Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 16, 2017 (Proper 10A)

One of the few things I remember from middle school biology — besides dissecting that fetal pig (which was both disgusting and the precise moment I realized I would never become a doctor) — is the concept of photosynthesis. In order to grow something you need seed, sun, and water. Whether you’re trying to grow a flower or a tree or a tomato plant you need all three for horticultural success.
 
This isn’t to suggest I’ve been particularly effective at this over the years. For someone who spends a lot of time reading agricultural parables — about reaping and sowing and mustard seeds and vineyards — I’m a lousy gardener.
 
But we’ve actively participated in the process of photosynthesis here at St. John’s the last couple of months as we’ve been growing some grass out front. A number of you have volunteered to help water and it has actually worked. What once was dirt, now is grass. And we are reminded again of the miracle of creation and the beauty of the natural world and the rising cost of Aquarion’s water.
 
This morning we hear the Parable of the Sower. And one of the great things about this story is that it’s one of the few parables Jesus tells and then immediately interprets for the disciples. So he’s basically already done the work of the preacher — in no uncertain terms he’s explained what it all means. Jesus has spelled out the metaphorical meaning behind seeing receptivity to God’s word as the seed sown on the path and the rocky soil and among the thorns and on the good soil. I should probably just sit down and let him have the last word.
 
But that’s not my way. And, as always, there are nuances here that begin to emerge beneath the surface of the text. Because, of course, life isn’t so neat and ordered. Our spiritual lives don’t categorically fit into one of four quadrants. You can’t go up to a crowd of people, share this story, and say, “Okay, everyone who considers themselves rocky soil stand over here. And if you identify as thorny soil, go into that corner. Sown on a path? Go there. And those who see themselves as good soil, stay right here.” And while we all like to think of ourselves as the good soil, it’s always more complicated than that.
 
The reality is that our lives are made up of a patchwork of different soils. We bear more or less fruit at different times. Some days we’re particularly receptive to hearing God’s word and acting on it; on other days it gets choked by the pressing concerns and distractions of our over-scheduled lives. Some days we just don’t understand or can’t hear God’s word; on other days we receive it joyfully but it doesn’t stick.
 
In a sense, the soil of our lives is like fill dirt. That’s the dirt that’s taken from one Fill-Dirtconstruction site where holes are being dug — like to put in a pool or excavate for a building’s foundation — and taken to another site where earth is needed for regrading or landscaping. Sometimes you’ll see signs around town at houses where construction is being done: “Free Fill Dirt” or “Fill Dirt Wanted.” And so this dirt gets repurposed and reused and moved from project to project. Basically fill dirt is the poor stepchild of the soil world. It’s necessary, but it’s not pure in any form. There’s often some good soil mixed in along with rocks and sand and weeds.
 
We like to think our receptivity to God is more like a bag of potting soil from Home Depot. Rich earth, chock-full of nutrients that has been specifically engineered to encourage the greatest growth. That’s what you sink your geraniums into or use when you plant sweet-smelling herbs like basil or lavender. We like to think that, because we usually come to church or say our prayers or occasionally pick up the Bible, we are always receptive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives.
 
And we’re often right. But not always. Sometimes we do all the right things to nurture our faith and yet nothing takes root. At other times we do nothing to put ourselves in a particularly prayerful posture and we suddenly have a powerful and surprising encounter with God. And what you start to realize is that we’re not the ones actually in control here. That we have a role to play in the process of spiritual growth but it often happens in ways that are well beyond our control.
 
The truth is, we can’t control all the variables needed for spiritual photosynthesis, but we can help tend the garden. Your spiritual garden begins with baptism — that’s the seed, the spirit of God that has been lovingly sown within your heart. And we’ll be sowing some of this seed in just a few moments when we baptize Miles and Julia and George.
 
One of the things we sometimes overlook in this story is the sowing itself. We focus on the soil. But when the guys came to spread grass seed around here, they put it exclusively on the bare spots in the lawn; they concentrated it on the areas where we wanted to grow grass. They weren’t spreading seed on the driveway or on areas where the lawn was already lush or in the flower beds or behind the church back in the woods or on the front steps. They put the seed where we wanted grass to grow.
 
That’s pretty obvious, right? It would be a waste of seed and therefore a waste of money to do it any other way. But isn’t that precisely what the sower in this story is doing? If we view the sower as a metaphor for God, then God is a pretty lousy gardener. Or at least a wasteful one. Old MacDonald himself would never sow seed in places he knew it would never grow — like on paths or rocky ground or among thorns. Again, I’m not a great gardener, or farmer, but even I know this is not how you sow seed. You don’t just recklessly throw it all over the place — seed is a precious commodity. It must be sown with care and intentionality.
 
But the point Jesus is making here is not about efficient gardening techniques. He’s talking about the abundant grace of God; a God who spreads love with reckless abandon; a God who opens his heart to everyone.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized – when that seed is sown in your soul – it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the seed of relationship with the risen Christ has been indelibly sown within you.
 
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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

Fourth Sunday in Lent 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 26, 2017 (Lent 4, Year A)

One of the things about having children is you end up reliving experiences you hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes this is a blessing — like when you get to re-watch those original Star Wars movies. And sometimes this is a curse — like when you have to essentially retake geometry.

One such experience is learning how to drive. The fits and starts of those early days behind the wheel typically don’t come to mind when you hop in the car to run an errand. Unless you have a child taking Driver’s Ed. And then you suddenly have a driving expert sitting next to you criticizing your every rolling stop and commenting on your apparently lackadaisical use of the blinker.

Now I’ve blocked out most of my time in Driver’s Ed, but I particularly remember the highway_110415gnconversation about the blind spot. Barry, our rather gruff, Brooklyn-bred instructor, seemed to spend an awful lot of time on it and so I knew that, in theory, there was a spot when changing lanes that you couldn’t really see using the mirrors alone. But it seemed kind of ridiculous that you couldn’t see a big van or a truck that was right next to you. Or at least sense it — like by using The Force. But all it took was driving on the highway for the first time and not completely turning around and hearing that bus lean on the horn to realize that, oh, so that’s the blind spot Barry was talking about. It’s not merely theoretical. And with all the angles involved, maybe geometry actually is useful.

But in time you come to learn that even beyond driving, we all have blind spots. Areas of our lives that we literally can’t see. They may have to do with family relationships or politics or our vocational life. They may be based on our upbringing or gender or race or nationality or faith tradition or socioeconomic class. But these blindspots can wreak havoc on those around us, even if they don’t particularly register with us. They’re easy enough to ignore — until we wind up bumping into something and causing a metaphorical wreck or negatively impacting the lives of those around us.

Calling attention to these blind spots was one of the reasons Jesus came into the world; to help us gain a new perspective, to help us see the whole picture; to remove the scales from our eyes, to help us see those hidden in plain sight; to take away the blind spots of our lives.

And this morning we have a particularly detailed story of Jesus healing a blind man. Sometimes these healing miracles are over before you can say, “Take up your mat and follow me.” But in this one from John’s gospel, there’s a lot of dialogue and a whole host of characters, besides Jesus and this man born blind. The disciples ask questions about the man’s family; his neighbors, who knew him as a beggar, want to know who healed him and how; they bring him to the religious authorities who continue to question him about the identity of his healer; they track down his parents to get their side of the story; they keep pestering this man with questions about the how and the what and the why and they finally drive him out of town when all he wants to do is live his life with his eyes wide open, literally and spiritually.

But, boy is it easier and more convenient to keep our blinders on. To ignore the things we don’t want to see. Across the street from the church there’s a bus stop. Most people don’t notice it since, who takes the bus in Hingham? I mean a school bus, sure, but actual public transportation? Please. I hardly notice this bus stop and I both live and work across the street from it. But I’m not sure what’s more invisible: the bus stop itself or the people who occasionally stand there waiting for the bus. Usually, if there’s anyone at all, it’s a lonely soul. Perhaps a domestic worker or a laborer.

This is an overt blind spot and the real sin is when we keep other people, fellow children of God, in our bind spots. For to do so is to rip away their very dignity.

So what do we do about our own personal and communal blindspots? Well, we can be in relationship with those with differing perspectives or experiences. That’s really the best way to address them. Which is why it’s so important to have conversations with those with whom we disagree or with those whose experiences differ from our own. When we end up only staying within the confines of our own tribe, it may be more comfortable, it may be more enjoyable, but it only broadens our blind spots. And ultimately that diminishes both us and our respective communities.

Yes, it’s awkward to discover and acknowledge our blind spots. You have to crane your neck a bit and leave your comfort zone. You have to intentionally seek out a new perspective. You have to work a bit harder to see. And we can’t do it alone.

But the payoff is a fuller life; a more faithful life; a richer life. Which is precisely the life Jesus beckons us towards. Because Jesus helps us see those in society we may be blind to by insisting we look their way. That’s precisely what he did last week when he encountered that woman at the well and it is what he does in this morning’s encounter with the blind man. He interacts with people deemed insignificant by mainstream society; people few would have noticed as anything other than part of the landscape.

Two weeks ago at our Lenten Series on poverty, our speaker Matt Pritchard, the executive director of HomeStart, spoke about the utter isolation of being homeless. And he learned of this first-hand, not just in theory because when he first started working with the homeless population, Matt did something remarkable. In order to get to know the folks he would be serving, he spent a year living in the homeless shelter where he worked.

His bunk mates used to tell him about their experiences begging for change out on the streets, something they would do for most of their waking hours. In response to the question, “Can you spare some change?” they told Matt that 95 out of 100 people who walked by wouldn’t make eye contact or even acknowledge their presence; that at a certain point people didn’t even see them anymore; that the vast majority of the mass of humanity that passed them by were blind to their very existence.

They described this existence as like living in a “space bubble.” In other words, these men felt as if they inhabited a completely separate universe from every other human being. That they were aliens in a foreign land. Which, as Matt put it, became “an obstacle to feeling human, to being worth loving, and rebuilding their life off the streets.” And it must have been exactly how the blind beggar felt for much of his life, before his encounter with Jesus.

But these men also shared how big a difference it made when a person did smile or acknowledge them in some way. Especially those people who introduced themselves, shared their names, learned theirs, and would speak to them with respect. For these men, authentic attention was an incredible antidote to their loneliness and isolation.

Physical sight aside, Jesus saw this man who was, for the vast majority, an afterthought. He existed in a blind spot, in a “space bubble” that was a place of deep alienation. These are the people Jesus bids us to gaze upon and to recognize and to lift up. And to fail to do so, is to remain blind to the wonder and fulness of God’s creation.

Yes, we are the blind ones Jesus seeks to heal; we are the indifferent ones whose eyes Jesus seeks to open. May we recognize our own blindness and hardness of heart and allow Jesus to open our eyes to the cries of those in our midst who so desperately seek to be seen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 12, 2017 (6 Epiphany, Year A)

“I hate people.” Now, that’s not a direct quote from me, so relax. But this is something a friend of mine says on a fairly regular basis — whenever I tell him about a particularly challenging encounter with a stranger or a tough situation with a family member or sticky circumstances with someone at church, (not this church, of course). “I hate people” is kind of his misanthropic mantra. It’s a rather dark view of human nature, to be sure, but there are times when, if we’re pushed, we can’t help but agree. At least for a moment or two.

Now, if you really unpacked this idea using a theological framework, I guess you could get into the fall of humanity and its utter depravity and the absolute need for redemption. Though I don’t think this is really the spiritual takeaway I want to leave you with this morning.

But much of our anxiety in this life is caused by other people. By the way they treat us or hurt us or act towards us. And things would be so much easier and run so much more smoothly if other people didn’t get in the way, right? If they just left us alone to do things our way, on our schedule, to our liking. But life doesn’t work that way. Despite all our talk about “rugged individualism,” we’re rather dependent upon one another; we live interdependent lives woven into communities based on family and proximity and vocation and interest and faith. We are, for better or worse, a communal species.

In this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount — and by the way, this sermon has "Sermon on the Mount"been going on for three weeks now, so just remember that when you want to complain about the preaching around here — but in today’s section, Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see that every action we take impacts those around us. The life of faith isn’t an individual proposition.

Jesus may have looked deep into the soul of each individual when he called them with the words, “Follow me,” but he invited them to become a community of disciples. He didn’t ask them to be spiritual lone rangers but to follow him together; to care for one another, to support one another, to love one another. Because Jesus knew that humans can’t live fruitful, faithful lives in isolation. We need others to reach our fullest spiritual potential, as it’s set out in our Baptismal covenant. And so, as he continues this famous sermon, Jesus talks about the different relationships we have — with friends and spouses and strangers and family members. And he’s well aware of just how complex, how potentially damaging, and how life-giving, our interdependence can be.

Ultimately, this whole notion of interconnectedness revolves around accountability. We are first and foremost accountable to God, of course. Everything we do or fail to do impacts our relationship with the divine. Our actions either bring us closer to God or distance us from God. And that places a burden of responsibility upon us — our actions matter, our words matter. They matter to God.

Which brings us to the other side of this accountability equation: because we live in various communities made up of people, we are accountable to one another. Being accountable to others is not always easy. Our interconnectedness can be messy. It can mean directly confronting those whose actions hurt us, and it can mean being confronted when our own actions don’t live up to the standards of civility and good citizenship.

It’s why Jesus speaks about being reconciled to one another — something especially important in a faith community but equally important in every aspect of our lives. Allowing things to fester below the surface, in any relationship, always proves toxic. Most of us are conflict averse, but if we are to be accountable to one another and move beyond the hurtfulness, open and honest dialogue is the only way forward.

Here’s an example of how accountability works in the church. At least in the Episcopal Church. Because you may not know this, but you can’t just decide to become a priest. You can’t just enroll yourself in seminary and come out wearing a collar a few years later. It doesn’t work that way.

Of course, these days you can just go online and get ordained. Not in the Episcopal Church, mind you, but if you have an internet connection you, too, could become an ordained minister — of some sort — by the time I finish this sermon.

But an authentic calling, as the Church understands it, is a matter of communal discernment not individual preference. For instance, when something started to stir deep inside my own soul in my mid-20’s, I went in to talk to my parish priest. And after he first counseled me to think about doing something, anything, besides ordained ministry, we started meeting regularly. Eventually, when he recognized a call, he enrolled me in the diocesan discernment process which involved all sorts of holy hoops and hurdles. A group of fellow parishioners was set up to help me test and explore this sense of call; I met regularly with others around the diocese who felt similarly called; there were physicals and psychological tests and internships in nursing homes and parish settings and meetings with panels of lay people and clergy from throughout the diocese and eventually with the bishop, who ultimately had the authority to decide whether or not to allow me to move forward in the ordination process and go on to seminary.

Among other things, this was a process of accountability. A mutual process that allowed the community to explore the sense of call along with the person discerning that call. They could have said, “We think you have some gifts but we don’t think ordained ministry is where they lie.” And that certainly happens. And should happen. But everyone I encountered in this long process was seeking to be accountable to me, to the Church, and to God. And that takes hard, brutally honest work. It’s not a perfect process but, when done with authenticity and deep faith, it does help raise up faithful, competent, committed clergy.

The point isn’t to teach a How to Become a Priest 101 class. It’s to highlight the centrality and importance of community and accountability in our faith lives. We are all accountable to one another and to God. There are no lone wolves in a community of faith. It doesn’t work that way. There are certain spiritual checks and balances that keep everyone open and honest and accountable to one another. Which is precisely Jesus’ point.

Again, Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals but into a community of fellow believers and strivers. Sometimes we may drive one another crazy; sometimes we may disagree; but in the end we are all there for one another. We lift each other up when times are difficult and celebrate with each other in times of joy. That’s the gift of our interconnectedness; that’s the gift of being accountable to one another; that’s the gift of the community into which Jesus beckons us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday after Epiphany (3 Epiphany, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 22, 2017 (3 Epiphany, Year A)

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

How’s that for a timely passage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 21-womens-march-pink-01-w710-h473President on Friday and protests all over the world on Saturday? “Be in agreement” with “no divisions among you” and “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Yeah, there hasn’t been so much of that of late. We seem to have more disagreements than ever, we’re more divided than ever, and disunity rules.

In other words, the United States of America at this moment in history has an awful lot in common with the early church. Paul’s letters were written to the burgeoning but small communities he had started — in this case to the Corinthians but also the Thessalonians and Ephesians and Philippians and all those other names readers in church have been saying and sometimes stumbling over for generations. 

And we often put a gloss on these first communities of Jesus followers. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘it must have been great to be a Christian back then. Everyone agreed on everything, there was no conflict, it was all so spiritual and peaceful.’ But then you start reading Paul’s letters and a different picture emerges. Because based on his epistles, these folks argued about everything from worship to sexual ethics to socio-economic class to what they could and couldn’t eat. Literally, the moment Paul left one of these communities, the divisions would break out.

These were faithful people, seeking to follow Jesus, who simply disagreed on what this looked like in practice. Remember, there was no rule book to follow. No “What Would Jesus Do” wristbands. Yes, there was Hebrew Scripture to look to but there was not a New Testament to consult because it hadn’t yet been written. And even if there had been, the Bible itself was never intended to be God’s rulebook.

And I think that, for the most part, as citizens of this country we are decent people who want to help others while maintaining a certain amount of autonomy for ourselves and our families. We often disagree on the specifics of what this looks like. Hopefully with civility, but that seems to be increasingly rare.

Paul was quite aware of the nature of humanity — our pettiness and shortcomings. Our yearning to put our own interests above those of others. Our desire to subjugate the vulnerable and weak. Paul was certainly no saint himself — well, I mean he was in the church sense, which is why he’s known as “St. Paul.” But he had his own personality quirks that rubbed people the wrong way. You can’t by sheer force of will and personality almost single-handedly spread a religion across the known world without annoying some people along the way. Or running afoul of the governing authorities. And Paul endured the beatings and imprisonments and eventual martyrdom to prove it.

So, knowing all this, Paul’s call to the Corinthians to “be in agreement” with one another despite all their differences sounds, at one level, rather Pollyanna-ish. Let’s just all come together for a group hug. Well, Paul’s answer, despite appearances, was not “Let’s all just get along.”

The unity he’s talking about transcends viewpoint and perspective and party. Because unity in Christ transcends all of these petty particulars. That’s what Paul is trying to convey here. That there is something so much greater that binds us together; and that something is Jesus Christ. And this is precisely what we can learn as we gather in the months following a bitter, divisive election season. That if we keep Jesus at the center of our lives, it doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or any other label we use to describe our viewpoints. It’s not that these differences don’t matter; it’s that Jesus exposes all of our labels and self-identifiers as false and fleeting constructs. The cross of Christ transcends whatever banner under which we choose to march. And in divisive times in our national political life, we do well to remember this.

I admit I’ve personally had a rough week wrestling with the ways the Episcopal Church has been part of the Inauguration festivities in Washington. And this has nothing to do with who won or lost this particular election — it’s bigger than that. Because one of the great debates is about the often uneasy relationship between church and state. Yes, the Constitution is clear about separation and yet tradition often belies this. There is a great tradition that the morning of the Inauguration the President-elect attends a service at St. John’s, Lafayette Square, which is across the street from the White House. It’s an Episcopal church informally known as “The Church of the Presidents” — there’s even a pew specially reserved for the president and every president since James Madison has worshipped there on occasion.

photo1At one level, this practice brings pride to Episcopalians everywhere, even as it hearkens back to a bygone era when we were associated with the political and cultural elite. And then there’s the other tradition of the prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral — the Episcopal cathedral in the Diocese of Washington — that takes place the day after the Inauguration. It’s hospitable, perhaps, to offer our space, but at what cost?

For instance this year’s preacher at the president’s private service at St. John’s was an inflammatory Southern Baptist who has made disparaging remarks against gays and Catholics and Mormons and Muslims, among others. Hardly what I would expect to come from the pulpit of one of our churches. Now, as an Episcopal parish, the rector has the authority to invite an outside preacher with the consent of the bishop. Usually, the President-elect’s transition team chooses the lineup and this gets signed off on as a formality. But what happens when you bring in a divisive preacher whose interpretation of Scripture is antithetical to our own. Yes, we welcome all people into our churches but that shouldn’t mean inviting them to preach in our pulpits. And so I struggle with this.

It’s been argued that when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, paving the way for it to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it was a Faustian bargain. Yes, it ended the persecution of Christians and allowed the faith to come out from the underground into large, state-sanctioned sanctuaries. But as an official religion, we gave up our status as followers of the one who spoke truth to power and advocated for the poor and downtrodden and ministered among outcasts and sinners. The church was vaulted from outsider status to being the ultimate insider. Suddenly bishops took on the trappings of princes and the church in many ways became complicit with the powers and principalities it sought to stand against.

As a denomination I think we need to rethink this relationship. And this has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office. That changes. But the Church as an institution must be free to call out our leaders when actions stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Complicity is not an option. You cannot be both prophet and king. And the Church must maintain its prophetic voice in the world if it’s going to have any relevance at all. We must be able to speak out in defense of the poor and vulnerable and downtrodden and those on the margins of society — whatever the political cost — or we fail to live up to our high calling.

So all this tribal warfare — and at a base level that’s what politics is — is folly to Paul. He doesn’t care what camp you’re in. Literally could not care less. Because he sees it all as a distraction from what really matters. And what really matters is preaching the gospel and living out Jesus’ words in the world as faithful Christians. Period. The cross always transcends the flag. It must overshadow the flag or we have no business claiming to be the hands and heart of God in the world.

So unity, yes. But not allegiance unless it is to Jesus. We will not always agree but we must always be one in Christ. That’s the calling of our baptism; that’s our challenge; that’s the unity to which Paul beckons.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, 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 25, 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Once upon a time, when I was a fraternity pledge, one of the brothers came up to a group of us and demanded to know the lyrics to the song “Louie, Louie.” We had one hour to present them. Or else…well I don’t know what, but something bad. Now, if you know the song, which has been played by every garage band that ever played in a fraternity basement, you know that the lyrics are unintelligible. I mean, nobody has any idea what they say beyond “Louie, Louie” and “we gotta go” and “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This was before the magic of the internet, of course, so 10 of us crammed into a dorm room, played the cassette over and over again, and argued about the lyrics. Little did we know that it really didn’t matter; that we’d been sent on a fool’s errand. Not only did no living person, including the lead singer, have any clue what the lyrics really were but by the time we presented our interpretation to the brother in question, he’d forgotten he’d even asked us in the first place. Such was life as a pledge in the Delt house at Tufts University.

I thought about this for the first time in years as I read through and reflected on the lessons appointed for this morning. The gospel passage from Luke in particular, this peculiar parable about the rich man who is condemned to eternal damnation and the poor man who is carried away by angels into heaven. Their earthly lives were as diametrically opposed as their everlasting fates. At the end of the reading the rich man pleads to have the poor man, whose name was Lazarus, return to earth and warn the rich man’s brothers to turn their lives around so they don’t also end up, like him, in the place of torment. To which the reply comes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In other words, they have been warned over and over again about changing their ways and behaving differently towards the less fortunate. And they simply will not listen; they refuse to heed the call to a life of compassion. You could send Jesus Christ himself and they would rebuff him too, in favor of self-justification and comfort.

For some reason, I couldn’t get the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence” out of 5a824a200fcdcb8a68d1ef78d314ef0fmy head as I sat with this passage. In particular, the line about that sign that said, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls. And whispered in the sounds of silence.” The “words of the prophets.” Like the rich man in this story, like the Israelites time and time again, we so often ignore the words of the prophets.

Often we ignore them because they’re not the messages we want to hear. They may be challenging or off-putting. They may be messages from the margins of society; messages that advocate for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless; messages that tell us that black lives do indeed matter. The prophetic voice is not a mainstream voice. It often shines a light into areas that, all things being equal, we’d rather not see. Out of sight, out of mind, under the rug. It’s the voice of the prophet Amos, a powerful voice for social justice that we’ve heard the past two Sundays. There’s a note of warning in this morning’s reading to the rich and powerful that continues the prophet’s harsh words about those who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor.”

Why didn’t this rich man heed the warnings of Moses and the prophets? Probably because it would have forced him to look in the mirror and make some lifestyle changes. And when you’re living high on the hog, why would you possibly want to change anything? Why would you want to make sacrifices to help others at the risk of losing some of your own authority or wealth or comfort? Well, you probably wouldn’t. And so you ignore messages to scale back or readjust or give back or repent. And you do so, according to Jesus, at the loss of your very soul.

The point of this parable isn’t to condemn the wealthy — as Father Noah reminded us last week “God doesn’t hate the rich.” But it is to highlight the evil in our self-centered lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters. Apathy or indifference to those in need is sinful. Ignoring those who stand begging outside our proverbial gates distances us from God. And this story reminds us that what we see and how we respond in this world impacts our standing in the world to come.

The rich man wasn’t damned because he was wealthy or because he wore fancy clothes or lived in a mansion. He wasn’t damned because he lived in luxury and dined sumptuously. He was damned because he wouldn’t even look at the poor man who lived in abject poverty outside his very gates. He wouldn’t even look at the pile of dirty, smelly rags he considered inhuman; an ugly “thing” rather than a fellow child of God, a human being made in the image of God.

Those who originally heard this parable would have been shocked. They assumed that blessings in this life were signs of God’s favor while poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure. Beggars didn’t get to heaven, while rich men were assured priority seating at the heavenly banquet.

Do we believe in the hidden world of righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy? Or do we put our hope in the fleeting pleasures of worldly wealth? This is the choice that is set before us. Just as much as the choice proffered last week between serving God and wealth.
Like the words of Louie, Louie, the sound of silence can be interpreted in multiple ways. It’s easy enough to use silence as a false sense of security. Burying your head in the sand certainly brings about silence. Despite the warnings, despite the words of the prophets, it’s easy enough to ignore them. Hear no evil, see no evil.

Yet there’s another approach to silence, a spiritual embrace of silence that isn’t about ignorance but listening. Prayer is the Christian disciple’s sound of silence. It’s a silence that troubles the water; a silence that allows us to hear the cries of the distressed and downtrodden and voiceless; a silence that opens the heart in gratitude and thanksgiving and compassion. A silence that can’t help but lead to action in the name of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to enter into this sound of silence that is prayer and reflect upon the messages you may be ignoring. They may indeed be written on subway walls or tenement halls. But mostly, they’re written on your heart. And it takes prayerful silence to hear and interpret them. May God be with you, and all of us, in that sound of silence.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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