School of Love

Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not put my teaching into practice?
— Luke 6:46


Something has changed, here in Old Deerfield. Since last time we gathered, something has shifted. It’s as if our sleepy little village has, somehow, awakened.

School is back in session.

The renowned writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once described fall in America as that “fine and dangerous season [when] all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalog looks wonderful.”

My datebook tells me that the year begins in January, and my church lectionary tells me that the year begins in Advent, but I always thought the Jewish calendar got it right when it placed the new year in September. September has always seemed me a time for new beginnings, and not just because it’s the month I was born in. For the children among us, September is a time of new shoes, new teachers, new classmates, and new blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. Even for the rest of us who are no longer children, September can be a time of renewed energy. The air turns crisp, and suddenly our days have a bit more structure and purpose to them.

This is as true for churches as it is for schools. September is the time when travelers return to worship, children return to Sunday school, and choir members return to the choir loft (as ours will next Sunday). There’s a palpable shift, in September.

This is true for churches, and particularly true for us here at the Brick Church. Because this is one of the distinctive characteristics of the First Church of Deerfield: we are a church surrounded by students, and filled with teachers. English, French, Latin, Music, Technology, Drama, Medicine, English as a Second Language, Woodworking, Mathematics, Second Grade — we’ve got an entire curriculum represented here in this church. So let me ask you: what are we all doing here? What have we come here, to learn? What new course of study, are we hungry to pursue, here?

Last year, I read a remarkable book called The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren, and the most memorable passage for me, the part that really stayed with me, was his answer to the question I just asked. This is how Rev. McLaren describes his vision for the future of the church:

“What I believe can and should happen is that tens of thousands of congregations will become what I call schools or studios of love. That’s the desired future to which I am passionately committed. I’m not concerned about a congregations denomination, musical style, or liturgical taste; I don’t care if they meet weekly in a cathedral, monthly in a bar, annually at a retreat center, or daily online. I don’t care whether they are big or small, formal or casual, hip or unhip, or whether their style of worship is traditional or contemporary or whatever. What I care about is whether they are teaching people to live a life of love, from the heart, for God, for all people no exceptions, and for all creation. These churches would aim to take people at every age and ability level and help them become the most loving version of themselves possible. They would help people face the challenges of life – challenges that could make them better, self absorbed, callous, or hateful – with openness, courage, and generosity. They would help people recognize when they are straying from the way of love and help them get back on the path.”[i]

McLaren goes on to note that, although there’s plenty of research into the best methods of teaching mathematics — or reading or violin — the pedagogy of love remains elusive. How do we learn to love our neighbor? How do we learn to love our God? How do we learn to love creation?

How indeed?

Jesus has many titles in the gospels: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Son of God and Son of Man. But the title by which his own followers addressed him, was Rabbi — Teacher. And these followers themselves were called Disciples, which means students. The Jesus movement was essentially a school without walls, and its curriculum was love.

It was no lecture class. Jesus spoke to his disciples, yes; he preached to large groups, and held small discussion sections afterwards. But then he showed them what those words meant in practice, by healing the sick, feeding the poor, embracing the outcasts, challenging the powerful, and bearing the cross. And having demonstrated love, he told them, Now,  you try.

He didn’t quiz them — “Now, who remembers which kinds of people are blessed?” — he just sent them out to actually bless people. He sent his disciples out in pairs – with a lab partner! — with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead. And when the crowds were hungry, he told his disciples, You give them something to eat.

There are some subjects that just cannot be mastered by the intellect alone. They require our whole bodies, our whole selves. They require practice.

Take music, for example. Some of you may remember the old Broadway show, The Music Man. The main character, Harold Hill, is a traveling salesman / con artist who sells band instruments together with the promise that he will teach the youngsters how to play. Not actually being a music teacher, he cannot show them how to practice their instruments. instead, he employs what he calls “the think method” — he assures the kids that if they just think about the piece they are going to play, the notes will come out right.

But a musical instrument is not an abstract idea but a physical body, with which we must cultivate a physical relationship. And this takes practice. If we merely listen to music, but do not practice, then we are learning music appreciation, not actual musicianship.

The same is true when we are learning to drive. There’s a reason why you have to take a road test, and not just a written test, before you can get a license.

The same is true of sports, or art, or science.

The same is true of love.

On the last day before his arrest, Jesus told his students, I’m giving you a new assignment: “that you love one another, as I have loved you. “ It was their final exam. Not a written test, but a road test.

Love, you see, cannot be learned by rote. It is not a subject to be memorized or even a concept to be understood. It is a skill to be mastered. It requires practice.

Which is why it’s not enough, for us to gather here in this room, sitting in rows, listening to my sermon, which let’s face it is basically a lecture. If church is to be a school of love, then there needs to be a hands-on component. Which is why there’s a time every week when y’all get up out of your seats and take the hand of a person near you in a gesture of peace. It’s why there’s a time every month when we fill our arms with clothing and food and supplies to bring to the folks at the Greenfield Inn and the Recovery Center and the Food Pantry. It’s why we gather together in small groups, like our “Being Mortal” book group, to share our stories and talk about things that really matter. It’s why when one of us is in the hospital another of us goes to see them. It’s why we break bread together and sing together. It’s why we baptize our babies together and bury our dead together.

Church is the place where we learn to practice love, so that we may get better at it. We come to church, because we have heard love’s music, and we want to play in that orchestra.

So as we begin this new school year, this new church year, let us re-commit ourselves to be diligent students of love. To practice love daily. To seek always to improve and expand our capacity for love. To be open to feedback and criticism, knowing that this is how we improve. To turn this sanctuary into a school of love, a studio where we practice until the notes of love leap off the page, and the music spills out the window, to fill the streets.

That’s our syllabus, for the year ahead. And in case you forgot to write it down, here again is this week’s assignment (from Philippians 4:8-9):

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise:
dwell on these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen:
practice these things.

And may the God of peace be with you.





[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), pp. 53-54.

Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 10, 2017.

Image: from Pinterest; original source unknown. Zoom in and check out the sentences on the blackboard.

When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.



(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.