17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10th Sunday after Pentecost (15C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 14, 2022 (Proper 15, Year C)

It’s been said that these years of pandemic living have been greatly revealing. They have revealed deep cultural, political, and racial division within our society. They have revealed deep division between and among those who call themselves Christians. They have revealed deep division between and among family members and friends who watch different news programs.

And so at first glance, Jesus’ words this morning seem to only be adding fuel to the tinderbox of our lives. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” It’s hard not to hear that and think, ‘It’s okay, Jesus, we already have plenty of division to go around. You really don’t need to bring any more, thank you very much. When it comes to division, we’re good.’ So these are hard words to hear.

And as deeply divided as we are, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ initial hearers had no lack of division in their own lives as well. They didn’t have cable news and social media, but they did have conditions which led to a divided society: oppression, persecution, leaders preying on vulnerable populations. There were wars and slavery, famine and abuse. In other words, the whole economic and political landscape wasn’t much different than what we experience here in America, and where you sat on the issues of the day depended upon your own status and place in society.

To hear Jesus talk about bringing even more division into an already divided society must have raised some eyebrows back then, just as it does for us. You’d think people would be hoping for more of a unifier, a healer, someone who would bridge the gap of division, rather than encouraging more division.

But let’s look at this. It’s true that we sometimes hold up unity as a kingdom value. In church meetings we strive for consensus, at Thanksgiving dinner we agree to disagree in order to keep the peace, with certain friends religion and politics are topics to be avoided. Sometimes our fear of division causes us to concede a point or sugarcoat hard truths. Sometimes unity is not the path of Jesus. 

Here’s an example. During the Civil War, many Protestant denominations split over the question of slavery. That’s why you’ve got Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists, for instance. The Episcopal Church didn’t split over the question and stayed united. Now, at one level, that’s great. There was no division — I mean, there was division with Episcopalians fighting on both sides. But there was no split, no schism. And you could argue that there should have been. That if the church boldly stood up for the Biblical vision of equality and justice, it would have and perhaps should have split. So unity was maintained, but at a high moral cost. The late Harold Lewis, a priest and chronicler of the black experience in the Episcopal Church once referred to the church at this time in its history as a non-prophet organization. That’s p-r-o-p-h-e-t. I’m not saying it would have ultimately been better for the church if it split, if there was a northern branch and a southern one. But sometimes unity does not serve the gospel. And sometimes division does. 

So what exactly is this division that Jesus brings? Well, you’ll be glad to know that it has nothing to do with how you vote or what cable news show you watch. And he’s not encouraging even more division in our lives. He’s not telling us to shun those who disagree with us. But he is acknowledging that love — radical, life-giving, life-transforming love — isn’t always well received. Sometimes people recoil in the face of love. 

The reality is that few things are more divisive than love and grace and forgiveness in the face of oppression and anger and fear. Jesus’ message of divine love can cause division because it holds up a mirror to all the places where love is not being pursued with reckless abandon. It’s why preaching peace when people are hungry for war causes division; it’s why preaching acceptance when people are determined to hate causes division. Jesus offers unity in love but the message isn’t always received. It’s not always an easy path but we are encouraged, as Paul writes, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We must persevere in preaching love to the world even when it causes more division than unity. At least in the short term.

During the late 1970s, a group of women in Argentina started a non-violent protest in the capital plaza to highlight the brutality of the military regime. Known as the Mothers of the Disappeared, they were mothers of those who had been tortured and killed by death squads at the direction of the country’s dictator. They would gather and hold up placards with the words of Scripture, offering a message of love in the face of violent oppression. While they were driven out, they played a major role in highlighting the abuses taking place in their country. This is the kind of division that Jesus brings, a division of love.

So, the gospel is a gospel of peace, but preaching it and living it doesn’t always bring peace. Again, unconditional love and the grace of forgiveness are divisive for those who don’t embrace such values. When you stand up for justice there will always be people who want to tear you down. Ask the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Ask Martin Luther King. Ask the Mothers of the Disappeared. There is a cost to living out a gospel life in the world. And when you live a life dedicated to Jesus’ way of love, you will at times be reviled for it. People will wonder why you waste your time going to church. Or why you won’t just let it go when someone makes a racist joke. Or why you give your money to causes they don’t think will make a difference. And suddenly, your living a gospel life brings, if not full-on division, at least tension with others in your lives. Friends or family members, neighbors or colleagues. This is the cost of discipleship, the cost of baptism. And we all pay it, if we follow the way of Jesus, if we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” But it is division rooted in love. Division that demands justice. Division that transforms lives.

6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 17, 2022 (Proper 11, Year C)

I am not a great cook. Despite the fact that my mother wrote a cook book, I just didn’t inherit her culinary skills. Or interest. Of course, like any good suburban dad, I can barbecue. Obviously. But in the actual kitchen, I am a paragon of mediocrity. 

I am, however, an amazing dish washer. Plates, bowls, wine glasses; you use it, I’ll happily scrub it clean. Bryna complains that I sometimes start washing the dishes before everyone’s even done eating. Which I will grudgingly admit to doing. Occasionally. Not when company’s over, usually, but maybe at a random Wednesday night family meal.

The problem with jumping up to do the dishes is that you can miss the point of gathering around the table. It’s partly for bodily nourishment but it’s also about building and maintaining relationships. And when we focus too much on the mechanics of the meal and its aftermath, the bigger picture gets subsumed by minutiae.

And thus we come to Mary and Martha. Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. And Martha who was distracted by her many tasks. And through these two women, we encounter the interplay between doing and being, of racing around and sitting still, of action and contemplation. And it is an interplay rather than an either/or proposition. There may occasionally be tension between the two sides, but we need both to fully function in the world. We need to sit still and listen to Jesus, and we need to get things done.

Now, it’s easy to turn Martha into a caricature. The silly woman who idly runs around while Mary literally sits at Jesus’ feet. But to do so fails to recognize that doing and being aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Some of the great contemplatives in Christian history were also activists who got things done. Jesus himself often went away to recharge and pray before coming back down from the mountaintop to change the world. 

And just because Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, that’s not to dismiss Martha’s role. Food does need to be served, dishes do need to be done, people do need to be attended to. You just can’t get so wrapped up in the logistics that you miss the relationships.

And as long as we’re reimagining Martha, it’s important to note that the gift of Christian hospitality isn’t some add-on virtue. It’s at the heart of who we are as people of faith. Welcoming, inviting, connecting people to the community. When we do that well and with intention, not only is Christ served, but the community becomes more Christ-like. Jesus himself says he came not to be served but to serve. He lifts up the importance of welcoming strangers. He praises those who show hospitality to the poor and downtrodden. Martha’s role matters. And as we hear at the beginning of this passage, “Martha welcomed Jesus into her home.”

There are two details in this story that make it both radical and boundary-busting. The first is that very line about Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. It was very unusual that a woman in Ancient Palestine would be identified as a homeowner and the head of a household. A woman would be found serving and cooking and doing the dishes, sure, but welcoming a man who was not a family member into her own home was nearly unheard of. Certainly it would have carried the hint of scandal. 

And the second detail is the fact that Mary is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet. That was the traditional posture for male students learning from a teacher, for disciples seeking wisdom from a master. Having Mary in the role of a disciple shows just how much Jesus was willing to overturn cultural norms and expected roles in order to usher in the kingdom of God. So women in the role of homeownership and discipleship was a bold statement of equity and justice.

It’s true that Christian hospitality is about service and welcome. This is why coffee hour is such an important ministry of the church. It’s not just about, and this pains me to admit, but it’s not just about the coffee. Coffee hour builds community one cup at a time. It is the informal and non-sacramental extension of what happens around the altar. Sunday mornings offer a moveable feast from in here to in there, from the chalice to the mug. It is relational and interactive. It’s like the Peace, but with donuts and a little more room to maneuver.

And it’s why the people who bring things to eat and help set up and stay to help clean up are engaged in a holy, if unsung, ministry. It is the ministry of Martha. Bringing food to share or clearing away coffee mugs is an embodiment of Christian hospitality, no less important in this community than serving as a chalice bearer or reading God’s word. We don’t always think about it as such but it is a high calling, one that builds community and binds us one to another in God’s name. 

So Jesus’ point is not to denigrate Martha or minimize the importance of her tasks. Rather, it’s to remind us of what truly matters in the life of faith. And that is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to be in his presence, to worship him, to be his disciple. That, above all else is what gives us the strength to do the work we have been given to do. To welcome the stranger and show hospitality to the poor, to open our hearts to those in need and show compassion to others. Our lives must be a blend of contemplation and action, a blend of Mary and Martha.

And I think that’s the broader point. Jesus encourages us to both sit at his feet and be about his business. There are times and seasons where we find ourselves on one end of the spectrum more than the other. But eventually, if we’re intentional about it, we course correct. We pray more or we serve more. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to faith but we’re all collectively on this journey. Which is why worshiping together matters, and why serving together matters. 

Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan. And if Mary and Martha serve as the two-sided coin of discipleship, of contemplation and action, then the Good Samaritan and this story act as the two sides of the greatest commandment and the very heart of our faith: to love God and love neighbor. The Good Samaritan reveals how we are to love neighbor and Mary demonstrates what it means to love God. And so Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha isn’t meant to diminish the ministry of service, but rather to highlight the balance of loving God and loving neighbor. You can’t do one without the other.

It also stands as an important reminder about the reason we do things like serve on church committees or bring things to coffee hour or engage in outreach programs like B-SAFE or ASP or Laundry Love. We do this first and foremost to serve God. Sometimes we forget, or if not forget, get distracted by our many tasks and neglect to ground all that we do in prayer. It’s all about staying grounded in God. That’s Jesus’ reminder to Martha. And it’s Martha’s reminder to us.

So, like Martha I may sometimes spend too much energy on the dishes when I should be listening to Jesus. But this story of Mary and Martha always brings me back to what really matters. And I hope it does the same for you.

5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 10, 2022 (Proper 10, Year C)

“Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Thus begins the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. And I don’t know about you but when I hear this, my mind immediately goes to lawyer jokes and ambulance chasers. I hear “lawyer” and all I can think about is Better Call Saul

But this isn’t the litigious legal profession we’ve all come to know and love. This lawyer wasn’t some tax attorney or corporate lawyer. He’s not an assistant state’s attorney or a defense lawyer. The lawyer who stood up to test Jesus was an expert in the Torah. He studied the law of Moses and looked to it for interpretations of religious law. There were no billable hours involved here. Rather he played an important role in the community and was respected for his ability to decipher complex legal questions. 

“Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” That word “test” signals that this wasn’t the most earnest exchange. More like the lawyer was trying to trip Jesus up, catch him in his words, make him look like a fool. Because if you see yourself as a gatekeeper to the law, and along comes a seemingly un-credentialed teacher spouting new interpretations, it’s in your best interest to discredit him. To take him down a peg or two.

The lawyer starts innocently enough, asking Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life. That’s a fair question, kind of a softball. And Jesus points him back to Scripture. To the obvious answer that in order to inherit eternal life you simply have to love God and love neighbor.

But here’s where it gets murky. The lawyer asks Jesus, ‘and who is my neighbor?’ And through this follow-up question, I think he was really trying to narrow the definition of “neighbor.” He was seeking a loophole to limit just how generous and compassionate people of faith were expected to be. I mean, you can’t be a neighbor to everyone — that’s just not practical. It’s fine to help some people out, but there must be limits, right? The lawyer was looking to find the bare minimum that one must do in order to “inherit eternal life.”

Of course, Jesus doesn’t traffic in bare minimums or strict legal interpretations of compassion. Jesus broadens rather than limits, he expands rather than constricts, he opens hearts rather than closes them. And he explains all this not by citing statutes or delving into legal minutia, but by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. When the law says “love your neighbor,” as a symbol of radical inclusion, the natural next question for anyone who wants to limit the scope is indeed to ask, “and who is my neighbor?” Because then we can start excluding people — people who don’t look like me or act like me or think like me.

The story Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s question is powerful on its own — often our takeaway is to be kind to strangers. But in order to really comprehend its power, it’s important to note just how jarring this would have been to its original hearers. The first two people who pass by the injured man, the priest and the Levite, would normally be the heroes of such a story. They were the good guys! The respected members of society, the leaders, the establishment, the ones expected to make wise decisions, the ones who were the most faithful and Law-abiding citizens of anyone in the community. And they don’t come across very well. The good guys are decidedly indifferent, even sinful in their lack of compassion shown to the man left on the side of the road. 

Now, they had their reasons. They were busy and important; there were ritual purity laws to consider. Of course, we see that legalistic interpretations that transcend grace aren’t very holy. But it all falls to a Samaritan, an anti-hero, to do the right thing. To act with compassion. To demonstrate what it means to love one’s neighbor; to truly love one’s neighbor in a way without boundaries or limitations.

To those who heard this story, the phrase “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Jews and Samaritans had a long history of enmity. They saw each other as religious heretics; their armies had battled; they wanted nothing to do with one another. So the identities of those involved in the parable matter. It’s what makes this such a radical story. It would still be a nice lesson about compassion if we didn’t know the nationalities or religious affiliations of those involved. But we do. And the fact that Samaritans and Jews hated each other is what packs the parabolic punch; especially as the original audience, like Jesus himself, was Jewish.

So this is a well-loved story, but when we really examine it, it’s also convicting. We, too, like to see ourselves as the hero of the story. We can all think about a time we helped a stranger. Maybe we called 911 after witnessing an accident or gave someone a couple bucks on the street. And it made us feel great! But I bet we can think of even more times when we failed to help someone in need. When we passed them by. I know I can. The truth is, we spend more of our lives as the priest and the Levite, rather than as the Good Samaritan. That doesn’t make us bad people. It just shows that we can always do more and serve more and care more than we do. When we open our eyes and our hearts, there are always more neighbors out there.

Which is why this story is also one of the most challenging parables of Jesus. It demands much of us. It forces us to think beyond our small circle of family and friends. It broadens the definition of a neighbor to include the entire world. And that’s hard to wrap our minds around. Especially in a world that feels so divided, where vilification rather than compassion rules the news cycle and impacts our daily interactions.

No one ever said following Jesus was an easy path. It continually takes us out of our comfort zones and challenges us to expand our hearts, making room for those we’d frankly rather not. But that’s the Christian life. Standing up for what is right and offering compassion to everyone we encounter on the journey. And who is my neighbor? It’s the entire world.

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 19, 2022 (Proper 7, Year C)

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Actually, we don’t have a problem — I don’t think. But the famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke popped into my head as I was reflecting on this passage from Luke’s gospel. In it we hear the story of the man known as the Gerasene demoniac. It’s a pretty intense story of a demon-possessed man — the ultimate hard case — whose life is transformed by his encounter with Jesus.

As the story unfolds, we become immediately aware that the whole context of Jesus’ ministry has changed. Jesus has crossed over into Gentile territory and everything just feels different. In the early healing stories we get what I like to call Jesus’ rock star phase. He wanders around towns and villages with his entourage of disciples getting mobbed by throngs of people seeking his healing touch. People go to great lengths to get a glimpse of this new teacher — they lower sick friends through roofs, they crowd around houses where he’s eating dinner, they climb trees to see him, they reach out and grab the hem of his robe. People go to extraordinary lengths for a brief encounter with Jesus.

But here, Jesus enters a desolate region alone. The crowds are gone and the people he does meet want nothing to do with him; he is an uninvited guest in unfamiliar territory. He’s gone from a fertile land with crowds of people primed to hear his message, to an unforgiving landscape full of unreceptive and skeptical people. 

What does it mean that Jesus crosses over to unfamiliar territory? Well, at one level it’s a sign that Jesus’ message of healing and salvation isn’t limited to a particular group or a particular region. Sharing his message with Gentiles, those considered unclean outsiders, is a powerful statement that Jesus came into the world to save everyone, not just a select few. There truly is a wideness in God’s mercy. 

The same author who wrote the gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. And so we see that this one lone Gentile disciple, the healed demoniac, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in Gentile territory. In Acts, we learn how St. Paul became an apostle to the Gentiles, carrying Jesus’ message beyond the Jewish communities who first received it. Paul plants churches everywhere, as the Jesus movement spreads throughout the known world. But the mission to the Gentiles had to start somewhere.

But I think there’s also something much more personal that is enacted when Jesus moves to unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we ourselves feel like unfamiliar or unwanted or unlovable territory. At times we feel uncared for and isolated, unlovable and unknown. Yet Jesus crosses over to meet even us in our unvarnished, incomplete, unholy states. Like the townspeople in this unfamiliar territory, we are often unwelcoming to Jesus. Not intentionally, but out of a misguided sense of self-protection. We fail to be vulnerable because we don’t feel worthy of Jesus’ love and compassion. And yet Jesus crosses over to be with us, to comfort us, to love us anyway. And that’s an amazing thing. Whatever we do or fail to do, however we feel or respond to the world, Jesus comes to us. Jesus never fails to make the journey to find us. He never fails to build a bridge to our hearts. Even when we aren’t ready to receive him, even when we feel unworthy to accept his love, he crosses over to meet us.

Now, I am going to get back to Cool Hand Luke. But first let’s focus on this demon-possessed man for a moment. This healing story is remarkable because this man is the most unlikely recipient of healing. He seems like a lost cause. The mother of all lost causes. He yells at Jesus; he rails at Jesus; he snarls at Jesus. He demands to be left alone, mired in isolation and torment. In his nakedness and chains he is stripped of all dignity, excluded from society, the ultimate pariah.

It’s hard to imagine just how isolated he was. Cut off from society, cut off from God, cut off from love. And while we may not be able to fully relate to his circumstances, I think many of us can relate to some of what he’s endured. We’ve all felt isolated at various times in our lives. Times where, whether through particular circumstances or a mental health crisis, we have felt cut off from feeling loved and accepted. Moments when we’ve felt isolated and alone. Times when we’ve felt hopeless and abandoned. If you’ve felt this way or have walked with a loved one during a particularly tough season of life, you know just how debilitating this can be.

It can feel like an emotional version of solitary confinement. You think you’re alone and you think it will never end. Even though you’re never alone and you will get through it. But there’s a reason solitary confinement is the cruelest punishment that can be doled out by a prison warden. It crushes the soul emotionally. Yet this is exactly the position of the Gerasene demoniac. He is objectively cut off from society — physically, emotionally, spiritually. He’s like Paul Newman’s character Luke Johnson when he gets sent to the box in Cool Hand Luke — it’s dark, it’s sweltering, it’s terrifying.

But with Jesus there are no lost causes. There’s no solitary confinement. And I, for one, find great hope and comfort in that. Because no matter how unlovable I feel at times, no matter how unworthy I feel at times, Jesus crosses over the self-imposed barriers I put up and offers his healing touch. And he does that for each one of us.

Among other religious symbolism in Cool Hand Luke, there’s one easy-to-miss subtlety. Luke Johnson’s prisoner number is 37. And Luke 1:37 tells us that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Not even healing the hardest of hard cases. Not even healing you and me when we feel isolated and alone. Nothing will be impossible with God. And that is an important message, perhaps the most important message; one that we can never fail to communicate.

Trinity Sunday 2022

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 12, 2022 (Trinity Sunday, Year C)

Few things make me feel older and sound crankier than when I talk about the playgrounds of my youth. Parents today would never let their children play on them. The metal slides would scorch your exposed skin, the seesaws would fly away and catch you under the chin, and like many people my age, I have a small scar on my face from that time I walked too close to the swing set. But my favorite piece of playground equipment was that circular metal apparatus that you’d run alongside to make go as fast as possible before grabbing a metal handle and hopping on. I don’t even know what it was called — I think we referred to it as the whirly gig — but I do remember occasionally slipping off and biting the dust, especially if the older kids were controlling the speed.

For some reason, Trinity Sunday made me think about this particular piece of playground equipment. The Trinity is ultimately about love. That dynamic interplay between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is a divine dance of love into which we are invited. But there’s also a circular nature to this whole concept, which is why I thought about that old-time piece of playground equipment. It’s not a perfect analogy, since God doesn’t send us sprawling into the dirt. But the loving circle that is the fullness of God draws us in and then sends us out to share that love with others. And that never-ending circle of love goes round and round.

Now, we’re good at over-analyzing the doctrine of the Trinity. It is as complex and unknowable as it is simple and comprehensible. That’s the great paradox of this day. You can’t exactly put a holy mystery into a well-defined box. And yet to revel in the great gift of the fullness of God, rather than feebly attempting to parse it all out, is the point of this day. As a friend of mine once put it, “To use this day to delve into theological teaching would be a bit like going to a wedding and offering a scientific explanation of what might be happening in our brains when we experience love.” 

In the end, like most things surrounding our faith, the Trinity all comes down to love. We are loved and so we share that love with others. Because if the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t encourage us to reach out our hands in love, then what’s the point, really? Why bother with the gallons and gallons of ink that have been spilled to help us make sense of the whole thing? 

I often like to remind people that the life of faith is not rocket science. It can be distilled down to two things: love God and love neighbor. And I think the Trinity falls under this formula as well, or at least our response to it. We love God because God loves us, and we love neighbor because, again, God loves us. That’s the essence of why the Trinity matters. This circular argument is not just dusty doctrine, but a dynamic life force. Animating our actions towards God and one another. Inspiring us to live and love as God loves us. 

You know, just about one year ago, we held our first in-person service after being exclusively online for 62 straight weeks. We continue to live into what it means to regather as a community of faith and we may well continue this process over the coming months and years. This has never been like a light switch where we hit the button and suddenly everything goes back to pre-pandemic levels. This is a process, full of signposts of hope along the way; full of extended invitations. Holding our first Summerfest in three years is one of those signs of hope. Hearing laughter and music and smelling barbecue and tasting ice cream are all signs of hope in a world, in a community, that so desperately craves such signs. 

The ultimate sign of hope is that we continue to worship the fullness of God, as held out before us in the Trinity, as we have throughout this pandemic. The fullness of God holds out to us hope and healing, renewal and inspiration. That’s why we continue to gather, whether that’s online or in person, indoors or outdoors, wearing masks or not. This hasn’t been easy, but as a parish  community we have been faithful, even when it’s been hard. Especially when it’s been hard. 

These are all signs of the Trinity in our midst. This dynamic life force that transcends the mere mechanics of divinity. The community of faith that includes each one of us. We are signs of God’s fullness in the world. We are signs of the Trinity.

I don’t know whether my circular playground analogy helped draw you into the divine mystery of the Trinity. But hopefully it was more helpful than my back up plan of a tire swing being held up by three ropes. Remember those? 

But the main point here is that the fullest expression of God is not about arcane or complex theological language. It’s not about some new-fangled math that claims three is really one. The fullest expression of God is simply this: that God is love. That’s the essence of God’s fullest expression. And that’s what the Trinity is all about.