Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford hawkins on February 25, 2018
We have just heard two of the tallest orders in scripture. The Lord says to Abraham: “…walk before me, and be blameless.” Jesus tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Those are tall orders. Give up your plans. Give up control. Give up your very self. Let go of all that is normal and reasonable.
Those are tall orders if we assume they are about us—based on our strength and our obedience. Yet today we receive an insider’s tip. The inside story is that it is all about God. The gospel message of Lent is that God’s faithfulness brings forth our faithfulness. So stay tuned.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is the gospel in miniature. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the faith and obedience of those two, the paragons of virtue. We can despair of being able to live with such courage, faithfulness, and hope. We can forget that God initiates this covenant. God appears, blessing Abraham and Sarah, showering blessings upon them before they have any chance to prove themselves faithful.
God blesses them with a covenant, a lifegiving agreement of loyalty and commitment. God promises to make them parents of numerous descendants—they who are long past the age to have children. This abundance of blessings is all about God. As Fred Craddock said, “God is both the subject and the object of faith.” God is the actor in their faith. God’s action creates the very faith in God that allows them to receive the blessings and live into the promises.
At the moment of God’s revelation, everything changes. The only way to capture such a transformation of the whole of life is a name change. Abram will now be known as Abraham; Sarai likewise becomes Sarah—the only time in scripture that God changes a woman’s name to reflect such transformation of life.
Here is God’s action in the beginning of the life of faith, hope, and obedience—qualities we cultivate in this season of Lent. Jim Wallis in our day defines hope as “trusting God in spite of all the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” The lives of Abraham and Sarah are a picture of such hope. God calls them into hope despite all the evidence to the contrary. The absence of evidence makes the covenant laughable indeed, but they get to watch the evidence change.
Jesus comes with an even taller order—“Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.” At the core of our faith is the truth that God is here and is on our side. Jesus tells us how to connect to this truth. He says to each of us, “Disown yourself and all the claims that Self puts upon you. Give yourself in self-denying obedience to me.” Here is the moment of submission.
I remember a parking lot conversation from years ago. A young Muslim graduate student stood in the parking lot after an interfaith dialogue had led him and his friends to attend the Maundy Thursday service at the church where I was rector. He spoke of his recent conversation with his Jewish friend. They had shared the common ground they had discovered in submission, the very meaning of the word “Islam.” After our worship that night, he knew that for Christians as well submission was at the heart of faith. That night we had together sat with Jesus in those final hours, preparing for his cross and our crosses as well.
Submission is indeed the primary movement of the spiritual life. Here is our Christian way of submission, to take up our cross freely and follow the one who freely took up his cross for us. Here is an obedience that turns life around and makes us new persons with a new center of gravity in our lives—a cross at the core of our being.
This week as we walked the Stations of the Cross, we began exploring Richard Rohr’s book on the spirituality of the Twelve Steps of recovery from addiction. The first step is the hardest of all, acknowledging that we are powerless. It is the turning point that leads us to take up our cross, to give up self, to acknowledge our addiction to Self at the heart of our being.
It is easy to be focused on the No to Self and miss the mystical paradox that awaits. This very No to Self is also a Yes. It is a Yes to the true self. As we take up our cross, we unveil our true self. As we said last week, we say No to being Somebody or Something or Nobody and say Yes to being the child of God we were created to be. In self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-giving, we become all that we are meant to be in the eyes of God.
The words of Jesus may seem an impossible demand, a radical commitment that shakes us to the core. Yet we take up our cross only as Jesus takes up his cross. We are faithful only as Jesus is faithful. The faithfulness of Jesus is what finally brings forth our faithfulness. It is right there in the picture on the bulletin cover. What draws us forward is the love of Christ, that red line that the artist uses to connect our crosses, the red line of love that creates our crosses. It is the rising power of love that leads us into life, the life that emerges from the darkness.
Jesus lays out the necessity of suffering and sacrifice just after he has asked that life changing question, “Who do you say that I am?” He stood in the belly of the beast, in a place where all the other gods of the first century were enshrined. There in the midst of all the other alternatives for his disciples to follow, Jesus asks them who they think he is. When Peter proclaims him as the Christ, the Messiah, he proclaims the faith of Abraham and Sarah. Here is once again the basic story of God—that God’s faithfulness brings forth our faithfulness, that God’s vision for us is an abundance of blessings in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
Jesus tells us to take up our cross and have hope. Give up your life for me and watch the evidence change. Lose your life for me and the gospel—and then find it.
Some of us may remember a great movie, Oh, God. George Burns played God—in fairly typical George Burns style. There is a wonderful moment in the movie when John Denver’s character complains to God. “Preaching your word is costing me my job”—to which God replies, “Not a bad trade—losing your job in exchange for saving the world.”
God the Father gave Jesus a pretty good deal in those terms. The God of Abraham and Sarah gave them a tremendous deal—“walk before me and be blameless.” Give your whole life to me and I will make you truly whole—transformed into new people with blessings for generations yet to come. Jesus gives us the trade of a lifetime. Turn in your life in order to gain it. Let go and let God. Let go and let God’s faithfulness give you all things.
Let us go forth in this season of Lent, embracing the tallest orders. May we live in hope in spite of all the evidence around us. May we walk together toward the cross and watch the evidence change.
Sermon given by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins on Feb. 11, 2018
It was night after a long day of hard work. Three meals had been served. The tables were cleared for the last time. It was the last night of our daughter Ellen’s summer of living and working at Kanuga Conference Center here in Western North Carolina. She made her way to the girls’ dormitory where she took a shower and changed to a favorite dress. Then she walked to her favorite place on the lake at the foot of the mountains. But it was night, and by night a new and greater radiance issued forth.
The moon cast its light over the lake, flickering with its brilliance. The stars shone brightly. Across the lake, a white cross emerged from the edge of the woods, eerily breaking through the darkness. That light in the darkness made love palpable—the love given and received there all summer, the support of people who believed in her and stood by her in the challenges, the love of the waitress whose own daughter was brutally murdered that year, the love of the housekeeping director who grieved for her mother and welcomed the love of the one she called My Sunshine.
God’s love whispered through the breeze. God was there in the light, in the breeze, in the mountain air, in the mystery. It was a moment of transfiguration, a moment when light penetrated all things.
Then it was time to move on—back to packing and saying farewell, back to a world without the support of these people who cared in such concrete ways. Yet the mystery continued. The mystery still lingers in the air and travels on in the journey—down from the mountain and onward in the journey of life. A brief light in the darkness shines ever so briefly yet gives strength for the days ahead. Transfiguration comes and goes.
Today we are there with Elijah and Elisha for that astonishing moment when Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind. We climb the mountain with Jesus and his closest disciples for his transfiguration in the company of Moses and Elijah. We stand with Elisha wondering what to do next, hoping to receive a double portion of Spirit. We stand with Peter as he babbles on about memorializing the moment. Like Elisha, we may be ready to tear our clothes in two in sheer bafflement, overwhelmed by the tempest and the holiness of this magnificent sight. Transfiguration comes and goes. It makes us different people.
Today we proclaim our alleluias on this Alleluia Sunday, the last before Lent, the last in this great season of Epiphany, the time of the epiphanies that surprise us into noticing the presence of God. The presence of God in the face of Jesus comes to us in the radiant whiteness, in the cloud overtaking everyone, in the voice that orders us to listen to him. There is glory all around.
Today we kick off our celebration of the Centennial Year for St. Mary of the Hillls. We look back at the first one hundred years—as the newspaper headline calls it, a Century of Stone and Service. We remember those who came before us—worshiping and serving in this place, building the foundation upon which we stand. We look back to remind ourselves of the times when the lights came on, when we were overcome with the presence of Christ, when heaven and earth met on the mountain top.
We enter this world “trailing clouds of glory” as the poet Wordsworth phrased it. We come fresh from a full experience of the presence of God, and then things get in the way. Our Muslim brothers and sisters speak of forgetting. We forget the fullness of the divine presence. We forget who we are and whose we are. We forget the glory of God and then get everything wrong. So today Christ appears on the mountain top to show us again the glory we have forgotten.
We tend to think glory is past. The glory of God becomes something we look back to and vaguely remember. We look back to the golden days of the church. We are all bunglers like Peter, ready to memorialize any moment of glory as fast as it occurs. While we start building our booths to shelter the transfigured Jesus, the moment of glory slips away. We forget that the glory of God is ours in the present and the future, living and moving among us.
We think only Jesus is transfigured. We forget that Jesus was transfigured so that his disciples would be changed. Peter had already confessed his belief that Jesus was the long awaited messiah, but he could not swallow the idea of a suffering messiah. So Jesus is transfigured, transformed—not to make a difference for himself but for these three confused disciples. The transfiguration happens for their sake, that they might be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory” in the words of our prayer.
For our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, the Transfiguration is second only to Easter. When visiting Turkey, I was struck by how often we saw this scene in the artwork of churches in both the caves of Cappadocia and the glorious structures of Istanbul. Maybe our Orthodox friends really believe they can be changed into the likeness of Jesus. They have a dream of glowing with a reflection of his glory and sharing his glory with the world. We think only Jesus is transfigured, but he is transfigured that we might become people of the transfiguration for the sake of the world.
Once I asked out loud in preparation for this Sunday—How dare we speak of Transfiguration in times like ours? How dare we spend our energies on Alleluias when the agonies of the world cry out to us? The answer quickly given by a faithful Christian was simple: “Because we need it.” Indeed we need to remember the times when the lights came on. We remember in order to summon the strength we need to carry on, to shoulder our cross, to heal the world. We remember not to escape but to have the courage to serve.
This is sometimes called Forgiveness Sunday. When the light breaks forth, Jesus is transfigured. When the light breaks forth, we, too, are changed, changed so that our world can change. Forgiveness is the most concrete form of that transformation. Forgiveness is the beginning of the newness that comes when the light comes on.
Today we look back at this crazy life of mountain tops and valleys. We commit to sharing all we have learned about life with God. It is all about grace. We cannot make the light come on, but somehow it happens to those who prepare, who are open to grace. So we pledge ourselves to be guides in that journey. That means teaching others in the next hundred years the patience required to take up our cross, to endure the dry seasons when the mountain top is far away. We commit to showing one another how to be ready for transfiguration—how to take our spiritual showers and put on our best spiritual dresses as it were, how to open our eyes to the light and open our ears to God’s voice, how to receive the breeze of the Holy Spirit blowing through us.
The cover of the bulletin today shows an artist’s version of the power of God. Put yourself and this parish of St. Mary of the Hills in that picture, if you will. May the power of God well up in us. May the wind of the Spirit blow through us. May the light of the transfiguration heal us that we may be transformed into healers of our world. Our God speaks, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” May we listen and go forth proclaiming—Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Feb. 4, 2018
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” So said Isaiah to people exiled from their homeland. So said Jesus to people who suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire and the tyranny of disease and poverty. So said Paul to the followers of Jesus who knew persecution and conflict with their religious brothers and sisters. So must we say to the people of our day who yearn for hope, who seek a power they can trust with their very lives.
Isaiah spoke to people who have every reason for radical doubt. They wondered what happened to the God of creation. So people questioned the will of God and even the very power of God. Yet for the prophet, the mystery of God’s presence was no reason to give up. Isaiah proclaimed the good news that the God of creation is also the God of history. God is with us. Yahweh does not grow weak with age. God will continue to strengthen those who are tempted to despair—even the young who buckle under the pressures of life. “…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Jesus comes among us, proclaiming the same good news as the prophet Isaiah. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Only this time the prophet is himself the good news. In Mark’s gospel, we spend a day with this man who is the good news, who lives the good news, who proclaims the good news. This day in the life of Jesus has it all: healing the sick, exorcizing demons, crowd control, withdrawal for prayer and renewal, proclaiming the message in the synagogues.
All that Jesus does is a seamless web of proclamation. Jesus comes not just curing the sick but healing us at every level of life. He challenges not just the laws of nature but the whole structure of our life. His healing is forgiveness of sin, a cleansing of ritual impurity, a restoration of the outcast into the life of the community, an overturning of the socio-economic divisions that cause the burden of illness to rest more heavily upon the poor. His healing gives meaning to those overcome by despair. As Jesus casts out demons and heals, he proclaims good news to all.
Equally important is the withdrawal that punctuates the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Here is the inner activity that drives his outward life. Here is the renewal that propels him into the synagogues to proclaim the message. Emerging from the life of prayer, Jesus invites us all to live in the hope that Isaiah proclaimed. It is all proclamation of the power of God. As he says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
So let’s go. Jesus reached out to his first followers, drawing them into his mission. Now we are called into this same proclamation. We are to continue his healing work by making Christ present. It is only through people like us that Christ will be known today.
St. Paul took that commission seriously. The grace of the gospel he had received led him to share the good news with all comers. He knew no boundaries of kindred or race or neighborhood, no barrier of language or tribe. As he says, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is bound only to the love of Christ and the gospel he so eagerly shares.
So how are we doing at following in the steps of Jesus? His whole mission was one of proclamation. What about ours? Is it all about sharing good news? How are we doing in following Paul’s guidance? Are we becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel?
Sometimes the approach of Jesus and Paul seems misguided and headstrong. Jesus moves on to the next town before reaching everyone in the last village. Paul stretches himself way too thin trying to be all things to all people. Some would say we need to choose our market as it were, find our niche.
Yet scripture is clear that the gospel is for all—male and female, Jew and Greek, people of every language and nation. We dare not confine ourselves to one neighborhood only or a single age group. Think of all the folks who need to receive our proclamation. They continue to grow in variety—elders who have no family nearby, working parents burdened by a frantic schedule that leaves them with poverty of time, children who hear the siren call of drugs and alcohol all around them, the “techie” generation who have new ways of communicating and maybe even of thinking, people who do not know the basics of the gospel story, those who are crushed by poverty and lack of opportunity. Surely even Paul would find that diversity daunting.
So how are we doing with our proclamation of good news? Our Centennial planners are looking for ways to reach out to the larger community in the course of our celebrations. Our website is reaching those who we have not yet seen; it just needs some tender loving care. On Facebook, we are reaching out. Our outreach ministries extend into this, the poorest county in Western North Carolina. Our eyes are set toward new partnerships with our Presbyterian neighbors and possible new ventures such as a Thistle Farms ministry for women trapped in sex trafficking and addiction. We have commissioned a hymn with the dream that in another hundred years Christians will be singing it and being blessed by St. Mary of the Hills.
Yet we are called to stretch even further to proclaim the gospel in ways that folks can understand. It means venturing into the different cultures that surround us. That may mean the cultures right there inside our families. I had a recent experience of the cultural differences between generations. I got riled up when my daughter reported a group home worker on duty was smoking in her apartment. In explanation, I heard about vapes—smokeless cigarettes. Now everywhere I turn I am seeing vape and smoking shops. Here is another culture, another language, as strange and remote to me as the most distant African village.
So let’s venture a bit. Try watching a different television channel or listening to different music on the radio dial. Notice the patterns in tattoos—especially the Christian symbols being adopted. Go to the grocery store at a weird hour and discover who is there. Go with one of our volunteers to Hospitality House and take a peek into the lives of the poor. My bucket list includes going to a gun show, a place where I will surely encounter people very different from me.
Then imagine the languages we need to adopt to share the gospel. How do we become as a Jew in order to win Jews? How do we become weak to win the weak? We may need to speak a new language. It may be the language of the basic needs being provided at Hospitality House or the meals served for campus ministry. It may be the language of a new worship service at another hour which might offer different musical styles to speak in the language of the heart for others. It may mean a summer program for grandchildren and grandparents to share the joy of the gospel. Sometimes I think the most significant proclamation of the gospel that I might offer in the course of a day is simply the assistance I might provide to AA members who seem astonished that I would give them my time. As St. Francis said, preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” So we say to those all around us who yearn for the message of Jesus—whether or not they know what their deep yearning is all about. There is indeed a God of power and love to be proclaimed in all that we do in a day in the life of St. Mary’s. There is good news to share with all the world. There is a message of God’s kingdom burning within us. Let’s go. Let’s tell it everywhere.
Sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins given on Jan. 28, 2018
“…we’ve encouraged all the charisms in the Church—except the charism for prophecy.” (Simplicity: The Art of Living, p. 40) So says Richard Rohr, that great Roman Catholic Franciscan of our time. Indeed we embrace and encourage all the spiritual gifts except the one that creates the prophetic voice. I would venture to add that the church also fails to train the rest of us to heed the voice of the prophet.
That is the reason Richard Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation that Richard Rohr founded. He intentionally put the word Action before the word Contemplation since the proof is in the pudding. Authentic contemplation results in action that makes a difference in the world. This is what a prophet is about—listening for truth and then speaking it into action.
Indeed Moses promised the people a prophet: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people…..” Now the scholars have debated whether this means one particular person (like Jesus) or a body of people, a number of prophets. Still we are left with basic questions. What is a prophet? How do we know when we encounter one? It may be that a prophet is rather like pornography—You know it when you see it.
So let’s unpack what we know about a prophet. First, a prophet speaks with authority. When Jesus hit the scene, we hear: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) The gospels mention the authority of Jesus no less than 29 times. His authority is not one of office or position. He bears no sign of power or distinction. Rarely does he quote the rabbis. He simply speaks out of his relationship with God the Father, out of his authority as Son of God. For those who encounter him, it is like meeting the man who wrote the book.
Here in Mark’s gospel a man possessed by an unclean spirit appears in the synagogue and addresses Jesus. The demon within him speaks. “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” So here in Mark’s gospel, a demon is the first to recognize the authority of Jesus, to give words to his identity. In response, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out. Thus the man is healed. Mark tells little of what Jesus says. He is more concerned with the results of what he says and does. His authority demands obedience. For broken people, obedience means the willingness to be changed.
Yet there is something different about the authority of Jesus. His authority is that of a servant, one whose mission is to serve, one who himself receives orders. In commanding others, he is himself obeying the command of God the Father.
Out of this deep authority of servanthood, the prophet speaks truth. I am still reeling from the movie, The Post, in which the journalists of The Washington Post and the publisher, Katherine Graham, wrestle with truth. A source provides them with the Pentagon Papers which reveal classified information about the Viet Nam War. What is their purpose but to publish truth? But what if the cost is the financial ruin of the newspaper—or even a felony conviction and imprisonment?
They were human beings wrestling with classified documents and the possibility of threatening human lives with truth telling. I am not implying that they were prophets of God, but they pierced me to the core with the price of honoring one’s source, of telling truth at all costs. Now for people of faith, the source is the voice of God. For Jesus, the cost of speaking and being truth is death on the cross.
So how then are we to receive the prophet? Moses said, “You shall heed such a prophet.” (Dt. 18:15b) It was a dilemma for Saul of Tarsus who persecuted the followers of Jesus and then was struck blind when Jesus encountered him on the Damascus Road. He had to be struck down before he heeded the prophet. It was a dilemma for those who first encountered Dr. Martin Luther King and had to decide whether to heed his words. Both the prophet and the people are held accountable. God speaks through the prophet and expects us to heed the voice of truth.
One of my greatest teachers always spoke of worship as acknowledgment. The man with the unclean spirit was as profound a worshiper as any. He acknowledged Jesus as Lord, declaring his faith in his authority even as he pushed back. He finally heeded the voice of the prophet. As he made that acknowledgment of authority, he was opened up for change and for healing.
Years ago my running partner was a physician. We shared long talks about authority, recognition of authority in healing. As a physician, she knew that she could not effect change unless the patient knew her authority, but she also had to recognize authority in the patient and family. I saw the same dynamic in priesthood—that vital dynamic of healing power in shared commitment to truth and wholeness.
I have been recently startled to discover that St. Mary of the Hills was founded by a prophet. I took the time to read the plaque at the back of this room—actually to be sure I had the name right. The words inscribed about Suzy Parker Stringfellow are these: “She was an admirer of the beautiful, a lover of the good, a defender of the right, a foe to injustice, and a helper of distress wherever she found it.” Wow—a defender of the right, a foe to injustice.” That is a powerful witness from a wealthy founder of a summer chapel in a resort community. I am told that her letters reveal her aggravation with the resistance she experienced and even her readiness to give up at times—yet she persevered.
Prophecy is not easy to stomach. It is not comfortable. Prophets stretch us, and that hurts—but it also heals. Ask the man with the unclean spirit. He would tell us to face what is uncomfortable. Let God disturb us. It is worth it all.
I am grateful for a prayer by sixteenth century explorer Francis Drake that a parishioner once brought to my attention. Hear these words: “Disturb us, O Lord, when we are too pleased with ourselves; when our dreams come true because we dreamed too little; when we have arrived in safety because we have sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, O Lord, when with the abundance of the things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the water of life…and in our efforts to build the new earth, have allowed our vision of the new heaven to grow dim….Stir us, O Lord, to dare more boldly….In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes and invited the brave to follow, even the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord and King. Amen.”
Yes, Moses knew we have to be bold. Jesus pushed back the horizon of our hopes and invited the brave to follow. May we allow the prophets of our time to speak the words of truth that are ours to heed. May we have the courage to follow so that we and all the world may be healed.
Sermon on Jan. 7, 2018 by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins
Today we gather at the river, the place where it all started, the place where Jesus entered the waters of chaos and brought forth life. Here we are at the waters of baptism where the whole world becomes new. The whole cosmos is renewed this day, and that includes each and every one of us. Each of us becomes new this day in Christ.
Here we are in Epiphany. In the early church, the Feast of Epiphany which fell yesterday was included with Easter and Pentecost at the top of the list. Epiphany means “manifestation”, and originally it meant the manifestation of Christ at his baptism as well as his manifestation to the Gentile Wise Men. We in the West came to emphasize the story of the Wise Men while our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have retained a focus on the baptism. In the Eastern tradition, this is the Feast of Light—the Theophany, the manifestation of God. The baptism along with the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top are both times when the Trinity is displayed and Christ is shown forth in all his glory.
Our Anglican liturgical cycle returns us to the waters of baptism every year on this day. In this year of our three year cycle, we have heard the story of the first day of creation. The opening of Mark’s gospel shows not a birth but the baptism of Jesus. Here is the revolution breaking out, the radical moment of change that renews the cosmos. The baptism of Jesus is nothing short of a renewal of all creation. Our baptism is the same—a transformation of who we are into who we were meant to be.
Therefore, I suggest that we listen to our guides from the East. We can begin with the way the baptism of Jesus is shown in icons—the paintings meant not as mere pictures but as windows on the divine, tools for pointing us to God in prayer. Water symbolizes life and chaos. Often the icons of baptism show Jesus coming to the waters not for cleansing so much as for re-consecrating creation. Sometimes there is a little human figure, the personification of evil, being chased away. Christ brings new life and defeats the forces of evil and death.
Thus Christ brings cosmic renewal. Clement of Alexandria spoke of “a spring of life and peace flooding over the whole face of the earth. Through him…the universe has already become an ocean of blessings.” (Wendy Wright, The Vigil, p. 156). In the modern day, an Orthodox theologian would tell us that “water is the principle of purification, of cleanliness, and therefore of regeneration and renewal.” (Alexander Schemann in A Baptism Sourcebook, p. 59). To take away sin is to make all things new.
The divine light that has come into the world in Jesus permeates our whole world. We heard that message at Christmas in the Gospel of John. Now with the baptism of Jesus we learn what it means for us that Jesus came as the Light of the World. Our Orthodox friends call it a matter of deification—that God became human so that we might participate in God. This season of Epiphany is prime time for learning to live out that participation in God. It is the season of new birth, reformation, new starts—deep at the heart of faith—not just in New Year’s resolutions and diet programs. As it was said long ago, “Let us not remain what we are, but let us become what we once were.” In other words, “become perfect light, the children of perfect light.” (Gregory of Nazienzen, p. 200)
At this time of year, we appreciate light more than ever. As the days grew shorter in recent weeks, gloom descended upon us all. Now as the days slowly lengthen, we breathe a sigh of relief. Our energy ebbs and flows with brighter and darker days. The power of light is astounding. So it is fitting that the light in this space has been brightened recently. When I arrived, my first impression was the darkness of the whole building. So on the fifteenth day I told the vestry that this building does not show forth the light of Christ or the light that is in the people gathered here. They took those observations to heart and increased the light in this space—fitting preparation for the season of Epiphany. I suggest the theme of our ministry in these days might be “Let’s turn on the lights!”
So on this day of new life, we seek the true light. We gather in this Feast of Light to worship the Light of the World, the one who is light from light. As we renew our baptismal vows, we come again seeking to see—really see—the light of Christ. We bring ourselves before God, giving ourselves to become transfigured light. We seek to become living icons, windows clear enough to let the light of Christ shine through. We commit ourselves again to the practices and disciplines which prepare us for that calling—the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We gather in the worship that keeps the light burning and the newness alive.
The light that is ours today is not for us to hoard for ourselves. It is light meant to be shared. As was said in the fourth century, “Let us honor today the baptism of Christ, so that you may become as luminaries to the world, a vital force for others, a light without fault, to assist the great light….” (Gregory of Nazienzen in A Baptism Sourcebook, p. 202) In the modern day, George Macdonald said as well, “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.” (p. 202)
Often I have given to the newly baptized a candle lit from the paschal candle, the light of Christ. I love to quote George Macdonald: “Light unshared is darkness.” It is especially life giving to give a young child the commission to be light for others. All of us are called to carry that light into a world that does not yet know that it has been renewed.
The world still desperately needs the light of Christ. It still suffers under the Herods of this world who would kill even children to serve their purposes. The world still needs people who dare to follow a star, who listen to a calling however far-fetched or demanding. The world needs people who will follow a star to the ends of the earth and kneel to a child. The cosmos yearns to see the light of Christ reflected in us. It yearns to receive the good news of the Kingdom of God that transforms all things. Today we begin again our quest to walk as children of the light, to follow Jesus into his Kingdom.
In closing let us hear a portion of the Orthodox liturgy for this day. May these words capture the glory of the transformation that is ours: “…today, the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the likeness of a dove, comes down upon the waters; today there shines the Sun that never sets, and the world is sparkling with the light of the Lord; today the moon is bright, together with the earth, in the glowing radiance of its beams; today the brilliant stars adorn the universe with the splendor of their twinkling; today the clouds from heaven shed upon us a shower of justice;…today through the presence of the Lord the waters of the Jordan River are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams;…today paradise has been opened, and the Sun of righteousness has shone upon us;…today we escape from darkness, and, through the light of the knowledge of God, we are illumined; today the darkness of the world vanishes with the appearing of our God; today the whole creation is brightened from on high;…today the Lord comes to be baptized, so that humankind may be lifted up;…today we have acquired the kingdom of heaven: indeed, the kingdom of heaven that has no end.” Amen.
Christmas Day 2017 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hwkins
My all time favorite crèche of the many our family has collected is one made in Honduras of dried seed pods of all sorts—some large, some small, stuck together to create all the characters of the nativity. I still remember the day we received it as a gift and gleefully pulled one piece after another from the box. It was a sheer delight to figure out who each one was and discern how the artist had ingeniously and lovingly fashioned each figure.
Then we got to the end and discovered that there was no Jesus. We removed the tissue paper and shook out each piece in hopes of finding that missing baby. No luck. So we reconciled ourselves to the thought of a crèche without Jesus. We could only wonder how he was lost, for surely the artist had not intentionally given us a manger scene that lacked the main character.
Then our friend Nancy came over. We were showing her our treasure piece by piece and bemoaning the absence of Baby Jesus. Then she exclaimed, “But here is Jesus.” She was right. It was Jesus with a halo around his head. The trick was that he was just as large as anyone else, and we were expecting a tiny baby, small in proportion to all the adults. Because we thought we knew what to expect, we could not see Jesus as he was given to us. The Word had become flesh and surprised us all. It was no wonder that Nancy was the one who could see him. What others call a learning disability is for her a gift—an ability to see what is there because she is not geared to the expected patterns that shape the rest of us.
That day “the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” We did not have the eyes to see the Son of God appearing before us. So it was on that winter’s night when a child was born to Mary. So it was when he became a prophet without honor in his own country. So it was when he stood before the Sanhedrin. So it was when he hung upon the cross.
On this day, the Word that was from the beginning becomes flesh and lives among us. The Word pitches a tent in our midst. The Word comes to live in the neighborhood. We see his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. On this day, God shares with us God’s own mystery. But what is this glory that we see? Thomas Merton answers that question: “God’s glory is God in his creatures. Without touching them. God in them without being touched by them….God being their Father without being related to them….God’s glory and God’s shyness are one….His glory is to give them everything and to be in the midst of them as unknown.”
On this day God is known by us and is yet unknown. God is in our midst and yet beyond us and the created world. God’s glory is displayed before us with boldness yet with shyness hidden from our discernment. God’s glory and God’s shyness are one.
May we now have eyes to see what has been from the beginning. May we be open to the mystery of God revealed to us in glory yet hidden in holy shyness. May we see the Word made flesh, the figure that overshadows all those in the manger scene yet hides in the unexpected. The Word has become flesh. On this most holy day, God’s glory and God’s shyness are one.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2017 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins
Tonight we as the church return to our origins. We go back to the beginning, back to the barn, back to the bare earth sprinkled with straw. We gather in the quiet of a winter night, huddled together for protection from the cold. We come seeking light and life and peace. We leave the comforts of home and gather in the barn to find our true comfort.
I began my ordained ministry in a church that was a barn. When the church was started, there was a barn on the property purchased, and the first members spent countless hours converting that barn into their first building. What a wonderful foundation for a church. I treasure that beginning in a place that still reflected so clearly our origins. It was in a barn that our story begins.
Indeed Christ enters this world through the back door—not with the fanfare we expect. This royal birth takes place in an animal’s stall. The life of Jesus begins just as it ends—in rejection. The powers that be do not receive him. They do not recognize who he is. Jesus enters this world through the back door and casts his lot with those who have no place of their own.
Jesus enters our history. He is part of the same drama in which we, too, live. He comes to us not in some mythical time and place but in the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. He becomes part of the ongoing creation, part of the here and now.
Yes, Jesus enters a world that rejects him. Yet someone comes to greet him. There is a birth announcement. Angels appear in casts of thousands. They appear to a bunch of shepherds on the night shift. They are lowly working people—uneducated, uncouth, probably smelly after days and nights of living in the fields.
First a single angel appears, and the glory of God shines all around. The angel reassures them with the most important message in all of scripture—“Do not be afraid.” Here is the good news of the long-awaited messiah. The savior is born. Countless angels appear praising God in heaven and proclaiming peace on earth. The shepherds drop everything, taking no care about who will guard the sheep while they go exploring. These shepherds simply receive what is given them.
Tradition has it that this stable they enter is a cave. They are willing to enter such a place, to stoop down to enter the dark and mysterious dwelling of our Lord. There is no standing on formality. They bend their egos to stoop down and enter. They honor the newborn king as they kneel in adoration before the King of Kings who meets them in mutual humility.
As they join Mary and Joseph gazing at the face of Jesus, they all see the mystery of what is come. Even as this baby lies sleeping, the path of his life opens before him. He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief even as he lies in the manger. The angels extoll the glories of the newborn king, yet the crown of thorns awaits him.
Jesus comes as he goes. He comes and goes, rejected by the powers of the world yet received by those who know their need of God. He enters our world in a stranger’s stable and leaves it in a stranger’s grave. He enters our world flanked by barnyard animals and leaves flanked by two thieves, all dying together on the edge of the city. The hard wood of the manger becomes the hard wood of the cross. That hard wood is the instrument of our new life, our rebirth through the blood of this little one.
Tonight we celebrate the mystery of this holy birth. Every birth is an encounter with the holy. To gaze into the face of a newborn child is to catch a glimpse of the divine realm from which that child has come. How much more glorious is the child who brings the divine with him, who brings clouds of glory into this stable.
We become one with Christ this night, one with him as he enters our world, one with him as he prepares to leave our world in sacrifice for us. The poet says it well:
Childbirth is risky—he comes
As he goes
In a rush of blood and water
In the night, with loaves and wine,
We become the little one;
Blood brothers and water sisters,
Bits and pieces of the kingdom. (“Leaves in Solstice” Dennis Kennedy)
This night Jesus enters our world in a rush of water and blood. This night we come to his table once again to become one with him. We partake of his body and blood that we might be one with him in his love, in his compassion, in his death and resurrection.
Let us join the shepherds this night at the stable door. May we, like them, stoop to enter this lowly stable. May we join this motley crew that we might know the one who comes to love us and to save us. May we kneel at the manger and give our hearts to the one who comes to us this holy night. Let us pray:
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 have to 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. (Lucien Deiss)
December 24, 2017 sermon by The Rev. Linda Wofford Hawkins
Pregnancy is not generally known firsthand by students and young faculty of an Episcopal boarding school. So years ago when I was the chaplain at what was then The Patterson School just down the mountain, I planned a chapel service in Advent with a focus on pregnancy, that human experience that opens our hearts to the experience of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I gathered a motley crew of women who were mothers. There was the articulate English teacher whose lineage included a seminary professor. Then there was the country woman whose daughter was a child beauty queen. The women were quite different, but they shared the common experience of motherhood. I remember a single rose to be displayed in their midst as a soloist sang “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.”
Now where did I fit into all this? I planned to be among the speakers reflecting on the experience of being overshadowed by the new life that grows within us, the discovery of someone else driving the bus, the otherness that transforms us.
However, I was nowhere in sight. Instead I was at the ophthalmologist’s office with my three-year-old who had been hit in the eye by another child, a child whose father actually encouraged such behavior in order to be a man. The night before, three of us adults held him down in front of the Christmas tree at the doctor’s house while he patched the injured eye. So I was living the experience of motherhood as it puts someone else in the driver’s seat and takes you to places you would never imagine.
Yet years later I feel as though I had been present in the chapel that morning. When I did arrive on campus, I heard about that chapel service from one person after another. Those women told stories and shared reflections from the heart that shaped the whole community in joyful expectancy. Everyone had peeped through a window to see anew the wonder of incarnation. They had received a powerful witness to the possibility for us all to be overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and thus transformed.
Each of those women had known the moment depicted on today’s bulletin cover. Marjory Bankson, a wonderful author and retreat leader, offers this depiction of the Annunciation in its vivid glory. Here is shock and awe on the face of a peasant girl in first century Palestine. As much as I love the beautiful annunciations in muted colors that artists have given us through the ages, I vote for this picture in the category of “How It Really Was.” Bright colors, the energy of surprise, the electricity of sheer terror and panic. Every pregnancy brings this terror—even when desired. How much greater was the terror of a young Jewish woman visited by an angel.
The poet, William Butler Yeats, captured that moment well:
The three-fold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
We can only wonder if Marjory Bankson read that poem and proceeded to draw it.
Richard Rohr suggests that the entire Bible can be summed up as “an interplay of fear and faith.” (The Good News According to Luke, p. 66) God is our primary fear—totally beyond our control, immense beyond our imagining. The encounter of Mary and Gabriel crystallizes the interplay of fear and faith as clearly as any scene in the Bible. “…she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” That line is certainly a mild version of what had to be going through the head of Mary going about her business on an ordinary day in Nazareth when an archangel drops by for a chat. The first words of Gabriel point to her fear—“Do not be afraid”—some of the most common words in scripture.
Gabriel lays out a plan. “…you will conceive and bear a son…the Son of the Most High.” Here is the call to faith. Believe, Mary. Believe that you will be the mother of the Messiah. Believe that God is entering your life. Believe that you will be Theotokos, the bearer of God into the world. Give up your fear and have faith. Nothing will be impossible with God.
So how does Mary get to such faith? How does this terrified woman with bright red hair on fire with fear say with the voice of faith, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”? God is the actor in this miraculous drama, but how does God bring about the greatest miracle—the triumph of faith over fear in the human heart?
Somehow in her confusion, Mary finds the tenacity to take God’s goodness seriously. Somehow in her fear the memory of God’s goodness to her people spawns the faith that God will indeed continue to shower such goodness upon her and all the world. That gratitude percolates and issues forth in her song, the Magnificat that literally “makes God big” as she proclaims all that God does to make our world right.
So here in this moment as Mary assents to God’s action in her, the divine becomes human. She says Yes to God. The indwelling begins. Mary conceives. “Conceive” is an active verb. Even in our emptiness and stillness, there is a mysterious activity going on. God invites each of us to be a womb for Christ, to become a dwelling place for Christ, to be surprised by the invasion of holiness.
The Holy Spirit finds an open space for the divine presence. Jesus Christ finds a mansion prepared for himself. The quest of King David finds its conclusion. The God who was content to dwell in a tent finds a house. The God who was content to tabernacle with Israel on a journey finds a temple in a human body, a throne in a human heart.
Mary proceeds to hold the deep mystery within her. She receives grace and treasures it in all its paradox. She embraces inner poverty as God takes over and fills her with otherness. In her emptiness she is filled to overflowing with the abundance of God. Hers is true humility, humility that is open and receptive. Mary holds what cannot be contained. As a finite creature, she bears within herself the creator. All of creation is changed because in Mary’s womb there is a home for God.
Mary is the Mother of God. Meister Eckhart said we are all meant to be Mothers of God. It is not just mothers at a boarding school who ponder what it might be to be pregnant with God. Cistercian monks in the twelfth century meditated upon the mystery of the Incarnation, knowing themselves to be Mothers of God. They knew the divine presence dwells among us whenever we are open to the coming of Christ, whenever we assent to carrying Christ and bearing Christ into the world.
So on this day I declare us all pregnant, pregnant with Christ who is about to come. We are about 8 ½ months pregnant, as it were. Our desire has made us impatient. The fullness of Christ has made us huge. It has been said “You must be men and women of ceaseless hope….you must live this moment…because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.” (Walter J Burghardt in An Advent Sourcebook, p. 81) We are indeed Mothers of God eager to give birth to God’s presence. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ “makes, O marvelous! New Nazareths in us, Where she shall yet conceive Him….”
We still have a few more hours of Advent before us. Let us live deeply every moment of our pregnancy. This time of waiting only increases our joyful expectancy. As Mothers of God, let us offer this prayer for this day: “May Emmanuel find welcome in our hearts, take flesh in our lives, and be for all peoples the welcome advent of redemption and grace. We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose Day draws near. Amen.”ereHere is shock