Christmas Day 2017

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

John’s gospel would make a lousy Christmas pageant. No swaddling clothes or mangers. No sign of Mary and Joseph. No wise men or shepherds. It’s pretty much just the Word of God and a bunch of light.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It’s beautiful and poetic, but what’s a pageant director supposed to do with that? You could have a kid shining a flashlight around, I guess. And another one dressed up as the Word of God wearing a costume with a big W on it. But the whole scene just doesn’t make for a compelling visual.

Which is one of the reasons I so love being in church on Christmas Day. After the pageants and the pageantry of Christmas Eve, we are left to contemplate all that has taken place. With bits of tinsel still on the rug and wax drippings still on the pews and perhaps a hint of incense still in the air, we are left to reflect upon what God has wrought in sending his Son into the world. There is a more cerebral approach to the meaning of the incarnational event that took place in a stable in Bethlehem a couple thousand years ago.

Despite our preference for hand-carved nativity sets with figurines placed just so on our mantle-places, God entering the world in human form was a messy affair. As you would expect from a birth taking place among farm animals. The chaos of Christmas pageants hints at this. And it’s an important part of the Christmas story and our annual devotions. But so is zooming out and reflecting on the cosmic meaning of the events that are such beloved aspects of the Christmas experience.

This morning, as we take a step back from the manger, perhaps having left wads of lightswrapping paper on the living room floor, I want to focus particularly on the image of light. Light is a major theme in John’s gospel and it is indelibly intertwined with his theology of Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. John boldly proclaims that Jesus is the light of the world. In these first few paragraphs alone John calls Jesus the “light of all people,” the “true light,” and tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But first, let’s acknowledge that the image of light and dark just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. Despite the sun setting before 4:30 these past few weeks — which is rather depressing, frankly — it’s easy enough to take light for granted in our modern world. If we want light, we flick a switch and behold! Let there be light! When the sun goes down there are streetlights and headlights and exterior lights and, if we’re fumbling around for our keys, flashlights on our cell phones. We basically have the power to turn night into day if need be and we are rarely ever inextricably cast into a darkness that we cannot illuminate.

So at first glance, John’s image of the light coming into the darkness of the world loses something in translation. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what it was really like before the advent of electricity. Trying to get everything done before nightfall. Getting lost in the woods on a dark night. Reading by candlelight.

But even though we can’t necessarily relate to the primal interplay between light and dark, we can very much relate to metaphorical darkness. To the forces of darkness that are unleashed upon the world in the form of bigotry and hatred and violence. That kind of darkness is alive and well and terrifying. It is this darkness that cannot overcome the light of Christ. The light of Jesus Christ that entered the world can never be extinguished. And that’s what Christmas is all about. This light that shines in the darkness is the light of hope.

And if there is anything we could use right now, if there is anything we crave, it is hope. The hope that justice will prevail; the hope that our lives have purpose and meaning; the hope that darkness will be driven out.

This is the thing about light. It dispels darkness and illuminates truth. It makes visible that which was previously obscured. When hope — that beautiful life-giving emotion — is hidden by the cares and occupations of our lives, we live a dimmed existence. All that is lovely and holy is hidden from our eyes. When we allow the light of Christ to shine forth, joy flows abundantly, bursting through the darkness. This is hope. The recognition that even amid darkness, the light of Christ will prevail.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who could not abide the song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Annoying tune aside, he insisted it was heretical. When the subject of the song came up, he would proclaim with righteous indignation to anyone who would listen, “This light is neither little, nor yours.” He was right, of course. The Light of Christ is the greatest light the world has ever known. And we do not own it or control it. On our best days, we stand in its warm glow, experience it, and share it with others. This light that entered the world in the form of Jesus changed everything. And it is by this light that our lives are defined and illuminated.

That’s the reminder for us on Christmas. So often we focus on the darkness of this world — the fear, the violence, the injustice — and fail to see the light in our midst. The light that stands in contrast to the darkness; the light that illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and souls. On Christmas Day we testify to this light; we give thanks for its never-ending presence in our lives; and we revel in the Light of Christ that sustains us with peace, hope, and joy.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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Christmas Eve 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 24, 2017 (Christmas Eve)

When my brother Matt was in middle school he took up the trumpet. We were a pretty musical family — at least in theory. Dad was a symphony orchestra conductor and mom sang in the church choir. My brother and I mostly just quit a bunch of instruments over the years. Between the two of us we blasted through the violin, piano, French horn, cello, guitar, and the aforementioned trumpet.

What I remember most about Matt’s trumpet playing days is that he could only play one trumpet-christmas-ornamentsong. It was in the key of C so it was a fine song for a beginner to learn on. The first eight notes were simply a descending scale. But there’s only so much Joy to the World you can take. Especially in July.

After hearing him play this incessantly and at top volume for weeks, the point came when I’d finally had enough. Now, they do make mutes for the trumpet; devices that go into the horn to dampen the sound. If you’ve ever seen an old video of Dizzy Gillespie you’ve seen these things. Matt’s rental trumpet came with one but he refused to use it because it made the instrument much harder to play.

Well, one day, after hearing Joy to the World a hundred more times, I grabbed the trumpet and shoved that mute so far in, that it never came out again. Ever. And that was the end of Matt’s trumpet playing career.

The lesson here is not that I was a jerk as an older brother. Although I had my moments. Or that hearing the same song over and over again isn’t incredibly annoying. It is. Rather I share this story as a reminder that no matter how hard we try, the joy brought to the world this night can never be muted. No matter what darkness we confront, no matter what evil we encounter, no matter what hardships we endure, the joy of God’s love can never be silenced. The joy of the Lord will not be muted.

Maybe this is why the message of Christmas is always so loud. In churches and homes all over the world, the joy of this night rings out at great volume. We go tell it on the mountain, we repeat the sounding joy, heaven and nature sing, a multitude of angels and archangels proclaim the good news; tidings of comfort and joy are enthusiastically shared; and un-muted trumpets blare Joy to the World. We share the news of Jesus’ birth with great fanfare because it fills us with such joy.

So what exactly is this joy we proclaim from hills and valleys and from everywhere in between? Well, the joy of the Lord is not something that we create ourselves. We aren’t the generators of this joy. Which is a good thing. Because if this joy was up to us, we’d inevitably be disappointed every Christmas. This joy is not dependent upon our shopping or our cooking; it has nothing to do with what Santa may or may not bring; it’s not concerned with what we wear or how we look. The joy that emerges from Mary’s womb in a humble stable on that first Christmas Day transcends our own strivings and desires. It is a joy that shines like an eternal flame illuminating the darkness of our lives and filling us with hope founded on divine relationship.

It is a joy born of God’s love for us. A joy that allows us to feel and know that God loves us for who we are in all our imperfections and shortcomings and failures. That no matter what we do or fail to do, God loves us unconditionally and without reservation.

It is a joy rooted in God’s presence among us. A joy that reveals in Jesus Christ a tender reminder
that we will never be forgotten or forsaken. That no matter the tears we shed, whether tears of laughter or tears of sorrow, the loving embrace of our Lord always awaits us.

It is a joy based on God’s hope for us. A joy that promises that when natural disasters strike, or violence shatters the sanctity of our world, or when hatred and bigotry arise, all is not lost. That even as we work for justice and pray for a better world, we are not abandoned by God.

The joy of the Lord — this joy that recognizes meaning even in confusion, life even in death, hope even in despair — will never and can never be muted. And this is why the message of Jesus’ birth is shared with trumpets blaring and angels singing. This joy, this precious, never-ending, always-abiding joy will not be silenced.

You know, even after I jammed that mute into my brother’s trumpet, I could still hear Joy to the World ringing in my ears. The joy of the Lord is like that. No matter how much we try to silence this joy by ignoring it or avoiding it, the joy still rings out. Loudly, boldly, and, on this night, merrily.

Please know that whatever drew you to this particular place on this particular night is a reflection of the divine joy that lives deep within you. Nurture that joy. Experience that joy. Share that joy. And on this Christmas night, sing Joy to the World with reckless abandon! For the Lord has indeed come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 10, 2017 (II Advent, Year B)

If you’ve ever been to the opera, you know that they always begin with an overture. The anticipation first begins to build as you are shown to your seat by the tuxedoed usher. You take out your opera glasses, flip through the libretto, and settle in for the show. Suddenly the lights dim and the orchestra, which you can’t see because they’re in a pit below the stage, starts to play.

The overture often hints at the various musical themes to come and helps set the stage 12193f36ef8c92f35e9ba968c58b9611--royal-opera-house-london-royal-housefor the drama that will soon unfold. Backstage it signals the singers to take their places so that, at the conclusion of the overture, as the curtain opens, the action may begin.

In the four accounts of Jesus’ life that make up the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are different approaches to what might be thought of as literary overtures. Luke opens with the beautiful and familiar birth narrative — we’ll hear from Luke on Christmas Eve with Mary and Joseph, the manger, and swaddling clothes all playing prominent roles. Matthew begins with a genealogy as Jesus’ birth is put into a wider context that highlights his royal Davidic lineage. And on Christmas Day we’ll hear John’s poetic prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

In the opening of Mark’s gospel, which we hear this morning, there is no overture. There is no flowery language to set the scene or allow readers to settle into their seats. The curtain is ripped open and, ready or not, the action begins.

The start of Mark’s gospel is abrupt and jarring and immediate. It sets the tone for the frenzied, urgency of his unfolding narrative. And we are reminded that there is an inherent urgency to the life of faith. Who dares stand idle when there is so much work to be done? There’s no time for complacency when the kingdom of God is at hand; there’s no time to dawdle when people are lost and suffering; there’s no time to delay when our very salvation is at stake.

And as the curtain is torn open, we encounter John the Baptist. Rather than the dulcet tones of an aria, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is the perfect character for such an abrupt opening. John reminds us, in his inimitable way, that the life of faith is not just about pious thoughts, fancy robes, and needlepoint kneelers. It is about action. Immediate action. John the Baptist cuts through all the saccharine, sentimental sweetness of the secular season to remind us that there is work to do. Urgent work.

In the first chapter alone Mark uses the word “immediately,” euthus in Greek, eleven times. And the word appears throughout the fast-paced 16 chapters of his gospel. The action moves rapidly from one scene to the next and all we can do is hold on for dear life as Mark takes us on a full tilt journey through Jesus’ life and ministry.

So, what’s the rush? What’s wrong with sitting back, taking a deep breath, and soaking in God’s abiding presence? Well, nothing of course; slowing down is an important spiritual discipline, something to be cultivated over time. But for Mark, the fast pace highlights the importance of Jesus’ message, the short earthly window with which he had to share it, and the urgency for the reader — that’s you and me — to accept it and act upon it

Now it’s true that there are a lot of “immediatelys” in our lives this time of year. So just hearing the word may raise our collective anxiety level. As December unfolds, we race from one thing to the next. If Mark was writing down a record of our lives he would be sticking “immediatelys” in-between everything we had to get done — the Christmas shopping, the cards, the tree, the parties, the trips to the post office and grocery store. We are basically all living the Gospel of Mark! Well, sort of. We have the frenzy and the immediacy part down. But what about the meaning? Is the urgency focused on something beyond ourselves or are we just feeling harried and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd?

The thing is, urgency must be balanced with contemplation. Usually, I encourage people to find space for silence, to take a break from the pace and volume of daily life, and to savor time spent in prayer. But today, I’m encouraging you to embrace the immediacy of this season — not in order to cause you more stress. You have plenty of that, I’m sure. Not in order to add to your to-do list. You don’t need any more tasks. But in a way that, I promise, will cause you more joy. Because adding a sense of urgency to your faith life always brings you closer to Jesus.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Look Busy, Jesus is Coming.” I don’t where it too often since, well, I’m not sure what the proper venue would be. Mowing the lawn, maybe? And while it’s meant to be humorous, there is some underlying truth. Not in looking busy but in doing the hard work of preparation for Jesus’ return. This is where spiritual immediacy comes in.

Because this immediacy I’m talking about isn’t simply something else to do. It becomes our identity as Christians living out our faith in a sometimes dark and distressing world. So when we see injustice, we are called to immediately rectify it; when we encounter sinfulness in our selves, we are called to immediately confess it; when we get complacent in our worship, we are called to immediately get down on our knees. It is an immediacy of serving God and neighbor, which is the very heart of what we do. There is immediacy in feeding and clothing and visiting and welcoming the lost and the least among us. And there is immediacy in building up our relationship with the one for whom we wait with such expectant and hopeful hearts this Advent season.

Mark’s writing style reminds us that Jesus came into the world to, among other things, light a spiritual fire under each one of us. We could all use a few of Mark’s “immediatelys” when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. We could all use some more urgency in our faith lives; something to give us a little kick, something to shake us out of our comfort zones. That’s what John the Baptist helps us to do. The immediacy is all about preparation for the good news that is soon to enter, once again, into our midst. If Advent is the overture to Incarnation, the themes of hope and joy — in all their immediacy — continue to resound.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Christ the King 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 26, 2017 (Proper 29A)

There are certain children’s toys that make me feel incredibly smart. One of these is the shape sorter. You remember that one. It has simple shapes in primary colors like blue circles and red triangles and green squares. Placing the correct shape in the correct slot triggers a sense of great triumph and glee in the child while unleashing unsurpassed affirmation from mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and everyone else who has gathered to watch the scene unfold on the living room floor.

It’s used as a tool to teach young children shapes, colors, and fine motor skills but as I 951e2da7cc2887182443c4229a969993watch a child struggle and ultimately conquer the shape sorter, I sometimes think to myself. “Big deal. I can do that in my sleep. No one’s clapping for me.” But seriously, I am really good at sorting shapes.

There is some sorting going on in this morning’s gospel passage from Matthew and it’s a bit trickier than a child’s toy. Jesus talks about the coming end of the age when all of humanity will be sorted and separated one from another “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” It’s a disturbing image for those of us who like to imagine that, ultimately, we’re all headed to the same place. That we will all share in the heavenly banquet. So this kind of sorting gives us pause. We don’t want anything to do with being sorted, for fear of ending up in the wrong pile.

And yet, ironically enough, we love sorting other people. We sort them into social classes and tax brackets; we sort them by ethnic group and skin color; we sort them by class rank and education level. We like to put people into buckets because it’s easier to judge them that way. That’s really why we put so much energy into sorting others — it makes us feel better about ourselves.

And you need look no further than the church itself. If we want our parishes to reflect the wideness of God’s mercy and the diversity of God’s kingdom here on earth, we’re not very good at including all sorts and conditions of people. If you don’t look a certain way or believe a certain way or act a certain way, you won’t fit in. So you end up with churches filled exclusively with red rectangles in one neighborhood and ones filled only with blue circles in another. And you know from that child’s toy that no matter how hard you try, unless the shape fits the correct hole, it won’t get inside. That red rectangle just won’t go into the circular hole. Surely this is not the sorting God has in mind. A sorting that minimizes and marginalizes God’s creation.

The thing is, when it comes to sorting, we like to be the sorters not the sortees. But of course we are not the sorters. Separating people into groups and judging them is not a human function or role. It’s above our pay grade. And that’s a good thing because we’re pretty lousy at it. Though not for lack of trying.

But what about this whole notion of divine judgment? We want to think about God as a uniter, not a divider. We want to think about God bringing people of all different backgrounds together, not putting them through some sort of celestial strainer where the good ones go in one pile while the bad ones end up in another. What about that “amazing grace” we like to sing about? Or the “unconditional love” preachers always talk about?

Well, this is a parable about judgment. And we can’t shy away from that, even if it makes us uncomfortable. But it is a judgment rooted in mercy. A judgment based upon serving the least of these. A judgment established in seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

And at one level this sorting to which we submit is easy. There’s a litmus test for whether you’re a sheep or a goat. You’re a sheep if you have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended to the sick, and visited the prisoner. If you haven’t, you’re a goat. Sorry you weren’t a better person; good luck with your eternal punishment.

But what about those of us who have at times fed the hungry, but at other times failed to feed the hungry? What about those of us who have at times welcomed the stranger, but at other times failed to welcome the stranger? What about those of us who have at times tended the sick, but at other times failed to tend the sick? What about those of us who, in other words, are not perfect? Those of us who are human? Those of us who strive to follow Jesus in word and deed, but fall short? If perfection is the criteria, we can all cash in our goat chips and prepare for a bitter end.

The reality is that we are all hybrids — some combination of sheep and goat. We’re all Shoats or Geep or whatever the term would be. We have all followed in Jesus’ path and we have all stumbled along the way. The good news is that Jesus continually invites us to get up and try again. Jesus continually extends the invitation and offers us opportunities to serve the lost, the lonely, and the least. Those on the margins don’t need our sorting and our judgment, they need our love. The same love that Jesus offers all of us is what he expects us to show to others, by feeding and welcoming and clothing and visiting.

In our temptation to sort others, we sometimes forget that we, too, at times, are the lost, the lonely, and the least. Look at the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them…I will feed them…I will seek the lost…I will bring back the strayed…I will bind up the injured…I will strengthen the weak.” We have all strayed like lost sheep and yet God seeks us out and binds us up; God rescues us and strengthens us. And there is comfort in that.

Just as there is comfort in knowing that we are more than individual shapes in primary colors to God. We are more than sheep and goats. We are complex kaleidoscopes of humanity. Some aspects of our lives will be separated and judged, others will be affirmed and anointed. With God’s help, we will continue to be shaped and formed in God’s image. And with God’s help, we can let go of the sorting we do to others and focus instead on serving them in Christ’s name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

All Souls’ Sunday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 12, 2017 (All Souls’)

It’s an odd thing about clergy. If you ask us whether we’d rather do a wedding or a funeral, nine out of ten will tell you they’d much prefer a funeral. There are various reasons for this — there’s no mother-of-the-bride at a funeral or tipsy groomsmen; people don’t look at the liturgy as something to get through quickly so they can get to the all-night party. Or at least not as much. There’s no friend of the bride butchering St. Paul’s “Love is patient, love is kind.” And the hymns are better.

But the primary reason is that the funeral rite speaks to the very heart of the Christian CEM2247302_138513678262faith. Through it, we boldly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In poetic language the Church tells of Christ’s triumph over death, his victory over the grave, the movement from death to new life. The good news of the gospel stands in stark relief against the raw emotions of grief. And from the pulpit clergy can speak a word of hope into heavy hearts, offering comfort, perspective, and meaning.

So it’s not that clergy are maudlin by nature; rather it’s that we find nothing so moving as sharing the light of Christ in times of darkness.

Today on All Souls’ Sunday, we enter into this heart of darkness. We remember those whom we have loved and lost over the years. People who impacted our lives and helped shape our identities; people who were dear to us and cared for us; people who caused us great joy and, in some cases, deep pain; people with whom we may have had complicated relationships. So we bring grief — some sweet, some raw, some unresolved — with us this morning. We bring a swirl of emotions to this safe and sacred space.

And I invite you to embrace these emotions — in all their nuance and complexity — not because I want you to hurt, but to bring you into a place of even deeper relationship with the God who loves you so deeply and cares for you so dearly. You know, we worship a God wholly familiar with grief and death. This is not some foreign concept for a remote deity. One need look no further than the cross on Good Friday to see that our God is intimately familiar with the agony and pain of loss. The life and death of Jesus assures us of God’s comprehension and compassion. And there is comfort, I think, in knowing that God fully understands and relates to any emotions we may experience around the loss of a loved one. Jesus himself knew what it was to mourn a friend in Lazarus and it is in response to the news of his death news that we get the shortest and most poignant verse in the entire New Testament: “Jesus wept.”

On a day like this, our thoughts naturally go to specific people we have lost. You’ve likely been reflecting on particular individuals who have been important to you over the years and I’m aware that your own thoughts may become intertwined with my words. It may well be that God is speaking to you more through your head and heart than the sound of my voice. So if you lose some of what I’m saying this morning, that’s okay. I mean, don’t make it a habit…

But acknowledging the holiness of wandering minds, I’m going to speak a bit about the person I always think about on this day. My own father who died 25 years ago at the age of 52, an age I’m rapidly approaching myself. I’ve spoken about him in the past but the upshot is that he was a symphony orchestra conductor who died just as he was on the brink of a major international career — he won a Grammy for a recording he did with the Chicago Symphony that he never lived to see. But I wanted to speak about the circumstances surrounding his death. It was cancer that got him; melanoma. They thought they’d removed it with surgery but when it came back it returned with a vengeance. He conducted his last concert, a Nutcracker of all things, at the end of December and was dead by mid-February.

What I think about most is the manner in which he died. He was at home and hospice was involved. But it was the peace with which he died that stands out. He had every reason to be bitter and angry — on the surface of things the timing was just so cruel. His career was taking off, his children were finally leaving the nest, his 25-year marriage remained the bedrock of his life. And yet that life itself was slipping away.

Despite all odds, there it was: that deep, abiding sense of peace. Someone who had every right to be angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love. I couldn’t understand it at first. I was filled with all those darker emotions. And the rage and anger at the situation felt good and righteous! But you just couldn’t hold on to them in the presence of that serenity.

So where did it come from? This inconceivable and all-encompassing peace? Well, it was faith, of course. Which wasn’t something that came naturally or automatically to my dad. Despite a lifetime of church going, it wasn’t until the last few months that the words he had been proclaiming all those years — in prayers and creeds and hymns — were experienced first-hand as the peace and freedom of true relationship with Jesus Christ.

He had entered into that peace of God which passes all understanding. Amidst the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God, with his family, and with his friends. He knew that he was soon to be with his Lord; that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to life eternal.

And after he died, as I was in the throes of profound grief and sadness, I knew that I wanted that same sense of peace. Not as something to possess but as something to experience and to share with others. Which is in many ways why I do what I do.

Here’s another odd thing about clergy — or at least this particular member of the clergy. I like walking in cemeteries. Fortunately I have a dog to accompany me, so I don’t look like some creepy priest haunting the tombstones. But it’s something I like to do because I find myself having my own personal All Souls’ service. I think about people I’ve known and lost — friends and family members. I think about parishioners I’ve buried and the connections I’ve made walking with families through the valley of the shadow of death. And I think about that peace that truly does pass all understanding. Sometimes it remains elusive but at other times it’s wonderfully pervasive.

And I’m reminded that the good news for you and me is that death is not the end. The heart of what we believe resounds in the Easter message. Death no longer has dominion over us. We know that our Redeemer lives. The sting of death has been taken away by Jesus’ victory over the grave. Which opens up for us, again and again, that freedom and joy and abiding sense of peace.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 22, 2017 (Proper 24A)

Occasionally the weekly cycle of lectionary readings rains down upon the preacher a gift from above; like manna from heaven. Sometimes the synthesis between what’s happening in the world and the texts we’re dealt to preach on is so great, it feels like nothing short of divine intervention. Like, say, in the aftermath of a divisive election when the demonization of the other side reaches great heights and we come to church and hear Jesus’ call to “love our enemies.” Or like when we’re wrestling with a particularly thorny issue of inequality and we get that passage from Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Or like this morning on Stewardship Sunday when Jesus talks about…money. Thank you, Jesus!

But before we get into that — and, yes, I’ve asked the ushers to bolt the doors — let’s take g2858a look at this passage. It’s one of my favorites because Jesus just nails it. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with the perfect retort to a sticky situation, but six hours too late, you have to admire what Jesus says here. The Pharisees, who have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus, are convinced they finally have him this time.

After sugarcoating their intentions with false flattery, they ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. They have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason. 

The problem is, they’re messing with the wrong guy. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, that’s the well-known King James Version. We get “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s perfect. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. After Jesus spoke, we hear that the Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.” Foiled again.


But it also flips our entire relationship with money. It creates distance between our money and our identity. If we are to live faithful lives, money should not and cannot define us. Money in itself is not a bad thing, of course; it can be a wonderful thing. Last week Father Noah talked about the idols that can isolate us from God. And money is one of the big ones. When it’s used to build up, it can be a great gift. When it’s used to deny and destroy, it can be a great evil.

On Stewardship Sunday we encourage one another to give money to St. John’s. To render to God what is God’s. When we pledge to support the mission and ministry of this place, our identities become wrapped up in Jesus. We become “imitators of the Lord,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the early Christians in Thessalonika. We are proclaiming that love is what matters most in this world; we are trusting that God’s love for us will see us through any hardship; we are offering our own love to a sinful and broken world.

This time of year I often ask people the question, “Why do you give to St. John’s?” I ask because I’m genuinely curious and am often inspired by the answers. Yet while I talk a lot about the importance of pledging and why the church needs your money and how it’s spent, I’m not sure that I’ve ever answered this question directly myself.

So, why do I give to St. John’s? You may not even know that your clergy pledge to the church. I mean, it’s not like the ushers pass the collection plates our way in the middle of the service. We’re not reaching deep into our robes looking for our wallets (“I know it’s in here somewhere”). And at one level, it’s kind of odd, right? We get paid to be here, why would we give any of it back? That just seems rather…circular.

But I give for several reasons. I give because this is what Christians do to support the community in which they live out their faith. From the earliest days of the church, when being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death, they gave a portion of their income to support those in need. And I love feeling connected to the generations of Christians who have come before me. Faithful Christians who have generously given of themselves to build up the body of Christ. Of course the early church existed in an era before deferred maintenance and staff salaries and ever-rising insurance premiums. But they gave in proportion to their means to make sure people both within their community and beyond were taken care of. So giving to St. John’s reminds me that I am connected to something greater than what I can see with my own eyes. And I find deep meaning in that.

I give because I believe in the mission of St. John’s. I see first-hand the incredible ministry that takes place here and I feel compelled to support it financially. I see Sunday School rooms bursting with joy; I hear music that inspires and delights; I see sacred space that serves as holy ground in a world that desperately craves it; I watch people growing in their spiritual lives through liturgy and prayer and educational offerings; I see teenagers building houses in Appalachia and forging relationships with their peers in South Africa; I watch people opening their hearts to people in need here in America and throughout the world; I hear incredible preaching (just kidding).

I give because I love the people of St. John’s. This community brings me great joy because of all of you. I see the commitment you have to this place and it inspires me to pitch in and do my part. The ways in which you volunteer at events like the Holiday Boutique and our crazy haunted house; and in classrooms and around the altar and in building budgets and in planting bulbs and in bringing finger foods for coffee hour. I see you sharing Christ’s message and values and love with one another and the broader community in ways both seen and unseen. And I want to be a part of that. I want to continue to dream with you about where God is calling us as a community of faith; about where the Spirit may lead us in the years ahead; and this both inspires and excites me.

But mostly I give because it connects me to Jesus. It allows me to render to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is your very life. When you give generously you are giving a piece of yourself back to God. You are rendering to God your identity as a child of God. You are turning your life over to the one who loves you with reckless abandon, the one who is with you through all of life’s ups and downs, the one who never forsakes or abandons you whatever you have done or failed to do, the one whose loving kindness never ends.

I know giving money away can be hard. I’m paying college tuition. I worry about the future. There’s stuff I want. It can be a leap of faith when we so crave certainty and control. But there is such freedom in letting go of the death grip we use to cling to the idols of our lives and putting our trust in God. Freedom that truly is priceless.

This stewardship season, I invite you to join me in rendering your money unto God with joy and generosity. It feels good. It does good. And it is good.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 24, 2017 (Proper 20A)

One of the insidious foundations of Apartheid in South Africa was the system of racial classification. There were three official races and the government took great care in classifying people as white, black, or colored. The first two are pretty self-explanatory but “colored” was a catch-all grouping which included people of mixed race. Under Apartheid, race was everything — it determined where you could live, who you could marry, the types of jobs you could hold. The system wasn’t built on principles of common humanity but on difference and division.

There were actually government bureaucrats whose entire job was to determine people’s609apartheid_sign2 races in order to make sure they were put into the “correct” racial bucket. They primarily looked at things like skin color and facial features but the most infamous racial assessment was known as the pencil test. The group of us that went on the parish trip to South Africa in February learned about this while touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. And I still haven’t been able to shake the blatant disregard for humanity.

This humiliating test decreed that if a person could hold a pencil in their hair while shaking their head, they could not be classified as white. Literally, people had to stand in front of a panel of white government officials and shake their heads with a pencil stuck in their hair. Of course these tests were so imprecise and absurd that members of the same extended family were sometimes placed in different racial groups.

But beyond the inherent shame and degradation of this system, the architects of Apartheid used these racial classifications to pit the races against one another. The whole premise was to create inequalities among the races to keep them fighting with one another rather than uniting against the minority whites, who held all the power and enforced the system with utter brutality.

I have been reflecting upon this, not just because of the current state of race relations in America, but also in light of this morning’s gospel passage. Here it’s not about race, as far as we know, but about power and privilege. The owner of the vineyard had all the power and wealth and status while the laborers were left to fight over the inadequate resources left over by the elites.

At least that’s one way of looking at this parable. The traditional interpretation is that God is the owner of the vineyard, the laborers who came early were the Jews and the ones who came later were the Gentiles. Inherent in this message is that it doesn’t matter at what point you come to Jesus; as long as you eventually do, you will be rewarded. I’ve preached on this text out of this framework, highlighting the amazing grace of God’s love. And that’s a safe enough interpretation; no one’s going to argue with a preacher highlighting the limitless capacity of God’s grace.

But, as with all the parables, there are different meanings and levels of interpretation and messages. And I’ve been thinking about the owner of the vineyard from another perspective; viewing his actions through the lens of how it impacted the laborers in the story.

At one level, the owner of the vineyard is being generous — paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they worked out in the field, when the norm would have been to pay them proportionally based on how much work they had put in. That’s the fair way to do it. But it’s his money; he can do whatever he wants with it. Isn’t that one of the joys of being wealthy? You can do whatever you want with your money. If you want to build Neverland Ranch on your property complete with your own petting zoo and ferris wheel, who’s to stop you?

But at another level, by paying the laborers the same amount regardless of the hours they worked, the owner is sowing discord among them. His actions are dividing them and pitting them against one another and causing jealousy and anger. Can you imagine the walk back into town at the end of the day? The words that must have been exchanged? The violence that may have ensued?

Again, race may not have played any part in this but I think there are some parallels between what the government in South Africa tried to accomplish by sowing distrust among the races and what the owner tried to do in pitting the laborers against one another. In focusing on their own financial inequalities, they were being distracted from the broader inequality of the system.

And that’s one of the privileges of power. At the end of the day, the owner can just go back to his large, comfortable estate, put his feet up, light a cigar, and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. Why should he give any of this a second thought? Why should we? Seeing this from our own place of privilege, these laborers all got paid for an honest day’s work. Some received more than they should have. The story should be about the johnny-come-latelies being exceedingly grateful for receiving more than their usual share and for even having the opportunity to work.

But Jesus is always flipping things around and upending our pre-conceived notions and so I want you to see things from a different perspective, perhaps through a filter that is not your regular lens. To be challenged and changed and transformed.

Which is why I want you to think hard about the workers in this story. These day laborers, regardless of how long they worked out in the master’s fields, were only earning enough to get through another day. They still had to return to their humble homes — if they even had homes — and try to feed their families. They were all-too-familiar with food scarcity and the anxiety of simply trying to survive. These workers comprised the invisible under-belly of the ancient economy in a way that mirrors our own modern society.

And so we must ask ourselves, in what ways do our own actions and choices mirror the owner of the vineyard? We may well take satisfaction in our efforts to help those in need — we may even post about it on Facebook — but is it to make ourselves feel better about our own wealth and privilege or is it to make a difference in the lives of others. Are we simply perpetuating a system that benefits us at the expense of the poor? Do the people who make the things we buy or grow the food we eat have any share in the hope we proclaim on Sunday morning? We pray that the hope of the poor shall not be taken away but are we contributing to doing just that?

These are hard questions. Questions many of us would rather avoid than answer honestly, for fear of what we might discover. But Jesus keeps bringing these questions up again and again and holding a mirror up to our actions. It’s what he does. But he doesn’t condemn us when we fall short, as we inevitably do, but rather he keeps speaking the words and trusting that we will listen and change and grow ever closer to the very heart of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017