Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 18, 2022 (Advent 4, Year A)

Wait, watch. These are the themes of Advent. The church is always encouraging us to hold off on celebrating Christmas too early. On the Sundays of Advent we sing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols. We light the Advent wreath and the building light points to that grand event that is to come: the birth of our Lord. Our desire for instant gratification is put on hold, even as the world around us watches Hallmark Christmas movies. The waiting and watching is part of our spiritual discipline as we steep ourselves in hope and expectation. 

And yet, this Sunday’s gospel passage subverts all of our patient waiting. Here’s the big spoiler alert: Jesus is born! Oddly enough, we get Matthew’s birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year. So, in light of this, I think we’ll just cancel all the Christmas services and we’ll see you in the New Year. 

But before we do that, I guess we should take a closer look at this passage and see how it fits into the season of Advent. The first thing to notice is that Joseph plays a prominent role; this whole scene takes place from his perspective. In a dream, he learns that he should go ahead and marry the woman to whom he was engaged, and that this child Mary is carrying, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he is to name him Jesus. Now, that’s a lot to absorb. But when Joseph wakes up from this life-changing dream, he does what the angel says: he marries Mary, waits for her to give birth, and names the child Jesus.

Now, Joseph is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the whole nativity scene. When you set up your crèche you probably start with the manger and baby Jesus. Next comes Mary, perhaps a few angels, and then there’s always that moment of confusion when you can’t tell Jospeh apart from one of the shepherds. But eventually you figure it out and stick him in there to gaze upon the holy child, but not too close. 

Joseph is like a holy bystander. Supportive of Mary, excited and nervous at the prospect of raising this child. But he’s not exactly able to stare down at Jesus and say, “I think he’s got my eyes.” So we’re not quite sure what to do with Joseph. It’s nice to have him around, we think, but he’s not really necessary to the story. But there’s more to St. Joseph than this, and he does play a crucial role in Jesus’ life. Not only does he raise Jesus as his own, he protects him from certain death when the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath — the result of another dream. And so Joseph stands out as a model of someone who hears God’s voice and faithfully responds to it, even when what is being asked is unusual or disquieting.

In this season of waiting and watching, we could all stand to tune out the noise and listen a little more intently to God’s voice. Believe me, it’s hard to do that a week before Christmas. There is just so much noise and so many expectations. But you’re here. Which is a good place to be as we all seek some spiritual shelter from the swirling storm that is the Christmas-industrial complex. And so Joseph points us to a way of listening and responding to God’s call even when life feels too full. And we need that during this season.

The other thing about this passage and the real reason it fits into the season of Advent is that it points to questions about Jesus’ identity. We learn that he is indeed divine, being conceived by the Holy Spirit. That his birth is the fulfillment of Scripture — we get that quote from the prophet Isaiah — “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” And we see the significance of his name. The name Jesus means “to save,” and Jesus has come into the world to save us from sin and death. But also Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. Through the birth of Jesus, God enters the world in human form to live and dwell among us which, another spoiler alert, is the true miracle of Christmas.

So, in the same way that John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, this passage prepares us to meet the Christ child. It sets the stage for the entrance of the messiah into the world by emphasizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son. We’re not waiting for some wise teacher to show up on  Christmas. We are awaiting the arrival of God’s only begotten Son. The one whose birth literally changes the world. The one who sets us free from the bondage of sin and death. The one who ushers in the very kingdom of heaven right here on earth. And in so doing transforms the world and fills our lives with hope and meaning. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves — we still have a week before all of that.

But hearing this birth narrative a week before Christmas is also a good reminder that even as we await the birth of Jesus, Jesus is already here. So while the Advent police may not like you listening to Christmas carols before the 25th, it’s okay to do so. And even though I may roll my eyes at the Hallmark Christmas movies, I’m not going to turn them off in a huff while Bryna’s watching them at the rectory. Which she does. A lot. Jesus is with us right now, in this moment, in this place. Just as he always is. Even as we prepare for his arrival in a manger not long from now, and even as we await his coming again in great glory.

When our boys were growing up, they used to love setting up the crèche in our living room. They always did it with great care and reverence. Even if they often added their own figurines to the scene. There was usually a Darth Vader next to the shepherds or a Power Ranger among the sheep. But a debate would always rage about whether to put the baby Jesus into the manger before the 25th or wait until Christmas. I was always in the let’s wait camp and everyone else in the house opposed my position. So I always lost. But theologically speaking, they were probably right. Jesus is with us, even as we wait for him. Both of these things can be and are true. Just as Jesus is with us now, even as we await his coming again at the end of the age.

And in the meantime, we can look to Joseph’s example as one who listens attentively to the moving of the Spirit in his life. We can reflect upon Jesus’ identity as God’s son. And we can open our hearts to the one who is both to come and already at hand.


Third Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2022 (Advent 3, Year A)

John the Baptist looms large over the season of Advent. The Forerunner, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, this loud, larger-than-life figure who preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins along the banks of the Jordan river. And yet we don’t encounter a more counter-cultural figure in the days leading up to Christmas. You’ll never see a giant blow-up John the Baptist on anyone’s front lawn. He doesn’t feature prominently in any Christmas carols — no one’s singing “here comes John the Baptist right down John the Baptist Lane.” No one trims their tree with a John the Baptist ornament — although I would pay good money for one.

This morning, we hear Jesus ask the crowds that had sought out John the Baptist in the wilderness, what they went out to see? And it’s a good question. John, after all, was drawing ever larger crowds. Some were drawn to him because they thought he might have been the long-anticipated Messiah, some heard that he was a prophet, some of the religious elite were nervous about his growing popularity and wanted to catch him in heresy in order to discredit him, some were just interested in the spectacle of it all.

And so Jesus asks what they had gone out to see. A reed shaken by the wind? In other words, someone willing to bend to popular opinion? Someone who checked the polls before deciding what to say? Or did they go out to see someone dressed in “soft robes?” In other words, a member of the religious establishment who wouldn’t upset the status quo? Someone who wouldn’t challenge their understanding of God? Someone who wouldn’t demand much of them? 

Well, we know John is the exact opposite of that. For starters, camel skin and leather could hardly be considered soft. And a guy who subsists on locusts and wild honey probably wouldn’t fit in very well at a fancy dinner party or a charity ball. After all, he’s known as John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian. And just last week we heard John greet those gathered around him by calling them a “brood of vipers,” so we know he wasn’t just telling the people what they wanted to hear. Surely they didn’t want to hear that.

But it begs the question, what do you go to church to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Well, you can certainly see that. But what do you come to church to see and hear? Sometimes we leave feeling inspired by the music or the liturgy or even, occasionally, the sermon. Sometimes we leave feeling good about ourselves and, perhaps if we’re honest, even a little self-righteous for having done the right thing and gone to church. Sometimes we leave with hearts bursting to go out into the world to serve others. Sometimes we leave feeling challenged or uncomfortable, even angry. Sometimes we leave feeling and knowing at our very core just how much God loves us. Often it’s a whole swirl of these emotions, depending on the week.

But it’s important to examine our inner motivations about what we’re hoping to see and hear when we gather for worship. Again, we can’t just go to church to see a bunch of people dressed in soft robes, and we can’t come to church just to make ourselves feel good. Or to simply revel in sacred space and beautiful music — which, believe me, I love. And is an important aspect of the spiritual life. But it can’t end there. We are not called to be passive recipients of faith, but active participants in it. Faith is not a spectator sport, it is a way of life; a call to action. And so every time we gather, the question posed to each one of us is how will we live out this faith with which we have been entrusted? How will we turn our faith into action?

And there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, just as there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all faith. There are varieties of ways to respond to God’s word and they are ever-shifting in our lives. Someone may feel compelled to feed the hungry through St. George’s, someone else may be inspired to join a Bible study or teach Sunday School, someone may share their gifts and passions through committee work, someone may want to donate money for a new set of soft robes. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” St. Paul tells us. And there are varieties of ways to live out our faith in the world. But live it out we must. 

Around the corner from our rectory in Massachusetts lived two little girls who were also members of the parish. I’d pass by their house regularly whenever I walked to my local coffee shop. Which was often. So often that I used to refer to it as my “satellite office.” One afternoon as I was walking past, I noticed they had set up a lemonade stand. Now, that’s not a particularly unusual suburban sight. Many of us sold lemonade at the end of our driveways as kids and ended up being praised for our entrepreneurial spirit. The neighbors would stop by to purchase a cup, often telling us to keep the change; which was thrilling. And we’d keep at it until dinnertime, or until we realized we didn’t live on a main thoroughfare and standing in front of a table all day was boring. 

But in the name of supporting small business owners, I stopped at their table and bought a dixie cup full of lemonade. Before I did, they told me all the money was going not to themselves but to feed the hungry. In Sunday School they’d learned about families who didn’t have enough to eat and they had collected food items for our local pantry. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more. And the end result was that they were putting their faith into action in a very tangible way. 

We’re invited to do the same. It may not be setting up a lemonade stand — at this stage in life that might draw a few odd looks. And there’s the whole permitting process. But I encourage you to reflect upon whatever your version of a lemonade stand might be. We all set up different ones, just as we all respond to God’s call in different ways. 

John the Baptist’s unique calling was to set up his lemonade stand along the banks of the Jordan. To use his prophetic voice to cry out in the wilderness, to baptize those seeking an authentic encounter with the living God, to prepare the way of the Lord, to point not to himself but to the one who was to come.

So, what do you go to church to see and hear? Your answer informs what kind of lemonade stand you set up. And in the spirit of John the Baptist, we are drawn ever closer to the heart of Jesus. 

Thanksgiving Eve

Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service

St. Edwards Church

November 23, 2022

So, I’m the new guy at Bethesda. I’ve literally been on the job for one week. And as I was unpacking boxes and meeting staff and going over dates, they mentioned the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service. And I said, great! I look forward to meeting my new clergy colleagues and getting a better sense of the Palm Beach community. Then they mentioned that the service rotates to different congregations every year. And I said, great! I look forward to seeing all the different houses of worship on the island. Then they mentioned that the preacher rotates every year. And I said, great! I look forward to hearing different voices from the various congregations. Then they told me it was Bethesda’s turn and I was the designated preacher. And I said, wait, what?!

But it is great to be among you this evening as we gather to give thanks for God’s abundant blessings in this community, to pray together, and to revel in our unity as people of faith. 

You know, I just moved down here from Massachusetts, only about 30 minutes north of Plymouth, the site of the very first Thanksgiving. And we all know the myths surrounding the pilgrims and the native people at that gathering. The talk of sharing resources and food, the pretty picture of brotherly love and the acceptance of other cultures. It’s become part of our national narrative, handed down from one generation to another. I certainly learned all about it in school as I traced my hand to make a drawing of a turkey. So we like to hold onto this myth in our collective imagination, even as the reality of the interactions between the English colonists and the native people is much harder to face. In fact, many have called for a Day of Mourning to mark the genocide of native peoples that came about as a result of the English settlers coming to these shores. Hard truths often involve an uncomfortable reckoning. 

Now, I know it’s a lot easier to just talk about the three F’s of Thanksgiving: food, family, and football. That’s what we really want to focus on and celebrate this evening. But then we hear this passage that Rabbi Michael read from the prophet Isaiah, which gets to the heart of how we are to act as people of faith: “Here is the sort of fast I want” — and yes, it’s rather ironic to call for a fast as we prepare for a great feast — “Here is the sort of fast I want…letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you see them.” It is this call for Biblical justice that allows us to hear the cries of the native people, who deserve to be seen and recognized and lifted up. So there is challenge and a call to action in the midst of our Thanksgiving preparations.

But I also want to say how grateful I am for your presence this evening. This gathering isn’t just an excuse to escape our extended families for an hour or so — you know, those in-laws who have been in town since yesterday afternoon. No, the gathered community matters. Individually and collectively we are signs of God’s presence, signs that our common life transcends any differences, signs that despite our different beliefs — both political and religious — there is still a unity of purpose and a clarity of commitment to one another through both our common geography and common humanity. And amid these deeply divided times, when there is so much dehumanizing and demonization of others, we need to gather together now more than ever. To model what it means to be in relationship across difference. To celebrate our diversity. To build bridges between and among those who may not share our particular perspective. 

So we gather and we give thanks. And we give thanks not in the abstract or to Aunt Helen for not overcooking the yams this year or to the Detroit Lions for keeping this year’s game competitive. These are all good things, but ultimately and specifically we give thanks to God. In whatever expression or form this takes, we gather and give thanks to the God of our particular traditions. 

And when we participate in this service through prayer and song and Scripture, rather than watering down our faith or stooping to the lowest common theological denominator, our coming together hints at the very fullness of God. The fullness that speaks to the God who is beyond human expression and knowing; the God who is both transcendent and at hand; the God upon whom no single faith tradition has a monopoly; the God who knows us intimately and still loves us with reckless and unwavering abandon. And so in this spirit, I bid you all a very happy and holy Thanksgiving. 

Last Pentecost: Christ the King 2022

A Sermon from the Church of  

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

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 20, 2022 (Proper 29, Year C)

Well, the phantom rector has finally arrived for his first Sunday morning at Bethesda. The one who’s been lurking in the rectory the past few weeks; the one who’s been opening countless boxes and hanging pictures and engaging in high level negotiations with the Department of Motor Vehicles; the one who’s been sneaking out to other churches on Sunday mornings; the one who survived what I’ve been referring to as our “starter hurricane;” the one who’s met a few of you along the way – at Publix or the Church Mouse or walking the dogs along Barton Avenue. Actually, I met a lot of you at last Sunday evening’s beautiful Celebration of New Ministry — but, to be fair, that was all a bit of a blur (please do keep telling me and Bryna your names — over and over again). We’ll get there.

So, I have to say it feels great to have finally and officially begun my ministry among you. To finally begin this new relationship after so much anticipation. To finally embark upon the mission to which we together have been called: seeking and serving Christ in one another and in the world. So I’ll announce right here, right now that I am officially done lurking. 

Which means we can all get on with the task at hand, of getting to know one another and living into the bold, beautiful vision God has in store for us. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, I’ll be honest. The last thing a new rector wants to hear on his very first Sunday at a new church is the story of the crucifixion. We don’t want to delve into any possible foreshadowing of how things might go. But at another level it’s the perfect gospel passage upon which to begin a new relationship, because the cross is so central to our faith. It’s what binds us to Jesus and one another. It stands at the very heart of all that we do as Christians. Without the crucifixion, we live without the hope and joy of the resurrection. And, boy, do we need the hope and joy of the resurrection in our lives. It’s what sustains us and gives life meaning. It’s what allows us to get up and keep going when life knocks us down. It’s what assures us that we are beloved children of God.

Which brings us to Christ the King Sunday, the day we mark the reign of Jesus, as we celebrate him as the King of kings and Lord of lords. You might think we’d get a reading that highlights Jesus in all his triumphant resurrected glory, rather than the story of the crucifixion. From the outside looking in, Jesus being strung up on a cross to die is hardly a victory. An ignominious death at the hands of the Roman authorities is hardly an ending fit for a king. But here’s the thing: Jesus’ reign isn’t like worldly examples of kingship. Many of the great and powerful kings we read about in history ruled by fear and isolation. They enforced their will with armies and kept the populace at arm’s length by living in moat-ringed castles. Kings like Nero or Ivan the Terrible or Henry VIII. And, yes, I know we Anglicans have a complicated relationship with Henry VIII, but of course none of us had to be one of his wives.

That’s not the kind of king we’re dealing with in Jesus. His is a different sort of realm. And so, in thinking about Christ the King, we need to undo our notions of earthly kingship. Jesus’ kingship is not about the iron grip of absolute power. It is a kingship of invitation rather than coercion; a kingship of inclusion rather than isolation; a kingship built upon peace rather than fear. In other words it is a kingship that looks nothing like what we’ve learned about in history books or seen in movies. It certainly stands in direct contrast to King Herod and the other kings of Jesus’ own day. 

And so, as Christians, we end up with what I like to call the “upside down kingdom.” A place where a king is born in a lowly stable, not a royal bedchamber. A place where a king is not King Midas-wealthy, set up in a fortified castle but a man without a spot to lay his head. A place where a king has not 12 armor-wearing knights, but 12 unarmed apostles. Everything has been flipped in this kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last; where the king came not to be served, but to serve. The reign of Christ is built on love, not fear.

And the crucifixion itself teaches us much about the reign of Jesus. It is selfless — Jesus doesn’t use his power to save himself, despite the mocking call of “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” It is built on forgiveness — Jesus forgives even those who crucify him — “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” It is rooted in salvation — he says to the repentant thief, “Truly this day, you will be with me in paradise.”

This is the kingdom into which we are invited to live and move and have our being. This kingdom that is selfless and forgiving and salvific. This is the kingdom we are called to create here on earth, to work together as partners with Jesus to make space for the least, the lost, and the lonely. To open our hands in love to those crying out for justice. To give a voice to the voiceless. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” this is what we are seeking to usher in. Not to build up thick walls between and among us, but to tear them down. This is the work to which we have been called, to bring about the very kingdom of God here on earth, and specifically here at Bethesda.

In the coming years, I look forward to worshiping with you, to serving Jesus with you, to laughing with you, to weeping with you, to drinking coffee with you, to building the kingdom of God in this place. Relationships take time, but they also take investment, whether that’s relationship with Jesus or relationship with a new rector. Let’s invest in this relationship. We won’t always agree on everything — it wouldn’t be church if we did. But God doesn’t call us to always agree with one another, God calls us to change the world. And together, we can do just that. 

Please know just how excited I am to walk with you along the pilgrim’s path as a fellow disciple of our risen Lord. By being here this morning we have all made a commitment to enter into ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and to follow him. Sometimes we do that tentatively; sometimes we do that boldly. But the good news is that we’re not asked to follow Jesus in isolation. We do so with the help and encouragement of a community of faith, with the help and encouragement of this community of faith. My friends in Christ, it will be a privilege to walk this journey with you. And to do our part to usher in the kingdom of God in this place.

19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 16, 2022 (Proper 24, Year C)

On the underside of the silver chalice we use for communion at this altar each week, there’s a small screw that holds the cup and the base together. Whenever I stand at the altar and elevate the chalice for the congregation to see and reflect upon our relationship with Jesus through the sacrament of communion, my index finger touches this small piece of hardware. It’s mostly just done out of habit, holding on to something familiar amid the sacred mysteries of the eucharist. But it’s something I’ve done week after week for the past nearly fourteen years. 

It’s a beautiful chalice, of course, made with precious metals and set with valuable stones. But the real value is what’s inside the cup, the gift of the communion wine, the invitation to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. For it is the very cup of salvation that we receive; along with the bread, these are the gifts of God for the people of God. 

In many ways, the same could be said about the vessel that is St. John’s. It is a beautiful stone building with stunning stained glass windows and gorgeous woodwork. And now with air conditioning! But the true value is what’s inside the church building: which is all of you. People created and beloved by God, who gather week after week to find and be found by God. It is this treasure that I have come to love throughout my time among you. You are the treasure that makes this place so special. And that will never change, despite the comings and goings of clergy.

It’s been said that the clergy are the least permanent element of any congregation. They can have a powerful impact, for sure, and should. But the congregation itself is what endures and abides, even as it evolves and grows and changes. And I take great comfort in this fact, especially during times of transition. St. John’s is full of passionate, faithful, committed Christians who care deeply about God and one another. It is blessed with strong lay leaders who care deeply about the mission of the church. And as I’ve said before, we are called not just to go to church, which is important, but to be the church, within these four walls and beyond them.

But, still, goodbyes are hard. One of the things I will most miss about worshiping at St. John’s is gazing out at all of you on Sunday mornings. For in this glimpse from the pulpit or the altar or at the communion rail, I have come to see the very face of God. Each one of you has been created in God’s image. And collectively you reflect back the divine love that resides in us all individually, but that is magnified in totality. And as I look out on these pews, I see not just the living — not just all of you — but those we have known and loved and lost over the years. They are all here, part of the communion of saints that makes up the fullness of St. John’s. This community of faith is a bold reflection of God’s love because of the ways you care for one another and serve others and proclaim the gospel of love in countless ways big and small. 

But please remember that the fullness of this community is predicated upon your presence. And that the community is diminished when you are not here. We worship together not because the priest wants you to, but because God does. Because our common life is at its richest and most vibrant when we gather with one another to love and serve the Lord. And in the days ahead St. John’s will need you more than ever. Participate in worship, send your children to Sunday School and Youth Group, get engaged in ministries that build up the body of Christ that is the church. If I have one request as I leave St. John’s, it’s that you continue that process of regathering in earnest. Well, it’s also to increase your pledge for 2023. But that’s a whole other topic.

There is a natural feeling of uncertainty that accompanies a time of transition. But the reality is that you are the constant. Your presence and involvement and resources will sustain St. John’s in the interim period, which is really an opportunity for the parish to take a step back and decide what it wants to be and where it wants to go. And it will set the parish up for the incredible things I know God has in store for this place.

In the kaleidoscope of images dancing through my head, I see the joy on the faces of children going through the Not-So-Spooky Haunted House; I see the spirited bidding from the stage of the Holiday Boutique auction — I kind of feel like I should be auctioning off Christmas Eve pews right now; I see the children walking in from Sunday School, I see the countless number of folks who have joined me serving at the altar, I see our faithful assisting clergy, I see the only choir that actually grew during the pandemic, I see incredibly faithful Vestry members and Wardens who have been sources of profound counsel, wisdom, and leadership over the years.

But the image that I will most carry with me is the view at communion. I love watching this whole community come up to the communion rail with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Sunday School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers. But everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: Jesus. 

We can do so every single week as we reach out our hands to receive the body of Christ. If we truly open our hearts to divine relationship, this becomes a moment of transformation. Precisely how, is the stuff of mystery. But when we reach out our hearts as well as our hands to receive the living Christ, an astounding thing happens. Burdens are lifted, sins are forgiven, grace amazes, joy thrives, and peace abounds. Keep reaching out your hands to receive Jesus. Whatever is going on in your life, keep coming to this rail and reaching out your hands. Keep searching for the divine encounter that gives life hope and meaning. 

Please know that I will always love you. That I have been indelibly changed by my time at St. John’s. That I will always carry you in my heart. I may no longer be your priest, but I will always be your friend. This congregation will be just fine because God will continue to richly bless such a faithful community. Of that I have no doubt. And I look forward to hearing about the new chapter that awaits St. John’s. It has been my deepest honor and privilege to serve as your rector. Thank you for entrusting me with the care of your souls on this leg of our spiritual journey. It has been a blessing beyond all measure.

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 2, 2022 (Proper 22, Year C)

There’s a perhaps apocryphal story about an old priest who used to take the time to hand write the epistles — those letters to the early Christian communities — and address them to specific people in his congregation. I assume he chose the ones that were particularly pastoral in nature. No one wants to get a letter in the mail railing against fornication and licentiousness and idolatry.

But there’s something beautiful about taking the time to copy one of Paul’s letters and send it to someone as if it was addressed directly to that person. For within these letters we find words of hope and encouragement, support during times of crisis, words that help to strengthen our faith when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable or forsaken. And I love the idea of opening a letter of such encouragement simply out of the blue. One that arrives along with the usual array of bills and catalogs.

I think about receiving the opening lines we just heard in this second letter to Timothy, and not just because this one is literally addressed to Timothy. Imagine that it is addressed specifically to you. Instead of it being addressed to Paul’s young companion in building up the early church, imagine receiving it in handwritten form and reading and instead of Timothy, “To Helen, my beloved child.” Or whatever your name is. “To you, my beloved child.” Followed by, “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Even those opening lines are worth sitting with for a few moments. To be greeted in Jesus’ name with grace, mercy, and peace is a powerful and quite moving thing.

No longer is the letter an abstract concept dealing with a seemingly irrelevant set of circumstances sent to a long dead person or an ancient community. Suddenly it becomes a living breathing document that addresses your own situation, your own struggles, your own most heartfelt hopes and dreams. And we remember that when we engage Scripture, when we truly wrestle with it, it becomes alive in our hearing. It is personal, rather than abstract or remote.

Now just for some context, this is Paul writing to his young protege as he knows the end of his life is near. He is in prison, bound in chains, awaiting his final judgment. And he is encouraging Timothy not to lose heart, to hold fast to a steadfast faith, despite the difficulties that he will surely encounter on behalf of the gospel. There is a cost to discipleship, to following Jesus, but it’s also what gives our lives meaning and hope. And we can never hear that message often enough.

But still, I encourage you to hear the early lines of this letter addressed specifically to you. “I am reminded of your sincere faith…that I am sure lives in you.” This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with our faith or have intense doubts at times. But, as Paul says, he is sure that a sincere faith lives in you. In you! Even when you have trouble accessing it or feeling it, faith lives in you. And it is sufficient.

Which is why the disciples’ demand at the start of our gospel passage is both understandable and absurd. “Increase our faith!” they plead with Jesus. And it makes sense, given the preceding chapters. Jesus has told them to forgive people who cause them harm, he has told them to sell their possessions, he has told them to pick up their cross and follow him. This all seems so overwhelming, who wouldn’t cry out in desperation, “Increase our faith!” How else could we even think about doing these things?

But, again, in that letter with our name on it, we’ve been told that a sincere faith, a sufficient faith lives within us. And anyway, faith isn’t some commodity that you need to hoard in order to be more faithful. It’s not like a candy jar that you fill to the brim and suddenly all your problems are solved. Faith is not magic. We already have that tiny mustard seed of faith within us. And it is enough!

So it’s not about amassing more and more faith until you have a specific stockpile to get you through life. We’re not squirrels collecting acorns to get us through a tough winter. The spiritual life isn’t a video game where you earn more and more points until you’re fully protected from whatever onslaught comes your way. It’s all about how we use that mustard seed of faith that resides within each one of us. 

We don’t need to increase our faith in order to be compassionate to those around us, to be empathetic, to love and care for both friend and stranger. Thanks be to God that we have that faith embedded in our souls, a faith sufficient to change the world and transform the lives of those around us. That is the good news that Jesus brings and that Paul’s words use to encourage us. So the real question is not about the amount of faith we have, but how we embody our faith in the world.

Fortunately, today coincides with our Ministry Fair at coffee hour. There are all sorts of ways to put your faith into action, to embody your faith through St. John’s to make a difference in the life of this community. Some of the opportunities are more inwardly focused on parish life and others are more outward looking. But I encourage you to embrace the faith that resides deep within your soul and match it to a ministry in this place. Be bold, try something new. Or share the gifts you already have. Either way, your faith will be embodied in new ways and that’s really what adds hope and meaning to life, especially when the ground we stand upon seems to be moving beneath our feet.

Maybe like that old priest I should have sent everyone a personal, handwritten letter encouraging you in your faith and inviting you to put your faith into action through this special community. I’m convinced that another word for the phrase ‘embodied faith’ is simply faith. When we follow Jesus in heart, mind and body, ministry happens. The mustard seed grows exponentially.

And while I know I couldn’t have possibly sent everyone a personal letter of encouragement, I guess I’ve been I’ve been thinking about these pastoral letters more than usual these days. Or at least the sentiments expressed within them. As I prepare to take my leave of St. John’s in a couple weeks, there are just so many things I want to say. Encouraging things, loving things, hopeful things. You are all on my heart and always will be. 

For now, I just want to echo the words written to Timothy and send them to all of you. “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the hope of the Holy Spirit living within us.”

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 25, 2022 (Proper 21, Year C)

When I was in elementary school growing up in Baltimore, there was a bench outside of every classroom. This was not a bench you would use to relax after a hard session of playing dodgeball at recess. This was a different kind of bench. If you misbehaved, the teacher would send you to the bench. And you’d have to stand up in front of the class, do the walk of shame past the other students, open the door, and go sit on the bench. The threat of being sent to the bench always hung over the classroom as a behavioral deterrent. And I think the point was to go out there, sit on the bench, and reflect upon the crimes you’d committed against both the teacher and all of humanity. But all you really hoped for was that the principal, Mr. Kirk, wouldn’t wander down the hall and drag you into his office for a little chat.

Benches in general are tough places. I mean, sure a judge sits on a bench, and so does an organist for that matter. But in sports to get benched is a very public acknowledgment that you are underperforming. It is a place of shame, a signal that you don’t belong with the real players out on the field. It is a place to fidget and stew and dream about future glory if only you were given a chance. But in the meantime, you chew gum and stare at the action happening inside the lines and beyond your control.

In the ancient world there were also benches. These weren’t outside of classrooms or at sporting arenas but they stood outside the gates of the homes of the rich. Beggars would congregate on the bench in hopes that the wealthy homeowners would bestow alms upon them. This was a societal norm, part of the social contract. After a great feast, the rich would send leftovers out to those sitting on the bench. The hungry were fed and the rich felt virtuous in their act of charity. 

In the parable we just heard, the poor man Lazarus would lay outside the gate of the unnamed rich man’s home day after day. Maybe he stretched out upon the bench or maybe he just lay down next to it, too tired and hungry and beaten down by life to even sit on it. We hear that the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, while Lazarus would have been happy with a few scraps from his table. Surely, over time, the rich man recognized Lazarus, but he never really saw him. He certainly never viewed him as an equal, as a fellow child of God, despite their different circumstances or even precisely because of them. He looked right past him or perhaps if even noticed him at all, it was as little more than an eyesore, detracting from splendor of his magnificent home.

This contrast between wealth and poverty is stunning, jarring even. It reminds me of places like Atlantic City where obscenely appointed casinos with fountains and fancy restaurants and expensive suites coexist next to virtual slums. And it’s hard not to think about the growing income equality gap throughout our country, where the rich have ever more and the poor have ever less. 

This rather curious parable holds up 2,000 years later because we’re still dealing with the same issues in our own day. And I’d contend that this is less about what heaven and hell will look like — that’s not the point. Rather, it’s about the choices we all make every day. It’s about how we treat the people sitting outside on the benches in our own lives. It demands that we think about those sitting on the benches outside our homes and outside our offices and outside our families. 

Many in society would claim the rich man did nothing wrong. Many would take it a step further and say he was blessed by God. He was fabulously wealthy and he obviously enjoyed his wealth. He entertained lavishly, he had the fancy house, and all the best money could buy. He didn’t owe anyone anything, after all he earned it. Or at least inherited it.

So, why would he end up in that other place, the place of eternal torment? I think this whole parable points to what it means to follow God’s dream for us. The rich man is not condemned for his wealth, but for his lack of compassion. The will of God is to reach out to those who suffer, to help those in need, to assist those on the benches of society. And the rich man does not do that. The Psalmist lays out the way of God pretty clearly when he writes: “Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.”

That seems pretty straightforward and so, again, we must ask ourselves in what ways are we doing this? How are we reaching out in love to those on the benches in our midst? The first thing we can do is to expand the notion of those who sit on the benches of our lives. It may be the person begging at the intersection in Boston, it may be the person who is lonely and without a place to go on the holidays, it may be a friend who’s simply feeling isolated and alone. Our role as followers of Jesus is to reach out. To care. To be there. To act. To join them on the bench. And that’s something we can all do no matter our social status or standing. That’s simply following the way of God. Sometimes it’s enough to sit beside someone on the bench and simply listen and see them and be available to them. 

And in another respect, we all take our turn on the bench, in one form or another. It may not be extreme poverty. But it may be through feelings of grief or unworthiness or guilt or heartbreak. It may be physical pain or emotional anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by life. There are moments in our lives when we need someone to simply sit beside us in our pain. It takes vulnerability to ask for help in a culture that idolizes strength. But asking for help, admitting we cannot do it all ourselves is strength in God’s vision. Scripture tells us that “Power is made perfect in weakness.” And coming out of the trauma of a pandemic, that’s what this community has to offer: strength through vulnerability. After all, we worship as Lord the one who was strung up on a cross to die. And yet here we are. Stronger together, standing in the warm glow of the resurrection to eternal life.

This has been a hard week in this community. Yesterday we gathered to bid farewell to a beloved parishioner, a husband, a father, a friend, a companion on this journey of life and faith. And yet at the heart of it all, we proclaimed with boldness that death is not the end, that hope conquers despair, that life itself endures. So reach out to those on the benches of this life. It may not  always change things in the short run, but it makes all the difference as we collectively live into God’s big, bold, beautiful dream for this community and for the world.

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 11, 2022 (Proper 19, Year C)

From a cost benefit analysis, the parable of the lost sheep should be clear. You have 100 sheep, one goes astray. So what do you do? Well, any rational business person would cut his losses, forget about the one lost sheep and continue to shepherd the 99 other ones. 99 sheep is pretty good! And losing one percent of your flock is just the natural cost of doing business. Tend to the 99 and count yourself blessed for having only lost one sheep. In the grand scheme of things, who will really notice it anyway?

But the thing is, this just isn’t how Jesus shepherds. In Jesus’ universe, no one is ever deemed expendable. Everyone is recognized and celebrated for his or her intrinsic worth. No one is ever left behind. And so he subverts all rational business models and goes after that single lost sheep. He ignores the 99 and seeks after the one. This might not fly at Harvard Business School, but then again Jesus would probably fail out anyway.

A single sheep is, of course, much more vulnerable than a big group of them. A single sheep is easy prey to various predators lurking behind rocks and in desolate valleys. There’s little to no protection for a lone, defenseless sheep wandering without a shepherd. But that’s the one Jesus goes after. And we start to see where Jesus places his priorities when it comes to the vulnerable of society. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the 99 — they matter tremendously — he just has a heart for the lost. And this parable offers deep insight into God’s own heart and God’s own priorities.

In church circles we sometimes refer to parishioners who have gone astray as lost sheep. We also refer to the act of poaching parishioners from another congregation as sheep stealing. But that’s another matter. But referring to someone as a lost sheep is not an entirely fair label because it has a rather negative connotation. Something must be wrong with the person who is no longer in the fold. Otherwise why would they have possibly left? Or maybe it’s the church’s fault because we have somehow let someone get away, as if they are a commodity to be penned in. As painful as it is to lose a parishioner to another church or to simply not going to church at all, it’s important to remember that Jesus is always seeking after them. Jesus is continually seeking renewed relationship with each one of us, drawing us into the fold, drawing us into deeper relationship with him. Jesus is the one who seeks after us out of deep and tender concern for us.

During this time of pandemic and regathering, we have all felt like lost sheep at times. We have all felt disconnected from this community, from God, and from one another. We have not always reached out to one another, I have not always reached out to you, when you were perhaps feeling lost or alone. This has been a hard season to feel connected despite advances in technology. Again, we have all felt like that lone lost sheep over these past months and years. And it’s important to recognize and articulate the hurts and disappointments, the feelings of abandonment and loss.

The good news in this is that Jesus as the Good Shepherd will always drop everything to seek after you and find you. Jesus wants you in the fold, and we as people of faith need to be in the fold. For it is in the fold that we find and are found by God. And in the end there is great joy in this. That’s the upshot of this parable, the great joy in being found by God. The great joy of being sought after and found by the God who loves you and cares for you and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you. The great joy of knowing that God loves you in all your brokenness and pain and vulnerability. The great joy of knowing that God seeks after you when things are going well, and when things are particularly hard. And that God will stop at nothing to find you. Even when you don’t particularly want to be found, even when you don’t even feel particularly lost. 

In a sense, Homecoming Sunday is all about returning to the fold. It is a reminder of why this community matters, why our faith matters, why it’s so important to live out our faith with and among similarly minded pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. There is strength and inspiration in being part of the 99. But this doesn’t minimize the fact that because of the pandemic our congregation, like all congregations, has been scattered. We can’t ignore the fact that while some new folks have joined us during this time, some may never return. People have gotten out of the habit of coming to church, Sunday mornings have been filled with other activities. Our regathering efforts will take time, there will be moments of discouragement mixed with profound hope and joy. And there’s the harsh reality looming that things may never look like they did in 2019. Time will tell. And it is incumbent upon the church, upon all of us, to remind people why following Jesus matters, why following Jesus in this place matters. Why this community thrives when we are all in, and is diminished when we are not.

But still we remember that Jesus continually reaches out to the least, the lonely, and the lost, and invites us to do so as well. If there are people in this community you haven’t seen for awhile, please do reach out to them. We can follow Jesus by picking up the phone and inviting those who may be feeling like that lost sheep to come to this place where they will be loved no matter what. Not only because we want to see them here, but because Jesus himself is seeking after them.

For in the end, that’s what being in the fold is all about. It is about protection and solace, comfort and hope. It is a place of joy because it is a place where we can fully be ourselves despite all that swirls around us, all that unsettles us, all the changes that make us question who we are. So, welcome home, whether you haven’t been here for awhile or whether you never left. And know that this is the place where above all else you are loved and sought after and found by Jesus Christ.

13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 4, 2022 (Proper 18, Year C)

Some of you remember the political cry for “family values” in the late 1970s and early 80s. It became the buzzword for social conservatives enamored of the alleged benefits of the nuclear family. It was never entirely clear what these family values were exactly. But they definitely didn’t include single-family households, gay couples, non-Christians, or anyone on welfare. That much was clear. It was also one of the first times white evangelicals emerged as a political force and you can pretty much draw a straight line from family values politicians to the culture wars of today.

I always think about the phrase family values when I hear this morning’s gospel passage, that includes these jarring words from Jesus: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Those are some pretty intense family values. And it makes you wonder if the family values politicians maybe just skipped over this verse.

Jesus, as he often does, is engaging in a healthy dose of holy hyperbole here. He does not advocate hating your mother. Or hating your siblings. Or anyone else in your family. The point is that in order to fully be disciples of Jesus, we need to be willing to let everything else go. Even family relationships that serve as obstacles to our faith. Jesus even takes this to the material extreme when he says at the end of this passage, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” So on the surface of things, all you need to do in order to be a disciple of Jesus is to hate your family and give away all your stuff. Who’s signing up for that? Again, holy hyperbole.

The real question embedded in this passage is what’s holding you back from following Jesus? It may be overwhelming family commitments. Or unhealthy relationships. Or clinging to material comforts. Or societal pressures to fit in by wearing the right clothes and driving the right car and living in the right neighborhood. Or the sheer pace and volume of your life.

The thing is, following Jesus must be more important than anything else in your life. Being a disciple of Jesus — which is the whole point of the Christian faith — means putting him at the very center of your existence. It must trump all else. And that includes family and work and leisure time and even, and I know this is radical, youth sports. Jesus must be your everything. And that’s hard for those of us who find ourselves pulled in all sorts of directions, with all sorts of loyalties. Which is all of us.

Now telling you that Jesus must be the most important thing in your life may sound self-serving coming from a priest. But I don’t want you here because I like to see a big crowd on a Sunday morning — which I do. I’m hoping for one next weekend as we regather on Homecoming Sunday. But I want you here because when you sit in these pews and hear God’s word and receive the eucharist, your life is touched by Jesus Christ. And when your life is touched by Jesus, you are transformed. You’re able to tap into that deep well of hope that bubbles beneath the surface of the external trappings of our busy and over scheduled lives. That’s what we live for, that’s why all of this matters. So that we are connected to God in a way that informs our lives and gives us meaning and purpose.

But still, things get in the way. People get in the way. When I was in the very early stages of the ordination process, I shared with an old family friend about this call I was feeling to be a priest. He was an important person in my life, kind of an honorary great uncle who was one of the kindest and most generous people I’d ever known. And so it meant a lot to me to share this news with him, to talk about this path I was on. He looked me in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “Tim, why would you waste your life by doing that?” 

And I was devastated by his comment. He never really came around, he wasn’t a person of faith, but it was also a good reminder that not everyone understands why you follow Jesus. Not everyone will understand why you choose to waste time with Jesus on Sunday mornings with a bunch of other people who believe that Jesus is the most important thing in their life. Friends, family members, colleagues, many of them just don’t get it and never will.

In her sermon a few weeks ago Bird spoke about Christians as being eccentric. Not because we’re necessarily weird, though we often are, but because the word eccentric really means differently centered. To follow Jesus is to be differently centered than the rest of society, for it is to center our lives on a first century Jewish teacher, rather than on what matters to the rest of the world. Our lives are less about gaining power and more about giving it away, our lives are less about public displays of strength and more about gentleness, our lives are less about lording it over others and more about lifting others up. And that stands in direct contrast to the values that so often surround us.

And so in these jarring words of Jesus, he wants us to know that we are to be differently centered. And there is a cost to that, a cost to discipleship, a cost to standing out and not following the crowds.

Jesus wants us to count the cost of discipleship. That’s what these analogies point towards — the building of a tower or calculating going to war. The thing is, Jesus is fully transparent about what it will cost to follow him. What you will have to give up, what will happen to you. This isn’t some sales pitch trying to suck in as many people as possible. Christianity is not a pyramid scheme or a deal with a bunch of hidden costs and fees. Jesus is up front about what faith requires, about the cost of discipleship, about the cross we must bear. We must give up our life in order to gain it.

I’m glad you’re here this morning. So that we can follow Jesus together. So that we can go deeper together. So that we can be differently centered together. Wherever this life of faith may take us, we will always be in this together. And for that, I give thanks.

12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 28, 2022 (Proper 17, Year C)

A few years ago, a book came out titled The Big Sort. The premise, backed up by lots of data, was that while America was more diverse than ever, the places we live had become increasingly crowded with people who look, think, and vote like we do. There are exceptions of course, but the trends continue to point to the ways in which we have self-sorted ourselves into tribal groups. The whole idea is that we have built a country that lives in a way-of-life segregation, where we choose the neighborhood, church, and news show that are most in line with our lifestyle and beliefs.

The danger in this is that we lose perspective. We don’t just fail to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we don’t even ever take our shoes off. Our world view narrows and suddenly those with whom we disagree become disembodied “others.” We so dehumanize the other side that they end up becoming mere caricatures. There is no room for dialogue, which stifles our own growth, and leads us into digging ever-deepening trenches with those in our tribes.

I bring this up because in this story from Luke’s gospel, there’s another big sort taking place. Another way to dehumanize those who are different. The outward manifestation of this is the seating chart at a wedding banquet. The natural inclination is to sit in the honored places, to lord it over those of lower status. Whether it’s based on socioeconomic class or race or religious beliefs, we want to sort ourselves to the top of the pecking order. And let those with lesser status sit where they deserve. Which is certainly nowhere near us

Now, here’s a spoiler alert: Jesus is not a fan of the big sort. When it comes to people, he’s not one for categories and sorting. Jesus wants us to expand our horizons not narrow them. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, not a limiting of it. 

And not only does Jesus push back against the whole concept of sorting by status, he overturns the whole system by telling us to invite the least of these among us and giving them the seats of honor. When it comes to how we view our fellow human beings, Jesus has no patience for keeping up with the Joneses or climbing the corporate ladder. It’s not about sorting people by status, but viewing one another as children of God. That’s the great leveler. We are all equal in God’s sight, even if we aren’t all equal through the lens of our own eyes. 

It’s a pretty powerful thing to lay aside the sorting, to stop comparing ourselves to others and to simply revel in the fact that you are a beloved child of God. You have been wonderfully and wondrously made by God. And that is enough. With God, there are no caveats or qualifications. There are no if-onlys or certain conditions that apply. God loves you for who you are. Full stop. God doesn’t sort us into categories, God simply loves us.

I always think about this teaching whenever I get on an airplane. Talk about your big sort, the boarding process is all about status and rank. It used to just be first class and then everyone else was lumped into coach. But now there are so many categories it’s hard to keep up with them all. There’s elite and premier and premier elite customers who all get to board first. And then the sorting continues with the various boarding zones. Zones one and two aren’t bad. But it starts to get a bit dicey after that.  And woe to those who get stuck in zone five, for they must gate check their bags and suffer the ignominy of sitting in the back row near the lavatory. That is a far cry from the smug first class travelers sipping champagne while you haul your carry-on to the back of the plane.

If you were to take this parable of the wedding banquet and enact it at the airport, you’d get some odd looks, for sure. Because you’d trade your elite status for zone five. You’d give up your cocktail and extra wide seat and trade it for no legroom and lavatory fumes. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

Now, I know you’re not going to do that. Though let me know if you do and I’d be happy to turn you into a full-blown sermon illustration. But merely seeing the temptation of the great sort in our lives is an important step to learning to walk more faithfully in the way of Jesus. And seeking to see the world through God’s eyes puts us on the right path.

We may not give up our first class ticket, but what are some ways we might give away power and status to those who find themselves in the zone five of life? How might we humble ourselves in order to lift up those who are continually trampled upon? We can work for justice in the world by amplifying the voices of those whose voices traditionally go unheard. We can share our resources with those who carry substantial economic burdens or debt. We can welcome into this community all who are lonely or sick or fearful. We can be aware of the great sort and actively seek opportunities for dialogue with those beyond our tribe.

In the letter to the Hebrews, we heard that wonderful statement about hospitality, exhorting us “not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.” That’s an incredible concept, the possibility of literally entertaining angels. But in the end it’s a reminder to seek and serve Christ in all persons, as we promise to do in our baptismal covenant. Which, of course, we can only fully do “with God’s help.”

My hope is that the church can be a place where, rather than sorting, we find commonality amid difference. That we celebrate our diversity rather than running to our particular corners. God doesn’t bring us together to always agree with one another, God brings us together to make a difference in the world. And we do that by tearing down the walls that divide us, erasing the human categories we create for ourselves, and seeing the world through God’s eyes, where we are all beloved children of God.