Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 18, 2015 (Proper 24, Year B)

If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve surely heard a bridesmaid butcher 1 Corinthians 13. Yes, “love is patient, love is kind,” but it’s hard to revel in patience and kindness when the young woman in the peach-colored dress is racing through the reading as if she she can’t wait to get the whole “religious part” over with so she can finally access the open bar at the reception. Or weeping through it as she uses an entire pack of tissues, sniffling before every word, with mascara running everywhere, and making the relatively short reading last longer than the homily.

I knew a wise priest who used to always tell couples to substitute “Jesus” for the word “love” when they heard this ubiquitous passage. Because it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Paul is talking about Jesus’ love for us, not the couple’s love for one another. So, “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind.”

But the upshot is that when we think of Jesus, patience is one of the virtues that comes to mind. We think of him as having the patience of, well, a saint. Sure, there was that little episode when he flipped over the tables in the Temple but we generally think of him as a calm, non-anxious presence, patiently and lovingly putting up with the foibles of human nature.

james&johnAnd then we get a reading like our gospel passage this morning and we know that Jesus must have also experienced total and utter exasperation. Because if there was ever a moment that would cause Jesus’ patience to run out, it would be this encounter with James and John. I mean, come on. They’d been through a lot with Jesus. These brothers, the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, were two of the first people Jesus called as disciples. They traveled with him all over the countryside, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, into towns and villages; they heard him teach and preach, they saw him perform miracles and heal all sorts and conditions of people. As two of his most valued disciples, they had quality face time with him up the mountain at the Transfiguration. And yet they Still. Don’t. Get. It.

This whole episode happens just before Jesus heads to Jerusalem to be put on trial and yet James and John, like two spoiled siblings, are still squabbling over issues of status in the kingdom that is to come. Thereby entirely missing the point of Jesus’ message and ministry. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they say. After all this time, they still think they’re going to “get something” for themselves out of this relationship. Jesus, probably first taking a deep cleansing breath, asks them if they are able to “drink the cup that I drink.” In other words, are you able to endure what I will endure? Are you able to go through what I will go through? And without hesitation they answer, in the most clueless response in the history of clueless responses, “Yup. We’re able.’

And Jesus replies with what must have been unbelievable exasperation, ‘Oh, really. You’re able to drink the cup that I will drink? Huh. Well, you will. I’ll tell you that. But you should know something. It’s not all about rainbows and unicorns and smiling emojis. It’s not about your personal glorification. You don’t get a special prize or trophy for walking this journey and drinking this cup. In fact, quite the opposite. People will trash talk you and treat you like dirt. There’s glory in this path, yes, but it’s not like anything you could possibly even imagine. And it’s certainly not to your personal glory.’

All you have to do is look at the passage we just read from the prophet Isaiah if you have any doubts about how this will all go down. If it sounds familiar it’s because we read it every year on Good Friday. And we know how that turns out for Jesus and his disciples.

As Christians, our inheritance is not to become great by human standards. Rather it is to serve others in the name of Christ. And doesn’t that just push against every cultural inclination? We may not be willing to win at all costs since, you know, we’re people of faith, but we still want to win. So when Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” that’s not something that comes naturally to us.

And it certainly didn’t come naturally to James and John. Which is something we share with them. Jesus nicknamed the two “boanerges” which is translated “Sons of Thunder.” Why? Because they were passionate, fiery, go-getters. At one point on their travels, Jesus is opposed by some villagers who refuse to let him and his disciples stay the night. And James and John say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Uh, no. But it gives you a glimpse into their no-holds-barred, do anything for the team approach to discipleship. That’s what Jesus is working with when he flips their entire notion of discipleship upside down with the whole ‘whoever wants to be great must be a servant’ thing.

In the end James and John will indeed drink the cup that Jesus drinks. Tradition holds that James was the first of the disciples to be martyred and John, who became known as the Beloved Disciple, was charged with taking Mary into his home and caring for her after the crucifixion. Eventually they do get it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try the patience of their Lord along the way.

And in this, we have much in common with James and John. Like these Sons of Thunder, there are moments when we just don’t get it. We may not want to think about this but despite Jesus’ limitless capacity to love us and forgive us, we shouldn’t get lulled into believing that he never gets fed up with us. So I do think it’s worth reflecting upon the things we do or fail to do that try the patience of Jesus. I can personally think of all sorts of things I do that might exasperate him. And I doubt I’m alone.

Because for all his talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves, how often do we turn away when we see someone in need? For all his talk about forgiveness, how often do we hold grudges? For all his talk about generosity, how often do hoard our resources? For all his talk about justice, how often do we encounter injustice and just walk away?

And yet…even when we exasperate Jesus, even when we try his patience, even when we make him roll his eyes and shake his head, he still loves us. That’s the good news for us today. That no matter what we do in our ignorance, in our blindness, in our sinfulness, Jesus looks upon us with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. Even if we sometimes drive him nuts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015


Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 19, 2014 (Proper 24, Year A)

canonad1“Image is everything.” That phrase has been around for a long time but in the early 90’s it was the wildly successful slogan for Canon cameras featuring ads with a young, long-haired Andre Agassi back when he was the number one tennis player in the world. Image is not everything, of course, unless you’re talking about photography, in which case I guess it actually is. Because when we talk about public personas or images we’re really talking about the superficial plane. Dig a little deeper and things aren’t always as they appear on the surface.

Take this moment in the life of St. John’s. If we took a snapshot of this parish today on October 19, 2014, the image wouldn’t be so crisp and clear. Deacon Geof just moved to New Hampshire where he took a new job; Mother Anne is moving to Oregon in a couple of weeks to become rector of her own church; Dr. Fred is moving to Illinois next month to become the director of music at a cathedral in Springfield; and, if that wasn’t enough, I just found out this week that we need a new boiler. Seriously.

Now these are all great opportunities for Geof, Anne, and Fred — and we can rejoice with them in their new callings. But let’s be honest. The timing is brutal! Several people have half-jokingly asked me recently, “Are you starting to take it personally?” And of course not — well, except for the boiler. I am pissed off at the boiler. But as a parish we truly are at a place of great transition and great opportunity. Which is really just a euphemism for “Oh my God, everybody’s leaving!”

But after the initial freak out — and thanks for letting me get that out of my system — we remember that nothing really changes. The snapshot is out of focus but when we zoom out and take the broad view, we see the many blessings that abound. St. John’s is unique in its stability — I mean, I’m just the fourth rector in a hundred years. Considering the median tenure for a rector these days is five years, St. John’s is doing something right.

We expect staff to come and go, of course, just as parishioners move in and out of this community. And this has been a terrific place of learning and ministry for generations of clergy and musicians and parishioners over the years. You need look no further than our current bishop who began his ordained ministry right here — in fact I think I’ll put that in the job description for Anne’s position: “Come to St. John’s and become the next Bishop of Massachusetts!”

But we also need to remember that the one constant at this parish and in our own lives, which can be fraught with transition and change, is Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone of our faith. Whatever image we’re trying to project, that’s one thing that never changes.

Because the Christian faith is not about image; it’s about hope. And so if on the surface of things the image we’re projecting at this moment doesn’t match the perfect, fully-staffed, Christmas card parish (with a working boiler), we just need to take a moment for some healthy introspection. And when we do that, we see the incredible joy and abundance and continuity at St. John’s.

But first, let’s talk a bit more about image. When it comes to this gospel passage, imageTiberian_denarius really is everything. Or at least the image of the emperor on that Roman coin Jesus asks to see. The Pharisees, with malice in their hearts, ask Jesus a seemingly very black and white question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Now the the tax in question was the annual tax to Rome and it was controversial among the Jews. Roman collaborators like the Temple authorities and tax collectors profited from it while those sympathetic to the cause of resistance against the Roman oppressors considered it anathema. Refusing to pay it was an act of treason.

So the question itself was a trap. If Jesus answered “yes” he would have been discredited with the masses wanting to throw off the Roman government. Yet answering “no” would have made him subject to arrest. It was the ultimate no-win situation and you can just imagine the anticipatory silence as everyone turned toward Jesus thinking, “How’s he going to get out of this one?”

The brilliant response is necessarily ambiguous: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Now, what this isn’t, is a rationale for the separation of church and state. Nor is it IRS-sponsored subliminal messaging to remind you to file your tax returns in a timely manner.

With his answer, Jesus offers us a choice. Are you going to put your trust in things temporal or things eternal? Are you going to place your faith in the things on the surface of life or in the things at the core? Are you going to cast your hope on the superficial things that fade away or on that which endures. Are you going to believe in the human authority of the emperor or in the divine authority of God?

That’s what Jesus is getting at here. And it’s a reminder that ultimately everything we see and everything we own and everything we are, belongs to God. Given the finite period of human existence, we are all merely temporary stewards of our resources.

So whether you earned it with blood, sweat, and tears or inherited it, it’s not yours. And when we start viewing the world through this lens, generosity flows organically. We want to give back and share the things that are God’s with the church and with others less fortunate than we are. Pledging to this congregation is a tangible way to praise the God from whom all blessings flow. And you know what? Once you let go of the fear and embrace a spirit of generosity, you will find incredible freedom. (Oh, did I mention today is Stewardship Sunday?).

And so even amid the change that is swirling around us, indeed because of the change swirling around us, I invite you to invest in this community, to invest in your faith, to invest in the ministries that draw us closer to God and one another. This is the perfect time for us to collectively drive our stake into the ground and proclaim for all to hear and know that we are people of faith and that it is a faith that matters and that it is a faith that transforms and that it is a faith that gives our lives meaning and that it is a faith that transcends the shifts and changes that life throws at us.

Image is everything. But not the image we may want to project to the world — images of strength and invulnerability and perfection. That is not a sustainable image, not because we’re weak or bad or hopeless but because we’re human. The good news in this is that we are made in the image of God. That’s the image that is everything. That’s the image that brings wholeness to the broken places in our lives. And when you are part of a faith community that is formed in the image of God, you can’t help but do your part to keep it healthy, vibrant, faithful, and thriving.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on October 20, 2013 (Proper 24, Year C) 

It’s interesting that the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel shows up on Stewardship Sunday. I can’t remember that ever happening before and I’m not sure I like it. The last thing I want stewardship to feel like is the rector wrestling with the congregation. I’m not standing up here until you say “uncle” and fork over your hard-earned money. I don’t want you to leave here feeling beaten and bruised and needing an ice pack.

Slightly uncomfortable, sure. Challenged, yes. Inspired, hopefully. But Stewardship Sunday isn’t meant to be a wrestling match. I won’t be flying off the top rope trying to pin you down to a specific number. The ushers won’t be streaming down the aisles putting you in submission holds. I’m not trying to wrestle your money away from you. There’s nothing adversarial about cultivating a spirit of generosity in our community. We’re all in this together, after all, to build up the Body of Christ that is St. John’s.

But it is true that we all wrestle with our relationship with money. We never think we have enough, we don’t like to part with it, even when we do have enough we irrationally fear that we’ll run out. Sometimes we feel guilty about our spending habits. Perhaps this is why people get uncomfortable whenever the preacher starts talking about money — which he’s doing as we speak. 

The church has often wrestled with how to speak about money. For generations many considered it unseemly to speak about money in church. It was a topic never broached in polite company and Episcopal churches in particular were viewed as the epitome of polite company, places where money, like children, was to be seen but not heard. And clergy played right into this — many priests would no sooner speak about money from the pulpit than sex. I’m actually tempted to pause and take a poll to find out which topic you’d prefer. But that’s a slope I’m not ready to slide down — after being at this for 14 years I’ve learned at least a few lessons along the way. 

Yet money is not only something we all wrestle with, it’s a reality of life, just as it has been since Biblical times. Denial isn’t an effective way to deal with difficult topics nor will it pay the bills. Yes, the church needs money — specifically your money — to drive its mission. As much as St. John’s might look like a castle from the outside with its stone walls and rook-like bell tower, its heart is the people on the inside — you and me. And it is the heart that pumps life into the building, making it a place of worship and welcome and formation and vibrant community pulsing with ministry and spiritual yearning and outreach to those in need. I encourage your generosity because I myself believe in St. John’s and just as my family pledges to the parish I encourage you to do likewise. Because it matters. This community matters, what we do here matters, you matter.

Of course after every stewardship sermon someone will invariably say “I wish he wouldn’t talk about money so much.” I, frankly, don’t think I talk about money nearly enough — not just giving it to the church but our right relationship with money in general. Depending on how you define a parable, Jesus gave us roughly 40 of them as handed down in the gospels and nearly half of them deal with money in one form or another. There are parables dealing with lost coins and silver talents, and pearls of great price. There are parables that speak of inheritance — like the Prodigal Son — or earning wages. There’s the widow’s mite and references to tax collectors and rich men with many possessions and rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. 

If I was to mimic Jesus’ own preaching, I’d have to preach about money nearly every other week. So if this morning’s sermon makes you slightly uncomfortable, just remember to be thankful. Because I should probably be talking about money a lot more than just a few times a year.

Now, it should be stated up front that money is not a bad thing — that was never Jesus’ point. Certainly there were middle class and rich followers of Jesus even in his day. Sometimes we have this image of Jesus’ disciples as a rag-tag group of impoverished, poorly educated fishermen. Of course they could give up all their possessions to follow Jesus because they had precious little. Where’s the sacrifice in that? But then we encounter characters like Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a man of means who first followed Jesus by cover of darkness because as a leader in the Jewish community he didn’t want to be seen in the company of a radical preacher. After Jesus’ crucifixion he boldly went to Pilate to request Jesus’ body and used his own resources to give his Lord a proper burial in his own unused tomb.

So, much good can be done with money. We see this everyday in this community — many of you have been so generous over the years both here at St. John’s and in the wider community. What Jesus often gets at is the right use of money. Money can be used to build up and it can be used to tear down. Money can be life affirming and it can be soul sucking. It is a powerful commodity and Jesus recognizes and warns against the temptations and the allure. Remember, one of the things satan does when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness is to take him up a high mountain and offer him all the kingdoms of the earth if only he would bow down and worship him. 

Much of Jesus’ concern about money, of course, had to do with people who didn’t have enough — the poor, the downtrodden, the lame. But he also knew human nature — thus his concern for those with financial resources at their disposal. Fear drives us to hoard our resources and self-centeredness compels us to spend only on ourselves. But a lack of generosity causes our souls to shrivel up and wither. And that’s not what Jesus wants for us. He wants our souls to be brimming over with peace and joy and hope and meaning.

Which brings us back to the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, an episode as well known as it is shrouded in mystery. There’s nothing metaphorical about it in the sense that Jacob leaves the encounter literally limping away with a hip injury. What’s clear is that a very physical interaction has taken place. What’s less clear is who was involved. While the story has been passed down to us as Jacob wrestling with an angel, Scripture refers to the figure as a “man” but then Jacob names the place Peniel saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Somehow Jacob has been engaged with the divine. And at the heart of this struggle is a blessing. Jacob refuses to let go of his wrestling partner until he blesses him. He literally fights for a blessing and refuses to disengage until he receives one. 

This story reminds us that faith can indeed be a struggle. Life has its ups and downs, doubt looms, we wrestle with remaining faithful. But being rooted to a faith community helps us stay the course through inspiration and encouragement in Christ. We don’t have to wrestle alone — we have one another to lean on for prayer and support. Pledging isn’t the only way to feel connected to St. John’s but it’s an important one and I hope you’ll join me in either renewing your commitment to this place or committing to it anew. Like Jacob you will leave the encounter blessed. Blessed by God, blessed by this community, and blessed by your own generosity.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck