Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 12, 2018 (Proper 14B)

Liturgically speaking, this is a tough time of year to be on the Atkins Diet. Every three years, amid the heat of the summer, the lectionary gods give us week after week of readings about bread. Maybe you’ve noticed. It started the last Sunday of July with the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish; it continued last week with Jesus talking about “bread from heaven;” today we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the bread of life;” next week he’ll tell us he’s “living bread;” and the week after that he’ll say, “the one who eats this bread will live forever.” That’s a lot of carbs! I’ve taken to calling these five weeks Bread-a-palooza. Though that phrase doesn’t seem to have caught on in church circles

Bread is a major theme in the Christian faith. In addition to all these references, we pray20140810-workhorse-bread-vicky-wasik-3-1500x1125 in the words of the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” At the Last Supper Jesus takes bread, breaks it, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples with the words, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And each week we come to this altar and reach out our hands to receive “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

It is impossible to separate bread from faith. Physically, it sustains us. Theologically, it nourishes us. Sacramentally, it saves us. 

This morning, we get the first of the famous I Am statements from John’s gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Keep reading and you get a flurry of other, similar statements: I am the Good Shepherd; I am the light of the world; I am the true vine; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth, and the life.

These are metaphors, of course. Ways of highlighting Jesus’ identity in familiar terms; methods of connecting Jesus’ divinity to images we can relate to. Jesus is not actually made up of wheat and yeast. But when we believe in him, when we come to him in faith, when we feed upon his Word, and ingest his body through sacramental bread, we no longer go hungry. We are nourished and sustained, able to grow into the full stature of Christ, as we claim our identity as followers of Jesus.

But these I Am statements, like “I am the bread of life,” also transcend metaphor. Remember when Moses encountered God in the burning bush? God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and set his people free; and before Moses agrees he says, “But what is your name? Who should I tell the Israelites will lead them out of slavery and into the Promised Land?” And God says to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Which is confounding and confusing, at least at one level. “‘I am sent me.’ What does that even mean?” Yet it at another level, it makes perfect sense. Because how could you possibly define the God and Creator of the universe? God just is. “I am who I am.”

So these I Am statements of Jesus connect back to this I Am statement of God. Jesus can say I am the bread of life and I am the Good Shepherd and all the rest. He can simply say, I am. Because he is.

These I Am statements are to be taken both metaphorically and literally. Which is an unusual linguistic scenario. Physically and spiritually speaking, Jesus is and is not bread. When we feed on him by faith with thanksgiving in the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, he is fully present. This bread is not merely symbolic of Jesus’s life. When we receive communion, we do this in memory of Jesus, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s not just a way to remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; we receive the Eucharist in a way that makes Jesus present, right here and right now.

There’s a fancy word for this that, while it’s mostly tossed around in seminaries, is critical to understanding our Eucharistic theology. Anamnesis is a Greek word meaning “memory,” but it transcends our own understanding of the word. When we think about memory, we use it as a way of recalling past events. Something that happened years ago, like being forced to drink powdered milk in the woods at summer camp, may be a distant memory. Remembering that you had chicken quesadillas for dinner last night would be a recent memory. But the powdered milk and quesadillas are both events firmly rooted in the past. They happened, they’re done, hopefully no one will make you drink powdered milk in the future.

In some, more Protestant traditions that’s what people would say happens at communion. The minister says some words, people share bread and wine, or grape juice, and it’s all about remembering a past event, the Last Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me” is said as a way of keeping Jesus’ memory alive today, but it’s still memorializing an event that took place in the past. 

Our theology is slightly different. Through the concept of anamnesis, we remember in such a way that the past event is actually made present once again. So up at the altar we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but we also join ourselves to it now, at this moment, in a very real and tangible way. It’s not merely something that took place in the past, but also something that continues in the present. It makes present again what took place in the past so that our celebration around the altar becomes a living memory. Not a distant memory or a recent memory but a living memory that continues to shape our identity and draw us together as a community that worships both with Jesus and in Jesus’ name.

That can be a tough concept to wrap your mind around, like reflecting on the never-ending universe or the theory of infinity. This idea that the historical sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of the Eucharist, that will happen in a few moments, are both part of a single event is mind-blowing. But that’s precisely what happens when we gather together to share this bread of life, this bread of heaven, this living bread. 

And it doesn’t help that the Greek word is basically untranslatable in English. When you see words in the Eucharistic prayer like “memorial” or “commemoration” or “remembrance,” they really mean anamnesis. In every single one of our eucharistic prayers there is a line that liturgical scholars refer to as “the anamnesis” — it’s an integral part of the consecratory prayer said over the bread and wine.

For instance, during the summer we’ve been using Eucharistic Prayer A. Here’s the line I want you to listen for when Father Noah says it, “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” What this means, at the deepest level, is that we celebrate the anamnesis, this re-presenting, of our redemption in this act of communion. And that, as we make present again, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer these gifts of bread and wine.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of this concept takes place at the Eater Vigil — the holiest and most ancient, and certainly the most dramatic, liturgy of the church year. You know, the service I’m always nagging you to attend, if you’ve never been before. The one where we offer a champagne and jelly bean reception afterwards as an added enticement — because it’s so awesome! In a darkened church, a fire is kindled, the paschal candle is lit, and the cantor sings the Exsultet with the refrain “This is the night.” “This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life…This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.” 

Jesus is passing over from death to resurrection not just in the past but also right here, right now, on this night. This is the night. That’s anamnesis defined. An articulation that these events have happened in the past, are still happening in the present, and will happen in the future. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s the kingdom into which Jesus beckons us; that’s the power of the cross; that’s the glory of the Christian life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

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Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 29, 2018 (Proper 12B)

I’ve always been intrigued by character actors. They aren’t the leading men or leading ladies of the summer blockbuster movie you just saw at The Shipyard. You’ll never see their names on the marquee. You probably wouldn’t even recognize them if you bumped into them in the theater lobby while picking up your overpriced and oversized box of Milk Duds.

Character actors are critical to a movie’s success, giving the film texture and color. We just don’t recognize their names, even if they look vaguely familiar in an I-think-he-once-played-a-creepy-killer-on-Law-&-Order kind of way.

But the thing about character actors, besides their incredible range and ability to inhabit a wide variety of roles, is that they tend to blend into the background. You don’t leave the theater saying, “Wow, the woman that played Tom Cruise’s Aunt Suzy was amazing.”

Yet if you read the Bible, really read it deeply and with intention, you start to see some incredible character actor-type figures emerge. People who aren’t necessarily front and center but who play minor, if indispensable, roles in the stories. The bystanders, the witnesses, those who stand on the margins of the narrative. The men who lowered the paralytic down through the roof to be healed by Jesus; the parents who brought their children to be blessed by Jesus; the widow who placed two copper coins in the collection plate at the Temple.

You can learn a lot from these obscure characters if you choose to notice them. It takes a bit of imagination, but that’s half the fun. You begin to wonder, what happened to them? How did their lives turn out following an encounter with Jesus? Some may have dropped everything and followed Jesus. Others undoubtedly returned to their daily lives, touched and transformed by the experience. Still others may have quickly forgotten the interaction and went on living as before — fearfully, hopelessly, mindlessly. There are as many reactions to meeting Jesus as there are people who meet him.

5000Today, as we hear the famous story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, I keep coming back to the boy who showed up with five loaves and two fish. He doesn’t speak in this account, but as Jesus engages two of his apostles, Philip and Andrew, over what to do about this increasingly hungry crowd, the unnamed boy plays a crucial role in the forthcoming miracle of abundance. Because, apparently, he was the only one who brought anything to eat.

Of course, as Andrew notes upon spotting the boy and seeing his food, “But what are they among so many people?” Andrew says this to Jesus after gazing out over the large crowd, and it’s a wistful line. One rooted in reality, yet tinged with a hint of defeat. For, indeed, what is so little food among a throng of hungry people? A few folks may be satisfied, but it’s a drop in the bucket, really.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone tried to take my food — that I alone had the foresight to bring — I would have put up a fight. Once I realized what was happening, I would have at least tried to hide my food. Maybe share it with a few close friends so at least we didn’t go hungry. It’s hard to imagine the emotions the boy must have felt as Jesus took the food from him. And that’s the word that’s used here “took” — that’s different from saying the boy donated or offered up or gave freely. Jesus took the loaves and fish, before saying grace and distributing it to the crowd.

Perhaps the boy was stunned into silence; maybe he felt bullied. It’s possible he volunteered his food for the greater good but, then again, “What are they among so many people?” Jesus answers this question by using the boy’s small amount of food to feed the masses. A symbol of loving abundance, a demonstration that Jesus’ love for humanity overflows with grace upon grace, an expression that our Lord’s heart cannot be contained or constrained by human constructs of scarcity.

Which leads us back to this young boy. How was he changed by this encounter? After rushing home to tell his friends and family about his incredible day, how did the rest of his life unfold? We don’t know, of course. But it’s in the wondering that we can meet Jesus. Which is why I encourage you to seek out the characters on the periphery. Look for those on the margins. The people in the crowds. Insert yourself into the scene. How would you feel if you were there that day? How would you react? If you let your imagination blossom, this can be a profound spiritual exercise.

Here’s something we can try this morning to show you what I mean. This may or may not resonate with you, but we’ll give it a shot. I’m going to invite you to close your eyes for a moment. Go ahead and get comfortable. Take a few deep, slow breaths. And imagine yourself sitting on the grass, on a hillside. It’s hot. Beads of sweat form on your forehead as you swat away a gnat that just landed on your nose. There are people sitting all around you. Lots of them. In front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You can sense them; you can smell them; you can hear them. You catch snippets of conversation, disagreements about the identity of the man you’ve come to hear; this Jesus you’d heard so much about recently.

In front of you, is a stunning vista of the Sea of Galilee. Its deep blue water shimmering with the light of the setting sun. It’s been a long day. A full day. A hot day. If you strain your eyes just a bit, you can make out the man everyone’s come to see, down near the water. He had been speaking for awhile — all afternoon, really. Sharing some comforting words along with a few shocking insights. That was the thing about this Jesus, you could see it in his eyes. Even with the huge crowds, it felt as if he was speaking directly to you. At times, making your heart swell; at others, bringing tears to your eyes; and at still others making you laugh. His stories just felt so true and made you feel so alive. Simply being in his presence was somehow transformative.

Suddenly, for the first time all day, your stomach growls. You had been so enthralled with Jesus’ words, that you didn’t notice you were hungry. Frankly, you didn’t think you’d stay this long. But most of the town went out to listen to him. Everyone seemed to have the same thought at the same time and there’s some nasty grumbling as people around you begin to get restless. But, wait, what’s this? There’s a basket full of bread and fish being passed out. It’s unclear where this bounty came from but suddenly everyone is eating and laughing and content; filled with food and a deep abiding sense of peace.

Now, that’s just a taste of what I mean (you can open your eyes). A way to insert yourself into the stories you’ve heard many times before, and hear them in new ways. It’s also a reminder that we aren’t just passive observers of Jesus’ life, but active participants. Jesus is speaking not in the abstract to people who lived thousands of years ago, but to you. Right here. Right now.

The thing is, when it comes to the spiritual life, we’re all character actors. Embrace your role. Embody it. Live it. It is indeed the role of a lifetime.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 22, 2018 (Proper 11B)

I love Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s always the Fourth Sunday after Easter, so we’re still riding the sugary resurrection high as we hear the poetic passage from John’s gospel about Jesus tending his flock, calling them each by name, seeking out the lost, cradling them in his loving arms.

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is an ancient, beloved, and enduring metaphor 534_Psalm23_Shepherd-Lamb-628x417of our Lord’s tender care for each one of us. You see it in Christian art and statuary; you see it in one of my favorite places in the world to pray — the tiny Good Shepherd Chapel in the undercroft of the Washington National Cathedral; you can even see it, as I did last month, in the Roman catacombs, those early Christian burial sites located deep beneath that ancient city.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, sheep abound. They’re all over our readings, sure, but then there’s the music. We sing such sheep-inspired hymns as “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “The King of Love my Shepherd Is;” the choir anthem is inevitably “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” And then, just when we’re edging toward sheep overload, we recite the beloved 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” In the King James Version, if we’re lucky.

This morning, we also get a lot of sheep running around. Fewer than on Good Shepherd Sunday, but we still get Psalm 23 and a few sheepish hymns. But if you look closely, you’ll notice a difference. Things are a bit darker; not quite as fluffy. It doesn’t officially exist on the church calendar, but based on the readings, we might call today Bad Shepherd Sunday. That passage from Jeremiah sets up the contrast between the Good Shepherd and the bad shepherd. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” proclaims the prophet.

The thing is shepherds are given great responsibility. They are entrusted with caring for God’s creatures, who depend upon them for their very survival. They can choose to use their authority responsibly or they can abuse it. They can nurture their flock and lead the sheep to safety; or they can ignore their flock and lead them to destruction.

If you were to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle and label one side “Good Shepherd” and the other side “Bad Shepherd,” it might look like this: Good Shepherd: compassionate, loving, nurtures, protects, guides, gathers, lays down his life for his sheep. Bad Shepherd: inattentive, self-serving, uncaring, cruel, sows division, scatters, flees when danger arises. The contrast is stunning. To use the parallel imagery of the 23rd Psalm, good shepherds lead their flocks to green pastures and still waters and right pathways; they protect them with their rod and staff and guide them through dangerous valleys. Bad shepherds, on the other hand, lead their sheep into mayhem, disaster, and death.

Today is less about shepherds faithfully tending their sheep and more about wolves in sheep’s clothing seeking to dupe and destroy the sheep.

So what’s Jeremiah talking about? It’s helpful to know that in the ancient world, the image of the shepherd wasn’t limited to religion. For us, unless we’re actually out tending sheep — which we’re probably not —  we exclusively associate pastoral imagery with the ecclesiastical. The word “pastor” means shepherd; when we care for others we call this “pastoral care;” bishops literally carry a shepherd’s staff as a symbol of their pastoral authority.

Yet, if you asked the average person in Jeremiah’s day about earthly shepherds, they would have named not clergy, but rulers. Kings were the ones seen as the chief shepherds of the people, providing for their needs, protecting them, guiding them. Which is why Jesus proclaiming himself as the Good Shepherd was both radical and controversial. In doing so he was taking a secular image of kingship and applying it to himself in a new way. The kingship of Jesus was not of this world, but encompassed a different realm entirely. We’re used to the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but his original hearers would have been scandalized by the image. “Are you claiming to be a king? There’s only one king – and he’s certainly not a poor, itinerant rabbi. That’s ridiculous.”

So, in this passage about bad shepherds, Jeremiah is holding the political leaders of Israel to a higher standard and condemning them for failing the people in their care. The kings of Judah had been lousy shepherds, allowing the flock to be scattered and exiled from their homeland. This failure of the political leadership 600 years before the birth of Jesus, is what led to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the sacking of the Temple, and the forced exile of the Israelites from their homeland for 70 years.

That’s what Jeremiah was talking about. And as he was writing this, the people of Israel were scattered. They were, as Jesus puts it, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Certainly sheep without a good shepherd. They were driven from their homeland, persecuted, vulnerable, separated from family and friends, living in fear and scarcity. The lack of faith in God, coupled with the leaders’ faith in themselves, got them into this mess. And we see the contrast between leaders who don’t care about the people and the loving, compassionate nature of God who will never forsake his beloved children.

Jesus, of course, is the only true good shepherd. He alone embodies all the characteristics and traits on the left side of our list. So, when we put our faith in human shepherds, no matter how good their intentions, we will invariably be disappointed. We get in trouble when we confuse our one, true Good Shepherd with those who shepherd congregations. Present company included.

Earthly ecclesiastical shepherds must always and consistently and faithfully point to Jesus, not to themselves. When clergy begin to proclaim themselves rather than Christ, or start to put their own needs ahead of their flock, they’re heading down the road of the bad shepherd. It doesn’t take much to think about the damage bad shepherds have done to the church over the years. Clergy sexual abuse scandals are exhibit A, perhaps, but laziness or a lack of faith or a failure of leadership all diminish congregations and prevent them from becoming the beloved communities that Jesus so desires them to be.

But the church is not the only earthly vessel where bad shepherds can do damage. We may no longer look to political leaders as shepherds, but the same contrasting list can be held up for our elected officials. We desperately crave leaders who are compassionate and loving; leaders who guide and protect rather than those who are self-serving and cruel; uncaring and divisive. Jeremiah was railing against a crisis in temporal leadership and it would be interesting to hear what he would have to say about the current state of political leadership in this country.

Where you stand on this issue may depend on where you get your news, but I think we can all agree it would be nice if our political leaders, from the President of the United States right on down to our town selectmen, embodied more qualities of good shepherds. Acting with compassion in accordance with the values of the Good Shepherd; tending to the lost and the lonely and the vulnerable. I do worry that we are drifting into a place of cruelty and division rather than compassion and unity. That we are scattering the flock rather than gathering it. That we are sowing seeds of fear rather than binding up the brokenhearted.

I don’t think Bad Shepherd Sunday will ever become a thing. No one’s going to write a hymn for Bad Shepherd Sunday. And that’s probably a good thing. But I appreciate the contrast, because it serves as a reminder that ultimately, it is the Good Shepherd alone who brings healing and wholeness to situations of isolation and brokenness. And we need this Good Shepherd in our lives and in our world now more than ever.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 15, 2018 (Proper 10B)

I know what you’re thinking. ‘He’s had four months to write this sermon — it better be amazing.’ But just to lower your expectations, I started writing the sermon on Thursday. My sabbatical reentry included a return to my usual sermon writing routine, over coffee at Redeye Roasters. Now, I could go on and on about the coffee I had (Colombian) and the tasting notes (lime and stone fruit), and the mouth feel (smooth). But that would just be a distraction to divert from the fact that I may be a bit…rusty.

In fairness, it’s slightly jarring to get back into the pulpit after four months only to encounter John the Baptist’s head on a platter. I was hoping for more of a Good Shepherd vibe to ease my way back into things, but that’s okay. It’s a good reminder that life, like a wonderful sabbatical, can end rather abruptly. (Which is a terrible metaphor — they assured me this would be just like riding a bicycle!).

JTB luiniThis story of Herod and his wife Herodias and their daughter Salome and John the Baptist is full of intrigue and passion and heartbreak and death. There’s a reason Richard Strauss turned it into an opera — it has every ingredient for compelling narrative, dripping with the full spectrum of human emotion. There’s also a reason, given the outcome, that when my father conducted Salome with the Honolulu Opera, he told me the stage hands had t-shirts printed up that read “Get Ahead with Salome.” That’s some dark humor right there.

This morning, amid all the captivating characters in this story, I want to focus on Herod. But, first, a bit of background is helpful to set the scene. King Herod had John imprisoned, at the urging of his wife, because John had criticized him for divorcing his previous wife and marrying Herodias, his brother’s widow. According to the Law of Moses, this was considered adultery and John was unrelenting in his condemnation.

Herod himself might not have cared too much about John’s protests over his marriage — we hear that he actually considered John a “righteous and holy man.” But his wife Herodias held a massive grudge against the man who publicly condemned her marriage. Encouraging her husband to imprison him wasn’t enough. She was out for blood.

On the notorious evening in question, Herod was throwing himself a big birthday bash, and as part of the festivities his daughter, Salome, danced for the king and his guests — the famous, sensual Dance of the Seven Veils. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his intoxicated state he promised to give her anything she desired. Now, you would have thought that a pony would have sufficed or maybe a new iPhone, but when Salome consulted with her mother, Herodias seized her opportunity for revenge, instructing her daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

This is where we glimpse Herod’s true character. While he was appalled by this request, he had made his daughter a very public promise. And we hear that “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” Herodias had played her diabolical hand brilliantly, knowing Herod was more concerned with saving face than doing the right thing. And the king’s insecurity sealed John’s fate.

Now, when I was in Jordan a couple years ago, I visited the ruins of Herod’s palace. It was built by Herod the Great — the one who appears in the birth narrative of Jesus and, upon hearing of this newborn king, murders every male child under the age of two. Not a nice guy. The Herod we hear about today, is his son Herod Antipas. The palace in question is situated high atop a mountain with stunning views in all directions. If you were to pick the perfect location to display dominance over your subjects, this would be it. As we hiked up to the palace, our guide pointed out a number of man-made caves cut into the mountainside, which had served as cells for prisoners. John the Baptist was likely held in one of these, and as he wasted away in isolation, he could probably hear the festivities taking place up the hill. The sounds of music and laughter and drunken revelry wafting down to his cell. John must have been confused when armed guards abruptly opened his cell and seized him.

The point is, Herod held all the cards. He embodied all the trappings of the powerful ruler. The palace, the resources, the clothing, the entourage, the military might. He ruled all that the eye could see and held authority to give life or take it away. While John embodied…nothing, really. He was a shell of himself, a man full of bluster who had been reduced to a silent, gaunt prisoner. Weak and vulnerable in the face of the world’s powers and principalities. At least on the surface of things.

Because John’s public courage stands in stark relief against Herod’s public weakness. John spoke boldly, knowing full well the consequences. Herod spoke boastfully, without consideration of any consequences. Throughout his life John was defined by his words; he was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, the forerunner of the Messiah. While Herod is, ironically enough, imprisoned by his words. Caught in his own vanity and unable to acknowledge his mistake and walk back his pride, a holy and righteous man is put to death in a most grisly and gruesome way. Evil sees the light of day, enabled by weakness and insecurity.

There are times when our public fear of confrontation limits our ability to act courageously. The pull to just go along and not rock the status quo is powerful. It happens at work with coworkers who act inappropriately; it happens in bars with friends who make sexist comments; it happens with family members who tell racist jokes. Oh, it’s mostly done in the name of jest. ‘Relax, can’t you take a joke?’ There have been times when I have said things in such situations and there have been times when I have not. And I doubt I’m alone.

But here’s the thing about moral courage: it is a muscle that demands exercise. If we don’t use it in small ways, it will have atrophied when human life is at stake. We will be so used to remaining silent in the face of injustice, that our voice will not sound when it really matters. Herod’s voice of moral courage had become the empty sound of silence. When it mattered most, Herod was powerless to stem the tide; too weak to put an end to the madness.

What he couldn’t know, is that the narrative didn’t end with the executioner’s blade. Even with his head on a platter, John’s voice resonates. Pointing us towards Jesus; reminding us that the path of least resistance is rarely the path of moral courage; highlighting the strength of character that transcends the world’s notion of power and weakness.

Allow the prophetic voice of John to guide you again and again towards Jesus Christ. The Savior of the world was also seemingly silenced, slaughtered on a hill outside Jerusalem. But the voice of justice lives. It rises up and encourages us to be strong in our convictions. Even when it’s not easy or unpopular. That’s the still, small voice of God residing deep within us; the voice of love and justice and compassion yearning to be released into the world. Open your heart and lips and let it speak the truth. It’s not always comfortable, but it is always the way of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

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

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