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


Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 13, 2013 (Proper 23, Year C) 

Forced gratitude. When my boys were younger, that’s what I used to call that moment at the end of every play date when I’d pick them up following an afternoon of dump trucks and swings sets and chicken fingers with perhaps a hint of Sponge Bob thrown in to give the other parent a break. As they were putting on their shoes by the back door I’d let that inevitable question hang in the air: “What do you say?” “Thank you,” they’d mutter. And the moment of forced gratitude would be complete. 

It wasn’t that they weren’t grateful — they’d had a good time with their friend. They just didn’t know how to express it or even that they needed to. In one sense this is part of a larger ongoing conversation with children to teach them basic manners. Hang around parents of young children for any length of time and you hear a litany of “Say please; say thank you; say you’re sorry” and even at the communion rail “say amen.”

But true gratitude transcends manners. It’s easy to say thank you; it’s a different thing altogether to really mean it and then take that next step to show thankfulness through our actions. As with children, the attitude of gratitude is a habit. As adults the challenge isn’t remembering to say thank you — manners are pretty well ingrained in us by now. The spiritual danger is taking life itself for granted — our health, our loved ones, the things that delight us, the communities that help form us, the natural world that surrounds us. Life comes at us with such a frenzied pace and volume, it’s easy to forget to be thankful for all of this.

This morning we encounter nine poster children for ingratitude. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus yet only one returns to say thank you. The other nine vanish into the woodwork of daily life,  never to be seen or heard from again. Now, I’m sure they were equally thrilled to be healed. Who wouldn’t leap for joy after losing the hideous and painful sores that overtook the leprous body? They simply never got around to saying thank you. Maybe they had intended to. Maybe they made a half-hearted attempt but couldn’t find Jesus. Maybe they were just too busy. Maybe their mothers didn’t insist they say thank you. But for whatever reason, they never did thank Jesus; they never expressed their gratitude for the miraculous healing that transformed their lives.

Of course Jesus didn’t come into this world to be thanked. This story isn’t a commentary on a minor social slight: “Say thank you…or else.” It’s much deeper than surface politeness or social norms. It gets to the heart of our own hearts and invites us to think about the ways we show gratitude to God for all the blessings of this life. 

But before we indignantly condemn those nine lepers, it’s important to recognize ourselves in their behavior. We, like the nine, have a tendency to take God’s grace for granted. It’s easy to do. We, too, are busy and self-absorbed. And as much as God desires our thankfulness, God doesn’t nag us or hold his love hostage until we reach a certain threshold of gratitude. Thankfulness isn’t a requirement or a prerequisite to God’s grace. But a lack of gratitude can be a stumbling block in our own relationship with God. A lack of gratitude on our part prevents us from keeping our relationship with God in its proper perspective. And that proper perspective is that we are utterly dependent upon God for all that we are and all that we have.

My mother recently sent me a copy of the new Anne Lamott book “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” She does this sometimes — sends along books she’s read that she thinks I’ll like (I really do need to thank her, by the way). The parish book group just read this one actually. As I thought about this topic of gratitude, which can be summed up in the word “thanks,” I picked up the book and glanced through it. Basically, I skipped the “help” and the “wow” and made a beeline for the “thanks.” One quote that resonated was that “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior (56).” That is so true. Authentic gratitude can’t help but be turned into action.

So what is this behavior that gratitude can dovetail into? One very tangible way we express our gratitude is simply by coming to church week after week after week. Expressing our gratitude to God isn’t the only reason we worship — we also come to be inspired and transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ. We come to pray for ourselves and others, and to be part of a community of faith. In other words “help” and “wow” are a big part of this. But expressing gratitude is an important piece of our life together at this parish and one of the main reasons we gather.

Another way of offering gratitude is by pledging to St. John’s. Yes, bills have to be paid to keep this place open and staffed. But offering our financial resources back to God is first and foremost an act of spiritual gratitude. It’s a way of driving a stake into the ground and proclaiming that this community not only matters and makes a difference in my own life, but that life itself is a gift from God. Our own need to give trumps the church’s need for money every single time.

Prayer is another ancient and well-practiced form of gratitude. “Thanks” truly is one of the three essential prayers. Thanksgiving must be a vital piece of our individual and communal life of prayer. Praising the God from whom all blessings flow is an act of gratitude. Heck, the Communion rite is known in its entirety as the Great Thanksgiving — the word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” In other words, gratitude is central to what we do as a community of faith.

I also love this quote from Anne Lamott: “Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy.” So it’s this discipline of the heart rather than an exercise of the mind that leads to joy and fulfillment and peace. And isn’t that what we’re all really seeking? Joy, fulfillment, and peace. Sometimes they can be so elusive. But the good news is that the key resides deep within your own heart; and it all begins with being grateful for the rich blessings bestowed upon you by God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 22, 2013 (Proper 20, Year C)

This seemingly bizarre parable we hear from Jesus this morning is known by various names. You’ll hear it referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager or the Parable of the Shrewd Manager or the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Most preachers simply call it a bear to preach on. 

It’s a tricky parable — probably Jesus’ most confusing lesson in the entire Bible. There’s all sorts of disagreement about its interpretation and the naming controversy simply highlights the confusion. There’s quite a distance between “dishonest” and “shrewd” and “unjust.”

So why am I standing up here? Why didn’t I foist this one off on Anne or Geof? Quite frankly, I didn’t look at the readings when we were putting the schedule together. So here I am — this is clearly not the Parable of the Shrewd Rector

The story Jesus tells his disciples is about two people, a rich man and his property manager. You might think of this as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and his money guy — his CFO. The rich man hears a disturbing account that the manager was “squandering his property.” Maybe he was siphoning some of the profit off to his personal account or maybe he was just lazy. Perhaps he’d gotten comfortable in his job, enjoyed sitting in his big leather chair, and was just phoning it in. Who knows? But the bottom line is that the bottom line isn’t where it should have been. 

So the owner confronts the manager demanding an account of his actions. Now at this point his manager starts sweating. He realizes the jig is up. He probably felt like one of those guys at Enron when the real auditors were sent in to untangle the mess. The truth would come out and there would be major consequences. So, figuring he has nothing to lose, the manager gets creative. If necessity is the mother of invention desperation, at least in this case, was the father of creativity. 

He summons the rich man’s debtors and starts bargaining with them. “You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? I’ll tell you what, let’s make it 50. You owe a hundred containers of wheat? Let’s make it 80.” This is a pretty brilliant move actually in terms of saving his own hyde. And we know from his inner monologue what he’s trying to accomplish. He figures if he curries enough favor with the debtors he’ll be taken in and treated well once the axe drops. 

And if you think about it from the other side, what a great deal! How would you like to get a call from your mortgage company saying, “We know you owe $100,000 on your mortgage. How would you like it if we cut that in half. And as long as we’re on the topic, why don’t we just cut your monthly payment in half as well.” You’d feel like you won the lottery! And you’d be very, very grateful to whoever made this happen. This guy would have been a hero to the rich man’s debtors; a veritable Robin Hood.

So it’s a pretty audacious move. And, not only that, based on the cultural norms of the day, the rich man would have been bound to accept the lower amounts, unable to reverse them without losing face with the debtors and the wider community. Whether you call him shrewd or dishonest or unjust, the manager has played this very well. He may be losing his job but he’s set himself up for life.

But here’s the twist in the parable and the part that makes it so odd: the master praises the manager for his dishonesty. He commends him for acting shrewdly. Which is amazing considering the manager just lost him about 450 gallons of olive oil and 200 bushels of wheat. There’s no doubt that the manager is clever but the praise seems a bit much. Plus, you could read this parable and your takeaway could be “The Bible says it’s okay to steal!” You could leave church and feel perfectly justified hot wiring a nicer car than yours and driving home in greater style than you arrived. Of course you’d be both wrong and arrested for grand theft auto. 

It’s important to take a moment to remember that Jesus is telling a parable, a short story that makes a broader point. Obviously no real life rich guy would commend someone for stealing him blind. He’d have him thrown in the slammer. But in this case, as in parables like the Prodigal Son, the rich man or the master is a stand in for God. And as often happens in Luke’s gospel, authority is subverted, the lowly and downtrodden are lifted up, the outcasts and sinners are brought to the table, and there is a general reversal based on love and compassion rather than power and riches.

This manager is commended as shrewd because he is part of this reversal. He’s sticking it to the man! And although he’s hardly a sympathetic character — he’s a whiner and a thief — he’s pretty honest about it. I love that line where he says to himself, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg,” thereby admitting he doesn’t have the fortitude for manual labor and yet he’s too proud to ask for charity. 

But one important point gets lost in the translation between the way we hear this parable and the way Jesus’ audience would have. Jesus’ hearers would have been rooting for this guy despite his questionable ethics because he found a way to subvert what appeared to be an inescapable system of economic oppression. There were no bootstraps to pull yourself up by — you were born into a particular class and there you remained. In this sense he’s a symbol of hope. Because of his creative action, he’s no longer the victim beholden to his master, he’s broken free of the system, something Jesus’ hearers can only dream of as they fantasize about a life rooted in economic, political, and social justice. 

And I also think we can all relate to the fact that ethical dilemmas are rarely black and white. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in life or work that are full of gray and this parable is a recognition of the complexity of our interpersonal relationships and interactions.

Jesus ends this parable by talking about money — he’s really getting at the point that if we let it, money can oppress us. We can’t serve two masters and money is the most likely “other” master that distracts us from acting in ways that help bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Ironically Jesus shares this message through a questionable character, probably with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But the point, if not the parable itself, is unambiguous: faith demands exclusive loyalty and anything less is a mere shadow of God’s kingdom.

Oh, and I hope you enjoyed this little sermon because when this parable comes up again in three years, I won’t be preaching.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 15, 2013 (Proper 19, Year C)

“Cut your losses.” That’s often excellent advice. Whether it’s the stock market or a relationship, we’ve all been in situations where it’s better to simply accept our financial or emotional losses and move on.

This morning we hear Jesus’ well-known Parable of the Lost Sheep and by all reasonable accounts, the shepherd in this story should have just cut his losses and moved on. He has 100 sheep, one gets lost, what’s the big deal? 99 sheep is still an awful lot of sheep! Think of all the sweaters you could knit with 99 sheep’s worth of wool. And do you have any idea how many lamb chops you could get out of 99 sheep? Once properly butchered, the meat from a single sheep would fill an entire refrigerator (I know because I googled it).

And, anyway, think of the risk. What happens if you go chasing after that one sheep and end up losing the other 99? That wouldn’t make you a “Good Shepherd” as Jesus calls himself in John’s gospel but a pretty lousy one. What kind of lame shepherd goes wandering around with his shepherd’s crook and only one sheep trailing behind? Unless your name is Little Bo Peep, you’re not supposed to lose your sheep.

Fortunately this parable isn’t really about sheep or shepherds but God’s abounding grace. The God who sets aside conventional wisdom and goes after the lost isn’t worried about risk and reward but relationship.

Now, it’s not exactly human nature to go after the one left behind. I’m always amazed by the wartime stories of valor that involve one of the most cherished maxims of the American military: never leave a fallen comrade behind. As I thought about this parable this week I came across the story of one such soldier. Private First Class Kenneth Kays was not your typical war hero. As a young 18-year-old in rural Illinois he was opposed to the Vietnam war to the point that when the draft was first announced he fled to Canada. At the urging of his father, a World War II veteran, he returned to the United States to fulfill his duty but enlisted as a conscientious objector.

PFC Kenneth Kays

PFC Kenneth Kays

In time he was trained as a medic and assigned to the iconic101st Airborne Division where he earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during a brutal firefight in 1970. Despite losing the lower part of his left leg to an explosion, Kays repeatedly went back into the fray to help the wounded and drag them to safety, including one soldier he covered with his own body while absorbing bullets and shrapnel. Despite an amputation and a tremendous amount of blood loss, Kays lived and was able to take his place among the pantheon of true American war heroes.

I’m not attributing divine qualities to this young man who ended up in a situation he never imagined or desired. But this is the extent to which God goes after those in need. God never gives up on us and no matter what kind of trouble we find ourselves in — whether self-inflicted or by circumstances beyond our control — God returns again and again seeking to drag us to safety. Kenneth Kays could have easily cut his losses and hidden — it would have been easy to become invisible amidst the fog of war but he didn’t. Like that shepherd with a single lost sheep, he risked much to save the lame, the injured, the disoriented, going well beyond the human instinct for self-preservation.

Now in terms of the parable, I think it’s safe to say that most of us identify with the shepherd’s 99 sheep. In other words, when it comes to our place in society we generally see ourselves as part of the vast majority rather than the lost few. Sure, Malcolm Gladwell has popularized and even glamorized the term “outlier” but in some situations this is simply a nice way of saying pariah or loner, certainly someone or something set apart from the mainstream. When it comes to wanting to fit in or be part of the crowd we tend to display a survivor’s gift for pack mentality.

Yet even as we spend the vast majority of our lives as part of the 99, there are moments or seasons when we find ourselves as that one lost sheep. Times when everyone around us seems to be laughing or holding hands while we’re feeling isolated or lonely; times when everyone seems to be rejoicing while we’re stuck in the throes of grief; times when everyone seems to have it all figured out while we’re trapped in our unbelief. This physical or emotional or spiritual isolation can be paralyzing. Like a lost sheep we can literally become stuck, unable to move beyond that which grips us, be it grief or addiction or disease or fear.

It is in these moments that Jesus most ardently seeks us out. These are the times when Jesus is most fully present, even if we can’t see it through the haze of despair; even when our actions cloud our judgment and keep us distanced from God. That’s when we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus is reaching out to us, inviting us back into relationship, not judging us but loving us for the fallen creatures we all are.

I’d love to give you a happy ending to the story of Kenneth Kays. I’d love to tell you he inspired school children with his example of selfless heroism or that he embraced his role as an articulate voice in the anti-war movement. But the reality is that he led a tortured life when he returned home from Vietnam. He spent time in and out of mental hospitals, struggled with drug addiction, and killed himself at the age of 42.

The irony being that God sought out Kenneth Kays with the same diligence and compassion with which Kays himself went after his fallen comrades. And yet this war hero was unable to let God break down the barrier to his heart after experiencing the horror and trauma of war. He remained a lost sheep — at least in this life. And while God rejoices over the single lost sheep that is found, God weeps for the single sheep that remains lost. When it comes to his own people, to you and to me, God never cuts his losses.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 8, 2013 (Proper 18, Year C)

When I walked back into my office after some time away in August, I was intrigued to encounter a medium-sized black box sitting on my desk. I was a bit wary but after insuring that it wasn’t ticking, I opened it to reveal a home communion set with a note. It turns out that while I was away, the Rev. Richard Ebens stopped by and donated it to the parish.

IMG_1991While it’s always nice to have an extra communion kit around, this one is particularly special because of its history. You see, Father Ebens was the very first curate to serve at St. John’s. Now retired and living on Cape Cod (which, by the way, has the highest per capita number of retired Episcopal clergy in the world), this set was presented to him by the parish on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood on December 28, 1958.

It made me think about the places this 55-year-old communion set has been over the years. It’s been in the homes of those on their death beds, it’s been in countless hospital rooms, it’s offered comfort and solace to those seeking emotional, spiritual, and physical healing.

And now it has come home to St. John’s. Like many of you, it has been gone for awhile but its essence never changes – it is a vehicle of hope just as when you walk through these doors again for the first time in awhile, you encounter the open arms of Jesus.

Of course if it was up to me I might have chosen a slightly different gospel passage to welcome people back to the fall church routine. Jesus uses some pretty harsh language this morning as he lays out what is required of those who want to follow him. He tells us that first, you must “hate” your parents, your spouse, your children, and your siblings. What?!

Hold on. I have to talk to someone for a minute: Um, excuse me, Jesus? I am trying re-gather this community and we have all these people here and a lot of them are sitting with their families and this could make for a really awkward coffee hour and we even splurged for a bounce house and that’s what you’re leading with? Thanks a lot!

Okay, I’m back. It’s hard to get past Jesus’ use of the word “hate” isn’t it? You can play around with all sorts of synonyms like despise or abhor or detest but nothing quite cuts to the heart like the word “hate.” It’s the word we tell our kids not to use; sure we toss it around when we talk about sports teams as in “Boy, do I hate the Yankees” but it’s different when using it to talk about a relationship with a human being. It’s hard to think of a person you truly hate. And what’s especially jarring is that this comes from the lips of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the one who’s quoted using the word “love” 51 times in the Bible, the one who tells us to, above all, “love one another as I have loved you.”

“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.” It’s such a shock that some versions of Scripture try to soft peddle this verse. Something called the New Living Translation (I don’t recommend it) changes Jesus’ words to, “If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, more than your own life.” But that’s not what Jesus says — he says “hate.”

In profound scholarly theological language, it’s helpful to ask, “What’s up with that?” Jesus, as he often does, was engaging in a bit of verbal hyperbole while making a larger point. Remember, Jesus is talking to a large crowd here — not a small group of disciples. Think of this as the college professor standing up on the first day of an overcrowded class and trying to weed out those who don’t really want to be there or those who don’t really understand the commitment involved. He basically tells everybody there’s no way in hell they’ll pass the class; that if they care at all about their GPA they’ll march directly down to the registrar’s office to drop it. And then the next week he starts the class with the students who really do want to be there.

Jesus isn’t trying to weed people out, of course, but he’s also being honest about what’s involved in discipleship. There’s no false advertising here; he’s not trying to lead with honey just to get a big crowd to follow him around. He’s being honest about the fact that following him is not easy and he’d much rather be surrounded by a core group of truly committed disciples at this point in his ministry than have hordes of nominal followers chasing him around the countryside. Heck, even his closest disciples all abandon him when he’s strung up on a cross.

And if you think Jesus’ “family values” talk is tough on us, it was an even harsher message to those gathered around Jesus that day in ancient Palestine. Family was all people had back then. The family unit provided economic security — there were no 401k’s back then; people worked in the family business — whether that was fishing or farming; the family unit was the primary source of identity. To tell people to leave this all behind was to shred the very foundation of first century culture.

But again, it gets back to discipleship. In order to fully follow Jesus we must stay focused even if it means making difficult choices — and we all have choices to make that impact our selves, our families, our spiritual lives. And this is a great time of year to refocus and reexamine our priorities.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about this particular fall at St. John’s is our Charting Our Course initiative — you’ll be hearing more about it over the next few weeks. But basically it’s an opportunity for us to set priorities for the future of St. John’s. Or, as I’ve been telling people, we’ve had our foot on the gas for the past four years — we’ve grown a lot — and it’s time to ease up, take a look around, discern the direction God is calling us, and then get ready to mash the pedal down again.

So why are we doing this? Actually Jesus himself gives a pretty good justification in this morning’s gospel — not the part about hating your family. He says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Ultimately this, too, is about discipleship. It’s about prayerfully listening to where God wants us to be as a parish and then putting together a plan to get us there.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Make no mistake: we are building a tower here on this hill. A tower of hope and welcome and discipleship; a tower that will take effort and commitment from all of us. But a tower that will continue to serve as a shining beacon of our faith in Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck on September 1, 2013 (Proper 17, Year C)

Just inside the front door of the rectory we have a framed picture of two white lace angels with a quote from this morning’s reading from Hebrews. I can’t remember where we got it — though it’s the kind of thing your mother would give you so I’m pretty sure that was the source. We’ve had it for years and it’s graced the front entry of at least three of our homes. Now, I’m not big on images of angels and I’m even less keen on lace, but there’s something about this particular combination along with the Biblical quote that holds meaning for me.

It reads “Be not afraid to have strangers in your house, for some thereby have entertained angels unaware,” with the two angels facing one another and hovering above the text. We heard a less poetic but perhaps clearer version this morning: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In other words, treat everyone you encounter with mutuality and love and respect since they may well be messengers of God (which is what an angel really is whether or not they have wings).

IMG_1956There’s a reason we keep this picture by the front door — actually the side door since no one in Hingham uses their actual front door — we use it as a reminder of our call to Christian hospitality to all who enter our home. “Be not afraid to have strangers in your house, for some thereby have entertained angels unaware.” It’s also the place we keep our palms from Palm Sunday — we tuck them between the frame and the wall as yet another symbol of our faith. Of course I most often notice them when I get home from the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper and realize that, once again, I forgot to bring them up to get burned at our annual ritual burning of the palms — that’s how we create the ashes for the next day’s Ash Wednesday service.

The notion of hospitality weaves its way throughout our lessons this morning. We encounter Jesus as he’s sitting down to a meal where he is a guest at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Now, Jesus isn’t the greatest dinner party guest — you might want to think twice before adding him to the list for your next sit-down dinner. He’s always calling out his hosts for not inviting the right people or criticizing their guests’ seating choices and generally flipping over the ingrained social and cultural norms of the day, if not the actual dinner table. Though if you’re actively seeking an awkward moment in the middle of the meal, Jesus is definitely your man.

A major point in all of this is that Christian hospitality is different from what we normally associate with the subject. Hospitality tends to conjure images of etiquette or entertainment or pineapples. The pineapple being the traditional symbol of hospitality and the logo for various hotel chains around the world.

But Christian hospitality is not a Martha Stewart kind of hospitality. It’s not about social graces or perfectly matched throw pillows or doing the right things for the reflected glory of being considered the “hostess with the mostess.” Christian hospitality isn’t about inviting someone to a party so that you’ll then be invited to their party a few months later. It’s not about re-gifted hostess gifts that can then be passed around the neighborhood.

Nor is it about the ubiquitous “hospitality suite.” If you’ve been one of the chosen few invited into one you know they’re places overflowing with free liquor and butlered hors d’oeuvres and shrimp cocktail. As pleasant as they may be, this probably isn’t what Jesus had in mind.

What’s even more radical about Jesus’ approach to hospitality is that he reminds us that true hospitality is about reaching out to strangers — not just waiting for them to show up by chance. So hospitality extends beyond the walls of our homes and out into the world. That’s the trick — to reach out our hands in love to those we don’t know — which is why Jesus makes that point about inviting the poor and the crippled and the lame over for dinner. This suggested guest list is meant to jolt us out of the idea that hospitality is only extended to those we know or those who think like us or act like us or look like us. It’s easy to be hospitable to those we like; it’s easy to fling open our doors to those we’re comfortable with. But that’s not the kind of hospitality Jesus envisions.

Perhaps it’s helpful to pause and remember that the word “hospitality” shares the same root as the word “hospital.” Both derive from the Latin word hospes meaning stranger or guest. If a hospital is a place where the sick come for healing, hospitality is a place of communion between host and guest.

Now, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out in an Emergency Room, hospitality might not be the first image that comes to mind. The seen-it-all face on the triage nurse doesn’t exactly evoke images of warmth and welcome; no one’s handing out leis or drinks with little umbrellas sticking out. Yet the vulnerable and the sick and those in need are precisely the ones Jesus encourages us to be hospitable toward.

In a very real sense, Jesus invites us to turn the world around us into a re-envisioned “hospitality suite.” Because  hospitality is ultimately about mutual relationship and living our lives with the conviction that we are all in this together. That when we break down the barriers that divide us, only then are we living into true Christian hospitality.

Next weekend there will be a few more people here. Okay, a lot more people. So we’ll all have a chance to practice hospitality to the stranger in our midst — there will surely be some. After worshipping at some other churches the past few weeks and having very few people actually talk to me after the service, it’s safe to say that not too many congregations extend hospitality to the best of their ability. And they have bad coffee.

But it makes me think that maybe I should keep those two angels on the outside of my front door as a reminder that Jesus wants us to practice Christian hospitable everywhere. Not just inside our homes but in church and on the street and in every single aspect of our daily lives. That’s both the challenge and the invitation Jesus extends to us this morning.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 21, 2013 (Proper 11, Year C)

Last Friday I went down to Duxbury to hang out with some single women along the waterfront. It’s okay, you can tell Bryna — they were nuns. As you may know, a number of the Sisters of St. Margaret have been attending St. John’s this summer. So I called Sister Adele Marie, the order’s Superior, to ask if I could meet with her to talk about this budding relationship and to take a tour of their newly built convent — which is completely green with geothermal heating and solar panels, by the way. Very impressive. Sister Carolyn gave me the full tour.

I should dispel a few misconceptions before I go on. First, yes, there are Episcopal nuns. Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious orders. There are Episcopal convents and monasteries all across the country including, locally, Arlington and Cambridge. Second, they don’t carry rulers around waiting to smack you. Quite the contrary — they are warm and inviting, some of the sisters have sly senses of humor, and they’re all passionate about their ministry. Third, they’ve owned the property in Duxbury since 1903 so it’s not as if they’re some well-heeled order that lounges along the beachfront all day sipping pina coladas. In fact, while they’re headquartered on the South Shore, they do mission work in Dorchester,  New York City, and Haiti mostly with children and the elderly. Their convent in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake and they’re set up in temporary housing but it hasn’t dampened their steadfast commitment to the people of what is arguably the poorest country in the world.

I guess sisters were on my mind this week between visiting the convent and this gospel passage that tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. When Jesus comes to Bethany he is welcomed into the home that Martha shares with Mary. He is invited to come inside and take a load off. He’s been out all day in the hot sun preaching and teaching and he finally gets to relax among friends, have a cool drink, and enjoy a satisfying meal.

Now whenever you’re invited into someone’s home, you know that the host or hostess sets the tone. If the food has been prepped and you’re ushered in to sit and join in some pre-dinner conversation, it’s pretty relaxing. If you walk in and the hosts are still getting dressed or haven’t set out any hors d’oeuvres and suddenly pots and pans are being rattled around, it can be awkward and stressful and you aren’t getting what you really came for which was to enjoy your host’s company.

With Mary and Martha Jesus gets both extremes. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the posture of discipleship, engaged in conversation with him while Martha busies herself preparing the meal. Of course Martha starts to resent this and complains to Jesus — which sounds an awful lot like a whiny sibling tattling on the other one. ‘Lord, don’t you care that Mary’s left me to do all the work myself? Tell her to help me.’ Now, I’m not sure if that sounds familiar to any parents but Martha is basically saying ‘It’s not fair!’ Justice is a big theme in most households with young children.

And I love Jesus’ response. What he doesn’t do is try to act like a referee by saying something like. “Okay, to make this fair, Martha, you wash and, Mary, you dry.” You can almost hear the calm tone in his voice as he points beyond the immediate situation to make a larger point. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”

This isn’t to say that Martha’s actions aren’t necessary; it’s not to diminish the hard work that comes with hospitality; things do need to get done. But Jesus points to the heart of the matter, as he always does. We start with our relationship with Jesus and then everything else flows from that. It’s a matter of priorities and in this moment, Mary is quietly listening to and learning from and being inspired by Jesus while Martha is running around stressing out about the meal, the dishes, and the impression she’s making.

And who among us can’t relate to being “worried and distracted by many things?” All you have to do is stop and sit quietly for five minutes and see where your mind goes. Shopping lists and doctor’s appointments and e-mails to answer and relatives to call and dinner to make and sermons to write. Okay I was projecting with that last one. But in full disclosure I came up with this sermon topic in the middle of Morning Prayer while I was supposed to be praying! Distractions come in many forms and as a society we are a distracted lot.

The reality is that we need a balance of prayer and service; a balance between reflection and action; a balance between worship and mission. Which brings us back to the sisters I started with. The monastic life is all about striking this balance. St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism made sure his monks led lives of balance by engaging body, mind, and spirit. Yet it’s the prayer that always fuels the service. And it’s nice to know that we have a good example of this balance just down the shoreline a bit.

The other point here is that Jesus doesn’t measure us by what we do or fail to get done — he loves us simply for who we are. All the rushing around, all the accomplishments don’t make Jesus love us any more. And so it is worth our while to find some time to just stop and enjoy our relationship with Jesus. Which is really what prayer is anyway. And the sisters will tell you that it does get easier; that with some practice you’ll actually be able to clear your mind of all the clutter when you try sitting quietly. Not at first, not in the first few minutes as your mind swirls, but give it time and you’ll get to that point where you can simply revel in relationship with God.

Yes, things still need to get done. Dinner won’t make itself, the kids need to be picked up from camp. But Jesus invites us into a life of holy perspective. A life that flows out of the blessings bestowed upon us. A life that flows out of relationship with the divine. A life that flows directly from the feet of Jesus out into the world.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 14, 2013 (Proper 10, Year C)

I’m not sure how many homeless folks follow the Sunday lectionary cycle of readings but today would be the perfect day to hang around outside a church. The well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan evokes many responses in people but one of them is guilt about all the people we pass on street corners who are poor and downtrodden and seeking a handout.

When I served a downtown church in Baltimore City we would always tell people not to give directly to those on the street but rather to an organization we supported one block away that ran a feeding program and offered free counseling and other services that was called, ironically enough, the Samaritan Center. Nonetheless whenever this reading came up I’d always see people handing out change as they walked to their cars for the ride back to the suburbs where  homelessness wouldn’t confront them face-to-face.

This isn’t to make light of either homelessness or people doing what they feel they can do to help those in need. But helping those in need out of guilt is not the point Jesus is making with this story. He’s talking about a spirit of compassion and generosity rooted in the love of God.

One of the great twists in this parable is that the man who stands up to “test” Jesus is pretty certain of the answer when he asks him, “And who is my neighbor?” Coming out of a very tribal culture where people generally stuck to their own kind and intentionally set up barriers between people of other cultures, his view of a neighbor would have been someone that not only lived in his community but someone who also looked, thought, and acted much like himself. It’s easy enough to be hospitable or helpful to one of our own — we’d expect a similar response if the roles were reversed. That’s one of the joys of living in a tight-knit community.

And when we think of our neighbors our initial thoughts likely go in the same direction. They’re the people our kids play with, the ones we occasionally socialize with, the ones we wave to as they pull out of their driveway. Sure, the one guy two houses over uses that annoying leaf blower but at least he doesn’t keep his boat parked on the front lawn.

But Jesus shatters this whole limited notion of what it means to be a neighbor. He takes us beyond the white picket fence to a place where humanity is the common denominator regardless of race, class, social standing, or belief system. And that’s a hard place to go — it takes us out of our comfort zones and into contact with those who don’t look, think, or act like us. Even in this era of globalization and multiculturalism that’s still so often our default mode — we can be parochial in our own definition of what it means to be a neighbor. And we’ve just seen with the Trayvon Martin case in Florida just how deadly these consequences can be.

It’s hard to grasp how much this little parable would have blown this man’s mind. Contrasting a priest and Levite with a Samaritan couldn’t have been more radical. It would be like comparing an orthodox Jew and a radical Muslim or a white supremacist and a Black Panther. But what it really calls us to reflect upon is what is our responsibility to those we don’t know? What is our responsibility to the stranger in need?

I was telling my younger son just this week about what it was like to be stranded on the side of the road in the era before cell phones. He had trouble relating to the idea that in the olden days, if you blew out a tire or your car overheated on a lonely stretch of highway you just had to pull over to the shoulder and wait. You were literally at the mercy of some “good samaritan” who happened to pull over to help. There was no cell phone safety net of always being in touch. By the time I started telling him about how you had to page people in airports when you couldn’t find them, Zack had heard enough about my stories from the “pre-historic” era.

Jesus reminds us that we are all interconnected; that we are all fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith; and that our responsibility to the stranger runs deep. For in the stranger we may indeed meet Christ himself.

But as a parish this puts us in a tricky position. What is our communal responsibility to those in need? We do a lot to support outreach efforts locally and globally but is it enough? And can it ever be enough? Should we cash in our endowment to buy food for the poor? Should we sell off our buildings to help rebuild houses destroyed by natural disasters? Should we lay off some staff to pay for vaccinations in poor countries? What’s the proper balance?

One thing that needs to be said is that the church is not a social service agency. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to build the United Way upon this rock; he told him to build his church. There are certainly similarities between what we do to help people in need and what, say, Meals on Wheels might do. Many churches host food pantries and run homeless shelters, they offer clothing banks or serve meals. This is all good and certainly in keeping with the mandate of Matthew 25 that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger.

As a church in Hingham some things aren’t feasible. Unlike an urban parish it wouldn’t make sense to open a food pantry or run a homeless shelter. That’s neither our context nor our calling. I’m delighted that we have been taking our commitment to reach out to others more seriously and the Outreach Committee has done a terrific job over the past year to involve more of us in hands-on ministry, fundraising, and awareness.

But all outreach efforts must be taken in context of the church’s primary mission which is to share the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ. Without that as the driving motivation we may as well just take the crosses down and become a non-profit service agency. It is our passion for Jesus that allows us to go in peace to both love and serve the Lord. Only when our ministry flows directly from the altar out into the world does it become authentically Christian service, which is our true calling and mission.

There is, of course, a place for both the church and social service agencies. Many of us generously support both. But the church needs to be true to its mission. When Jesus said “We’ll always have the poor among us,” he wasn’t saying that to justify turning a cold shoulder to our brothers and sisters in need. He was noting that the Kingdom of Heaven has not yet fully arrived here on earth and nor will it until that day when Christ returns in glory. And in the meantime our mission is simply to love God and love neighbor in a way that marks us as Christ’s own forever.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 7, 2013 (Proper 9, Year C)

Everyone knows about those twelve apostles; the ones Jesus hung out with and traveled with and ate the Last Supper with. They were his inner circle, the true believers, the ones who had literally left everything behind to follow Jesus. We know their names — some of us even had to memorize them in Sunday School. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, another James, Thaddeus, Simon, and the infamous Judas who was later replaced by Matthias. We’ve read stories about them in the Bible, they’ve been depicted in art, they have churches named after them.

So who are these seventy others Jesus appoints to bring his message of salvation out into the world? They certainly don’t get much press. There’s even dispute over whether there were 70 or 72 of them — the translations differ. But who were these people that Jesus trusted enough to send out two-by-two into the surrounding towns?

Well, on the surface of things we know that they were early followers of Jesus, or as we might now say they were “early adopters” of Jesus’ message of salvation. We only hear about them in Luke’s gospel and we have no idea what happened to them after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Presumably some were martyred for their faith, others fell away, and still others were instrumental in forming those earliest Christian communities. We don’t know.

In fact Eastern and Western Christianity even differ on what to call them. In the west we refer to them as the 70 disciples while in the Orthodox tradition they’re known as the 70 apostles. In a sense both traditions are right if “disciple” means student and “apostle” means one sent out on a mission.

One of the things going on here is something that every good leader must ultimately do — give up control. That’s hard enough to do in our daily lives but if you’re the Son of God you’re surely not going to be delegating authority to anyone who can hold a candle to your divine competence. You could understand Jesus thinking to himself, “I’ve worked hard to get this message out, my time on earth is limited, and I’m expected to entrust the salvation of the world to these people?”

But of course he doesn’t; not just because Jesus is Jesus but because he loves the church — and those men and women who helped share the Good News of God’s kingdom even before it officially became the church. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some days when Jesus must just shake his head. But he knew the moment he sent out disciples in his name that they would do both great things and embarrassing things. They would point people toward God and place them on a spiritual arc of redemption. And they would do things in his name that would be less than enlightening and sometimes even harmful.

But he lets go. He knows we’re not perfect but he also knows that the church itself isn’t about perfection. Rather it points us in the direction of perfection; in the direction of the God of all hope.

In the end, Jesus doesn’t give the church to twelve people or 70 people; he doesn’t give the church to a bunch of folks who wear collars and fancy vestments. He gives the church to us; to you and to me. The church universal as well as this very parish has been entrusted to us. And that’s both a privilege and a responsibility.

I learned a long time ago about what makes up a church. When I grew up in Baltimore my family ended up at two churches, both beautiful worship spaces in their own ways. Then in 1982 when I was 13 we moved to New York — to a small, quiet (by New York standards) neighborhood just over the 59th Street Bridge into Queens. One of the first things we did was start church shopping as a family. We visited some incredible parishes — St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Grace Church in Greenwich Village. The architecture was spectacular, the choral music was divine, the liturgy was grand. But somehow something was missing.

Out of desperation we finally tried the little, neighborhood Episcopal Church — All Saints’ in Sunnyside. If you drove too fast up 46th Street you’d miss it. It was a nondescript red brick building tucked in amongst apartment buildings. We walked in and I, for one, was not impressed. There were very few people there, the music was played on an electric organ, there were no Tiffany windows, and the floors were all bright red asbestos tile. In other words, it didn’t look like a church to me. Oh, it had all the usual churchy things: an altar, pews, bulletins, coffee hour but it all seemed rather, well, ordinary.

The people were friendly enough — I remember it being a pretty diverse crowd but it was the dynamic young rector who showed up at our house the next week to talk about his vision for the church that made my parents return the next week. Suddenly I was acolyting every week, my brother and I were sucked into the tiny youth group, my father started reading lessons and my mother joined the choir. We became a part of that small yet growing parish just as it became a part of our own identity.

And somewhere along the way, I learned what church is. It’s not about stained glass windows or flying buttresses or pipe organs or vestments or any of the other trappings we so often identify with church. Rather, it’s about the people. It’s about a community of disciples striving to keep Jesus Christ at the center of their lives. It’s about a community coming together to worship and to rejoice and to celebrate and to weep and to bear one another’s burdens. It’s not about being perfect but being perfectly willing to be vulnerable and flexible and open to the gentle tug of the Spirit.

This is what Jesus was initiating when he sent out those 70 disciples. He was letting them test out the notion of what it would mean to be a community with him spiritually but not physically at the center. This brief mission out into the world turned them into CITs — the Church in Training. And in a very real way we’re still the Church in training. We fumble around, we don’t always represent Jesus in the world to the degree he deserves, we focus too much on our own needs rather than the needs of those around us. And yet Jesus stands among us at the center guiding us, exhorting us, interceding for us, perhaps sometimes shaking his head at us but always and primarily loving us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 23, 2013 (Proper 7, Year C)

Most of what I know about demons I learned from movies. To be specific movie trailers since I’m not a big fan of slasher flicks. The Exorcist, Poltergeist, those Chucky movies. I’ve never understood why people willingly fork over good money just for the privilege of having the bejesus scared out them. But Hollywood loves demons almost as much as it loves vampires. The difference being that demons tend to rear their ugly heads in the Bible. But vampires? Not so so much.

Jesus is always casting out demons with a touch, a word, a glance. Most of us probably have trouble relating to this aspect of Jesus’ ministry and so we tend to gloss over or rationalize these exorcisms. Was it really a demon or was it some undiagnosed mental illness? And what do we mean by demon anyway — is it a malevolent paranormal being or an unclean spirit of some sort or just a metaphor for evil?

In some ways it doesn’t matter as long as we redefine the word “demon.” Don’t think about hideous green creatures or slimy serpentine satanic beings. In other words, leave the special effects aside. A demon is really anything that keeps us from wholeness. They serve as obstacles to being the people God intends us to be. So whatever they may or may not look like, demons destroy the wholeness of our humanity. They prevent us from experiencing the fullness of the human condition by distorting our relationships with God, with one another, and with ourselves.

This was certainly the case with the Gerasene demoniac, as he’s known, that Jesus encounters in this morning’s gospel. We meet a wild, unkempt, demon-possessed man in a story that is both striking and bizarre. He’s been tormented for years and has terrorized the local population with his erratic behavior. His demons are so powerful that not even chains can restrain him. And we also learn that he lives out by the tombs — in other words not among the living. He is in effect a dead man walking; not fully human.

We may not feel much solidarity with this man but we actually have much more in common than we think. Because no matter how we label them, demons are alive and well and thriving in our world. The most prevalent demons relate to addiction — drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, the internet; a penchant for abusive behavior or an unhealthy hunger for money or status. If you dig deep enough we all have either personal experience or we’ve dealt with addiction issues first-hand through close friends or family members. These demons are intense because they hold power over us and can quite literally possess us. I’ve heard alcoholics tell me after falling off the wagon, “I let my demons get the best of me.” To someone in the throes of addiction, these demons aren’t imaginary but real, tangible, and destructive.

The situation of the demoniac Jesus meets is strikingly similar to those among us who battle such demons. He is isolated from the community, estranged from his family, engaged in self-destructive behavior, out of control, trapped in an unhealthy situation, and powerless to help himself. Sound familiar? Those are all the signs we would associate with someone struggling with addiction.

There’s been an Alcoholics Anonymous group in every church I’ve ever served — it’s a ministry the church has always embraced. Here at St. John’s there’s a large one that takes place every Saturday night. I still remember the evening before my very first Sunday here; I was looking out the kitchen window of the rectory and saw a ton of cars heading up the driveway. I had a momentary panic — was I supposed to be at some church event they forgot to tell me about? I even went up the hill to ask what was going on.

What many people don’t realize is that AA was co-founded by an Episcopal priest. Sam Shoemaker was a priest in New York City when he met Bill Wilson and together they put together the program we now know. Shoemaker was the group’s spiritual guide and was instrumental in putting together those famous 12-Steps.

I have to think this particular gospel story was on Shoemaker’s heart when he came up with the steps that have led to the transformation of so many lives. All you have to do is look at the first three steps to see the parallel.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The Gerasene demoniac was indeed powerless and his life had become unmanageable. It took a power greater than himself to restore him to sanity. Ultimately, he turned his life over to God’s care and was made whole.

Shoemaker, who was a renowned preacher and prolific author, wrote a well-known poem titled “I Stand at the Door.” He uses the door as the symbol for entering into relationship with God and it’s an image he felt defined his ministry. He saw himself as one who stood by the door to welcome others into this transformative relationship.

It’s a fairly long poem and I encourage you to look it up but I wanted to at least read portions of the first and last stanzas:

I stand by the door
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…
So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door, the door to God.
The most important thing anyone can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And to put it on the latch the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it, live because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find God…
So I stay near the door.

I love this imagery because Jesus spoke about being the door itself. Or at least the gate to the sheepfold — which is a door. In John’s gospel he says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And he also tells us in Matthew’s gospel, “Knock and the door will be opened unto you.

It is entering this door of relationship with Jesus Christ that makes us whole. This is what Shoemaker was pointing us toward and it’s what Jesus calls us into. We are all broken; we are all possessed by demons of one sort or another; we are all in need of healing. There’s no magic pill that wipes away our human frailty or our deep insecurities or the hurt that we have endured over the years. But Jesus is the door itself, flung wide open in welcome. Beckoning us in; inviting us into ever-deepening relationship with the God who sets us free.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013