The 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.