2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5, 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 7, 2015 (Proper 5, Year B)

“Throwing somebody under the bus.” That’s a terrible expression. I mean, that can’t be pleasant. Between the diesel fumes and the 15 tons of steel and glass, nothing good ever comes from being thrown under a bus. But it is a wonderfully graphic, metaphorical expression to describe what happens when you blame someone else for something they didn’t actually do in order to save your own hyde.

Public examples of this abound. Cyclist Lance Armstrong threw his teammates under theunderthebus bus when he was defending himself against doping allegations. Presidents often throw cabinet secretaries under the bus when something happens in their department that could reflect poorly on the Oval Office. Just this week Mayor Marty Walsh threw the director of the Boston Public Library under the bus by forcing her to resign after some valuable prints were stolen. Which became rather awkward when they turned up the next day.

And in the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there’s some serious bus throwing under going on. God confronts them with their sinfulness, and their first response is blame. Adam throws Eve under the bus, Eve throws the serpent under the bus, and both come out looking like what they truly are: a man and a woman broken by sin.

Just listen to the dialogue: God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And Adam immediately replies, “The woman gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then God asks Eve the same question and she says, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

They don’t accept responsibility or immediately confess their wrongdoing and ask for divine forgiveness. Who knows how the story would have played out if that happened? But it doesn’t. And we’re left with a pretty ugly window into the human soul.

Because isn’t that so often our first reaction when things go wrong? We get defensive and blame others. Admitting our mistakes is so hard to do because we don’t want to seem weak or incompetent; it’s not good for our public image. So we make excuses, we shift the blame, we play responsibility dodgeball (which is my new favorite expression).

And we do this because deep down we’re ashamed of our behavior. Shame is one emotion that Adam and Eve are very much in touch with. They know they have done something they should not have done and they seek to cover it up; literally, by grabbing fig leaves and metaphorically, by throwing others under the bus.

Now, you have to be careful when you talk about shame in the context of the Fall story. There’s a misconception that the story of Adam and Eve is all about shaming the human body; or at least it’s been used to perpetuate the myth that nakedness is something to be ashamed of. That thought runs pretty deep in the Western psyche.

But what is nakedness anyway but a symbol of extreme vulnerability — something we seek to avoid at all costs? It’s why we feel the need to project an image of strength and prosperity and shove anything that smacks of vulnerability as far below the surface of our lives as possible. Because if we come across as vulnerable, we fear that someone will exploit that weakness.

Yet human beings are by their very nature vulnerable creatures. To be human is to be imperfect. And try as we might, we can’t hide from this fact. Which is why the fig leaf is such a hilarious image. Not because it makes a pretty lousy cover up, which it does, but because we can’t hide our imperfections from God.

This is one of the reasons I so love the Collect for Purity — that prayer Anglicans have been saying at the start of liturgies since the mid-1500s. “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” That’s a pretty vulnerable place to be! It doesn’t say anything about being naked but it absolutely embodies the image of standing naked before God. You can put on as many layers of clothes as you can find; you can even put on a coat of armor; but it doesn’t do a thing because God know our hearts, our desires, and our inmost secrets.

And while at one level this is terrifying, at another level it is a source of great freedom and comfort. We don’t have to be anything other than our true selves in our relationship with God. We can’t be anything other than our true selves in our relationship with God. We stand utterly naked before God and God loves us anyway. God loves us precisely for who we are in all of our goodness and in all of our sinfulness. And that is the great blessing of our faith.

Now, please don’t take this the wrong way or quote me out of context but when it comes to our relationship with God, the church should really be a nudist colony — metaphorical speaking. It should be a place where we are able to fully be ourselves with one another without shame or fear. We have a way to go to get there; we have some layers to strip off. But that’s the source of true strength — acknowledging our brokenness and accepting God’s love for us despite our failures and shortcomings.

Masaccio_Adam_and_Eve_detailAnd that’s really at the heart of Jesus’ message isn’t it? That despite the fact that God sees into our hearts and minds and souls; despite the fact that God knows our true desires; despite the fact that we can keep no secrets from God; God loves us fully, completely, and with reckless abandon.

It’s a message that Adam and Eve just couldn’t wrap their heads around until it was too late and they were driven out of the Garden. Yet Jesus, who is often referred to as the new Adam, shows us that there is indeed another way. When you come to terms with your vulnerability and stop throwing other people under the bus when things go wrong, you become uniquely empowered. You’re given the freedom to be the fully human person God has called you to be. We need the Garden of Eden to see this and we need Jesus to lift us out of the depths of sin into the life of abundance that God has prepared for each one of us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck


Sixth Sunday after Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 10, 2015 (Easter 6, Year B)

In the old rambling house my family moved into when I was four, there were little doorbells 8102921459_b368f46869_moutside all the upstairs bedrooms. They didn’t work but I was fascinated with them. As I stood on my tiptoes to press the buttons, I couldn’t, in my wildest imagination, figure out why you would possibly need to ring a doorbell once you were already inside the house. And not just inside the house but on the second floor! Then there was question of who would actually show up if you did ring the bell. It was pure mystery. Like something out of Narnia.

Eventually my parents explained that these bells were once used to call the servants. And that I could push them to my heart’s content but I still had to go downstairs to eat breakfast — it would not be delivered to my room. I learned early on that I was born in the wrong era. And of the wrong social class.

I was actually talking to Father Robert just last week about these call buttons — I have no idea how we got on the topic — but he lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood I did when he was a boy and his house had them as well. Minus the servants, of course — his father was a priest. And he told me that before the renovation, the rectory used to have those little buttons too. Granted, I’m still trying to find the butler that apparently did not come with the butler’s pantry. And once again, I find that I still have to go downstairs to eat breakfast.

But I think of those little doorbells whenever I hear Jesus tell the disciples at the Last Supper that he no longer calls them servants but friends. There is a major difference between being someone’s servant and being someone’s friend. A servant acts out of duty. A friend acts out of love. You can be a great servant but not care about or even like the person to whom you report. You just have to, regardless of your personal feelings, “Do your job,” as Bill Belichick likes to say (which is as close as I’m getting to a Deflategate reference this morning). A friend, on the other hand, acts purely out of love and devotion. And so the distinction between servant and friend is great.

Of course, not many of us have servants anymore so this is a tougher analogy to conceptualize. If you were living on Beacon Hill a few generations ago, this might be more relatable. But actually, in the Biblical world, the whole notion of a servant didn’t have such a negative or menial connotation. There was honor and identity in serving a master. Jesus’ disciples would have considered themselves servants of Jesus. They learned from him, they took direction from him, they were sent out by him, and they served him. And they did so willingly and with great loyalty and affection. There’s a reason they’re all so shocked when Jesus declares he’s going to wash their feet during the Last Supper. That’s something a master would never do for his servants! So we have to suspend our notion of servants as lowly, cow-towing people who live in cramped “servant’s quarters,” answer the bell 24 hours a day, and do all the jobs no one else wants to do.

And when we take a step back and think about it, we recognize that we are all servants in the sense that our primary aim in life is to serve God — through worship, through the selfless service of others, through seeking justice for all. So when Jesus announces this transition in his relationship with the disciples, it’s not that he’s saying, “Congratulations, you’ve all graduated from servanthood. Now go relax and let people bring you breakfast in bed.”

So this movement from servant to friend changes and transforms the relationship but it’s not an abdication of duty. Instead, it shifts the motivation for service from duty or obligation to love.

One of the other main distinctions between a servant and a friend is the ability to see the big picture. Servants generally focus on a single task. And so the servant asked to prepare the house for visitors, for instance, doesn’t necessarily know who those visitors are. Or if he does, he doesn’t know the visitors’ business with the master. He’s not invited to take part in the conversation once the visitor arrives. Friends, on the other hand, are brought into the conversation. They are able to share in the broad view not just a single contributing piece, as important as it might be.

And so as Jesus prepares to leave his earthly life, he is inviting the disciples into a new, more intimate relationship. Remember this passage is all part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel. And it is a looooong goodbye. We’re on week three and it goes on for four chapters. But that transition from servant to friend is an important one because it gives us all a new perspective. We are invited to zoom out and see why Jesus’ life and ministry matters. It wasn’t just about healing a few people a couple thousand years ago. It was about the salvation of the world.

Some of this is a natural transition — when Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, ready or not, the situation changed. Jesus is preparing to hand over the earthly work of serving God to the disciples. As his time on earth draws to a close, he’s inviting his disciples, who have been in a servant-master relationship with him, into one of inheritance. They are to be stewards of the fledgling community that would become the Church. He is entrusting them with the most precious thing there is — the care of God’s people. He is offering his love — the love of a friend — as he bids them to love one another as he loves them.

lrgscalebreakfast-in-bed-coasterWhere does this leave us in our own relationship with Jesus? Surely, Jesus isn’t just our buddy. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” yes, but we’re still not exactly peers. There’s that whole Son of God thing. But I think Jesus’ invitation makes us servant-friends. We serve Jesus by serving others even as we are drawn into intimate relationship with the one who loves us unconditionally. In our prayer lives we can have conversations with Jesus that transcend the superficial because we have been brought into a more adult, friend-to-friend way of relating to Jesus. And what an incredible gift! We are offered this intimate relationship with the Son of God, even as we listen for ways to serve him anew.

I know some of you may have actually gotten breakfast in bed this morning. Or remember getting breakfast in bed in years gone by. Or remember providing breakfast in bed to your own mothers. It may not always go so well but it’s a good thing to occasionally be served, especially if it reminds us of the importance of serving others in Jesus’ name.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 12, 2015 (Easter 2, Year B)

Although it’s been a few years since I’ve preached on “Doubting” Thomas, he is one of my all-time favorite Bible characters. He always shows up on the Sunday after Easter and, well, let’s just say that preaching on this day typically falls to the curate. Except this year. Since Noah won’t be starting until June.

doubting-thomasBut as I was thinking about this passage through my post-Easter fog, one quote kept coming back to me. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I’ll say that again: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” It’s been attributed to a bunch of people, from the theologian Paul Tillich to the modern spiritual writer Anne Lamott. But it’s worth exploring a bit.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” It implies that doubt is not only a natural part of faith but an essential part. To doubt, to question, to test, is integral to a mature faith. It means that it has been examined and considered rather than blindly accepted.

Though at one level, it’s odd that Thomas and the whole notion of doubt shows up so soon after Easter Day. After the euphoria of last week’s celebration, it would be understandable if we tried to just smooth over any cracks in the facade of our faith. Plug them up with Cadbury Eggs or hide them behind a giant Easter lily.

But this story of Thomas is a tangible reminder that doubt is an important piece of a healthy, vibrant faith. Doubt is not the Baby Ruth bar in the swimming pool of faith, to throw in a Caddyshack reference. And I think that’s freeing because so often we seek to suppress our doubts rather than embrace them; to deny our doubts rather than acknowledge them.

At least publicly. We may well question things or wrestle with our beliefs in the middle of the night but surely not on Sunday morning. Not during coffee hour. Not while basking in the warm glow of the Resurrection, with the altar still dressed up with Easter flowers. Surely not today. But then Thomas shows up.

The thing is, faith isn’t a smiley face mask that we put on when we come to church; or the plastered-on smile of a celebrity who overdid the Botox. Like the human face, faith is full of changing emotions and nuance. It can express joy and fear and grief. It can exhibit love and anxiety and peace. Faith encompasses the full range of human emotion.

Which is precisely why I love Thomas and the prominent role he plays on the Sunday after Easter. Because there’s something comforting about the fact that even an apostle of Jesus, one of the twelve, had serious doubts about his faith. Words were nice, the testimony of his friends were fine but Thomas wanted proof. You could argue that he should be the patron saint of skepticism, a man of reason before the Age of Reason. He didn’t just fall into line with the others and put on his smiley face mask. He’s not known to history as “Get With the Program” Thomas. He was true to himself, authentic in his skepticism, not afraid to raise his objections. Thomas speaks for all of us who, even as we belt out Easter hymns and affirm our faith in the ancient creeds, can’t help but say “wait a minute, I have a few questions.” And for that we can give thanks. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

Because if the opposite of faith is indeed certainty, Thomas proves his faithfulness by not being certain. He has the spiritual need to test and question the assumptions of others. And over the years, I’ve found that God is often most present in the struggle; in the wrestling with our faith. Believe me, God can take it. God isn’t a precious china doll sitting inside a locked case to be observed and admired rather than played with and engaged.

The problem with certainty is that it can quickly devolve into rigidity and self-righteousness. If I am certain that I have all the answers, then you are surely wrong. And a living faith quickly becomes a fossilized faith with no room for a new revelation or the influence of the Holy Spirit to blow in and make all things new.

This doesn’t mean that doubt is always easy. There are times when we really do struggle with faith. There’s that passage in Mark that I think captures the dual nature of faith. A man brings Jesus a boy who has been possessed by a demon. Jesus heals the child and the father immediately exclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Faith and doubt all wrapped up in a tangle of emotions. And yet the desire to believe is stronger than the doubts. Even in, or maybe especially in, those moments when we cry out to God, “help my unbelief!”

As we think about the miraculous events surrounding that first Easter Day it becomes clear that sometimes our faith is lived in an “If only” mindset. If only, I had been there at the empty tomb, I would be much more faithful. If only, I had been able to look into Jesus’s eyes or see him heal that blind man, I would be much more faithful. If only, I had been there for the Sermon on the Mount and heard Jesus preach, I would be much more faithful.

But that’s not our place in the whole expanse of God’s creation. We stand at this moment of time in the ever-unfolding plan of salvation. And Jesus offers us a final Beatitude. You know the Beatitudes, from the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

That’s us! You are blessed in a special way for your belief, for your presence here this morning, for your seeking after God even when doubts persist. And God rejoices in that relationship with you, wherever you happen to be along the continuum of your faith at any given time.

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” As with life itself, faith is not all black and white. There is nuance and there are shades of gray. And God is right in the midst of it all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

5th Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

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

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A couple years ago I was asked to preach at All Saints’ Church in Ashmont. If you’ve never been there for a service it is one of the true Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Episcopal Church. During the liturgy, especially on feast days, there is so much incense billowing you can barely see the person in the next pew. I think there were a bunch of people at the service but I’m really not sure since I couldn’t actually see the congregation from the pulpit.

IMG_1353But I could see the pulpit itself very well. And what I remember most is that there was a brass plaque on it — right on the lectern part so it was visible only to the preacher — that bore the King James Version of the words from this morning’s gospel: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” To a guest preacher, it was both inspiring and intimidating. A charge to preach the gospel boldly and passionately and with clarity. Or else.

Of course this statement should be the goal of every sermon — to make Jesus known to the people who have gathered to catch a glimpse of the divine presence in their own lives. But unfortunately we’ve all heard sermons where this doesn’t work out so well. Sermons that are more about the preacher than Jesus; sermons that are more platitude than proclamation.

When I was first ordained I created my own version of the reminder I encountered on the pulpit at All Saints’, Ashmont. by putting a yellow sticky note on the computer where I wrote my sermons. It was phrased less poetically, perhaps. And, although, it was inspired not by St. John the Evangelist but rather James Carville, the idea was the same. It read, “It’s the Gospel, stupid.” Just to keep me focused on the task at hand.

I think if we scratch the surface just a bit, we all have a deep desire and yearning to see Jesus. We can be pretty good at covering up that desire with busyness and activity and binge watching TV shows on Netflix and our addiction to social media and driving kids all over tarnation to get to soccer practice and ballet lessons and tutoring. But that deep yearning to encounter something beyond the visible world is part of what it means to be human.

Maybe a good analogy around here would be the many layers of snow that have piled up with each subsequent storm the last couple of months. Even at the height of it, with the MBTA spiraling out of control and our backs aching from all the shoveling and water dripping down the walls of the kitchen from ice dams and risking our lives every time we gingerly pulled out of the driveway trying to see around that six foot mound of snow — despite all that — we were all reasonably confident that there was grass under all that snow. Somewhere.

The season of Lent is a time to let some of those layers melt away. Yes, for us, this is a season of both metaphorical and literal melting but I’m really talking about the metaphorical melting this morning. For the most part. Because at its heart, Lent is a time to get in touch with your desire to see Jesus and to be intentional about seeking him out — through prayer, worship, and introspection.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It is all part of our responsibility as Christians to both know Jesus and make him known; to see him ourselves and to help others to see him as well. In Lent we tend to focus on knowing Jesus, on renewing and nurturing our own relationships with him. But that second part, of making Jesus known, is equally important and it takes action. Think about the events at the start of the interaction in this morning’s gospel. These “Greeks” came to Philip and told them they wanted to see Jesus. Philip doesn’t serve as a gatekeeper. He doesn’t judge their motives or question their standing in the community. He acts. He grabs Andrew and together they go tell Jesus.

And when it comes to making Jesus known to others — whether they’re aware of and in touch with that deep desire to know Jesus that is so often buried beneath the surface, or not — we also must act. That’s the thing about the church. Not just St. John’s, but the Church in general — we collectively gather to know Jesus and we are collectively sent out to make Jesus known. We keep one foot firmly planted within our four walls — to worship together and care for one another and deepen our faith. And one foot outside our four walls, to share Jesus with those who seek him or those who do not yet know him.

And let’s face it, we’re a whole lot better at keeping that one foot inside the church than dealing with that other foot. For many of us, our natural inclination is to keep both feet firmly planted right here on this hill. Perhaps we’re willing to tentatively stick a toe out into the community. Like we’re testing the water at Nantasket Beach for the first time after a long, cold winter. The tendency is to flee back to the safety of the sand rather than dive right in. But we can’t just stick our head in the sand and hope that people will find their way here. If we truly believe that to know Jesus is to be transformed, we can’t help but invite others to join us on our collective journey of life and faith. Even if that puts us slightly, or even a whole lot, out of our comfort zones.

Yet if this church, both locally and globally, is to survive and thrive we must get out there into the world. It is a gospel imperative, as I like to say, to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted rather than hoard it. But this means taking risks and trying new things. You know, I don’t write that monthly column for the Hingham Journal because I like to see that lousy picture of me in the paper. I started writing it the month after we moved here 5 1/2 years ago because I felt it was important to reach beyond our walls and give people a glimpse of what goes on inside “that stone church on the hill.” Yes, it’s now syndicated and runs in tiny newspapers all over the country — I’m huge in rural Iowa. But that’s precisely the point. Trying new things to get God into the public conversation and inviting others to come and see, is all part of living into our responsibility to make Jesus known to the world.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yes. Yes, they do. We all do. And it is our great privilege and responsibility to both know Jesus ourselves and to make him known to others.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Third Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 8, 2015 (III Lent, Year B)

The summer before I started 8th grade, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. In a lot of ways this was a major shock to my system but in retrospect one of the most broadening experiences of my life. I went from a house in a suburban neighborhood and a school with a vast expanse of athletic fields to a row house in Queens and a school that was a thirteen story building. Goodbye carpool lines, hello subway.

One of the many decisions that year was choosing a church soon after we got settled. My parents decided this would be a family decision — sort of a small bone to toss the kids after ripping us away from all that was friendly and familiar and devoid of Yankee fans.

So over a number of Sundays we went church shopping. Since we lived in Sunnyside, just over the 59th Street Bridge, we started with visits to some of the stunning churches in Manhattan. We went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue and Grace Church in Greenwich Village. All impressive examples of church architecture with incredible music and clergy straight out of central casting.

Setting was important to me. We left a beautiful church in Baltimore with gorgeous stained glass windows and thick interior columns and marble floors; a place that oozed holiness and just looked, felt, and even smelled like church. But after going to all these fancy places we always left feeling like something was missing and would start plotting our venue for the next week. As we started to run out of ideas, one of my parents suggested we at least try the small Episcopal church that was walking distance from our house.

w_dio-directory-exteriorFrankly, I didn’t even know it was a church. It didn’t really look like one from the outside — it sort of blended in with the other red brick buildings on the block. No flying buttresses or soaring spires. Just a squat building with a little garden on the side. Entering All Saints’ that first Sunday morning was equally uninspiring. The floor was red asbestos tile — that was my first impression. And they had, horror of horrors for a music-loving family, an electronic organ. Not that there was a choir. The place wasn’t shabby, it just wasn’t my idea of what a church should be.

But there was something about the young, energetic rector and the welcome we received from the small and very diverse group of parishioners that brought us back the next week. And the week after that. Suddenly I was acolyting every week and my mother was singing in the newly formed choir of three people and my father was reading lessons and my brother and I made up half the youth group.

The point is that this completely changed the way I understood church. It dawned on me that it wasn’t about Tiffany stained glass or acoustics or silver chalices. It was about two things: the community and Jesus. That’s it. That’s what church is really all about. But it took a process of grieving the reliance on outward beauty to get to that place. It was something I knew intellectually — that church isn’t ultimately about the building or any of the external trappings — but it took this experience to learn it internally.

We often approach the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple with preconceived notions and it’s easy to foist our own expectations upon him. “See, Jesus got angry too — he’s just like one of us” or “That Jesus was such a rebel — look at him sticking it to the man.” But one of the major themes of this somewhat jarring story is what Jesus is saying about how and what we worship.

For Jews — including Jesus — the Temple in Jerusalem was the very heart and epicenter of their faith. According to Scripture the original Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BC. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments — the Temple was built and it served as the literal House of God. And, according to the renderings and models that have been created by architectural historians, it was a most impressive structure.

The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 when the city was sacked. After the fall of the Babylonian empire, a second Temple was completed in 515 BC. This one stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

This history is important because many Jews, including Jesus’ original disciples, couldn’t Model-of-the-Templeimagine worshipping God without the Temple. In other words, like me, those who worshipped at the Temple probably had strong ideas about what a house of worship should look like. And here was Jesus not only saying the Temple would turn to rubble but that he would raise it up in three days.

The problem with the Temple worship, and this was Jesus’ point, was that the Temple had become an idol in and of itself. And it’s understandable. We fall into the same temptation with our churches. We get attached to them. We love our sacred space here at St. John’s; it’s been an inspiration to generations of worshippers over the years; we’ve all donated time and effort and money to maintain it. And theologically, it makes sense — this is holy ground. And an incarnational faith encourages the embodiment of the holy. This space is sacred because it is where we gather week after week to encounter the divine presence. It is our Temple.

But here’s a secret: the Christian faith isn’t about the building. It took me a long time to figure this out. And it took Jesus’ followers a long time to figure this out as well. It was only in light of Jesus’ resurrection that they understood what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed on that day, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Oh really? came the reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

If Lent is a time to strip away the external trappings of our faith to focus more intentionally on our relationship with Jesus, this account fits right into the season. Now, I’m not suggesting we should ignore the stewardship of this building and let it fall apart from neglect. We need this special setting and it is indeed a sacred place. But if we spend too much time and attention on the practical at the expense of the spiritual, the balance can pretty easily get out of whack.

Yes, we need to have the roof shoveled and the ice dams broken and the snow plowed and the parish hall repaired. Yes, we need to pay for the boiler that gave up the ghost a couple months ago (you’ll be getting a letter about that this week). And as long as the church building points us toward God rather than serving as a distraction from God, we’ll be just fine.

Because ultimately we don’t need a building. We just need one another and Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2015 (II Lent, Year B)

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably don’t reflect with great fondness upon the Bobby Valentine era. When Terry Francona was unceremoniously pushed out as manager after leading the team to two World Championships, Bobby Valentine was brought in to restore order following the fried chicken and beer flavored collapse of 2011. In his one and only season as skipper of the Sox, Valentine managed the team to a last place finish and their worst record in 50 years.

valI’m bringing this up because one of the things Valentine did early on in his tenure was alienate veteran 3rd baseman Kevin Youkalis by publicly questioning his motivation and ability. The whole scenario backfired with Dustin Pedroia coming to Youkalis’ defense and saying about Valentine’s approach, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Well, it only got worse for Valentine and the Red Sox and the season quickly spiraled out of control.

In his defense, Bobby Valentine was probably just trying to light a fire under Youk who’d gotten off to a slow start. As a motivational technique, going public is risky business when dealing with the big yet often fragile egos of sports superstars. The big contracts can’t hide the human emotions that lurk below the surface. One size of motivation doesn’t fit all.

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus also goes public. Not through the media, of course, but by publicly calling Peter out for his behavior. I admit I’d never really noticed the public nature of this encounter. Well, I mean besides the fact that it’s in the Bible — the most popular, translated, purchased, visible, and, yes, shoplifted book in the entire world.

Jesus had just offered his disciples what Biblical scholars refer to as a passion prediction — foretelling his impending suffering, rejection, and death along with a veiled, incomprehensible reference to his resurrection. And immediately after this, we hear that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” So Peter was doing with Jesus precisely what Bobby Valentine did not do with Kevin Youkalis: Peter pulled Jesus aside to have a private conversation about the issue at hand. In other words, he kept this little chat inside the locker room rather than airing out his grievances on SportsCenter.

And for Peter, the issue was clear: don’t say such things about your suffering and death because a) I don’t want to hear it — the thought alone is terrifying and what will become of all of us and b) It’s not only dispiriting for those of us already in your camp, but also makes a lousy recruiting tool for those who are not.

But here’s what I never noticed before about this story. I’ve always focused on the private conversation between Peter and Jesus but you could argue that Jesus turns it right back into a public moment. Mark writes, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus said this loudly enough for the other disciples to hear. Most people wouldn’t whisper, “Get behind me satan!” It would be said forcefully and with great intention and conviction. And if that’s the case, why would Jesus seemingly publicly shame Peter? Why would Jesus pull a Bobby Valentine (which is a sentence, I assure you, I never dreamed I’d utter from a pulpit).

Well, for one thing, people already knew about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. His name itself came from Jesus when he said about Simon-Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church.” And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t actually calling Peter “satan” here but rather making his point with maximum emphasis and even shock value.

Jesus often used hyperbole to make important points and nothing could be more important than changing people’s expectations about how the divine plan would all unfold. Were used to hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion – we know how it ends. But imagine if you didn’t have a copy of that bestseller — the one that tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry? Imagine being drawn to this unique teacher and healer who simply said “follow me” and you had dropped everything to do just that.

Suddenly you’re part of a movement unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. You see first-hand the miracles and the enthusiastic crowds and the charismatic personality that draws them. You’re filled with hope that this new savior would finally lead your people in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors who had kept your community under foot for so many years, trampling you down economically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And just as events begin to move towards a great crescendo of expectation and fervor, this leader in whom you have placed all your hope and longing announces that he will suffer and be murdered. As everyone else stood around in shock, Peter alone was courageous enough to say to Jesus, “Stop! Don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious quality here — that if you don’t say something negative out loud, it won’t come to pass and if you do, it will. So just keep a lid on it, boss.

And the response is loud and clear: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s not a private message meant just for Peter but a public message meant for everyone — for the disciples, yes, but just as much for you and me. True discipleship is not all sunshine and unicorns, it is often a tough road; one that requires all of us at various points to pick up our respective crosses to follow Jesus.

We will all be crucified in some sense. Hopefully not in the literal sense — though this still happens in the world. Christians are even today being persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. Just this week we heard reports that ISIS had kidnapped and is threatening to kill hundreds of Assyrian Christians. And last month over 20 Coptic Christians in Egypt were slaughtered by the same group.

For us, the crucifixion can be of our own selfish desires; of our inability or unwillingness to fully follow Jesus with our whole heart and mind and soul; of our self-centeredness and inward focus; of our setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.

To deny ourselves and pick up our crosses doesn’t mean groveling or engaging in false humility or living into a martyr complex. It is about living our lives in harmony with Jesus’ message of love — love of God and love of one another. That’s the point. Jesus wants us to know the cost of discipleship and he makes the point to Peter and the disciples in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth remembering, I guess, that the Red Sox did win the World Series the year after Bobby Valentine was fired. They literally went from worst to first. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I can’t in good conscience use this as a resurrection analogy. But abundant life does await all who accept Jesus’ invitation to self denial and discipleship. There is joy and a victory parade of fruitful relationship with God not just on the other side, but right here, right now. And I invite you all to embrace it during this most holy season.

First Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

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

Wilderness. The word alone evokes so many images and feelings; positive and negative, awe-inspiring and frightening. You can get lost in the wilderness yet it can also be a place of stunning beauty. At its root is the word “wild,” so “wilderness” derives from the notion of “wildness.” Which really means that which cannot be controlled by humans.

While we’ve all spent time out in nature, most of us haven’t ever experienced a true wilderness. A place where we are physically isolated with even odds that we’ll ever make it out alive. Or if we have, it’s been awhile. A true wilderness is tough to find here on the South Shore. Sure, you might get slightly turned around out at World’s End but keep going and you’ll eventually find your way back; or run into someone walking their dog. For a lot of us the wilderness may mean little more than spotty cell phone coverage. Or it might mean we’re on vacation surrounded by mountains or beautiful natural scenery — a sort of genteel wilderness with a rustic lodge waiting for us when we tire of all that nature.

So at one level it’s tough to relate to Jesus’ being cast out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. But at an emotional or metaphorical level, we all know exactly what it’s like to have a wilderness experience. There are times in our lives when we’ve felt alone or emotionally isolated or cut off from those we love. There are times when we’ve known the depths of despair. Times when we have been gripped by such a deep and visceral grief that we question whether we’ll ever be able to climb out of it. Some of you may even be in such a state this morning, doing your best to hide it from the world.

Yet precisely because of Jesus’ humanity and his experience in his own wilderness, can he relate to us and ours. Jesus never set himself above humanity but right in the midst of it; which is the true miracle of the incarnation.

Christ tempted by SatanEvery year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear the story of Jesus being tempted by satan out in that wilderness. In Matthew and Luke we hear the familiar repartee between Jesus and the devil: “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread” with the reply “Man does not live by bread alone.” Back and forth they go with Jesus being tempted by the allure of wealth and power yet not giving in to the wiles of the evil one.

But in Mark’s gospel, we get the trimmed down version. I’ve always thought of Mark as the Ernest Hemingway of the four evangelists. He’s brief, to the point, and in a hurry. There’s an immediacy in his words, the oldest and shortest account of Jesus’ life. When it comes to this story upon which the season of Lent is based, all we hear is that Jesus was “driven out” into the wilderness for 40 days, was tempted, and then the angels waited on him following the ordeal.

This gives us an opportunity to press the pause button and look at the whole notion of how Jesus ended up in the wilderness in the first place. It’s fascinating to note that Jesus doesn’t just saunter into it or decide to go for a weekend camping trip. He’s not a contestant on Survivor or just trying to commune with nature for a bit.

No, we hear that he is “driven out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. There’s a certain violence to that act, isn’t there? It’s interesting that the same verb used here is also used later in Mark when Jesus drives out evil spirits. So it’s as if the Holy Spirit possesses Jesus after his baptism and compels him out into the wilderness. And Jesus gives himself over to this divine possession, says “yes” to it, recognizing it is all part of his mission in the world.

All of which points to the fact that this temptation in the wilderness was an integral part of forming Jesus’ identity. It is only after this time spent in the wilderness that Jesus begins his public ministry. Something significant happened out there — something we may never fully comprehend — as Jesus comes out and immediately begins proclaiming the good news. And away we go.

The brevity and pared down nature of Mark’s account is actually consistent with the season of Lent. Mark strips away all the externals and gets right to the heart of the matter just as Lent is all about getting back to the basics of our faith.

A few years ago, I found a small wooden coffee table at the dump. It had layers and layers photoof chipped paint but the wood seemed to be in pretty good shape. We were looking for a table for one of the upstairs rooms anyway so I picked it up and shoved it into the back of my car. I thought I’d do some quick sanding and be done with it. Well, it was a much longer project than I thought. I used sandpaper, I borrowed a heat stripper, I used an electric sander, I used some sort of liquid recommended by the guy at Hingham Lumber. Then I launched a vendetta against the stubborn layers of paint at the bottom. Especially the ones on the legs. Eventually I got (most of) the paint off and decided the rustic look was exactly what I was looking for.

Like stripping furniture, Lent is a time to whittle down the layers of our lives that build up over time. The layers that distract us from the love of God; the layers that take us out of the habit of regular worship and prayer; the layers that make us lose sight of what’s truly important; the layers that cause us to be so self-absorbed; the layers that draw us away from living lives consistent with Jesus’ message to love one another as he loves us. There are a lot of layers that build up almost imperceptibly — we don’t even notice them at first. And, like those layers of paint, some of them can be quite stubborn.

But Lent is an opportunity to take stock of our spiritual lives. To take a step back and think about how our priorities might have gotten a bit out of whack and do something about it. The invitation to observe a holy Lent is extended to you today. A spiritually fruitful time beckons and I invite you to immerse yourself in this season or self-examination and repentance. To discover the true joy at the heart of renewed relationship with God. And to enter into the wilderness of this season not in isolation or fear but with one another, with Jesus, and with the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that is to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 18, 2015 (Epiphany 2, Year B)

If all I knew about Christianity was what I learned through the media, I think it’s safe to say that I would not be a Christian. Think about it. From the outside looking, what do you see?

Westboro Baptist Church — a hate group unworthy of the name “church.” Creationists living in utter denial of the value of scientific inquiry. Sexual predators masquerading as priests. Homophobic and jingoistic rants in the name of Jesus by pastors with bad hair and 900 numbers. Crazy people waiting for the Rapture. Just this week there was a story about a group of Christian legislators in Mississippi pushing to get the Bible named the official state book. Now, I love the Bible as much as anyone, but when it’s used as a cudgel to whack those who disagree with you, you might just be missing the whole point.

headlines360pOr put another way, if you went up to a bunch of non-church-going strangers and asked them what came to mind when they thought of Christians you’d likely hear: Judgmental. Hypocritical. Holier than thou. Irrational. Out of touch. Intolerant.

And lest you think I’m ignoring the Episcopal Church, some of you know the tragic episode that took place two days after Christmas in the Diocese of Maryland where the newly consecrated assistant bishop hit and killed a 41-year-old cyclist. After a few days sitting in a jail cell, she’s out on bail facing charges of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, drunk driving at three times the legal limit, and texting while driving. I doubt anyone in Baltimore tentatively thinking about returning to church heard this story and declared, “Yup. That’s the denomination for me.”

Recent studies show that negative views of religion in general and Christianity in particular are on the rise. Following Jesus is increasingly counter-cultural. So what do we do about this? How do we change this perception? Well, we can become defensive and start pointing accusatory fingers of judgment at those who don’t believe what we believe. We can rail against the forces of secularism and can hunker in our stained glass bunkers and just ignore everything that’s being said “out there.”

Or we can follow Philip’s example in this encounter with Nathanael from the first chapter of John’s gospel. We can simply, humbly, respectfully invite people to “Come and see.”

I admit that Nathanael’s initial response to Philip’s invitation is one of my favorite lines in the entire Bible. It’s snarky and dripping with sarcasm. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is not some passive, goody-two-shoes, who’s gonna get suckered into some overly pious religious encounter. Yes, Nathanael was just as expectant about the arrival of the Messiah but he seems to have brought his own preconceived notions as to how this would all go down. And however this would play out, there’s no way the Savior of the world is coming from Nazareth.

Basically Nathanael was asking, ‘What could possibly come out of this two-bit town?’ Nazareth wasn’t exactly a thriving, sophisticated metropolis. It was the boonies, the sticks, the backwoods, hicksville. The Messiah couldn’t possibly come from Nazareth. Jerusalem, sure, the big city. But Nazareth? That’s about as ridiculous an idea as the Savior of the world being born in a stable to an unwed teenage mother. Nazareth. Please.

So, Nathanael’s first response to Philip’s sharing the incredible news that he had met the One who was to Come, this Jesus from Nazareth, wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. And given the perceptions of Christianity floating around today, I think we can all relate to this response. You could certainly understand getting a negative reaction to inviting someone who is not part of a faith community to church. This church or any other church. You’d be met with skepticism perhaps; it might put a chill on your relationship with this person; maybe induce anger; or an attitude of ‘what’s wrong with me the way I am?’

But how do you think people get to know Jesus? It’s by invitation only — not in the sense of an exclusive after-party following the Oscars, but by invitation only from someone who has already made his acquaintance. Like you. “Come and see.”

comeandseeAnd it’s always been this way. None of us were born knowing Jesus — either our families were churchgoers and we were brought up with the stories and the relationship developed over time. (And, yes, we are in great need of Church School teachers for the spring term). Or we met someone later in life who shared their faith with us. For over 2,000 years, people have shared their faith just like Philip; by invitation only.

As uncomfortable as this may make us — the whole concept of talking about our faith — and I can see a few of you squirming in your pews, the good news is that extending an invitation is simple. You don’t have to memorize large chunks of the Book of Deuteronomy or have all the answers to the existential questions of faith or hand out tracts as people board the commuter ferry at the Shipyard or walk around Stop ’n Shop wearing a “Jesus Saves” sandwich board. I mean, you can if you want. But there’s a much simpler way to share this Good News of Jesus Christ with which we have been entrusted. Following Philip’s example with Nathanael, we can just say, “Come and see.”

That’s it. “Come and see” and meet Jesus. God can take care of the rest — meeting the person wherever he or she may be; the conversion of the heart, the loving presence. All of that’s above our pay grade anyway. We just point to the divine presence and offer the invitation to come and see.

Come and see that the heart of the gospel has nothing at all to do with the negativity and judgmental attitudes that hover over the surface. Break open the defensive human shell and encounter the risen Christ who stands at the core of our faith, patiently awaiting your arrival.

Come and see and you will be both surprised and transformed. Come and see and you will find deep meaning and mystery. Come and see and your heart will overflow with peace and gratitude. Come and see and your soul will sing with praise and joy.

You see, this invitation isn’t just for those who have never encountered the transforming power of faith. It’s for all of us and it’s extended again and again and again. We proclaim a God of love and justice and inclusion; a God who is accessible and inviting and compassionate. A God that is full of joyful surprises and absolutely nothing like the God of the headlines. Come and see.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Second Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 7, 2014 (Advent II, Year B)

There’s an old axiom used in the military known as the Five P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Actually in some circles it was known as the Six P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. But the basic premise is that preparation is important. If you want to achieve excellence or reach your full potential, you must first do the hard work of preparation. There are no shortcuts or easy answers.

I was reminded of the 5 P’s as I was preparing this sermon on one of the major themes of the Advent season: preparing. We’re bid to be ready, to stay alert, to keep awake, to be prepared.

untitledSo how are your preparations going? Just look around town — people are awfully busy. If an alien suddenly dropped into our midst, from the moment he stepped out of his UFO, he couldn’t help but notice the flurry of activity and sense that something major was about to happen. We’re stringing lights, tying Christmas trees to the tops of cars, methodically placing white lights in all our windows — for fear of reprisals from the Hingham Christmas police, shopping — online and at stores, wrapping presents, hanging ornaments, baking cookies, writing Christmas cards, polishing silver, sending out invitations, cleaning the house, putting up garland. And if you haven’t started yet, well, get cracking — there are already two candles lit on the Advent wreath!

These are all outward and visible signs of how we prepare for Christmas. And from a global perspective, we must all look a bit like the Whos down in Whoville “who liked Christmas a lot,” scurrying around getting things ready, preparing for the big day.

But how is your interior preparation going? How are you preparing not just for the coming of Christmas Day but for the coming of Jesus Christ? That’s often a more difficult question to answer. You don’t see people racing around to get to an Advent retreat down at the convent in Duxbury or rearranging their schedules around their prayer lives or stressing out about making time to listen to Handel’s Messiah.

But when it comes to the preparation of our souls, we do have some help. John the Baptist always shows up this time of year to remind us, in his inimitable way, of what really matters here. And, believe it or not, it’s not large inflatable snowmen (which, again, would warrant a visit from the Hingham Christmas police).

One of the reasons I love the Baptist’s presence during Advent is his unique ability to cut johntbthrough all the exterior trappings and get right to the heart of the matter. That’s not to say that all our yuletide preparations aren’t important. They are. But they’re meaningful only when they’re connected to the broader context of the season. And when John shows up channeling an Old Testament prophet in his camel hair clothes and leather belt with locusts and wild honey stuck in his unruly beard, you can’t help but take notice.

Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John the Baptist is God’s Preparer in Chief. And the message is simple: repent. Get down on your knees and ask for forgiveness. Clean out your soul and make room for God. That’s how we engage in spiritual preparation — by un-cluttering and unburdening our souls to make room to receive God in a new way.

Of course, this means thinking about things we’d rather avoid. Things that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is never easy. It involves a turning of the heart and an acknowledgment that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But as the Forerunner of Jesus, as the Preparer of the Way, John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And he makes it very clear that this repentance is precisely what prepares us to accept the offer of salvation that is to come.

When we truly and authentically engage the season, we realize Advent is not a comfortable season in the conventional sense. When we hear God say through Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” the comfort isn’t about lounging in a Laz-y-Boy recliner in front of a roaring fire while sipping 18-year-old single malt Scotch. That’s a fine thing and perhaps after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I’ll do just that. But we don’t talk about comfort when things are going well. We deeply crave comfort when things are broken and falling apart. It’s into this dis-comfort in our world and in our hearts that God offers true comfort.

So for those of us fortunate enough to live in communities like the ones on the South Shore, it’s not enough to sit in our beautiful churches with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. For Christians, Advent means so much more. Because preparing to meet Jesus is not always easy. We will be asked about what we’ve done to comfort others. About what we’ve done to change a society where racism and injustice continue to run rampant; where the inequality between rich and poor is staggering; where addiction and violence are so prevalent. And I know that I, for one, often come up short.

Now, we may not want to hear this “intrusion” into our seasonal preparations. But then again Advent is not all peppermint lattes and gingerbread. It’s about preparing to meet Jesus anew both at the manger and in our everyday lives.

The good news is that God, too, is preparing. And thus the Baptist is charged with getting things ready. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.”

There’s an urgency to this preparation. And God’s urgency is an urgency of love for each one of us. John the Baptist prepares, we repent, and Jesus arrives in order to bring salvation to the whole world. To comfort the poor and marginalized, to inspire in us a passion for justice, to reconcile us to God, and to bring peace both to our hearts and to all of humanity. That’s the urgency. That’s why the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low — so that God can make a bee line to your very soul.

As faithful Episcopalians know, we don’t sing Christmas carols during Advent. This sometimes comes as a surprise to visitors who show up in December expecting to hear Christmas music. It’s not that we’re particularly grinchy, it’s just part of our spiritual preparation to say, “wait, the celebration is coming, but not quite yet.” So while you’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve to sing “Joy to the World,” there is a line in there that speaks to what we’ve been talking about this morning. In the first verse we sing “let every heart prepare him room.” Which doesn’t mean to change the sheets and put out fresh towels in the guest room. It means opening your heart to let Jesus in; to make space for God in your life.

That’s my prayer for you this season and for all of us. That we will prepare for the coming of Christ not just externally but also where it truly matters; in the very depths of our souls.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

First Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 30, 2014 (Advent I, Year B)

Imagine sitting in your living room one afternoon when you hear the doorbell ring. Strange since you weren’t expecting anyone but maybe it’s the UPS guy. ‘Tis the season after all. So you put down the book you were reading, get up, and open the door. There’s no one there and your mind briefly drifts back to the old neighborhood when you played “ding dong ditch” with your friends, ringing the neighbors’ doorbells and then running away as fast as your legs would carry you, laughing hysterically at your daring feat of mischief. You look up and down the street wondering if maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of a couple of kids dashing around the block.

109440025And then you look down and see it. It’s a simple white envelope sitting at your feet. You bend down to pick it up and notice there’s neither a return address nor a postage stamp. Curious, you walk back into the living room staring at it and sit back down in your favorite chair. You take one last glance at the envelope and run your finger across the only writing on it — your name written in black ink in handwriting you don’t recognize. Slowly you open it to reveal several pages of a handwritten letter bearing the same handwriting that’s on the front of the envelope.

It begins with the usual salutation “Dear…” and then your first name. You start reading. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, that’s quite an opening sentence. You are greeted not just in the name of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” but actually by God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine that. God is addressing you — yes, you — offering grace and peace.

What if you read the epistles — which is just a fancy church word for “letter” — as if they truly were written to you. They are in a global sense, of course, and we know that intellectually. Even though they were originally written to early church communities in places like Corinth and Ephesus and Thessalonika to encourage and correct and inspire, they are also written to you and me. Not in general like junk mail addressed to “occupant” but specifically addressed to you. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And then the writer — who in this case turns out to be St. Paul, that tireless disciple who traveled the world spreading the message of Jesus — gives thanks for you. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Not because you’ve done anything heroic or went to church five weeks in a row or did something to earn God’s favor. Paul gives thanks for you simply because you are a child of God, doing the best you can to live a faithful life.

On the heels of Thanksgiving, where many of us spent time reflecting on the things we’re thankful for in our lives, God is thankful for you. And what an important message as we begin this season of hope and expectation. Because as we begin Advent and collectively await the coming of the Christ child in ways both familiar and new, it can be hard to reconcile the holy waiting with the seasonal frenzy.

It’s also tough to reconcile all that we need to get done with this gospel passage that talks about, quite startlingly, the end of the world. I mean, let’s be honest, of all our worries and fears that often manifest themselves around the holidays, the world ending before Christmas is not on the top of our list.

In Advent we wait for the arrival of the baby Jesus, yes. But we also wait for the return of the fully mature Christ to come among us as well. Just as it’s easy to sentimentalize baptism when we see a cute young baby, we can sentimentalize the coming of Christmas with our precious china nativity sets. All you have to do to get shaken out of this reverie is to listen to the powerful words of the baptismal rite with its references to renouncing satan or reflect upon the powerful words of this morning’s gospel passage with its apocalyptic imagery. Things aren’t always easy in life, even with a deep faith.

There are days when it does feel like the world is ending. Both the world at large and our own personal worlds. Jesus reminds us we know neither the day nor the hour when the inevitable crisis will arrive. Therefore he bids us to “keep alert” and to “keep awake.” And again, I encourage you to hear Jesus’ words as if they were being spoken directly to you. Imagine that he is looking into your eyes. Loving you completely as he speaks to you directly through the words of Scripture.

File%22-Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles%22_by_Valentin_de_BoulogneSo if these letters were written to you and Jesus’ words were spoken to you, how does this change things? Well, hopefully you’re better able to hear them. In the same way a message gets lost when it comes as a blanket e-mail versus someone telephoning and speaking to you directly you might better be able to hear and respond. The catch, or perhaps the miracle, is that Jesus isn’t speaking these words exclusively to you; and Paul isn’t writing only to you. These words are spoken and written to everyone sitting here this morning. They are spoken and written to Christians throughout the world. They are spoken and written to everyone who has come before us in the faith and everyone who will come after. And yet they are indeed spoken and written to you.

So we hear them both individually and collectively. We hear them personally and communally. The danger of only hearing them addressed to the group is that, like that blanket e-mail, we can ignore the message. And the danger of only hearing them addressed to us personally is that we can become judgmental, seeing Jesus as our “personal Lord and Savior.”

So as we move through Advent I encourage you to hear the words of Scripture in new ways. Maybe pick up an epistle and read it as though it were sent to you via certified mail. You have to sign for it, you can’t ignore it. And hear Jesus’ words as if he had picked up the phone and was speaking to you personally.

And then remember that the world doesn’t end on December 25th; it begins. Advent calendars aren’t a countdown to the end but a count-up to the beginning. The beginning of that new relationship with God which is always extended; the beginning of new ways of hearing God speak to you in your own life; the beginning of God’s reign of justice for all people. Which means we can end this sermon with the words with which Paul’s letter began: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck