips the narrative. “You lack one thing,” he tells him. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” Which sounds like less of the hoped-for side door, and more of a locked door. The man, we hear, is shocked by this answer and went away grieving, because he had a lot of things. 

And it’s shocking for us as well. Because we can’t listen to this story without putting ourselves into the shoes of this rich young man. For we are all, in relative terms, rich. We live in the wealthiest nation in the world, in one of the wealthiest regions in that nation. We have a lot of things. We come to church, we follow the commandments as best we can, and still, we hear, it’s not enough. We lack one thing: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”

Now we can justify not doing what Jesus says here in all sorts of ways. He was speaking metaphorically. He was only speaking to that one particular man. We’re not monks. 

The reality is that this is not a text that can be wrapped up with a satisfying interpretive bow. It’s messy and complicated and challenging. It raises more questions than it answers. Which mirrors what it’s like to live out our faith in the world. The life of faith isn’t a one-hour episode of Law and Order where everything gets resolved before the closing credits roll. It’s more like an ever evolving book that never ends, where there’s always another chapter to read. And at times, the ambiguity pushes against our natural desire for resolution. 

But it’s also often where faith resides. In the messiness and uncertainty and unresolved-ness of our lives. In the push and pull of seeking to follow Jesus, and yet always stumbling, always being distracted, never feeling as if we are doing enough or being enough to earn God’s love. The thing is, our faith imposes upon us impossible demands. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” yes. But also the seemingly simple command to “love God and love neighbor.” We can do our best, but we can always love God and one another more fully, more faithfully, with more devotion.

At one level, the impossible demands of our faith make you wonder why you should bother at all? Sure, you can probably follow the commandment not to murder. But a lot of them are much less clear cut. Most of us don’t bear false witness on a regular basis, but sometimes we do. And we likely honor our mother and father most of the time. But when it comes to faith, nothing is as well-defined as we might like. 

The good news here is that even as we struggle with the ambiguities of our faith, even as we reflect on this dual call to follow Jesus and give away all our possessions, Jesus loves us. We hear, just before Jesus gives this young man this hard news, that he looked at him and loved him.

Even as you struggle with the impossible demands of your faith, as we all do, Jesus looks at you and loves you. He sees you, he sees your struggle, and he loves you. 

It’s easy to overlay our own ideas and perceptions on this man’s motivations, as I’ve done, but we don’t know what happens to him in the end. Does he fall away from his lifelong commitment to following the Law, figuring what does it really matter anyway? Does he end up giving everything away, like St. Francis? Does he just continue trying to be a good person while not fully embracing his faith? Does he end up as one of Jesus’ disciples? We just don’t know, which only adds to the intended ambiguity of this story. 

Eternal life is not a prize to claim. It’s grounded in the relationships we have, with God and one another. It’s rooted in the way Jesus looks at us and loves us. And it’s established in the ways in which we follow Jesus. There’s no checklist. There’s no side door. There’s just loving God with all our heart and mind and soul; while simultaneously accepting and reveling in God’s abiding love for each one of us.

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 19, 2021 (Proper 20, Year B)

“Stop asking so many questions.” A friend of mine was once told this by a priest and it pretty much turned him off to organized religion. It wasn’t the Episcopal Church, although it doesn’t really matter. It was at a time in his life when he was seeking deeper truths about life and faith. And the response effectively shut down his spiritual curiosity. He had tentatively entered the church, vulnerable and open to the moving of the Spirit. And he left disappointed and disillusioned. 

“Stop asking so many questions.” Now this advice isn’t all bad. At times we do need to stop asking questions, and simply revel in the wonder of God’s presence. But asking someone to blindly accept the faith is never helpful. And to me, the response sounds more like someone who was simply annoyed and had better things to do than answer a bunch of questions from a stranger. 

In this morning’s gospel reading, we hear a parallel story about questions. But instead of asking too many questions, the disciples fail to ask any questions. For the second week in a row we hear Jesus share a Passion prediction. He tells the disciples that he will be betrayed and killed and in three days rise again. But, we hear, the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

In the first instance, my friend couldn’t stop asking questions. In the second, the disciples couldn’t start asking them. Because they were afraid. Now, to be honest, I don’t really believe this. My sense of Jesus as a teacher is that he was always willing to engage the hard questions. That he was open to having conversations on a wide variety of topics. 

Of course, he often answers a question with a question, which is a sometimes frustrating but effective pedagogical technique. In fact, in the four gospels combined, Jesus asks 307 questions. Now, in full disclosure, I know this not because I counted them, but because I Googled it. But through these often provocative and probing questions, Jesus invites us to think deeply about ourselves, our world, and our God. “Who do you say that I am?” “Why are you afraid?” “Do you love me?”

So I don’t think the disciples were afraid to ask questions, as much as they were afraid of the answers they might receive. Because when you ask tough questions, you may get tough answers. Answers that befuddle or disrupt, answers that unsettle or dismay. 

Maybe they figured if they ignored the questions raised by Jesus talking about betrayal and being killed, it would all just go away. Because the reality is that one of their own number would do the betraying. And they certainly didn’t want to hear about Jesus being killed. Because if Jesus was in danger, the disciples also were in danger. Guilt by association and all that. So maybe it’s best to ignore the questions you don’t want answers to. The problem is, like it or not, the answers will eventually be revealed. In this case, the Passion prediction will come to pass. Jesus will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and be killed and on the third day rise again.

But I think the elephant in the room, the burning question the disciples didn’t want to ask, was why? Why does Jesus have to die? Why would the Messiah have to suffer and be put to death, when this didn’t fit in at all with the disciples’ expectation of the conquering Messiah? The one who would undo the yoke of oppression and usher in a new era of freedom for the Jewish people. And it’s one of the questions that hangs over us as well. Why couldn’t God have chosen a less violent way to enact the redemption of the world? Why did Jesus have to be betrayed and rejected? Why did Jesus have to suffer the humiliation and pain of being strung up on a cross to die? 

I actually wish the disciples had asked the ‘why’ question. Because I’d love to hear Jesus’ answer. He never actually addresses it, at least not verbally. But, throughout his life, he answers the question through his actions. We see how he associates with the least and the lost and the lonely; we see how he heals the sick and gives sight to the blind and makes the lame walk; we see how he challenges the status quo; we see how he calls out hypocrisy among the religious elite; we see how he encourages his followers to show mercy and forgiveness to others, just as they are shown mercy and forgiveness by God.

And for all of this, the authorities want him silenced. They want to smash the mirror he holds up to their faces. And they determine to wipe him off the face of the earth. But, of course, they don’t anticipate the resurrection; they don’t anticipate that his actions would unleash a movement that would never and could never be silenced; they don’t anticipate that you cannot kill that which is born of God.

This year we are introducing a new Sunday School curriculum called Godly Play. I’m grateful to Jack and our Sunday School Leadership Team and our teachers for having the courage to try something bold during a season when so much has been uprooted in our lives and in the church. One of the hallmarks of Godly Play are called wondering questions. 

After telling a parable or a Bible story, the storyteller invites children to reflect upon what they have seen and heard. The open-ended wondering questions allow children to wonder and connect with the story. So a teacher may ask “I wonder what you liked best about this story?” Or “I wonder where you see yourself in this story?”

These wondering questions invite…wonder at the way God moves among us, while celebrating the presence of God that already resides deep within each child. They allow children to connect with the story, and with God, in personal ways. They invite mystery and reverence and awe.

What I love about the Godly Play wondering questions is the recognition that, when it comes to our faith lives, there are no wrong answers. There always remains room for questions, even if we don’t have answers in the conventional sense. Mystery. Wonder. Reverence. Awe. These are what form the gentle invitation into fruitful and life-giving and life-long relationship with the divine. 

These are all lessons adults can learn as well. Frankly, I wish I’d had Godly Play when I was a kid. Because I think those of us of a certain age end up trying to unlearn many of the things we learned about God in Sunday School. Or at least allow our faith to evolve past the notion of God we held onto as children. Faith is not about rote memorization or learning proper formulas. Rather it’s about relationship. When it comes to faith, never be afraid to ask questions. Never cease to wonder. We may not have all the answers — nobody does. But we can always engage the questions.

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 12, 2021 (Proper 19, Year B)

In 1984, the rock band U2 released The Unforgettable Fire album. It was a big one, and you’ll be glad to know I still have my copy — on cassette. Bryna was less than thrilled to learn this as I went rooting around the rectory last night. The collection includes a song titled “A Sort of Homecoming.” And, for perhaps obvious reasons, I’ve been humming it all week. Because today does feel like a sort of homecoming, rather than a full-blown Homecoming Sunday. 

In a normal year, this place would be pulsing with energy and excitement and anticipation. The pews would be packed; the full choir would be back in all its glory; after the Peace, thousands of Sunday School children would come streaming in — or at least that’s how it always feels; coffee hour would be loud and festive as we visit with old friends and meet new ones; there would be a post-church barbecue and, of course, a bounce house. But things are not back to normal and we’re left with a sort of Homecoming as we gather for our first post-Labor Day service. 

You may not know that U2 actually started as a Christian rock band, and that their songs are full of religious imagery. “A Sort of Homecoming” is no exception. If home is ultimately a place where you are known and loved, a place where you can fully be the person God created you to be, any version of home we encounter in this life is always going to be incomplete. Whenever we return home, whether to our own homes or our church homes, we experience a sort of homecoming. Because there is only one true homecoming; which will take place not in this life but in the life that is to come. When we are reunited with and reconciled to Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, coming home — whatever that looks like for you — whether it’s returning to your family after a time away or sitting quietly in the pews of an empty church you’ve come to love or going back to your hometown, coming home offers us a glimpse of that true homecoming, when we will one day be joined to God in heaven. And so, incomplete as it may be, a homecoming is a beautiful and joyful and holy experience. 

So, whether you are joining us this morning in person or online, I welcome you to this sort of homecoming. It was always going to be incomplete, theologically speaking, but I understand this day also feels incomplete in other ways as well. Partly because things aren’t yet back to normal, but mostly because there’s no bounce house. 

We are certainly all getting used to things not going according to plan. Over the past year-and-a-half, we’ve all taken a master class in things not going according to plan. From disruptions in school and church and work and family routines to hiccups in the supply chain to having to pivot and adapt and turn on a dime, we are all living that old Yiddish adage, “We plan, and God laughs.” 

But, at one level, this same dynamic has been part of the Christian faith from the beginning. In this passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples how things are going to go down for the Messiah. “He began to teach them that [he] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Yes, he also tells them that after three days he will rise again. But they don’t hear that part and probably can’t even comprehend it.  

All the disciples know is that the suffering and rejecting and killing piece of this, which is what really stands out to them, is not part of their plan for Jesus. Peter even takes Jesus aside and says, ‘Hey, man, you really gotta stop saying stuff like that.’ Because this was decidedly not how they saw things unfolding for God’s anointed one. In their mind, the Messiah was to be a conquering hero. One that would ride in with a great army and defeat the Romans on the battlefield. And in the process, the disciples themselves would stand in the reflected glow of messianic glory. Their plan for Jesus looked nothing like the vision Jesus himself was laying out. Suffering, rejection, death. It’s almost as if Jesus was reading from the wrong script. This story was supposed to be a triumph, not a tragedy. At least in the way Peter and the disciples understood triumph and tragedy. We plan, and God laughs

There are few times when the great chasm between God and humanity is revealed in such stark ways than when we place Jesus’ life and ministry over and against our own notion of “success.” And Jesus makes clear the disconnect when he rebukes Peter for seeking a plan of his own devising rather than the plan of God’s own making. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

That is so easy to do, of course, because, well, we’re human. We’re not God! But at a certain point, as Jesus lays everything out, we do need to open our ears and listen. To stop leaning into our own hopes and desires and dreams and start looking to God’s vision for us and for the world. To recognize that what we see with our own eyes is often not how God sees the world. Which means, and I know you’ll find this shocking, but God doesn’t care about our new car, or whatever worldly marks of success we hold up as signs of our own self-worth. 

For God’s kingdom is an upside down kingdom. A place where the lowly are lifted up; the meek inherit the earth; the crucified one reigns in triumph and great glory; and our plans are not the ones that matter. We plan, and God laughs.

I’m not sure what this coming year will look like around here. We’ve certainly made a lot of plans. From outdoor Sunday School to holding our Sunday evening service in the Memorial Garden to a mix of online and in-person offerings. But the only one who really knows how everything will unfold is God. Our role is to be faithful and flexible and to admit that we’re not in control of any of this. And that’s a lot harder on some days than others.

In Peter’s defense, he does stick around. He eventually abandons the plan he had envisioned for Jesus’ life; he picks up his cross, and follows Jesus. Sure, he denies him three times along the way. Our humanity means we can’t always set our minds on divine things. There are stumbles along the way. Yet Peter also becomes the rock upon which Jesus builds his church. In the end, he is martyred for his faith, but even with his failures and his utter humanity, Peter becomes an example for us of someone who strives always to set his mind on a higher plane. And, again, that’s a lot harder on some days than others. We plan, and God laughs. 

15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 3, 2021 (Proper 18, Year B)

One of my favorite ad campaigns is the one for Snickers with the tagline, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” You’ve seen those, right? The most famous one first aired during the Super Bowl in 2010 and featured Betty White playing football in the mud with a bunch of young men who are obviously frustrated with her lack of athletic skills. When one of her teammates asks why she’s “playing like Betty White out there,” we realize she’s actually a guy named Mike’s hungry alter ego. When Mike’s girlfriend runs over and hands her a Snickers bar, Betty White is magically transformed back into Mike and the game resumes.

If this scene from Mark’s gospel, with the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, was an ad, one of the disciples would run over to Jesus and hand him a Snickers bar. Because he’s clearly not himself out there. And the hope would be that, with the help of a candy bar, Jesus would suddenly be transformed from cranky Messiah guy back to the Good Shepherd. Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus got “hangry,” and I’m not sure where he stood on the Introvert-Extrovert scale, but it’s pretty clear from this exchange that even Jesus occasionally got peopled out. Even Jesus got tired of the demands placed upon him. Even Jesus reached his limits. 

We hear that when Jesus entered the region of Tyre, he went into a house “and did not want anyone to know he was there.” It says that right in the text — that Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there.” And, while that doesn’t really fit with our notion of Jesus never turning anyone away, of always being available, it’s a very human response to exhaustion and stress. 

Frankly, I can’t imagine it’s an easy thing being the Messiah. The demands must have been relentless. And Jesus clearly just wants a break. To put his feet up, grab a cold drink, and veg out in front of the TV. “Yet,” we hear, “he could not escape notice.” And so, as this woman barges in, throws herself at his feet, and begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus isn’t exactly excited to deal with the situation. 

And it shows. Instead of going to the woman’s house, taking the girl by the hand, and lifting her up, as he does with Jairus’ daughter just a couple chapters earlier, Jesus starts arguing with her. He tells her that he came first to the people of Israel and that her kind would just have to wait their turn. So what’s the difference here? Well, Jairus was a man, a Jew, a religious leader, a person of influence in the community. Contrast this with a woman, a Gentile, someone without power or status. To the Jewish community of first century Palestine, there could be no one more marginalized than this woman. Add on top of it the cultural taboo of a woman approaching a man   she doesn’t know — and in such a brusque manner — and it’s hard to imagine this encounter even taking place.

But it does. And we see that God’s grace extends well past the usual suspects. It emanates outward, encompassing those in the mainstream, as well as those on the margins. Those who might expect it, and those who actively do not. There is literally no limit to God’s abounding and abiding grace. 

But what do we do with this glimpse of cranky Jesus. What can we learn from it? So often Biblical interpreters give Jesus a pass here. ‘He was only being rude in order to teach this woman to stand up for herself.’ Which is a particularly condescending take. Or ‘he wasn’t really equating Gentiles with dogs, he was just quoting some lost Jewish proverb.’

I think this tenacious woman, who would clearly break every taboo in the book to help her daughter, actually teaches us something about Jesus. She pushes her case and Jesus responds. He  agrees. He shifts his outlook and his behavior. Sometimes we need to push our case with Jesus, and we can do this through prayer. It may not always be effective, but Jesus welcomes our participation and interaction through an active prayer life. In other words, it’s okay to disagree with Jesus and to tell him so. That doesn’t make you bad at faith; it doesn’t make you right. But it does put you in a direct and engaged relationship with God. And that’s what leads to a fruitful and meaningful existence, one that moves beyond the surface into the depths of love and hope and peace.

I also find the humanity of Jesus rather comforting. Sometimes we focus too much on the divinity of Christ at the expense of the humanity of Jesus. We affirm our faith in the only Son of God who “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father,” but we don’t pay much attention to the Jesus who could have desperately used a Snickers bar. We need both sides of the one who “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The totality of Jesus is what makes him both fully human and fully divine.

Now, I know that when I’m over-tired and in need of a nap, I’m not operating as my best self. The graciousness that I strive for abandons me and I can get a bit cranky in dealing with other people. Most of us are the same way. When we’re over-extended or stressed out or tired, we tend to get short with people. Or snippy. And I actually find it comforting that Jesus, at least occasionally, acted the same way. Of course in the end, Jesus does what Jesus always does. He shows compassion and love for this woman and her daughter. And this helps me strive to be kind. Even when I’m tired, even when I sometimes fall short.

You know, immediately following this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus returns to Jewish territory and restores hearing to a deaf man. That’s the second half of the passage we get this morning. And I think it’s pretty telling. In other words, he’s basically saying to people through his actions, ‘I’ve just been to Gentile territory — you know, that place you’d never go — and I healed someone’s daughter from a family you’d never consider even associating with. So open your ears, people! Listen to me! I am breaking down barriers between and among you.’ 

“Be opened,” he prays, and the man’s hearing is restored. “Be opened,” he says to us. And not just our ears, but our hearts and minds as well. 

14th Sunday after Pentecost

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 29, 2021 (Proper 17, Year B)

When I was in sixth grade science class, the highlight — or lowlight, depending on your perspective — of the entire year was dissecting a fetal pig. The usually dour Mr. Knipp took great glee in teaching us to slice open the specimens, and he also had zero tolerance for squeamishness. I remember one classmate of mine turning green and, on his way out to the bathroom, being pelted by a spare eyeball, courtesy of Mr. Knipp. Such was the learning environment at an all-boys prep school in Baltimore in the early 1980’s. 

But what I most remember about the experience of dissecting that fetal pig, besides the sudden realization that I would never become a doctor, is that the heart was gross. Actually everything on the inside was gross. But in the back of my mind, I had high hopes for the heart. The heart is held up as the symbolic life force of every creature. But the heart of that fetal pig my partner and I were charged with dissecting wasn’t even red. The heart was just another piece of foul-smelling gray goo.

In last week’s sermon, Jack spoke about the word “believe,” which in Latin is credo. Now, I realize that was a rather jarring transition, going from fetal pigs to Jack. But stay with me. Because as we dig a bit deeper into the Latin, credo derives from the word corda, meaning heart. Which is why, as Jack reminded us, to believe in something literally means, “to set your heart upon it.” Jesus encourages us to set our hearts upon God. To give to God our trust, our devotion, and our love.

This morning we get a bit more heart talk. Though, at first glance, this passage comes across as a bit of a rant. Jesus is basically responding to an accusation that he is an uncouth heretic. Someone who neither follows nor encourages his disciples to follow the traditions of the faith, or at least the ones deemed important by his accusers. What kind of religious teacher, they want to know, doesn’t even follow the basic teachings around ritual and purity? Like washing hands and dishes and saying the appropriate prayers that accompany these actions. Though, just to be clear, Jews of this era held a variety of beliefs and there was no uniformity of practice. So the group of scribes and Pharisees questioning Jesus were hardly representative of the wide diversity of faith and practice among first century Jews.

But what Jesus is doing here is reframing the entire narrative. He’s bringing some much needed perspective, even renewal, to this whole business of religion. He likens the “traditions of the elders” to mere “human precepts” that miss the point of God’s deepest desires and commandments. And that’s pretty radical! It’s basically the verbal equivalent of flipping over tables to make a broader point. 

We spend so much time on external things, whether that’s words we say with our lips or actions we perform with our bodies, that we often neglect what really matters. And it’s comforting, kind of, to realize that the same issues we wrestle with today also dogged humanity 2,000 years ago. We still spend way too much time focused on the externals of our faith and not nearly enough time living our faith and focusing on love, justice, compassion, and peace. It’s so much easier to get angry about small, insignificant things in our lives, whether at home or at work or at church, than it is to rail against the bigger issues of injustice in our world.

And in the end, it all gets back to the heart. The heart can be the source of all the things that matter. But the heart can also be the source of evil. We see this in that long, but hardly comprehensive, list of evil intentions that come from the human heart. Jesus ticks them off: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly. Contrast that with the list of what is known as the fruit of the Spirit from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Both of these lists highlight intentions that are embedded within the human heart. As human beings, we are capable of both great good and great evil. That’s just part of the human condition.

But Jesus invites us to side with the good. To focus on the spiritual practices that move the human heart into greater alignment with God. We can’t always do this, of course. Again, we’re human. But we can turn again and again to the merciful God who loves us and lifts us up and encourages us and seeks after us.

Yesterday afternoon we had a few baptisms in the Memorial Garden. One of the things I so miss during this pandemic is holding baptisms in the context of Sunday morning worship — where they really belong. We’re just not there yet. But the baptismal rite reminds us that there is a choice between good and evil that is held out to us through relationship with Jesus Christ. Those three renunciations and three affirmations asked of the parents and godparents highlight this choice. They’re asked whether they renounce satan, the evil powers of this world, and all sinful desires — basically everything that draws us away from the love of God. While then affirming Jesus as savior and promising to trust, follow, and obey him. 

It’s stark language, especially when you’re staring at a cute infant cooing in your arms. But it speaks to the human condition and what exists in the human heart. So every time someone is baptized, we’re in effect holding up those two lists. The one with all the bad stuff and the one with all the good fruit. Both of those lists are deeply embedded within us. But following Jesus evokes the fruit of the Spirit in the human heart, and invites us to set our heart upon God.

One final bit of Latin. The start of the Eucharistic Prayer is known as the sursum corda. That’s the part where the priest, standing at the altar in front of the soon-to-be consecrated bread and wine, opens his or her hands in prayer and says “Lift up your hearts.” The latin is literally translated as “up hearts” — sursum corda. We are invited, commanded even, to lift up our hearts. And not just to lift them randomly but, as the people’s response makes clear, to lift them up to the Lord.

That’s what Jesus desires for us and what he gets so passionate about. He encourages us to take all the human traditions in our faith lives, as deeply held and beloved as they may be, with a grain of salt. At their best, the traditions of our faith point to God and assist in the lifting up of our hearts to God. But they themselves are not God. This building is not God. Liturgy is not God. Sacred music is not God. The Bible is not God. They all point to God in profoundly moving and important ways, yes. But lifting up our hearts to God — through prayer and thanksgiving, through acts of charity and compassion — that’s what matters. And it all begins with the heart.