Third Sunday of Advent 2016

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2016 (III Advent, Year A)

What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday we encountered a very different John the Baptist. We met him on the banks of the Jordan River and he was loud and large and very much in charge as he brought his message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to the crowds that had gathered to witness this spectacle of religious fervor. He was self-assured as he claimed his Forerunner status by pointing away from himself and towards the one who was to come — the Messiah, the one who’s sandal he felt unworthy to untie, the one who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

We encounter a very different John this morning. Gone are the crowds and the river and img-01-0fb197ef-f4d0-43a9-8192-632a321449efthe self-confidence. He’s been unceremoniously tossed into prison and his booming voice has been reduced to a whisper as he asks Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

So often bluster masks insecurity or uncertainty. That’s certainly the case with playground bullies. The book on bullies is the moment you stand up to them, they back down, revealing cracks in the facade. That so much of a bully’s persona is built on inner turmoil posing as outer intimidation.

And, not to psychoanalyze John the Baptist, but I don’t think that’s the case here. John is not a religious bully intent on getting his way. He’s not pointing to himself, after all. He’s simply passionate about his message and his calling as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. So this moment of questioning doesn’t make John’s ministry any less authentic. If anything it makes this traditional Advent figure even more real for us. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There’s a spiritual vulnerability here to which most of us can relate.

At least if we’re honest with ourselves. Because we spend an awful lot of time and energy tamping down our own spiritual uncertainty. It’s easy to mask our doubts about the entire Christmas story, including the theological crux of God entering the world in human form, with all the rushing around we do this time of year. The lists, the sales, the cards, the parties, the general din of December that keeps beating at an increasingly-fevered pitch like a stress-inducing holiday soundtrack.

We may despise and denounce this seasonal anxiety and yet we also seemingly can’t do without it. We complain about the stress of it all, but we don’t actually do anything to stop it. Which is why the season of Advent is so important both to our spiritual and emotional health. It allows us to cut through the noise and focus on what really matters. And what really matters is the spiritual preparation that allows us to welcome the Christ-child into our hearts anew at Christmas.

Now, part of this time of Advent is spent in expectation — we expect the arrival of Jesus at a manger in Bethlehem; we expect to come to church during Advent to hear about John the Baptist and Mary and readings from the prophet Isaiah; we expect to be slightly frazzled as the shopping days until Christmas dwindle; we expect there will be presents under the tree on Christmas Day.

Expectations, of course, don’t always exactly line up with reality. The time of John the Baptist was also ripe with expectation. It was less about expecting packages from Amazon and more about the expectations of what kind of reign the arrival of God’s Messiah would usher in. Different groups had different expectations. Some were met, others were left unfulfilled. But everyone who anticipated a savior had different hopes and dreams and expectations.

For some, it was the expectation of a military messiah who would arrive on a white steed and drive out the Roman oppressors. For those choked by the yoke of political, economic, and societal oppression, there was tremendous hope wrapped up in such a savior. Things were bad now, but once the messiah arrived, well, things would instantly change. We’d finally be in charge and the roles would be reversed. We’d be on top and those who did us wrong would pay the price.

It’s understandable, frankly. If you were treated as a second class citizen for so long, you, too would revel in the idea of radical retribution.

And there was certainly some of this in John the Baptist’s approach. As the one who boldly proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah, we heard him announce that while he was baptizing with water, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. For those expecting a certain type of savior, you can see John’s words only affirming their unfolding vision of an avenging savior arriving from on high with a flaming sword ready to do battle with the forces of evil.

And what we get instead is a vulnerable infant lying in a feeding trough. So we begin to see that our expectations don’t always meet with God’s reality; that human expectations are so often subverted by divine reality.

And this morning we encounter not a John the Baptist full of bluster and evangelical fervor but a hesitant, imprisoned, vulnerable, confused shell of a man. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, has my whole life’s work been in vain?

This is the Baptist’s Doubting Thomas moment. He seeks assurance and verification about Jesus’ true identity. He’s pretty sure, but just needs to hear it from the Messiah’s mouth. And again, Jesus shifts the expectations. As his humble birth would indicate, his reign is a different kind of kingdom than many expected. His is a rule not based on weapons but mercy; not based on the sword but peace; not based on an iron fist but the gentle hand of God.

And Jesus sends word back to John that echoes with the prophetic voice of Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Yes, the kingdom of God is at hand; no, these may not be the signs you or anyone else were expecting. But these are the signs and wonders of a seismic shift in perspective and expectation. This kingdom is about lifting up the lowly and proclaiming hope to the poor and offering wholeness and salvation to all God’s people rather than a select few. It is about love and justice and peace and things broken being made whole.

And even now our Advent expectations and hopes are placed on the ultimate fulfillment of these kingdom promises. Even amid the waiting for Christmas that is the hallmark of this season, we are not waiting for another. Like John the Baptist, we have met the one who is to come and his name is Jesus. His yoke may be gentle but we still must intentionally reach for it and place it upon our shoulders as a mantle of relationship. Only then will our human expectations meet divine reality. Only then will the long-expected promise be fulfilled. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016


Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 12, 2015 (Proper 10, Year B)

Kids don’t seem to play the classic Parker Brothers game Monopoly much these days. I mean, I remember some epic family battles growing up; games that would last for days. Which may be part of the reason it’s not as popular anymore. In a world of instant results, it takes time to build up your monopolies, buy all the railroads, and slowly suck your friends and family dry. Or maybe the recent mortgage crisis has made the whole concept a bit too real for adults. But whatever the reason, it’s no longer common to walk into a neighbor’s house and see an in-progress Monopoly game on the dining room table waiting to be completed later that evening.

CHANCEOne of the best things about those highly competitive Monopoly games was drawing the coveted Get Out of Jail Free card. You didn’t need it then, but eventually and inevitably it would come in handy. And there was nothing quite like the sweet freedom of tossing that card down on the table right after being told to go directly to jail without passing go and without collecting $200.

Now, I’m sure John the Baptist would have loved a Get Out of Jail Free card to present to King Herod as he rotted away in the royal dungeon. He ended up there not for going out into the wilderness, standing in the River Jordan, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That might have annoyed the powers that be but he was generally seen as little more than a nuisance. As long as he kept his crazy out in the boonies he could be ignored as just another fringe religious figure — the original Jesus freak.

John ran into trouble, though, when he took his act to the palace. The Baptist pointed out to Herod — in his inimitable loud, bold, unrepentant manner — that in marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, in defiance of the Law of Moses, the king and queen were living in a state of sin.

You see, John had this little character flaw of needing to speak truth to power. It comes with being formed in the image of an archetypical Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Amos, who we also hear about this morning. There are some strong parallels between Amos, who in his day had chastised King Jeroboam for being a corrupt and faithless king, and John. And we see again and again that standing up to princes and principalities is not for the faint of heart. Bringing God’s word to powerful people who are unwilling or unable to change their ways can get you exiled or reviled or killed.

Unfortunately John the Baptist never did draw that Get Out of Jail free card. And in this gruesome tale of his beheading, the whole notion of freedom and imprisonment becomes twisted as the virtues and vices of human nature play out.

Let’s take a quick look at the players and the scenario involved here. There are three main actors in this drama — Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius; his wife Herodias, who had previously been married to and divorced from Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist, whose arrest at the end of the first chapter of Mark was the last we heard of him. There’s also Herod’s young daughter, called Salome, but she’s a mere pawn in the action.

Now, Herod, who we hear admired John as a holy and righteous man, threw him into prison for criticizing his marriage and defaming his reputation rather than killing him. It was the perfect compromise for a weak, insecure man: John was silenced publicly, his wife was placated, and whatever conscience Herod himself had was satisfied. Brilliant! Except for one problem — Herodias held a grudge. A major, nasty, blood curdling grudge.

So she bided her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge. And Bernardino-Luini-Salome-with-the-Head-of-Saint-John-the-Baptist-not-dated-painting-artwork-printeventually it came at a fancy state dinner; actually Herod’s own birthday party. Salome famously danced to the pleasure of the king and his guests in what has become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils in both Richard Strauss’ operatic version of the story and Oscar Wilde’s play. Herod publicly and foolishly and perhaps lecherously promised Salome whatever she wanted in return and, after consulting her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

In the precise moment that her daughter came to her, Herodias seized that Get Out of Jail Free card and played it with venomous glee, triumphantly tossing it onto the banquet table. And Herod was backed into a corner; if he refused to keep his promise, he would lose credibility, and worse, failing to keep an oath was akin to taking God’s name in vain. Evidently that was less distasteful to the king than killing an innocent man.

Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean Get Out of Jail Free card? Herodias wasn’t the one in jail!” But here’s the thing. This venomous woman finally saw her chance to be freed from the only real threat to her power and status — God’s judgment in the person of God’s prophet, this man called John the Baptist.

So, ironically it was John, jailed and beheaded, who was truly free. Free by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ. And it was Herodias, enjoying all the royal benefits of queenship who was truly imprisoned. Imprisoned by her sinfulness. Imprisoned by her guilt. Imprisoned by her rage. Imprisoned by her thirst for selfish ambition. And again, we see that the deep truths of life don’t always reside on the surface; that they are not always visible to the naked eye. That the reality of God’s realm does not always reflect the limited human interpretation of events.

And what we ultimately learn from this story is that violence never trumps faith; that evil cannot conquer love — something the power of the cross teaches us in no uncertain terms. Beheading, crucifixion. Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even death.

And we see that Jesus is that Get Out of Jail Free card. Not because grace is cheap or easy but because it is freely offered to those who repent and pursue true amendment of life. It is offered to you and to me and, yes, even to Herodias. But we have to say “yes” to it. We have to admit our wrongdoing and open our hearts to the gift of a loving God.

This is a tough story to think about. It’s a tough story to preach on. No one’s turning it into a Church School pageant. But confronting the realities of evil in the world and offering an alternative is part of our calling as a community of faith. There is another way. And it runs straight from the pain of the cross and sword directly to the triumph of resurrection glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Third Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 14, 2014 (Advent III, Year B)

If John the Baptist was born a couple millennia later, we all know what he’d do when the long-anticipated Messiah finally showed up along the banks of the River Jordan: he’d take a selfie with Jesus and post it to Twitter. Hashtag #theonewhoistocome. And it would go viral.

john-the-baptist-bearing-witness-by-caracciThe image is absurd, of course, precisely because John continues to be a counter-cultural figure. Yes, he cuts through all the external trimmings and trappings of the Christmas-Industrial Complex to get right to the heart of the season. But in this age of selfies and self-promotion, John the Baptist again does the unthinkable — he points not to himself but to another. He draws the attention away from himself and places it firmly on the one who is to come: the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.

And that stands out for most of us since we humans are, by nature, a rather self-centered lot. Technology doesn’t help — and in full disclosure I did take a selfie with Santa last week and put it on Twitter. But the selfie culture simply highlights and makes visible our own unflattering tendencies. I mean, be honest, how many of you, since arriving in your pew this morning, have thought about things you need to get done later today or this week or before Christmas? That’s not a terrible thing — we’re all striving to be productive and we have stuff to do. But even when we intentionally set aside time to reflect on life beyond the visible world, we often have trouble being fully present.

Or how many of you have checked your phones since entering this sacred space? I haven’t, mostly because it would be embarrassing if I got caught. Which is why I never bring my iPhone into worship — lead us not into temptation and all that.

And I imagine it would have been tempting for John to get caught up in the moment here. His presence and actions had attracted a large crowd and a lesser person couldn’t help but say to himself, “Look at all these people who have come out into the wilderness to check me out.” What preacher doesn’t get jazzed by a larger than usual audience? Especially one who’s been plying his trade in relative anonymity. And then suddenly a big crowd gathers — granted with a mix of motivations. Some have come with open hearts and minds, some have come out of curiosity to gawk at the spectacle of the popular preacher du jour, and some like the ones in this encounter have come to look for heresy in order to condemn and discredit.

But John doesn’t want to talk about himself; he wants to talk about Jesus. You know when you go to a dinner party and get seated next to someone who only wants to talk about him or herself? Someone who not once asks anything about your life but continues on in a mind-numbing monologue? John the Baptist is the opposite of that dinner guest. Because it’s not all about John, it’s all about Jesus.

Of course if you sit down at a dinner party and the person next to you oj and m selfienly wants to talk about Jesus, that’s a whole other issue. And it’s true that when I walk into a crowded coffee shop and can’t find a table, all I have to do to get one is go up to another patron and ask if they’d like to talk about Jesus. But that’s not the point here.

The point is, we could all stand to point away from ourselves more often than we do. It’s not all about us. Ever. Even though we so often act as if it is — in our self-centeredness, our inward focus, our fear of looking foolish. Ultimately, it is all about Jesus Christ. So John brings that ever important gift of perspective. He models for us a way of thinking beyond ourselves. And he does this simply by living into his calling as the one who prepares the way for the one who is to come.

There’s a word for what John is showing us here: humility. I think our culture sometimes views genuine humility as a sign of weakness. To be humble is seen as subjugating the fullness of your unique personality or allowing someone to run roughshod over you. Yet John offers us a model of faithful humility that isn’t weak or groveling. There was certainly nothing timid or faint-hearted about John the Baptist. At all.

But this single-minded devotion to his task as the preparer of the way, didn’t depend on how many or how few people came out to listen to him. Even if he was literally a voice of one crying in the wilderness, he would have gone about his calling with passion and conviction. Yes, you can fully be yourself, in all your unique glory, even as you point to Jesus as the source of all life.

But still, those who gathered to witness him preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, were certainly confused about his identity. And they start peppering him with questions, the upshot of which is ‘Who are you?’ Followed by ‘Who do you think you are?’

The indignant ones questioning John’s credentials were part of the religious establishment and they were none too pleased about this extra-curricular activity happening out in the boonies. Yes, there was general hope that the messiah would show up but surely the ones wearing the fancy robes would be the first to hear of it. Not some locust-eating crazy guy in the wilderness. But then God rarely does things by the book (well, besides the Bible).

So who was this man we know as the Forerunner of the messiah? In John’s gospel we hear a lot about who he was not. In these few verses we hear that John is not the light, not the messiah, not Elijah, not Moses. It’s almost a comical exchange as John keeps saying “no” over and over again. But then a picture begins to emerge. John is a witness. John is a testifier. John is a voice. In some ways he’s like a giant neon arrow pointing to Jesus; a spiritual road sign pointing the way.

And we do well to follow John’s direction. Because when we do, two things happen. We’re reminded that we’re not actually the center of the universe. And we begin to move our inward focus out to other people. This is what makes following Jesus possible. And when we do so, we can’t help but have compassion for those in need. For the poor and downtrodden, the hungry and oppressed, the homeless and voiceless.

John reminds us to see things from above, not just from our own limited perspective. He reminds us to turn our lenses outward, to move beyond ourselves, to view the world with compassion, to see everyone around us as a fellow child of God. Which is hard to do when we’re taking literal or metaphorical selfies all the time.

As the light continues to build on the Advent wreath, I encourage you to tune in to John’s voice crying out in the wilderness, let it reorient you, and I promise you will be drawn ever closer to the messiah.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 7, 2014 (Advent II, Year B)

There’s an old axiom used in the military known as the Five P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Actually in some circles it was known as the Six P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. But the basic premise is that preparation is important. If you want to achieve excellence or reach your full potential, you must first do the hard work of preparation. There are no shortcuts or easy answers.

I was reminded of the 5 P’s as I was preparing this sermon on one of the major themes of the Advent season: preparing. We’re bid to be ready, to stay alert, to keep awake, to be prepared.

untitledSo how are your preparations going? Just look around town — people are awfully busy. If an alien suddenly dropped into our midst, from the moment he stepped out of his UFO, he couldn’t help but notice the flurry of activity and sense that something major was about to happen. We’re stringing lights, tying Christmas trees to the tops of cars, methodically placing white lights in all our windows — for fear of reprisals from the Hingham Christmas police, shopping — online and at stores, wrapping presents, hanging ornaments, baking cookies, writing Christmas cards, polishing silver, sending out invitations, cleaning the house, putting up garland. And if you haven’t started yet, well, get cracking — there are already two candles lit on the Advent wreath!

These are all outward and visible signs of how we prepare for Christmas. And from a global perspective, we must all look a bit like the Whos down in Whoville “who liked Christmas a lot,” scurrying around getting things ready, preparing for the big day.

But how is your interior preparation going? How are you preparing not just for the coming of Christmas Day but for the coming of Jesus Christ? That’s often a more difficult question to answer. You don’t see people racing around to get to an Advent retreat down at the convent in Duxbury or rearranging their schedules around their prayer lives or stressing out about making time to listen to Handel’s Messiah.

But when it comes to the preparation of our souls, we do have some help. John the Baptist always shows up this time of year to remind us, in his inimitable way, of what really matters here. And, believe it or not, it’s not large inflatable snowmen (which, again, would warrant a visit from the Hingham Christmas police).

One of the reasons I love the Baptist’s presence during Advent is his unique ability to cut johntbthrough all the exterior trappings and get right to the heart of the matter. That’s not to say that all our yuletide preparations aren’t important. They are. But they’re meaningful only when they’re connected to the broader context of the season. And when John shows up channeling an Old Testament prophet in his camel hair clothes and leather belt with locusts and wild honey stuck in his unruly beard, you can’t help but take notice.

Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John the Baptist is God’s Preparer in Chief. And the message is simple: repent. Get down on your knees and ask for forgiveness. Clean out your soul and make room for God. That’s how we engage in spiritual preparation — by un-cluttering and unburdening our souls to make room to receive God in a new way.

Of course, this means thinking about things we’d rather avoid. Things that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is never easy. It involves a turning of the heart and an acknowledgment that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But as the Forerunner of Jesus, as the Preparer of the Way, John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And he makes it very clear that this repentance is precisely what prepares us to accept the offer of salvation that is to come.

When we truly and authentically engage the season, we realize Advent is not a comfortable season in the conventional sense. When we hear God say through Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” the comfort isn’t about lounging in a Laz-y-Boy recliner in front of a roaring fire while sipping 18-year-old single malt Scotch. That’s a fine thing and perhaps after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I’ll do just that. But we don’t talk about comfort when things are going well. We deeply crave comfort when things are broken and falling apart. It’s into this dis-comfort in our world and in our hearts that God offers true comfort.

So for those of us fortunate enough to live in communities like the ones on the South Shore, it’s not enough to sit in our beautiful churches with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. For Christians, Advent means so much more. Because preparing to meet Jesus is not always easy. We will be asked about what we’ve done to comfort others. About what we’ve done to change a society where racism and injustice continue to run rampant; where the inequality between rich and poor is staggering; where addiction and violence are so prevalent. And I know that I, for one, often come up short.

Now, we may not want to hear this “intrusion” into our seasonal preparations. But then again Advent is not all peppermint lattes and gingerbread. It’s about preparing to meet Jesus anew both at the manger and in our everyday lives.

The good news is that God, too, is preparing. And thus the Baptist is charged with getting things ready. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.”

There’s an urgency to this preparation. And God’s urgency is an urgency of love for each one of us. John the Baptist prepares, we repent, and Jesus arrives in order to bring salvation to the whole world. To comfort the poor and marginalized, to inspire in us a passion for justice, to reconcile us to God, and to bring peace both to our hearts and to all of humanity. That’s the urgency. That’s why the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low — so that God can make a bee line to your very soul.

As faithful Episcopalians know, we don’t sing Christmas carols during Advent. This sometimes comes as a surprise to visitors who show up in December expecting to hear Christmas music. It’s not that we’re particularly grinchy, it’s just part of our spiritual preparation to say, “wait, the celebration is coming, but not quite yet.” So while you’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve to sing “Joy to the World,” there is a line in there that speaks to what we’ve been talking about this morning. In the first verse we sing “let every heart prepare him room.” Which doesn’t mean to change the sheets and put out fresh towels in the guest room. It means opening your heart to let Jesus in; to make space for God in your life.

That’s my prayer for you this season and for all of us. That we will prepare for the coming of Christ not just externally but also where it truly matters; in the very depths of our souls.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck