Centering our relationship with God

Centering our relationship with God

This is the sermon the Rev. Paula Jefferson preached on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of St. Mary’s Hillsboro, the oldest continuing congregation in our diocese.


In the sixth month

Gabriel is a very busy angel.  As God’s messenger in Luke’s Gospel, this guy is gaining quite a reputation.  Everywhere he appears, he disrupts the status quo of lives.  Two women who should not be pregnant … will be pregnant.  The husband and fiancé of these women are stunned.  One of them is speechless for 9 months.  The other, Joseph, must reimagine his life…his reason for being.

But, today’s Gospel is not about the supporting cast of characters.  It is about the women…and, as we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, it is Mary’s story that is center-stage.

We don’t really know much about Mary.[1]  We don’t know what she looked like, the color of her eyes or hair.  How tall was she?  Was she bow-legged from riding donkeys?  Was she rich?  Poor?  We don’t know her parents or whether she had siblings.  We don’t know what her relationship with Joseph was like.  Do they argue over the remote control?  Is Mary a backseat driver?  Does Joseph get up early once a week to cook a big breakfast for Mary?

Even in Luke’s Gospel…where the voices of gender are more balanced…Mary is an enigma.

With all her physical identity markers stripped away, her relationship with Yahweh is centered in the drama.  It is this relationship that we are intended to see…and to understand.

Today’s Gospel began with these words, “In the sixth month God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary…”.  Isn’t that a peculiar way to state a timeline?  We track time by dates and hours so that we have a sense of chronology…like March 25, 1872 and March 25, 2022…150 years later….Chronology is how humans understand our place in the history of time.   “In the sixth month” leaves us wondering … the sixth month of what and when?

Earlier in the story, Gabriel told Zacharias that he and Elizabeth will have a child.  And now, in the sixth month of that pregnancy, Gabriel is visiting Mary.  But the circumstances of this conversation are quite different than the earlier one.

First, Gabriel did not announce the child to Elizabeth.  Gabriel spoke to her husband.  Second, Elizabeth, unlike Mary, is not a young woman; and though she desired children, she had not been able to bear a child.  The child she now carries, John the Baptist, is because of –and part of– God’s plan.  God has made this child possible.  And with God’s intervention, the Mystery of Incarnation begins to unfold.

We are six months into God’s Incarnational movement.  And, now, Gabriel visits Mary.

This time, God sends his busy angel directly to a woman.  There is no intermediary.  The line of communication between God and Mary is direct.  The Holy Spirit and Mary are all that is needed.

Why Mary?  As I thought about this question, I realized that her words in the conversation with Gabriel offer insight.  Gabriel extends a greeting from Yahwey to Mary.  He tells her that God favors her…that she is loved dearly.  After Gabriel explains God’s big plan, Mary says, “I belong to the Lord, body and soul…let it happen as you say.”  Turn my life upside down…let it happen as you say.

Mary accepts God’s invitation with faith, trust, and a virtue that’s not very popular in our culture– obedience.

We know that her path will not be easy.  She lives in a tiny village where she and Joseph are known.  Her pregnancy is scandalous.  She and Joseph make the long trip to Bethlehem while she is on the cusp of delivering a baby.  They raise a child who is different than the other children…different than his siblings.  He reads.  He heals.  He teaches.  And he dies.  Mary will be present every step of the way.

Who among us could walk in her shoes?

She shows us courage, strength, sorrow.

Across all time and all place:  Mary is Theotokos:  God Bearer.

When God and I sit down to talk about a sermon, there is one discipline I try to maintain:  to always speak of God’s agency and engagement in our world in the present tense.  God is the author of our Creation…God is not subject to the constraints of God’s creation…like time.  When the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, Jesus accepts our human life…complete with all its limits:  time, illness, aging, and death.  But, for God, time is not linear or chronological.

In God’s time, Gabriel visits Mary in the Sixth month of God’s Incarnational drama.  The folks who gathered in a parlor in Hillsboro 150 years ago…following God’s call to plant an Episcopal parish are also in the sixth month of God’s Incarnational drama.  We are in this moment.

Sarah Sturgis, and the people who form St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, accept their calling with faith…they could not have imagined the path of this church.  It is not an easy path.  Early in its life, a tornado destroys St Mary’s worship home.  During the time between that building and the one to be built in 1910, folks gather to worship in temporary space…a familiar thread in St. Mary’s story.  The so-called historic church structure is joined at a point by a parish hall…with a coffee pot and toilet.

Along the way, incremental changes were happening in our diocesan life…  We were spun off from the diocese of Dallas.  And some 50 years later, we entered into a liminal space we called schism.  During the years of schism, we had quite a procession of notable bishops…each carrying the baton of leadership for a period in our wilderness.  And then God called a leader like Moses and Mary.  It seems that it is always the quiet, humble leaders who have both the stomach and the heart to lead through the hardest moments.  As we walked away from familiar buildings, crosses, pulpits, and vessels, Bp Mayer led us with strength, prayers, and dignity.

And finally, the 13-year-old band-aid was ripped off.

St. Mary’s was no longer tethered to her historic building, her place on North Abbott Street, or the parish hall.  With all of those identity markers stripped away, it is your relationship with God that is centered in the incarnational drama of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Hillsboro, Texas.

It is the way you engage this moment that draws the attention of people across our diocese and the greater Church.

You are showing us what it means to be Christotokos:  Christ bearers.

For the past 1700 years, or so, in Christian history, the structure of worship spaces was driven by power, wealth, and a sort of “If we build it, they will come” mentality.

But that is not the way of Incarnation… Incarnation shows us that God is not sitting in a barcalounger waiting for us to come.  God comes to us.  God enters our world humbly, takes on our limitations, our pain, our suffering…and meets the needs of God’s people here.  In this moment.  In this place.

The work you do with children moving through the family court system, feeding hungry children, ministering to first responders, welcoming your community for pancakes … all of these ministries, and more, are witness to you moving toward those who encounter God through you.

When the time comes to imagine another worship space, and I am confident that time will come, I hope that you will design something that reflects the Mystery of Incarnation…as it is expressed through your ministries, your Christ-bearing in Hillsboro.

Mary gives birth to Jesus.  We know very little about Jesus—we don’t know the color of his eyes, or hair.  We don’t know if he is bow-legged…if he likes red jello better than green jello.  It isn’t important to the story.  What is centered in God’s Incarnational drama, across all time: is that Mary gives birth to Love, Peace, Wisdom, Hope, Joy, Light…

When I am here, among you, I feel like I’m sitting at a poker table with a group of people who are holding a royal flush in their hands.  You’re doing your best not to give off the “tell”… but it’s there, in the twinkle of your eyes.  You know what you’re holding in your hands.

The coffee pot is not about 6 ounces of Starbucks…that can be found anywhere.  It is an icon.  An icon that represents fellowship…a space and moment for being together, sharing one another’s burdens and joys.  You share your lives through the beautiful sunny days of Texas and the times when the Tornado siren is blaring.  You build meaningful relationship through coffee, through reading books, studying Scripture, breaking bread together…and then you take your gifts into the world.

To the people you welcome into your common worship life, you are the embodiment of God’s Peace, God’s Love, and God’s Hope.

You don’t have to lay your cards on the table.  We know.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witherington III: The Gospel of Luke; p 34