Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year B) – Stewardship

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 25, 2015 (Proper 25, Year B)

I love talking about money. And I love talking about it because it’s an important topic, a spiritual topic, a necessary, if challenging, topic. And, frankly, I love talking about money because it takes people out of their comfort zones, which is a place we so often encounter Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

And anyway, Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. Of his 39 recorded parables, 11 involve money. Why did Jesus talk about money so much? Well, it wasn’t because he was looking to refinance his house — he didn’t have one. Or consolidate his debt — he didn’t have any. But it was a frequent topic because he was intimately aware of the spiritual dangers and spiritual opportunities presented by our relationship with money. And that is something that doesn’t get lost in 2,000 years of translation.

The reality is that, when it comes to our finances we, like Bartimaeus in this morning’s gospel reading, have some blind spots. And those blind spots keep us from living a life of generosity and freedom. They find us clinging to our possessions and our resources with a death grip, literally holding on for dear life; focusing on our money rather than our relationships; remaining blind to everyone’s needs but our own, until life itself finally passes us by.

And the thing is, when we hoard and amass and accumulate to excess, it’s not that we’re just denying others, we’re denying ourselves. Because when we forget that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God, we end up killing our souls from the inside out. And that grieves the very heart of God. Jesus doesn’t want this for us, which is why he warns us in no uncertain terms against the love of money.

This doesn’t mean that money in and of itself is evil — that cliche “money is the root of all evil” is not actually in the Bible! In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus knows the potential power of money for doing good. Thus it is to be celebrated as a gift from God and shared freely. For our own spiritual good but also for the good of others. So money is a good thing — it’s the unchecked love of money that causes us to stumble. Which is, again, why Jesus so often addressed the topic.

Here’s the thing about stewardship at St. John’s this year. A couple years ago we engaged in a strategic planning process we called Charting Our Course. Many of you actively participated in this undertaking and we received a tremendous amount of feedback — over 800 comments based on surveys and interviews and focus groups. From this response, the Vestry charted a course for the future; one that emphasized what we were doing well and took into account important areas where we needed to do a better job.

What emerged was a plan to prioritize pastoral care, youth ministry, adult education, and music while maintaining excellence in liturgy, preaching, and outreach. And the Vestry and I made a number of decisions to refocus some mission priorities and restructure some staffing. I am thrilled with how things have turned out as the course has been charted and we are now living into the fruit of our planning and visioning. As I stand up here today, there most definitely seems to be, to quote the old spiritual, a “sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”

I know we are on the right course when I see Buffy working with the children’s choir or hear the adults singing a sublime communion anthem. I know we are on the right course when I see Noah overseeing 25 middle school students learning and then acting out and filming Bible stories. I know we are on the right course when I see Alexis and the church school teachers bringing throngs of children into church after the announcements. I know we are on the right course when I see the Outreach Committee’s new Giving Basket set up in the entryway ready to receive a variety of donations over the coming months. I know we are on the right course when I see people laughing and lingering at Coffee Hour. Tangible signs that we are on the right course abound and it is a joy to behold.

So together we have listened, we have learned, we have implemented. And now we need to pay for this if we want this sweet, sweet spirit to continue for the long term. In concrete terms, we need to annualize these new positions amid ever-rising costs. And that takes money. Not money in general, but your money in particular.

The bottom line is that I invite you to think prayerfully about your 2016 pledge to this, your parish community. We have invested in the dreams set forth in our strategic plan and we need giving to increase by 5% and 10% to avoid running a deficit next year. I know we can do this.

So many of you have been incredibly generous over the years. And we need you to continue to exhibit leadership in this area. Some of you have taken the first steps toward becoming more invested in this community — with your prayers, your presence, your passion, and your money. And some of you have never made a financial pledge to St. John’s. I invite you to do so because not only will it help us plan for the year ahead, it will make you feel better connected to God and this community.

Giving to St. John’s shouldn’t simply come out of your disposable income. Hopefully, your faith means much more than that. I mean, think about the impact it would make if you made a pledge for the very first time or if you increased your pledge for next year — especially if you’ve given at the exact same level for the past decade. And then think about giving to your church in the context of your broader life. If checkbooks are windows into our life’s priorities, how are you doing? For example, think about what you spend per year to eat out or what it costs for your family of four to go skiing for a long weekend. Is your pledge anywhere near that? And if not, what does this say about the priority faith plays in your life?

Last year the average pledge at St. John’s was $2,188. Now I know not everybody can do that — we all have different situations. But that comes to about $180 a month — again, just to put it all in perspective as you think about what this place and all these people sitting here today mean to you.

Jesus’ point when talking about money was never guilt but generosity. He may warn us against the love of money but he also encourages us to embrace a spirit of generosity. In the end, generosity is an act of love, an act of trust, an act of faith. When we take the blinders off, only then are we truly able to follow Jesus as the formerly blind Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus. As this story shows us, spiritual blindness or sight has nothing to do with actual sight. Those who see physically can remain spiritually blind just as those who cannot see physically can see very clearly when it comes to the life of the spirit. I’m simply inviting you to open your eyes and your heart and your wallet to support St. John’s in ever increasing ways. This community matters; you matter; your faith matters.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 4, 2015 (Proper 22, Year B)

In the marriage rite, immediately after the couple exchanges vows, the priest pronounces them husband and wife and then says these words: “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” I love this moment for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it’s the only time I ever get to say the word “asunder.” The line comes from Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel passage and it means “separate” — the more pedestrian modern translation we just heard reads, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” I prefer the word “asunder,” perhaps because it’s such a dramatic moment that it feels right to use a word that rhymes with “thunder.”quote-those-whom-god-hath-joined-together-let-no-man-put-asunder-the-book-of-common-prayer-303888

What we don’t hear about in the marriage rite is what Jesus says next. He speaks of divorce and adultery. No one wants to hear about such things — certainly not on their wedding day. And no one wants the priest to talk about divorce rates or the odds that the marriage may well be “put asunder” — that the covenant of marriage might, in time, be broken.

My guess is that everyone sitting here has been touched by divorce in some way. As a child of divorced parents, as someone who has been divorced, as a supportive friend for someone going through a divorce, as a parent whose child has been divorced. It’s not easy to talk about; it’s a topic we’d rather avoid or ignore and yet it is a reality of life, a reality of human relationships.

This passage comes up in the lectionary cycle every three years and just think for a moment about those you know who have been divorced in that period of time. I’m well aware of couples here who have been through this and on a personal level, my own brother has gone through a divorce since I last preached on the topic.

But there it is. A reality that affects all of us. And let’s face it, the Church as a broader institution hasn’t always been the most gracious on the topic. Judgment and the lack of a loving response has been the rule rather than the exception. During a painful, isolating time the Church hasn’t always modeled a merciful, loving response.

But forget about the church for a moment. What does Jesus have to say about divorce? After that line about putting things asunder, he goes on to say that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Which for many hits a very raw nerve.

But let’s take a closer look at this passage. As is usually the case, there’s a subtext that transcends the surface conversation. You’ll note Mark sets up this interaction by saying “Some Pharisees came to test Jesus.” Which, in Scripture, is a red flag for “loaded question.” They were trying to trick Jesus into saying something contrary to the Law of Moses which did indeed have a provision for divorce.

But as much as the Pharisees seek to draw Jesus into a legalistic debate, he refuses to go there; he won’t get sucked into an argument over the minutia of the Law. He takes the broad view of faith not the narrow one. So instead of engaging the Pharisees, he focuses on God’s will for all people, in this case regarding the institution of marriage. God’s will, as rooted in creation, is for marriage to bring two people closer to God and one another. It’s not about finding an easy out. And it’s certainly not about protecting a patriarchal system which made it easy for a man to cast off a woman at his convenience. Remember, marriage in Ancient Palestine was less about love than it was an economic contract between two families. To divorce a woman was to leave her as one of society’s most vulnerable members. And, as we know, Jesus’ concern was always focused upon “the least of these;” the oppressed, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak.

So Jesus isn’t saying that divorce should never happen under any circumstances – he’s not getting into that debate. He doesn’t blindly condemn those who have been divorced. Listen again to what he says, “What God has joined together let no one separate.” So many failed marriages seem, in retrospect, to have precious little of God in them. God wouldn’t join two people together in a verbally or physically abusive relationship. God wouldn’t join two people together in a relationship that didn’t lead to emotional and spiritual growth. God wouldn’t join two people together who lacked the maturity to live a life of mutual joy and respect. But unfortunately we don’t apply to God for marriage licenses.

For better or worse, human beings are free to make these unions themselves. An untenable marriage full of pain and anguish for both parties is not what God has joined together. Suffering is not what God intends for us. There may well be aspects of God’s blessing in each failed union – times of happiness or the gift of children. But God desires a life of joy for each one of us – not one without hardships, mind you – we weren’t promised a continual honeymoon. But marriages that are unhealthy are not what God wants for us. God does not “join together” two people who hurt one another. Jesus doesn’t condemn divorce; he just wishes it weren’t ever necessary.

The thing is, human relationships are, by their very nature, broken relationships. We are human, we are sinners, we are imperfect. And our relationships with one another reflect this. Marriage at its best offers us a glimpse of the divine love between God and Jesus Christ. But it also offers a glimpse into our own brokenness and serves as a reminder that the only love that is truly unconditional is God’s love for us.

Human beings may fail in their earthly relationships with one another but God never divorces us. Despite our sinfulness, our ignorance, our abuse, and our apathy towards God, God never puts us asunder. And that’s the good news that Jesus communicates in this exchange with the Pharisees. God’s love made manifest through Jesus Christ abides through all human weakness. And this is the love that Jesus points to throughout his ministry, the love into which he so fervently calls us.

As painful as divorce is, God’s love for us is greater than a piece of paper. God wants us to be fruitful and to thrive. And while divorce is not to be entered into “lightly or unadvisedly” as the marriage rite advises on entering into holy matrimony in the first place, it sometimes takes the death of a relationship for resurrection to happen.

Three years from now, there will be other relationships that have fractured. Chances are some sitting here will have experienced first hand the emotional pain of divorce and others the ripples of its impact. My prayer for every couple on their wedding day is that through their relationship they will be drawn ever closer to the risen Christ. Which is precisely the same prayer I hold out for all of you. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 20, 2015 (Proper 20, Year B)

images-5Who among us is the greatest Christian? Now this is really important so we’re going to spend a bit of time getting to the bottom of this. And just to be fair, I’ll disqualify myself. Not because I actually believe that I am holier than thou — it’s one of those employees-and-immediate-family- members-are-not-eligible-to-win things. I mean, I’m paid to be here. I’m also going to go on record as disqualifying any nuns. We have several Sisters of St. Margaret among us as we do most every Sunday and, sorry, but that’s just not fair. So they’re out.

But what should the criteria be? If we based it purely on church attendance, that might lead to some uncomfortable squirming in the pews. And, anyway, we don’t keep a giant ledger with attendance charts in the church office (as far as you know). What about average hours of prayer logged in a given month? Not bad, but we’d have to go on the honor system and I don’t want to invite prayer fraud into the equation. “Lead us not into temptation” and all that.

We need something more quantifiable. How about money? Maybe the greatest Christian here is the one who has given the most money to St. John’s over the past year. Sure, there’s the little problem of Jesus’ story about the widow’s mite; the passage where he praises the poor woman who gives only two coins but gives from her heart. But we do keep meticulous giving records.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The whole notion of competitive Christianity is absurd. You can’t win the life of faith as if it’s some sort of competition. There are no trophies or certificates of achievement handed out at the Annual Meeting. There’s no parish ranking system.

And yet this is precisely what the disciples were trying to do as they walked along that road to Capernaum with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call them out on it during the journey, even though he’s absolutely aware of what’s going on. He bides his time and waits until they’re all gathered later that evening and asks them, “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” And…awkward silence. Until they sheepishly admit that they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

Just last week we heard Jesus rebuke Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. And here’s yet another clear example of the disciples just not getting it. They’re so focused on how their relationship with Jesus will benefit themselves that they fail to grasp the heart of his message, which is to look beyond themselves. They’re more concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others than actually serving others.

And you can’t really blame them. Well, you can, but think about the ways in which we judge our own self worth. We’re culturally rewarded for focusing on being the greatest, on winning, on being successful. Think about the ways we measure ourselves against one another. What’s your GPA? What’s your salary? How many bedrooms are in your house? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you give to your alma mater? What tax bracket are you in?

And lest you think clergy are above all this, you’ve never been to a clergy conference. ‘What’s your Average Sunday Attendance? How big is your operating budget? How many programs do you have? What’s the size of your endowment?’ It can quickly devolve into a not-so-glorified pissing contest. And you realize you’ve been feeding right into the mentality against which Jesus has warned us.

number-one_foam-finger21It’s also an oppressive way to live, all this competition; over time it beats you down because you can’t win everything, you can’t be the greatest at everything. I mean go to a football game and you’ll see fans of both teams holding up those “We’re Number 1” foam fingers. Yet both teams can’t, in fact, be number one. There will always be a number two. But they don’t sell foam fingers that proclaim “We’re Number 2!” at the concession stand.

The larger point here is that in Jesus’ realm it’s not about being successful but being faithful. So much of our energy and time and effort goes into pursuing perfection and self-promotion when we should really be pursuing peace and promoting harmony. Human wisdom, human ambition only gets you so far. The portion of James’ letter we heard this morning continues the theme. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Again, it’s about seeing things from the divine perspective, not the human one. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus says, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.”

So here goes Jesus shaking up the entire order of things — something he does all the time. I mean, is there anything more counter-cultural than telling people that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?” This isn’t just to make people who come in dead last in a road race feel better. Or to buck up those at end of the buffet line. Jesus is placing all of our notions of societal order and place and status and tossing them into one of those lottery machines that mixes up all the numbered balls.

Or maybe that’s a lousy analogy, because it’s too random; but time and again those who are most honored in God’s kingdom are the servants and those who are the least. We see this all the time in the gospels. Those who are the most blessed, those who get most of Jesus’ attention are not the ones with the fattest bank accounts or the biggest houses or the most followers on Twitter. The ones Jesus blesses and commends are the sick, the blind, the lame, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, women, the elderly — in other words, those on the very margins of society.

If we’re able to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, from that divine perspective, it changes our entire outlook on what really matters. It puts into perspective our silly and ultimately hopeless strivings to be on top, to keep up with the Joneses, to be “successful” as it is defined by others. You’re already successful in God’s eyes. Being made in the image of God takes care of that. Which gives you the freedom to pursue faithfulness with reckless abandon. To spend time growing your relationship with Jesus and reaching out to those in any kind of need or trouble and being present for those who need your love. That’s what it means to focus on divine things. And in so doing, the urgent need for worldly success fades to black.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 13, 2015 (Proper 19, Year B)

See, I told you they’d be back. And it is a joy to welcome all of you to St. John’s this morning for the aptly named Homecoming Sunday. Some of you have returned after being away for much of the summer; some of you never left and have been gone for only a week; some of you may be worshipping with us for the very first time; and some of you may have just gotten out of the habit. But whatever the reason or whatever the circumstances, God is glad you’re here. I am glad you’re here. And I assume it’s not just because we rented a bounce house.

As we look at our gospel passage this morning, I want to begin by popping the question. Well, not really. I won’t be getting down on one knee and proposing to all of you. That would be awkward for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that my wife is sitting out there somewhere.

But anyone who is married or engaged or has been married has either popped the question or had it popped to them. I love hearing stories of people’s proposals. Some are creative, some are pedestrian. Some are utter flops (just Google “marriage proposal fails”). It’s one of the first questions I ask a couple when I meet with them for pre-marital counseling, just after the question about how they met. The answer to that one, by the way is overwhelmingly “online.” With the occasional sheepishly-shared-because-they’re-talking-to-a-priest “at a bar.”

In this passage Jesus pops the ultimate question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a 439643634_640question for the disciples but it’s also the defining question of our lives. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” There are a variety of possible answers out there and Jesus knows this. It’s why he prefaces the Big Question by first asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?’

Now, Jesus isn’t fishing for compliments here. He’s not taking the pulse of the masses like a politician checking his poll numbers. He’s fully aware that his mission in the world will be misunderstood; that for as popular as he may be when he’s teaching and healing, his message of love will eventually lead to the hard wood of the cross.

But it’s interesting to hear what John Q. Public thinks about him. “Some say you are John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Strange answers to our ears. Yet they all point to the crowd’s great hope that a messianic prophet would emerge to lead the people of Israel out of political and spiritual bondage to the Roman government. They were desperate for a savior. But one formed in their own image, not in God’s image.

And it’s important for us to ask that same question in our own context. What do people beyond our walls think about Jesus? What do people beyond our walls think about Christians? Well, if you pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV or go online, the public perception of Christians in America is not something that resonates with the Jesus we know. Judgmental, hypocritical, exclusionary. Jesus’ reputation in the world is suffering and he wants to know what we’re going to do about it. What are we going to do to change that perception, to invite people to know the loving Jesus we encounter in Scripture, in prayer, and in our daily lives?

But changing that perception must begin with the personal. It must begin with our own relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s all well and good what other people think and we’ll get to changing their misconceptions, “But who do you say that I am?” You can’t dodge such a direct question. In the same way you can’t not respond when someone pops the question. You can’t ignore the words spelled out by the skywriter: “Will you marry me?.” An answer is expected. You may have to think about it. But eventually even a non-response becomes an answer in itself.

And Peter got it. Peter, the one who’s always popping off with rash answers if not popping questions. He boldly answers Jesus by proclaiming loudly and clearly for all to hear, “You are the Messiah;” literally ‘the anointed one of God.’

Unfortunately for Peter, the euphoria of getting the correct answer is short-lived. It’s amazing how in just a few verses Peter goes from teacher’s pet to detention (or at least that’s my first week of school analogy). Peter gets the initial answer right but he has no clue at this point what it will actually entail. Because once Jesus starts to talk about the suffering he will endure, Peter rebukes him — “Lord, don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious vibe here — ‘If you don’t say it out loud, it won’t come to pass.’

But Jesus does say it out loud. He tells the disciples very clearly that he will suffer. Not because he’s looking for sympathy or playing Debbie Downer. Our Lord will be arrested, suffer, and end up strung up on a cross because his message of love and inclusion is at odds with and threatens the powers that be. When you live your life as an embodiment of the divine call for justice, you set yourself up to suffer.

But enough avoiding the question at hand. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” There are all sorts of possible answers. Safe answers. A nice guy, a great moral teacher, someone I’m happy to spend an hour with every week or so. And there’s some truth here but this doesn’t come close to the fullness of the true answer which can only be “The Messiah.”

The good news is — and where Jesus’ question differs from a marriage proposal — is that this question isn’t asked once and for all. It is asked of us daily, lovingly, and throughout our lives. “Who do you say that I am?” Ultimately it is a question of identity. We must know Jesus’ identity in order to let him fully shape our own. And this takes time. Discipleship is a journey after all — it’s no accident that Jesus asks this question of the disciples while they’re on the road. And it’s not always an easy one with quick answers and pat responses. Allowing Jesus’ identity to transform our own identity is a gradual process. Which is precisely why Jesus asks us who we say he is over and over and over again.

As we re-gather as a community, perhaps feeling frenzied and slightly out-of-control as we readjust to the fall routine, it’s important to reflect upon the place of your faith in the context of your life. Fall is a busy time. But it’s also a great time to reexamine the priorities of your life and place Jesus Christ firmly at the center. It’s a great time to ground the extraordinary pace and volume of our lives with a living faith. It’s a great time to reclaim your identity first and foremost as a beloved child of God.
Only then are we able to live lives full of meaning and purpose. Lives where love and relationships and community matter more than anything else. And so on this day, as he does every day, Jesus asks us yet again, “Who do you say that I am?” And he awaits our faithful response.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 30, 2015 (Proper 17, Year B)

When I was a kid my parents often dragged me and my brother to museums. It wasn’t just that they were trying to ram some culture down our throats; they were genuinely inspired by art and wanted to share that passion with their children. Much of which was lost on the two of us who whined and complained our way through centuries of magnificent works of art until we reached the great pinnacle of the museum experience: the gift shop.

SeuratBut I remember being fascinated with one particular style of painting known as pointillism. That’s the medium in which small distinct dots are placed in patterns that make up images. When you stand up close all you see is a bunch of dots. But as you back up, the figures and background begin to emerge. At a certain distance you can no longer even tell that there are any dots at all. They blend together to form what looks like a typical painting.

Perhaps the most famous example of pointillism is the late-19th century Georges Seurat painting titled “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, a place I went to (of my own accord!) a few times when I was attending seminary in Chicago. Great gift shop, by the way.

In a sense, Jesus is talking about pointillism this morning. The Pharisees and scribes provocatively ask him why some of his disciples don’t wash their hands thoroughly before eating, in accordance with the ancient ritual purity laws. And Jesus basically tells them they’re focusing on the dots and missing the big picture.

Though if you listen to him, Jesus isn’t speaking in the hushed tones of a museum guard when he makes this point. He comes out with both barrels blazing, accusing them of hypocrisy and abandoning God’s commandments in favor of human rituals and tradition. This isn’t some sweet paint-by-numbers Jesus; this is the Jesus who is passionate about bringing God’s message to the world and isn’t going to let the risk of offending someone stand in his way.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to get hung up on details while missing the broader point or the bigger picture. We do this in all sorts of ways, like constantly nagging our children to finish their summer reading and get off the Xbox rather than reveling in the gift of their very existence. You know, just for example.

It’s also easy to turn our human traditions into idols. Perhaps when we pray “lead us not into temptation” that’s one to be aware of. Because while it may not be ritual washing before meals — and this wasn’t some simple ‘don’t forget to wash your hands before dinner;’ these were elaborate ceremonial washings that went well beyond basic cleanliness — it may well be something else we hold dear. Like focusing on our own comfort at the expense of those in need or being resistant to inevitable change just because it’s something new and different.

This happens in churches all the time. People leave parishes or denominations when there’s a change in the wording of certain prayers or they don’t agree with the latest landscaping plan (that hasn’t happened here, mind you) or they disagree with the leadership’s stance on a particular issue of the day. But it shows that “the way we’ve always done things” can be a very powerful and sometimes toxic human idol, as ritual washing before meals had become for the Pharisees. They had lost all perspective and the detailed preparation became more important than the fellowship opportunities of the meal itself. And we’re reminded again and again that the church is not a museum but a vibrant place of encounter with the living God.

The big picture here, when we take a step back and stop focusing on the dots, is that we often neglect God’s core message of mercy and forgiveness by focusing on human tradition. We worry about doing the right things in the right order so that we can be part of the “in group” rather than looking at the all-inclusive, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all. And that’s a problem for anyone seeking to serve God in word and deed.

One of the common themes in our readings this morning relates to the heart. The Psalmist declares that the one with whom God abides is the one who speaks truth from his heart. James writes that the religion of those whose hearts are full of deception is worthless. And Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says about those more concerned with washing their hands than following God that while they honor God with their lips their hearts are far from God.

Jesus also tells us that it is from the human heart that evil intentions come, not from those things that enter the body. And then we get that stunning list of human sin: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”

We may not be able to relate to the seemingly archaic example of ritual washings before meals but we can certainly relate to the evil that can reside in our own hearts. Much of sin, which is something we often shy away from talking about for fear of offending, is about consumption. Our desires often revolve around owning or seizing or devouring and that does affect our hearts. We can become insatiable consumers — of things, of pleasure, of others.

Yet as the baptismal rite makes very clear, there is sin and evil in the world and there is sin and evil in our hearts. Much of this is simply part of the human condition. And yet there is another way — a way that leaves room for God. That’s the triumph of faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that begins at baptism.

Because Jesus encourages us to desire not as we desire but as God desires. To desire with our whole heart, not the list of sins but the fruit of the spirit that the kids in our summer church school program have been learning about; the same fruits of the spirit we pray will take hold in the newly baptized: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s the list we strive for; the list we pray will take hold of our own hearts.

So the life of faith isn’t, and has never been, about the dots. It’s about the big picture ofdots relationship with Jesus Christ. We are drawn in, perhaps, because we are fascinated by a certain aspect of faith. There may be something that we are particularly drawn to — a devotional practice or a way of reading and interpreting Scripture or something that inspires us in a unique way. Yet Jesus always pulls us back, he always helps us to see the bigger picture, he always makes us focus on that which really matters.

Let Jesus be the docent of your life. Allow him to share with you his passion for justice and his heart for forgiveness. And you will never see life again in quite the same way.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13, Year B)

A Sermon Preached at St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Rye, New Hampshire
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 2, 2015 (Proper 13, Year B)

What a joy it is to be here with all of you this morning. I’d bring you greetings from my own parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham which is on the South Shore of Boston, but I’m on vacation this week and they have no idea where their rector actually is. Nonetheless it is great to be here at St. Andrew’s during this Summer of Bread — that’s what clergy call these five Sundays that show up every three years as we go through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. It started last week with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and we’re now on week two. So plenty of carbohydrate-laden passages to get to over the next few weeks. Dr. Atkins must be rolling in his grave.

And as I looked at this morning’s passage, I couldn’t help but think about going to a St._Andrew's-by-the-Sea_chapel,_Rye,_New_Hampshire_(May_30_2011)concert. It’s alway a little disappointing when the house lights come back on. You know, you’ve been to a fantastic show and you just don’t want it to end, the band’s done a couple of encores; everybody’s screaming for just one more song; but at a certain point the show’s over, the lights come on, you trudge back to the parking lot, sit in a little traffic, remember you forgot to pick up milk for the morning, and make your way home. Back to reality.

That’s precisely the way our gospel passage begins this morning — with a dose of reality. The five thousand who had been miraculously fed by Jesus had been on a high. It was an incredible evening. A potentially desperate situation — with lots of hungry people — had been turned into one giant party. There was laughter and neighborliness and everyone was talking about how this man named Jesus, with help from a group of his friends, had saved the day. No one could quite wrap their heads around the fact that everyone had had their fill when all anyone could drum up were five loaves and a couple of fish but whatever. They slept well that night out under the stars, their hearts and bellies full.

Yet as the sun rose the next day, they realized the lights had come back on. The party was over. Maybe it was like that depressing moment the day after you host a successful dinner party when you walk down the stairs, go into the kitchen, and remember you left all the dishes in the sink. As great an evening as it had been, it’s a downer to have to grab the sponge, squeeze some ironically-named Liquid Joy onto it, and start scrubbing. Once again, it’s back to reality.

It is in this moment of anticlimax that we encounter the five thousand. We don’t tend to think about what happened to them the next day or the day after that or how the rest of their lives unfolded. But eventually the sun came up, all those who had experienced that magical evening opened their eyes, stretched, probably realized they were hungry for breakfast, and then immediately noticed Jesus was nowhere to be seen.

Jesus, of course, had given them the old slipperoo. Not because he didn’t care about them but because they completely misinterpreted what he was all about. They were so fired up about what had happened they wanted to take him by force and crown him their king. And while Jesus is indeed a king, our king, it is a kingdom not of this world; a heavenly realm that couldn’t possibly be understood until after the Resurrection. So he left. John tells us he withdrew to go up a mountain and be by himself for awhile. Which is codeword for prayer. Jesus didn’t go away to revel in the miracle; he went away to spend some time with his heavenly Father — to nurture his relationship with God — and to pray for all whom he had encountered that day.

And at that moment, when the sun came up, the crowd wanted two things: bread and Jesus. Bread because they were hungry and Jesus because they knew he could feed them. But in fairness it wasn’t just the physical bread they were after. Many of them wanted to recapture the moment; to recall the magic of the previous evening. And you can’t blame them. For that brief time they were filled with hope and joy and a sense of purpose and belief in something larger than themselves. And when they realized it was gone they wanted it back. Which is why many of them poured into boats to chase after it, to chase after the dream, to chase after that feeling, to chase after Jesus. And also to get some more bread.

And once again, the crowd misinterprets what Jesus is about and who he really is. You can’t blame them for asking a lot of questions here. Mystery — and that’s what miracles entail — breed questions. So once they find him they understandably start peppering him with questions: “When did you come here?” “What must we do?” “What sign are you going to give us?” “What work are you going to do?”

5977689463_f190defa6e_bAnd Jesus does two things. He talks about identity and relationship. His identity as the son of God and what he has to offer to those who seek him. So, the conversation is about bread but it’s not really about the bread. Just as with the woman at the well the conversation is about water but it’s not really about the water. This happens a lot in John’s gospel and while it’s easy to get caught up in the weeds, as the crowd does, it’s important to remember throughout this long summer of bread, that it’s really about identity and relationship.

Because relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t about a single meal or even several. It’s not about a single memory or even several. It’s about an ongoing meal, served up in the sacramental bread of the eucharist. It’s about an ongoing memory, told through the story of Scripture. Because ultimately it’s not the miracle that endures but our ongoing relationship with Jesus. Jesus remains with us the morning after, the next day, the day after that, and every day. And that is the miracle here.

That’s what Jesus is trying to convey to the crowd that chases him down. It’s not about reliving a single evening or getting a few more loaves of bread. It’s about something much deeper and broader than that. And that’s what he’s trying to convey to you and me. Jesus isn’t merely the bread that gets put out at a fancy restaurant that’s nice to have but not essential. Jesus is the bread of life. Your life. The bread that sustains and endures and offers hope and meaning to your very existence.

So, relationship with Jesus isn’t a matter of having to get back to reality. Relationship with Jesus is reality. The incredible living reality into which we are invited and beckoned again and again and again.

© Tim Schenck 2015

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2015 (Proper 11, Year B)

“Free-range parenting” has been in the news recently. You may have heard about those two kids, ten and six-year-old siblings, in Silver Spring, Maryland, who were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services a couple months ago after they were spotted walking home alone from a neighborhood park.

The incident spurred nationwide debate over parenting practices and the appropriate video-undefined-24D8712700000578-548_637x357degree of parental involvement in the lives of children. Free-range parenting is basically a reaction to the whole concept of “helicopter parenting,” where mothers and fathers hover over their over-protected and over-scheduled children. Or as my kids tell me when I unreasonably demand to know when they’ll be home, “stop being such a drone parent.” Which I guess is the next level up from helicopter.

There has certainly been a shift in the way parenting has evolved over the last couple of generations. Truth be told, by today’s standards, we were all neglected children — or at least anyone over the age of about 30. Left on our own to use our imaginations or to find our own friends to play with or, something my children literally can’t relate to, only being able to watch cartoons on Saturday morning. There was no 24-hour Cartoon Network! If you missed Saturday morning TV, you had to wait an entire week to watch the Flintstones. And it’s amazing any of us made it to adulthood, what with all those cribs that have since been declared choking hazards, no bike helmets, and the way we used to lie down in the back of the station wagon on long car trips.

Now, I’m not wading into the middle of this — and I don’t want this to turn into a “get off my lawn” rant — every family has a different situation and there’s probably an appropriate balance somewhere between the two extremes. But it does make you wonder where Jesus would be on this continuum. Was he more of a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? Did he just leave his disciples to wander around the countryside unaccompanied or did he follow them around watching their every move?

I guess I have sheep on the brain because this morning feels a bit like a mini-Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we get the full-blown deal. We hear Jesus proclaim “I am the Good Shepherd;” we sing the 23rd Psalm; sheep wander around all the readings; pastoral images abound in hymns like “The King of Love my Shepherd is” (which we’re actually singing this morning) and choir anthems like “Sheep Safely Graze” (which we’re not).

Today we’re not doing the whole sheep thing to quite that degree. But we do hear about Jesus looking with compassion upon a crowd that he compares to “sheep without a shepherd” and the prophet Jeremiah rails against the leaders of Israel who mismanaged their responsibility, comparing them to bad shepherds who lead their flocks astray where they are scattered and devoured. And we also get that 23rd psalm which reminds us that as the Lord is indeed our shepherd, we shall not be in want.

But the question remains, is Jesus a free-range shepherd or a helicopter shepherd? I mean he did send the disciples out two-by-two so, even if he did insist on the buddy system, there was at least a degree of independence. On the other hand his farewell discourse in John’s gospel goes on for five chapters so he’s not exactly trusting them to go it alone without any instructions.

Perhaps the point is that we have a shepherd who meets us where we are. One who goes after us like the lost sheep who has gone astray when we inevitably do stray from the fold. One who cradles us in his arms and comforts us in times of need or crisis. But also one who sends us out to do the work he has given us to do. The one who entrusts us to be the Church, his Church, even when we make a mess of it.

Like children, there are times when we need to be watched and cared for even when we seek to assert our independence. And there are times when we need space to make our own mistakes, to fail on our own terms, to be picked up, dusted off, comforted, and sent back out equipped with a new perspective and a lesson learned.

We vacillate between vulnerability and confidence in our daily lives just as we vacillate between faith and doubt in our relationship with Jesus Christ. As with parenting styles, our lives are lived on a continuum, and our spiritual needs change and evolve depending on the circumstances presented. It’s why the apostle Paul, in talking about spiritual maturity, uses the analogy of an infant transitioning from milk to solid food. There are times when we are not ready to be sent out on our own; when we need to be watched and nurtured. And there are times when we are able to handle greater demands and responsibilities.

If we think about God as a spiritual parent — and many of our images of God point in this direction — it’s helpful to think about the human parental relationship. The thing is, we don’t own our children. We are temporary stewards of them, yes, but ultimately they will become the people God has created them to be. We guide, protect, teach and generally do our best to share our values with them but in time they will need to make their own way in the world, just as we have done. In the same way, God has created us, provided for us, and yet sets us free to forge our own identities. In time we realize we can’t do this all by ourselves, that we can only experience true freedom “with God’s help,” as we proclaim in our baptismal vows.

And, look at that — coincidentally we just happen to have a couple of baptisms this morning. I love when things all comes together. Because at baptism, we initiate and mark that indissoluble bond between an individual and Jesus Christ. But Jesus doesn’t then stalk us for the rest of our lives. The invitation to relationship is always extended. But Jesus doesn’t hen peck or helicopter us to death. He so desires to be in relationship with us because he wants us to experience that incredible peace and freedom that comes through faith in him. Baptism reminds us that Jesus is always present in our lives; whether or not we always recognize him, he is there patiently and lovingly waiting for us to notice and to respond.

So I guess Jesus is a bit more free-range than helicopter in his relationship with us. We’re never neglected; we’re allowed to wander and fail, but we’re never forsaken or abandoned; we’re always welcomed home with arms wide open. It’s a relationship rooted in love, the perfect model for our own parenting and one that reminds us that in order to truly thrive, we all so need that Good Shepherd.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 12, 2015 (Proper 10, Year B)

Kids don’t seem to play the classic Parker Brothers game Monopoly much these days. I mean, I remember some epic family battles growing up; games that would last for days. Which may be part of the reason it’s not as popular anymore. In a world of instant results, it takes time to build up your monopolies, buy all the railroads, and slowly suck your friends and family dry. Or maybe the recent mortgage crisis has made the whole concept a bit too real for adults. But whatever the reason, it’s no longer common to walk into a neighbor’s house and see an in-progress Monopoly game on the dining room table waiting to be completed later that evening.

CHANCEOne of the best things about those highly competitive Monopoly games was drawing the coveted Get Out of Jail Free card. You didn’t need it then, but eventually and inevitably it would come in handy. And there was nothing quite like the sweet freedom of tossing that card down on the table right after being told to go directly to jail without passing go and without collecting $200.

Now, I’m sure John the Baptist would have loved a Get Out of Jail Free card to present to King Herod as he rotted away in the royal dungeon. He ended up there not for going out into the wilderness, standing in the River Jordan, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That might have annoyed the powers that be but he was generally seen as little more than a nuisance. As long as he kept his crazy out in the boonies he could be ignored as just another fringe religious figure — the original Jesus freak.

John ran into trouble, though, when he took his act to the palace. The Baptist pointed out to Herod — in his inimitable loud, bold, unrepentant manner — that in marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, in defiance of the Law of Moses, the king and queen were living in a state of sin.

You see, John had this little character flaw of needing to speak truth to power. It comes with being formed in the image of an archetypical Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Amos, who we also hear about this morning. There are some strong parallels between Amos, who in his day had chastised King Jeroboam for being a corrupt and faithless king, and John. And we see again and again that standing up to princes and principalities is not for the faint of heart. Bringing God’s word to powerful people who are unwilling or unable to change their ways can get you exiled or reviled or killed.

Unfortunately John the Baptist never did draw that Get Out of Jail free card. And in this gruesome tale of his beheading, the whole notion of freedom and imprisonment becomes twisted as the virtues and vices of human nature play out.

Let’s take a quick look at the players and the scenario involved here. There are three main actors in this drama — Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius; his wife Herodias, who had previously been married to and divorced from Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist, whose arrest at the end of the first chapter of Mark was the last we heard of him. There’s also Herod’s young daughter, called Salome, but she’s a mere pawn in the action.

Now, Herod, who we hear admired John as a holy and righteous man, threw him into prison for criticizing his marriage and defaming his reputation rather than killing him. It was the perfect compromise for a weak, insecure man: John was silenced publicly, his wife was placated, and whatever conscience Herod himself had was satisfied. Brilliant! Except for one problem — Herodias held a grudge. A major, nasty, blood curdling grudge.

So she bided her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge. And Bernardino-Luini-Salome-with-the-Head-of-Saint-John-the-Baptist-not-dated-painting-artwork-printeventually it came at a fancy state dinner; actually Herod’s own birthday party. Salome famously danced to the pleasure of the king and his guests in what has become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils in both Richard Strauss’ operatic version of the story and Oscar Wilde’s play. Herod publicly and foolishly and perhaps lecherously promised Salome whatever she wanted in return and, after consulting her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

In the precise moment that her daughter came to her, Herodias seized that Get Out of Jail Free card and played it with venomous glee, triumphantly tossing it onto the banquet table. And Herod was backed into a corner; if he refused to keep his promise, he would lose credibility, and worse, failing to keep an oath was akin to taking God’s name in vain. Evidently that was less distasteful to the king than killing an innocent man.

Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean Get Out of Jail Free card? Herodias wasn’t the one in jail!” But here’s the thing. This venomous woman finally saw her chance to be freed from the only real threat to her power and status — God’s judgment in the person of God’s prophet, this man called John the Baptist.

So, ironically it was John, jailed and beheaded, who was truly free. Free by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ. And it was Herodias, enjoying all the royal benefits of queenship who was truly imprisoned. Imprisoned by her sinfulness. Imprisoned by her guilt. Imprisoned by her rage. Imprisoned by her thirst for selfish ambition. And again, we see that the deep truths of life don’t always reside on the surface; that they are not always visible to the naked eye. That the reality of God’s realm does not always reflect the limited human interpretation of events.

And what we ultimately learn from this story is that violence never trumps faith; that evil cannot conquer love — something the power of the cross teaches us in no uncertain terms. Beheading, crucifixion. Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even death.

And we see that Jesus is that Get Out of Jail Free card. Not because grace is cheap or easy but because it is freely offered to those who repent and pursue true amendment of life. It is offered to you and to me and, yes, even to Herodias. But we have to say “yes” to it. We have to admit our wrongdoing and open our hearts to the gift of a loving God.

This is a tough story to think about. It’s a tough story to preach on. No one’s turning it into a Church School pageant. But confronting the realities of evil in the world and offering an alternative is part of our calling as a community of faith. There is another way. And it runs straight from the pain of the cross and sword directly to the triumph of resurrection glory.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Rev. Tim Schenck