Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 2, 2017 (Proper 8A)

A Reading from How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

“And the Grinch grabbed the tree, and he started to shove, When he heard a small sound How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_coverlike the coo of a dove. He turned around fast, and he saw a small Who! Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was not more than two. The Grinch had been caught by this tiny Who daughter, Who’d got out of bed for a cup of cold water. She stared at the Grinch and said, ‘Santy Claus, why,’ ‘Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?’ But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick! ‘Why, my sweet little tot,’ the fake Santy Claus lied, ‘There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.’ And his fib fooled the child. Then he patted her head, And he got her a drink and he sent her to bed. And when Cindy-Lou Who went to bed with her cup, HE went to the chimney and stuffed the tree up!”

Don’t worry, I have not completely lost my mind. We’re not celebrating Christmas in July here at St. John’s. But whenever I hear about Cindy Lou Who and her search for a cup of cold water on that fateful Christmas Eve in Whoville, I’m always reminded of Jesus who says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will be rewarded.

In the great pantheon of random acts of kindness, giving someone a cup of water is hardly the greatest act of service you can offer. Well, it depends on the circumstances, I guess. I mean if you encounter someone crawling through the desert, like in one of those comic strip tropes, it could actually be a heroic, life-saving act. But I think the point here is that even the smallest act of kindness matters. And not only does it matter, it is as if you are serving Jesus himself. It’s hard not to hear these words in Matthew’s gospel without connecting them to Jesus’ later statement in Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Seeing Christ in one another is a hallmark of our faith. It’s not a great leap from hearing that we are made in God’s image to striving to see the face of Jesus in others. But it’s not enough just to see Christ in other people and move on — as if we’re staring at them through a tank at the aquarium. No, we’re also called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To dive in and engage with others in tangible ways — both great and small.

And I think the smallest acts get short shrift. We like to focus on grand gestures; on people who are celebrated in the national media for changing the world; we like to be inspired by larger-than-life spiritual heroes. Like Gandhi or Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama or Malala.

And we need that. But Jesus reminds us time and time again that small things are just as important. It’s why he tells us faith the size of the tiny mustard seed can move mountains. And praises the lone leper who returned, after being healed, to say ‘thank you.’ It’s why Jesus himself often did the seemingly smallest and most menial tasks. Like washing feet and cooking breakfast and interacting with children. Small gestures point to a big heart. They are windows into our very souls.

In his words and in his actions, Jesus is reminding us to engage in such small acts. That they matter. That they make a difference. That even if you think something is just a drop in the bucket, it is important. These small acts are marks of a faithful life well lived.

It’s often said that if you want to see someone’s true character, watch how they treat people when no one’s watching. How they interact with people who can do nothing for them. Look at the superstar player after the game. How does he treat the guy picking up dirty laundry in the locker room? With respect and dignity? With contempt? Or does he fail to even notice him at all?

You may not be a superstar, but how do you treat people in the shadow economy? The busboy in the restaurant, the maid in the hotel, the landscaper working in your neighbor’s yard, the nanny waiting at the bus stop. Do you look for the face of Jesus in these fellow children of God or are they invisible to you? Recognizing them, acknowledging them, is the first step to leading an integrated life; one that meshes our actions with what we proclaim on Sunday morning.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus telling a big crowd of people to love your neighbor as yourself one moment, and then chewing out the disciples for overcooking his dinner the next. That’s not practicing what you preach and it leads to living an inauthentic life of disharmony. Which is the exact opposite of how Jesus lived in this world and how he invites us to live.

The juxtaposition of the Grinch’s cup of cold water with the one Jesus is talking about does force us to confront the intentions of our hearts. The Grinch did, in fact, give Cindy Lou Who a cup of cold water. He satisfied her physical need. And he even comforted her by patting her on the head. But this wasn’t a genuine act of concern. He was just doing it to get her to go away quietly so he could get back to the business of stealing Christmas.

When you do something nice for someone, it is important to examine your own intentions. Is it to get something in return? Is it to get on someone’s good side? Or is it out of genuine love and concern. Sure, a lot of good gets done with mixed intentions. The corporation that has their employees clean up the harbor is doing a good thing even as they have their PR person make sure it gets covered in the local paper.

Even here at church, when we engage in outreach ministries financially and in hands-on ways, is it all completely pure? Is it all because Jesus tells us to do this or is it at least a little bit to assuage our own guilt or to make us feel good or because we think it looks good in the community? These are hard questions of motive.

In the end, though, I think our motives are secondary. Do good. That’s the key. God knows the intentions of our hearts. Good intentions are nice but actions are what matter. And so we can instead ask ourselves in what ways do we offer others a cup of cold water? In other words, what is your version of a cup of cold water? How do you welcome those who need welcoming or reach out to those in need? It could be the giving of your time in a volunteer setting or praying for those in harm’s way or offering a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling broken and vulnerable.

Whatever that metaphorical cup of cold water is for you on any given day, just offer it. There are so many small ways in which to sow kindness in the world. And know that you are indeed doing God’s most holy work. Because these acts bind us one to another and they bind us to Jesus Christ. They build up the community that is the church and they build up our relationship with God.

You know, the Grinch eventually does have a conversion experience. And by the end of the book he’s sitting at that table carving the roast beast with Cindy Lou Who sitting at his right hand. He begins to live his life in harmony; the small acts take on greater meaning. And we are encouraged to go and do likewise.

© The Tim Schenck 2017

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 25, 2017 (Proper 7A)

If you were a child of the ’70’s, ’80’s, or 90’s you probably grew up listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. It would come on pop radio stations all across the country every weekend. I’m not sure what the exact formula used to calculate the order was — something to do with record sales and radio airplay — but that only added to the mystery as the suspense built before the grand announcement of the “Number One Song in the Land.”

Kasem had a distinct voice — kind of classic 1950’s DJ — tinged with over-the-top caseyenthusiasm. As if he himself couldn’t wait for the great reveal of the week’s most popular song. I also discovered a mind-blowing fact this week: Casey Kasem was the voice behind Shaggy on Scooby Do.

But I mention Casey Kasem and his wonderfully alliterative name and America’s fascination with lists because I started wondering about Jesus’ greatest hits. I’m not sure which of his quotes would make the top 40 but surely the list would include such popular statements as, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies” and “I am the way and the truth and the life” and maybe “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The list goes on and on. Or, put another way, the hits just keep on coming.

But what you won’t find among the top 40, is a quote we hear this morning: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Wait, what?! What happened to the “love your neighbor as yourself” thing? Or “turn the other cheek?”

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is definitely not on the list. And it’s something that, quite frankly, I really wish Jesus hadn’t said. Because as a preacher, it puts me in a bit of a pickle. I could just ignore it, of course, and hope no one noticed. I could divert your attention by talking about something completely different. Like Scooby Do.

But that’s a cop out. We can’t tune out the more challenging parts of Scripture and only deal with the parts we like; we have to lean into them. So let’s take a closer look at this passage. It’s a pretty tough one all the way around. Not only do we hear the line about this peacemaker bringing a sword, but we also hear an interesting approach to family relationships.

Jesus says in no uncertain terms, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” That doesn’t sound like what politicians and evangelicals had in mind when the term “family values” became a political buzzword in the 1990’s — around the same time as Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” was topping the charts. I might add.

But perhaps what troubles me most about this passage, and the quote at its heart, is the truth embedded within it. We want Jesus to be the Jesus of stained glass and Footprints in the Sand. We want him to be our sweet shepherd who bucks us up when we’re feeling blue and comforts us in our affliction. And he is that. But when we ignore the fact that life is difficult, that evil has the potential to ensnare us, that we need this Jesus who comes bearing a sword, we end up selling our faith short.

We end up domesticating our faith into something nice and precious but fail to recognize it for what it really is and must be: something life-giving and transformative. The sword Jesus wields with his presence in our lives isn’t a weapon of destruction. It’s not used to smite anyone or beat people into submission.

I mean, we already know what Jesus does with actual swords — he beats them into plowshares. He turns implements of violence into instruments of peace. The sword Jesus wields is not a sword that kills but rather a metaphorical sword that divides justice from injustice, faith from fear, love from hate. And in so doing, relationships based on anything but the love of God can be overturned in an instant.

So this sword isn’t used as a weapon but as an edge of hard truth. This sword Jesus bears is not turned on people, it’s not rattled to evoke fear or threaten; but it is used as an exacto knife to cut out falsehood and hypocrisy, to slice away injustice. It is a sword of truth that can and does convict us and pierce our hearts when we fall away from God or ignore the least of these in our midst.

This sword of truth is not used lightly but deliberately and reverently and with intentionality. And it sometimes wreaks havoc in our relationships and in our everyday lives. Following Jesus, following the truth is not for the faint of heart. It leads to conflict. Conflict with a cause, conflict with a purpose, but the Christian life is not about being conflict averse or avoidant. It is about standing up for what is fair and right and noble and true, regardless of the consequences. The thing is, truth telling comes with a price. Jesus came into the world to reveal the truth and paid for it with his life.

Loving Jesus and following Jesus can put you at odds with those closest to you. And that’s hard. Others may not want to hear your views on faith or justice. Consciously or not, they may want to keep the marginalized in society subjugated. And you can’t let that go. You have to speak up, even when it’s hard. Even when it strains relationships within your own circles.

When the truth gets told — the hard truth — not the sugar-coated version, powerful forces often rise up against it and seek to destroy it. Yes, this is precisely what led to the crucifixion. But it’s also what led to the assassination of Martin Luther King. To the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. To the character assassination of Anita Hill. To the murder of Harvey Milk. To the silencing of so many who work for racial, economic, and environmental justice.

When the truth confronts the evils of racism and sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and anything else that diminishes or devalues God’s creation, powerful forces are unleashed and it takes strength and courage and a warrior-for-justice mentality to drive them out.

That’s what Jesus is talking about. And he offers us a challenge: Do we as individuals and as a church speak or stay silent? Do we speak hard truths even if it will ruffle some feathers or do we go along to get along? Do we take up this sword in the form of a cross to follow Jesus or do we leave it be for fear of offending sensibilities? These are the hard questions that come with the territory Jesus beckons us into.

Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off was, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I don’t exactly know what that means but it does sound aspirational. Keep reaching. We don’t live in a perfect world. But we can do our part by raising our voices and speaking the truth even in the face of difficult situations. By picking up what may well at times be a heavy cross and continuing to follow Jesus. Day after day after day.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 18, 2017 (Proper 6A)

“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Well, that’s pretty timely considering we’re entering summer at St. John’s. A time when things heat up temperature-wise but cool down program-wise. A time of vacations and family gatherings and warm-weather activities. A time of beaches and boats and backyard barbecues. A time when the harvest may well be plentiful but the parishioners are increasingly few.

But that’s okay! Because the mission of the church carries on with or without air-conditioning; with or without a full church; with or without choir pews bursting at the seams or a bevy of acolytes tripping over themselves. And there’s something comforting in the knowledge that the worshipping community gathers week after week regardless of who is here, who is on vacation, who is recovering from surgery (that would be Buffy), or who is out on paternity leave (that would be Noah).

And anyway, you can’t go full tilt all year long; you can’t keep your foot on the gas for twelve months out of the year. Even God rested after creating the world in six dizzying days. Whether personally or professionally or ecclesiastically, we all need some down time. What the army calls R & R — rest and relaxation. In more theological terms we might call this sabbath time; a designated period to recharge and refresh and renew and relax.

This takes different forms for different people. For some it’s fishing alone on an isolated lake in Maine; for others it’s spending time lingering over coffee with a friend. For some it’s sleeping in on a rainy morning; for others it’s heading out to Fenway to sit in the bleachers and soak in the sunshine. We are all renewed in different ways.

Now what renewal doesn’t mean is taking the summer off from God. With the change in routine, we may well find God in places beyond the four walls of the church — in nature or in family reunions or in a simple change of scenery. And I’m all for that. It’s always good to be reminded that even though we refer to the church as “God’s House,” God isn’t under house arrest. God doesn’t exclusively reside inside a building. God transcends stone walls and stained glass and even Prayer Books and Bibles.

And yet the other side of that is that our need for the love and example of Jesus, our need for one another, our need to praise God in word and deed, doesn’t take a vacation. And anyway, you can’t take time off from God because God never takes time off from you. That’s not how it works. And that is good news.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. The point of this sermon is not to tell people who are in church in the summer to come to church in the summer. I’m glad you’re here! Truly. But it is a reminder that renewal doesn’t mean ignoring or taking a break from your spiritual life; it means embracing it. Hopefully time spent in prayer and worship is a form of renewal for you. Being here after a tough week should feel like sipping from a refreshing spring on a hot day. It should replenish your spiritual reserves and help you prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the week ahead. If being here only feels like a chore or an obligation, we have some work to do. You and me both.

Yes, the spiritual life should be challenging and at times it should signal a call to action or the overturning of pre-conceived notions or the questioning of privilege and complacency. It should move us out of our comfort zones and bring us into contact with people and ideas that open our hearts and minds.

But church must also be a place of deep refreshment. A place where you can fully be yourself. A place of solace and strength and comfort. A place where you are nurtured and loved and celebrated simply for being who you are as a child of God. A place to rest and recharge and renew from the challenges and complexities of life. And so, as things slow down and we take some time to renew this summer, make sure that spiritual renewal is part of the equation. Go for a hike, but also praise God for the wonder and beauty of creation. Have a fantastic meal with family and friends, but also offer thanks for the many blessings of this life. Renewal and gratitude pair beautifully together.

But back to this “harvest field” Jesus mentions this morning. What is it? “The harvest isAgriculture_in_Volgograd_Oblast_002 plentiful but the laborers are few.” Jesus is obviously speaking metaphorically — he’s not bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough farmhands to plow his soy bean fields. He’s talking about the many people in his midst who have not heard the Good News of the Gospel. That’s the harvest; that’s the mission field Jesus sent the original 12 disciples out into. To preach and teach and share the peace of Christ that people so desperately needed and still need to hear. Just before Jesus talks to the twelve about the harvest and the laborers we hear that he had just returned from a whirlwind tour of preaching and teaching and healing — in other words he had just been out and about among the people. He had listened to them and spoken with them and interacted with them. And we hear that as he gazed upon the crowds he “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless.” And that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s a tough image of people who were spiritually isolated and lonely and feeling unloved. And it broke Jesus’ heart. It’s also a feeling I think we can very much relate to. At least some of the time. I know I have similar thoughts to Jesus when I’m out in what we might think of as today’s harvest field: the streets, the soccer fields, the cubicles, the coffee shops. Places where people aren’t thinking about spiritual things but are involved with and distracted by everything else. Like life. And children. And jobs. And money. People today, just as they were in Jesus’ time, do indeed seem to be “harassed and helpless.” We are imprisoned by our technology and debt and unhealthy relationships; shackled by our obsession with the 24-hour news cycle and celebrity gossip and dearth of silence; chained to addictions in various forms; held captive by our lack of sabbath time and renewal.

Here’s the thing: the harvest field isn’t just “out there.” The harvest field is also right here at St. John’s. We are the harvest field. We so desperately need to hear Jesus’ message of compassion and hope in the midst of a turbulent world. And we are also the laborers. Because we also need to share this with one another. To be generous in the ways we interact, to look beyond our own self interest, to offer comfort and consolation. Take heart, friends. We are not in this field alone. Yes, there is much work to be done. But we are in this together. And we are sheep who do indeed have a shepherd in Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Trinity Sunday

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

Trinity Sunday is generally known among rectors as “Curate Sunday.” It’s a day that often gives preachers pause since the whole mystery of Trinitarian theology is…complex and mysterious and difficult to explain and fraught with the potential to preach heresy. One wrong step and you enter the realm of Adoptionism or Arianism or Docetism or, God forbid, Modalism. All debunked Trinitarian heresies that arose before the final version of the Nicene Creed was established in 381.

Thus it often gets foisted upon the junior member of the clergy staff. Their seminary imagestraining is a bit fresher, or so the thinking goes, and thus better suited to explaining the doctrinal mysteries of the Trinity. Also, some rectors like to cop out and avoid the whole thing, figuring it’s their ecclesiastical right to throw the curate to the proverbial lions.

However, in light of a certain impending birth, we’ve been massaging the preaching schedule a bit these past weeks. With Melinda’s due date rapidly approaching, we had Noah preach last Sunday and I’m preaching this morning. Just in case.

It is difficult to wrap our heads around the fullness of God, which is what the Trinity expresses. The fullness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Preachers certainly get themselves into a lot of trouble when attempting to explain the unexplainable. And the whole concept of ‘one plus one plus one equals one’ leads to some pretty fuzzy math and a whole lot of head scratching.

Fortunately, the Trinity isn’t ultimately about archaic formulas or inscrutable theorems; it’s about love. I think that’s what our readings point us towards this morning. And it all starts at the beginning. “In the beginning,’ actually. There are few things that display God’s love in such a tangible way than the very creation of the world. This familiar — and rather long — passage from Genesis that sets the stage for all that is to come, is an act of love.

Let’s face it. It would have been a lot less trouble for God to just forget about creating the world and all those troublesome human beings that go with it. Why not save yourself a whole bunch of heartache and make something much less high maintenance. Like a paper airplane. Or a new hat. Why bother creating an entire world that will be taken for granted and polluted and plundered? Why create a humanity that will turn away from you and reject you and hurt one another over and over again? Where’s the satisfaction in that? Where’s the pride of authorship in the creation of a vexing, frustrating, ungrateful world? Why go to all that trouble? Why bother?

But here’s the thing: God creates the world not for himself, not as an act of divine vanity, but for us. It is a generous act of self-giving, hope-filled devotion. And that in itself is an incredible display of divine love. One we are hardly worthy of but one that gets at the very compassionate, loving, abundant nature of God. Which is precisely what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.

And as Christians who experience the fullness of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, this relates to that other great display of divine love, of God giving his son Jesus to this broken and sinful world in order to redeem and save the world. That’s love. That’s saying, yes, they’ve made kind of a mess of this, so let me go down there and show them how it’s done. Of course, there will be misunderstanding and rejection and even crucifixion but they will be given a living example of what it means to live a life in perfect harmony with God. And through faith in Jesus Christ they will be forgiven and made new. That’s love.

As we come to the final Sunday of the September-to-June program year and celebrate the last day of our full Sunday School program and the last day with the entire choir — and, yes, for the record, church does continue all summer long — it’s perhaps appropriate that we read the final sentences of Matthew’s gospel and hear of Jesus’s last words to his disciples as he gives them what we know as the Great Commission.

And it’s interesting how it begins: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” This line could well apply to any congregation in the history of worshipping congregations. It is not inauthentic to worship God even as some doubts about God’s very existence persist. It’s called having an authentic faith. And Jesus understood this even as he stood for this final time in-between heaven and earth, between doubt and belief. We may not fully comprehend the fullness of God — and that’s okay. All will be revealed in the fullness of time; perhaps not in this world but surely in the world to come. And Jesus doesn’t simply ignore the seeds of doubt or the possibility of misunderstanding. He leans into them and tells us that despite the tension between worship and doubt our role is to go. To go out into the world and spread this good news of Jesus that drives out fear and imbues those who follow him with a passion for justice. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The comedian Steven Wright, in his inimitable deadpan style, used to talk about wanting to name his dog, “Stay.” That way he could basically engage in psychological torture every time he called him. “Come here, Stay. Come here, Stay.”

At first glance, that’s what the Christian life can feel like. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, we hear Jesus say to the disciples, “Follow.” And here at the end he says to many of these same disciples, “Go.” To live in the fullness of God is to both follow Jesus and be sent by him. These aren’t contradictory but complementary; both equally critical sides of the faith coin. When we come to church we are here to follow Jesus. We are fed by God’s word and nurtured in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. But it doesn’t end there. At the end of our time together we are collectively told to go — to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Follow and Go don’t keep us paralyzed like that poor dog named “Stay” but empowered by the dual call to follow Jesus and to go serve Jesus in the world. The Christian faith lives on this continuum of contemplation and action. We follow Jesus and then we go forth and share the good news of Jesus.

Our faith lives compel us to “follow” and propel us to “go.” And when we do, we return God’s love with love. We become partners with God, co-creators, co-missioners; working with God to change the world.

So the Trinity is not some dusty doctrine but a dynamic driver of devotion. The Trinity is not some static theory but a stunning window into the fullness of God. And that is worthy of our utmost thanks and praise. So, follow. And go. And in so doing you will know everything you could ever possibly need to know about the mysterious and holy and life-giving Trinity that is the fullness of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fifth Sunday of Easter 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 14, 2017 (Easter 5, Year A)

As a society we have an endless fascination with pirates. Not actual, modern-day machine gun toting pirates — they’re scary — but the romanticized pirates of yore. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and Long John Silver and Captain Hook. Okay, maybe not Captain Hook — he was kind of a doofus in Peter Pan.

But there’s something freeing about the whole notion of raising the Jolly Roger and 659aef03b6a626bc2eceee2000aede2c.jpgheading out for adventure on the high seas. Children are especially drawn to the idea of a life without rules, where no parent is around to make you brush your teeth or go to sleep at a reasonable hour and anyone who irritates you is simply made to “walk the plank.” Actually, there are days when that last part sounds pretty good…

And we all love the whole lexicon of piratey words and phrases like “shiver me timbers” and “scurvy dog” and “arrgh.” There’s something especially satisfying about saying “arrgh.”

But when it comes to pirates, ultimately it’s all about one thing: the treasure map. That rough drawing on parchment that remains the pirate’s most prized possession. Why? Because it points to the booty! Follow the directions to where “X marks the spot” and all that treasure is yours. The bounty of gold coins and jewels, all buried deep inside that wooden treasure chest.

In a sense, this is how we spend so much of the energy of our lives: seeking treasure. Now, when we get off track we tend to focus on the financial rewards; seeking happiness through material wealth. But I think the deepest yearnings of our hearts are really about finding meaning in this life. Searching for that often elusive sense of contentment. Yearning for authentic relationship with God. Seeking divine treasure. And we so desperately crave a map with a giant, impossible-to-miss “X.” We want a definite location where we can take out our metaphorical shovels and enthusiastically and with great expectations start digging.

This, I think, is at the heart of Thomas’ question to Jesus in this morning’s gospel passage: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas literally wants a map! He wants directions to this place where Jesus is going. This place, he imagines, of deep serenity and profound peace; a place of answers and spiritual certainty. ‘It must be around here somewhere.’

And Jesus does hold out a vision of what this looks like in the afterlife — this passage is part of Jesus’ long Farewell Discourse as he prepares the disciples for his impending death. There’s a reason this is often read at funerals — though we tend to use the more familiar and majestic language of the King James Version. “In my Father’s house are many mansions” — rather than the more pedestrian “dwelling places.” But the concept remains the same — that Jesus goes ahead of us to “prepare a place for us.” Just as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus is the forerunner of our heavenly future. And this must have been of great comfort to the disciples, as it is to us during times of grief.

So in his blundering way, Thomas stumbles on the very crux of the spiritual life, the question at the heart of it all: “How can we know the way?” In other words, ‘Please, Jesus, just tell us where to go and what to do and how to get to this dwelling place of yours.’ We so desperately crave a map or some easy-to-follow directions. I think this is why so many Christians seek to turn the Bible, our sacred, nuanced, beautiful, heart-wrenching story of humanity’s relationship with God, into a map. Follow these steps, follow these laws, follow these directions, and you will know the way.

But that’s not how it works. Authentic relationship transcends step-by-step instructions. And so you can almost imagine Jesus grabbing Thomas by the lapels and getting in his face and saying, “Hello! Don’t you see? I am the way. And the truth. And the life. Stop searching. Stop looking. You don’t need a map. I am here. You have already arrived. You are home.”

But the stumbling around continues, as is often the case with the disciples, as Philip immediately pipes up and says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Again, not getting it; again wanting a map. And Jesus must be at least slightly exasperated by now — I mean, Son of God or not, this lack of understanding has got to get frustrating after awhile. So you can almost hear him taking a deep breath before plaintively asking, “You’ve been with me all this time and still you don’t get it?” Remember, this interaction is all taking place at the Last Supper so both Thomas and Philip aren’t new here. They’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry. They should know the way. At least by now.

And Jesus basically says the same thing to Philip, “Know me and you will know God. Pay attention to what I’ve been saying all along and you will see God.” And this points to so much of why Jesus came into the world in the first place: he came to reveal God. To be the face of God in the world. To incarnate God’s love. To show us the way.

And so this isn’t just a place accessible only off in the future in some distant way. It is open to those who believe in Jesus and follow him as Lord in the here and now. Because this “mansion” or “dwelling place” isn’t some sort of divine housing complex in the sky. It is about being in the presence of God. It is about being held in intimate relationship with our divine parent. One who holds us and nurtures us and forgives us and admonishes us and builds us up and loves us.

Jesus is pointing the disciples and us to a place that transcends death. He is preparing his disciples for the end of his earthly existence but he is also pointing beyond it — to that place he has prepared for each one of us. That’s the promise of the resurrection; that’s the promise of the Christian faith; that’s the promise of new life beyond the visible world. And it is because of this promise that we don’t need a treasure map to unearth spiritual riches. We just need to look toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

So we can say “arrgh” to our hearts content. But we don’t need a treasure map because we have Jesus. Jesus is the treasure. Jesus is the way, and the life, and the truth. X marks not the spot but Jesus himself. And we are invited to dwell with Jesus, to abide with Jesus, to follow Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck