Sermons

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

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor….”

Can you count the number of towns and cities where you have lived? One? Four? Six? Ten? My former colleague, Jesus Reyes, has been quoted as saying, “We are all immigrants.” Indeed. Moving around as migrants creates a life of uncertainty. The very nature of life itself is uncertainty. We have just heard the creed of our religious forebears—“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor….” This is who we are. We people of God are defined in terms of uncertainty in a life as refugees, as it were.
The greatest temptation for migrant people like us is to settle for false security. We desperately need a way to sort out our need for certainty. We ask the same questions as our ancient forebears. So where do we go to figure it out? We go to the desert. The desert is the place to discover where our true security lies. We go there to ask: Who are we? Whom do we serve? To whom do we belong?
So we go with Jesus into the wilderness to ask our questions and face the temptations that beset us. Jesus had to be tested to become sure of his grounding in God the Father. He had to become sure of who he was and what he was called to do. Here is his Lent, as it were—a time of discipline, devotion, and preparation. He follows the classic pattern of male initiation—trial, testing, facing death, and finally a new clarity of identity and mission.
Years ago on the first Saturday of Lent I was with a church that had Super Saturdays for children, a day long time of Christian formation to introduce a new season of the church year. We presented this story of the temptation of Jesus. The children received markers and slides for the projector. They were invited to draw their version of the story. When we gathered the slides and viewed them across the screen, I was blown away. Here is what one child drew to sum up this story:
(poster with money bag marked with dollar sign)
So let’s heed that child’s invitation to explore this symbol. Now reach into your wallet and find a dollar bill to ponder. I have some to share if you don’t have one. Just hold that bill for a moment. What does it mean for you? What can it do for you? How does it shape your life? What do you and God need to do to master it?
Now I want you to take a risk with me. Tear that dollar bill in two. How does it feel? What is that torn dollar bill saying to you? Were you even able to do it?
As we go forward into Lent, I invite you to do with those pieces what you need to do. Keep it in its broken state to ponder for these forty days—or tape it back together and put it to work for something good. Do what you need to do in your journey to the desert.
Let it remind you that it is not our security, not the source of our power. Let it remind you that a wandering Aramean was our ancestor. Think of everything that it represents for you. Let it remind you that it does not control our lives, that it is not the answer to whatever our deepest question or deepest need might be. Let it remind you that God is our rock, our security, and our master.
As part of that ancient Hebrew creed we hear today, we are told to give the first fruits to God, the “premier-part” as Emmett Fox translates it. Here is the source of our almsgiving during Lent, one of the tools we were given on Ash Wednesday. We are told not to give a tip or leave behind the leftovers. We are to give to God the first and best that we receive. Our forebears knew that such giving is a remedy for our tendency to think we ourselves achieve our bounty. It is the way to confront the trust we place in money, in power, in our own abilities—the trust we place in things other than God.
Here is the paradox of our Lenten almsgiving. Generosity toward God frees us from the need to control. It frees us from the seductive illusion that we alone are in charge of our lives.
Now we enter the Forty Days of Lent, the tenth of our year that we devote to disciple, devotion, and preparation. We do the inner work of dealing with the powers that seek control over us. We enter our desert, our wilderness where we must depend on God. Where is the desert for us? What are the first fruits we are holding back? Who are we really? Where is God taking us?
May we emerge at the other end of Lent as people who find their security in God. May we become people who serve God alone, who are willing to face trials and uncertainty, who will walk with Jesus to the cross and onward to an empty tomb. Yes, I invite you to a Holy Lent.

Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on Ash Wednesday.

In the South perhaps the most important question is this: Where are you from?  Close to it is the parental command to children as they depart from home: Remember who you are.  Knowing where we began tells us who we are and how we are to live.  Knowing where we began tells us where we are going.

            The trouble is that we have wandered far.  We are lost in a fearful and bewildering world.  Lost and despairing, we forget who we are and where we began.  We forget whose we are and who sustains us in a world gone mad.

            The truth of Ash Wednesday and this journey of Lent is simple: God is your home.  That was the cry of an elderly black man at the church attended by the writer, Anne Lamotte.  God is your home.  That is the summation of his hundred years of walking this earth, the truth he shouted for all to hear.  It is the truth that Anne Lamotte in turn passes on in her advice to writers who seek to find their voice, their deep truth. 

            At the core of each of us is a deep otherness—a lostness, a homesickness.  Beneath the surface of life lies our deep pain of homesickness—a yearning for a mystery we cannot even identify.  We wander farther and farther searching for truth, the reality below all the surfaces.  As Lamotte tells aspiring writers, “Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.”  So we go deeper into all the dark places.  Only then do we know who we are.  Only then do we find our voice.  Only then are we reconciled with God.

            It is God who beckons.  It is God who calls us to return.  As Joel attests, God says to each of us, “…return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning….Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  As Zechariah says, “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.”  (Zechariah 1:3). Today we hear just as we hear at every graveside: “to dust you shall return.”  Today we begin our return to God both in our mortality and our sinfulness.

            With every Lent, I am more impressed with the good news of this day despite all its somberness.  With every Lent, we have tried to do it on our own.  We have wandered farther and farther from home.  This year our journey of repentance takes us through the conflict and division of the world about us.  As we pray for reconciliation in our world, we confront our complicity in the brokenness of relationships.  We have traveled to a far country.  We expect ourselves to do enough, to reflect enough, to search enough to find our way.  We need the old man to holler the good news to us all—God is our home, home where we are all brothers and sisters.

            So we begin this day the journey of Lent.  Good news is woven into every step we take, every step toward home.  We will know our home as we never knew it before.  As the poet, T. S. Eliot, says,

            We shall not cease from exploration

            And the end of all our exploring

            Will be to arrive where we started

            And know the place for the first time.

Home.  The place where we began.  The place we did not know.   The place we left—but the place that calls us to return.

            We have given up our Alleluias for this season of Lent.  Once when I was showing a child how to help cover the alleluia banner with the black veil on Shrove Tuesday, she remarked, “But it doesn’t cover it.  You can still see through.”  I replied, “That’s right.  It veils the alleluias.  We can still see through.”  That is the good news of Lent.  Even through the darkness of deep searching and repentance, we can see a glimpse of home.  In the words of a folk hymn,

Give up joy or grief, give ease or pain,

Take life or friends away;

But let me find them all again,

In that eternal day.

And I’ll sing hallelujah,

And you’ll sing hallelujah,

And we’ll sing hallelujah

When we arrive at home.

At the other end of Lent, there will be alleluias indeed.  As we journey together, may we ever remember—God is our home.  So let’s find our way home together.  Amen.

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

We who love the High Country know that a mountain is a mystical place.  The Celts call it a “thin place,” where heaven and earth meet.  This week when the clergy of Western North Carolina gathered in retreat at Valle Crucis, I had the privilege of walking alongside a priest who was totally new to mountains.  Her native Trinidad had some mountains, but her memories of those were dim.  Less than two weeks before, she had left Greensboro for Gastonia.  Earlier there had been Rochester, NY, and Central Maryland.

            So she regaled me with her astonishment as she drove the winding roads around and about, higher and higher.  She wondered what she had gotten into.  She was utterly terrified.  Was she wrong to travel alone?  What if she fell off?  Then finally she arrived, and, oh, how beautiful it was.  She could see forever.   How holy it felt.

            For me, it felt like being with a child who is seeing everything for the first time—filled with joy and wonder—breaking forth in praise—seeing the glory of God.  She reminded me of the stupendous moments I have experienced on the mountain top—driving the Blue Ridge Parkway at sunrise with a new view at every turn, walking the labyrinth for the first time at Kanuga and being told that my face shone afterwards.  We all speak of a mountain top experience as a time when we feel the earth move and we go away changed.

            When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God, he came back with his face shining.  He was changed.  He came down with authority as a spokesman for God, so his face shone with the very brightness of God.  The people who greeted him could not bear the fullness of that light, so Moses wore a veil to cover the radiance that others feared.

            Today Jesus goes up the mountain to pray in that thin place where heaven and earth meet.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays and prays and prays.  He enters deep prayer where he moves into the heart of God the Father, and there he is changed: “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  It is truly a scene of mystery.

            Then Moses and Elijah are there talking with him.  Moses and Elijah—two giants of the Hebrew tradition, the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets.  They were forerunners of all that Jesus came to fulfill.  Yet they were also the vanguard of the old order that was passing away with the coming of the Kingdom.

            Here they are talking, the three of them.  Only Luke among the gospel writers tells us what they are talking about.  In a word, they are talking about death.  Our translation says they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” while Eugene Peterson reads: “They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.”  The briefest Greek lexicon gives us the meanings of “death, departure; the Exodus.”  Yes, the good news of Exodus is liberation and freedom, but it is by his death that Jesus will free us all from bondage.  Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt—but only after plenty of suffering and death.

            Now Jesus sets his eyes toward Jerusalem, knowing that death lies ahead.  He is the New Moses bringing a New Exodus from sin and death. He will lead God’s people into the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God.  But the cost is his death on the cross.  He prepares for another baptism, the baptism of death.

            At the beginning of Epiphany at the baptism of our Lord, a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  That day Jesus learned his role and identity as Son of God.  Today a voice from the cloud proclaims: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Now those three disciples receive confirmation of Peter’s confession.  Yes, this is the Son of God, the Messiah.  Here is the one they must follow all the way to the cross.  Here is the leader of their Exodus. 

            I am told that in the tradition of Christian icons, the Transfiguration always shows Jesus standing with his feet touching the ground.  He may be transfigured.  His clothes may glow with an otherworldly brightness, and his face may shine.  Yet his feet remain planted on the ground.  He is never elevated from the earth in a trance of ecstasy.  He stays firmly planted.  When it is all over, he and the three disciples go right back to life in the world below, back into the challenges of life, back on the path to the cross. 

            Peter has his impulse to build three booths and make it permanent, but that is missing the point.  The transfiguration is not permanent.  It is a moment that comes and goes.  We cannot hold on to it or control it.  That moment is offered to us as a gift.  We can receive it, but we cannot keep it.  It comes and goes.  We simply allow it to make a difference.

            These moments are given to prepare us for the days ahead.  Moses came down with his face all aglow only to discover that the children of Israel had made a golden calf to worship—all while he was picking up the Ten Commandments and talking face to face with God. He would face many hard days listening to the never ending complaints of the children of Israel.  Jesus comes down, and his first encounter requires him to heal a person stricken with seizures.  The challenges ahead would require strength and spiritual fortitude.

            We, too, prepare for our departure for our long journey with Jesus, our Exodus.  We will have times of doubt, times of suffering, but also times of glory to get us through.  When I served in the African-American parish, St. Stephen’s, we always sang on this day the hymn, “Lift every voice and sing.”  It was a wonderful way of placing our life story over the story of Jesus.  It kept our feet on the ground even as we witnessed the glory of the Transfiguration and belted out our Alleluias.  Hear some of the phrases:

“Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chast’ning rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? 

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way,

Thou who hast by thy might,

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.” 

And finally that important phrase,

 “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee….” 

            Yes, it is a tough road.  That is why we need days like today when we meet God in glory, when the lights come on.  We dare not stray from those mountain tops where we have met God.  The glory comes even as our feet are firmly on the ground, dealing with every evil—the sins of racism, oppression, and violence of all kinds.  To stay on the path, we remember the places where we have met God and seen the glowing face of Jesus.  We remember the mountain top moment that we might have the strength we need for the journey ahead.

                 It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “…the gods we worship write their names on our faces.”  On this day, the face of Jesus glows.  His name is now written on our faces. 

            Today we receive all we need.  We now know who it is we follow.  The Son of God, God’s Chosen One.  With the cross of Jesus on our faces, we know who we are and whose we are.  Come.  Let us follow him down the mountain.  May our faces glow for all the world to see.

 

 Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on February 24, 2019

The ballroom was perfectly still as Robert Coles spoke to a couple thousand people gathered from independent schools from all over the country.  He had dashed over from Harvard to tell us the story of a little girl named Ruby Bridges.  As a young psychiatrist in the 1960s, he had been sent to study the psychological adjustment of people in the midst of desegregation in the Deep South. 

            The courts had required that Ruby be allowed to attend a formerly all-white elementary school.  Federal marshals were on guard daily as she walked to school through crowds of white adults who called her names and demanded that she leave.  Parents refused to have their children attend class with her, so she worked alone with the teacher.  Yet day after day she went to school as the crowds continued to abuse her.

            One day the young psychiatrist noticed that Ruby paused briefly.  Then he watched as this happened each day.  The next time he sat down with Ruby he asked her why she stopped on her way.  What was she doing?  Her answer came quickly, “I was saying my prayer.”  He was startled and asked, “What was your prayer, Ruby?”  “I pray, ‘God, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’”

            He was left speechless.  He thought to himself, “I think I’ve heard that someplace before.”  That reply stuck with him as he continued to study her emotional health.  Eventually he could only marvel that she continued to flourish, apparently untouched by the hatred that surrounded her.  Through the years, that moment continued to haunt him.

            That story is a rare one in human experience—a rare moment when we are able to love our enemies.  Ruby in her innocence was able to follow the commandment of Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  In the Book of Genesis, Joseph was able to say to his brothers after many years of reflection: “…now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  Later after their father’s death, they are afraid he will retaliate.  His response then is: “Fear not, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Or in Everett Fox’s translation: “…you planned ill against me, but God planned-it-over for good.”

            Our human history is a story of the battle with the evil within us and around us.  The wild animals in us can rage violently—especially in the close quarters of a family or a church family.  We perpetuate a cycle of violence as we seek revenge for the wrongs done to us.  We deny our dark shadow or sometimes project evil upon another and even upon God—a reality well documented in scripture.  This week as I began pondering the love and forgiveness of today, a psalm in the daily office began: “O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, show yourself.  Rise up, O Judge of the world, give the arrogant their just deserts.” (Ps. 94:1-2)  I remembered the day after 9/11 when I had my Bible study group open the Psalms at random.  One after another read a call for revenge and discovered that people have shared those feelings for a long time.

So humankind found a way to keep from totally destroying one another with this cycle of violence—the scapegoat.  Some person or group becomes the sacrificial victim, the scapegoat, the identified patient.  The prime candidate is the weak and marginalized person, the outsider.  That process works in its own way.  Better that one should die instead of all.  It clears the air and insures the survival of the community. 

            But today Jesus give us another alternative, a better way to break the cycle of violence.  He calls us into a life of love and forgiveness.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus himself takes forgiveness all the way to the cross where he says as Ruby learned to pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He says to us, “The only way to stop it is to stop it.”  As the greatest evil is inflicted upon the greatest good—he simply forgives.  If his death and sacrifice are once-and-for-all, then it means we need no more victims.  No more scapegoats, no more identified patients.  He challenges us to live with an empty cross, to live without a need to put someone else on it.  The only way to stop it is to stop it.  Forgive.

            Jesus invites us into a new world where love inhabits and transforms evil and thus defeats it.  He calls us to become who we are meant to be by becoming like God.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus does not tell us God is love.  He just acts like the God of love and tells us to do the same.  He acts in total consistency with who he is.  This love is agape love—unconditional love—unmotivated, spontaneous, free to the undeserving. 

This love is showered upon all but is clearest when bestowed upon those who hurt us.  It is an illogical, unnatural way to live, but Jesus says, “Just do it.”  It is the strange economy of God in which we  give freely in order to receive freely.  God gives us such bountiful love and forgiveness that we have to pass it on just to have room to receive more.  There is no place for hoarding.  There is no place to hold onto grudges.

            This is not just an imitation of God.  Jesus calls us to an “identity transplant” as Richard Rohr says.  When we become merciful as God is merciful, we become part of God’s loving and forgiving energy in our world.  We receive our true identity.

            Today we gather at the holy table to celebrate this mystery of forgiveness.  The eucharist brings to one table those of us who otherwise would be eating one another alive.  We come to celebrate the life and death of the one who came to end sacrifice, whose death and resurrection bring a peace beyond anything our scapegoating ever gave us, whose healing power makes us a new people.  We come to the holy table for this identity transplant.  As St. Augustine said as he held up the bread and wine, “Be what you see.  Receive who you are.”

            Before so long, this community of faith will welcome a new rector.  That person will please everyone here—some when he or she comes, some when he or she is here, and some when he or she leaves.  In other words, even with an array of gifts and talents that person will be a mere mortal who will not walk on water, who will disappoint self and others as we all do—but, I trust ,will still be faithful.  Being a faithful spiritual leader is not about pleasing everyone.  It is about entering a community in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect.  It is about sharing a walk of forgiveness, together showing forth the mercy and love of God.

            There is a story told about St. Francis de Sales who was asked by a disciple, “Sir, you speak so much about the love of God, but you never tell us how to achieve it.   Won’t you tell me how one comes to love God?”  And he replied, “There is only one way and that is to love God.”  “But you don’t quite understand my question.  What I asked was, How do you engender this love of God?”  And St. Francis said, “By loving God.”  Once again the pupil came back with the same question, “But what steps do you take?  Just what do you do in order to come into the possession of this love?”  And all St. Francis said was, “You begin by loving and you go on loving and loving teaches you how to love.”

            So may we, too, begin by loving and go on loving and let loving teach us how to love.  Amen.   

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.