More Than A Feeling

We’ve put together a Sermon Reflection Guide to help you dig deeper into Bishop Mariann’s message. Use it on your own or in a small group.

Let love be genuine. . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(Romans 12:9-21) 

In the name of God, our Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

I’d like to begin with a question: 

  • When and how did you first learn that love is more than a feeling? 

The word itself holds layers of meaning. We use the word love to describe our preferences for ice cream or music; our feelings we have for those closest to us, ranging from grandparents to lovers; our actions, and the impact of our actions on others. 

A hard way to learn that love is more than a feeling is when someone who professes to love you treats you in ways that are not loving. It happens to all of us at some point, because those who love us are not perfect, nor are we perfect in our love for them. In most loving relationships, the gap between our words and deeds is the terrain for growth in love. It’s where we strengthen love’s muscles of forgiveness, acceptance, and our desire to be better people than we sometimes are. Learning to love well is a lifelong process of trial and error and trial again. We also learn that what doesn’t feel like love at first might be the most loving thing we can do for another. Think of a parent saying no to a toddler who wants to play with fire. 

Sometimes, however, those who say that they love us seem to have no appreciation for, or concern about, the disconnect between their feelings of love and what we receive from them. It’s as if their love is an internal experience for them alone that doesn’t need to translate into loving words or deeds. I had that experience as a child, and I carry with me a memory of the day, somewhere around the age of 12, when I said to myself, “That is not love. If I ever have a kid, I’m never going to do that.”

I also remember what it felt like years later to recognize that people have different capacities for love; that some aren’t very good at it and aren’t interested in getting better. That helped me to forgive and seek the best possible relationship with people in my life who aren’t particularly good at love, while at the same time, wanting to be someone who acts in ways that others experience as loving. I often fail in love, as those close to me will tell you. But I’m willing to learn and to grow. 

Let me now say what some of you may already be thinking, given what’s happening now in our country. There is a parallel between our definitions of love and of racism. As with love, most of us who have white skin begin with an understanding of racism that’s rooted in our feelings. We don’t like being told we’re racist, because we don’t harbor racist feelings, at least none that we’re conscious of or want to admit. We certainly would never say or do the things that blatant racists do, those who unapologetically believe that white people are superior to people whose skin is black or brown. If your definition of racism remains on the level of feelings, okay, but as with love, your impact for good will be limited. 

There are other definitions of racism that have to do not only with how we feel, and how we treat an individual person of a different race, but also how willing we are to accept and complacently benefit from a society organized in such ways that people of color suffer more on every scale of well-being. We want to say that all lives matter, because they do. But as a country, we don’t act as if black and brown lives matter as much as white lives. We don’t. The disparities are everywhere–in health care, education, housing, policing, and in our churches. As Ibram X. Kendi writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. . . The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.” As with love, what matters is less how we feel inside and what we actually commit our lives to changing in a racist society.  

Circling back now to how we grow in love: one way that we grow is when we realize that we’re willing to act in ways that others experience as loving even when it costs us, when, as Jesus said, we have to make sacrifices and take on suffering. That’s when it dawns on us that sacrificial love is a choice. How we feel in a given moment is irrelevant. 

The truth is, no loving relationship can survive if we aren’t willing to make sacrifices, to persist in love, persevere in choosing to love, even when loving feelings are absent.   Fortunately, feelings of love wax and wane, and then return in a deeper way. Our capacity to love deepens and grows, so that we have more love to offer, which is something we’ll miss if we walk away too soon. I don’t mean to imply that we never walk away–sometimes our capacity to love isn’t large enough to hold what love requires or out of self-love we end an unloving relationship. But those are tragedies of a different order.

In these days of transition from summer to fall, I’ve been taking stock of my life over the last six months. It’s a humbling exercise at any time, but especially as so much has changed, so much has been lost; when we’ve all had to adapt to new realities and face hard truths. And because there are people who look to me for guidance and hope, I’ve been asking myself what they have learned from my example. What am I teaching, through how I live my life, about what it looks like to love in challenging times? 

Suffice it to say that there’s been plenty to grieve and confess, and much for which to give thanks. Some things I’m proud of; others I’m not. Widening the lens to consider all that’s happening in our country, it’s clear that everything depends now upon our capacity to love, to choose love. There’s a lot at stake whenever we refuse to love, or cannot love when love is needed because we’ve never practiced those muscles. 

As I turn my gaze toward the future, I find myself called back to the core practices and postures of a Jesus-focused life. It’s not that I wasn’t praying in the last six months–in some ways I’ve never prayed harder in my life. But the rhythms of my life and the practices that sustain me suffered in all the upheaval. Perhaps that’s been true for you. It’s understandable, and perhaps it was necessary. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a reset and rededication. 

In the Episcopal Church, our presiding bishop Michael Curry has called us all to practices that help us strengthen our love muscles, to receive Jesus’ love for us and then to live in such a way that others experience His love through us. Those practices are called, appropriately, the Way of Love. There is nothing new or earth-shattering about them. They simply express the kind of intentionality necessary for growth. For in love, as in any other realm in life, we don’t drift toward our highest aspirations according to how we feel on a given day. There is sacrifice involved, discipline and practice. 

The harsh truth is that if we don’t grow in our capacity to love, we become part of the problems we see all around us, and not the solution. The good news is that with effort, we can grow. 

Let love be genuine, St. Paul writes as the opening line for one of the most compelling descriptions of what love in action looks like. If you have a Bible, you might look up the passage in Romans, Chapter 12, write it down for yourself and post it in a place where you can see it every day. It wasn’t Paul’s first attempt to describe such love. He wrote a similar passage in the letter we know as First Corinthians, one that no doubt you have heard many times at weddings:  

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . . Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
(I Corinthians 13:1-8) 

The passage from Romans is similar yet strikes different themes:  

Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with mutual affection; 
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are. 
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(Romans 12:9-21)

These are compelling words to live by for anyone, for the call to love in action is universal. But for those of us who claim to be Christians, they aren’t optional. They are our mandate. The one commandment Jesus left for all of his followers is that we love one another as He loves us. That’s the only one, but it takes a lifetime of practice to live. No one drifts into this kind of love–we have to want it, and work for it, be willing to fail at it and try again.  

So here is my invitation and my challenge to you as the season turns from summer to fall: Take stock. As they say in 12-step spirituality, make a moral inventory of your capacity to love right now.

  • Where are you loving well? Be sure to celebrate that. 
  • Where have you fallen short?
  • How do those whom you profess to love experience your love? Do you know? 
  • And how far does your circle of love extend?

After taking stock, ask yourself this: 

  • How might I grow in my capacity to receive love and offer love? 

If you’re a Christian, you might want to add Jesus into your question: 

  • How might I increase my awareness of Jesus in my life and be a channel of his love for others in deeper ways?   

If you’re inclined to accept this invitation, one more thing: Best not do this alone. It’s not that you can’t, but it’s harder. We all benefit from being part of a community in which to practice love. If in COVID time you’ve fallen away from your community of faith, why not recommit to it now or find another that helps you grow? In that community, dare to go deep with someone, or a group of someones, in spiritual practice.

A word to the church leaders, particularly in the Diocese of Washington: our most important work isn’t getting back into our buildings, as great as that will be. It is, rather, creating as many opportunities as we can for our people to grow in love. 

In closing, let me ask again with one notch greater specificity: 

  • What one step might you take this day, this week, this fall to grow in love? 

For your sake and that of everyone around you, I urge you to take that step. Take it so that you may know more of God’s love for you. Take it so that others may know that love through it. Take it so that together we might help overcome the evil of this world with the goodness that flows from love. 

The Way of Love in the Midst of the Fall

The Way of Love in the Midst of the Fall

Let love be genuine. 
Romans 12:9

The late Peter Gomes, professor of ethics and chaplain at Harvard University, would preach a sermon for students every year entitled, How Are You Going to Live after the Fall? 

“Innocent pagans that most of them are,” he once said, “they assume that I’m asking them what their plans are after September. But I’m not. I’m asking them what they are going to do after their dreams fall from the sky.” He would then tell them, “The good life that you rightly seek must serve you in your most difficult, desperately hard times. It must help you to cope in your moments of doubt and despair. If what you live by does not serve you then, it is no good for you, even in the good times.” 

As September approaches, we do well to ask ourselves how we are living in the midst of the Fall. The question is less about the season and more a way to take stock of how we’re doing in a time when we’ve had to let go of so much, adapt to new realities, and face hard truths. And because we all have people in our lives who look to us for guidance and hope, we need to ask ourselves what they are learning from our example. 

In these waning summer days, I’ve been taking stock of how I’ve lived in the last six months. It’s a humbling exercise at any time, but especially so when the world’s turned upside down. Suffice it to say that there’s been plenty to grieve and confess; and much for which to give thanks. God has been merciful to me and kind, and many people have been the source of joy and inspiration. In the midst of suffering, sin and loss, I’m in awe of the power of grace, forgiveness, and resilience–how much of a day is simply tending to the next thing that needs to be done. 

Casting my gaze toward the future, I feel called, yet again, to recommit to core values and practices to help keep my focus on Jesus and His Way of Love. Should you hear a similar call, we can begin again together, with a daily practice of prayer and Scripture reading, a weekly commitment to worship, and then paying attention to the specific ways, each day, that we might be a blessing to others and to go where love is needed–and then, because we are mortal, to rest. These are the Jesus-focused practices of the Way of Love. They are tried and true; they serve us in both good and desperately hard times. Love is never out of season. 

When speaking of love, definitions matter. I grew up with a father who defined love by how he felt inside, with little capacity to demonstrate love in ways that a child could understand. Thus I learned early in my life that the feeling of love means little if it isn’t expressed in such ways that others know they are loved. As Jesus taught and lived, we see how love is a sustained practice of self giving–even, at times, of self sacrifice. 

Let love be genuine, St. Paul writes at the beginning of one of the most beautiful descriptions of what love looks like in action. If you join an Episcopal worship service this Sunday, you’ll hear what one commentator describes as an arpeggio of love: 

Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 
Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not pay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
(Romans 12:9-21) 

These are words worth committing to memory, so that we always have in mind what love in action looks like. Remember that this is how Jesus loves us all, unconditionally and completely. He needs those of us who follow him to live in such a way that others know what love looks like. It’s much harder than simply feeling love, but it is the kind of love that can see us through the hardest times. In the midst of the Fall, love is how we rise, and begin again. 

In my sermon this Sunday at Washington National Cathedral, I’ll reflect in greater depth on the practices of love–how to receive and share the love of God revealed to us in Jesus. 


…And a Little Child Will Lead Them

…And a Little Child Will Lead Them

Young Ailyn of St. Paul’s Piney Parish with her piggybank

4 year-old Ailyn, along with her parents and little brother are members of St. Paul’s Piney Parish in Waldorf, MD. On June 28 at the virtual coffee hour after online services, Ailyn heard Mother Maria Kane talking about the families the parish is helping from the partnership with their neighborhood elementary school. Ailyn wanted to help too and she went and got her piggy bank. There was $73.32 in her bank and she told the folks online at coffee hour she wanted to help those families too and she gave it all.

And a little child shall lead them. Ailyn’s gesture has turned into over $2,000 so far with matching donations. Ailyn’s mom, Emily comments, “She keeps having a bigger and bigger impact, like ripples in the water.” 

In addition, the folks of St. Paul’s are working on ways they can help with school supplies and other things as students and parents work to adjust to the start of another school year.

The contents of the piggybank – a generous haul!

This year, back-to-school looks different than any year we have ever experienced. Most students are beginning their school year in their bedroom or living room or around the kitchen table. Others are in classrooms with a mask on. Parents are full of questions and apprehension. And teachers, well let’s just say they are taking what they learned in the Spring and making the needed changes to ensure their students get the best learning and experience possible. They need all the help and support they can get.

The big question is how do our parishes fit into this new world? The traditional school supply drive, does that help? Let’s look at what some of our parishes are doing:

  • Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda held a drive for tablets through Housing Up. The cost was $50 per tablet and the drive netted 70 tablets.
  • Washington National Cathedral conducted their “Lunches & Laptops” drive. Partnering with United Planning Organization, they filled two big pick-up trucks with crafts, games, notebooks, art supplies and lots of healthy snacks and foods for children across the city.
  • In Prince George’s County, there are 2 elementary schools in the neighborhood of St. John’s, Mt. Rainier. Deacon Sandra Bramble says the way to help is to pick up the phone and call the school principal and offer. And then, be ready to work.
  • St. Andrew’s, College Park has been partnering with McCormack-Langley Park Elementary School for a number of years. They do school supplies in the fall and a warm coat drive in the winter. 
  • At St. George’s, Valley Lee and Ascension, Lexington Park, Deacon Martha Eldridge is working on details to set up an internet zone in the church for the families who do not have access in the rural parts of St. Mary’s County.
  • At St. James, Indian Head, they have boosted their Wi-Fi so that the community can come to the parking lot and have access to the internet while staying safe in their cars.

This school year, it is more important than ever to be involved. When asked about help, teachers are often not sure what to ask for. Parents and kids are figuring this out as they go. As for those of us in the parishes of the Diocese of Washington, back-to-school this year will likely last throughout the school year. We need to stay in touch with our families and the teachers and administration of our schools and be good partners… all year long. 

Don’t wait for someone else to do it or organize it because 4-year-old Ailyn is already way ahead of us. 

Complied by Deacon Steve Seely, St. Paul’s Piney Parish, Waldorf, MD

The Way of Love in the Midst of the Fall

True Words Spoken in Love

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . .
Ephesians 4:15

In a time when words can feel like weapons, it’s a relief to be on the receiving end of words of truth spoken in love. While the words themselves may not be easy to hear, the love with which they are spoken allows us to receive them. They help us to grow up and grow in the likeness of Christ. For it is truth, Christ reminds us, that sets us free. 

Twice this week I have experienced true words spoken (or in one case, written) in love, and twice they have given me hope and a greater sense of personal responsibility for our collective future.   

The first truth in love experience was in reading an article written by anti-racist scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi entitled: The End of Denial: Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism? 

If you are familiar with Dr. Kendi’s work you know that he minces no words when describing the devastating legacy and societal wide impact of racism. Yet he writes with an appreciation for the complexity and multidimensional reality of human nature and history. For him to suggest that we might be at the beginning of racism’s end is incredibly hopeful. “We are living in the midst of an anti-racist revolution,” he writes. 

He likens the possibility of this moment to another in our history when “a large swath of Americans walked away from a history of racial denial.” In the1850s, as slaveholders in the South sought to expand their reach both North and West, increasing numbers of white Americans could no longer deny or ignore slavery’s horrors. Similarly, a growing number of Americans are now moving beyond ignorance and apathy to face the devastating truth about racial inequities we have long denied. 

The second word of truth spoken in love came from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, who on August 10 addressed all Episcopal bishops via video conference

“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. 

He spoke directly about the danger of rising COVID-19 cases across the country, yet emphasized his belief that we can bring infection rates down. To do so, we must all agree to do three things: wear masks when in public, keep physical distance, and avoid crowds. When planning events of any kind, particularly worship, outdoors is always better than indoors. 

The next several weeks is our golden opportunity, he said with a note of urgency, before cold weather returns to much of the country and flu season begins. He is cautiously optimistic that we can do it, if we work together. “I regret,” he said, “that some perceive public health measures as an obstacle to worship, when these measures are meant to provide a gateway to worship safely.”

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of those two words: cautiously optimistic. It conveys hope and at the same time underscores our responsibility to live in such a way that we might realize a preferred future.

There’s a similar note of cautious optimism in Dr. Kendi’s work, tinged with real concern that we might settle for the removal of racist monuments, and even the defeat of a racist president, but avoid the more challenge work of dismantling anti-racist policies. But Dr. Kendi ends his article in hope that we, as a people, might realize we are at a point of no return: “No returning to the bad old habit of denial. No returning to cynicism. No returning to normal—the normal in which racist policies, defended by racist ideas, lead to racial inequities.”

Dr. Kendi reminds us that abolishing slavery in 1850 seemed as impossible as abolishing racial inequities does today. But what seems impossible can happen, if we don’t give up. Likewise, Dr. Fauci ended our conversation urging us not to lose hope. “This pandemic will end. Our actions now can help.” 

As Christians, of course we pray for deliverance from this pandemic and for an end to the racial inequities that cause so much pain. But while we receive in prayer assurance of divine presence, guidance and strength, God gives us back the work. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling,” St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians, “for God is the one who enables you both to want to and to live out His good purposes.”  

How wonderful it would be to know that we are at the beginning of the end of racism in this country, and the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Surely that is God’s preferred future. The truth, spoken to us in love, is that it is our responsibility to make it so.