Sermon preached October 30, 2011
Text: Matthew 22:34-40
Sara Miles was born in 1952. Sometime next year she will turn 60. I have no idea how she might feel about that, but we do know something about Sara. At age 46 she came into Christian faith and the church. She has written about this in two books – Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. A number of us are reading Take This Bread and I used some themes from that book last week in my sermon. I will do that again this week, but let me begin with a few words from Miles’ Jesus Freak book.
I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (xi)
The story of this conversion is the story Miles tells in Take This Bread. We can learn from her story. She teaches us things about the journey of faith, about our lives with God and Jesus. Last week I said that she teaches us three important things about our faith: that Christian faith is a power that transforms our lives, that conversion is an on-going process – or the journey of faith is a journey, and that following Jesus may take us into uncomfortable places. I believe Sara Miles also has something to teach us about love, and that matters.
Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, encouraged by a larger group of Pharisees, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” According to Matthew, the questioner did not really want to know the answer, but asked only to put Jesus to the test. Jesus takes the question at face value and offers and answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures have been codified into 613 Mitzvoth or commandments. While the number is not uncontroversial, you get the picture that there are a lot of commandments. So the Jews of Jesus time were curious about what was most important. There is a Jewish story from the time of Jesus that a Gentile asked two of the most famous rabbis of the first century, Shammai and Hillel, to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai refused, saying that the Torah could not be summarized in such a simple way. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 70) To a similar question Jesus responds that love is most important – love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself.
But what does that mean? What does that look like? The word “love” gets bandied about in so many contexts. We love chocolate, and we love our spouses, and we think there is probably a difference in those kinds of love. What does love mean? What might it mean to love? The Bible itself encourages us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (I John 3:18). In other words, “Let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love” (I John 3:18, The Message). Reading Sara Miles helps me grab hold of what it means to practice real love. She recalls the words of Paul, that what matters is “faith working through love” (161)
In an interview at the back of her book, Miles is asked what she recommends for Christians who want a faith that is something other than the narrow, judgmental Christianity that is often portrayed in the media. First, do something. Feed, heal, help…. Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that they become different, or start doing what you want them to do. Just pray for them. (289) Love in action – feed, heal, help, pray.
In Christian faith, to love is to pray. Miles shares some powerful stories about love as prayer. For fifteen minutes, I’d try to actually listen to another person, letting myself be whatever was needed: the bowl of soup, the forgiving mother, the magic minister, a warm body…. I’d sit down next to people and let them talk or cry; I’d listen and put my hands on them; at some point, I’d pray aloud; without really knowing where the words were coming from. (132) Love as prayer includes love for self, and prayers for one’s own life. During a particularly difficult time in her life, Miles would pray: God… Thank you for healing. For new life, after all. And thank you especially for the dark years. Thank you for everything that works in the dark. (133) While for Miles praying at her food pantry made some uncomfortable, others who had been burned by religion found her prayers the only ones they could receive. (133)
Prayer is love in action – love for God and love for others. When we pray we offer our whole lives to God – heart, soul and mind. We offer the lives of others into God’s love. Prayer opens new avenues for love.
While prayer is one lesson we learn from Sara Miles about love in action, about faith working through love, a focal point for Miles faith and life is her work at a food pantry she establishes at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. Early on she asks, “now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?” (97) Soon enough a “vision” comes to her: It was communion… but with free groceries instead of bread and wine. With the “everyone” of “Jesus invites everyone to his table” extended so that more sinners and outcasts could share the feast. With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven. This is it, I thought, what I’m supposed to do: feed my sheep. (104)
That food pantry, with it struggles and successes, with the cast of characters Miles encounters, is the centerpiece of the story in Take This Bread. Miles comes to Christian faith through taking bread and as she comes to understand a faith that is supposed to work through love, she discovers her work of love in feeding others. She has come to know something of God’s love and this is her way of loving God and loving others, loving God through loving others. But faith working through love: That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer. Whatever else, I could at least keep working in the pantry, feeding as many people as I could. (162)
Jesus tells us that what matters most is love – love God, love others as you love yourself. The writer of I John reminds us to love not just in speech, but in truth and action, to practice real love. Sara Miles helps us get even more concrete – pray, feed, heal, help – that’s what love can mean. Her book helps me think about faith working through love. To love God is to pay attention and that is prayer. We seek to love others as God loves them, reaching out even to those we may find difficult or challenging. We seek to love ourselves as God loves us.
When asked in the interview in the back of her book what Miles hopes people will take from it she replies: I hope that readers, whether or not they’re religious, will be able to take away Jesus’ message: Don’t be afraid. That they’ll find ways to act; to feed others, to accept being fed by others; that they’ll be willing to open up to people very different from themselves. (290) To love God is to pay attention, to love others as God loves, and to trust that when we open ourselves to others we will be loved and fed.
I am glad to be reading Miles’ book after we have been engaged in our own food distribution ministry, Ruby’s Pantry. It has helped me understand more deeply how it is truly faith working through love. Miles book has helped me reflect on some of the on-going conversion experiences involved in this work. It has helped me give thanks for the ways I have been fed by this ministry. Love and bread.
But we miss something of the power of Sara Miles story if we think that we have to imitate her in expressing love through bread. What matters is love – of God and others. What matters is faith working through love. What matters is a love that goes beyond words to actions. But the actions will vary. You may not have had the opportunity to work with Ruby’s Pantry. I hope you will give it a try sometime. But if you can’t you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and give up. Find another way to let faith work through love. Tuesday night you are invited to go to St. Scholastic and hear Shane Claiborne. Shane has worked with Mother Teresa. He established the Simple Way, a small monastic community in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. He is going to talk about how his faith works through love in action. But we are not all called to be Shane Claiborne, just as we are not called to be Sara Miles.
Each of us needs to find ways to love – love God and others, to let our faith work through love, to love in action. Prayer is a part of that for everyone, but we can pray differently. Action is not optional, but faith working through love takes many forms. Find some: Love and bread as we seek to feed others literally; love and listening as we give the best gift we can to others – the gift of our time and attention; love and tears as we cry with someone; love and hands – hands that hold or arms that hug; love and smiles; love and hammers – repairing a roof or building a house or digging a garden; love and song – joining together with others to sing of our faith and sing our way into deeper faith. There are all kinds of “love ands…”. Sara Miles reminds us that we need to find our “and.”
Where does Christian faith begin and end: love God, love as God loves, let yourself be loved, find your love and… Amen.