“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Jesus said ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.
Good morning! What a gift to be at Holy Trinity for worship and afterwards to dedicate the new building space you’ve worked so hard to complete. Congratulations–what an accomplishment. Special thanks to the Rev. Leslie St. Louis and your lay leaders for welcoming me so kindly.
The title of my sermon is The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. It’s the first in an eight week sermon series that I will preach across the Diocese of Washington. If this one peaks your interest, you can follow along with via social media or on the diocesan website.
Along with your bulletin, you received a sheet of paper. On the back is a space for you to jot down notes from the sermon if you like. Inside, it offers a simple format of daily prayer about which I’ll speak more in a moment.
So how many of you have heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preach? Perhaps at a simple wedding earlier in the summer? Are you as inspired by him as I am? I’ve known Bishop Curry for many years, and we are so blessed to have him as our spiritual leader. No matter the setting–be it a small congregation, a huge public gathering, or the Royal Wedding–he consistently and compellingly speaks God’s unconditional, life-transforming love for every human being, a love revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Presiding Bishop will tell us anytime he gets the chance that Jesus came into the world to show us how to live. Jesus came, he says, that we might know God’s love so deeply and personally for ourselves that we can’t help but be changed into more loving people. Jesus came to embody God’s love, to help transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream God has for us all. And while Scripture teaches that God shows no partiality, we who call ourselves Christians have a particular mandate to walk in Jesus’ ways and be instruments of his love for others.
Last December, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited a dozen lay and clergy leaders of the Episcopal Church to spend two days with him. He asked us to help him work through an issue that was troubling him. For all that we love about the Episcopal Church, and all that is good, it is, nonetheless, stuck in trends of decline and all the pressures of a declining institution. That’s not true of every Episcopal Church, but the overall trends are humbling. We’re a disproportionately aging denomination and getting smaller every year. Around the country–even after a really big service at Washington National Cathedral–the majority of people under the age of 50 have no idea who we are.
The Presiding Bishop wants to change the direction of those trends, as do I. What are we missing? we wondered together. What could we do, not only to ensure the survival of our churches, but so that they might thrive as vibrant spiritual communities in our land?
Part of the problem many people have about us is that we are so hesitant to talk about our faith, others don’t know we’re here. Moreover, we seem inordinately attached to our preferences in worship. We think of ourselves as warm and welcoming, and inclusive, but is that how others experience us?
To turn things around, maybe what we all need to do is try harder to make our presence known, try harder to be more welcoming.
But we as we prayed and talked together, another possibility surfaced. “I wonder,” the Presiding Bishop said at one point, “how many of our people have experienced God’s unconditional love for them. Have you considered that reason most Episcopalians are hesitant to speak of Jesus is because they don’t really know him as real for them?” He paused. “How can we share what we don’t have?”
The room went silent. I found myself thinking back to something I had just read in a book by Pastor Adam Hamilton. It was a passage on the power of the Holy Spirit:
When we speak about the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, we are speaking of God’s active work in our lives; of God’s way of leading us, guiding us, forming and shaping us; of God’s power and presence to comfort and encourage us and to make us the people God wants us to be. The Spirit is the voice of God whispering, wooing and beckoning us. And in listening to this voice and being shaped by this power, we find that we become most fully and authentically human. . . .
But he goes on:
I think that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives, a bit like someone who is sleep deprived, nutrient deprived, of oxygen deprived. Many Christians haven’t been taught about the Spirit, nor encouraged to seek the Spirit’s work in their lives. As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own power and wisdom. (Adam Hamilton, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why (Abingdon Press, 2016).)
As I heard the Presiding Bishop speak and simultaneously recalled Adam Hamilton’s words, it was as if God were holding a mirror to my face. Right there, I had to acknowledge to myself and before God that on most days I try to live and lead from my own power. Even as one ordained for nearly 30 years, my daily default position is to assume that everything depends on me. But never does Jesus say that. Instead he says, as you just heard “I am the vine. I am the source of your strength and capacity to love. You are a branch, sharing what you receive from me.”
That was when the Presiding Bishop decided that he wanted to spend his remaining years as our spiritual leader helping us experience the love of God made known to us in Jesus, and to follow Jesus in that way of love. And I decided that I wanted to do the same as your bishop. From that desire, on the part of many, The Way of Love; Practices for a Jesus-Focus life was born.
Adhering to daily practices of any kind is known as following a rule of life. A spiritual rule of life is simply a conscious effort on our part to be open, each day, to the love of God in Jesus, to receive that love for ourselves, and then offer love to others as we hear God’s call. If we adhere to them over time, they shape our character and determine the course of our lives.
The writer Brian McLaren puts it this way:
Spiritual practices are those actions within our power that help us narrow the gap between the person we are and the person we hope to become. They help us become good and deep company for ourselves and others. They’re about surviving our twenties or forties or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are. Spiritual practices are about life, about training ourselves to become the kinds of people who have eyes and actually see, and who have ears and actually hear, and so experience not just survival but life that is real, worth living, and good. (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008).)
He goes on to say that our character–the kind of people we are–determines how much of God we can experience, and maybe even which version of God we experience. Which is say that there’s a lot at stake here, for us.
There are seven practices outlined in the Way of Love. In upcoming weeks, I’ll preach on each one in depth. Today, I invite you to hear and consider them all together, and to contemplate what it might be like for you to take on one or more of these practices every day.
As you listen, let me underscore the obvious: these practices, in general, do not require dramatic gestures on your part or mine. On occasion, they might, but mostly they are small steps we take every day whose impact will be felt over time. Nor is this a program designed to fix the challenges we face as a church. Truth be told, there’s no guarantee that even if every Episcopalian under the sun decided to follow the Ways of Love that our church’s decline would turn around.
On the other hand, if we never engage in these practices, or others like them, we may not have a church worth saving. For the church isn’t a building, an institution, a small community desperate to survive. It is, as the Presiding Bishop says, a movement, a gathering of people who have heard the call to follow Jesus in his ways of love for the world–person by person, community by community.
So here they are:
The first practice is to turn. That’s it: to turn our gaze, to turn our mind, our thoughts, our attention to Jesus. Simple as it sounds, it is the foundational practice, referring back to the first conscious decision we made, or perhaps have yet to make, to be a follower of Jesus. Do you remember the moment when made that decision? Perhaps you did so unconsciously or slowly, perhaps in a dramatic moment of conversion. Was there a time when you decided to turn back to him, and to the faith, after a time apart?
To turn also describes the daily decision to focus our attention on Jesus, asking for his guidance and grace. Now, when I wake up the morning I try to remember to acknowledge Jesus. I thank him for the gift of another day and ask for his strength and guidance. There are days, I confess, when I’m up for hours before I remember, but when I do, I simply take a deep breath and turn my inner gaze toward Jesus.
The second practice is to learn, to commit each day to some form of learning, reading the Bible, or listening to devotional material focused on Jesus’ teachings. Sometimes the learning process involves a deep dive, through a class or study; other times, it’s a small, daily encounter with sources of wisdom and inspiration. I can’t stress enough how important it is to continue learning in faith. Otherwise we get stuck with an understanding of God that’s too small. There’s a lot of bad teaching in the name of Christianity–causing intelligent people rightfully to turn away from so-called Christian teachings that aren’t Christian at all. So choose your resources wisely. There are many fine tools to help us go deeper in our knowledge of God. What matters most here isn’t the quantity of our learning, but the steady commitment to take in a bit of insight each day.
The third practice is tied in the first and second and yet also stands alone, to pray, again, to spend time each day–it needn’t be long–in intentional prayer. Of course we can pray at all times and places. Yet I have learned that making the effort to sit down in the same place every day for a few minutes has a quiet, powerful impact on my life. It’s a time to sort through and settle my thoughts, as murky water settles in stillness, to allow clarity to emerge. It’s a time to speak my heart, sometimes with sighs instead of words, before God. And it’s a time to listen, saying to God, as the prophet Samuel learned to do as a small boy, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” We may not hear anything in the silence. But we might. And we’ll never will hear anything from God if we don’t take time to listen.
In terms of time, we can commit ourselves to turn, learn and pray each day in as little as 10-15 minutes a day. That’s where I start whenever I have strayed from daily practice and need to begin again. We can always spend longer, but the benefit comes with the habit of setting aside time over time. Best to start small.
The fourth practice moves us from the personal to the collective, to worship in Christian community. You see, following Jesus is not a solo effort. We need one another. Rarely do we grow in the ways of love on our own. As one writer put it, the church at its best is “like a school that trains people in the way of love, an unusual school that lasts a lifetime and from we which we never really graduate. . . Christian faith is really one long apprenticeship in the way of love.” (Norman Wirzba, Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2016))
The fifth practice takes us out into our lives and the world. It is to bless. This is perhaps the most lovely and understated of practices: to speak words of kindness and affirmation. The Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of blessing, “The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it and once we sense it, we are able to trust and open ourselves.” (John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008)) Think of the countless opportunities you have each day to speak kindness into another person’s life, to speak a word of hope in times of uncertainty, to provide wind for another’s sails.
The sixth practice is the most challenging: to go, in the sense of crossing borders of familiarity to better understand the experience of another; to see the world through others’ eyes, to show up in places where love is most needed. The great criminal justice reformer of our time, Bryan Stevenson, speaks of “being proximate,” getting close to those who bear the brunt of our society’s ills and coming to know them as friends and neighbor.
The final practice may well be the most countercultural of all and the one we struggle with most: to rest. God rested, as the Creation story of Genesis tells us, after God created the world and humankind. We are mortal. Our bodies and souls are restored in rest. The world does not rest on our shoulders alone. We can, for a time each day, each week, lay our burdens down. This is a time for renewal, for the things that make for joy. Sabbath isn’t something we earn; it is our birthright as children of God.
In the offering plates, I’ve place small cards with each practice listed. Please take one when the plate comes to you and spend some time this week reflecting on each of the seven practices. Which ones come easily to you? With which do you struggle? Is there one that speaks, as something your live needs right now?
Consider taking on, as an experiment, a small daily ritual that includes the first three practices. Turn, Learn and Pray. If it’s helpful, you can use the “Way of Love” sheet, where there are brief Bible passages. If you don’t already, set aside 10, maybe 15 minutes each day to sit quietly, turn your internal gaze toward Jesus, reflect on the Scripture passage for the day and pray.
I’d love to hear from you if you do, to learn what your experience is like.
So often we think of the Christian faith as an obligation, or as a set of beliefs that we must hold. There are obligations and beliefs, but if we get stuck there, we can lose sight of, or never experience at all, what is most important. At its heart, Christianity offers an invitation to experience a loving, personal relationship with God. It’s a relationship we can trust, where we can find refuge and solid ground upon which to stand.
The Way of Love is the journey of a lifetime. It’s a way of knowing God, receiving and sharing Jesus’ love, and being a blessing to the world. I can’t think of a better way to live or people with whom I’d rather walk this way than with you and all our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Washington.
God bless and keep you always. May you always know that you are walking in the light and love of God.