Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 27, 2014 (Proper 12, Year A)

As a young parent there’s nothing quite like dropping your infant off for the first time at daycare and hearing blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams as you walk out the door. To that point you’d been a pretty good parent. Attentive, loving, doting even; you spent over an hour figuring out how to properly install the car seat; you stayed up all night when he had that terrible virus and you encountered bodily fluids you never even knew existed. You’d experienced depths of love you couldn’t have imagined before you had this child.

But all of this is washed away the moment you hand your child over to a stranger for theimages first time and walk away. You feel like you’ve just sold your first born for a pittance. And yet wracked with guilt, you walk out anyway with guttural screams of abandonment ringing in your ears.

There’s a phrase for this: separation anxiety. But it’s never really clear who’s suffering from it more acutely — you or your child. Because everybody at the daycare center knows that the child will stop screaming at the precise moment you’re out of ear shot. He’ll settle down and have a great day. But even so, for those brief moments, a child does experience the sheer terror of abandonment — and lets everyone within a five-mile radius know about it. At one level this is perfectly understandable — his or her entire world has literally just walked away; everything that’s familiar and comforting has, like Elvis, left the building. (Hopefully this hasn’t been your experience with the nursery here at St. John’s, by the way).

But while we may not kick and scream and pitch a fit when we’re separated from people or things we care about, we are all still subject to separation anxiety at various points in our lives. The end of a relationship, graduation, loss of a job, an empty nest, downsizing to a smaller home, the death of a loved one. These all lead to forms of separation anxiety and at the heart of separation anxiety is fear. Fear that we will never be reunited with something or someone we care about. Fear of abandonment. Fear of the unfamiliar. Fear of change. Fear that things will never be the same.

A lot of what fuels our actions in life is the avoidance of separation anxiety. We hunker down or fail to take risks or live in fear of what others will think. And that’s really no way to exist because it sucks the joy right out of your life.

But guess what? We don’t have to live that way. Faith helps us throw off that living paralysis because we have been given the ultimate assurance — that whatever separation we encounter in our lives, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Think about that for a moment. God loves us so much that he sent his only Son into our world not just to hang out or enjoy the fruits of his Father’s creation or to brag about his divinity, but to be hung on a cross. God loves us so much that he sent his Son into our world despite our infidelity and fickleness and foibles. God loves us so much that he literally gave of himself — his own Son.

That’s the power of the incarnation and that’s the power of God’s love for not just humanity in general but for you in particular. And if that doesn’t drive out fear even in the darkest of days, even in weeks where the news brings us a seemingly endless cycle of violence and tragedy, even in moments when we want to give up, I’m not sure what will.

And when we take separation anxiety out of the equation it all points us toward the Kingdom of Heaven. In our gospel passage Jesus rips off five parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in rapid-fire succession. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and a net. Yikes. If he’d loaded all these parables into a Super Soaker we’d emerge from the encounter completely drenched. Granted, Matthew likely lumped all these teachings about the Kingdom into one section — I can’t imagine Jesus stood up and unleashed this torrent of parables on his hearers all at once. And if we were to take them parable by parable we’d be here all day.

But one thing I’ll say about these parables is that they point us to the small things. Like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast, small acts matter. And if you think about it even Jesus started small. He didn’t show up and start building institutions and endowments; he called a single disciple and then another and another and then started telling stories to small groups of people. His message, like that mustard seed, continued to grow but it started on a tiny scale. And even in what I like to call his rock star stage when the crowds were swarming and pushing in on him, it’s important to remember that Jesus was only speaking to a very small region of the world; one he could get to by foot or by boat. Which makes the miracle of the message and the abundance of the Kingdom that much clearer.

And I think this also offers us hope that even when we feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges we, too, can start small in our response. And the kick-starter may just be remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Because if the fear of death is the ultimate driver of separation anxiety — and I believe it is — the good news of the Christian faith is that death no longer has dominion over us. Because whether we live or die, we are alive through faith in Jesus Christ.

And there is such incredible freedom in that isn’t there? I mean just listen to Paul’s words again, words that are often spoken at funerals but really should be read much more often: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And we don’t have to do anything to earn this. Not matter what we do or fail to do, God’s not going to abandon us. God’s not going to leave us to scream it out at daycare. There may be days when we do some screaming, or want to, but God’s not leaving our side. Ever. For eternity. Until the end of the ages. And that, my friends, is the best news of all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck


Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch
Sisters of St. Margaret Convent, Duxbury, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2014

Soon after the sisters moved into their new digs here in Duxbury I was invited by Sister Adele Marie and Sister Carolyn for a tour. Like most people who have had the pleasure of seeing the place, I came away just so impressed by the thought, love, care, and prayer that went into the design. The grounds, the buildings, the presence of the sisters all exude holiness and I love coming down here whenever the opportunity arises.

10518646_324050684424844_2391446240574667474_nI should admit, though, that I’ve become quite the apologist for the sisters on this whole luxury convent on the waterfront thing. Every time I mention “Duxbury” and “convent” in the same sentence I’m always quick to add, “They’ve owned the land since 1908!” We have a tough enough time letting people know we even have nuns in the Episcopal Church and I certainly don’t want people thinking these are exclusive, high-end Episcopal nuns who sip sherry every evening after compline. Though I kind of hope they occasionally do just that.

But anyway, after I was given the whole tour I found myself in Sister Carolyn’s room and I had two thoughts. First, ‘I cannot believe I am actually standing in a nun’s bedroom’ — I assure you that was never a childhood fantasy of mine. And my second thought was, ‘This convent is so amazing! Who’s going to tell my wife I’m running away to become a nun?’ But then I decided I didn’t actually want to spend the rest of my life saying to everyone I met, “No, not that St. Margaret; Margaret of Antioch.” It’s quite a cross you all have to bear.

So who was this Margaret of Antioch we commemorate today? If you hang out with the sisters you probably know something about this woman who may or may not have lived in the late 3rd century. The first thing people usually think about when it comes to Margaret is that dragon — you see it in statues and paintings and iconography and even on the cover of today’s bulletin.

Legend has it that she was swallowed by satan in the form of a dragon but escaped after the cross she always carried with her miraculously grew to the point of bursting through the dragon’s flesh. Thus she’s the patron saint of pregnant women because evidently childbirth feels like a giant cross poking through your stomach. But while this story may be apocryphal, this young woman clearly had a strong faith, suffered great persecution, and was martyred during one of the last waves of persecution.

The gospel appointed for this day includes the parable of the pearl of great price, one of 1960927_283773275119252_1961193212_othree rapid-fire parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. I was interested to learn that Margaret is often depicted with a pearl necklace. The greek word for pearl is margarites which is why pearls are associated with St. Margaret and perhaps the reason this parable shows up on her feast day. Of course, this doesn’t help us alleviate the high-end nun issue since I can’t stop picturing a nun standing on the beach in full habit wearing a pearl necklace and drinking a margarita. But that may just be me.

While dragons may be the realm of fanciful legend and martyrology, they do help us focus on what we are being called to slay in our own lives. And here’s where the extraordinary witness of these Sisters of St. Margaret is so helpful. Their lives exemplify what it means to strip faith down to its essentials. They put prayer — both corporate and individual — at the center of their lives and invite us all to do likewise. They minister among the “least of these” in Haiti and Dorchester and New York City and invite us all to do likewise.

They quietly and passionately inspire those they encounter to deepen their faith, to love God and neighbor, to open their hearts and minds and souls to relationship with the divine in new and life-giving ways. And they do all of this with grace and good humor and love.

In teaching about what is truly valuable, Jesus begins with three concrete examples — the treasure buried in a field, the pearl, the net bursting with fish. Like these three parables, the sisters help us see what is truly valuable in this life. They help us focus on the treasure, on that which really matters. In other words their witness points us again and again toward the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom that is not just up there, away but right here in our midst.

But isn’t there often a lot of confusion around the whole notion of the Kingdom of Heaven? Many people hear the word “heaven” and think Jesus is talking exclusively about a place up in the sky – a place of pearly gates and Saint Peter and angels flying around; a place where everyone has wings and everyone’s in a great mood and George Burns walks around on clouds. The problem is that this makes the Kingdom of Heaven inaccessible to us; it turns it into a place that is remote and away rather than near and “at hand.” And that fails to do justice to the totality and all-encompassing nature of this Kingdom.

Yes, when Jesus talks to his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s with an eye to the future. But Jesus’ reign has already begun with his coming into the world in human form. And these parables point us toward three hallmarks of the Kingdom visible here on earth: joy, beauty, and abundance. The joy of buried treasure, the beauty of the pearl, the abundance of the catch. These Kingdom values are evidence of the life Jesus invites us into through faith in him. And they are precisely the values embodied by the sisters as they share the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with people all over the world.

This is what makes faith so valuable — it’s eternal, not fleeting. It doesn’t fade away or wither, like everything else in this life (including, I might add, valuable beachfront property). Faith endures. Even when we get distracted or fall away, it remains the one constant in this universe.

And so this day challenges us to reflect upon what it is that we could prune in our own lives to help us get back to the basics of faith. What are some things you could sweep away in order to grow your faith and deepen your relationship with Jesus? How might the sisters’ faithfulness inspire and encourage you in your own spiritual life? In what ways can you better incorporate the kingdom values of joy, beauty, and abundance?

Not everyone is called to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience — thanks be to God. But we can all learn lessons from those who are. It’s one of the great gifts offered to us by monastic communities and exemplified by the Sisters of St. Margaret right here in Duxbury.

On this day, may we all be inspired by the faithful witness of St. Margaret of Antioch; may we continue to pray for the sisters and uphold them in their ministry and service to our Lord; and may we remain focused on the Kingdom of Heaven as our hope, our passion, and our salvation.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck