Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins preached on May 13, 2018.
Let’s take a mental journey. Go back to the time when you were a little child. Remember what it was like to be four years old. Your parents give you a helium balloon. You are thrilled with your new gift. You walk along, glancing up every now and then to see it floating far above your head. Then suddenly the worst happens. You stumble on a bump in the sidewalk, and you let go. The balloon rises up and up and up—far from your reach. You burst into tears and watch it drift away. You shout for it to come back, but it has a mind of its own. You beg for someone to catch it. You stand there weeping until your balloon finally moves out of sight. It hurts to let go.
At this point in the Christian year, we observe perhaps the most painful of partings, a time of letting go. It is a poignant moment, this time in between. This Thursday was Ascension Day when Jesus ascended to the Father, ending his resurrection presence with his disciples. After his death and resurrection, he appeared to his followers. Then just as they became attached to their Risen Lord, he suddenly left them. He stretched out his wounded arms to bless them one last time, and then he left their sight. At first it is a moment of victory and celebration, but then the loss sinks in. Suddenly he is no more. He leaves them as children watching in amazement as he ascends.
The gospel today gives the words of the final prayer of Jesus before his death, words fitting for us to hear in this time of letting go, in this time in between, in this time between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus speaks more to us than to God the Father. He provides the game plan for how the disciples and we in our day are to carry on. He guides us into becoming the grown-ups who will move ahead when the father is gone. We hear all his hopes and dreams for us in the days ahead.
First of all, he prays for our unity. It has been rightly said that unity should be the clearest sign of God’s people in the world. In the Book of Acts, we see one step toward unity with the replacement of Judas with Matthias. They agree to draw lots. Imagine that for our discernment committee as it seeks a new rector for St. Mary’s. Their process does remind us of a fundamental truth. God works with all sorts of people with all sorts of gifts. The power of the Holy Spirit can do amazing work when leaders are open to the guidance of the Spirit and the community is willing to invest their support and commitment in the leadership they are given. Leadership will succeed if the disciples are willing to seek unity as the body of Christ.
I am reminded of an image from my childhood. My father was in the poultry business and had several chicken arms in deserted rural areas. A modern chicken house is a long flat building on a concrete slab where the chickens are fed and watered by electrical machinery. Once a tornado came through and destroyed a building, leaving nothing but the concrete slab. We figured the chickens would disperse in their new freedom. Oddly enough, after a bit of initial scattering, they gathered on the concrete slab as though nothing had happened. Maybe they knew that spot as home where they always had food and water. Who knows? They lost the building that held them together in unity, but strangely they still stayed together.
Would that we human beings could do the same. Jesus knew that without him around to hold his followers together they would be at risk for fracture and confusion. So his first prayer for them—and for us—in this time in between is a prayer for unity. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Once I was blessed to hear Archbishop Gitari from Kenya speak as he conveyed the spirit of the church in Africa, perhaps the most vital branch of our worldwide communion. He embodied the experience of community that is natural in his society. His refrain was simple: “I am because we are.” In response, an American told a story that sums up what that experience says to us in America. An anthropologist working in Africa decided to give an IQ test to a group of schoolchildren. He set them up in their seats and instructed them to do their best. Trusting the honor system, he left the room. Upon his return, he found them huddled in a group doing the test. When he chastised them, they simply responded, “But you told us to do our best.”
Indeed we all do our best together—when we work together toward a common goal, when we share our strengths and weaknesses, when no one is seeking credit as an individual. The children doing the collective IQ test remind us that unity gets the job done. For them, doing their best translated into a group effort—not independent study.
Doing it together leads us into the joy that Jesus prays to be made complete among us. It equips us to face the challenge of being in the world but not of the world. It prepares us to live in this time of waiting, this time in between.
Finally, Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth.” Make them holy. Consecrate them. To be holy is to be separated from the profane world, to be different. In the Hebrew Bible, it meant the consecration of a sacrificial victim or the hallowing of a person for a sacred work. Jesus prayed that we might be commissioned to a special task. This holiness is not something we create for ourselves. God makes us holy and sets us apart for a purpose. We are holy not because we are naturally different but because of that purpose. It is only for us to discover that wholeness and holiness within. To sanctify is not to purify. We are still the same people with all our imperfections. It is a scary thought that Jesus has departed the scene and left imperfect people like you and me in charge. However, as sanctified people of God, we have what we need to answer the call. The Spirit equips us to do the work of God.
As we continue as stand-ins for Christ in this world, being in the world but not of the world, we cannot cling to the past. We cannot hang on to Christ as clinging children. We must let go of the balloon that goes upward to its destination. We must accept the challenge of finding our unity, our joy, and our holiness in this world where Jesus left us behind to stand in for him.
The strange paradox is that only in the letting go do we receive what is there for us. We must let go of all that is dear to us—the people, the places, even ourselves. The hardest task of all is to let go of self, to let go of “I” so that there can be a “we”—a “we” that is one with God and one another. Let us learn to let go. Let us rejoice in our Risen Lord who loved and trusted us enough to leave us with the task of sharing the Good News with all the world. Let us pray for the growth of our unity that we might be equal to the task.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins preached on May 6, 2018.
The Blind Side—the place where we need protection. The Blind Side—the movie I watched twice back to back the first time I encountered it during a Mother’s Day marathon on television. Since then, I have seen it enough times to have it practically memorized. The movie is based on the life of Michael Oher, a homeless African American teen who became part of an affluent white family in Memphis, Tennessee, and went on to college and professional football. His life began to change through a succession of kindnesses—first his friend’s father, then a private school coach who demanded his admission as the right thing for a Christian school to do, then a science teacher who believed that he could learn.
The real game changer came when a bossy mom took charge on a cold, rainy night and took him home with the family. One night on the couch led to a room of his own and the first bed he ever had. The hard driving little brother took charge of Michael’s football training, and the sister studied by his side.
Early on, the mom found the key to awakening his giftedness. His eighth grade assessment scores were all in single digits, but he scored in the ninety-eighth percentile in one area—protective instincts. So she helped him translate his self-sacrifice for the sake of others into the language of the football field. “Think of the quarterback as me: Protect him. Think of the halfback as S.J.: Protect him.”
His football abilities blossomed as he lived into his protective instincts, and the scholarship offers rolled in. Eventually he went to Ole Miss, made the Dean’s List, and signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
At one point, the family sat down at the kitchen table, all bubbling with excitement. The announcement was proclaimed: We have decided to invite you to be part of our family. Michael was baffled, “I thought I already was,” and everyone exploded with laughter.
Looking back on the movie, I hardly remember anyone saying, “I love you”—if ever. I would have to watch the hundredth time to do the fact checking. This mom was not the touchy-feely type. She was constantly snapping out orders and telling people off. She stood up to the racist remarks in the football stadium and at lunch with her wealthy friends. The children had the strength to ignore the barbs about their black brother. The father’s financial generosity gradually grew from a lunch ticket to a pickup truck to a personal tutor for five years. It was all love in action—especially Michael’s love that nurtured children on the playground, his love that protected his new mom in his rough former neighborhood, and his love that saved his brother’s life in an accident. Love in action.
Today Jesus is talking about love in action as he says farewell to his disciples, as he prepares to die. We continue the conversation of last week when he told us to abide in him like the branches of a vine. Jesus gives a simple command that is the key to bearing fruit. “Abide in me.” “Love one another.” As William Temple tells us, “…these are not two things, but one thing with two aspects, whereof the former is the occasion of the latter.” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 270)
So the source of any love we might manifest for one another is this abiding in Christ. Abide. It is a word we do not use often and even then usually to say, “I can’t stand…whatever.” Jesus asks us to make him our abode as it were—to stay in him, remain in him, live in him. It is a way of asking, “Where do you stay?” If we abide in him, his love becomes the arena, the sphere, the location of our life. He becomes the very air we breathe. We live as branches connected to the vine, as we heard last week. St. Paul explains it as being “in Christ,” living as the body of Christ.
Here is the love that is the great commandment of Jesus, the commandment we heard on Maundy Thursday, the one commandment that includes and fulfills all the others. It is a mutual indwelling in Christ as the Son dwells in the Father. It is part of a chain of abiding love that flows from God through Christ to those who live in his love.
This love is not a feeling. It is not about liking anyone, not about sharing common interests or backgrounds. It is certainly not about agreeing—something we need to remember in the church more than anywhere. It is not even about what we usually call friendship. “Love one another,” Jesus says—not like one another or enjoy one another or agree. This love is a call to be for the other and act for the other whatever the cost. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
This love is the foundation for the peculiar and mysterious fellowship we have as people who know we are loved by Jesus. At our best moments as the church, we share a love unique to the Christian family, but it is porous enough to let others in, leading others to know Christ’s love through our love for one another. Of course, we fail over and over again, but at our best—when we abide in Christ—that love never excludes but includes others. It even extends to this fragile earth, our island, that provides for us yet looks to us for protection.
At one point in the movie, the dad muses about how happy the mom seems at the end of the day. “Does it have anything to do with Michael?” “It has everything to do with Michael,” she answers. They are talking about happiness that becomes true joy. Today Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Joy is finally the truest mark of our life I Christ, life as part of God’s kingdom. Love and joy are those unique commodities that become more abundant in the sharing. They can grow because their ultimate source is God who is a reservoir of love and joy that never runs out.
Joy is finally the state of the soul that is filled with love. To live in joy is to become the true self we are meant to be. We never attain the fullness of joy without sacrifice, without receiving the gift of Christ’s love and in turn, giving sacrificially for the sake of others. The artist speaks to that reality in describing our bulletin cover. The cross lies at the center as uplifted arms receive the gift of grace, grace that is shared with love and joy.
That ninety-eighth percentile on protective instincts makes all the difference. This Jesus knows as he prepares to die for those he loves. This Jesus wants us to know as he prepares to ascend, leaving us to share his love with one another and the world.
May we abide in Christ ever more deeply. May Christ’s love make us all courageous lovers of one another. Jesus has our blind side covered. May we do the same for all those we are called to love.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given at The Great Vigil of Easter on March 31, 2018
Tonight we gather as a family around the campfire, telling our stories. We have known other fires in times past—the pillar of fire by which God led the Hebrews by night, the fire that gave us the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the charcoal fire where Peter warmed himself even as he denied Jesus. But tonight’s fire is a different one. It is the new fire of the paschal mystery. It is the light of Christ—“a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.”
So we have drawn close to the light and warmth of the fire to tell our stories once again, to be reminded who we are and what our life is about. Tonight at the Passover meal of our Jewish neighbors the youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Tonight the child within each of us cries out at our Passover, “Tell it again. Tell the story about…..” So we tell the story again.
We have rehearsed once more the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt and the dry bones coming to life. Our lectionary gives us even more wonderful stories of God’s mighty acts—the creation of our world, the saving of Noah’s family and the animal kingdom from the great flood, and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by his father (and our father) Abraham in obedience to our mysterious God. We have heard of God’s presence in the life of Israel and the promise of salvation for all the earth.
Frederick Buechner is a novelist as well as a theologian. He knows about telling stories. He also knows the way stories can bring us to faith. He says, “How do I happen to believe in God?....Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.” And what might that plot be? We are here tonight to celebrate the plot of life itself, the story of death and resurrection that is the basic story of life.
Buechner also says, “If this is above all a Christ-making universe, the place where we are being taken is the place where the silk purse is finally made out of the sow’s ear….At the heart of reality—who would have guessed it?—there is a room for dying and being born again.”
Tonight we find that room, that room for dying and rising again. Tonight we rewind the tape and return to the beginning of the stories that are finally one story. We have heard again the story that carries the plot of all our lives. We discover that even sow’s ears like us are being changed into silk purses in this magnificent story of dying and rising again through the power of God.
Ours is truly a Christ-making universe. Holiness is all around, holiness that fills us with terror and amazement just like the women at the tomb. All of creation was meant to be at one with our creator, but forces set loose in our world pull us away. Yet God repeats the story. Again and again God raises us up—out of slavery, out of the murderous waters of life, back from the death of the dry bones, through the agony of grief into the joy of resurrection.
Tonight all those stories become one story before the empty tomb. The stones have been moved away—the stone at the tomb of Jesus and the stones that seek to hold all our lives captive. Jesus makes all our stories into his story. Tonight as we raise the lights, as we ring our bells, as we sing out Alleluia—we proclaim the plot of all our lives. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Tonight as we return to the mystery of our baptism, we become one with Christ.
Our lives are storm tossed and chaotic. We know all about fear and confusion and heartache, but tonight the light of Christ has pierced the darkness. We join with Miriam and the Hebrew woman as we celebrate, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” That dance becomes a new dance of resurrection—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” With those first women, we are filled with amazement. There are no words when our world is turned upside down and rightside up.
We have been in the tombs. We have been swept to our death in deep waters. We have wandered in darkness and despair. Tonight our true story is revealed. The plot of our life’s story blazes forth with the new fire. Jesus is alive. We are alive. We have found the room for dying and rising again, the room in the very heart of God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on Good Friday, March 30, 2018
Elie Wiesel tells a powerful story from the horrors of the death camps during the Holocaust, a scene reminiscent of the place where we stand today. The story goes like this:
“Inside the kingdom of night I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, decided one winter evening to indict God for having allowed his children to be massacred. An awesome conclave, particularly in view of the fact that it was held in a concentration camp. But what happened next is to me even more awesome still. After the trial at which God had been found guilty as charged, one of the rabbis looked at the watch which he had somehow managed to preserve in the kingdom of night and said, “Ah, it is time for prayers.” And with that the three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, bowed their heads and prayed.”
Today we huddle in another death camp. We are the erudite and pious ones who know the promises of scripture and the tradition on which we stand. We huddle together at the foot of the cross, that instrument of shameful death, to mourn the death of the Son of God. We weep for Jesus and for all the children of God who die the deaths of the innocent.
Jesus dies on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that city of hope and promise, the city that killed its prophets. He dies in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah—the messengers of God who called the people to obedience. Jesus takes his place on the hard wood of the cross. For this, we would gather to indict God. We would rule God guilty as charged.
We live in a world strewn with crosses. Upon those crosses the innocent ones suffer—all those who die fleeing as refugees from war and disaster, the children made orphans by HIV, those plagued by opioid addiction, the people across the globe who lack safe drinking water, the families broken apart because some have papers and others do not, the ninety-seven people who die every day in this country by gun violence.
Today we gather like the rabbis to indict God, to find God guilty as charged. But wait. Look, God has left the defendant’s chair. That chair is empty. It beckons to each of us. We take our turns in the defendant’s chair. Listen to the questions that prove our complicity in the deaths of the innocent. Remember the ways we have hammered the nails into the cross. Remember the times we stepped back while others died. All of us are guilty as charged.
But something is stirring in the courtroom. Jesus is here. He quietly takes a seat in the defendant’s chair. Now he rises and walks away. He takes up a cross and stumbles toward a hill beyond the city walls. He chooses to die. He chooses to take our place. He chooses to die for each of us—even for Judas who betrays him, even for Peter who denies him, even for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who never have the courage to go public. Out of love, he dies for each of us.
We thought there were some things too important to be left to God. Now we know that there is nothing except for God. There is only one choice—to let go and let God—in other words, to live by grace. It is all about grace, the grace of Jesus crucified for us—all a gift for us in our nothingness. Today our hearts are broken open to receive that gift.
Now like the rabbis we gather ourselves up. The trial is over. It is time for prayers. In the face of this great mystery, we do what the people of God have done throughout the ages. We get down on our knees and pray. Amen.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018
I remember well one Maundy Thursday some years ago. My parish, St. Stephen’s in Morganton, had not experienced the liturgy of the foot washing before, so I checked out who was likely to participate. Most responded with dismay at the idea. Our son made it clear that he would do it only if he were first because he did not want to get his feet in the water after other people got it dirty. But our daughter Ellen was eager to do it.
When the day came and the clergy gathered for the renewal of ordination vows, I shared my apprehension with a clergy friend. I said, “There may be nobody but Ellen Hawkins who comes to the foot washing.” My friend looked up and said, “And that will be just fine.” So I relaxed, knowing that was exactly what I needed to hear.
Service time came, and we gathered in the hush of the evening. We heard the invitation and recalled the way Jesus washed the feet of the disciples the night before he died. We poured the warm water into the bowl, and of course, Crawford went first. Ellen and I washed one another’s feet—with me thinking it was all over. Then I looked up and saw a barefooted little girl before me.
It was Annie, another little girl with Down’s Syndrome like Ellen. She and her twin brother came to church with relatives from time to time—although later at their urging their parents came, too. She and Ellen had heard of one another but finally were at church at the same time that night. They sat together—two little girls with Down’s Syndrome, one black, one white. Annie had not been instructed about the liturgy. No one had prepared her for the difference in that night’s events. Ellen just told her what to do, and she did it.
So I washed Annie’s feet. She was relaxed, her face all aglow. Her face still shone as she worked hard to put her shoes and socks back on. Then I looked up and others came. The young people came one after the other and then the adults—some offering their hands rather than their feet as we are welcome to do tonight. They offered their hands rather than their feet but being washed nonetheless.
They all came because they were led, led by two little girls with Down’s Syndrome, one black, one white. Despite their slowness in other arenas, those two were spiritually precocious. They were open to being cared for—ready to be bathed and fed as little children—ready to be cared for just as Jesus cared for those he loved on that last night.
Later I asked Ellen if she remembered that night of the first foot washing at St. Stephen’s. She glowed as she remembered her friend Annie. About the foot washing she said, “Oh, it was easy to do it,” and she went on to babble about washing feet at the various churches through the years. “It was easy,” she said, yet how hard it is for the rest of us. For those little girls, many other things in life were hard, but to give and receive the care that Jesus offers was easy. For them, it was not risky or silly. In their vulnerability and openness, they led the way.
Now on this night Jesus invites us to become like children as we gather for this last meal with him. He seeks to draw us close in a final embrace. Chaotic forces of violence swirl about in Jerusalem—just as in our world of violence and division. Jesus meets us all in our fear and vulnerability.
Tonight the rabbi kneels in the posture of a servant, caring for honored guests, and then feeds them the food of the heavenly banquet. He shows in tender nurturing ways the same self-sacrificing love that takes him to the cross. Later in the conversation he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
On this night we learn who Jesus is and who we are as his body in the world. As recipients of the graces of this night, we are cleansed by Jesus and served by him. We are fed at his table that we might feed others. The self-giving acts of Jesus, our servant Lord, shape us as servants for one another. In a world where Othering rules the day, ours is a life of One Anothering, a life of loving one another as Christ loved us.
Tonight time is passing swiftly. The hours remaining are few. Jesus is about to leave us. He says to us, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” As time runs out, he chooses his words and actions with care. He gets down on his knees to serve us, to love us, to care for us. He feeds us with the food which is his very life poured out for us and for all the world.
Come, let us draw near. Let us receive all that Jesus gives us. May the little child within lead us into his kingdom.
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on March 18, 2018
During this season of Lent, in our conversations on Wednesday evenings, we have been exploring addiction as a way to understand sin. Addiction is the prison we all live in, where we worship other gods. We as individuals are addicts, addicted to our selves. We as a society are people of addiction who cannot see and acknowledge the powers that rule us and shape our lives. They are part of the air we breathe.
We have all wrestled with the powers and principalities that rule us, the sin that pervades all of life. So how are we doing in that struggle? Have we been able to get clean?
It has been said, “These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset) So are we shipwrecked yet? Have we reached rock bottom? Have we discovered our powerlessness? These are the important diagnostic questions, for as Richard Rohr says, “Until you bottom out, and come to the limits of your fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel.” (Breathing Under Water, p. 3)
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to a people who were in that place. Their efforts to keep their covenant with Yahweh had failed. They lived in a time of crisis and transition, the shipwreck of Exile. Their leaders were stranded in the refugee camp of Babylon with no temple, no religious structure, and a community in shambles. They had reached the rock bottom of despair and powerlessness. If they were the chosen people, it was a strange kind of specialness. Their belief in their exceptionalism was shattered, their addiction unmasked.
To people of the Exile, Jeremiah proclaims the promise of a new covenant, a covenant built from the broken covenants of the past. God, the initiator, will cut a new covenant, shaping their very hearts. Like a potter shaping the clay, God will shape them into a new covenant people. This covenant, this knowledge of God, will come from the inside out. Here is the promise of a God who will break God’s own rules to keep the covenant of love and forgiveness.
Today Jesus announces that God is about to break God’s rules once again. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has just been anointed by the woman in Bethany and had his oddly triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Now comes the turning point, his movement into his Passion, the trigger for his journey toward the Cross. What happens? John does not display the defining moments of the other gospels—not the voice from heaven at his baptism or his transfiguration on the mountain top or his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So what happens? The Greeks come. The Greeks come asking to see Jesus. Here is the signal that the whole world’s hope and salvation are at stake. So Jesus announces his glorification yet to come upon the Cross. He gives his consent: “Father, glorify your name.” And a voice from heaven booms like thunder: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Here are the defining moments of Baptism, Transfiguration, and the Garden of Gethsemane all rolled into one. This Sunday was once called Passion Sunday, when Jesus moves into his Passion, his suffering that culminates on the Cross. Here is the Passion of Christ before which all our experiences of suffering pale in comparison. Here is the suffering in which our suffering as well begins and ends. Once again God takes the initiative, the initiative of covenant love and forgiveness. God begins the movement from Justice to Love, the love of self-sacrifice for the other.
We the Greeks want to see Jesus, and this is what we see. A dead grain of wheat. A cross, that place of death and humiliation. Jesus says, “If you want to see me, look toward the cross. That is where you will know the very self of God.”
The poets always say it best. One of my favorites by W. H. Vanstone found its way into our hymnal. Hear now some of his words: “Therefore he who shows us God helpless hangs upon the tree; and the nails and crown of thorns tell of what God’s love must be. Here is God: no monarch he, throned in easy state to reign; here is God, whose arms of love aching, spent, the world sustains.” (Hymnal 1982, #585) Yes, the poet does say it best.
Oscar Romero not only said it well but lived it best. He began as a Roman Catholic priest who conformed to the status quo, but after becoming a bishop in El Salvador he became a courageous defender of the people in the face of oppression. Even under threat of death, he continued to preach against oppression. Finally he was murdered even as he stood at the altar celebrating holy eucharist. With his story in mind, hear his comments on our gospel:
“To each of us Christ is saying: If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest.”
Here is our crucified God, our suffering God. Here is the God of Jeremiah who refuses to be bound by the rules of an old covenant. This God acts in total freedom, freedom to love and freedom to save again and again. This God chooses to act in sacrificial love. This God chooses to get messy, to become human, to die for us. So Jesus sets his face toward the cross and takes on all our addictions, all our sin, all our suffering as his own.
In the midst of destruction, in the midst of gruesome death—here is holiness. Here is the presence of God. God breaks God’s own rules to step into the filth, to wash us clean, to forgive the unforgiveable. Christ takes upon himself the fruit of all our addictions and become the lamb sacrificed for us.
Where then is our defining moment? When do we wake up at rock bottom? When do we die to self and follow Jesus? Jesus lays out for us a way to live, a way to know him and abide in him, a way to live in recovery. Richard Rohr sums it up: “We suffer to get well. We surrender to win. We die to live. We give it away to keep it.” (Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, p. xxiv)
Now we follow Jesus to the Cross. There he will be glorified. There he will be lifted up, and when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself—even Judas, even Pilate, even his executioners, even you, even me. He takes on all our addictions and makes us clean.. This is the promise. This is the mystery. This is the healing. This is the light, and the darkness will not overcome it.
In the paradox of that promise, let us pray once again the prayer of this day: “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on February 25, 2018
We have just heard two of the tallest orders in scripture. The Lord says to Abraham: “…walk before me, and be blameless.” Jesus tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Those are tall orders. Give up your plans. Give up control. Give up your very self. Let go of all that is normal and reasonable.
Those are tall orders if we assume they are about us—based on our strength and our obedience. Yet today we receive an insider’s tip. The inside story is that it is all about God. The gospel message of Lent is that God’s faithfulness brings forth our faithfulness. So stay tuned.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is the gospel in miniature. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the faith and obedience of those two, the paragons of virtue. We can despair of being able to live with such courage, faithfulness, and hope. We can forget that God initiates this covenant. God appears, blessing Abraham and Sarah, showering blessings upon them before they have any chance to prove themselves faithful.
God blesses them with a covenant, a lifegiving agreement of loyalty and commitment. God promises to make them parents of numerous descendants—they who are long past the age to have children. This abundance of blessings is all about God. As Fred Craddock said, “God is both the subject and the object of faith.” God is the actor in their faith. God’s action creates the very faith in God that allows them to receive the blessings and live into the promises.
At the moment of God’s revelation, everything changes. The only way to capture such a transformation of the whole of life is a name change. Abram will now be known as Abraham; Sarai likewise becomes Sarah—the only time in scripture that God changes a woman’s name to reflect such transformation of life.
Here is God’s action in the beginning of the life of faith, hope, and obedience—qualities we cultivate in this season of Lent. Jim Wallis in our day defines hope as “trusting God in spite of all the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” The lives of Abraham and Sarah are a picture of such hope. God calls them into hope despite all the evidence to the contrary. The absence of evidence makes the covenant laughable indeed, but they get to watch the evidence change.
Jesus comes with an even taller order—“Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.” At the core of our faith is the truth that God is here and is on our side. Jesus tells us how to connect to this truth. He says to each of us, “Disown yourself and all the claims that Self puts upon you. Give yourself in self-denying obedience to me.” Here is the moment of submission.
I remember a parking lot conversation from years ago. A young Muslim graduate student stood in the parking lot after an interfaith dialogue had led him and his friends to attend the Maundy Thursday service at the church where I was rector. He spoke of his recent conversation with his Jewish friend. They had shared the common ground they had discovered in submission, the very meaning of the word “Islam.” After our worship that night, he knew that for Christians as well submission was at the heart of faith. That night we had together sat with Jesus in those final hours, preparing for his cross and our crosses as well.
Submission is indeed the primary movement of the spiritual life. Here is our Christian way of submission, to take up our cross freely and follow the one who freely took up his cross for us. Here is an obedience that turns life around and makes us new persons with a new center of gravity in our lives—a cross at the core of our being.
This week as we walked the Stations of the Cross, we began exploring Richard Rohr’s book on the spirituality of the Twelve Steps of recovery from addiction. The first step is the hardest of all, acknowledging that we are powerless. It is the turning point that leads us to take up our cross, to give up self, to acknowledge our addiction to Self at the heart of our being.
It is easy to be focused on the No to Self and miss the mystical paradox that awaits. This very No to Self is also a Yes. It is a Yes to the true self. As we take up our cross, we unveil our true self. As we said last week, we say No to being Somebody or Something or Nobody and say Yes to being the child of God we were created to be. In self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-giving, we become all that we are meant to be in the eyes of God.
The words of Jesus may seem an impossible demand, a radical commitment that shakes us to the core. Yet we take up our cross only as Jesus takes up his cross. We are faithful only as Jesus is faithful. The faithfulness of Jesus is what finally brings forth our faithfulness. It is right there in the picture on the bulletin cover. What draws us forward is the love of Christ, that red line that the artist uses to connect our crosses, the red line of love that creates our crosses. It is the rising power of love that leads us into life, the life that emerges from the darkness.
Jesus lays out the necessity of suffering and sacrifice just after he has asked that life changing question, “Who do you say that I am?” He stood in the belly of the beast, in a place where all the other gods of the first century were enshrined. There in the midst of all the other alternatives for his disciples to follow, Jesus asks them who they think he is. When Peter proclaims him as the Christ, the Messiah, he proclaims the faith of Abraham and Sarah. Here is once again the basic story of God—that God’s faithfulness brings forth our faithfulness, that God’s vision for us is an abundance of blessings in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
Jesus tells us to take up our cross and have hope. Give up your life for me and watch the evidence change. Lose your life for me and the gospel—and then find it.
Some of us may remember a great movie, Oh, God. George Burns played God—in fairly typical George Burns style. There is a wonderful moment in the movie when John Denver’s character complains to God. “Preaching your word is costing me my job”—to which God replies, “Not a bad trade—losing your job in exchange for saving the world.”
God the Father gave Jesus a pretty good deal in those terms. The God of Abraham and Sarah gave them a tremendous deal—“walk before me and be blameless.” Give your whole life to me and I will make you truly whole—transformed into new people with blessings for generations yet to come. Jesus gives us the trade of a lifetime. Turn in your life in order to gain it. Let go and let God. Let go and let God’s faithfulness give you all things.
Let us go forth in this season of Lent, embracing the tallest orders. May we live in hope in spite of all the evidence around us. May we walk together toward the cross and watch the evidence change.
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on Feb. 11, 2018
It was night after a long day of hard work. Three meals had been served. The tables were cleared for the last time. It was the last night of our daughter Ellen’s summer of living and working at Kanuga Conference Center here in Western North Carolina. She made her way to the girls’ dormitory where she took a shower and changed to a favorite dress. Then she walked to her favorite place on the lake at the foot of the mountains. But it was night, and by night a new and greater radiance issued forth.
The moon cast its light over the lake, flickering with its brilliance. The stars shone brightly. Across the lake, a white cross emerged from the edge of the woods, eerily breaking through the darkness. That light in the darkness made love palpable—the love given and received there all summer, the support of people who believed in her and stood by her in the challenges, the love of the waitress whose own daughter was brutally murdered that year, the love of the housekeeping director who grieved for her mother and welcomed the love of the one she called My Sunshine.
God’s love whispered through the breeze. God was there in the light, in the breeze, in the mountain air, in the mystery. It was a moment of transfiguration, a moment when light penetrated all things.
Then it was time to move on—back to packing and saying farewell, back to a world without the support of these people who cared in such concrete ways. Yet the mystery continued. The mystery still lingers in the air and travels on in the journey—down from the mountain and onward in the journey of life. A brief light in the darkness shines ever so briefly yet gives strength for the days ahead. Transfiguration comes and goes.
Today we are there with Elijah and Elisha for that astonishing moment when Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind. We climb the mountain with Jesus and his closest disciples for his transfiguration in the company of Moses and Elijah. We stand with Elisha wondering what to do next, hoping to receive a double portion of Spirit. We stand with Peter as he babbles on about memorializing the moment. Like Elisha, we may be ready to tear our clothes in two in sheer bafflement, overwhelmed by the tempest and the holiness of this magnificent sight. Transfiguration comes and goes. It makes us different people.
Today we proclaim our alleluias on this Alleluia Sunday, the last before Lent, the last in this great season of Epiphany, the time of the epiphanies that surprise us into noticing the presence of God. The presence of God in the face of Jesus comes to us in the radiant whiteness, in the cloud overtaking everyone, in the voice that orders us to listen to him. There is glory all around.
Today we kick off our celebration of the Centennial Year for St. Mary of the Hillls. We look back at the first one hundred years—as the newspaper headline calls it, a Century of Stone and Service. We remember those who came before us—worshiping and serving in this place, building the foundation upon which we stand. We look back to remind ourselves of the times when the lights came on, when we were overcome with the presence of Christ, when heaven and earth met on the mountain top.
We enter this world “trailing clouds of glory” as the poet Wordsworth phrased it. We come fresh from a full experience of the presence of God, and then things get in the way. Our Muslim brothers and sisters speak of forgetting. We forget the fullness of the divine presence. We forget who we are and whose we are. We forget the glory of God and then get everything wrong. So today Christ appears on the mountain top to show us again the glory we have forgotten.
We tend to think glory is past. The glory of God becomes something we look back to and vaguely remember. We look back to the golden days of the church. We are all bunglers like Peter, ready to memorialize any moment of glory as fast as it occurs. While we start building our booths to shelter the transfigured Jesus, the moment of glory slips away. We forget that the glory of God is ours in the present and the future, living and moving among us.
We think only Jesus is transfigured. We forget that Jesus was transfigured so that his disciples would be changed. Peter had already confessed his belief that Jesus was the long awaited messiah, but he could not swallow the idea of a suffering messiah. So Jesus is transfigured, transformed—not to make a difference for himself but for these three confused disciples. The transfiguration happens for their sake, that they might be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory” in the words of our prayer.
For our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, the Transfiguration is second only to Easter. When visiting Turkey, I was struck by how often we saw this scene in the artwork of churches in both the caves of Cappadocia and the glorious structures of Istanbul. Maybe our Orthodox friends really believe they can be changed into the likeness of Jesus. They have a dream of glowing with a reflection of his glory and sharing his glory with the world. We think only Jesus is transfigured, but he is transfigured that we might become people of the transfiguration for the sake of the world.
Once I asked out loud in preparation for this Sunday—How dare we speak of Transfiguration in times like ours? How dare we spend our energies on Alleluias when the agonies of the world cry out to us? The answer quickly given by a faithful Christian was simple: “Because we need it.” Indeed we need to remember the times when the lights came on. We remember in order to summon the strength we need to carry on, to shoulder our cross, to heal the world. We remember not to escape but to have the courage to serve.
This is sometimes called Forgiveness Sunday. When the light breaks forth, Jesus is transfigured. When the light breaks forth, we, too, are changed, changed so that our world can change. Forgiveness is the most concrete form of that transformation. Forgiveness is the beginning of the newness that comes when the light comes on.
Today we look back at this crazy life of mountain tops and valleys. We commit to sharing all we have learned about life with God. It is all about grace. We cannot make the light come on, but somehow it happens to those who prepare, who are open to grace. So we pledge ourselves to be guides in that journey. That means teaching others in the next hundred years the patience required to take up our cross, to endure the dry seasons when the mountain top is far away. We commit to showing one another how to be ready for transfiguration—how to take our spiritual showers and put on our best spiritual dresses as it were, how to open our eyes to the light and open our ears to God’s voice, how to receive the breeze of the Holy Spirit blowing through us.
The cover of the bulletin today shows an artist’s version of the power of God. Put yourself and this parish of St. Mary of the Hills in that picture, if you will. May the power of God well up in us. May the wind of the Spirit blow through us. May the light of the transfiguration heal us that we may be transformed into healers of our world. Our God speaks, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” May we listen and go forth proclaiming—Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Feb. 4, 2018
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” So said Isaiah to people exiled from their homeland. So said Jesus to people who suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire and the tyranny of disease and poverty. So said Paul to the followers of Jesus who knew persecution and conflict with their religious brothers and sisters. So must we say to the people of our day who yearn for hope, who seek a power they can trust with their very lives.
Isaiah spoke to people who have every reason for radical doubt. They wondered what happened to the God of creation. So people questioned the will of God and even the very power of God. Yet for the prophet, the mystery of God’s presence was no reason to give up. Isaiah proclaimed the good news that the God of creation is also the God of history. God is with us. Yahweh does not grow weak with age. God will continue to strengthen those who are tempted to despair—even the young who buckle under the pressures of life. “…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Jesus comes among us, proclaiming the same good news as the prophet Isaiah. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Only this time the prophet is himself the good news. In Mark’s gospel, we spend a day with this man who is the good news, who lives the good news, who proclaims the good news. This day in the life of Jesus has it all: healing the sick, exorcizing demons, crowd control, withdrawal for prayer and renewal, proclaiming the message in the synagogues.
All that Jesus does is a seamless web of proclamation. Jesus comes not just curing the sick but healing us at every level of life. He challenges not just the laws of nature but the whole structure of our life. His healing is forgiveness of sin, a cleansing of ritual impurity, a restoration of the outcast into the life of the community, an overturning of the socio-economic divisions that cause the burden of illness to rest more heavily upon the poor. His healing gives meaning to those overcome by despair. As Jesus casts out demons and heals, he proclaims good news to all.
Equally important is the withdrawal that punctuates the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Here is the inner activity that drives his outward life. Here is the renewal that propels him into the synagogues to proclaim the message. Emerging from the life of prayer, Jesus invites us all to live in the hope that Isaiah proclaimed. It is all proclamation of the power of God. As he says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
So let’s go. Jesus reached out to his first followers, drawing them into his mission. Now we are called into this same proclamation. We are to continue his healing work by making Christ present. It is only through people like us that Christ will be known today.
St. Paul took that commission seriously. The grace of the gospel he had received led him to share the good news with all comers. He knew no boundaries of kindred or race or neighborhood, no barrier of language or tribe. As he says, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is bound only to the love of Christ and the gospel he so eagerly shares.
So how are we doing at following in the steps of Jesus? His whole mission was one of proclamation. What about ours? Is it all about sharing good news? How are we doing in following Paul’s guidance? Are we becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel?
Sometimes the approach of Jesus and Paul seems misguided and headstrong. Jesus moves on to the next town before reaching everyone in the last village. Paul stretches himself way too thin trying to be all things to all people. Some would say we need to choose our market as it were, find our niche.
Yet scripture is clear that the gospel is for all—male and female, Jew and Greek, people of every language and nation. We dare not confine ourselves to one neighborhood only or a single age group. Think of all the folks who need to receive our proclamation. They continue to grow in variety—elders who have no family nearby, working parents burdened by a frantic schedule that leaves them with poverty of time, children who hear the siren call of drugs and alcohol all around them, the “techie” generation who have new ways of communicating and maybe even of thinking, people who do not know the basics of the gospel story, those who are crushed by poverty and lack of opportunity. Sur