Active Love

image

When my kids were little and we lived in Alabama, our Target store has those red balls out front.  Presumably, the are meant to keep a car from running into the glass front of the store, but in our world, they presented an opportunity.  Maybe today, we could make one of those big red balls move.  We would push and push and push, but never did we move them, even a millimeter.  In physics, the definition of work is force exerted over a distance.  No matter how much energy we might have put into pushing against those bright red spheres, there is no work done because nothing ever moved.

This is the image that came to mind as I read Jesus’ words to Judas (not Iscariot) this morning.  “Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says.  Love is verb.  Love, like work, requires action.  It requires movement.  No matter how many times we may say, “I love you,” it doesn’t really mean anything unless we actually show love in how we live our lives on a daily basis.

This week, I’m at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, GA.  I’m here with 20 or so other clergy, one from every diocese in Province IV of The Episcopal Church, on a Justice Pilgrimage, seeking together ways to confront the sin of racism in our lives, our church, and our nation. Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.”  It isn’t enough to say, “I love my neighbor,” but rather, we must find ways to actively show that love.  We must exert the force of that love in a direction.  We must see movement toward healing the deep wounds that slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison industrial complex continue to create.  There is plenty of force working toward division.  Our task, as monumental as it may seem, is to turn that tide and to begin to see progress in the right direction.

It is 6:45 on Tuesday morning.  This pilgrimage runs until 3pm on Friday.  My brain is already exhausted, but as a follower of Jesus, who, when push came to shove summed up the requirements of discipleship as “love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” I don’t have the option of giving up.  None of us who truly wish to follow Jesus and who pray “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” have that option of just going through the motions, pretending to push that stone up hill.  Like my children out front of Target, we must continue to push, with every ounce of being, against what might feel like an immovable object, knowing that with God’s help, nothing is impossible.

The sin of racism won’t be healed quickly.  As we learned yesterday, it’ll be 2111 before Americans of African decent will have been free in this country as long as they were enslaved, but our call is not to finish the work necessarily.  Our call is simply to come alongside God and to use the power of love to move the needle, if only an imperceptibly small amount, toward reconciliation.

Advertisements

Discipleship 101

On May 1, 2019, this blog became a teenager.  If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, there are more than 2,400 posts for you to go back and read.  You’ll note as you do so that I’ve changed a lot in the last 13 years.  My theology has evolved, ever being re-drafted through study, prayer, and interaction with other disciples.  Several posts from back in the mid-aughts were spent complaining about seminary classmates who in our homiletics classes preached all about love, but didn’t seem to having a working definition of what love really looks like.

Now, to be fair, it was a time of great strife within my denomination.  Sides were taken, lines drawn, and many on the left and the right spent their time deciding who was in and who was out.  At our worst, we became a church of two factions that were caricatures of themselves. One could easily define love as “I’m ok, you’re ok,” the other who would define love as “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  Neither side actually believed those things entirely, but in the religio-political climate of the mid-2000s, no one was really interested in nuance.

Fast forward more than a decade, and we have a Presiding Bishop who became famous a year ago for preaching about love at a Royal Wedding.  Now, I can be critical of how The Episcopal Church and her congregations have tried to capitalize on that fame, but what I’ve most appreciated is seeing how the working definition of love that we are using has grown in depth since those challenging days of yore.  Rather than a concept of divine love which would source love within ourselves, we are now more able and open to seeing that the kind of love that changes the world comes only through the saving power of Jesus Christ.  That kind of love is our Discipleship 101.

b55a2759dfaeeb0be8161b957b6aac7a

At dinner with his disciples, Jesus invited them, and by extension all of us, to take that love of neighbor out in word and deed. This love isn’t getting everyone around a campfire to agree on some kind of lowest common denominator feelings while singing Kumbaya, but the self-giving love that Jesus modeled in his life, death, and resurrection.  It is a kind of love that is only possible through the grace of God.  In and of ourselves, love can never be fully unselfish, but with God’s help, the kind of love that Jesus commands of us, the kind of love that will show our status as disciples, is a love that is always seeking the good of the other, caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, sharing the love that we’ve come to know in Christ Jesus in word and action.  Episcopalians haven’t always been good at the word bit, and maybe that’s where some of my frustration was found those many years ago, but I know for sure that we’re getting a whole lot better at it.  So much so, that I might even be willing to say by now that we are known as disciples of Jesus because of the love that we share in our communities.

A Pattern of Love – Maundy Thursday

One of the great gifts we have here at Christ Church is the front desk ministry.  In two-hour shifts, sixteen faithful volunteers and a handful of fill-ins, make sure that guests are welcomed, the phone is answered, and sundry administrative details are handled.  Having those things dealt with is nice, but the best part of it is the relationships.  I’ve learned so much about our front desk volunteers over the past few years.  I’ve heard stories of children and grandchildren.  I’ve listened to great tales of business trips and family vacations.  We’ve shared prayer concerns and laughs, all around the front desk in moments of brief exchange.  I’ve also learned of some of the neat hobbies that people have.  Richard Greer is a car guy.  Maryanne Ringo makes dog clothing.  Paula Maier is gifted in needlepoint.

I don’t have the skill nor the patience for needlepoint, but in watching Paula work meticulously on gifts months and months in advance, I’ve come to understand how important it is to work from a good pattern.  The pattern is always there, reminding you of the right path to follow in order to produce the finished product you desire.  It shows you where the outline turns.  It helps you to determine what to fill in with red and what is actually a lighter shade of pink.  The pattern is dependable.  Never failing.

On Maundy Thursday, the church gathers to mark an ending and a beginning.  The meal that Jesus and his disciples shared this night is commonly called the Last Supper.  It was the final opportunity for Jesus to share what was of utmost importance with his closest friends.  They engaged in the traditional Jewish practices of breaking bread and sharing from a common cup.  Jesus reminded them of what they would need to remember after the chaos of the 24 hours that were to come.  He gave them a new mandate for life in the Kingdom of Heaven – that they love one another.

Maundy Thursday is about the story of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper included more than just the bread and the cup.  Our liturgy isn’t simply another recitation of the Eucharist.  On this night we take part in one other activity that was modeled by Jesus on that most holy night.  We will wash on another’s feet.  You’ve just heard the story.  We know how in the middle of dinner, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and took on the dress of a table slave.  He bent down and did the most demeaning thing anyone could do, he washed the dirty, dusty, stinky feet of his disciples.

After he finished, he put his robe back on, symbolic of his role as a Rabbi, and began to teach them about what he had just done.  Almost every English translation of the Bible has Jesus telling his disciples, “I have set an example for you, that you should also do as I have done to you,” but that’s not the entirety of what he was saying to them.  No, the Greek word that gets translated as “example” can also mean “pattern.”  Whereas an example is a thing you do once to show somebody how to do a thing, a pattern is about an ongoing standard of behavior.  Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet as a one-off example that they too should wash feet, although once a year we brush off that example.  Rather, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to offer them a pattern of sacrificial love.  He established for them what he hoped would be a life-long commitment to loving service.  In so doing, Jesus assured them that he, and by extension the Holy Spirit, would be an ever-present pattern for them to follow, especially when the going got tough.

Tonight, you, like me, may want to having nothing to do with this whole foot washing exercise.  Or, you might be feeling a bit timid about it.  Perhaps you are giving thanks that the Church chose to repeat the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup rather than the foot washing thing each week.  Maybe this is your favorite service of whole church year.  I don’t know, you might be strange like that.  No matter if you are dying to wash someone’s feet or would rather die than do it, it isn’t the example of foot washing that is important.  Maundy Thursday, which comes from the Latin for Christ’s mandate to love, is about the pattern of love that the example foot washing enacts. It is about the reality that Jesus’ whole life can serve as a pattern for our lives as his disciples.  It is about the promise that the Holy Spirit is here among us to help us follow the pattern, to show us where the outline turns and where the red might need to fade to a lighter shade of pink.  It is about the patterns of behavior that bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Drawn in in love – Tuesday in Holy Week

On my way to Meijer to purchase ice cream salt and rubbing alcohol for the new fire at the Great Vigil, I passed by one of our local Pentecostal churches.  Because it is a) Pentecostal and b) on the main thoroughfare, they have one of those fancy LED marquees that announces things like opening in their pre-school or special services.  As I passed by this morning, the first ad I saw on the screen was for their Good Friday service, which is a thing I’m noticing more and more in non-liturgical traditions, and something maybe for a later post.  The ad featured a black background with a silverish cross in foreground along with the service name and time.  As the image switched to announce the Easter services, the cross changed from silver to white.  The background from black to a bright blue sky hovering above an August National-type green grass hill.

In that moment, I realized something about myself.  I think there is a part of me, way back in the recesses of my soul, that thinks the tradition of veiling crosses in Lent is backwards.  Instead, I wonder if we shouldn’t remove all the crosses from our naves during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  I know that this is a dangerously triumphalist thought, but I think it stems from too many experiences in which the fast of Good Friday and the feast of Easter Day have been conflated into a cross with purple sashing sitting below a white banner the Alleluia in gold lettering.

71d6s238bcl._sx425_

I can’t even with this

There is no Easter without Good Friday, and Good Friday isn’t good without Easter Day, but they are meant to be honored as separate events, or maybe better said, two distinct features of a greater whole.

One of my favorite prayers in the Daily Office was written by Charles Henry Brent, the late bishop of the Philippines and later, Western New York.  It goes like this,

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: so clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week is a typically Johannine text, in which Jesus is clear that it is through his being lifted up [on a cross] that Jesus will draw all people to himself.  There is, as the old hymn says, power in the blood of Jesus.  There is redemption in Jesus stretching out his own arms in loving act of laying down his life.  This even is worth contemplating deeply during the week leading up to and including Good Friday.  In the act of laying down his life, Jesus draws us all in to himself in love.  And then, it seems to me, something different happens come Sunday morning.  Rather than shifting our focus from a gray cross on a dark background to an empty wooden cross on a happier background, our focus should turn entirely away from the hill called Golgotha to the stone that has been rolled away from the empty tomb.  There is a whole lot more to think and say about this than 600 words will allow, but suffice to say, I think it is important to consider how the events of Good Friday and Easter are different, even as together, they help to bring us all into the knowledge and love of Jesus.

Beloved by God

Having quit Greek after only a semester nearly fifteen years ago now, there is very little that I’ve actually retained.  I still know how to use a Greek lexicon, I’ll never forget the aorist tense being like the refectory’s Fiesta Dog, and because I use it in pre-marital discussions, I’ve got down the four words for “love” in Greek.  I’ve written about it before, so regular readers of this blog may want to skip ahead, but as a review:

  • Eros is the passionate love we associate with an intimate partner
  • Storge is the natural affection felt within families
  • Philia is the catch all type of love between friends and for Alabama football
  • Agape is self-giving love that seeks the needs of the other

The First Sunday after the Epiphany <colon> The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is a day set aside each year to ponder Jesus as God’s beloved.  In the Collect of the Day, new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the author, the Rev. Dr. Charles M. Guilbert, chose to highlight that in his baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and God proclaimed him beloved.  The lesson from Luke appointed for Year C, despite being mostly about John the Baptist (yet again), also makes note that the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be “the beloved,” o’ agapetos.

baptism-of-jesus

Jesus isn’t just loved by God because he is God’s Son (storge).  Jesus isn’t just loved by God because God loves everybody (philia).  Jesus is declared by a voice from heaven to be The Beloved (agape), the one whom God’s self-giving love is directed towards.

Here’s the neat thing, however. That belovedness, that desire on the part of God to pour out agape love on something or someone isn’t the exclusive property of Jesus. As we can infer from the story in Acts, this belovedness, shown forth in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is the status of all who have been baptized into the family of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That Jesus is the only, pre-existent Son of God doesn’t mean that he is the only one whom God loves with agape love, but rather, Jesus serves as the harbinger of that love, the exemplar of that belovedness, in the world.

Imagine how different the world would look if we truly lived into the reality that we are beloved by God? How would it change the way we saw ourselves? How might we see our neighbors differently? How might it impact how we treat the stranger in our midst, our enemies, even the creation which God has entrusted to our care? Being the recipient of God’s agape love has the potential to allow you to love the world with that same sort of love.

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.

[2 Corinthinas] five15

five15 logo 9-1

Way back when, for several years, TKT and I did an evening service called five15.  It started, conveniently enough, at 5:15 pm, and was something of an experiential service.  We followed the form of An Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist from our Book of Common Prayer (p 400-407). In the course of “[Sharing] the Gifts of God,” we had various prayer stations around the themes of thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and petition.  It was a lot of fun to imagine different ways of engaging prayer with all five senses.  As we prepared for five15, I looked through every 5:15 in the Bible, to find taglines we might use in advertising, and 2 Corinthians 5:15 was one of our favorites.

And [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

We did not discover this verse.  It has long been a part of the Eucharistic canon, thanks to its placement in our Prayer D, which dates as far back as the mid-fourth century.  It has had its place in the Eucharist as a ongoing reminder of why we gather for worship at all.  The goal of the Christian life isn’t to have “your best life now,” or to achieve self-actualization, or to be protected from harm, or even to get to heaven when you die.  The telos of the Christian life is to live for Christ who died and was raised, for us.  As the New Living Translation puts it, “He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live to please themselves.  Instead, they will live to please Christ, who died and was raise for them.”

And how does one live “for Christ” or “to please Christ”?  Well, Jesus has summed that up elsewhere with the advice that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  That seems to be a good place to start.