Sermons

Sermon preached by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on December 2, 2018

Yearning.  Longing.  Seeking.  We all yearn for something more, for the unknown that can fill the hole deep inside.  We may not even know we have this longing—much less what it is we long for.  That yearning comes as darkness.  In the face of this longing, we do not know what light is, and yet we seek it.  That longing comes as anxiety.  We do not know its source or its end, and yet we seek the peace that would heal us.

            So it was in ancient times when the Hebrews knew little of peace but a great deal about war and rumors of war.  Theirs was a world of darkness where nations stood against one another.  So it is in our day as our towns and cities stay lit with artificial light to push away the darkness of our deep longing.  Our yearning keeps our prisons and psychiatric hospitals filled.  It drives us to medicate ourselves at bars and shopping malls.  For three consecutive years, our life expectancy in America has gone down—largely driven by increases in opioid addiction and suicides.  This yearning ties our children to electronic screens.  We can all fall into a stupor, asleep at the switch.

            So what is different about us as we gather in this place on this day—the first day of a time we call Advent?  Our yearning has become something new.  It has become expectation.  We as people of faith live in the anticipation of something we await in hope.  As Simone Weil said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  It was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “Expectation—anxious, collective and operative expectation of an end of the world---that is perhaps the supreme Christian function and the most distinctive characteristic of our religion.”  We know our world had a beginning and will have an end.  Indeed we have the advantage of a preview of what is to come.  We have received an invitation to live with expectancy, trusting that what we yearn for will indeed come to those who watch and wait.  There will be a coming of both judgment and redemption.

            Yet Teilhard goes on to say, “…in reality we should have to admit, if we were sincere, that we no longer expect anything.”  That is why we need Advent.  That is why the church devotes a whole season to expectancy, a whole season when we look toward the end of time, that Great Day when Christ will come again and God will make all things new.  We need Advent to wake us up from our complacency, to revive us again, to make us alert and ready to receive what God wants to give us.  Wake up!  Watch!  Let your yearning become expectation once again.  Remember the promise and the hope.

            There is nothing like a bumper sticker to get the point across.  I remember some of my favorites.  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy.” And then there is another: “Christ is coming again—and is she ever mad.”. We are looking toward both a judgment and a redemption.  Being ready is hard work, exhausting to our very soul.  Staying alert is not easy.  So how do we remain alert and watchful as the time of waiting goes on?  It is no simple task to stay awake when the night of watching grows long.  I confess that the one time I lived through a hurricane I fell asleep at the height of the storm.  I woke up in the light of morning when someone called to see if we had electricity.  In the midst of such a crisis, after watching for hours for the safety of my children, how did I fall asleep?  The disciples had the same problem when Jesus needed their presence on the last night of his life.  How often people sit at the death bed of a loved one only to discover that death has already come.

            So how do we stay alert?  How do we watch for the coming of Jesus?  How do we make our Advent a proper preparation for the invasion of the Holy One?  We discover quickly that we cannot buy a spiritual life.  No one can manufacture a spiritual life for us. 

So today we pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  Advent begins in darkness and ends with the dawning of light.  It is hard to stay alert in the darkness of this season.  We feel vulnerable, so alone in the darkness.  We have a deep need to do something even as we wait in the darkness.  We need to do our part to push back the darkness, to open the way for the light.

 It was Robert Lewis Stevenson who told of his childhood memory of watching the lamp lighter going down the street lighting streetlamps.  He cried out, “Look, there is a man down there who punched holes in the darkness.”  As we do our active waiting in this season of Advent, we all search for our way to punch holes in the darkness.  What do we do after every terrorist attack or tragedy?  In one community after another, we light candles in an irresistible urge to bring light into the darkness and to step toward the light.

We yearn to know when the great day will come.  We want to interpret the signs and gain control by knowing, but it is not for us to know.  That is just the point of expectancy—living in the conviction that something is coming despite our ignorance of who, what, when, and where.  Actually not knowing is what keeps us alert.  We are to expect the unexpected, to know that the Day of the Lord is all about unexpectedness. 

But what do we know?  We have the gift of Jeremiah’s promise.  The Lord will fulfill the promise.  A righteous branch will spring up for David and execute justice and righteousness.  As Jesus says, the Son of Man will come in power and great glory.  This Day of the Lord will be a good thing.  We will be taken to safety in the embrace of God.

We may not know the Who, What, When, and Where, but we do know the Why.  Our yearning turns into expectation because we know the Why.  It is all about God’s love, God’s intent for all humanity and all of creation to be filled with God’s presence.  Christ will come again because God desires all nations to be reconciled around the heavenly throne.  

Here is the sweet dream of peace with all the tribes and nations in harmony with one another and with God.  Here is the dream of that hole deep inside filled by the God whom we seek.  Because we know the Why of that Great Day, we can live in hope.  God is coming for us—not against us.  Christ is coming for the Kingdom of God to arrive in all its fullness.  We thus become the link between the yearning that we share with all people and the expectation that is ours as children of God who wait in hope.  Ours is a hope meant to draw others into our life of expectancy.

So let us become Advent people, people who stay alert to watch and wait, people who live in expectation.  In the words of John Henry Newman:  “They watch for Christ who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind, who are awake, alive quick-sighted, zealous in honoring him, who look for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if they found that he was coming at once….This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.”

It is the season to be alert.  May we be God’s expectant people, ready for the coming of Christ.  Expect the unexpected.  Come, Lord Jesus, come. 

Sermon preached by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on November 25, 2018

Today is the Feast of Christ the King.  Kings are getting a bad rap these days.  In fact, the heads of most everything are getting a bad rap.  In the face of the storms and challenges of life, human beings fail over and over again—either because they are powerless in the face of superhuman threats or because they play power games while ordinary people suffer.  Human kings ultimately fail us every time—in governmental affairs, in economics, in religion.

            No wonder the words “king” and “kingdom” have fallen out of favor in Christian theology.  We have grasped for words like “reign” and “commonwealth” to express the inexpressible.  Yet I confess that I am just antique enough to love that word “King” to point toward what I hope for Christ to be in my life, in the church, and in the world.

            This Feast of Christ the King did not arise until 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted this celebration to stand over against the destructive forces of the times.  Think of that time—the Roaring Twenties, four years before the big crash and the Great Depression.  We had already seen a World War meant to end all wars.  The feast was the last Sunday of October, a prelude to All Saints’ Day, and it is said, a response to the Reformation Sunday of the German Lutheran Church.  Now it falls as the climax of our liturgical year, showing us where it is all headed.  In a document on the Church in the Modern World, the Roman Catholic Church describes this feast celebrating the Lord of glory as “the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations….”

            That is where it is all headed, yet we have before us a paradoxical scene of Jesus dragged before a confused and reluctant ruler who interrogates him about his kingship.  It is a story of power and powerlessness, crowns of gold and crowns of thorns, regal thrones and wooden crosses.  In the Gospel of John, we watch Jesus in complete control, fully aware of what is happening and what will come.  Pilate begins as the judge in control of the proceedings as he questions the defendant, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  He ends up scrambling for control.  He will go on to ask, “What is truth?” as he longs for the truth that escapes him.

            Jesus says, “My Kingdom is not from this world.”  He talks not about his kingly role—not about himself—but only his Kingdom.  “King” is Pilate’s word, not his.  “Not from this world”—Here is the origin and nature of his authority.  Here is the authority of God alone, authority to rule our hearts and thus our entire lives, authority rooted in God’s love which is the ultimate power.  Jesus speaks with the assurance of one who knows where he comes from.  The powerless one stands before the worldly powers.  Then Jesus and Pilate switch places as the powerless one comes to reign.  As William Temple says, “Because human hands did not place the crown on his head, human hands cannot remove it.” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 480)

            This is really not much of a trial.  The real trial goes on out in the streets where Peter huddles around a charcoal fire—out in the world where he is asked, “Are you not one of his disciples?”  That trial continues for every disciple and for the church.  Do you know Jesus as your king?  Do you know him in a way that proclaims his kingdom to the world and draws all people to him?  As C. S. Lewis said, “You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”  (Mere Christianity)

So why do we need Jesus to be our King?  Why do we need Jesus to prevail over the kings of this world?  Why do we need Jesus to reign as King in our lives?  Those who were slaves to Pharaoh could tell us.  The Hebrews who longed for the coming of a Messiah could tell us.  The slaves who gave us the spirituals can tell us.  “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land.  Tell old Pharaoh.  Let my people go.”  “Ride on, King Jesus.  Ride on.”  Oppressed people know about kings—human kings and Christ the King.  People at the end of their rope need Jesus to be King over all.

            When did Christ become King in my life?  I never really had a theology of the kingship of Christ until I woke up from surgery for breast cancer nineteen years ago.  My surgeon at Johns Hopkins, a deacon in the American Baptist Church, took requests for music as we headed to the operating room.  He suggested some good Anglican music by the Tallis Scholars.  I heard the first strains of the music and then was out like a light.

            When I woke up, the operating room staff quickly informed me that at the end of the surgery, Dr. Dooley switched to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and I sang along.  I quickly apologized for inflicting my singing voice on them all.  I knew they were telling the truth because the music was fresh in my mind even in the fog of anesthesia.  I knew I had been singing “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”  That line became a mantra for me from that day forward.  My Baptist surgeon gave me the spiritual tool I needed to make the walk through my cancer treatment in the months ahead.  He shared the spiritual truth that sustains him day by day as he fights the forces of cancer, the forces of sickness and death.  He pointed me toward the victory that is ours in Christ who is King over all.

            As you may know, that cancer recurred this year, and I went to surgery again.  Recently on a Saturday night I received a text from my daughter.  Happy Anniversary, Mom.  Nineteen years after breast cancer.  Now I do the math differently.  For me, it is like AA: You start counting over again when you lose your sobriety.  Cancer recurs, so you start counting again.  Yet she reminded me that this is just another skirmish in the war.  Something decisive happened nineteen years ago, something that still continues to change my life.

            I had reached a point where I was up against the wall and needed Christ to be King for me.  It was time to stop trying to be king over my life and let Christ rule.  I then discovered the King Jesus hymns in our African American tradition.  I listened to praise music that I had never known before—collected by the woman who ran the program at the YMCA for teens with special needs.  Those songs came from people who suffer under the hands of human kings, under the power of domination in the world as it is.  Christians who truly know Christ as King yearn for a king of justice and love and healing, a king who leads us into a kingdom in the world as it ought to be.  They are “prisoners of hope” in the words of Zechariah in the daily office today.

            I discovered that Christ would be victorious whether I lived or died.  It was not about my little victories or defeats but about God’s Kingdom.  That is where it is all headed.  That is the purpose of this life.  That is the truth  that Pilate sought.  That is the truth at the heart of our walk with Jesus.

            So now let us pray for the coming of such a Kingdom with such a King who is Christ our Lord:

Our Father, your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

Ruler of the everlasting kingdom,

prince of peace, champion of the despised:

you are the king;

you make a cross your throne;

you wear a crown of thorns;

you call your subjects friends.

Help us to take up our cross,

to hunger and thirst for all that is good;

then will your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.  Amen. 

(New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 115)

 

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins preached on Nov. 18, 2018

           The disciples have hit the big time.  These Galileans have followed Jesus to the big city.  They are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, especially the Temple, that center of their faith.  Then Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet.  Here he is talking about the destruction of the Temple, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines.  It sounds like the fiscal cliff, climate change, war and famine in Yemen, fires in California—even in Paradise, shootings in the synagogue, and Armageddon in the Middle East all rolled into one. 

            Jesus speaks in the lineage of the ancient language of apocalyptic addressed to God’s people in the midst of hard times.  Some say the thirteenth chapter of Mark sounds more like the Book of Daniel or the Revelation of John.  Just this week I heard a radio report on the horrors in California begin with the word “apocalyptic.” 

In desperate times, the faithful were strengthened by the apocalyptic message, finding assurance that God would act mightily.  The very word “apocalypse” means not an ending but an unveiling, the unveiling of God’s purpose, the completion of all that God is doing.  In the words of Jesus, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Despite all the scary images, this is the language of hope and perseverance. 

            Apocalyptic conveys the overthrow of the whole social order, the ultimate victory of good over evil.  There are two ages both happening at once as time collapses in this symbolic worldview.  Chronological time yields to the time of Kairos, a moment for choices.  We are called to be part of the new age rather than the old.  We move into a time where the Kingdom is here but not yet, a time where God will finally prevail. 

            To get to the heart of this apocalyptic tradition that Jesus stood upon, it helps to ask where all this came from.  What was the soil from which it grew?  Why would anyone have heard all this as good news?  It goes back to the effort of the Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV to destroy Judaism.  A statue of Zeus was erected in the Temple, thus defiling this holy place.  By the time of the writing of Mark, the Roman Emperor Caligula had a plan to set up an image of himself in the Temple.  He was just assassinated before the task was done.  So here is Judaism under siege, the people of God chosen by the kings of the world to be objects of persecution and oppression.  Mark was writing to a community crushed by the status quo, people who had nothing to lose.  Now as people ask where anti-Semitism came from, we can tell them that it has a long history.

            For such people, these proclamations of an end time were messages of genuine hope amid frustration.  That hope comes through differently depending on which side of power we are on.  For a powerless person, it is a wonderful promise that one day God will have the final victory over evil, that suffering will pass away.  For such people, it is easier to understand an ending as a consummation of God’s purpose for us, as the final coming of the Kingdom of God.

            So what does all this have to do with us—for those of us who are on the other side of power?  We can be content with the way things are, thank you very much.   We would gladly settle for more of the same.  But is it really all so great in our world?  Fear is on the rise among us all.  Division seems to be the order of the day.  Commentators tell us that our wealth has not given us security and peace.  We have a love-hate relationship with our own good times.  All too often we become resigned to life as it is and lose the dream of God.

            There are many alternatives to create dreams for us.  This war between the cosmic forces finally is a war for our hearts and minds, a war between different places to put our trust.  Jesus warns us that the most obvious alternatives are really only false messiahs and false prophets whether in the first or twenty-first century. 

            So what are the false messiahs and false prophets in our lives?  They are many—all those admirable things that become idols for our worship and determine the shape of our lives.  The best definition of a false messiah is simple.  It is based on the presumption that something we do will bring in the Kingdom of God.  We so easily forget that it is God’s Kingdom—not ours.

            I am reminded of a time years ago when I sweated bullets all week over what to preach at St. Stephen’s, Morganton, a small African American parish where I served.  That year a black candidate ran for U. S. Senate.  He lost, and there I was—a white woman preaching in that black parish the next Sunday.  The lessons were all about God’s preferential option for the poor, the promise of deliverance, hope for the people of God.  I find Black churches including Episcopal ones are much more inclined to speak directly about matters in the arena we call politics.  What on earth could I say to those people at such a time when they in their tradition expected the matters of that week to be addressed?  What could I say that could be authentic when we sat on different sides of power and privilege through no choice of our own?

            Finally I just led with all my questions, acknowledging my dilemma.  The people in the pews proceeded to preach to me with the looks on their faces.  They just chuckled and went on.  They knew deeply what I did not yet know—that our hope does not rely on winners and losers.  God had been sustaining them for a long time, and God would keep on keeping on.  They taught me to hold the so-called messiahs of our world lightly and to have patience while we wait for the victory yet to come.  They knew with Julian of Norwich that “All shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.”

            Last week in the Dismantling Racism training at diocesan convention, I encountered a member of that congregation.  There she was with the same hopeful spirit--even though that parish had been merged with another for lack of money, even though her cancer had metastasized to her liver after twenty years of being cancer free.  She glowed with hopefulness and profound patience.  She then startled me with the news that they continued to talk about me often.

            Later in the day her friend who came from New York a few years ago continued the chatter about hearing about me so much.  It was then that she confessed, “I just always thought you were black.”  We laughed over that one, but there was some truth there.  To whatever degree I became black in that congregation, it was because of what they taught me.  With their revolutionary patience, they showed me what it is to live always trusting in God’s power.  They preached to me that “All shall be well.”  They drew me into their spirituality.

            It is the spirituality of Hannah, the barren woman of low status in the Ancient Near East, who asks God again and again with unrelenting patience, who finally proclaims God’s victory in all things.  It is the spirituality of the unnamed woman last week who quietly gives all that she has at the Temple, the image Jesus uses to show us who he is—as Father Sam told us.  I was black in the life of St. Stephen’s only as they embraced me and my family, marinating us in their patience, trust, and faithfulness.  They knew the battle between good and evil, and like our forebears they knew who will finally win.

            May we commit ourselves to live each day with faithfulness and holy patience even as our eyes gaze into God’s future.  May we live on the edge of our seats, ready for the coming of the true Messiah.  Stay tuned.  The answer comes next week.  We call it Christ the King.

 

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Haswkins given on October21, 2018

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

            This text always stirs up in me certain memories.  One is a casual worship service in Baltimore where I put together a drama to enact the life of servanthood.  The actors were all members of one family taking turns moving about in the middle of the circle where we gathered.  First came the elegantly dressed couple who turned down the seat of honor and began serving us from a silver tray.  Then came the teenage boy who handed over the car keys and offered to ride a bicycle.  Finally there came the six-year-old laden with his lacrosse equipment—Note that this was Baltimore where lacrosse has always been king—offering to be the water boy instead of a starter for the team.  To this I said, “Are you sure?  Have you talked to your parents about this?  This is about real money—your college scholarship.” 

            My other memory that arises with today’s gospel is a Sunday when I arrived at home to observe smoke emerging from the chimney.  It was a bit early in the season for a fire at mid-day.  I found our teenage son lying in front of the fireplace lost in thought.  I could only wonder what on earth was going on with him.

            I would never have known what was up where it not for the college essay—a rare moment when proofreading offers a glimpse into the mind of a seventeen-year-old.  The assignment was to look out your window and consider what you would like to change in the world you see.  The view he described was the dog-eat-dog world of morning rush hour when everyone lives by the me-first doctrine.  He compared that way of life of the observation of a fourth grader in Sunday school class when they studied today’s gospel.  So that was what he was thinking about that long afternoon before the fireplace.  Later when we were moving, I retrieved the notebook he threw out—the notebook from his Dante class where that incident was first recorded in the journal required by the teacher.  It read like this:

            “Today we talked about just vengeance and how it relates to the crucifixion of Christ.  It is so amazing that the topic arises at a time like this because this past Sunday in the church school class I teach we read the lesson from Mark’s gospel about the death of Christ being a ransom for all of mankind.  We talked about this selfless act of Christ and how he gave his own life so that I could be freed from sin.  We saw that the word ransom meant in those times a payment that would free slaves.  This was a powerful class, but the words of one of my pupils still sounds in my head.  He responded to this lesson by saying that we should always be third.  God should be first and our friends and families should be second.  Wow!  I gave this boy no nudge or hint at any of this.  He developed this profound rule on his own.  I was amazed by the capacity of Tyler to gather such insight from the lesson.  I will never forget this Dante moment.”

            So that is what sent a high school senior into overdrive on a Sunday afternoon—the thoughts of a fourth grader who heard this command of Jesus to put self last whatever the cost.  Both of them got it.  They both heard something that was slow learning for James and John and all of us.

            Who is this Jesus who breaks into the heart of a nine-year-old?  What is this new way of life that challenges everything a high school senior aspires to—the Ivy League admission letter, the championship in sports, the huge salary at the other end of the educational pipeline?  What is this challenge of servanthood that stops a person cold for a whole afternoon?  It is the life of discipleship that turns our world upside down, that reverses everything about the way we have been taught to live, that draws us—young and old—into a path of paradox and mystery.

            We live most of our lives imitating James and John, getting in line for the rewards that we expect for joining up.  Like them, we overlook what Jesus says about dying, about giving all.  It is easy to forget that the church is a unique institution serving those who are not in it, calling us to become servants—inwardly toward one another and outwardly toward a world in need.

            This was a difficult teaching for the early church to absorb as it is for us.  Luke omits this scene, and Matthew lets the mother of James and John make this request for seats of glory and recognition for her sons.  They are all deaf to the warning Jesus has just given them, the prediction of his death.  They are blind to the path that they must follow.  They just do not get it.  So Jesus calls the disciples together and spells out the life to which they are called.
            Here is the turning point of the gospel.  Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem and the cross.  He lives already as a servant to others.  Now his servanthood will unfold in his death for the life of the world.  They are to follow as Jesus lives out all that he teaches.

            Jesus overturns all that we think we know about power.  In his strange way of life, liberation comes in the form of serving.  Power in the form of weakness.  Greatness by being last, not first.  Life comes from drinking the cup of death—death to self, death to power, death to glory.

            It has been said that Christianity has two focal symbols—the cross and the towel.  Jesus today opens the meaning of those symbols, calling us to self-sacrifice and service.  He is clear about the cost of following him.   The life of service is the life that leads to the cross.  The life of service requires us to take up the towel of a servant, the towel that hangs on the arm of a table waiter, the towel of a servant who washes the feet of the master.

            In these days, we are all called to be servants, to live ever more deeply into the mysterious life of service.  We all must let go as we follow him.  We all have something to lose as we walk toward the cross, but we also have something to gain as well—a new life where powerlessness is true power and servanthood is liberation.

            The words of Jesus are full of riddles and mysteries.  Sometimes those words are heard only by the young who have fresh ears or by the outsiders who have nothing more to lose.  The fourth grader heard that he was to be third—after God and others.  The teenager spent the afternoon absorbing his wisdom.  They both discovered on that autumn day that they had things to give up, a life to live for others.

            Yet I am convinced that the long reverie of that autumn day was about the irresistible call of the servant life, the sweetness in the midst of the sacrifice, the joy that emerges as we die to self and discover something much more real and true than anything we give up.  It is about the mystery of God’s love, a love that sacrifices everything for undeserving souls like us.  The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  It is the mystery of an autumn afternoon.  It is the mystery of a lifetime.

 

Sermon by The Rev. Sam Tallman given on October 7, 2018

Proper 22B – Mark 10:2-16 – St. Mary of the Hills – Blowing Rock, NC – 10-7-18
Creation Season: provident to have Jesus’ teaching on marriage
As also hear in Genesis 2: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’”Gen2:18
Embedded in creation are complementary natures: maleness & femaleness that come together to create a oneness – a unity with power to transcend the differences
Another amazing element of goodness planted by God in the creation is that this comes about thru the capacity to love that mirrors God’s love
The capacity & implanted desire to love that transforms what is binary into newfound unity
Yet when we come to hear Jesus’ teaching on marriage, many of us want to jump back – this is not how we’ve come to know experience the realities of marriage in all the complexity inherent in human relationships
With so much fallibility inherent in human nature, it’s simplistic that all can be overcome by endurance alone
True as that is, there may also be risk in throwing the baby out with the bath water
True, Jesus’ teachings always embedded in the context of his day & time – religious & cultural context of 1st century Judaism as well as the Greco-Roman world
Yet I’ve found for myself always some deeper truth revealed in Jesus’ teaching that speaks thru the cultural disconnect his time & ours
So I want to share what I say in my wedding homilies to a couple being married as well as to their family & friends gathered to support & celebrate their marriage
When 2 people come to exchange lifelong vows to love each other, we have to begin that offering thanks for the love they have received from parents, grandparents, sisters & brothers, those who have gone before as well as friends
Love that has nurtured them to the maturity in them that now is ready to pledge faithful love for one another for as long as they both shall live
Even though as usual these days that couple has been together for a number of years before marriage,
I hope for them that by exchanging these vows, they will feel the tectonic plates of their life shift – that there’s a foundation now that feels more like bedrock
No more maybe’s – no more contingent feelings
If she will just become the wife I’ve always wanted
If he will turn out to be the husband I’d always hoped for
2
No, the vows given to each other are something to bet your whole life on – there’s no other bet that can pay off
Bet your whole life by giving the love that will enable the other to become all God has created them to be
Bet your whole life you will receive the same love in return for you to become what God alone has created you to be
We don’t live into the fullness of who God made us to be on our own resources & power
It takes God’s love and love from the people closest to enable us to grow in that fullness
In the vows exchanged lies an inward & spiritual grace of entering a relationship of love that mirrors how God loves us – love within a covenant – with in a promise of faithfulness
Love that receives by giving
Love devoted to fullness of life for the beloved
It’s the closest we come in this life to loving as God loves us
Yet we know it’s perhaps the most challenging path in life
Jim Pritchett, our former Canon to the Ordinary, wrote this in a Facebook post & asked friends to re-post it:
Lifelong commitment is not what most people think it is. It’s not waking up every morning to make breakfast & eat together. It’s not cuddling in bed until both of you fall asleep….It’s someone who steals all the covers, and snores. It’s slammed doors and a few harsh words at times. It’s stubbornly disagreeing and giving each other the silent treatment until your hearts heal, and then forgiveness. It’s coming home to the same person every day that you know loves and cares about you in spite of and because of who you are….It’s about helping each other with the hard work of life. It’s about swallowing the nagging words instead of saying them out loud. It’s when you have an emotional day and your love holds you, and tells you everything is going to be OK, and you believe them! It’s about still loving someone even though sometimes they make you absolutely insane. Loving someone isn’t always easy, and sometimes it’s hard. But it’s amazing & comforting and one of the best things God has in mind for us.
What rises from that for me is the virtue of fidelity & I think that may be at the heart of Jesus’ teaching about marriage
The fidelity Jesus call us to is a mirror of God’s covenant with us – a covenant of faithfulness – a promise to us of fidelity
Fidelity is Jesus’ challenge for us to live into faithfulness, whether it be thru marriage or the single life
3
Fidelity is about:
Loving trust in promises made
Self-giving as the way of love
Abandonment of all that would draw us away
Deep affection
Devotion
Even joyful submission
That surely describes marriage but it is also a description of the life Jesus calls every one of us to
Lives that mirror the same steadfast love God holds for use
Remember Jesus’ new commandment he left for his followers:
Love one another as I have loved you.
Love one another as God has loved you.

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on September 30, 2018

           “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure, through Jesus Christ our Lord….”

            There is the theology we profess, and then there is the theology that we live.  Today I am focusing on the theology that is woven into this prayer appointed for this day.  Forgive me if you are new to St. Mary’s and do not know all our habits, but I suspect that if you are a human being and have knowledge of other groups composed of human beings, what I say will ring a bell.

            We have just extolled a powerful God of mercy and pity and have asked for the fullness of God’s grace.  We come seeking to be partakers of God’s heavenly treasure.  We have waxed eloquent about God’s promises.  But are we actually running toward those promises?  Are we partaking of God’s abundance?

            One of the gurus of the Episcopal Church used to say that as he traveled around speaking at churches he could tell whether a church lived out of a theology of scarcity or a theology of abundance.  He just observed the kind of toilet paper they used.  Thin, cheap toilet paper revealed a theology of scarcity and good quality, a theology of abundance.  When I arrived here a year ago, St Mary’s passed the toilet paper test, but my first impressions showed other signs of concern. 

            Over all, this place seemed dark and dirty—something we have worked on this year.  However, now we have a problem with lights getting turned off during the week when visitors are frequently passing through.  One visitor reported coming to light a votive candle and falling without light to negotiate the steps.  Speaking of candles, I have never before seen a church burn the altar candles down so low.  Never before have I had a computer print everything on two sides of the paper—something that does not work for the kind of documents a priest produces.  Of course, I quickly encountered the parking lot that lost its stripes, the chairs in the office that put the visitor’s back out, and the absence of a sound system.  Yet all the while we had a Capital Improvements Fund of over $350,000 just sitting there ready to go to work.  It took lots of convincing to help the vestry grasp that we had the designated funds to remedy these matters, money given for such things.

            What might appear to some as strictly financial issues are deeply spiritual issues.  The most basic spiritual choice is whether we will live in fear—or not.  Will we live in fear or let go of our fear and trust in God’s promises?  Recently Sue Sweeting shared with us her powerful story of saying NO to fear in her life in order to grow in her walk with God.  After all, “Do not be afraid,” is the most common phrase in scripture.  So we are not alone.  Obviously many of God’s people needed that reassurance.  We all have fears and worries that beset us.  I once heard that great spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, say in a sermon, “Have you ever considered all the things you worried about that never happened?”  Think about it.  I myself have been thinking about it for almost forty years.

            The Diocese of Alabama once developed a life changing program with two basic questions to ask of scripture: What are the promises?  What is holding you back from receiving the promises?  Our prayer today reminds us to focus on the promises.  But if we are not running to meet the promises, what is holding us back? 

            I ask us all to look within.  Who taught you to fear?  How did St. Mary’s learn to live in fear?  How did fear grow when we only have to look around at our mountains to be reminded of God’s abundance?  How do we become so fearful when anybody can tell we are more prosperous than most communities?  But finally it matters more that we choose to put fear aside regardless of where it comes from.

            I remember when my son’s soccer team struggled at a school that had never been strong in that sport.  A wise assistant coach, a thoughtful man from India, explained it: “You are the better team from your shoulders down—just not from the shoulders up.”  In other words, it was all in their heads.  They were trapped in a tradition of scarcity.  They could not believe in themselves because of the school’s past history of scarcity and failure.  They had to unlearn a tradition of scarcity that did not match their gifts of abundant ability.  They had to say NO to the lies that defined what they could do.

            Now there is a place for realism.  There is a place for fiscal responsibility.  But there is no need to be paralyzed by fear.

            It is finally a question of faith.  Faith is not about beliefs and doctrines.  It is about trust.  Where do we place our trust?  Are we really putting our trust in God?  That is why we need always to be in relationship with the poor.  Those who volunteer with homeless persons at Hospitality House constantly tell of the deeply trusting faith encountered there.  That experience is rare among the rich.

            Pause and think of your time of poverty--when the challenges of life were overwhelming, when you felt powerless and afraid.  Now remember how God provided.  Remember what the fullness of grace felt like.  Remember what a promise fulfilled was like for you.

            Hold that memory.  When fear arises in the days to come, invite that memory to return.  Let go of the fear and push it to the side.  You can adopt a signal for yourself when fear arises.  Imagine a fear-o-meter with a warning signal.  Imagine it going off in vestry meeting or at the dinner table whenever fear threatens to block the promises.

            Lately at the 9:00 Sunday hour we have been reading a book called Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to life in Fullness by Brother David Steindl-Rast.  He tells us we are fear-ridden people in a fear-ridden society.  He goes on to say, “But nothing is gained by this discovery if in addition to all our other fears we now begin to fear fear.  Why not rather look at fear as the necessary condition for courage?” (p. 199)

            About faith, he says this: “Faith is trust.  It takes courage to trust. The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but distrust, fear….When we grow in gratefulness, we grow in faith. Gratefulness implies trust in the giver.  A grateful person says ‘Thank you!’ and only afterward checks what’s inside the gift-wrapping.  Faith is the courage to respond gratefully to every given situation, out of trust in the Giver.” (p. 198)

            When we truly live into God’s promises, we do go running toward the gifts not knowing just what is inside the wrapping.  We can even be grateful for fear—that necessary condition for courage.

            We began with the material reality where we act out our fear. Yet there are signs of hope around us—abundant flowers in the garden, abundant food at coffee minute, more teams at Hospitality House than any other church, workers and givers that produced over $82,000 in the Tour of Homes to care for the poor—all reminders that God has all that is needed.  God will provide.

  1. S. Lewis has great wisdom for us: “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant [us] to be a purely spiritual creature.  That is why [God] used material things like bread and wine to put new life into us.  We may think this rather crude and unspiritual.  God does not.  [God] invented eating.  [God] liked matter.  [God] invented it.  (Mere Christianity)

            So let’s practice running toward the promises.  Let’s race toward the meal of bread and wine.  Let’s throw aside our garments of fear and run to receive God’s promises.  Let’s stop trying to be more spiritual than God.  May the theology we profess become the theology that we live—free of fear full of God’s grace—partakers of God’s heavenly treasure.

 

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on September 23, 2018

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

            The Jewish High Holy Days were fast approaching.  The soccer game at our son’s school in Baltimore was already underway when a frenzied woman plopped down on the bleachers.  Now this woman had not been my favorite.  Once at another soccer game, she had asked me, “You’ve lived here two years, and you haven’t lost your Southern accent?”  My husband loves to quote my response: “Nor do I ever wish to do so.”  She was the first person I ever heard described as “high maintenance.”  The phrase stuck with me since it came from the mouth of such a kind and patient gentleman.  She was probably the person for whom that phrase originated.

            So here is this woman arriving in a flurry.  Quickly I learned that she had just left the meeting at her synagogue where they decided who would get the best seats for the worship services of the High Holy Days.  Before I knew it, we were new best friends, totally on the same page, commiserating about the perils of dealing with egos and the urge for influence in our faith communities.  We both knew what it is like to have the role of traffic cop when people all want to be first.  Some things are the same in synagogue and church, in the first and the twenty-first centuries.

            There was a time when I thought surely the disciples in this gospel story would not have had the nerve to argue with one another about who was the greatest as they went down the road with Jesus.  Yet the solid Biblical scholar Hugh Anderson tells us, “…questions of rank and precedence in regard to the synagogues or tribunals or meals were not uncommon in Jesus’ day, and the rabbis disputed who would be greatest in this new age.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 233)  So folks really said such things.   Yet whether or not we say these things straight up, we all desire recognition and influence.  We want things to go our way.  We want positions of honor.  Just like those first disciples, we want to come first.

            Notice that Jesus has just described the life of the Son of Man.  Once again his disciples just do not get it.  They continue their power games as they journey to the next stop.  So Jesus again presents the great reversal.  He actually places a child in their midst and tells them to accept the status of a child.  He does not point to childlike innocence and trust here.  He is not being the Mister Rogers of the Ancient Near East.  Rather he shows them what it is to be a true disciple.  It is to become a servant, to accept lowliness and littleness, to be least of all.  Therein lies the Kingdom of God.

            It helps to understand the status of a child in the world of Jesus.  A child was the bottom of the food chain, without power or status, the very least of the least in society.  Ched Myers says, “Children represented the bottom of the social and economic scale in terms of status and rights in the ancient Mediterranean world….It is remarkable enough that Jesus draws attention at all to children, for they were considered nonentities.  It is quite shocking that he would advance them as models….”  (Unbinding the Strong Man, p. 260-261)   Age and tradition were revered on those days.  It was a different society than modern ones that worship youth and discriminate on the basis of age.  I often wonder if lifting up a child shocked people even more than having fellowship with tax collectors and sinners or reaching out to Gentiles.

            Yet discipleship is an embrace of the grand reversal of Jesus.  To be a disciple is to accept the status of a child.  To follow Jesus is to embrace a savior with no status, to live with no status, and to identify with those who have no status.  Jesus calls us to a profound inclusiveness—a total reversal for us who live in systems of exclusion and division.

            Watch out as we hear more from the Gospel of Mark.  We will hear yet more about the child as the last and the least.  Notice how often children show up in the context of sickness and oppression.  We have just heard the core values of Jesus that permeate Mark—the definition of true greatness, the path of knowing Jesus in the face of the lowly ones.

            The disciples thought the journey of their team was a path to glory and honor.  Yet Jesus knows it is a downward path of humility.  The glory is the glory of the cross.  So Jesus pulls a small child into the center of his disciples to remind us that we need the spiritual example of that child.  We need that little one to show us the way, the way to be freed of ourselves in order to enter the kingdom.  Jesus lifts up the one who is powerless—or perhaps power-free—to show us how to become the greatest.  He lifts up the one who is defenseless to show us the trusting posture that will lead us into the Kingdom. 

            We, too, need the child among us to give us a glimpse of heaven.  I remember well one moment long ago when a child brought a piece of heaven to the altar rail.  While distributing communion, I was startled as I moved down the rail to see a little boy clutching his Cabbage Patch doll in his arms.  He held out the doll and looked up at me awaiting a blessing.  My first reaction was to wonder who was looking.  Then I thought, “If I say NO, he’ll be telling this to his therapist someday.”  So quickly I blessed that doll, the alter ego of this child who flashed a piece of heaven in his big eyes.  To welcome that child was to welcome him, and to welcome him was to welcome Jesus.  Several adults glimpsed that moment and swelled with a mixture of laughter and poignancy.  For them, too, it was a moment when God slipped in among us.  Happily they proved to be a congregation that could welcome a child--a child who knows smallness and dependency, who knows the need for God.

            As a parent, I have watched my own children grow up in a variety of churches with both their parents being clergy.  Which was their favorite?  For each of them—one in the financial world of Wall Street, the other in a group home for the so-called intellectually disabled in South Carolina—their favorite childhood church was the same.  It was not the one with the elaborate programs for children and youth.  It was the one that was most welcoming of children—St. Stephen’s, an American American parish in Morganton.  Why?  Because they in the parish themselves had been welcomed as children.  Because they knew what it is to be considered nobody.  Because they knew what it is to be a servant.  Because they wanted the transformed future that only the Spirit can bring.  Because they knew only God could give what they needed. 

            Jesus would have us welcome the child lest we miss out on the chance to see God.  To welcome such a child is to welcome God.  Here is our chance to experience God incognito among us.  God chooses to come to us in the face of the powerless one to show us what it is to be the greatest of all. 

            Why choose this downward path of humility instead of the upward path of greatness?  Why choose to be last of all and servant of all?  Why welcome a child and thus welcome Jesus and the one who sent him?  Because that is what we need most.  Because that is what the world needs.  Because this is true greatness.  Because when we welcome those at the bottom we welcome Jesus himself.

 

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on September 16, 2018

“But who do you say that I am?”

            I had been to the Holy Land before, but never before had I been to what was once Caesarea Philippi.  It is a journey far to the north of Israel.  So it was there that the lights came on for me.  It was a truly beautiful place.  I remember greenness.  The stone was covered with intricate carvings.  Why all the beauty?  In reverence for the gods—the other gods.  Suddenly I realized we were in the belly of the beast—the place of all the other gods that have competed with our Lord God through the ages.

            The place is now called Banias, originally Paneas—a grotto sacred to the god Pan.  Once this place was associated with the worship of the baalim we hear about in the Hebrew scriptures.   Herod the Great built a temple nearby in honor of Augustus, king of the empire.  Herod Philip later rebuilt the city and named it Caesarea.  This place was truly the belly of the beast.

In Mark’s gospel, they are “on the way” to this center of religious and political power when Jesus pops the question—“Who do people say that I am?” and then “But who do you say that I am?”  It is the question that would shape their walk with Jesus for the rest of the journey.  It is the question we live out everyday in our time.  This question shapes our priorities—the way we use our treasure—all that is most personal for each of us—our treasure of time, talent, and passion.  Jesus asks that question in the middle of the lives we lead, surrounded by all the other options for our commitment.

It is as though Jesus has walked onto the scene where our loyalties and accomplishments are shaped.  He asks that question at the center of Wall Street, at the country club, at the Harvard graduation, in the midst of the Nobel Prize ceremony, at Carnegie Hall, on the field of the Super Bowl, or to bring it close to home for me, at the NCAA basketball final.  Jesus walks into whatever is the belly of the beast for us.  He meets us in the place where we are tempted to let other priorities become gods for us, where we can allow other voices to set the standards for our lives, where other gods can demand our loyalty and even our worship.

            Until now the disciples thought they knew Jesus, but they really did not.  Now in this watershed moment of Peter’s confession of faith, Peter says who Jesus is—“You are the Messiah.”  Yet when Jesus tells him what that means, he does not want to know.  The disciples thought they wanted to be part of this Kingdom of God—that is, until they find out what it is all about.  To know Jesus is to know who we are and where we are to go.  To know him is to give him everything.

            Here it comes: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Here is a new thought.  Jesus has many sayings reminiscent of earlier rabbis, but no rabbi ever used such an image as this.  Nonetheless, they had seen a criminal carrying his own cross to the execution site.  But a criminal—not the savior of the world, not the Messiah, not the Son of God.

            Jesus says, “Hand over your life.  Give all of yourself to me.  Get out of the driver’s seat, and give me authority over who you are and what you are about.”  He is telling us to put our selves on the cross.  Jesus asks for a total submission to an authority beyond ourselves, a submission which frees us from the captivity of ourselves in order to enter the joy of a new life of freedom.

            I was intrigued lately when the young mothers in our extended family were passing around quotations from a bestselling book called Girl, Wash Your Face.  It is a self-help book with a Christian twist.  It speaks to young mothers who struggle to love themselves enough to move into the self-sacrifice of healthy parenting.  When I ordered it, Amazon said I might also like another title—Get Over Your…..EXPLETIVE DELETED… Self.  I already get the drift.  Voices in our popular culture are discovering there is a freedom in getting over oneself, in denying self for the sake of a higher commitment—just as Jesus said.

     &