Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on January 13, 2019.
On one of those days of deep fog during the holidays, my daughter
and I hopped into the car to pick up that one ingredient needed for
dinner. It was a real commitment to venture into that ocean of pea soup.
To our surprise as we moved in the opposite direction for a different
view of the world, we caught a touch of brightness. Instantly we were
glad to make the trip. Then with every turn in the road, we witnessed
more and more brightness and eventually the spectacular colors of
sunset. The heavens opened. The sun broke through just in time to give
us a gift of grace. My daughter exclaimed, “James Taylor just sang
this—Here comes the sun,” and indeed we were listening to his
Christmas album that included the classic song by the Beatles.
It was an overwhelming mystery of chaos moving and radiant light
breaking forth. I felt a profound ending and a new beginning. It seemed
we had miraculously escaped the power of that penetrating fog. What
first filled me with fear seemed fraught with possibility. All I could do
was to surrender to a mystery filled with expectancy and joy. We were
invited into the possibility that beckons in newness.
Upon our return we eagerly proclaimed what we had experienced.
It seems that meanwhile my husband had seen part of this light show,
sent a photo to friends and relatives, and received responses extolling the
mighty power of God in creation.
Today with the Baptism of Our Lord, the earth shakes beneath our
feet and the heavens are opened. The divine has become human. In the
person of Jesus, God has bound earth to heaven and heaven to earth.
Now this sea change becomes manifest to the world—first as the Wise
Men come to worship at the Feast of the Epiphany and now as Jesus
emerges from the waters of baptism with the Holy Spirit making him
known to all.
His baptism and ours as well take us deep into the death that we
fear—the death of the body, the death of the ego, the death of all that we
value, the death of our security, the death of our dreams. The Spirit
draws us out of that water as transformed people. We die with Christ
and rise again with him. Our God makes good on the promise of Isaiah
that we will not be overwhelmed. We need not fear, for promise and
possibility await us.
That possibility is not just for us already huddled around the
baptismal font. It is for all those God promises to bring from the East,
West, North, and South—even from Samaria, the most outcast of all.
Those people hunger and thirst for the new possibility in Christ—
especially in the darkness and coldness of this season. That message
came through to me in a contemporary setting when I discovered a CD
by Sting, a popular artist who joined the holiday musical offerings with
the title, “If on a Winter’s Night.” I was intrigued by his concert at the
Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a performance on television.
So I availed myself of the liner notes. Sting speaks of the deep
soul work that goes on in the depths of winter: “…there is something of
the Winter that is primal, mysterious and utterly irreplaceable,
something both bleak and profoundly beautiful, something essential to
this myth of ourselves, to the story of our humanity, as if we somehow
need the darkness of the winter months to replenish our inner spirits as
much as we need the light, energy, and warmth of the summer.” He
considers winter “the season of the imagination.”
He declares himself an agnostic and yet offers many of our
traditional Christian musical treasures with reverence and freshness.
Clearly he resonates with “the paradox of light at the heart of the
darkness.” I wonder about all the people who flocked to his cathedral
concert. How did God speak to them in that strange combination of
Praetorius and Bach and Sting? How did God speak through an agnostic
in a place where countless followers of Christ have offered their
prayers? I wonder about those folks just as I wonder about the folks
who flocked to the River Jordan to be baptized.
Today we will renew our baptismal covenant. We make some
huge promises. Luke’s version that we hear today drives home the
gravity of it all. John says, “I baptize you with water….He will baptize
you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his
hand….” We give ourselves over to the paradox of the light at the heart
of darkness, but it is serious business. It may give us joy, hope, and
courage—but it also demands all that we are. It demands that we
become part of bringing all people out of the fog into the light. I
demands that we reach out and inform people that they, too, are precious
in the sight of God, honored and loved. As George Macdonald rightly
said, “Light unshared is darkness. To be light indeed, it must shine out.
It is of the very essence of light, that it is for others.”
The last three questions of the Baptismal Covenant are perhaps the
hardest: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of
God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among
all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? How are we
doing with those challenges?
Like most Christians, we may have the hardest time seeking and
serving Christ in those different from us—those who are younger or
older, who come from different backgrounds, who do not play by our
rules. It is a challenge to proclaim the Good News by word and example
to those who are different—the Samaritans of our day.
One particular challenge lately has been the news that Hospitality
House, the ministry where so many of us are engaged, has lost
$57,000 in funding from the state of North Carolina. Furthermore, the
federal government shutdown has frozen the funds the program would
normally be receiving from that source. It has been heartening to learn
that folks have responded to cover the expenses of January. We just
have to work on February.
At the same time, Hunger and Health Coalition has the opportunity
to receive a matching grant up to $50,000 right now. Our Outreach
Committee is proposing contributions that support both of these
ministries in this critical time. That is proclaiming the Good News by
word and example. I am also heartened that even though children and
youth are not abundant in our midst a young baptismal candidate and a
candidate for confirmation have recently emerged. Clearly the Good
News is being proclaimed by word and example in our midst. The fog is
lifting, and the light is shining forth.
Yet baptism is the inauguration of a lifelong process of living into
our baptismal vows. We all have pieces of our baptism yet to work out.
Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, said, “We only live by
remaining in the waters.” Indeed. We have to stay in the waters,
returning again and again to renew our vows and begin again. The
invigorating waters of baptism in the cold of this season call us to a
lifetime of action, a lifetime of figuring out our calling, a lifetime of
There is still all too much deep fog in our world. The challenges
are many, but the Holy Spirit has come down and keeps on coming. Let
us stay in the waters that we might live in Christ Jesus. The waters will
not overwhelm us. We are all Beloved of God. May we go forth in the
power of the mystery that is Christ, a mystery that will transform us and
all the world.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on January 6, 2019
There is a story told of a woman named Babushka who lived in a Russian village long ago. She was well known as a careful housekeeper, always busy with her chores. Then one night a commotion arose in the village, but she was too busy to check out what was happening. It seems all the other villagers were marveling at a bright star in the sky and the news of a caravan of royalty drawing near.
Then a knock on the door startled her. Three kings in fine garments asked to stay at her house since it was the most immaculate one in the village. So they stayed with her and told of how they had come from the East following the brightest star they had ever seen. They had heard a prophecy about a king to be born, so they were on their way to offer him gifts. In their excitement, they exclaimed, “Come with us, Babushka.” But she declined, “I can’t go now. I don’t have a proper gift, and I must clean up after having guests like you. I will follow you tomorrow.”
So she did—after she cleaned once again and prepared a proper gift. But they were a day’s journey ahead. Everywhere she asked for them until she arrived in another village, the village of Bethlehem. People there told her they had seen her three kings—and the baby—but they had come and gone. The Savior of the World had come, and she missed him. Legend tells it that she is still seen in villages at this time of year, looking for the Christ Child, eager to worship him.
We are here today because we, like the Three Kings, are willing to drop everything to follow a star. We come seeking the light. We come seeking mystery. We come with eyes to see the Christ Child, the light of the world.
The Wise Men were scientists of their day, learned men, astrologers who were alert to the world of nature and its revelations. In their day, science and religion were one—one in the quest for mystery, one in lively imagination open to what might be. Here is the greatest mystery—that God’s great plan of love included the Gentiles, even us. All are welcome around this manger bed.
To receive this great gift, we only need to see. We need not just eyes of reason but eyes of revelation. We need a renewal of our religious imagination. Only with imagination can we embrace the mystery. With eyes of wonder, we receive the mystery before us—the mystery of a God who becomes one of us, the mystery of a heavenly King born to rule over all the earth. The mystery of this day is “an offense and contradiction to some, but salvation to those who [have] eyes to see.” (Raymond Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas, p. 14)
The star still beckons. The mystery is there for those who seek God. Some of us have a longer journey to this place. We arrive at different times around this manger bed. Yet the Christ Child awaits. He is ready to welcome all who receive his mystery—even Babushka, even each and every one of us.
An anonymous author offers these words for the challenge of this feast day. I hope you read them in the parish email earlier, but they are worth repeating for us all: “If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have the time to make the long, slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us, there is a desert to travel. A star to discover. And a being within ourselves to bring to life.”
So let us drop everything and follow the star. Let us draw near to mystery, to the light that leads us. Come let us adore him—now and evermore. Amen.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Dec. 30, 2018.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
“As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
‘I want you to watch that one particularly,’ said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
‘Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,’ said the little angel. ‘What’s special about that one?’
The senior angel goes on to explain that this planet, however insignificant and unclean, was the renowned Visited Planet.
‘Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince…went down in Person to this fifth rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?’….The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, ‘that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?’
‘I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them “creeping, crawling creatures” in that tone of voice. For strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.’
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.”
We come today with awe and wonder, continuing to celebrate what is truly beyond comprehension—that the Word would become flesh, that God would become human, that the divine would tabernacle among us, move into the neighborhood, and become one of us. We come to rejoice that because the Word became flesh, we and our world are forever changed. Indeed he came to visit us that we might become like him.
But why did the Word come among us? The Word was around in the creation of our world. Why wasn’t that enough divine presence? Why did the Word come among us? Because of our need. We tried it our way and did a rather poor job of it. Our dream was the same as God’s dream—that sweet dream of peace—but we thought we could attain that peace by our victories, victories based on violence and division. We thought peace and prosperity were meant for some and not for all.
So the Word became flesh to fulfill that sweet dream of peace. God became human to achieve the true peace, a peace that comes from justice. Here is the true victory. Here is the God who loves all and reigns over all. Here is the light that will not be overcome by the darkness. Here is the dream of God for such a little planet as ours—this fragile earth, our island home.
The prophet Isaiah spoke out in difficult times to give us the hope that is ours in the dream of God. In a magnificent anthem by Glenn Rudolph called “The Dream Isaiah Saw,” the lyrics show us what the dream looks like in our world. It is Isaiah’s image of the peaceable kingdom where lion and lamb lie down together. “Peace will pervade more than forest and field: God will transfigure the Violence concealed deep in the heart and in systems of gain, ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain….Nature reordered to match God’s intent, nations obeying the call to repent, all of creation completely restored, filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
The refrain builds upon this simple request: “Little child whose bed is straw, take new lodgings in my heart. Bring the dream Isaiah saw….” The dream Isaiah saw is variously described as “life redeemed from fang and claw”, “justice purifying law,” and finally “knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.”
Our need for that dream is greater day by day. More and more we are ready for the Word made flesh. I once saw a sign at a Baptist church that read: “What America needs is not a donkey or an elephant but the Lamb.” Our kingdoms have failed to bring about the dream. Today we come to worship the God who reigns, the Lamb of God whose kingdom is forever. May the Little Child take new lodgings in our hearts this day.
May we become messengers of hope—messengers who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation. Today the dream of God is here for us to see and touch. We celebrate Incarnation, the reality of God in flesh, in our world, before our eyes. Isaiah saw the dream of God. May we as well see the dream. May the light of Christ shine forth in our lives that all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Dec. 25, 2018.
The sermon was a telling of the story found in The Clown of God, an old story told and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
It concluded with the following prayer adapted from Lucien Deiss:
You are Holy,
you who wished to be born in the midst of our sins the better to pardon us….
You are Strong,
you who wished to be born weak as a child in order to give us strength….
You are Immortal,
you who put on a body to die in order to give us immortality….
Holy God, strong God, immortal God,
give the peace of heaven to our earth,
and open the door of your mercy
to the beggars of your love. Amen.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Dec. 24, 2018.
Tonight we gather in a barn, flanked by the lowliest of night shift workers and the smelliest of animals. We gather by the side of a peasant girl who, in her fear and confusion, has just given birth to a radiant child. Tonight we join them in poverty, need, and powerlessness to receive a gift that changes us forever.
A martyr of our time, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, sums, it up: “No one can celebrate Christmas without being truly poor. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
Tonight our power and competence have nothing to do with it. We are simply here to receive a gift bestowed upon us. God breaks in from outside to change human history. It is a night of angels and a star, infinity breaking into our finite world. We are left in awe to ponder such a grand introduction to a newborn baby in a makeshift cradle.
Tonight we join the shepherds on the night shift. Shepherds got negative press in Biblical days. They were people who stood outside the system and outside the law. They were sinners—associated with bandits, nonconformists, and dirty folk. Yet to such as these came the first angelic announcement of the savior’s birth. Consistent with Mary’s song of revolution, the good news came first to the down and out, the poor and powerless. God has truly lifted up the poor and cast down the proud. This announcement of the gift does not come first to the rich and privileged—or even to those of good manners and good taste—but rather to sinners just trying to get through the night.
Tonight God comes seeking us. God comes with a gift, a gift that makes a claim upon us. God knocks us out of control and leads us to become receivers. As John Wesley said, “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” We would much prefer to be the givers, to sit in a position of power that honors our competence. But that is not grace, and grace is what this night is all about. Tonight we are all powerless recipients of God’s grace, not givers of gifts but receivers of the one gift that brings us life forever.
So on this night do we need someone to come on our behalf? Do we need the gift? Do we truly want to see Jesus? Tonight we are called to find that place of need deep inside ourselves that we might come to the manger and see Jesus.
There is a story told in Provence, that wonderful region in the South of France. Folks tell of four shepherds who went to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. Three of them took gifts, the produce of their land—eggs, bread and cheese, wine. The last shepherd took no gift whatsoever. He was called L’Enchante, the Enchanted One. The shepherds presented their gifts and chatted with the new parents into the late hours of the night. Then someone realized L’Enchante was not with them. They searched everywhere for him. Finally they looked beyond a blanket hung to protect the baby from the draft on that cold night. There kneeling before the baby was L’Enchante. The story goes, “Like a flag or a flame taking the direction of the wind, he had taken the direction of love. Throughout the entire night, he stayed in adoration, whispering, ‘Jesu, Jesu, Jesu—Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’”
He was open to receive the gift of this night. He came bearing no gift, for he had no illusion of the power to be a giver. He was simply a receiver of the gift, awed by the glory of Christ. With all his being, he wanted to see Jesus.
Come, let us join the poor little ones. Let us kneel at the manger that we might see Jesus and welcome the newborn king. In our poverty of spirit, may there be an abundance of God. Come, let us adore him.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Dec. 23, 2018.
Art and music have long been the mediators of our relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Here at St. Mary’s we know her through the painting at the altar, the sculpture in the Mary Garden, and the Della Robbia that greets us at the door. She sang us in as we began today] We may well know her more through these interpreters than through scripture itself, so I begin today with some who have revealed Mary in fresh and truthful ways.
First Mary. Barefoot and pregnant in the fresco in Ashe County. I have told the story of that painting by Ben Long everywhere I have served in the church. Legend has it that his model was a teenager who passed through. Nobody knew her. She came and went. Yet that picture continues to inspire busloads of pilgrims.
Second Mary. After the chapel burned at the Virginia Theological Seminary where our family lived for some years, the ruins became an outdoor chapel with an altar and memorial garden. It also became the home of a sculpture of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth that I saw from the kitchen window every morning. Elizabeth is truly an old woman. Mary is boyish and barefooted—so boyish that some think at first glance that she is a boy. Both are slightly pregnant—as if there were such a thing. Both are poor, judging by their clothing—not the royal Mary in much of Christian art like the painting on our bulletin cover that I photographed at the Louvre. They focus on one another with rapt attention in a world all their own.
Third Mary. I remember a version of the Visitation where each woman’s belly held a large crystal. It was as though you could see right into the womb, like turning on the oven light and looking through the window at the cookies. The new life within had an openness yet was clothed in mystery. Here were two women totally transparent to the presence of God within. Their bodies gave way to something totally other that had come to dwell. Their spirits as well had given way to the divine spirit directing their lives.
Fourth Mary. This carving jumped out at me in the midst of a crowded market in Honduras. Here are two women carved from one piece of wood. They are truly one—connected at their heads and their wombs. Here are Mary and Elizabeth the younger and the older, drawn together in experiences so similar and yet so different. As keepers of the mystery, they become one. Both have had their lives turned upside down by God’s surprises. Both are called to wait, to wait and believe in promise.
Theirs is active waiting. Mary heads to the hills as soon as she gets her news. She, who is now Theotokos, godbearer, seeks support to sustain her faith and follow her calling. They come together as people of hope who have given up control and let God shape their paths.
Henri Nouwen takes them as the very model of Christian community—“the community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we lift up what has already begun in us.” A seed has been planted in each of them. The seed in one rejoices to greet the seed in the other. In this holy community, the flame of their love for God and their trust in the promises burn brighter as they huddle together. Nouwen says, “We need to wait together to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the word comes it can become flesh in us.”
So they greet one another and affirm what God is doing in one another. They begin their Advent retreat, as it were, creating a space where they can do this holy work of waiting. They need each other in this waiting.
Elizabeth confers her blessing upon Mary as she recognizes her faith. Just as David danced before the Ark, so John within her womb leaps with joy. Moved by his movement, Elizabeth affirms Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Her words are almost a direct quotation from the Book of Judith after Judith kills the enemy of the people. Mary, too, will be a hero for the people of God. Elizabeth affirms her as the first missionary, the first disciple of Jesus. She helps Mary believe the impossible.
Having received that blessing, Mary breaks forth in the song we call The Magnificat, the canticle we sang moments ago. Now if you were asked out of nowhere for the placement of this canticle in the narrative, what would you have answered? I find most people assume it was a response to the annunciation by the angel. But, no. It comes here—only after Mary has come before Elizabeth, only in the presence of community, only when another person of faith has helped her understand her own experience of God, only with Elizabeth’s affirmation. That is why we need church, why we need spiritual community—lest we miss our own experience of God.
Mary breaks forth with her revolutionary song, a song banned in at least one Latin American country. Her song, modeled after the Song of Hannah, expresses the spirituality of the oppressed. It is a radical prayer, describing the power of God to turn the world upside down and rightside up.
I must say I never really got it until I heard the scratchy voice of Pete Seeger singing “Masters of this Hall,” a rendition of her song that sounds like a drinking song. Suddenly I heard the revolution, the promise for the poor and the downtrodden, and the threat to the strong and powerful. Mary proclaims hope with conviction and certainty. The promises are so sure that she can tell the story as accomplished fact in the past tense: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
She tells us who God is and thus who Jesus will be among us. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….” This story is all about a Savior and salvation for all the world. Believe it or not, the Greek word for salvation never appears in Mark and Matthew and only once in John, but it appears six times each in Luke and Acts. In Luke, salvation is mentioned four times in the infancy narrative alone. Matthew and Mark never use the word Savior for Jesus, but Luke uses it in the next chapter and twice in the Book of Acts. Salvation is a huge fundamental in our Judaeo-Christian tradition—pervasive in the Hebrew scriptures—but only Luke among the four gospels connects it for us.
Yes, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….” Here is the Savior long awaited. Savior for whom? For the poor and oppressed, the homeless, the refugees, the hungry, all those who live in fear. God chooses the empty ones, those who have space for God to enter. They have no wealth or achievements to hide behind. They have nothing to trust except God. Theirs is a spirituality of imperfection, a spirituality of emptiness and need. They are simply empty and broken people seeking the fullness and wholeness which come only through God.
Here is our preview of the Gospel of Luke which provides most of our gospel lessons this year. Over and over, we will see the poor and powerless people through whom God works. We will see a bias toward the bottom. We will see empty, powerless people who in their emptiness have space for God to enter. We will see nobodies become somebodies through the mighty hand of God.
Yet this Savior is for all of us, for us all in our fear and helplessness. The news of this Savior is for those who need God, and life will someday make us all know our need for God. So how do we join Mary in singing Magnificat to others who sit in darkness and fear? What do we proclaim to the world? How do we live Magnificat in all that we do?
Today we have prayed that we might prepare a place for Christ to be present in us. We meet Jesus in one another as we all become transparent to the presence of God. We lay ourselves open to God that Christ might find a home in us and we might find a home in him.
In these last hours of Advent, may we do as Meister Eckhart tells us: “Become aware of what is in you. Announce it, pronounce it, produce it, and give birth to it.” In other words, live Magnificat. Be a Christbearer. Be a Mary for our world. Amen.
Sermon preached by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on December 16, 2018.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us….”
A motley crew of interfaith Watauga County clergy gathered at 8:30 a.m. on a recent Friday—surely a day-off for most of us. It was true commitment that led us to gather at the time the rabbi could be present. We reflected on the ways we see the atmosphere of anxiety in our world affecting life in our faith communities. Then we were asked to share where we find hope.
That set of questions captures this third Sunday of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday or “Stir Up Sunday” as we pray for the Holy Spirit to stir us up. We are hear messages of rejoicing but also John the Baptist’s demand to bear fruits of repentance—in specific ways that stop preaching and go to meddling. Then after the threat of unquenchable fire comes a summation which has to be the funniest line in all of holy scripture: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news? Really?
That same paradox was at the heart of our recent clergy conversation. Early on Rabbi Stephen said he had recently been in Germany where he told his colleagues there would have been no Holocaust if clergy had gathered as we do in Watauga County—even spending a summer day talking about original sin. He had found understanding and solidarity at a deeper level than in any of his previous dialogues in the big city. I was frankly stunned by his hope for us, his deep conviction that we can make a difference—the kind of difference that can prevent a Holocaust.
Yet we also heard the experience of our rabbi having been beaten up as a second grader and called “a dirty Jew.” That incident was widely known in his community but never addressed. Next to me sat two black clergy who were quiet for a long time and then shared incidents in recent weeks when they were addressed with racial epithets by total strangers while out shopping with their children in tow. In one case, a store manager called the pastor down when he asked the offender for an apology to his family, and a clerk stood up for him, saying that the other man started it. Yet other bystanders let it pass. What was most hurtful for them was knowing that other white people looked the other way--people who probably would call themselves Christians.
Listening to such pain, it was hard to share the rabbi’s conviction that we can and will make a difference. How can we be prisoners of hope when faced with such blatant behavior so close to home? Our group was largely focused on the synagogue shootings and local anti-Semitic incidents. Then erupted racism. Now this week there have been shootings in a church in Brazil and a Christmas market in France.
Where is our God as the innocents are mowed down? How do we make sense of the disconnect between this Advent season of joyful expectancy and the realities of our broken world? Yet that disconnect, as it were, is precisely the context of the scripture before us today--John’s preaching of repentance, Zephaniah’s message of hope in time of Exile, our beautiful canticle of trust in God’s saving power, and even Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We are in the desert, and God’s prophets speak to people in the desert with both a threat and a promise.
Prophets are people who listen to God and then speak of what they hear. Most of all, they hear hope—not mere optimism but hope. Even John’s harsh words are a key to the fulfillment of God’s promises. God intends a revolution, a world change. That change begins in the hearts of those who know and love God, who trust in God’s promises. It happens by God’s initiative, but we have to meet God halfway. That great Baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney, used to say, “Don’t pray for God to do something you can do yourself.” In other words, we have a part to play.
John the Baptist is clear that we cannot sit on our hands, doing nothing and relying on our pedigree. Eugene Peterson, who died just recently, has a wonderful translation in The Message that brings it home: “Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants to. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” Repentance must bear fruit. So in this time of Advent, the call to repentance is a call to examine the fruitfulness of our lives. Are they green and blossoming?
John’s repentance is not just liberation from something. It is liberation toward something, toward something much better. It is freedom to become who we truly are—beloved children of God free to be God’s agents of caring and justice in this world. The revival we seek comes when we connect the promise with what we do for the sake of the Kingdom.
That morning when we clergy sat looking for hope in the midst of brokenness, one of the youngest among us spoke. She found Good News in that moment of hitting rock bottom. She saw those gut-wrenching experiences as the turning point, the moment of conviction that would help us rise up to do our part to bring in the Kingdom of God. That rock bottom moment calls us to join our Jewish brothers and sisters who believe that working for justice hastens the coming of the Messiah. For that young woman, it was Good News for us all to wake up to some harsh realities that we are called to address. If we and our congregations commit ourselves to standing up to racism and anti-Semitism in our everyday lives, we will be part of God’s revolution. We can make sure that there will always be a bystander who will speak up when voices of hatred arise. That is living in hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
We can act with compassion and justice only because we know we are not the only actors in this drama. John’s message is the essence of this holy season—a message of renunciation and surrender. We let go of our failures and broken dreams so that God can act for us and with us. John is the announcer who tells us to get ready for what God is about to do with us. The curtain is about to rise.
There is a poem by Michael Moynahan called “Incarnation” which I first heard read by our former presiding bishop, Frank Griswold. Listen as the voice of God recounts the whole story of God and humankind and how it is that Christ comes among us:
We tried in so many ways
to communicate our love….
You asked for food.
We sent manna.
You asked for drink.
Water flowed from the rock.
You asked for directions.
Moses brought the law.
And on and on.
Still you grew more distant,
into wander dust.
And so we did
what families do
We drew straws.
He came to share
and point you toward tomorrow.
John calls out to us who have grown distant, deaf, and blind. Our memories of God’s presence have grown dull. Our dreams have lost their power. Nothing we alone can do for ourselves can fix all that. So this Trinitarian God has a family conference, a call to action. Somebody has to do it. The divine must become human. The only way to point us in the right direction is to become one with us, to join us in the wilderness and walk the path with us.
Take a look at the mysterious image on today’s bulletin cover. It is “The Journey” from a book of photographs and meditations by a photographer and cardiologist who was a devoted follower of Jesus. Here is an ominous world where the darkness seeks to overcome the light. Our journey through this world is full of unknowns. Yet in the midst of the darkness, the light persists. Christ joins us in the journey to give us hope. Christ comes to share our plight, our fight, our night, and point us toward tomorrow. He welcomes us to choose his path and walk toward the light.
Now that, my friends, is good news, a new beginning for all creation. That is worth waking up for. That is worth the journey to the wilderness. New heavens and a new earth are on the way. Shorty lost and is on the way. He brings us light and hope. He comes to point us to tomorrow. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Sermon prepared by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins for December 9, 2018.
The diocese was offering a week-end for Singles Again. That sounded like the perfect event for my parishioner whose husband died of cancer all too young the year before. So her kids, a teenage girl and a nine-year-old boy came to our house for the week-end. Now Ernest was truly a handful, beset with separation anxiety and hyperactivity, so we planned a special trip to the science center in Charlotte. There I was with four to keep up with. We had a great time with all the exhibits that kept Ernest well occupied.
Then as we gathered to head home, we were missing one. We were so focused on keeping up with Ernest that we had lost my daughter, Ellen. We reported our dilemma to the front desk and got the security guards on board. Frantically we made our way through the crowds searching everywhere. Then as we came down the stairs to a lower level, there she was—just sitting there leaning against the wall. Why is it that we always yell at a kid at such a time when our worst fears are banished and we should be joyful and relieved beyond measure? In response to the chiding, she calmly replied, “I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was. You were lost!”
That is a pretty good summary of the human condition. We are all lost and do not know it. We think we know where we are. We are searching—with no awareness of what we are seeking, with no knowledge that we are in fact seeking, certainly not knowing that what we are seeking is God.
Yet God is always seeking us—walking in the cool of the day in that first garden where we hid in shame, reaching out through the prophets, speaking through dreams and angels, rounding us up like lost sheep, welcoming us home like a prodigal son in the embrace of a welcoming father. We are the lost ones while we think God is either lost or nonexistent or maybe just powerless to make a difference in a world gone mad. We wander about, lost in our self-made confusion. God again and again takes the initiative to find the lost.
It has been said that “the great question is not whether we have found God but whether we have found ourselves being found by God.” (Richard John Neuhaus) It is for us only to let go—to find and be found by God—but it will never happen as long as we are stuck in our state of unawareness. Unawareness is the root of all evil—so said the Desert Fathers. Unawareness, the place where we are all stuck.
Now enters John the Baptizer to shake us out of our unawareness. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A voice of one crying out in the wilderness—a voice proclaiming good news. Good news? How can repentance for the forgiveness of sins be “Good News?
Repentance is a change of direction, and when our current direction has brought us to a dead end, that’s good news. Repentance is a change of heart, and when our hearts are broken, that’s good news. Repentance is life-change, and when our lives dissolve in pain and misery, that’s good news. Repentance is the first step toward the kingdom of God. It is the first difficult step toward transformation.
That step takes us into the desert, that place where we meet God. John calls us to join him in his time, the time in between two eras—in his place at the Jordan at the border of something new. He takes us to the place of the Essenes, who formed him, those desert dwellers who began every day watching the sun rise and waiting for the dawn to bring forth the Messiah. They withdrew from the sinful masses, but he invites us all, sinners that we are, to the place of the Exodus and the desert journey.
Amazing things happen in the desert. It is a place of change. John proclaims the gospel of change. He shakes us out of our unawareness for us to be transformed. He calls us to repent, to turn around in our tracks, that we might know God’s love and power. God’s gift to the repentant is forgiveness, the most important thing to find in the wilderness.
The Greek word for forgiveness comes from a root meaning “to let go, to set free.” God sets us free from our sins. We are no longer held in bondage by the powers of evil and death. We are forgiven and freed. Baruch paints a vivid picture of the children of Jerusalem being led away as captives by their enemies. Yet the Lord promises to return those captives as heroes. Those who once walked through the dangers of this world will return in safety, walking in the light of God’s glory. None of these promises can be claimed until we go to the desert, until we answer John’s call to repentance. Only then can the mountains and hills be smoothed. Only then can the barriers between us and God be removed.
But maybe we do not want to be found. Maybe we would rather sit on that floor leaning against the wall, knowing just where we are and staying there. The message of John is that God is coming to find us in spite of ourselves. It is a promise. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”—the part of John’s message we find only in the Gospel of Luke. We all proclaimed it in the Benedictus. It has already happened even as John comes to prepare for it. God’s Eternal Now makes promise and fulfillment ever one and already accomplished for us. Our liberation is certain. God has raised up for us a mighty savior.
The sun is ever present, ever bursting forth with light and power. We only wait for its dawning. “…the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We are lost, but we are ever held in God’s embrace. We are lost and do not know ourselves, but we are ever known and loved by God.
Get ready. God is coming, and God prepares us for that coming. God will find us once again. Jesus is coming. May we have the grace to find ourselves being found by him.
Sermon preached by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on December 2, 2018
Yearning. Longing. Seeking. We all yearn for something more, for the unknown that can fill the hole deep inside. We may not even know we have this longing—much less what it is we long for. That yearning comes as darkness. In the face of this longing, we do not know what light is, and yet we seek it. That longing comes as anxiety. We do not know its source or its end, and yet we seek the peace that would heal us.
So it was in ancient times when the Hebrews knew little of peace but a great deal about war and rumors of war. Theirs was a world of darkness where nations stood against one another. So it is in our day as our towns and cities stay lit with artificial light to push away the darkness of our deep longing. Our yearning keeps our prisons and psychiatric hospitals filled. It drives us to medicate ourselves at bars and shopping malls. For three consecutive years, our life expectancy in America has gone down—largely driven by increases in opioid addiction and suicides. This yearning ties our children to electronic screens. We can all fall into a stupor, asleep at the switch.
So what is different about us as we gather in this place on this day—the first day of a time we call Advent? Our yearning has become something new. It has become expectation. We as people of faith live in the anticipation of something we await in hope. As Simone Weil said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” It was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “Expectation—anxious, collective and operative expectation of an end of the world---that is perhaps the supreme Christian function and the most distinctive characteristic of our religion.” We know our world had a beginning and will have an end. Indeed we have the advantage of a preview of what is to come. We have received an invitation to live with expectancy, trusting that what we yearn for will indeed come to those who watch and wait. There will be a coming of both judgment and redemption.
Yet Teilhard goes on to say, “…in reality we should have to admit, if we were sincere, that we no longer expect anything.” That is why we need Advent. That is why the church devotes a whole season to expectancy, a whole season when we look toward the end of time, that Great Day when Christ will come again and God will make all things new. We need Advent to wake us up from our complacency, to revive us again, to make us alert and ready to receive what God wants to give us. Wake up! Watch! Let your yearning become expectation once again. Remember the promise and the hope.
There is nothing like a bumper sticker to get the point across. I remember some of my favorites. “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” And then there is another: “Christ is coming again—and is she ever mad.”. We are looking toward both a judgment and a redemption. Being ready is hard work, exhausting to our very soul. Staying alert is not easy. So how do we remain alert and watchful as the time of waiting goes on? It is no simple task to stay awake when the night of watching grows long. I confess that the one time I lived through a hurricane I fell asleep at the height of the storm. I woke up in the light of morning when someone called to see if we had electricity. In the midst of such a crisis, after watching for hours for the safety of my children, how did I fall asleep? The disciples had the same problem when Jesus needed their presence on the last night of his life. How often people sit at the death bed of a loved one only to discover that death has already come.
So how do we stay alert? How do we watch for the coming of Jesus? How do we make our Advent a proper preparation for the invasion of the Holy One? We discover quickly that we cannot buy a spiritual life. No one can manufacture a spiritual life for us.
So today we pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Advent begins in darkness and ends with the dawning of light. It is hard to stay alert in the darkness of this season. We feel vulnerable, so alone in the darkness. We have a deep need to do something even as we wait in the darkness. We need to do our part to push back the darkness, to open the way for the light.
It was Robert Lewis Stevenson who told of his childhood memory of watching the lamp lighter going down the street lighting streetlamps. He cried out, “Look, there is a man down there who punched holes in the darkness.” As we do our active waiting in this season of Advent, we all search for our way to punch holes in the darkness. What do we do after every terrorist attack or tragedy? In one community after another, we light candles in an irresistible urge to bring light into the darkness and to step toward the light.
We yearn to know when the great day will come. We want to interpret the signs and gain control by knowing, but it is not for us to know. That is just the point of expectancy—living in the conviction that something is coming despite our ignorance of who, what, when, and where. Actually not knowing is what keeps us alert. We are to expect the unexpected, to know that the Day of the Lord is all about unexpectedness.
But what do we know? We have the gift of Jeremiah’s promise. The Lord will fulfill the promise. A righteous branch will spring up for David and execute justice and righteousness. As Jesus says, the Son of Man will come in power and great glory. This Day of the Lord will be a good thing. We will be taken to safety in the embrace of God.
We may not know the Who, What, When, and Where, but we do know the Why. Our yearning turns into expectation because we know the Why. It is all about God’s love, God’s intent for all humanity and all of creation to be filled with God’s presence. Christ will come again because God desires all nations to be reconciled around the heavenly throne.
Here is the sweet dream of peace with all the tribes and nations in harmony with one another and with God. Here is the dream of that hole deep inside filled by the God whom we seek. Because we know the Why of that Great Day, we can live in hope. God is coming for us—not against us. Christ is coming for the Kingdom of God to arrive in all its fullness. We thus become the link between the yearning that we share with all people and the expectation that is ours as children of God who wait in hope. Ours is a hope meant to draw others into our life of expectancy.
So let us become Advent people, people who stay alert to watch and wait, people who live in expectation. In the words of John Henry Newman: “They watch for Christ who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind, who are awake, alive quick-sighted, zealous in honoring him, who look for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if they found that he was coming at once….This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.”
It is the season to be alert. May we be God’s expectant people, ready for the coming of Christ. Expect the unexpected. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Sermon preached by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on November 25, 2018
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Kings are getting a bad rap these days. In fact, the heads of most everything are getting a bad rap. In the face of the storms and challenges of life, human beings fail over and over again—either because they are powerless in the face of superhuman threats or because they play power games while ordinary people suffer. Human kings ultimately fail us every time—in governmental affairs, in economics, in religion.
No wonder the words “king” and “kingdom” have fallen out of favor in Christian theology. We have grasped 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 Twenties, 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, and it is said, a response to the Reformation Sunday of the German Lutheran Church. 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 describes 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….”
That is where it is all headed, yet we have before us a paradoxical scene of Jesus dragged before a confused and reluctant ruler who interrogates him about his kingship. It is a story of power and powerlessness, crowns of gold and crowns of thorns, regal thrones and wooden c