The Way of Love

       One of the things I’ve noticed as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, is that human beings seem to carry a six or seven month emotional and spiritual reservoir.  Most of us can go for quite a while with things being really out of whack, but at some point, all of us will run dry.  As a pastor who is connected with many people in all kinds of life situations – single adults, families with young children, empty nesters, widowers, you name it – I’ve watched, with sadness, as folks of all sorts have found their reserves completely run dry.

       All of us are tired, and this loooong week certainly didn’t help, but as I prayed through the challenging parable of the bridesmaids, I began to focus my attention on the things we can do to refill our flasks with oil.  Staying awake, in the metaphor of our parable, means that we are ready for the long haul – lamps trimmed and lit and with plenty of oil in reserve.  In the metaphor of our times, it means keeping our emotional and spiritual reservoirs from drying up, so that we are able to face the long and challenging days that continue to come our way.

       So, how do we replenish our oil?  How do we keep our lamps lit?  How do we keep something in reserve?  I think it all boils down to finding a rule of life: establishing patterns that feed us and deepen our relationship with God.  Some of you have heard me talk about this before, but I am increasingly aware that without intentional actions to stay in relationship with God and our neighbors, COVID and our divided political climate have the real possibility of sowing estrangement and damaging relationships over the long term. In response to that reality, I’ve been so happy over the past eight weeks, as about a dozen of us have gathered on Zoom to talk through Scott Gunn’s latest book, The Way of Love – A Practical Guide to Following Jesus.  This book builds on the Way of Love framework first set forth by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at General Convention in 2015[1].  Rather than another curriculum or program, the Way of Love is an invitation to find a way of living out your faith in Jesus Christ through seven ancient practices of discipleship – Turn, Learn, Worship, Pray, Bless, Go, and Rest.  It is by way of some combination of these seven practices that I truly believe each of us can find oil to keep our lamps lit through the dark days of the COVID Winter.

       The first practice in the Way of Love is Turn.  Turning means to “pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus,” and it might be the most important thing we can do these days.  There have never been more voices clamoring for our attention than there are right now.  There have never been more options on how to spend your time than there are right now.  It might even be true that there have never been more people or organizations trying to capitalize on your fears than there are right now.  To turn away from all of those things and intentionally choose to develop a deeper relationship with God and deeper love of neighbor by treating every person with respect, by smiling at a stranger, even if they can’t see it behind your mask, and to engage in kindness rather than contempt is imperative to refilling your spiritual reserves.

       The second practice in the Way of Love is Learn.  To learn means to reflect on scripture each day, and to focus especially on the life and teachings of Jesus.  This may be the easiest practice to maintain during the pandemic.  Here at Christ Church you can learn by joining the Conversations with Scripture class on Zoom or engaging in one of our ongoing racial healing book groups.  Daily Meditations can arrive in your inbox from Forward Movement or give us a call and we’ll happily send you a copy of Forward Day by Day.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I are always eager to offer book suggestions, if you’d like, or, better yet, pull out your Bible, open it up to Matthew’s Gospel, and just start reading. Opportunities to learn are everywhere.

       Third is the practice of prayer – intentionally dwelling with God each day.  If learning is getting to know more about God, prayer is the practice of getting to know God as a Father or a friend.  Again, resources on prayer abound.  The nave remains available as a Good Place to Say your Prayers.  The Book of Common Prayer has several different formal prayer services you can say in the comfort of your own home.  Practices like Centering Prayer help quiet our hearts and minds so that there is space to listen for the still, small voice of God.  You don’t have to pray for hours at a time.  Start by setting aside 5 minutes, three times a day, then grow it to ten or fifteen.  As Mother Becca is wont to say, “prayer is never wasted.”

       The fourth practice in the Way of Love is the most difficult these days.  Worship, the act of gathering in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God looks very different in 2020.  Unlike church closures during the 1918 flu epidemic or the polio outbreaks of the 1940s, we still have the ability to gather, around screens rather than in-person, to offer God thanks and praise.  Thanks to the herculean efforts of Linda and Rick Mitchell, the faithful service of Ken and Deb Stein and Brittany Whitlow, and the imaginative faithfulness of Deacon Kellie and Mother Becca, corporate worship remains a possibility, even when gathering as a community isn’t.  It certainly isn’t perfect, and we all long for the days when we will be able to come together in these pews once again, but I continue to be encouraged by how many of you are choosing to fill your spiritual wells by worshiping God from home.

       The fifth practice is Bless.  Blessing is the act of sharing one’s faith and unselfishly giving and serving our neighbors.  While the practice of blessing has also been hamstrung by the Coronavirus pandemic, it is by no means impossible.  We continue to bless and be blessed by our community by reaching out in loving service through City Shapers, MEALS INC, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, a modified Wednesday Community Lunch, and soon our annual Blessing Tree.  Christ Church is able to continue to bless the world by sharing the love of God through your financial gifts as well.  Without your generous blessing, we wouldn’t be able to provide resources to worship, learn, or bless.

       The sixth practice to fill your flask and keep your candle lit is to Go – to cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.  Being a follower means you can’t stay where you are.  Being a follower of Jesus, means that even in midst of a pandemic and in a deeply divided nation, we are called to take his ministry of healing into the world by being the face of kindness and encouragement.  To go in these times might mean to not share yet another article or meme that stokes division, but rather to reach out with a phone call, an email, or even a handwritten note to let someone know you’ve been thinking about them and praying for them.  You don’t have to physically go anywhere to reach out with the love of God.

       Finally, the seventh practice in the Way of Love is to rest.  Resting isn’t just not doing anything, but the intentional way in which we receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration. Rest is rejuvenating work that allows us to set aside the busyness that so often drains our spiritual reservoirs in order to be refilled by living water that never runs dry.  Eight months into this thing, rest may not seem that important, but I suspect most of us haven’t truly rested, even if we haven’t done much of anything.  Rest, like the six other practices, requires intention in order to be beneficial.

       Seven practices may feel overwhelming.  Instead of biting off more than you can chew, pick a couple and try them out for 30 days.  As you do so, pay careful attention to your flask of oil.  Is it beginning to fill back up?  Is your candle burning stronger than it was before?  Do you have enough to share with your family and friends?  These seven practices will keep you in the Way of Love even as we wait for what feels like forever for the bridegroom to return.  Remember, no matter how draining 2020 might be, the Way of Love will sustain you. Love never fails. Love always wins. Amen.


[1] For more on the Way of Love, check out episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love. Definitions of each practice are from this site.

An Easy Yoke

       The church I grew up in was a mission congregation planted during the post-World War Two economic boom.  The building was nestled in the very back of the Mission Hills neighborhood. Many who have driven on St. Thomas Road probably have no idea there is a church at the end of it.  Despite enormous population growth and housing developments taking over farm land on a daily basis, to this day, St. Thomas still backs up to a vast Amish farm.  On more than one occasion, I can remember leaving the church, smelling the natural fertilizer wafting heavily through the air, and seeing a man in a blue shirt and straw hat standing on a plow behind a team of two mules preparing the soil.

I didn’t realize it at the time, as I choked for fresh air amid the stench of manure, but without that Amish farmer in the church’s backyard, I wouldn’t have an image for what Jesus is talking about when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Nothing about what that farmer and his two mules were doing was easy.  The ground was hard and rocky.  The blades on his plow had to be hand sharpened.  The wooden yoke that tied the mules together surely weighed heavy upon their withers.  Yet, without the yoke, there could be no teamwork between the two animals.  Without the yoke, the farmer had no control, or with mules, the semblance of control.

       For me, then, whenever I hear this well-worn turn of phrase from Jesus, I imagine that farmer and his heavy yoke, working hard to keep a way of life alive and his family fed.  For Jesus’ audience, the farming metaphor would not have been lost, but two other images would also have been close to mind – one Biblical, the other Rabbinical.  After the image of a famer’s field, the next thought would have probably been of the Prophet Isaiah.  In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, after stern warning of the judgment that was coming against a nation that had forgotten their God, had made their worship idolatry, and had ignored the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in their midst, the prophet looks ahead to a day in which God will appoint a new king who will overthrow all those who have oppressed the Israelites and break the yoke of their burden.[1]  The crowd who heard Jesus speak of his easy yoke would immediately have had this promise of a new King, in the lineage of image of David brought to mind.  Their hopes would have again been stoked that Jesus would be that king who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and bring a kingdom of peace to their land.  Oh, how they longed for the heavy yoke of their oppressors to be broken, and easy yoke of God’s kingdom to be revealed.

       Close behind that image would have been the Rabbinical image of a yoke.  The teaching of a Rabbi was said to be his yoke.  For many, that yoke took a lifetime to learn.  The Torah, with its 613 individual laws, with all their various interpretations, could, at times, feel burdensome, as Paul the Pharisee tries to articulate in our passage from Romans.  In the wrong hands, the Law was used to weigh people down, to force them into a system that kept them poor and reliant upon the Temple to mediate God’s forgiveness.  For many in the time of Jesus, the Pharisaical interpretation of the Torah felt like a yoke too heavy to bear.  Not only was their political life a heavy yoke, but religious life didn’t seem to offer much in the way of lifting the people’s burdens.  The people were weighed down, tired, and broken.

       So broken, that even the most righteous among them, John the Baptist, had begun to doubt.  The impetus for what we have just heard is a scene just before our Gospel lesson this morning. Imprisoned and frustrated, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one he had hoped for.  Could it be true, in a world that sat so heavy upon his shoulders, that Jesus really was the one to lift the burden and break the yoke?  Emphatically, Jesus says yes.  Not because he was gathering an army to overthrow Rome.  Not because he had a plan to break John out of prison.  Not due of any show of force, or power, or might, but Jesus is resolute that his Messiahship is based in freedom.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  The poor have the good news brought to them.  “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden is light.”

       Almost immediately after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the Church began to add weight onto the yoke of Christ.  Two thousand years later, and after sixteen hundred years of being tied to empire, the Gospel of Jesus can feel pretty heavy for many.  Over the centuries, the easy yoke of Jesus has been weighed down by sexism, colonialism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and nationalism, among other things.  It has been bent under the weight of powerful men who have tried to muscle the easy yoke of Christ off the path of freedom.  Add to that the sheer weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, economic instability, and a long overdue reckoning for America’s original sin of racism, and it should come as no surprise to any of us that many people are feeling weighed down by the burdens of sin, fear, and hopelessness.  Despite it all, the promise of Jesus remains true.  His yoke is easy.  His burden is light.  If only we human beings would let God lift off all the garbage we’ve laid upon the yoke of Christ, we could be unburdened.  If only we would let God break the yoke of oppression, those who have been oppressed and those who have been the oppressors would be able to stand taller in the freedom of God’s mercy.

It’ll take eleven more chapters in Matthew’s Gospel before we get a clear understanding of just how easy the yoke of Jesus really is.  In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were embroiled in a philosophical war of words with Jesus.  Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees one final time, when the Pharisees got together and sent a lawyer to test him.  “Teacher, which commandments in the law is the greatest?” he asked.  Out of all 613 laws in the Torah, which one is most important?  Jesus answered him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Jesus could have stopped there.  Having shared with the lawyer the foundation of his teaching, he would have answered the man’s question, but he went on.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It isn’t just that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself is the beginning of Jesus’ yoke, but it is the fullness of it.  Everything else Jesus taught was simply an interpretation on love God and love neighbor.  As Deacon Kellie said in her mid-week meditation on Wednesday, “even when Jesus is talking about finances, or fear, or feeding, or following, or faithfulness, he’s always also talking about love.”[2]  Or as the Presiding Bishop said in his installation sermon back in 2015, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”[3]

The yoke of Jesus is love.  It is simultaneously feather light and impossible to carry on our own.  The yoke of love unites us together.  The yoke of love necessarily puts us in community.  The yoke of love puts to mind first the needs of others, it moves us toward compassion, and calls us to reconciliation.  Without the yoke of Christ there is no ability to work together.  Without the yoke of love, our work in the field of God’s kingdom goes undone.  I invite you, my dear friends, no matter how heavy the weight of today might feel, to let Christ replace your burdensome yoke, for his yoke is truly easy, and his burden is, in fact, light.  Amen.


[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-06/our-yokes

[2] https://www.facebook.com/cecbg/videos/1239052959792585

[3] https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/michaelcurry/sermon-installation-27th-presiding-bishop

The Martyrs of Uganda

Today, the Church remembers the Martyrs of Uganda, killed on this date in 1886.

Let us pray.

O God, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: Grant that we who remember before you the blessed martyrs of Uganda, may, like them, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ, to whom they gave obedience, even to death, and by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A reading from Matthew 24:9–14

Jesus said to his disciples, “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

The story of Christianity in Africa is messy, to put it mildly.  During the 33 year “Scramble for Africa,” European powers simply drew lines on maps, portioning off control of a continent that was not theirs for the taking, the Church played a lamentable role as missionary zeal mixed with political desire and a hunger for natural resources to create a toxic situation.

In Uganda, a nation claimed by British Empire, Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society focused their attention on converting the King and his Court beginning in 1877.  When the sympathetic King Mutesa I died in 1884, his son, Kabaka Mwanga II took the throne.  Mwanga was concerned that his court was filled with pages who put loyalty to Jesus Christ ahead of loyalty to the king.  He feared that this religious influence would have a political impact as he felt the powers of Europe closing in around him.  On October 29, 1885, King Mwanga ordered the execution of Bishop James Hannington and his companions as they made their way from Lake Victoria out of fear of a British invasion.

Eight months later, on June 3, 1886, Mwanga ordered 32 young men, between the ages of 15 and 30, to be burned to death for their refusal to denounce their faith.  In the following months, many more were burned or tortured to death for their faith as Mwanga tried to eradicate the Christian faith and its European influence from his kingdom.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.  Under the threat of certain death for those who preached and sought out the preaching of the Gospel, Christianity began to grow in Uganda.  The example of martyrs, who walked to the flames singing hymns and praying for their enemies sparked a desire for such faith in many who witnessed those horrific events.  With no white, European missionaries to turn to, these new Christians were taught the faith by their neighbors, people who looked and spoke like them and shared their traditions, history, and customs.  As a result of this Christian faith that came from the voices of an indigenous population, today Uganda is the most Christian nation on the African Continent.

As inheritors of a Christian faith that has been used by empires to subjugate people, enforce political control, and rob people of their cultures, we should be cautious about thinking that Jesus is talking to us when he warns his disciples of the coming persecution.  Our faith tradition has often been the persecutor, not the persecuted.  We should, however, be all in on the commitment to endure in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.  This Good News, as Matthew portrays it in his Gospel an impossibly simple one sentence sermon that Jesus preached again and again, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

If we are to learn anything from the Martyrs of Uganda, it is that the work of repentance is ongoing.  We must choose daily – and sometimes hourly or even minute by minute – to turn from the ways of self-preservation, anger, and bitterness and toward the way of love that Jesus showed us in this life and that the Martyrs of Uganda showed us in their deaths.  During these fearful and troubling times, may we all choose to follow the way of love and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

We all feebly struggle

A friend of mine from seminary is fond of saying that it is through our hymns the we best articulate our heresies.  His particular point of interest was in the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The herald angels sing” and the line, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see,” which bears the weight of the 2nd century gnostic heresy.  Gnosticism was built on the idea that creation is evil and God is good, and so Jesus couldn’t have actually been both God and human.  Rather, either the Christ was a lesser god that had been sent to earth, or that he was God, veiled in flesh, but not actually incarnated.  Anyway, it fits the meter and is a classic hymn by Charles Wesley, so we sing it every Christmas, without fear.

Another example comes around on All Saints’ Sunday when we sing “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” in the midst of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.”  While not quite rising to the level of heresy, this line tends to add to our misunderstandings about sainthood.  It probably actually means that while we continue to struggle on earth while those who have gone before rest in God’s eternal glory in heaven, but the popular understanding of sainthood has been so muddied by Roman Catholicism that it tends to feed this idea that saints are some sort of other worldly Christians, the likes of which we will never attain.  It is not uncommon for me to be talking with someone about sainthood, be they a regular church-goer or totally de-churched, and they will bring up the need for verifiable miracles, beatifications, and canonization.  These are the things of news stories, as we hear about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa making their way through the process of sainthood after their deaths.

The reaction to this often goes one of two ways.  Some are in awe of the faith and good works that have been done by people like Mother Teresa.  “We feebly struggle, but they in glory shine” indeed.  They are enamored with their religious celebrity and wonder if they could even be half the Christian these saints were in their lives.  More often, the response is confusion.  They’ve read the stories of Teresa’s struggle with doubt or know about John Paul’s role in covering up the child abuse scandals, and wonder how anyone could think of them as better than any of the rest of us.  The most critical response to the concept of sainthood is often tied in with a very popular reason for not going to church these days, “They’re all just hypocrites anyway, preaching one thing and living another.”

My response to this criticism is to admit, readily and fully, that we all feebly struggle.  Whether we are talking about Saint Francis, Mary Magdalene, Howard Surface, or Mary Jo Cook, the life of faith is for all of us, a daily struggle.  As Mother Becca said last week, every morning, as foot hits the floor, we must make the choice to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect, far from it, but it means that as we feebly struggle, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to redeem us, and the Father’s love to sustain us.  The church is full of hypocrites, and the communion of saints is full of them too, which is why we set aside this Feast of All Saints, to give thanks to God for the grace that carries all of us sinners.

We are living in an era in which the news is full of famous men who claim to follow Jesus but seem to have become famous mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Violent misogynists and anti-Semites have become the famous men of our time, and it is the work of the Church this All Saints’ Sunday that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on the righteous and godly women and men who have lived the struggle and “have perished as though they never existed.”

See, what makes you a saint isn’t the amazing things you do, but rather what God is doing through you.  In the New Testament, when Paul writes about the saints, he uses it as a synonym for disciples.  There, he doesn’t even mean those who have already died in the faith, but rather all who have ever sought the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  While it is the custom here at Christ Church to list, by name, the saints of this parish who have died in the past year, the list of saints properly includes all of us as well.  In a deeply counter-cultural move, we name as saints not only those whose names are written on monuments or carried in the news, but also regular folk who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

The reality of All Saints’ Day that the Ecclesiasticus lesson names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have lived in the faith of Christ.  It is especially our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, and those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.  In a world that prefers to name the infamous, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy examples those who might have become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

For we who remain on earth, sometimes feebly struggling to follow the Way of Love, All Saints’ Day is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Gospel.  As Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, so All Saints’ Day challenges us to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world?  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity?  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  With God’s help, these choices must be made daily, if not hour by hour or minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” puts it, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  Dear saints of God, as we walk through the struggle of this great ordeal together, what will you choose?  Will you choose sainthood?  Will you choose blessedness?  Will you, with God’s help, choose the Way of Love in Kingdom of God?  Amen.

The Way of Love

One of the difficulties I had with not actually attending General Convention this year is that, when you aren’t immersed in it 24-hours a day for the 58 days it lasts (a small exaggeration), it can be hard to keep up with everything that is happening.  For example, the worship was scheduled for 5:15 in the evening.  This usually meant that something else was happening here, and I couldn’t tune in to hear some of the most gifted preachers in the church share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’ll try to catch up, as I am able, but it is slow going. I have, only now, finally found my to Presiding Bishop Curry’s opening sermon on The Way of Love.

I got there by way of the weekly email from Forward Movement, which invited me to engage in the Way of Love, a seven-part way of life to which the Presiding Bishop is calling all Episcopalians.  Over on the Way of Love page, there is a nice, three-minute video introducing the seven practices, but inexplicably, there is no way share that video on blogs or social media.  You’ll have to click this link.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Welcome back!  I hope you enjoyed hearing from the PB about the seven practices of:

  1. Turn
  2. Learn
  3. Pray
  4. Worship
  5. Bless
  6. Go
  7. Rest

My digging into the Way of Love is timely, as it seems that all seven points are represented in some way in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  The disciples are freshly back from their first missionary journey where they have listened to Jesus’ call to go, taken what they have learned, and blessed the many villages to which they have travelled.  In response to their success, Jesus orders them to rest, but when he sees the crowds desperate for more, he turns his attention to them, prays for their healing, and in turn, the crowds will worship Jesus.

way_of_love_primary_graphic_1

As disciples of Jesus, each of us are called to follow a similar model for our own lives of faith.  As you heard in the Presiding Bishop’s short video, we are invited to turn our lives toward the Kingdom of God, to learn from the teachings of Jesus, to pray for hearts that are open to love, to worship God who is the giver of all good gifts, to take those gifts and bless others as we go into the world with the love of God in our hearts and on our lips, and then to return for rest, in order to be empowered to do it all again.

There is much to learn in the Gospels about this life of faith, but I commend to you this seven-fold model for a way of life.  Following Jesus into the world in the Way of Love will, without a doubt, bring us ever closer to the Kingdom of God.