Third Sunday after Easter 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 30, 2017 (Easter 3, Year A)

Twenty-five years ago, I went out to California to work on a congressional race. This was back when I did this for a living so it wasn’t completely on a whim. But my dad had just died and I was looking for a change of scenery so when a campaign manager friend of mine called and asked if I’d come out to run the field operation, I said “why not?” Of course he wanted me there immediately, so I hopped in my Ford Bronco II and drove to California. By myself. In three days.

4.1.2Now this candidate was a pretty well-known and successful divorce lawyer in the East Bay area. It was also the first time he’d ever run for office so we had some educating to do. Like when you go to knock on doors in a rougher part of Alameda County and you’re trying to position yourself as a man of the people, you probably shouldn’t show up driving your sporty new Mercedes.

This wasn’t the only problem with this particular campaign or this particular candidate. When we would organize phone banks to call voters, his wife would invite a bunch of her friends…which was good. But she’d also bring cocktails…which was bad. So it started out fine but by the end of the night, they were basically drunk dialing potential voters. Let’s just say I was not entirely sorry when we lost a close primary and I hopped in the old Bronco and headed back East.

I mention this because when we’d be arguing with this guy about his choice of car — and he had a lot to choose from — he would always refer to his Mercedes as his “battle vehicle.” It was the car he’d take whenever he had to be in court. And that phrase — and more importantly that mentality — has always stuck with me.

So often we approach life as if we need to wear “battle armor” — which is actually what he called the expensive suits he’d wear to court. We want to project an image of strength or of power or of great confidence. We don’t want anyone to detect even a hint of insecurity or weakness. And so we go to great lengths to enter into situations on our own terms, with great bravado. Driving battle vehicles and wearing battle armor.

The problem is that this isn’t any way to go through life. We can only keep up such images for so long because they don’t reflect reality. We are not the images we project and eventually the walls do come a-tumblin’ down. Weakness and brokenness, rather than strength and wholeness, more often reflect the reality of our lives.

Which is one reason I so love the Resurrection story we hear this morning. The seminal moment is when this stranger whom the disciples meet on the Road to Emmaus breaks the bread and they immediately recognize him as the risen Christ. In an instant, all is revealed and the very heart of our faith is opened for all to see. And it’s all about relationship with Jesus. It’s not about keeping up appearances or projecting images; rather it’s about being broken open and being present with the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

In order to be our most authentic selves, we must allow ourselves to be broken open. And that means putting away our battle vehicles and our power suits and standing naked before God. Recognizing that not only are we unable to control every situation, we shouldn’t even bother to try. Because it doesn’t work. And the only thing we end up battling is our own integrity.

Now I realize a priest standing in a pulpit wearing the ecclesiastical version of body armor doesn’t, at first glance, project the image of vulnerability I’ve been talking about. Bad optics. But if you look beneath the vestments; if you look at the symbols underneath the fancy robes you see that this is precisely what is going on. Because this stole — the defining priestly garment — brings to mind the yoke. The priest is yoked to Christ in a way that demands humble discipleship. And the collar, recalls the dress of a slave. So it’s all there. The symbols of vulnerability and humility and weakness. Clergy — like everyone — would do well to be in better touch with the brokenness of our humanity. We all, like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, can more fully know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

So for all of us, I see this morning as an invitation to brokenness; a call to authenticity. Allow yourself to be broken open. Allow yourself to embrace your vulnerability. Allow yourself to welcome your weakness. Allow the armor piercing love of Jesus to open your heart and mind and soul to the possibility of new relationship with the divine.

The “genuine mutual love” that Peter writes about must be exactly that: genuine. And the only way for it to be genuine on our side is to be in touch with and know and not be ashamed of our true selves. Like the bread that is broken, we too are broken. Despite our desire to project Christmas card perfection, our children aren’t perfect; our relationships aren’t perfect; our jobs aren’t perfect; we aren’t perfect.

But in the recognition of our brokenness, we are made whole by Jesus. Jesus fills the broken parts of our hearts and souls with the genuine love of God. A God who loves us despite our imperfections and weaknesses and desperate need for healing.

In our liturgy, it’s no surprise that the culmination of our worship, the peak of the eucharistic crescendo, is the moment when the bread is broken at the altar. It is evocative of Jesus’ breaking of the bread at the Last Supper and it recalls this moment of recognition in the bread Jesus broke with the disciples after walking with them along the Road to Emmaus. When we break the bread, something we do “in remembrance of” Jesus, we are made whole. A moment of brokenness becomes the fullest moment of wholeness.

Just at the moment the disciples recognize the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, he both disappears from their sight and is most fully present with them. This is the paradox of faith. That Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness; that out of grief there is hope; that out of death there is life; that out of brokenness, there is wholeness.

On the cross, Jesus has been broken open for you. On his resurrected throne of glory, we can, then, be broken open for him. Broken open and made whole by his never failing love. That’s the great gift of this Easter season. That through the agony of Good Friday and into the joy of the empty tomb we know for certain that “By his blood he reconciled us.” And that “By his wounds we are healed.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Easter Day 2017

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

You gotta hand it to them. When it came to rubbing out rebellion, the Romans were the gold standard of the ancient world. They did not tolerate dissent and were experts at squashing it the moment it reared its insurgent head.

In the case of this rabble rouser from Nazareth who kept stirring things up with his crazyIMG_3646 notion of justice in the face of imperial power, everything was going according to plan. They certainly made an example out of this Jesus with his very public and brutal execution and his frightened followers had all fled. Chalk up another victory for Pax Romana and rest secure in the knowledge that this whole Jesus thing would now just die down and go away. An aberration, surely, but ultimately just more evidence that when you fought the establishment, you lost. Every single time.

The Romans were so good at this because they meticulously followed certain protocols. In such high profile cases, in addition to crucifixion — which was itself a pretty powerful deterrent to dissent — they were diligent about securing the tomb, which they did in several ways.

First, a large stone was rolled against the entrance. Second, the tomb was sealed. And finally, guards were posted outside. Those are some pretty serious security measures.

But let’s look at this for a moment. First the large stone that was rolled across the entrance — that in itself was a major stumbling block. And it shows just how silly the women were who went to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning. After all the men had fled (sorry, guys, that’s our Easter legacy), Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb not expecting a miracle but simply to honor him in death by properly and ritually anointing his body. They figured it was the least they could do for this man who had so transformed their lives.

And they weren’t engaged in any wishful thinking about this. In Mark’s gospel account of the Resurrection, they spend much of the journey wondering among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” A valid question.

But this wasn’t the only problem. We hear that the tomb was “sealed.” This doesn’t refer to some industrial-grade caulk. It was a sign of authentication that the tomb was occupied and the power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal. Anyone found breaking or tampering with the Roman seal would be put to death.

But even that wasn’t all. No, if the large stone and seal weren’t enough, there were also guards stationed at the entrance to the tomb. In fact, there may have been more than a few Roman soldiers. A “Roman Guard” referred to a 16-member unit governed by very strict rules. The guard members could not sit down or lean against anything while they were on duty. If a guard member fell asleep, he was beaten and burned. Needless to say, they were a vigilant bunch.

So to review: dead, giant boulder, sealed, soldiers. No way in, no way out. The end. But there’s a slight problem. Because we’re still here, over 2,000 years later, gathered to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Something rolled away the stone, something broke the seal, something stunned the soldiers. We hear about an earthquake but however things went down, Jesus was not inside the tomb. And suddenly everything changes.

And we start to realize that the stone, the seal, and the soldiers, weren’t breached on that first Easter morning to let Jesus out. Nothing could have stopped that. But it was to let us in. To let us in to the miracle of Christ’s resurrection; to let us in to a vision of humanity where peace, joy, and love abide; to let us in to a life where death is not the end; to let us in to a new worldview that drives out fear and ushers in hope.

And we need that hope now more than ever. Because in a world where chemical weapons are used to destroy innocent children in Syria, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where faithful Christians in Egypt are slaughtered in their own churches on Palm Sunday, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where the poorest among us are left to drink contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, we need the hope of Jesus.

You know, so often we act just like the Roman authorities. Trying to control every situation; trying to contain that which can never be contained; giving in to fear at the expense of spiritual freedom. The miracle of this day happens when we let go of our need to control everything in our midst. Try as we might to take every precaution, we inevitably come up short. And that’s okay. Because Jesus always helps us find a way out; Jesus breaks the seal of our captivity and shows us the way to faith, hope, and love. Every single time.

With all their precautions and protocols, the authorities had indeed made an example of Jesus. It just wasn’t the example they had envisioned. Through his glorious resurrection, Jesus became an example not of foolishness or misguided passion, but an example of peace in the face of violence; an example of mercy in the face of injustice; an example of love in the face of hate; an example of life in the face of death; an example of hope in the face of despair.

May you be inspired by the living example of Jesus Christ as you find your way into the empty tomb this Easter. And in so doing be reminded that even in the darkest moments of life, even when the world feels like it’s on the verge of destruction, hope is alive, love conquers fear, and life vanquishes even the power of death. Alleluia and Amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Maundy Thursday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)

If I had to title my sermons, and I’m always so thankful this is not a practice in the Episcopal Church, this one would be called, “God loves us, warts and all. No, literally.” Because when it comes to Maundy Thursday, the focus is so often on our feet. And that’s not necessarily something we’re comfortable with. Yet God does indeed love us warts, callouses, blisters, corns, hang nails, and all.

That’s what Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper reminds us of in a verywashing-feet-web tangible way. Now, it would be easy enough to just leave the act of foot washing in the realm of the theoretical or the spiritual. After all, this story is really about love, not clean feet. But tonight we are actually going to wash one another’s feet. Why? Because Jesus is pretty clear when he says, “just as I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

I realize this isn’t a natural act. Taking off your shoes in a public place other than the beach or a pool can make us supremely uncomfortable. It breaks all our cultural norms and notions of social decorum. And there’s a vulnerability inherent in submitting to such an intimate act with someone you may hardly even know.

But we’re not alone in this discomfort. The foot washing that took place on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion also violated societal norms and pushed against the disciples’ very notion of propriety. Though for slightly different reasons. It was customary for feet to be washed when entering someone’s home. Wearing sandals and living in a hot, sweaty, sandy climate made this a practical gesture of hospitality. So it wasn’t that the disciples were shy about the act of having their feet washed. Rather, their discomfort stemmed from who was washing their feet. This was something done by a servant, not a master. And in their teacher-student relationship with Jesus, one who had been further identified as their “lord,” they should have been the ones washing Jesus’ feet, not the other way around. And so the gesture was seen as wildly unconventional and even offensive.

There’s a reason Peter so strongly resists when Jesus bends to wash his feet. He’s shocked and perhaps even embarrassed for the one he’s identified as the “anointed one of God.” It’s beneath the dignity of so lofty a figure. Peter cries out, ‘You will never wash my feet!” But Jesus encourages him saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And Peter consents.

This very much reminds me of the encounter with John the Baptist when Jesus shows up at the Jordan River and asks John to baptize him. John basically says, “What are you nuts? You’ve come here to be baptized by me, but you’re the one who should be baptizing me!” But Jesus encourages him saying that it is proper in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” And John consents.

And so from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we see him overturning conventional wisdom and flipping cultural norms. And in both cases he uses water — the most basic element on the planet, a symbol of purity and new life — to make his broader point.

Jesus often does things that push against our natural inclinations. Love tends to bring us into such places. And for us, that’s what the foot washing represents. Following Jesus is not always comfortable. And this evening we encounter that face-to-face.

In a few moments we will invite you to come forward and have your feet washed and then stay and wash the feet of the next person in line. Some of you will choose to stay safely in your pews, with your laces doubled-knotted. And I understand that. No one is compelled to participate. It personally took me years of attending Maundy Thursday services before I mustered the courage to take off my shoes and join in. I still remember walking down the cold, stone floor at my home parish in Baltimore feeling quite awkward and out of place. But finally doing so unlocked such trust and evoked a letting go of control that served me well throughout a moving Holy Week experience. And I do wish for you the same this evening and throughout the next few days. Even if, or especially if, it takes you way out of your comfort zone.

So, will you do as Jesus commanded and allow your feet to be washed? Will you embody Jesus’ call to love one another as he loved us and wash another’s feet? That’s the invitation of this night.

And while foot washing may be optional, remember that in the Christian faith, love is not optional. Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another as he himself loved us. A commandment to love, not a suggestion to love. And there’s a difference. The very word “commandment” is so identified with the Law of Moses, the 10 Commandments. How audacious, then, for Jesus to present a new commandment.

But the foot washing, the institution of the eucharist, the entire Last Supper is all about lovingly doing this “in remembrance of me.” It is rooted in love. May this night be an entrance into the ever-unfolding drama of God’s love for you — warts and all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Palm Sunday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday)

Well, that all turned rather abruptly. From Hosanna to Crucify in the blink of an eye. This crowd that had greeted Jesus with such enthusiasm, now calls for his very life.

And while we often skip over the parade of palms that marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into1999_10208680678005109_7187044833214358620_n Jerusalem, it’s worth pausing for just a moment to reflect upon the euphoria of that day. The sheer joy and jubilation of those welcoming Jesus. There were high hopes for this man, hailed as a savior, welcomed as a king. People had heard the stories, they had witnessed his acts, his words of wisdom were well-known.

And the palms spread along his path were symbols of admiration and adulation. There’s something we love about this image because we think, “Finally, they get it. Finally, Jesus is getting his due. Finally, they recognize Jesus for who he is.” We equate large enthusiastic crowds with validation for his message. And that pleases us.

But here’s the problem with this model: Jesus didn’t come into the world to attract admirers. He didn’t seek to build up his base by drawing large crowds. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of success.

No, Jesus didn’t seek admirers but followers. He sought people who would follow him not just when things were going well, but when things didn’t go according to plan; not just when things were joyful and euphoric but when things turned dark and tragic. And they do.

This coming week we must ask ourselves whether we will be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus. Holy Week brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we are content to call ourselves people of faith when it’s on our terms or whether we are disciples of Jesus willing to follow him when it’s inconvenient or difficult or painful. Are we fair-weather Christians who love to wave palms around and proclaim “Hosanna” or are we disciples of Jesus who recognize our complicity by crying, “Crucify?”

It’s easy enough to follow Jesus when things are going well. When life is smooth. When the parade is heading down the street and we’re surrounded and buoyed by the support of others. It’s harder when life takes a turn. And there’s a health crisis or a relationship fades or we’re confronted with conflict at work or home. Jesus knew full well about life taking a turn. That’s what this day is all about as we move from Hosanna to Crucify.

Yes, we can and should admire Jesus. But if we stop there, we’re missing the invitation to truly transform our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, writes about the difference between being an admirer and a follower of Jesus: “A follower strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

The Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion.

So, the invitation has been extended. How will you respond? That’s the question we live with every single moment of our lives. Will you keep your distance or fully engage with Jesus? Will you be willing to make sacrifices or will you play it safe? The possibility of radical transformation awaits as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. As we prepare to follow Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Fourth Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 26, 2017 (Lent 4, Year A)

One of the things about having children is you end up reliving experiences you hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes this is a blessing — like when you get to re-watch those original Star Wars movies. And sometimes this is a curse — like when you have to essentially retake geometry.

One such experience is learning how to drive. The fits and starts of those early days behind the wheel typically don’t come to mind when you hop in the car to run an errand. Unless you have a child taking Driver’s Ed. And then you suddenly have a driving expert sitting next to you criticizing your every rolling stop and commenting on your apparently lackadaisical use of the blinker.

Now I’ve blocked out most of my time in Driver’s Ed, but I particularly remember the highway_110415gnconversation about the blind spot. Barry, our rather gruff, Brooklyn-bred instructor, seemed to spend an awful lot of time on it and so I knew that, in theory, there was a spot when changing lanes that you couldn’t really see using the mirrors alone. But it seemed kind of ridiculous that you couldn’t see a big van or a truck that was right next to you. Or at least sense it — like by using The Force. But all it took was driving on the highway for the first time and not completely turning around and hearing that bus lean on the horn to realize that, oh, so that’s the blind spot Barry was talking about. It’s not merely theoretical. And with all the angles involved, maybe geometry actually is useful.

But in time you come to learn that even beyond driving, we all have blind spots. Areas of our lives that we literally can’t see. They may have to do with family relationships or politics or our vocational life. They may be based on our upbringing or gender or race or nationality or faith tradition or socioeconomic class. But these blindspots can wreak havoc on those around us, even if they don’t particularly register with us. They’re easy enough to ignore — until we wind up bumping into something and causing a metaphorical wreck or negatively impacting the lives of those around us.

Calling attention to these blind spots was one of the reasons Jesus came into the world; to help us gain a new perspective, to help us see the whole picture; to remove the scales from our eyes, to help us see those hidden in plain sight; to take away the blind spots of our lives.

And this morning we have a particularly detailed story of Jesus healing a blind man. Sometimes these healing miracles are over before you can say, “Take up your mat and follow me.” But in this one from John’s gospel, there’s a lot of dialogue and a whole host of characters, besides Jesus and this man born blind. The disciples ask questions about the man’s family; his neighbors, who knew him as a beggar, want to know who healed him and how; they bring him to the religious authorities who continue to question him about the identity of his healer; they track down his parents to get their side of the story; they keep pestering this man with questions about the how and the what and the why and they finally drive him out of town when all he wants to do is live his life with his eyes wide open, literally and spiritually.

But, boy is it easier and more convenient to keep our blinders on. To ignore the things we don’t want to see. Across the street from the church there’s a bus stop. Most people don’t notice it since, who takes the bus in Hingham? I mean a school bus, sure, but actual public transportation? Please. I hardly notice this bus stop and I both live and work across the street from it. But I’m not sure what’s more invisible: the bus stop itself or the people who occasionally stand there waiting for the bus. Usually, if there’s anyone at all, it’s a lonely soul. Perhaps a domestic worker or a laborer.

This is an overt blind spot and the real sin is when we keep other people, fellow children of God, in our bind spots. For to do so is to rip away their very dignity.

So what do we do about our own personal and communal blindspots? Well, we can be in relationship with those with differing perspectives or experiences. That’s really the best way to address them. Which is why it’s so important to have conversations with those with whom we disagree or with those whose experiences differ from our own. When we end up only staying within the confines of our own tribe, it may be more comfortable, it may be more enjoyable, but it only broadens our blind spots. And ultimately that diminishes both us and our respective communities.

Yes, it’s awkward to discover and acknowledge our blind spots. You have to crane your neck a bit and leave your comfort zone. You have to intentionally seek out a new perspective. You have to work a bit harder to see. And we can’t do it alone.

But the payoff is a fuller life; a more faithful life; a richer life. Which is precisely the life Jesus beckons us towards. Because Jesus helps us see those in society we may be blind to by insisting we look their way. That’s precisely what he did last week when he encountered that woman at the well and it is what he does in this morning’s encounter with the blind man. He interacts with people deemed insignificant by mainstream society; people few would have noticed as anything other than part of the landscape.

Two weeks ago at our Lenten Series on poverty, our speaker Matt Pritchard, the executive director of HomeStart, spoke about the utter isolation of being homeless. And he learned of this first-hand, not just in theory because when he first started working with the homeless population, Matt did something remarkable. In order to get to know the folks he would be serving, he spent a year living in the homeless shelter where he worked.

His bunk mates used to tell him about their experiences begging for change out on the streets, something they would do for most of their waking hours. In response to the question, “Can you spare some change?” they told Matt that 95 out of 100 people who walked by wouldn’t make eye contact or even acknowledge their presence; that at a certain point people didn’t even see them anymore; that the vast majority of the mass of humanity that passed them by were blind to their very existence.

They described this existence as like living in a “space bubble.” In other words, these men felt as if they inhabited a completely separate universe from every other human being. That they were aliens in a foreign land. Which, as Matt put it, became “an obstacle to feeling human, to being worth loving, and rebuilding their life off the streets.” And it must have been exactly how the blind beggar felt for much of his life, before his encounter with Jesus.

But these men also shared how big a difference it made when a person did smile or acknowledge them in some way. Especially those people who introduced themselves, shared their names, learned theirs, and would speak to them with respect. For these men, authentic attention was an incredible antidote to their loneliness and isolation.

Physical sight aside, Jesus saw this man who was, for the vast majority, an afterthought. He existed in a blind spot, in a “space bubble” that was a place of deep alienation. These are the people Jesus bids us to gaze upon and to recognize and to lift up. And to fail to do so, is to remain blind to the wonder and fulness of God’s creation.

Yes, we are the blind ones Jesus seeks to heal; we are the indifferent ones whose eyes Jesus seeks to open. May we recognize our own blindness and hardness of heart and allow Jesus to open our eyes to the cries of those in our midst who so desperately seek to be seen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 12, 2017 (Lent 2, Year A)

There’s an old Negro spiritual called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Legend has it that this song was really a musical roadmap for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. If anyone overheard slaves singing the song, it would seem innocuous enough. On plantations, a hollowed out gourd was often used as a water dipper. But in the song, “drinking gourd” had a more subversive meaning — it was code name for the Big Dipper, at the tip of which is the North Star. And so the song was all about following the North Star to freedom.

While the verses point out topographical landmarks like rivers and hills, the chorus pointsBigDipper to the ultimate goal: “Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd.” The old man is likely a reference to Moses, the one who led the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

And the religious connotations run deep along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, the famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who was herself a runaway slave, was known as the “Moses of her people.” Tales abound of her bravery and she took great pride in the fact that, in the process of bringing over 100 people to freedom, she never lost a single soul in her care.

All of this work of the Underground Railroad took place under cover of darkness. Darkness became an essential ingredient in the recipe of freedom. Runaway slaves needed darkness to avoid capture and they also needed darkness to see the North Star, to “follow the drinking gourd.”

Now, we have a complicated relationship with the whole notion of going out under cover of darkness. It feels illicit or unsavory. If I were to skulk around neighborhoods on the South Shore late at night, somebody would surely call the cops. A priest moving from tree to tree while wearing black and looking around furtively would be…sketchy.

And yet in this morning’s gospel passage, Nicodemus is doing precisely this. He’s a respected leader of the institutional faith community and yet he’s arranged this clandestine meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness. Which makes a lot of sense since Nicodemus would have been roundly condemned by his peers for even approaching this rogue teacher; this upstart who was always holding up an unflattering mirror to the religious elite and condemning their hypocrisy when it came to serving empty rituals at the expense of serving the poor. So even as Nicodemus was drawn to learn more, meeting Jesus in broad daylight would have been unthinkable. Which is why he waits for the sun to go down, puts on some dark clothes, and sneaks over to see Jesus.

It should be pointed out that in John’s gospel, the time of day is significant. At various moments, darkness serves as a metaphor for unbelief or ignorance or temptation. Indeed the interplay between light and dark has profound theological undertones in John; culminating in the fact that the women come to Jesus’ tomb while it is was “still dark” and experience the Resurrection as day breaks.

So, it’s no accident or mere happenstance that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In time Nicodemus would quite literally come to see the light but for now he remains a secret disciple of Jesus, one who, if this rather comical interaction about what it means to be born again is any indication, has much to learn.

And yet, like, those seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad, Nicodemus is also seeking freedom by cover of darkness. In time the sin of slavery will be brought out into the light and in time Nicodemus will come to Jesus by the light of day. But the road to freedom is often traveled in darkness. It’s not always a seamless journey. Sometimes you fall or fail. But we, like those who followed the drinking gourd, like Nicodemus, have a steady guide in Jesus Christ.

And make no mistake: you and I are still seeking freedom. It may or may not be based on the color of our skin or upon what others will think. But we’re all seeking spiritual freedom. Freedom from the temptations that draw us from the love of God; freedom from the crush of anxiety; freedom from the ideal of perfection; freedom from the expectations of others; freedom from the pressure we impose on ourselves to be more productive; freedom from the cultural messages that question our very self worth.

The challenge for us is to recognize our lack of freedom. And that takes acknowledging our imprisonment. Which isn’t always visible to the naked eye. We have freedom of movement. Most of us live in relative luxury; or at least comfort. And yet something still keeps us tied down. Chained to our insular opinions or limited worldview or lack of concern for others or self-centeredness. That’s the spiritual imprisonment that holds us back and keeps us from living lives of true faith and hope and joy. Something that becomes ever clearer as we take a spiritual inventory during this season of Lent.

Now I know it’s hard to try new things in the bright light of day — even things we know will benefit us and start that process of unshackling. We can be so self-conscious. We can be so aware of our discomfort in trying new things. I remember when I first starting jogging. I was in eighth grade and running wasn’t exactly as mainstream as it is now. There was that Jim Fixx book on running and that was about it. So after buying a pair or running shoes and thinking about what to wear — an outfit that surely involved tube socks — I decided to take my maiden voyage just before bedtime. I really didn’t want anyone to see me so I laced up my shoes and snuck outside for a brief run under cover of darkness. It wasn’t pretty. At one point I ducked between two parked cars — this was in Queens, New York; not exactly a lonely rural road — and I cut my leg on a piece of metal sticking out from the bumper of an old Buick. I kept going but it started bleeding and I was, once again, glad it was dark out. I still have the scar on my thigh. A reminder that there can be a cost to seeking freedom by cover of darkness.

Jesus wants us to bring our faith into the light, but he also loves our awkward, nighttime strivings. Our clumsy attempts, a la Nicodemus, to deepen our relationship with him. This Lenten season of self-renewal encourages us to try new things. Perhaps there’s a spiritual discipline you’d like to take on? Maybe there’s something you’d like to try to stretch yourself, however haltingly. Perhaps you want to put aside some dedicated time for silence or prayer — which you can literally do in the dark. Or maybe you want to step out into the light and join me and Noah for morning prayer or try out our Wednesday service in the chapel or make the effort to attend our Lenten Series on poverty. Whatever it is, know that we want to support you and help guide you along this path to greater spiritual freedom.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we sometimes do stumble around in the dark. But eventually our strivings bring us to that well-known verse we hear this morning at the conclusion of the story of Nicodemus: John 3:16. The same verse that guy with the rainbow wig used to hold up at sporting events — around the time I was wearing tube socks. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

“God so loved the world.” Full stop. Period. End of story. Tapping into that love is what true freedom is all about. Once we appropriate that love into our hearts and graft it onto our souls, and crave it not only for ourselves but those all around us, all the awkwardness evaporates. And the love of God, like the brightness of the sun, can shine fully and completely and utterly upon us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2017 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s not every day that ashwednesdaysomeone overtly reminds you of your own mortality. We generally avoid the topic of death in polite company. We’re all aware of this in a general sense — that, along with paying taxes, as the saying goes, death is the one thing we can’t avoid in life. We just don’t tend to name this inevitability in everyday conversation.

Yet the words spoken by a priest when imposing ashes may as well be, “Remember that you are going to die.” It’s a stark reality that most people spend an entire lifetime trying to avoid. Which is why we live in such a death-denying culture. One full of euphemisms for death, like he “passed away” or “bought the farm” or “gave up the ghost.” It’s why we call them funeral “homes” — even though nobody actually lives there.

But the liturgy of Ash Wednesday cuts out the flowery prose and bids us to face the reality of the human condition. That we will return to dust; that we will die. We don’t know the day or the hour but we are reminded of the inevitability. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The purpose of this day on which we are invited into the observance of a holy Lent is not, however, a gathering simply meant to state the obvious. It’s not a wakeup call of fear and trembling but a wakeup call of love and compassion. Because you cannot fully live until you recognize and accept your own mortality. Easier said than done, of course, but critical to living a life of peace and joy.

So what does it mean to fully live? How do we do this? Well, our faith has some suggestions, and not surprisingly they are rather counter-cultural. None of them revolve around bungee jumping or roller coasters or thrill rides that make us want to scream, “I’ve never felt so alive!” The adrenaline rush is temporary; fun, perhaps, but unsustainable.

No, the recipe to fully live can be found in the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. To fully live is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” It is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and to cover those who are naked.”

To fully live is to embrace justice and work to lift up the downtrodden in our midst. It is to live inter-connectedly with those who differ from us; it is to open our hearts and minds and souls to new possibilities; it is to live a life of compassion; it is to be generous; it is to forgive.

And so when we talk about dying, we are really talking about living. That’s the essence of the Christian faith. That’s the message of Jesus whose very life reminds us that we cannot encounter death without recognizing resurrection. That when we talk about death, we can’t help but talk about life. That when we talk about grief, we can’t help but talk about joy. Death and resurrection are inseparable; even on Ash Wednesday as we reflect upon our own mortality.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You know just a few days ago, 27 pilgrims from St. John’s were out in the African bush on safari. The last two days of our trip was spent at South Africa’s largest game preserve. And when you’re out among the wildest of beasts in God’s kingdom, the concept of mortality is a constant companion. There’s no euphemism involved when a hyena attacks and proceeds to eat a gazelle.

And yet there, too, is the fullness of life. And a reminder that you cannot live your life paralyzed by the inevitable end. The African bush reminds us that we are not called to live a life of cowardice and fear but of empowerment and joy. To revel in the gift of each day.

So as we enter into this season of introspection and penitence, do not be afraid. Do not allow the reality of the human condition to leave you paralyzed. Rise up; live your life in the warm glow of the resurrection; do a deep dive into Lent here at St. John’s. And most importantly, remember that you are dust; for in so doing, you will fully live as a beloved child of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck