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
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
Fidelity is about:
Loving trust in promises made
Self-giving as the way of love
Abandonment of all that would draw us away
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.
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.
Thomas Merton says it well: “When humility delivers a [person] from attachment to [one’s] own works and [one’s] own reputation, [we] discover that true joy is only possible when we have completely forgotten ourselves.” (Seeds of Contemplation, p. 44)
Nothing could be a more radical reversal of our direction, a more complete stripping away of who we think we are. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Indeed we die in order to live with Christ. We go through Good Friday in order to reach Easter Sunday. We yield as God works to transform us through the power of the cross.
John Westerhoff, a priest in our church, tells a wonderful story about a baptism of an infant he experienced once in a Latin American village. The baptismal procession began with a mournful funeral hymn. The father carried the wooden coffin he had made. The mother carried a bucket of water from the family well. The priest carried the peacefully sleeping baby. When they reached the chancel, the father placed the coffin on the altar, the mother poured in the water, and the priest covered the baby’s skin with embalming oil. As the priest lowered the baby’s head into the water, he proclaimed, “I kill you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The congregation shouted, “Amen.” Then the priest lifted the child high and declared, “And I resurrect you that you might love and serve the Lord.” A joyous Easter hymn then erupted.
The priest covered the baby with the oil and dressed him in a white robe. Then as the congregation sang quietly, the priest anointed the child and made the sign of the cross on his forehead saying “I brand you with the sign of Christ so that you and the world will always know who you are and to whom you belong.”
That says it all. To belong to Christ is to die and rise again. It is to be placed on the cross. To know him as the Messiah is to turn over our very self to him. To know him is to know who we are and to whom we belong. May we be led to follow in this way, to give up everything that we might gain everything. May we take up the bondage of our cross and walk into the new life that is perfect freedom. May we be killed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Then may we be resurrected to love and serve the Lord.
Sermon by The Rev. Samuel V. Tallman given on September 9, 2018
Proper 18B | James 2:1-10, 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37 | St. Mary of the Hills | Blowing Rock, NC | 9/9/18
“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith & to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”
Surely, heard of the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor – the preferential option for the poor in Jesus’ ministry.
From Luke’s sermon of Jesus:
6:20 Blessed are you who are poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
6:24 But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Jesus even announces it when he opens his public ministry in his home synagogue in Nazareth when he reads this passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me 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.” Luke 4:18-19
Thru all his ministry, he sought out the poor, the servants & slaves of his society
The sick & the mentally suffering
Even the fallen ones such as a prostitute, an adulterer, a tax collector
FL parish is in the heart of a city – daily flow & encounters with street people
Folks where life reduced to basic dependencies for food, shelter, water, hygiene, medical care
When every day begins & ends with trust in some providence to come from somewhere
And yet always surprised to find in them the strength of what makes us human – the capacity to hope & the desire to love & help each other
Because their lives are defined by vulnerability, it takes a deep capacity for faith to stay alive, to press on
For these folks know more than anyone else their need for faith that there’s a goodness present in the world that they believe comes from God
But Jesus himself, like us, can have blinders to what is around him
In today’s Gospel, a most unflattering portrayal of Jesus as he meets this Syrophoenician woman – a mother desperate to save her sick child – yet a Gentile
Yet Jesus calls her a dog – & we hear in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus say to her he came only to the lost sheep of the house if Israel
Yet she tells him that, no matter how he feels about Gentiles, he has no right to exclude them from God’s love – Jesus has to admit she’s right!
Blinders that keep us from seeing the breadth of the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor across boundaries of our own perceptions:
Racial & ethnic; nationality & religion; cultural & educational
That risk becomes so great in our world that places high value on the hierarchy of human achievement as measured by history, economics, & political power that we use to define ourselves—who’s part of us and who is worthy
And the kingdom of God is put at risk when we begin to believe our place in the hierarchy of human achievement justifies prevailing at the expense of others -- as when one nation weaponizes its power so its interests prevail over the interests of other nations
All too easy to lose sight of the Kingdom of God’s preferential option for the poor
As MLKJr said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Yet I came to seminary in 2009 out of 30+ yrs. in the world of banking & finance – worked with countless good people who kept those institutions & markets sound & functioning with the flow of money that turned the wheels of world’s economy to benefit the security & welfare of all people
I felt challenged by this idea of the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor
So for my independent study, I chose to explore Jesus’ preferential option for the poor alongside God’s equal desire for the salvation of the rich – both for my own soul & knowing the probability I would be serving congregations with significant affluence, such as St. Mary’s
Luke’s Gospel is especially portrays Jesus’ ministry & teaching to the rich – some tough, but always loving
Rich Fool – expanded barns – relax, eat, drink, be merry
Dishonest Manager – you cannot serve two masters
Rich man & Lazarus – blinders that fixed a gulf that couldn’t be crossed
Rich young man Jesus told to sell all & follow him
Zacchaeus – the tax collector
Over-arching themes – no matter how much you get, it never ultimately satisfies – there’s never enough to do that – the soul’s deepest desires only God can fill no matter how much you have.
Like in the Parable of the talents – it’s not so much what you have as how you use it – is there some higher good than your own?
So this preferential option for the poor is not limited in its meaning to lack of economic status, social standing, or privilege, or any other disadvantage
Jesus had to confront the poverty of his own spirit when confronted by the Syrophoenician woman, so Christ’s preferential option challenges us to confront the poverty in our own spirit
The Gospels don’t show us Jesus embracing with his love the heights of our human achievement – if anything the Jesus of the Gospels is anything but the prosperity Gospel
Rather our relationship with Jesus is grounded in how he meets us in our poverty – in that place that human achievement can never fill: failure, sickness, weakness, loneliness
And so the next scene in today’s Gospel is Jesus healing a deaf & mute boy – touching his ears & tongue with the command “Ephphatha” Be opened.
Jesus himself had just previously been opened by the Syrophoenician woman’s desperate cry— now Ephaphatha—Be opened to that place of poverty in you – that is where I will meet you
From 5 yrs. old to the preacher now, stuttering & the fear of getting stuck has kept fear in the pit of my stomach – so there’s no sweeter word than “Ephaphatha” emblazoned on the central cushion for me to see when I celebrate or preach
Be opened – Be opened to that place in you where God in Christ wants to meet you – it’s God’s preferential place in your life for God’s love to be in you.
Next Sunday, we will have the ingathering & blessing of pledges – Ephaphatha
Be opened – when you consider what to give, give it from that place where God has met you in your poverty – for God’s preferential option for the poor is where you have needed God the most – and so does the world.
Sermon given by The Rev. Samuel V. Tallman on Sept. 2, 2018.
Proper 17B – Song of Solomon 2:8-13| James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 | St. Mary of the Hills | Blowing Rock, NC | 9-2-18
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
Last Sunday, Solomon was dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem he built for a place for God to dwell on earth
Now today, we have passage from the Song of Solomon, God’s love song for his people – Come away.
But, of course, the temple Solomon built was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC when the Jews were deported to Babylon
Even after it was rebuilt after their exile, the Romans destroyed it again in 70 AD – never to be rebuilt again
In a sense, God became liberated from the Temple to be present everywhere Jews gathered wherever dispersed among all nations – the great diaspora in the midst of all the lands of the Gentiles
So how poignant Solomon’s Song of Songs became for God’s dispersed people in foreign lands
“Come away, the winter is past, the rain is over & gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.” I am with you wherever you are
So here we are in this church hearing this same invitation: we who have come away to this sacred space filled with beauty that was inspired & given by people who have sat in these pews for 100 years
5 generations have come away to this place – drawn not because it is beautiful but because they have been given something here that was dear & essential to their life
Today’s scriptures speak to me of one blessing in particular that is given here – the peace of God that passes all understanding – what in Hebrew is called Shalom
Deep peace of soul – spiritually deep, emotionally deep, even physically deep
The peace of God that passes understanding – how do you come to know what it is like? How do you find it?
Well, as with the Temple in the Jerusalem, it’s not God that needs a dwelling place on earth, but rather we who need a space apart to heed God’s love song, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
It is we who need this space apart – a place to come away & regain our awareness that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.”
That God is the origin & source of all that is – the world we live in – life itself – our own one precious life – what is truly a perfect gift
That awareness instills both awe & humility in us that opens us to receive what St. James writes about:
“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your soul.”
Something Implanted: something sown in us like a seed or a kernel that has energy to root & sprout
Energy – divine energy – rooting & sprouting that can grab our attention
A warming of the heart – feeling like fire kindling
A lump in the throat, perhaps at unexpected words of a hymn that pierce our consciousness
Tears welling up in our eyes from some unknown wellspring
Energy not our own that, if we pay attention, may be drawing us closer to knowing our truest desires
Implanted energy that St. James says is in the implanted word
The Word of God that spoke creation into being, unleashing energy that continues to this day in all things, both living & also in what is inanimate, the rocks & soil beneath our feet
That Word or energy of God implanted in us becomes the very image of God we see both in our gift of language & thought that leaps to comprehend what is far beyond what our 5 senses and above all in our capacity to love
“And that same Word became flesh and lived among us.” JESUS
In Jesus, the incarnation of God’s Word that brings new life into being and that brings life out of death
For in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh – we can witness in his life the peace that passes understanding—peace that held him in all the times of his life – times of joy & sadness, of gratification and despair, life & death – all that is the same in every human life
God’s perfect gift of peace in Jesus is also God’s perfect gift to be nourished in us
How? By our worship & prayer, God’s Word in scripture, by the gifts of grace in Baptism & the Holy Eucharist, by the blessing of grace given in marriage, and by sharing in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at every burial
All of these are but the means of grace whereby the energy of God’s implanted word roots & sprouts within us
But then St. James’s goes on to write: “But be doers of the word & not hearers only.”
One of the manifestations of God’s peace within us is opening our capacity for personal compassion every day when we start to see in the needs of others what we are meant to give away – what we are to give away to become truly empty of ourselves
Becoming doers of the word in the rigor of daily compassion brings us to respond to others and that can become the measuring stick of the quality of our soul
Jesus warns us, “There’s nothing outside by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
So look at what comes out
We live in a time of prosperity yet also a time of anxiety about changing values and a changing world order – where world peace may feel perhaps more contingent than before
So look at what defiles
How can you know whether that peace of God is already in you?
The peace of God has a long horizon, and you may not truly know it until you need it
But it reassures even in times such as these, when all is still okay on the surface but fear & anxiety lie close beneath
For the peace of God that passes understanding always holds our souls in wholeness even as all of us come to know the frailty of flesh
Each one of us shares in this one common human life—life with joy & sorrow, times of weal & woe, and ultimately life & death
Perhaps you won’t know you have it until you need it
So hear again the Lord’s invitation:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
And, “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your soul.”
So let us pray for but one thing: the marvelous peace of God
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on August 26, 2018.
“There is more than one road to Kernersville.” As a group of church people considered our different ways to find God, a wise man summed it up that way—“There is more than one road to Kernersville.” We all seek the same love of God, the same life in God’s presence, but God becomes known in different times and places and seasons of life.
Today the psalmist proclaims, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord….” Those words conjure up the glory of the dwelling places we lovers of God have created from Solomon’s day to our own. We sing “How lovely is thy dwelling place” and rejoice in the beauty of the place where we encounter the Holy One, where we find God settled, clean, and holy.
Yet in a few verses we hear of another way of knowing the holy. “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water” (Ps. 84:4-5). Here is the pilgrim’s journey—the life of seeking and wondering, the long road in search of God, a path that can be dirty and strenuous with desolate valleys that take a long time to turn into a place of springs. Here are people on the way, who have not yet arrived, who come to know God in fits and starts along the journey.
Solomon knew that the house he built for God could not fully contain God’s presence. As he says, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” So Solomon asks that God listen to the prayers directed toward this temple. There is a place for the spirituality within those walls and a place for the spirituality outside the walls. Both are holy places—the settled place of the sanctuary and the wandering path of the pilgrim’s way.
I find we often go deeper and learn more about our own spiritual paths when we compare notes with those of other faiths, who follow a different path and speak another religious language. I remember a Lenten series where we Episcopalians invited a Muslim group to share our respective spiritual practices. Pilgrimage became the richest discovery for us all.
We began as my Christian clergy colleague spoke beautifully about pilgrimage, offering the words of our Christian spiritual giants. Then Ali, one of the senior members of that Muslim community told his personal story. As a young man, he was an atheist. As a journalist, he was sent to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s to cover the oil crisis of the time only to discover that everyone he wanted to interview was out of town. It was time for the Hajj when millions of pilgrims make their journey to Mecca, a time when the locals retreat from the mobs of visitors. So he called his boss to explain his dilemma only to be told, “As long as you are there, just cover that!”
That meant he had to register as a religious participant and dress like all the others. He was overcome with shame and confusion. As he said, “I was a fake. I was living a lie. I did not even believe in the existence of God.” Yet he went with the crowd, making that journey, wondering what was to come. Then to his horror, out of that enormous crowd his number was drawn. He was one of the few chosen to join in washing the steps leading to the holy place. He was caught.
You could hear a pin drop. Clearly the young men who revered him in their community had never heard this story. People on the edge of our Christian church listened with rapt attention, clearly recognizing their pilgrim quest in his. Well, he did it. He joined the others in washing those steps—even in his unworthiness, even in his doubt and seeking. Then somehow a moment came when he said to himself, “This many people can’t be wrong.” Suddenly a door opened for him, and he believed.
As that evening ended, people gathered around him in gratitude for his story. Muslims surrounded my priest friend eager to know more of the Christian writings about pilgrimage. Together we discovered a spirituality outside the walls that can paradoxically lead us to the center of a tradition, to the authentic core of faith and knowledge of God. As has been said, “…the pilgrimage, the journey, with all its vicissitudes is not the wearisome preamble to truth the necessary way to truth, the living, arduous, and the joyful process by which truth can be attained.” (James Harper, The Pilgrim Journey, A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, p. 7)
It was again in the midst of interfaith dialogue that I learned a deeper level of the spirituality inside the walls. For several years I had been in relationship with a certain mosque. I had traveled with the imam as our guide and had gathered there with other clergy in theological conversations. Then we decided to share our dialogue with our congregations in a town hall format. At the first meeting, fifty people—Christian and Muslim—gathered at the mosque. The next month when it moved to the church I served, fifty came from the mosque alone. My colleague and dear friend whispered, “A lot of these people don’t show up at the mosque often. They must like going to church better than the mosque.”
Then the lights came on for me when I met a New Jersey couple in town for a family visit. I was puzzled that they would spend their family time on this event until they said, “We’ve never had a chance at anything like this before.” Clearly they were hungry for welcome in a world that had been most unwelcoming. The prayer of Solomon echoes: “…when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you….” The doors of the church were open, and we all grew in our knowledge and reverence for God in that meeting of fellow seekers.
Yes, God meets us