Guest Post – The Practice of Love

259a24_cbc7ecea06e44a36b456769c60f922eemv2The Rev. Kellie Mysinger serves as Deacon at Christ Church.  Her sermon today, “The Practice of Love,” was one of the most important sermons that I’ve heard.  Due to some technical issues, the audio in the nave at 10 AM wasn’t great.  With Deacon Kellie’s permission, I’m posting the text of her sermon so that as many people as possible can experience this powerful word.


This week as I prepared for today’s sermon, I thought about the difference between book knowledge and practical knowledge. As someone who has always loved reading, school, and classes of all kinds, I have built up ample book knowledge on a decent number of different topics. Sit me down in front of the television to watch an episode of Jeopardy!, and I can come up with correct responses in a pretty broad range of categories – sometimes even surprising myself when I can pull a word or name or phrase out of my head. What I am much less able to do, however, is to take that hodgepodge of information and actually use it in any practical way. Since I’ve never actually tried out for Jeopardy! and can’t claim any winnings for getting responses right from my couch, all I do with much of the things I know is retain the title that my husband has given me as the “Fount of Useless Information.”

Book knowledge of a subject is knowledge of the principles and ideas of the subject rather than of the way the principles are put into practice. This is knowledge gathered from reading or lectures. When you have this theoretical knowledge of a subject, you can recite the definitions of key terms and concepts and explain how things should relate within a particular system or subject. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is specific understanding you gain through experience. There are some things that can only be learned through doing. Where theory is often taught in the ideal of a vacuum, the practical is learned through the reality of life. Practical knowledge can often lead to a deeper understanding of a concept through the act of doing or through personal experience, and gaining practical knowledge can be a messy and unpredictable process, as the actual is almost always more complicated than the ideal.

I started thinking about the difference between these two types of knowledge after reading the 12th chapter of Mark, including verses that come before our passage this morning, and listening to a few recent interviews with Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The reading we heard this morning from Mark is a pretty familiar one to most churchgoers, and one that just about everyone would describe as the story of the Widow’s Mite. As I read the passage, I noticed that despite the fact we most commonly associate this story with the widow, most of what Jesus talks about focuses not on the widow, but on the actions of the scribes and the wealthy people who come together in the temple.

Jesus is teaching and sparring with religious leaders about many different topics. Prior to our text this morning, one of the scribes quizzes Jesus about which of the commandments is most important. Jesus replies that the most important command is to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and the second is to love others as much as you love yourself. The scribe says that Jesus has answered correctly and goes on to affirm that nothing at all is more important than these commandments. It seems both Jesus and the scribe agree on the definition of what is most important for believers to do – love God and love  neighbor.

Jump ahead to what Jesus teaches in our reading today. He warns his listeners to beware of the scribes who conspicuously walk around, looking for respect and perks, praying showy prayers, all the while cheating widows out of their houses. Their actions are all about self – their reputations and comfort and power – and they either ignore or take advantage of those who are weak and vulnerable. The scribes, who are the teachers of the Law, whose member just affirmed in his interaction with Jesus the supreme importance of loving God and neighbor over all else, may be well versed in the theoretical knowledge of love but their actions show they have much to learn about the practice of putting this love to work in their everyday lives.

The wealthy who are coming into the temple, contributing large sums into the treasury, are not lauded by Jesus for their actions either. Although the monetary amounts the people are giving may be large and might be used to assist people living in poverty, Jesus points out that for the givers the amounts don’t reflect any particular generosity or special faithfulness. In our text Jesus references their giving out of their abundance, and in other translations, Jesus describes the donations of the rich as “something they’ll never miss” or something they “didn’t need.” Giving away property that doesn’t really cost the giver anything or being willing to offer something that doesn’t require any meaningful sacrifice or effort is not an action to be praised. These gifts might fulfill social or religious obligations, but for Jesus they are not examples of responding to the command to love.

So what does it look like to love God and love neighbor? This is a question posed in different ways to Bishop Michael Curry in several interviews this week as he talked about a book he has written called “The Power of Love.” In one interview, Bishop Curry was asked to describe the kind of love he has written, spoken, and preached about, which is the love that is taught by Jesus. He described this love not as simply sentimental love, but as an “unselfish, selfless way of living that actually seeks the good and well-being of others, even something above our own self interest.” This kind of loving, selfless living is what has the capacity to change things for the good, said Bishop Curry. In another interview, the interviewer tried pressing Bishop Curry for specific examples of what loving action would look like in this or that particular situation, and Bishop Curry kept pointing back to the need to approach every encounter, every opportunity by seeking to act out of that loving concern for the good of other people – in the selfless, sacrificial way that Jesus embodies.

As I listened to Bishop Curry, I found myself frustrated, as I sometimes do when I hear Jesus’ words, because I want more tangible, specific instructions for how exactly I go about loving God and loving my neighbor. I know the book answer, but I am not always confident I know what shape that should take when I’m trying to live each day in response to this call to love. That is where practical experience comes in. At some point, talking about love and reading about God and neighbor needs to turn into practicing this love. And as with any other kind of practical learning, it’s going to be messier and more unpredictable in reality than it is in theory, and to be the love that Jesus teaches, it’s going to require something of us as we struggle to make the needs and the well-being of others our focus and our concern.

Each of us has opportunities every day to practice the love of Jesus. It might be reaching out to family members or friends in crisis. It could be stepping in or speaking up when you notice someone being treated  unfairly. You might be faced with a choice about whether or not to commit your time to working with a group that serves people in need. There may be issues at your workplace, at school, or in the community where you identify problems or crises causing hardship or pain.

Right now, we as a church are in the midst of practicing how to love our neighbors as we work with people experiencing homelessness who have sought shelter on our grounds. This is a messy process, both literally and figuratively, as we work to build mutual relationships with people who are struggling and vulnerable, and as we try to help them find ways to more stable and secure situations. Navigating the various issues, I have often wanted a handbook with specific instructions as to how, exactly we meet the needs of everyone involved, both the people seeking shelter and members of the congregation, when often times the sets of concerns are not the same. I must also admit, I’ve been tempted to make having neat, clean outdoor spaces, cleared of people and their belongings the only priority, but to accomplish that immediately would require that we run  people off, most of whom currently have no safe place to go. Our problem would be solved, but the serious problems of our neighbors would remain. So, instead, we as a church, through the efforts of staff and congregation members, are working intentionally with people sheltering here to establish effective boundaries and norms of behavior while also trying to find ways we can support them in securing better situations.

This week, when I was wrestling with my own frustration about the energy I and others have been expending on dealing with the litany of problems occurring outside, I had a chance to talk with someone who has been staying on the property. This person shared that this place has been somewhere they feel safe, and they wanted the church to know how much they appreciated being able to stay during a difficult time. The person went on to say with a big smile how pleased they were that last Sunday they were able to give two dollars to add to the church’s offering in thanksgiving for this kindness. It wasn’t much, the person said, but it was important to them to give the gift. After spending much of the week reading about Jesus making sure his disciples notice a poor widow giving her last two copper coins, this got my attention and reaffirmed for me the continued call to share Christ’s love with our neighbor. It is not a quick process as we struggle with making the needs and well-being of others our focus and our concern, but I do believe that practicing this kind of care is what we are called to do as we follow Jesus.

As we each look for the strength, courage, and guidance to navigate  the many challenging situations we face, it is an extra blessing to have a baptism this morning. When Indie Blake is baptized today (at the 10am service), we will rejoice with her and her family as she is reborn into new life in Christ. Baptism gives us all an opportunity to remember our own baptismal covenant, which includes our promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. These are promises we make initially based on our theoretical knowledge of what these words mean, and as we live our lives in Christ we, and the many people we encounter, come to experience the wonderful fullness of these promises in action. As we pray that Indie throughout her life will have an inquiring and discerning heart and the courage to will and to persevere, we join with her in praying for ourselves as well, knowing that at all times and in all places and in all circumstances we do these things with God’s help.

There is a prayer I came across multiple times this week that I’d like to share. I feel this Franciscan Benediction expresses the many challenges we face and the hopes we share as we strive to live our lives in loving faithfulness.     Let us pray.

 

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

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An Election Week Reminder

One of the unintended consequences of cutting the cord on our satellite dish has been the return of local commercials as we watch network television via an antenna.  This time of year, local commercials means only one thing – political commercials.  With almost every local official up for re-election and several key state and national races in play, my Saturday SEC on CBS was inundated with adds begging me to vote, occasionally for someone, but, more often, against someone.  The timing seems about right.  Races tend to turn negative in the last 10 days or so as a candidate tries to motivate his or her base to get out and vote.  Negative ads all seem to turn around one key question, can my opponent be trusted? From the perspective of the ad maker, the answer should be an obvious no, and they’ll do pretty much whatever they can to ensure it.

Turning the question around trust is an interesting tactic, as once again, RCL Track 2 congregations will find themselves reading Psalm 146 during an election week.  It shouldn’t take you long to realize that the Scriptures don’t have much time for modern political campaign strategies.

146:2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Despite what TV and radio ads, door hangers, and an entire rainforest full of mailers might suggest, God knows that the empire is not the means to the ends of the Kingdom of God.  Despite the reality that Christianity has essentially been the state religion for more than 1,600 years, followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have never really been intended to fit within the parameters of the empire.  Our’s is a higher calling than Republican or Democrat, but rather, as the Psalmist goes on to say “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! * whose hope is in the Lord their God”

voting-booth1

Every election season, this seems to be harder and harder to remember.  Granted, it is also increasingly clear that candidates and their supporters have no qualms with muddying up their theology with partisan politics.  When any politician is made out to be on par with the eternal Word of God, things have gotten a skewed.  As followers of Jesus, our call is above and beyond that fray.  Our call, again in the words of the Psalmist, is to righteousness, which is defined by such actions as caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and the widow, and frustrating the way of the wicked.

It is ok to allow your faith to inform your vote, but when we get turned around and make our vote our faith and place our trust in the rulers of the earth, then we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.  So, pray for all candidates for political office.  Vote your conscience.  But always remember, that God’s kingdom and its righteousness is where your trust is more properly aligned.

The Hope of the Poor

My number one goal over the course of my sabbatical this summer was to write a first draft of my Doctor of Ministry thesis for the Advanced Degree Program at the School of Theology at the University of the South.  Having successfully completed that goal, I began to look back on the other accomplishments of my time away.  I gained 10 pounds, which probably wasn’t good, but it was the direct result of good times with family and friends, so that’s OK.  I learned I need to find a hobby, and I’m working on becoming a disc golfer.  Tops on the list of “other accomplishments” however, is my return to the Daily Office.  It still feels weird to read the assumed to be done in community offices of the Church alone at my desk, but I’m finding a newfound comfort in it, and I’m glad to be reminded of those great phrases that pervaded my mind during seminary.

This morning, as I continue to struggle over which widow I’m going to preach about on Sunday, I was struck by the penultimate versicle and response in the Rite II Suffrages A.
V. Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R. Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Both the Widow at Zerephath and the widow who gave her last seem to be at a point where their hope has been taken away.  What is interesting, however, is that what is used as a call and response prayer is actually a promise in its original context of Psalm 9.  The most recent edition of the New International Version (2011) makes this clear in their translation of Psalm 9.18, “But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.”

If this is true, and tend to think that it is, then these stories of the two widows are less stories of their willingness to give sacrificially and more stories of their ongoing hope in God’s willingness to never forget them.  The young Widow at Zerephath was almost certainly not a Jew, and yet she had faith in the provision promised by some strange prophet of a foreign god.  The Widow who gave her last, despite being manipulated by a corrupt system, gave those last two copper coins away, she literally gave her whole life away, confident that the Lord would not forget her in her poverty.

In the end, then, these are both stories of God’s abundant grace for those deemed outside the realm of God’s grace.  One was an ethnic outsider, the other a cultural one, but both were faithful in light of God’s promise to care for them.  We who are thought to be on the inside, who profess to be followers of the Way of Jesus, are invited to a) have the same sort of faith and b) join with God in sustaining the poor no matter their circumstances.  That’s why we pray those words with regularity, “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away” or “don’t let me forget the needs of others, O God; don’t let me be complicit in a system that crushes their very hope.”

One Very Confused Widow

I’m still struggling to figure out what this means for my preaching, but everywhere I look this week I’m finding a recurring realization.  In Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Lord comes to Elijah and invites him to move on from his beloved broom tree, by which ran the Wadi Cherith and where the ravens made sure he was fed.  “Go now to Zerephath,” the Lord says, “for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

Elijah’s been through this before, and so despite the fact that God is taking him smack into the middle of Baal territory, he packs up what little he has left and begins his journey.  Just outside the gates of Zerephath, he encounters a widow.  I’m not sure how Elijah knows this woman is a widow, but he does.  Assuming the basic hospitality rights of a stranger, he asks the woman for a drink.  It is then that he seems to remember the promise of God, that a widow would feed him, and so he calls out again, “BTW, grab some bread while you’re at it.”

Note the widow’s response.

I can’t help but wonder if this was the right widow.  Maybe the widow God promised is still waiting for Elijah to arrive.  If it was her, it seems as though she hadn’t checked her Holy Spirit email in a while.  Clearly, the memo hadn’t crossed her desk, and this now very confused widow is less than amused by this strange Israelite’s request.  “Bread!?! I ain’t got no stinking bread!  It hasn’t rained for a long, long time.  Did you see the fields as you travelled?  There is on wheat, no olives, no water.  I was just gathering enough sticks to build a small fire so I could make one last meal for my son and me before we die of starvation.”

Have you ever felt that way about something God was calling you to do?  I have.  It was March of 2007 when my friend SS sent me a Facebook message about a job in Foley, Alabama.  I’m pretty sure I actually laughed out loud at his message.  Why in Sam Hill would I look at a job in nowhere Alabama? (I didn’t know of the white sand beaches, amazing fresh seafood, and southern hospitality at this point.)  SS had gotten the memo from God, but I was still very much in the dark.  Two days later, he messaged me again, and this time I figured I better pay attention.  Like the Widow at Zerephath, I didn’t know what God had in store, but I knew there was something to this thing.  She made a small cake for Elijah and her reserves never failed.  I picked up the phone, and haven’t regretted it for a second since.

Sometimes God shows up in the most mysterious ways: a road weary traveler from a foreign land or a Facebook message from deep south Alabama.  You name it, God has used it, and might just use it to call you to your next adventure in trust, loving hospitality, and faith.

Do not be Afraid

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid…”

The phrase “do not be afraid” appears quite often in the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments.  It is quite rare, however, for those words to be spoken by a human being.  The first such occurrence happens in Genesis 35:17 when Rachel’s midwife tell her to “do not be afraid” just before she died during the birth of Benjamin, who she named Ben-oui which means “son of my sorrow.”  Later in Genesis, as Joseph forgives his brothers for what they did to him, he admonishes them to “have no fear” (Genesis 50:19, 21).  Twice, Moses speaks to a terrified Hebrew people.  He tells them, “do not be afraid” on the edge of the Red Sea the Egyptian army rapidly approaches (Exodus 14:13).  Later, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people are convinced that hearing the voice of God will be their end, but Moses assures them, “Do not be afraid” (Exodus 20:20).

In Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, we once again hear these words, this time from the lips of the prophet Elijah to the Widow at Zerephath.  Mind you, we’re in the midst of a three-year long drought that Elijah predicted.  The creeks are dried up, the crops are failing in the fields, and the stockpiles of flour and oil are at critically low levels.  In her own words, this woman is preparing one last meal for her and her son.  Food supplies might be critically low, but fear is in abundance as Elijah rolls into town looking for a nosh, and he has the audacity to tell this woman, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s what God’s kingdom is all about: trust over fear.  I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, especially his rendering of “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule” (Matthew 5:3, MSG).  The Widow was at the end of her rope and her grip was slipping fast when God’s messenger arrived with words of comfort and a miracle of abundance.  How often in your life have you found yourself nearing the end of your rope when all of a sudden just the right person appears on your doorstep?  Maybe it was an old friend with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.  Maybe it was a community of faith that let you have the space you needed to get right with God.  Maybe it was a priest or an LEM who brought you the bread and wine just when you needed it most.

As disciples of Jesus, we are sometimes called to be that comforting presence of God.  Other times, we might be in desperate need of it.  Thankfully, there are people like Rachel’s midwife, Joseph, Moses, and Elijah who can offer four simple words, “do not be afraid.”

What the Lord Desires

“We affirm the minimum standard of the tithe is personal giving…”

These words make up the heart of point one of the Stewardship Statement made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast on April 20, 1989, and reaffirmed on January 24, 2004.  With similar words, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has set forth “a personal spiritual discipline that includes, at a minimum, the holy habits of tithing, daily personal prayer and study, Sabbath time, and weekly corporate worship…” (2003-A135).  Still, it seems there is no better way to get the collective hackles of Episcopalians up then by discussing the tithe as a standard of giving.

The response will typically fall into one of three camps.  The vast majority will gasp at the idea of giving away 10% of their income as they throw a crumpled up $5 bill in the plate.  Others will hold firm to 10% as The Standard of giving to the Kingdom as found in Scripture.  A third group will be very adamant that the tithe is the Minimum Standard of giving.

So what is the right answer?  What does the Lord require of the faithful? In the lessons appointed for this coming Sunday, it seems as though God asks that we trust him enough to offer everything we have back to him.  In the ever popular stewardship story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus lauds the poor woman who drops her two copper coins in the kettle.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  The Widow trusted God enough to know that she would be taken care of, even in her poverty.

The Widow at Zerephath shows us the same sort of trust.  Surely, she looked at Elijah as if he were crazy when he instructed her to make him a small loaf of bread first, but she did as he asked.  She trusted in the God of Elijah, a God who was not her own, enough that in the midst of a 3 year drought, she gave away the last little bit she had.

I’m not suggesting that we should sign over all our assets to the church.  Nor would I dare to say that the poor should give more than their fair share.  And don’t get me started on the heretical scam that is the “seed offerings” of television preachers.  What I am suggesting is that all the arguments of percentages of giving, before or after taxes, is missing the point of giving back to God.  More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust.  The giving of our time, talent, and treasure is the sacramental sign of our trust in God.  When we give sacrificially, we show that we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be, and the hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way.

Truth be told, even as my family gives away 11%, there are days, lots of them, that I don’t trust God, and so my offering is as pitiful as the tattered $5 bill.  In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have, even down to the air we breathe and the blood in our veins.