Sermons

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on February 17, 2019.

            The world of social systems offers a theory about the way we human beings operate—the theory of oscillation.  It suggests that we have a need to move back and forth between two types of dependence—extra-dependency and intra-dependency.  When we are extra-dependent, we rely on something beyond ourselves, something outside of our control, for the help we need.  When we are intra-dependent, we rely on ourselves, our own abilities and authority, in order to function.  We naturally move back and forth in the course of life.

            That pattern is clear when a young child is playing. The child moves away from the parent and explores, having a great time, but periodically there is a quick run back to the parent just to check in.  Sometimes the need for the check-in becomes more acute with a fall or the arrival of a large animal.  That time of need makes extra-dependency immediately crucial.  It changes the natural rhythm.  Times of need lead us to depend on someone or something beyond ourselves in that place of emptiness and openness.

            Today Jeremiah is talking about extra-dependents, those who trust in the Lord but also those who trust in mere mortals during the time of the Exile, who think human resources are enough to prevail against the Babylonians.  Jesus is surrounded by extra-dependents of all sorts, people from north, south, east, and west who have come to hear his teaching but, most of all, to be healed.  The circumstances of life whether the Babylonian Exile, the poverty of first century Palestine, or the desperation of chronic illness bring us to a place of extra-dependency—a place where we reach beyond ourselves and our own resources for the strength we need.

            Today we hear about the times of extra-dependency, the times when life creates in us a deep emptiness.  We become an empty cup waiting to be filled.  We can be filled with as much God as we need, as much as we have room for.  That cup can be filled with God or it can be filled with any number of other things beyond ourselves. Jeremiah tells us that filling the cup with other things will lead us to the desert, the parched places of the wilderness.  Jesus tells us that filling the cup with wealth ion the present can leave us closed to the abundance God wants to bestow upon us.  Our emptiness will be filled with something, and it doesn’t really matter what it is if it is not God and God’s kingdom.

            When Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the poor,” he is not pronouncing what has been called (G. B. Caird) “a general benediction on misfortune.”  Rather he is saying that “only in the presence of a magnificent banquet is the hungry more blessed.”  Jesus is serving up a spectacular feast, and the rich person can only respond, “Thanks, but I have already eaten.”  The person in need, the one who truly needs God, is hungry enough to enjoy every bite of the feast.  The Gospel of Luke will say it again when Jesus tells the story of the woman who is forgiven much and therefore loves much.

            In this Year of Luke, we have to take seriously what is being said about poverty and wealth.  In Matthew, Jesus may say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but here in Luke he says, “Blessed are the poor.”  Here Jesus follows in the lineage of the Hebrew prophets more than Moses the teacher and lawgiver.  Here he adds the series of Woes upon the rich.  Eugene Peterson’s translation drives it home: “…it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.  What you have is all you’ll ever get.  And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.  Your self will not satisfy you for long.”  That is the problem with our reliance on wealth for things it cannot do.  Its power runs out, and we are left with nothing.

            We must listen up when we hear the word “poor” in the Gospel of Luke.  It is used ten times—but only five times in Matthew and Mark.  In Acts which is Luke’s second volume, the word “Gentile” is used 43 times—the outsider term that takes the same place in the  writer’s vocabulary.  In Luke, there really is a preferential option for the poor, the one who is extra-dependent, the one who has an empty place that has not been filled by self, the one open to God’s work.

            Yet Luke also shows us how the rich can serve.  Luke will later give us the stories of Zacchaeus who follows Jesus and gives of his wealth to the poor.  In Acts, he will show us Barnabas who gives his property to the apostles holding back nothing.  Here are the images of the wealthy who are converted to Jesus and to the needs of the poor, who join the poor in being dependent upon God.

            There is a rabbinic story told about a Hasid, a rich but miserly man who came to the rabbi.  The rabbi leads him to a window and asks, “What do you see?”  “People,” he answers.  The rabbi leads him to a mirror, “What do you see now?”  “Now I see myself,” says the rich man.  Then the rabbi says, “Behold—in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass.  But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.”

            That is the problem.  That bit of silver blocks our view of others in need.  It can focus us on ourselves.  It can fill the space in us that God wants to fill.  It can become the thing that we trust while we pass up all that God wants to give us.

            Last week we heard our call along with the call of the fishermen.  Today we see what this life of discipleship is like—a life of trusting in God for the resources to be and do what God wants of us.  As a congregation we are in a critical time of discerning our calling as individuals and as a whole.  Maybe the thread that ties it all together is the thread of trust in God.  Our Discernment Committee is hard at work these days.  What I hear from them is a testimony to the Holy Spirit at work, a powerful experience of God’s presence among them. 

As we open ourselves, as individuals and as a congregation, we will reach that deep place of need and emptiness where God can step in and fill us with vision and with the resources to reach for the dream.  As extra-dependent persons, open and receptive, we will imagine not what we can do but what God can do.  We can become hungry people ready to partake of a magnificent banquet.

            Today we have heard the only time the word “laugh” is used in the New Testament.  Here is the promise of joy in the Kingdom of God, a robust spirit of laughter grounded in God’s power to work in and through us.  As it has been said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  (Leon Bloy)  Our God has served up a banquet with plenty for us all.  May we approach that table with hunger and openness, ready to receive all that God wants to give us.  May we dream the dream of God, the Kingdom that awaits us all.

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on February 10, 2019.

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

            I used to preach what I thought was a pretty good sermon about the commission to be catchers of people.  I drew on my friend’s story of the first fish he caught as a boy.  He was so excited that he took it home and slept with it—until his mother smelled it in a few days.  I went on to propose the method of catch and release as a way for us to approach evangelism in our time and place.  It was a good, odorless approach for us proper Episcopalians.  I advocated a bold effort to make that connection but then the willingness to let go.  It meant allowing freedom for the person caught and the Holy Spirit to work things out the rest of the way.

            Over time I have decided that is not good enough.  We need to do more than just connect and let go.  Sharing the good news of Christ is the most important thing we do.  It is central to the call that each of us has been given.  All of us should be evangelicals, bearers of good news who share the abundant life, but we have let one part of the church give that idea a bad name.  I am afraid we Episcopalians are not usually natural evangelists.

            But is that really so?  Think about the things we are bold about.  How is a movie or Broadway show made a hit?  Not usually by the reviewers but by word of mouth.  Not lukewarm but passionate sharing  makes a hit.  “You have to see….” we will say.  We can be bold about what we want others to experience—a movie, a concert, a book, even a cleaning product or a diet.  I must say that after Sam Tallman gave me the gift of a skin product to get me through the winter I went on to convert several other people. 

So what about our faith?  What about the transformed lives that are ours in Jesus?  It is time for us to embrace the ministry of invitation and mentoring others in the life of Christ.  It is time for us to set our sights higher, time to pull those fish in—not just catch and release.

            Look at this Jesus we see today.  This son of a carpenter arrives in the fishing industry, the Wall Street of his time.  Those fishermen were experienced in their trade, but they were having a lousy run.  They had fished all night to no avail.  Jesus steps in and starts giving orders.  It is not very likely that in broad daylight and deep water they will do any better, but he convinces them to give it a shot.  By some mystery, they go along with him, and the boat cannot contain the catch. 

            Then he goes on to give even more preposterous orders.  Those were dangerous times; John had already been arrested.  Yet with holy recklessness, Jesus calls them to leave their security and follow him.  Unlike other rabbis, he seeks out the followers he wants.  His call is absolute.  He invites them into a school which will have no graduation.  They must follow him and become apprentices for a lifetime. 

            Fishing for people is the main thing for Jesus.  Luke’s gospel is the only version which combines the call of the fishermen with the miraculous catch of fish.  That miracle is a clue that the catch of people will be enormous as well.  Jesus expects big things.  The fishing comes first—then instruction and formation.  He does not say, “Come worship me.”  He says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  It is as though he takes the twelth step of AA and makes it first—sharing a new way of life with others.  Sharing faith and forming others is just that central to the call to follow Jesus.  The great mystery is that we only really understand the faith when we give it away.  That is when lives really begin to change—our own lives as well as the lives transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

            In the call of Isaiah as well as the call of these fishermen, it is all about risk and trust.  Isaiah and Peter are both quick to point out their sinfulness and inadequacy.  The answer to that excuse is basically: “So what?”  Take a risk anyway.   Trust in God’s power rather than your own.  Get on board with this new spiritual entrepreneurship.

As St. Mary’s looks toward the calling of a new rector, it is a good time to ponder how we might go about fishing for people.  What kind of leadership is needed to live so boldly in following Christ?  In our recent study of spiritual gifts, I have been intrigued by the observations of Peter Wagner who has analyzed spiritual gifts in the life of the church for decades.  He says of the twenty-eight spiritual gifts based on scripture only two are needed for the effective leader of a growing church.  Gifts are given to all members of the body, so plenty of lay people have the gifts of pastor, administrator, teacher, and so on.  The two needed by the rector, however, are the gifts of faith and leadership. 

We just saw those gifts in Jesus.  He had a relentless conviction that great things could happen, that following him was the key to their lives, that the power of God would move mountains.  Out of that faith grew his leadership that calmly and steadily pointed the way for his followers. 

We are called to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God.  We have to dream the impossible so that the possible can happen.  We have to launch out—not just sit secure on the shore.  Life with Jesus is all about taking risks for him, and it is scary to try big and uncertain things.  It is scary to give one’s life to Christ and invite others to do the same.  Yet no church—however large or small—can stay alive without reaching out beyond itself.  We have to be the Body of Christ for others, or we will cease to be the Body of Christ even for ourselves.  Things have to change in order to stay the same.  If we are not vitally engaged in reaching out in love and service, we ourselves will shrivel up and die.

What might it look like in the life of St. Mary’s if we really plunged in to be fishers of people?  Just imagine.  I can imagine robust Christian formation for all—young and old, new and established—as we mentor one another in the faith that has caught us, as we share the abundant life we are promised.  I can imagine prayerful and deliberate follow-up with visitors.  Sally Page and Betsy Williams have already been gathering a group of people with a heart for welcome.  So far I think everyone they have asked has said Yes and has come forward with ideas for this ministry.  I can imagine welcome events, phone calls, and visits as folks share with others the abundant life we know in Christian community.  I can imagine publicity that lets everyone know of the worship life and activities of St. Mary’s. 

Most of all, I can imagine us all developing the habit of invitation.  After all, invitations by friends and family account for the vast majority of church membership.  Unfortunately, the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 27 years.  It could be even less often now in our changing times. 

Once I watched what happened when a congregation issued to everyone on this day in our lectionary a tool for catching people—business cards with information about the church.  They could fit in one’s wallet and be always available.  I heard all sorts of stories from people who shared them in the course of life.  One family with teens was always inviting others who were involved in their school activities.  A couple of older women talked about church at the gym.  One brought several of her age group into the church.  Another was like a magnet for young men who said they did not want to have anything to do with religion.  They were constantly engaging her in conversation about Christian faith nonetheless.  She just patiently engaged their questions.  Most of all, she showed the openness and caring of a person who had found abundant life in Christ.

Remember that word of mouth makes a Broadway hit.  Word of mouth changes lives.  Word of mouth brings light and life to the world.  Word of mouth helps people fall in love with God.  That is our mission—to fall in love with God and help others do the same.  Jesus called it catching people.  Let’s go do it.  

                

           

             

Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on February 3, 2019.

            Once when I was going through a job search I acquired some of the self-help books for clergy making changes.  There were various inventories designed to help define one’s gifts and find the place where those gifts would flourish.  The exercise that has stuck with me began like this: “Take a day (yes, a day) and write out as many brief statements of your enjoyable achievement experiences as you can remember.  Start as early in your life as you can recall.”

            I was a bit reluctant to devote so much time, but one dreary winter day when I felt overwhelmed and discouraged, I cancelled my usual plans and drove to a neighboring church.  I marched in and asked to borrow a room for the day.  I curled up in that cozy room they provided and began that exercise in discernment of calling.

            I reached back as far as I could, pulling out memories of those enjoyable achievement experiences of long ago.  Before I knew it, I was baking cookies with my younger sisters, reading on the porch before anyone else got up, performing a burial office for a dead bird on my grandparents’ farm, singing with the children’s choir, editing the high school newspaper and organizing the Christmas project at school.  Before I knew it, the gloom lifted, and a new energy arose in.  I had a new sense that God was calling me somewhere, that there were energies and gifts within me which would lead into my future and God’s future.  Getting re-connected with who I had always been re-awakened my calling.

            That exercise in discerning call by looking at our beginnings is consistent with the stories of calling that we hear today in scripture.  When the prophet Jeremiah experiences his call, God says to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  The psalmist proclaims, “I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength….” In the story of Jesus, he had already astonished everyone with his spiritual wisdom conversing with the teachers at the temple as a boy.  Now he unveils his vocation in his hometown synagogue where his neighbors initially are exuberant about him and very quickly turn on him.  Yet as his vocation becomes apparent, it is all part of who he has been all along.  For Jeremiah, for the psalmist, for Jesus, for all of us—our calling is rooted in who God made us to be and what gifts God has given us.

            You may be thinking, “That is all easy enough for Jesus and Jeremiah to whom God spoke so clearly, but what about us in the twenty-first century?  How do we know God’s calling for us?”  Discernment of God’s call is challenging.  It means sorting out the many voices we hear and discovering which ones come from God.  The comfort of our present path can keep us from taking the new path of our calling.  Doing something good can distract us from doing something better.  Being unaware of our gifts may prevent us from believing that our call is possible.

            There have been some who think that God’s call is by definition contrary to our will.  Some of the early Quakers walked naked in the streets since this was an action contrary to their own wills and therefore must be God’s will.  However, Frederick Buechner in our day has said it best:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  God calls us to serve in a way that brings joy.

            To discover our identity and find God’s support for our calling, we have to do the hard work of listening.  Discernment grows in the soil of trust and listening as we devote ourselves to prayer and discipline.  It means cultivating the right mix of patience and urgency.  We live into the humility that depends on God for both our strength and our direction.

            My favorite guide for the discernment of call is a book called Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, written by four Episcopalians with a whole team of folks who gleaned the wisdom of our tradition.  They offer these signs of God’s call:

“--Peace—the central sign.  Peace does not mean an absence of trouble.  Rather, it means a firm conviction, even in the midst of turmoil, that the Lord is risen and that “all shall be well.”  Serenity is its manifestation.  But beware of false peace…..If the peace endures through ups and downs, then we have confirmation that it is authentic.

--Joy—a deep interior joy that is unselfconscious and uninhibited.

--A temporary experience of disorientation, followed by calm and serenity.

--Tears that are comforting and tranquilizing, rather than disturbing and fatiguing.

--A sudden sense of clarity.

--Strands of experience that seemed unrelated begin to converge and fit together.

--Persistence—the message keeps recurring through different channels.”

            I have shared this book with many folks who were in discernment over various matters.  Copies are on order for our vestry.  Once after I shared these signs of God’s call in a sermon I learned that a father and teenage son went to lunch afterwards and talked out the son’s future.  He had been a top ranking lacrosse star until a serious accident took him off track.  He had recovered miraculously but had to decide the place lacrosse would have in his life and where he was headed.  By the end of lunch, he had found all those signs centered around his decision.

            Elizabeth O’Connor wrote powerfully of the discovery of spiritual gifts and calling that was at the core of the Church of the Savior in Washington.  She reminds us that the roots of our calling come early in life and we all need what she calls “listening, seeing” persons in our lives.  Her church was grounded in small groups where people explored their calling.  Over and over again people struggled to discover their gifts and callings because there was no one who heard them in their youth and affirmed the call that was unfolding.  When we are truly church for one another, we will listen and affirm the young—and also  the puzzled child inside each of us of any age.

            Recently I was reminded that Rick Barnes is the coach of the University of Tennessee basketball team that is currently Number One.  I remembered his story in a book I have no longer simply because I loaned it to a teenage girl who struggled with her calling.  He grew up down the mountain in Hickory.  It was his ninth grade math teacher who saw something in him and made a deal with the basketball coach that he could not play unless he made an A in her class.  That was the beginning of a life change, his growth into his calling because one person saw something to affirm—followed by businessmen with summer jobs and college scholarships.  Later he went back and spoke to the Rotary Club, naming names—the names of the individuals who saw and heard him as a young person and affirmed who he was and what he had to give.

The stories of Jeremiah and Jesus confirm that they had enough encouragement from those who did listen and see them.  The signs of God’s call were there.  They persisted in their callings even in the face of resistance.  They received the peace and clarity required for a long and difficult path. 

God calls us again and again into new paths--maybe a new calling within a larger calling, perhaps a new calling for another season of life.  Each of us has a calling.  We as a church have a calling to discover.  It may mean that once in a while we need to take a day (yes, a day) to listen to God and to our deepest selves.  May we listen, and may we have the courage to follow as God leads us.  

 

 Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on January 27, 2019.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

            Once our son came home from junior varsity basketball practice obviously worried.  It seems that the players had been left to practice on their own while the coaches were in the office with the youngest player—a promising addition to the team.  What had he done?  Was he doing drugs or cheating in class?  Eventually we learned what was up.  The head coach had overheard him whining about his playing time.  This was a cardinal offense, worthy of a summit conference, a threat to the very core of the team.

            The coach’s strategy worked.  There was no more complaining, and the group gelled as a team going on to win the championship.  That offending player started on varsity the next year, and the team continued to build on the foundation established that afternoon.  That particular player learned some other skills beside scoring.  He learned to sit on the bench and cheer for the benchwarmers, and he discovered how to make beautiful assists. 

            These are the skills that build a team.  A team is about becoming one body with a place for the gifts of all.  It is about connections between individuals—not about individual excellence alone.   The success of the team lies in connections—in the passes and assists, in the screens set, in the words of encouragement on the floor, in the cheers from the bench. 

I often take my image of leadership in the church from the point guard in basketball who has the job of making connections.  That position is not necessarily judged by points scored but by the ratio of assists to turn-overs.  That person’s job is to make other players better, to give them the chance to do what they do best.  It means knowing the chemistry of everyone on the floor—who is hot today, who should get the ball. 

            Today we have heard St. Paul’s description of a united team in the mystical Body of Christ.  Here is the classic description of what it is to be church.  Last week we heard about the variety of spiritual gifts among us.  Now he goes on to show us how those gifts come together in the Body of Christ.  Here is the holy diversity that is ours in Christ, shown in this image of solidarity and cohesion. 

            As we come together as the body of Christ, each of us gives up something.  We do not give up our uniqueness or our special talents.  What we do give up is our personal ownership of our gifts.  We give up the need to receive credit.  We discover that spiritual gifts are given for the sake of the community—not the individual alone.   

            Thus we come to function just like a human body with the variety of its parts—all with different roles.  We may compensate for abilities lost when a part malfunctions, but we can never replace one part with another.  Never will an arm be trained to see in the absence of an eye.  Never will an eye be trained to hear.  

            In the great mystery of the body, its most remarkable feature is its connectedness.  The very life of the body depends on the connections.  Cut off a limb, and the blood loss leads to death.  Stop the heart, and the rest of the body stops, too.  There is a mutual dependence that brings life.

            So it is with us as the body of Christ.  We all depend on one another, woven together in an organic unity.  That unity makes us different from any other human community.  Because we are one in Christ, we are bound together in spite of and because of our diversity.

            Paul has clearly been around real people.  He knows what can work against our unity.  He points to one of the biggest problems in the church—the natural tendency to try to be who we would like to be rather than who we are.  We lose human potential when we overlook our natural gifts, desiring the gifts of others.  The body of Christ then has a part missing.  We go through life wanting to be a foot instead of a hand, and everyone loses.

            St. Paul also knew our tendency to desire a place of honor.  We get caught up with the question of which part of the body is superior.  Paul tells us that every body part is equally important.  Each one of us is gifted.  Each one of us has a place.   

            Today in the 9:00 adult class we begin a series of exploring our spiritual gifts and how they translate into the ministries to which we are called.  In other words, we will seek to discover what part of the Body we are each meant to be.  We begin with scripture’s naming of spiritual gifts and then go on to take an inventory which helps identify our spiritual gifts.  From there we will connect the dots to imagine what ministries our particular cluster of gifts might lead us to. We will do this in community.  Just as spiritual gifts are given for the sake of the community, so our discovery and development of our gifts happen best in community.

            As we look toward the calling of a new rector for St. Mary’s, it is easy for us to focus on the gifts of the priest who will be coming.  But Paul has told us the body has many connected parts.  That new rector will be only one body part.  Our task now is to get all the parts strong and engaged with one another.  There are amazing spiritual gifts here in this team.  We simply need to work more on the passes and assists, the connections that make us a team.  We need to build one another up, affirming the gifts we see.  We need to build on our unity and dare to pass the ball.  We must dare to share the responsibility throughout the team.  When more people get a chance at the ball, we will find more scoring opportunities than we ever imagined.

            Why does all this matter?  Because together we are called to continue the mission of Jesus that he announces in his hometown synagogue today:  “to bring good news to the poor….to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

The first word of his own that Jesus speaks after reading the passage from Isaiah is perhaps the most important of all.  “Today.”  If any word belongs to Jesus, it is that word.  It is the Today of salvation, the Today of the Kingdom of God, the Today of discipleship, the Today of serving.  That Today means action.  It refuses to allow a nostalgic rhapsody about the past.  It outlaws procrastination.  It declares his intention to bring salvation and justice now—in this world, in this time.  This is the definition of our calling as well—who we are and what we are to be about.  This is not an inauguration just of one man, Jesus.  It is the inauguration of all of us who follow him as the body of Christ, and notice we have just prayed for God’s grace to answer this call.

            There is a world to turn upside down, a huge job that requires the gifts of us all, a job that requires the whole body with every part fully engaged.  The stakes are high.  The world waits for us to show it a better way of dealing with differences.  Our unity is not just our structure for ministry; it is also our very message for the world.  It matters that we become one body in Christ—as a parish, a diocese, a worldwide communion, and an ecumenical partnership of churches.

            Ours is a sacred calling.  We are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  Indeed we are a company of strangers—a diverse cluster of feet and hands and eyes and ears.  We are bound together in a sacred and mystical unity made by Christ—not by us.  Shortly we will receive the body and blood of Christ—the mystery that continues to draw us deeper into the unity that is ours in baptism.  We are one body because we share one bread, one body, one Lord of all. 

We may not always see our own gifts or those of others.  We may not always be a perfectly united team.  Yet let us pray for the grace to follow where Jesus leads—even as we seek the unity that is ours in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.