Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 18, 2017 (Proper 6A)

“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Well, that’s pretty timely considering we’re entering summer at St. John’s. A time when things heat up temperature-wise but cool down program-wise. A time of vacations and family gatherings and warm-weather activities. A time of beaches and boats and backyard barbecues. A time when the harvest may well be plentiful but the parishioners are increasingly few.

But that’s okay! Because the mission of the church carries on with or without air-conditioning; with or without a full church; with or without choir pews bursting at the seams or a bevy of acolytes tripping over themselves. And there’s something comforting in the knowledge that the worshipping community gathers week after week regardless of who is here, who is on vacation, who is recovering from surgery (that would be Buffy), or who is out on paternity leave (that would be Noah).

And anyway, you can’t go full tilt all year long; you can’t keep your foot on the gas for twelve months out of the year. Even God rested after creating the world in six dizzying days. Whether personally or professionally or ecclesiastically, we all need some down time. What the army calls R & R — rest and relaxation. In more theological terms we might call this sabbath time; a designated period to recharge and refresh and renew and relax.

This takes different forms for different people. For some it’s fishing alone on an isolated lake in Maine; for others it’s spending time lingering over coffee with a friend. For some it’s sleeping in on a rainy morning; for others it’s heading out to Fenway to sit in the bleachers and soak in the sunshine. We are all renewed in different ways.

Now what renewal doesn’t mean is taking the summer off from God. With the change in routine, we may well find God in places beyond the four walls of the church — in nature or in family reunions or in a simple change of scenery. And I’m all for that. It’s always good to be reminded that even though we refer to the church as “God’s House,” God isn’t under house arrest. God doesn’t exclusively reside inside a building. God transcends stone walls and stained glass and even Prayer Books and Bibles.

And yet the other side of that is that our need for the love and example of Jesus, our need for one another, our need to praise God in word and deed, doesn’t take a vacation. And anyway, you can’t take time off from God because God never takes time off from you. That’s not how it works. And that is good news.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. The point of this sermon is not to tell people who are in church in the summer to come to church in the summer. I’m glad you’re here! Truly. But it is a reminder that renewal doesn’t mean ignoring or taking a break from your spiritual life; it means embracing it. Hopefully time spent in prayer and worship is a form of renewal for you. Being here after a tough week should feel like sipping from a refreshing spring on a hot day. It should replenish your spiritual reserves and help you prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the week ahead. If being here only feels like a chore or an obligation, we have some work to do. You and me both.

Yes, the spiritual life should be challenging and at times it should signal a call to action or the overturning of pre-conceived notions or the questioning of privilege and complacency. It should move us out of our comfort zones and bring us into contact with people and ideas that open our hearts and minds.

But church must also be a place of deep refreshment. A place where you can fully be yourself. A place of solace and strength and comfort. A place where you are nurtured and loved and celebrated simply for being who you are as a child of God. A place to rest and recharge and renew from the challenges and complexities of life. And so, as things slow down and we take some time to renew this summer, make sure that spiritual renewal is part of the equation. Go for a hike, but also praise God for the wonder and beauty of creation. Have a fantastic meal with family and friends, but also offer thanks for the many blessings of this life. Renewal and gratitude pair beautifully together.

But back to this “harvest field” Jesus mentions this morning. What is it? “The harvest isAgriculture_in_Volgograd_Oblast_002 plentiful but the laborers are few.” Jesus is obviously speaking metaphorically — he’s not bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough farmhands to plow his soy bean fields. He’s talking about the many people in his midst who have not heard the Good News of the Gospel. That’s the harvest; that’s the mission field Jesus sent the original 12 disciples out into. To preach and teach and share the peace of Christ that people so desperately needed and still need to hear. Just before Jesus talks to the twelve about the harvest and the laborers we hear that he had just returned from a whirlwind tour of preaching and teaching and healing — in other words he had just been out and about among the people. He had listened to them and spoken with them and interacted with them. And we hear that as he gazed upon the crowds he “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless.” And that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s a tough image of people who were spiritually isolated and lonely and feeling unloved. And it broke Jesus’ heart. It’s also a feeling I think we can very much relate to. At least some of the time. I know I have similar thoughts to Jesus when I’m out in what we might think of as today’s harvest field: the streets, the soccer fields, the cubicles, the coffee shops. Places where people aren’t thinking about spiritual things but are involved with and distracted by everything else. Like life. And children. And jobs. And money. People today, just as they were in Jesus’ time, do indeed seem to be “harassed and helpless.” We are imprisoned by our technology and debt and unhealthy relationships; shackled by our obsession with the 24-hour news cycle and celebrity gossip and dearth of silence; chained to addictions in various forms; held captive by our lack of sabbath time and renewal.

Here’s the thing: the harvest field isn’t just “out there.” The harvest field is also right here at St. John’s. We are the harvest field. We so desperately need to hear Jesus’ message of compassion and hope in the midst of a turbulent world. And we are also the laborers. Because we also need to share this with one another. To be generous in the ways we interact, to look beyond our own self interest, to offer comfort and consolation. Take heart, friends. We are not in this field alone. Yes, there is much work to be done. But we are in this together. And we are sheep who do indeed have a shepherd in Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 14, 2015 (Proper 6, Year B)

One of the great things about Google Earth is that it gives you a God’s-eye view of anywhere in the world. With just a few clicks, you can see satellite images of any place on the globe — well, not North Korea and Iran and several other places. But you can zoom in and see almost any other place in the entire world. Which can be fairly voyeuristic, as in “I had no idea our neighbor had a swimming pool tucked away in that hidden back yard!” Or you can check out the location of a hotel to make sure they’re as close to downtown as their website claims.

google-earth-12-700x406I used Google Earth to look at the church this week — which I’d never done before — and was amazed at just how thick those bushes were in front of the church and going up the front walkway. They update the images every so often and this one was from before we gave the front lawn its recent hard-to-miss haircut — in a few short days we basically went from radical hippie to Marine recruit. From the sky you could barely even tell there were front steps and when I clicked on “street view” I couldn’t see the church at all. That’s how obscured it was before we opened things up, which we were able to do thanks to the foresight and generous gifts of two parishioners.

Sometimes beautiful things are hidden in plain sight. Like locally quarried Weymouth stone on the outside of a church in Hingham. And sometimes through the initial obscurity of a parable.

Although he’s the one we most closely identify with parables, Jesus didn’t actually invent the form. Jewish teachers in the ancient world used these types of stories or analogies to explore all sorts of spiritual or ethical concepts; there are examples of parables sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Of course, Jesus popularized the parable. I guess you could say that Jesus is to the parable what Aesop is to the fable.

The parables of Jesus used everyday images to shed light on the nature of God or to convey deep spiritual truths. And so he used examples that his hearers would have all been familiar with. We may have to dig a bit to understand the full context of his stories — we’re not an agrarian society and so we have to learn about mustard seeds and sheep and the economic and family dynamics of ancient Palestine. But his original hearers needed no translation; even if the full meaning wasn’t always clear, all of the examples Jesus used were immediately recognizable.

But even when we need a bit of background information, the messages themselves remain powerful, true, and as relevant today as they were in Jesus’ day. Because human nature and our relationship with the divine is unchanging, even if the trappings and outward appearances of everyday life differ.

Today we get two gardening parables including the well-known Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus tells us it is the smallest of all the seeds. Yet when fully mature, the mustard plant is a massive bush, large enough for birds to make their nests. And so Jesus gives us a parable about the potential abundance of the Kingdom of God. We start with something tiny and it grows into something great.

Parables often come with an an unexpected twist; they help us see beyond the obvious. If a parable seems clear right off the bat, chances are you’ve missed the point. Or more to the point, you’ve missed the points because there are always many layers of meaning embedded into even the simplest parable.

And this one is no different. What’s sneaky about this parable is that Jesus doesn’t compare the Kingdom of God to a giant tree but a big shrub. He tells us that the tiny mustard seed grows into the “greatest of shrubs.” Which is like referring to something as the “king of the ants!” I mean, it’s still a shrub and as mustard plants grew rampant they were basically considered weeds. Which seems a curious analogy to make, even if it is king of the weeds.

The paradox of parables is that while they use examples from everyday life to make a larger point, they weren’t meant to be purely prescriptive. Parables often open up more questions than they answer — and that’s precisely the point. Jesus doesn’t just give us all the answers, he invites us to ponder, to reflect, to chew on issues of life and faith. So the purpose of a parable isn’t to settle an issue once and for all but to encourage us to think more deeply about the issue at hand, whether that’s the nature of God, or forgiveness, or the ways we treat one another.

As we think about parables, you should know that there’s a modern, somewhat controversial Bible translation called The Message that tries to incorporate images that people today would be more familiar with. Instead of a mustard seed — which let’s be honest, few people have ever seen since we get our mustard out of a squeeze bottle — The Message translates these verses this way: “How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches.”

Now I’ve never actually seen a mustard seed or a mustard plant. And, embarrassingly enough, I thought pine trees came from acorns. But most of us had pine nuts in our salad the last time we ate at the Square Cafe — they do that kind of frou frou stuff there. So we know what one looks like. It’s still an agricultural image that captures the nature of God’s abundance that Jesus was alluding to but using something we’d likely be more familiar with.

11147146_10206517117957460_4176512140477409887_nBut the danger in putting words into Jesus’ mouth is that, as we’ve seen with the mustard seed, Jesus intentionally didn’t use the example of a mighty tree. If he wanted to do that, he could have just pointed to the great cedar trees we hear about in our lesson from the prophet Ezekiel — an intentional counterpoint to today’s gospel reading. So the pine tree analogy actually fails to convey Jesus’ more subtle, even subversive point. There’s a difference between what is considered mighty by human standards and what is considered mighty by God’s standards. Which is yet another layer of the parable.

As with overgrown bushes in front of a church that you fail to even notice because they’ve always been there, sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper to see the hidden gem and deep meaning of Jesus’ words. But when you take the time to strip away the layers, you encounter something life-giving that continues to inspire, day after day and year after year. 


© The Rev. Tim Schenck