Sermons

December 3rd sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

            None of us like waiting.  We hate waiting for good tidings and for bad—waiting for the special party, for the birth of a baby, for our turn in the check-out line, for our favorite sports season.  We also hate waiting for the phone call that confirms the death or the pathology report.

            Yet our church in its infinite wisdom devotes a whole season, the first one of the year, to waiting.  It affirms the spiritual secret that we need the capacity to wait—sometimes with patience, sometimes with fear and trembling—to wait for the coming of our God.  It is in the waiting that we discover who we truly are—people of the not-yet, people called to live in hope, people with one foot in the future even as we stand in the present, people on the way to the fullness of life with God.

            Today we begin Advent, this season of the not-yet, the unknown.  We proclaim that God is coming and will come among us.  The coming of Christ is beyond our control.  God comes as a total surprise.

            The fitting attitude for this season of waiting is holy fear.  The fear of God has gotten out of fashion, but Advent reminds us that there is cause for fear.  Now is the time to discover the wildness of God—the vigor of a God of surprise who springs forth to tear apart all our constructions of reality.

            We wait for an encounter with God, an encounter that thrusts us into a new heaven and a new earth.  Anthony Bloom has rightly said, “If we remembered that every encounter with God…is a judgment, a crisis, we would seek God both more wholeheartedly, and more cautiously.”  Indeed the coming of the Lord causes us to flee in terror even as we know it is the coming of redemption.

            Annie Dillard tells a story from her childhood that captures both our attraction and our reluctance as we encounter the Holy One.  For her, it was her experience with Miss White, the lady across the street with whom she shared cookies and finger painting.  Miss White was someone safe and approachable, but then one year on Christmas Eve, Miss White dressed up as Santa Claus and appeared at the door.  Annie ran away terrified, and no amount of coaxing could get her downstairs to greet Santa.

            The next summer Annie ran away from Miss White once again.   The story goes like this: “…Miss White and I knelt in her yard while she showed me a magnifying glass.   It was a large, strong hand lens.   She lifted my hand and, holding it very still, focused a dab of sunshine on my palm.  The glowing crescent wobbled, spread, and finally contracted to a point.  It burned; I was burned; I ripped my hand away and ran home crying.  Miss White called after me, sorry, explaining, but I didn’t look back.

            “Even now I wonder: if I meet God, will he take and hold my bare hand in his, and focus his eye on my palm, and kindle that spot and let me burn?

            “But no, it is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down.  Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you.  I am still running, running from that

knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge.  For you meant only love,…and I felt only fear, and pain.  So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”  (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

            Now in the season of Advent, we start at the beginning.  We start where Annie Dillard stood as a child, wrestling with her fears.   This is the beginning of the spiritual life—learning whom and what to fear.   The fear she knew as a child is the doorway to holy fear as we connect with power and mystery unfolding.  Holy fear means being alert and awake as we wait for the unknown.  It is the watchfulness Jesus demands as we discover the ways God is present amid the powers of this world.

            As we move from anxious fear into holy fear, we move into reverence and awe.  It is no wonder that the word “awesome” has crept into popular language in recent years, for all of us—young and old—are eager to encounter something or someone that would fill us with awe.  Karl Barth has said, “This fear of the Lord is very real, it is awe, even terror, yet is poles apart from dumb anxiety.  For it is inspired with secret jubilation and is born of gratitude.”

            When we enter this holy fear, we discover a new freedom.  We move into a life of hope, trusting that all the unknowns of the future rest in the hands of God.  Our reverence for God moves us into the love of God.  We move from knowing God as a harsh master to a loving parent whose demands are rooted in love, to a potter whose warm hands shape us into what we are meant to be. 

            Finally we arrive at the experience Catherine of Siena describes: “There is no fear that fully pleases God in us but reverent fear.  It is soft, because the more we have it, the less we feel it because of the sweetness of love.”  This is the work of the spiritual life—to move from a fear of the world to a fear of God and then from simple fear to the reverent fear that is awe enfolded in love.

            In the story by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, three children are transported to a strange world.   A beaver welcomes them into his home and explains that the land is held captive by an evil sorceress, but the true king, Aslan, is on the way.  When Lucy learns that Aslan is a lion, she asks:

            “Is he—quite safe:  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

            “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver.  “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

            “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.       

            “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver.  “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King I tell you.”  (p. 75-76)

            We all have to learn for ourselves that God is not safe—not safe if we think we can encounter God and remain in charge of our lives, not safe if we think we can experience an invasion of holiness and stay the same, not safe if we want to look the other way when we encounter the one who is hungry or thirsty or sick or imprisoned or addicted.  But we also learn for ourselves that the God whom we meet with fear and trembling is good and loving.  Our prayer in this season of Advent is the prayer of Julian of Norwich “that we may fear God reverently and love God meekly and trust in God mightily.”

            May we do the work of Advent while we wait, preparing to meet the God who is not safe but is good.  May we cultivate holy fear so that when God appears again in the doorway between two worlds we will be ready to embrace the Holy One.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.

November 26 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

          It was the middle of the holiday season when I lined up with the masses at the grocery check-out line.  Another customer struck up a conversation, asking me about an odd item in my cart—a citrus fruit called Buddha’s Hand.  He asked, “What is that?  What are you going to do with it?”  I explained that I loved to make a holiday arrangement in the dining room, massing varied fruits and nuts on glass cake plates stacked in tiers.  Every year I look for something new.

          The question is always—What’s on top this year?   I began with a pineapple, the symbol of welcome. This time it would be this golden fruit which for me looked like a crown, a crown with the radiance of the sun.  It points to what we Christians celebrate.  I held it high to show off that crown.  “The King of Kings,” I said.  Then out of nowhere the check-out clerk further up the line chimed in, “…and Lord of Lords.”  By this time, everybody in sight was in on the conversation.

          I will never know if anyone other than me remembers that event.  Yet I do know that for at least a moment people saw our obvious excitement about this King of kings and Lord of lords who rules our lives. 

          Today is the Feast of Christ the King.  Kings are getting bad press these days.  In fact, the heads of most everything are getting bad press.  Human beings fail over and over again—either because they are powerless in the face of superhuman threats or because they abuse their power and cause others to suffer.  Human kings ultimately fail us every time—in politics, economics, religion, our media.

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

          This Feast of Christ the King did not arise until 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted this celebration to stand over against the destructive forces of the times.  Think of that time—the Roaring 20’s, four years before the big crash and the Great Depression.  We had already seen a World War meant to end all wars.  The feast was the last Sunday of October, a prelude to All Saints Day.  Now it falls as the climax of our liturgical year, showing us where it is all headed.  In a document on the Church in the Modern World, the Roman Catholic Church described this feast celebrating the Lord of glory as “the goal of human history the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations….”

          Here is the king we proclaim, but how do we know this king? Where do we see the face of Jesus?  How do we express his role in our lives? 

St. Francis saw the face of Jesus when he kissed a leper, the one who was repugnant and feared by all.  Martin of Tours cut his cloak in two in order to clothe a poor beggar he encountered.  Later Jesus met him in a vision wearing that piece of a cloak.  Mother Teresa cared for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  Her prayer was this: “Dearest Lord, may I see you today and everyday in the person of your sick, and, whilst nursing them, minister unto you.  Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you, and say: ‘Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.’”

          Jesus is hiding in many different guises.  Where might he be hiding even now?  Today Jesus tells us that when he comes in judgment he will be a king who hides among the poor ready for us to serve him.  We will be separated as sheep or goats according to our response to the wholly hidden Jesus.

If Jesus is hiding among the poor, we have plenty of chances to encounter him here in Watauga County.  Recently at diocesan convention, two high school summer interns presented the results of their research on poverty in Western North Carolina as commissioned by Bishop Jose McLoughlin.  I was glad to be sitting down as the powerpoint presentation washed over us.  Watauga County was at the top of every measure of poverty presented.  The federal poverty income level is currently $12,060 for an individual, and $24,600 for a family of four.  The national poverty rate was 14.8% in 2015.  The North Carolina rate was 17.9%.  In Watauga County, it was over 26%.  Our median income was $60,515 in 2015 and is projected to drop to $41,938 by 2019.  More than half of North Carolina children under the age of five (52.6%) live in poor or near poor homes.  Yes, we have plenty of opportunities to meet Jesus.

          Jesus says, “…I was hungry and you gave me food….I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink….I was a stranger and you welcomed me….I was naked and you gave me clothing….I was sick and you took care of me…..I was in prison and you visited me….” If this is where our King Jesus is to be found, then he is all around us.

          Ours is a King who does not tell us to worship him but to follow him.  Following means going outside our comfort zone.  It means caring for those who may not be attractive, who may not be loveable.  It may at first seem impossible for us as people of privilege to venture so far, but it can be done.

          I was blessed by a book given to me by a parishioner some time ago.  It is called Same Kind of Different as Me and is now a movie by the same name.  The book moves between the voices of a white wealthy art dealer and a black homeless man as they become best friends and fellow pilgrims in Christ.  The wealthy man’s wife dragged him into working in a mission for the homeless in Fort Worth.  She pulled him into her calling to minister to the poorest of the poor.  She had a dream of that impoverished neighborhood becoming a place of great beauty and also a dream of her husband becoming bonded with a man who turned out to be the toughest of the crowd—an outsider even to the other homeless men.

          Her persistence wore off on her husband, Ron, and his growing trust in God led to transformation.  Denver, the homeless man, confronted him with his distrust of white people who came to the mission with the principle of “Catch and release.”  They would come to the ghetto and stay just long enough to feel good about themselves and then disappear.

          By the grace of God, both these men were changed as they saw the face of Jesus in others.  Denver quietly devoted himself to Mr. Ballentine, the ornery old man who ranted about his hate for both black people and Christians. Denver began with small favors at the mission and then followed him to a substandard nursing home where he cleaned him up whenever he visited.  After months of enduring his abuse, the truth came out that Denver was a Christian.

          Later when Ron’s wife was dying of cancer, Denver was not visible at the mission.  He was sleeping days and staying up at night.  Why?  Everyone else was praying for Miss Debbie, as he called her, in the daytime, so he took the night shift—praying for her all night beside the dumpster where he could be sure not to be disturbed in his prayer.

          As each of these persons stepped out to care for another, the face of Jesus appeared.  For a moment there was a glimpse of the Kingdom where all things are restored in this King Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Jesus continues to come among us in the guise of the one who needs our care.  So this day we cast our eyes toward that glorious kingdom where our divisions cease and all the peoples of the earth are brought together under his most gracious rule.  

November 12 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

I have long remembered a notable bumper sticker.  It read: “Jesus is coming, and is she ever mad.”  There is nothing like a deadline.  We can get serious when there is a deadline whether it be a vacation, income tax day, or a dinner party.  The rabbis used to call upon the people to repent the day before one’s death—a final deadline.  Since we do not know when that will be, it means repenting everyday.  For the early church, the Second Coming of Christ took the place of death.  That became the deadline.

            Getting ready is not about the volume of work accomplished but rather what we do with the treasure of the gospel.  How do we value it?  How do we share it?  How do we enable others to thrive in the gospel life?

            Today Jesus gives us a parable to convey our responsibility to be good stewards of the treasure given us.  In the Godly Play method of telling Biblical stories, a parable comes in a golden box because it is old and really valuable.  A parable can never be exhausted.  It goes deeper and deeper the more we live with it.

            The very word for parable is related to parabola, a line that curves back upon itself.  That is what a parable does.  It curves back and forth. It swirls around with different angles. It invites us to move back and forth, all around, deeper and deeper.

            I usually stay with the first angle we take on this parable.  That angle is summed up this way:  “Use it or lose it.”  Today let’s try another angle:  “You get what you pay for.”  In other words, you get what you commit yourself to, what you believe in.  You set the level of risk you are willing to take, and the rest plays out from there.

            We have received a great treasure, and that treasure is the gospel.  In our story, each talent or unit of money given to the servants is the equivalent of fifteen years of labor.  That is real money.  That is a treasure—even at the smallest level.  Here are piles of money bestowed upon lowly slaves who are utterly astonished.  What do we do with that kind of treasure—the treasure of the gospel?  What are we willing to do to be stewards of this treasure, to help it grow and flourish?

I remember a question that has haunted me for years:  What are you willing to do for the gospel and your grandkids? For us of St. Mary’s as we approach our centennial, it is a good question.  We ask—Will the treasure live on for the next one hundred years?  The great thing about the church is that we all get to be grandparents without having children. I first experienced that pleasure as a twenty something by teaching fourth graders on Sunday morning and going to lunch with parents and their kids.  Getting to love kids and then give them back to the parents is my definition of grandparenting.  It is also about the opportunity and responsibility of us all to have an impact on the future of the human race as we reach toward God’s Kingdom.

Last week we were reminded of the joy of that responsibility when Bishop Gloster shared the delight of a very young child at the altar rail at the 8:00 service.  He looked down the rail and exclaimed, “Here she comes!”  Oh, that we all were that excited at the approach of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Then at the second service the first Sanctus bells rang, and another child made a proclamation.  I could not hear the whole sentence, but the key word was “telephone.”  Those were perfect reminders that the next generation is alert and is ripe for the gospel.  These little ones are eager to unpack the treasure we have received.  So what are we willing to do for the sake of the gospel and our grandkids?  Will we live in faith and take risks like the first two servants or live in fear, hoarding the treasure that is ours?  It has been said that to live in fear is practical atheism.  Indeed fear threatens faith itself.

These questions take us yet deeper as we move into our parable.  Our interim period at St. Mary’s gives us an advantage in this self-examination, but that exploration awaits all followers of Jesus.  Who are we?  Where is God calling us to go?  What is our mission?  What are the spiritual gifts God has given us for fulfilling that mission?  The question at the bottom of it all is actually this:  Who is the God of our gospel?

The way we live our Christian life depends on the nature of the God we believe in.  As Tom Long comments on our parable, “…the one-talent man pronounces his own judgment…he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.”  But we have another choice, a choice to believe in a god of generosity. 

We indeed have a choice.  We can give ourselves to the generous God of the first two servants or we can give ourselves to the angry, judging God of the third servant.  We really do get what we pay for.  We get what we commit ourselves to, what we believe in. 

The God we place at the heart of our gospel then defines our life with others.   The deadlines of today’s lessons are happily paired with the encouragement in the epistle.  The Letter to the Thessalonians urges us to be children of light because that identity is consistent with the God we know in Christ Jesus.  That identity then takes us into a life of mutual encouragement.  Yes, we need deadlines in the spiritual life.  We also desperately need encouragement as we seek to be good stewards.

You will soon learn that I am a die-hard Duke basketball fan.  I follow my beloved players the way my grandmother followed the lives of her beloved soup opera characters.  My favorite Grayson Allen won my heart when he came through as a freshman to win the championship game, but last season I suffered through his misbehavior on the court.  I rged him on when he was booed by the crowd.  At season’s end, I wrote a letter encouraging him to stay on for his senior year.  In my psychoanalytic/spiritual journey mode, I suggested that he had inner work to do, work that he could do best in that place with that coach.  Later I puzzled over my stack of mail and wondered who was writing me from Durham.  The return address was #3, box whatever.  Lo and behold, the note card displayed the name of Grayson Allen in royal blue ink.  “Dear Pastor Hawkins.”  Then the thank you note concluded, “Encouragement like yours has meant a great deal to me.”  This week that same player had a career high 37 points, leading his team to retain the number one spot as they played the number two team.  In the post game interview, he credited the new point guard with making the difference in his own performance and praised other players in a spirit of encouragement. 

I was reminded that we need both Law and Gospel.  We need a stern master to let us know when we fall short.  We also need the encouragement of a gracious and generous master to move out of our fear to take risks for the sake of life.

We are at our best when we join together as stewards of the gospel.  May we help one another unpack our spiritual gifts.  May we encourage one another to take risks for the sake of the gospel and for the growth of the treasure we have received.  As the child said, “Here she comes.”  Jesus is coming soon, so let’s be ready.  Let us follow Jesus as we risk our very lives for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

 

November 5 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

            The Muslim taxi driver was talkative that day as he picked me up from our house at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  First he marveled at the flock of birds across the field.  Then he said with authority, “This is not a normal place.”  I thought to myself, “You don’t say!”  After a pause, he went on, “I feel spirits here.”

            “Are they evil spirits?” I asked.

            “No, good spirits.  I can feel them.”

            After pondering a bit, I suggested, “Well, some of these houses are very old.  Maybe people died here in their homes.”

            Then he asked, “Is there a cemetery here?”

            “Well, yes, I’ll show you as we go out.”  As we drove past, I pointed to the cemetery on a slope nestled under the trees.

            “Ah, he said, “That’s it.  Then as we turned again, he said, “This is where my friend felt the spirits when we were driving down this street.”  Our conversation went on to his difficulty finding a place to pray in the recent rains.  Mud is tough on a prayer rug after all.  Yet he left me thinking.  “This is not a normal place.”  He had truly felt the good spirits there. 

            I remembered the people who had lived and been buried there.  There was the faculty wife who died my first summer there.  Someone gave me a tip that because many maintenance men were on vacation that week our son as a teenage summer employee probably would be part of the grave digging.  At the end of the day, I asked him, “How was your day?  What did you do today?”

            “Dug a grave,” he muttered.  Then he went on to talk about helping Wayne, the biggest and strongest in the crew as he dug the grave and remembered her.  “For twenty years she was always kind to me.  I guess this is the last favor I’ll do for her.”  Good spirits indeed—both the grave digger and the lady he honored. 

            Then there was the mentally and physically challenged son of a retired bishop.  The son of the former dean who died in a car crash during his honeymoon in Mexico, an exuberant young man full of the joy of teaching, a product of Episcopal summer camps.  Then the most revered of professors.  Yes, good spirits lived and died in what the taxi driver said was “not a normal place.”  All were good spirits—generous with their lives, poor in spirit, pure in heart.

            These are among the spirits we remember as we observe All Saints Day.  We remember all those who have been declared saints by the church through the ages.  In the spirit of All Souls Day, we remember those who walked this earth with us, who shaped us and live on in us.

            That Muslim cab driver lifted up what we call the communion of saints, the way that in God’s great mystery the living and the dead communicate in the life of the spirit.  Here is the great Oneness.  We are all one across time and space.  We are one across the boundaries created by well meaning humans in an effort to make sense of our life and our world—the categories of religions, sciences, races, and nations.

            Today we enter the world of St. John’s revelation, his vision of the final judgment.  Here before the throne of the almighty stand those who are marked with the seal of the living God.  Who are these who stand before the Lamb?  St. John hears the answer as the twelve tribes of Israel but sees instead a countless multitude of every nation, tribe, people, and language.  Here is a New Israel, servants of God bound together without distinction of race, marked with the seal of the living God.

            There are memories of Ezekiel’s vision of angels marking the foreheads of the servants of God.  There are traces of the Exodus from Egypt when the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintels protected the people of Israel from death.  In this new exodus, a new world emerges where every nation gathers at the throne of God.

            Yet the coming together we celebrate this day is a new kind of unity that happens in Christ.  It is a glorious feast to celebrate the cosmic victory of Christ over the powers of evil and death.  The Greek word often translated as “salvation” here is translated as victory.  The worshippers robed in white rejoice in Christ’s victory.  They emerge from the great ordeal, the mighty conflict between powerful forces.

            Today we look around us and behind us as the saints witness to that great victory of Christ.  We are swept away in the images of a cosmic battle.  There was a time when the language of warfare with evil in our All Saints’ hymns and our baptismal questions seemed rather antique to me.  Now we can feel to the depths of our being the truth of this language.  There is a cosmic battle with evil when terrorism and suicide bombings take lives away, when gangs prey upon children, when children go to bed hungry every night and die of curable diseases.

            Yet that is exactly the world Jesus entered. It is the world the saints of God have entered.  The world of the saints is not for the faint hearted.  The saints of God are tough skinned folk who join Jesus in the trenches where chaos seems to reign.   They endure because God blesses them with the gifts of the Spirit. 

            Today is one of the top four festivals in our calendar, the only one that can be transferred.  Here is the white color of resurrection—fitting because at one time it came during Easter Week or the Sunday After Pentecost.  It is another Easter, the Easter of the saints whom we celebrate.

            One symbol of resurrection is the butterfly.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, that authority on death and dying, tells of carvings found in the Nazi death camps where children were housed before their deaths.  What did they carve in their final days?    Butterflies.

            The course of our life is like the life cycle of a butterfly—caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly.  Today we gather as people with all the limitations of earthly life.  We are caterpillars who will someday enter the chrysalis of death.  Yet we know on the other side there is life, the radiant life of the resurrection.  The communion of saints connects us to that life beyond death.  We catch a fleeting glimpse of the butterfly that brushes our cheek with a touch from beyond.

            So now we gather at the table where heaven and earth meet.  We join with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, with saints of the past and saints yet to come.   Let us welcome the spirits who have shaped us.  Let us become good spirits to bless others as we have been blessed.  May it be said of this place: “This is not a normal place.  There are good spirits here.”  And to that we say, Amen and Alleluia.

 

 

October 29 Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

            Now that we have prayed our prayer again, let’s hear the gospel reading again.  Listen up.  “When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault.  One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: ‘Teacher, which command in God’s law is the most important?’  Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’  This is the most important, the first on any list.  But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  These two commands are  pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them….That stumped them, literalists that they were.  Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of those public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good.”

            That is Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  Here the lawyer demands that he sort out all 613 commandments in the Torah.  Tradition held that there were 248 positive commands corresponding to the number of human body parts and 365 negative commands corresponding to the number of days in the year.  In other words, the law covered all of our life experience in the body and all of our time.  It was a comprehensive whole, so how could anyone choose one part as the greatest?

            Rowan Williams, our previous Archbishop of Canterbury, says that for us all our default position is the master-slave relationship.  We go to that default position whenever we have power.  But Jesus gives us a different default position:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  As we go about the work of loving our neighbor, “the Law is a sort of sacrament, an active sign of who and what God is.”(Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, p. 143)  As he says, “The apparent inflexibility of the just and lawgiving God is in fact the most profound guarantee of a human dignity which is indestructible.”

            So Jesus lifts up love of God and love of neighbor as twin pegs on which to hang all the rest.  He invites us to give all that we have to this enterprise of love—our passion, prayer, and intelligence. The law of God is ultimately not about rules and legalities; it is all about love. There is no better way to order our life with God and one another.

            Today we hear yet another summary of this Law of Love as we pray for the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.  We reach out to receive the promises awaiting us as we ask God to “make us love what you command.”  There is no better way to live—loving what God asks of us and opening our hands to receive all that is promised.

            Years ago the Diocese of Alabama developed a program of education about Christian stewardship known as the Alabama Plan.  It was so simple and so life changing.  We took a portion of scripture and pondered three questions: What are God’s demands?  What are God’s promises?  What is holding me back?  Those questions are the place to begin as we discern the concrete ways that we love God and our neighbor—in the ways we live with all our resources—our time, our spiritual gifts, our talents and our money.  We need those concrete ways.  We need God’s demands.  The demands of God’s law are a great gift.

            God has showered us with love, and we indeed need concrete ways of loving back, ways of saying YES to that love.  Jesus gives us the love of God first and then places that second love, the love of neighbor, beside it.  Yet it was St. Augustine who said, “The love of God comes first in the order of commanding, but the love of neighbor first in the order of doing….”  Our love of neighbor first in the order of doing….” Our love of neighbor is our first step as we let go and are swept into the flow of God’s love.  It is our way of loving God back, our way of saying Thank you.  Neighbor love is the way God gives us to heal the world.

            Jesus expands the command to love our neighbor as we find it in Leviticus.  There it follows in a string of commandments that refer to fellow Jews, one’s own people.   In Leviticus, our neighbor is someone like us.   Jesus drops that context when he defines our neighbor.  In the Gospel of Luke, this passage continues with the question of “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus answers with the well known story of the Good Samaritan, a story that crosses the barriers of race and creed, showing us how to care for the Other.

            Next week we will offer to God our financial pledges to support the life of St. Mary of the Hills and its ministries in the next year, blessing those commitments at the altar.   A pledge card is a concrete way of saying thank you to God.   It is a way of showering love around us with God’s open handed generosity.

            Open hands.   All I know about open hands I learned in exercise class.   Once the teacher was urging us not just to move our arms but to squeeze, squeeze.  So let’s do it now.  Make a fist.  Try it.  Squeeze your fingers together tight.  Now open your hand.  Let go.  Which takes more energy?  Which uses more muscle?  Which causes more tension?  There is even more energy used if there is something like a weight in the hand to cling to.

            Now in exercise class we may want to use muscles and energy but not in the spiritual life.  That is good news for me.  It really is easier to let go and open our hands.  The tension goes away if we stop clinging to whatever we have in our hands.  It takes effort to cling and squeeze, especially the more we have to hold.  It is also more practical to open our hands.  How can God give us anything when our hands are closed when we think we already have what we need?  How can we give to others when our hands are closed tight, when we cling to what we have—not trusting that God will continue to give to us as we give to others and to God’s church?

            Living with open hands is a way of acknowledging that everything we have belongs to God.  God has chosen to give everything to us for safekeeping.  God’s gifts are concrete ways to let love flow around and through us.  God simply asks us to hold on for the ride as we love and as we give all our passion, prayer, and intelligence.

            When the lawyer asks Jesus the question of the day, it is all about testing and judgment.  He wants to trap Jesus, but I think he also wants to know how best to prepare for God’s judgment.  What he does not know is that there is no competition or scarcity in the spiritual life.  There is no place for the battles.  There is no hierarchy in blessedness—no list of lovers of God in rank order.  There is no Category Five in our blessings or in our giving.  We are all blessed with love in abundance, and we are called to give in abundance. 

            During the week of the stock market crash in 2008, at our son’s wedding in New York, I offered an Irish blessing that included these words, “May you be poor…in misfortunes and rich…in blessings.”  Yes, we are all rich, rich in blessings, blessed with love in abundance.

            St. John of the Cross said, “In the evening of life you shall be judged on love.”  Not on the scope of our accomplishments or net worth, not on the letters before or after our names.  We will be judged on love.  So how much love will we risk?  How fully will we love and give ourselves to God’s Kingdom?  Do our lives show that we love God with all our passion, and prayer, and intelligence? 

May we throw ourselves ever more deeply into God’s love.  May we obtain all that God promises, a kingdom where neighbors care for one another in the power of God’s love.

October 15 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins

            It was 1992, early in the AIDS epidemic.  Our diocese was sponsoring a healing service for those affected by that disease which was such a mystery at the time.  The planners tried to spread the word, but no one really expected much of a crowd.

            Were we ever wrong.  As service time drew near, people flocked in until over four hundred people filled Trinity Church in downtown Asheville.  There were the usual looking church people and an occasional youth group, but then there were folks like I had never seen there before.  It was as though the floodgates had been opened.  Surely a few were prostitutes.  Some were not so clean and well scrubbed.  There was a sound of leather and chains.  Some were owners of thriving businesses, the upper crust who usually never attended.  They were all there because the doors were opened and someone invited them to the feast.

            The service included a liturgy of healing with the laying on of hands.  People began streaming forward like nothing I had ever seen. There were tears of joy and hope. There were quiet embraces as friends came to greet and support one another. The more the newcomers came forward, the more the regular church folks joined in.  Soon everyone was caught up in the spirit of healing.  We all knew our wounds and our need for healing.  We all yearned to come to the Lord’s banquet table to be fed.  We all were part of the celebration.

            Why were they all there?  Because we invited.  Someone had acquired a mailing list for medical facilities and providers.  The Task Force then spent a Saturday morning stuffing tens of thousands of envelopes with invitations.  Surely many invitations were tossed out, but others were shared in clinics and support groups.  The invitation led people to travel amazing distances.  There was a Lutheran social worker from the eastern part of the diocese who arranged adoptions of babies who were HIV positive.  Her story of having no support for that work from family and friends made it clear why she answered the invitation and came to be fed.

            That ministry continued from that day in many forms.  Until recently there was a retreat at Kanuga Conference Center for HIV positive persons led by some of the finest spiritual leaders of our church.  Once I was startled to walk into a home in Morganton.  I was visiting a man I knew from a support group I led as a hospital chaplain.  He was black, gay, HIV positive, living on disability.  He attended the Kanuga retreats.  There on the coffee table was the newest Kanuga newsletter.  I chuckled, “So now you look like a card carrying Episcopalian.”  He responded, “Oh, they are always good to me there, so I send a check whenever I can.”  Living on disability and sending a check.  He received an invitation and came to the banquet.

            Yes, the parable of Jesus was acted out on that Sunday afternoon in Asheville.  The invitation had gone out into the streets to bring all God’s people in for the wedding feast.  The banquet was prepared, and the people came.  Among the longstanding members of the church, some came and some stayed away.  Yet some unexpected folks came to fill the spaces.  Such is the kingdom of God.

            Today each of our lessons talks about a feast of joy.  The prophet Isaiah tells us, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  The familiar words of the twenty-third psalm remind us of the care and nurture of our God who prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  The epistle calls us to “rejoice in the Lord always.”  The promise is sure.  The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally in Matthew we hear, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”   The kingdom is not just any party but a wedding party, a once-in-a-lifetime feast.

            A feast is perhaps the best way to describe the kingdom because it points to the joy in our life with God.  Rejoicing is the way we stay in relationship with God and God’s people.  St. John of the Cross, one of the ancient Christian mystics, said it this way:  “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing”—and I would add, in the mood for eating.

            Yet such a feast happens only with invitation.  A while ago it was said that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 27 years—probably even less frequently now.  Once in Baltimore I met a woman who spoke about her past church experience, so I invited her to my church.  “Wow, this is like being back in Alabama, being invited to church,” she said.  When I told her about the 27 years, she paused.  “I think I’ll come, since I know how old I will be if I wait another 27.”

            So how are we doing with invitation—individually and as a congregation?  It is a challenge across our church.  That challenge has been addressed by Mary Parmer, a woman in Texas who gathered ideas and developed a recipe—InviteWelcomeConnect.  It gives a basic structure, lots of ideas for ministry, and abundant freedom to adapt to a church’s setting.  There is a way for everyone to take part.  Invite.  Welcome.  Connect.

            It all begins with invitation.  So how are we doing?  I am already discovering that as a woman in a collar I have the advantage of being a novelty in Blowing Rock.  During my years in the Washington area, people either did not care or did not notice.  I was just a woman in a white turtleneck.  Here that collar leads to conversations on the street and opportunities to tell the good news of this church.  Each of us has a setting where such invitation can arise.  I remember a woman of some age who talked faith matters with young men at the gym.  A family with teenagers who brought friends constantly.  A dog lover who advertised the animal blessing at the veterinary office.

            We also can invite those who come our way for special occasions.  Already I have met people who wandered in because of the signs about evensong and concerts.  Others tell of planning weekends here around evensong because there is no choir as good as ours in Asheville or Atlanta.  Funerals bring through our doors people who may be searching.  This week I was thanked for the invitation to receive communion at what I say is not an Episcopal table but Our Lord’s table.  That former Roman Catholic received the sacrament for the first time in many years and now knows that the door is open to return to that table again and again.

            All of us can enter into such moments of invitation and welcome.  What if?  What if our musical programs provided an invitation to the rest of our life together?  What if greeters and welcomers were part of every special service and every funeral?  What if people without pets came to the animal blessing just to welcome newcomers?

            Today scripture tells us about inviting and welcoming.  Then there comes connecting—becoming incorporated in the celebration in a way that clothes us in wedding garments.  That is when our joy really blossoms, when we become who we truly are as children of God welcomed to the heavenly banquet.   Connecting one another in deep and vital ways to the host of this feast brings a mutual joy beyond compare.  We become new people spiritually clothed in our tuxedos and ball gowns, prepared for the heavenly banquet.

            May we never forget that ours is a feast to which Jesus invites everyone.  Even as we rejoice together in our fellowship, we must keep the doors open to all who may stream in from the streets as on that day in Asheville.  May we become ever more radiant as people who are always ready to bring others to the banquet table.  May we become the festive people of God whose souls swim in joy, who always keep holiday and are always in the mood for singing.

 

October 1st Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….”

            Shortly after Pope Francis came on the scene, I watched spellbound as a group of journalists shared their first impressions.   Andrew Sullivan, one I knew to be a committed Roman Catholic, quietly stepped up, explaining the significance of the pope’s choice of the name Francis.  He emphasized not his love of the natural world that we honor today in our Blessing of Animals but rather the context of his humility, giving up wealth to live a simple life of following Jesus.   He spelled out what he called “the downward path of humility.”   Then with a final surprise he said, “That’s what I think the world needs, and that is why I am a Christian.”

            You could have heard a pin drop.   Now this was the same talkative group that had not long before prompted me to email Andrew Sullivan with a request to get the moderator to keep them from talking all at once.   I actually got a response within minutes and later the moderator silenced them saying that it bothers the viewers when they talk over one another. 

            Their stunning moment of silence reflected our whole culture’s discomfort with the notion of humility rooted in faith.  Finally they broke the silence with nervous laughter.  One joked about the holy water in Andrew’s coffee cup.  Several days later one brought up the way Andrew had taken it over for himself and then went on to state what she considered more important. 

            Indeed ours is a world that simply does not understand humility—not the humility of tax collectors and prostitutes, not the humility of Christ.  Even the act of pointing to the humility of a person of God choosing to live simply is seen as an act of pride and self-importance.  The path of Jesus is indeed a downwa