In case any of you haven’t yet gotten the memo, we actually do have a theme as a community this fall: we are exploring the seven practices of the Way of Love, which are: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. We are doing this through sermons, adult forums, and blog posts published on our website under the new “Way of Love” page. Each Sunday in the bulletin, you’ll find a question related to the day’s practice that I’m asking you to ponder, respond to, and either tear off your answer and put it in the offering plate, or email me your answer later. Then we collect your answers and put them up on the Way of Love bulletin boards in the parish hall. Last Monday Bishop Mariann Budde came to St. John’s to speak about her new book, called Receiving Jesus: The Way of Love, which is about her personal experience and understanding of these seven practices.
Two weeks ago, we launched all this by talking about where the Way of Love is going, what it’s about. I told you that if I could sum up the Way of Jesus in one word, it would be reconciliation, or healing. Then I asked each of you what your one word would be – and I was thrilled to get 138 responses. You can go to the parish hall and find the Way of Love bulletins, and there you will find word clouds that show your words. By far the most common word was love. Please do go check those bulletin boards out each week to see what people are saying each week in response to what we are exploring.
The practice we are going to explore today is Learn.
I have always been one of those nerdy people who unabashedly, helplessly, enthusiastically loves to learn. If it weren’t for writing papers and the fact that it costs so much, I would probably be in school for the rest of my life. I was one of those geeks in class who always turned in my homework on time, wore super thick glasses, and did all the reading. Even today, at home, my husband Jeff and 12 year old daughter Carly and I are hooked on nature documentaries, especially the Blue Planet series narrated by David Attenborough. I am insatiably curious about the world and the people and the wildlife and the plants and the history and the cultures and the politics and everything in it.
So I was super excited that Learn is one of the practices of the Way of Love. For me, learning opens us up into vast unexplored territory, an endless ability to discover new things. But when I was growing up, Christian faith didn’t seem like this at all. “Learn,” growing up, meant memorizing a lot of Bible verses and learning the right answers to the right questions. It meant learning a confined set of doctrinal beliefs. But I don’t actually think that either my geeky intellectual approach or the orthodox doctrinal approach captures the fullness of what is really meant by the practice Learn in the Way of Love. Let me explain.
Some of you know that I work from home on Thursdays, because it is existentially impossible for me to write a sermon in the office. This past Thursday I was home, in my pajamas, with my laptop propped on my knees on the couch, studying the scriptures for today, thinking about the word Learn. Usually when I prepare a sermon, I find something from scripture that gives me some inner joy or expansiveness or insight, that eventually becomes a sermon. But this past Thursday, I had zero, nada. I was exhausted. Of course there is a lot on my plate, but there is a lot on all of our plates. Beyond that, around this time of year, when the light starts to diminish, I sometimes experience a touch of seasonal affective disorder—I sometimes feel fatigue, and have less motivation than usual—just feeling low. On Thursday I was feeling like that as I was preparing for this sermon. I didn’t want to learn anything, I just wanted to read my novel, The Goldfinch, and order a pizza.
But the sermon wasn’t going to write itself, so I sat in front of the computer screen and just prayed. And what came to me is the story of Simon Peter, fishing all night long, coming up empty, being exhausted. And then Jesus asks to borrow his boat as a stage for teaching the crowds of people on the shore. Then Jesus tells Simon to put out to sea and let down his net. Simon indulges Jesus’ suggestion, even though he already fished all night with no success. And he catches so many fish that the boat nearly capsizes. And this experience launches Simon Peter into becoming a disciple of Jesus, to learn by watching, listening, following, and doing.
What came to me was that I was and am part of the story of scripture. I stand in a long line of unsuccessful fishermen, wedding hosts who run out of wine, disciples who Jesus tells to feed 5,000 hungry people on the grass. I stand in the line of widows who feed prophets with their last drop of oil and bag of flour, and discover that the oil and flour never run out. A line that includes postmenopausal women like Sarah who embark on a journey to unknown places because God has promised them descendants more numerous than the stars. I stand squarely in the narrative of scripture, where God shows up for ordinary people who run out of resources, and God makes them generative.
I think that is what is meant by “Learn.” It means more than learning the stories of scripture. It means to discover that you and I are living them, in a way that makes us loving, life-giving, and liberating. Learn means to argue with and roll around in the grit of scriptural stories until they yield a blessing for us. The practice “Learn” means to search for and find the kingdom of God that is hidden right in front of us, like a treasure in a field that isn’t even yours, that is so precious it’s worth everything you have. Learn means to sift through the Bible stories that have life and the Bible stories that are really problematic, like going through a catch of fish, to find the pulse of God’s heart who works through ordinary flawed people like you and me, including the ordinary and flawed people who wrote the stories in Scripture in the first place. Learn means to discern the good news of God’s love, in both orthodox older theology and innovative new theology and everything in between. Learn means to become such an acute observer of life and scripture that we can detect God’s Story enacting itself before our eyes, and jump into the story and become part of it. Learn means discovering where God’s stories, our personal stories, and the stories of the world overlap.
There is a theologian named N.T. Wright who says that scripture, and our role in it, should be likened to a five act play. The first four acts are about God’s work in creation, in Israel, in Jesus, and in the Church. The fifth act is unfinished–because we are living it. We are characters in this story, and “Learn” means to discover that God is the protagonist and is active in our lives in loving ways. So “Learn” does require a little bit of knowledge, but it goes way beyond the intellect. Learn is about the openness to discover that God is still planting seeds for hope and creation and justice and Beloved Community everywhere, and that we can become part of that, even when on our own resources we have got nada.
This week, a man was shot and killed on Aurora street in St. Paul as he exited a Wednesday night Bible study at church with his 10 year old daughter. “Learn” means that even though this story and many others like it are the ones we read in the headlines, we are invited to write a different story with our lives—a story in which Jesus shows us love and nonviolence as an alternative to fear and violence, even though on our own we might feel helpless and afraid. “Learn” means listening to the prophetic voice of others, like the youths who staged a national climate change strike this week, who are asking adults to do everything we can to change our ways and care for the earth before it is too late. JoAnn Blatchley and Doug Mensing and others from St. John’s joined them, and we can learn how to tend the earth and care for a creation that God has called very good.
This week, the question in the bulletin asks you where you have encountered the kingdom of heaven in your own life. Instead of seeing heaven as limited to the afterlife, we are being asked to learn: to find the places where scripture and life overlap. To discover Jesus sightings in your own life. How is God inviting you to step into the current of what God is doing in you, and what God is doing in the world around you? This week, instead of focusing on the violence or destruction or negativity in your life or the world around you, please take this week to actively look for overlap between God’s story and your own. Where is the kingdom of heaven in your life? How can you be part of it?