God is Love, even in Baltimore. A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

In my sermon last week, I dropped in a brief quote, that I want to follow up on this week. Last week I quoted the great theologian Lady Gaga who once said: Justice is love with its boots on.

I feel like I need to come clean. I couldn’t find the exact quote from Lady Gaga when I looked after my sermon. I remember hearing that she said it, but I can’t find a source. So I have to confess Lady Gaga may or may not have said those words, “Justice is love with its boots on.” I’m not exactly sure, but if she did, Gaga was paraphrasing. The famous quote is “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Those words are from Dr. Cornell West. “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

So, I apologize if I misled you last week. But in any case I found myself thinking about that relationship a great deal this week, the relationship between justice and love. It’s been quite a week. Watching the scenes unfolding in Baltimore made me ask myself a lot of questions about justice.

I know many of you have been following the news closely, and for many of you, the scenes on tv were reminiscent of our own reality here in St. Louis just a few short months ago. If this week felt like deja vu all over again, you weren’t alone.

Some of you have been following one of our local activists Deray McKesson, who is prolific on Twitter. Deray was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer this last week, while he was visiting Baltimore to meet with activists. In the interview, which you can find online, Deray again and again is asked versions of the same question: “Do you condemn the ‘violence’ and ‘looting’ going on in Baltimore?” Again and again, Deray tries to steer Blitzer back to the point of the protests. As Wolf Blitzer talks about the number of people who have been arrested for rioting, Deray quotes statistics about the number of people who have died in police custody. The activist says, “There should be peaceful protests. But I don’t have to condone [property destruction] to understand it.” Deray goes on to say: “Broken windows are not broken spines.”

That’s a strong statement. The charges coming from the Baltimore prosecutor are a strong statement. The riots and the destruction going on in Baltimore are strong statements. There was a Martin Luther King Jr. quote floating around St. Louis in November, and the quote is floating around Baltimore now. “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The riots we’ve seen, the protestors who are organizing peacefully, my clergy colleagues in Baltimore who are meeting, are all demanding justice.

And this week our readings are all about love. For years I carried around the reading we have from the first letter of John in my wallet. I cut it out of one of those pre-printed bulletin inserts that most Episcopal Churches used to use for their lessons, before you could just download the Bible off the internet. I folded it up, and tucked it in my wallet, and I pulled it out and read this lesson over and over again, on the school bus, when I was waiting in line, when I was particularly frustrated with someone or something. This passage is one of the most important passages in scripture for me. “God is love.”

God is love. Let us love one another. I even have a word from this scripture tattooed on my ankle. Because for me, this is it. I thought: Faith is simple. Christianity is simple: God is love, let us love one another. We love because God first loved us. This passage expresses my theology probably better than any other. God is the source of all love. God’s very self is love. When we share love we share God. We are capable of loving because God loved us. When I was in high school, those words helped me to grasp hold of the faith, and to get serious about God. Because it seemed so simple: love.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized just how complicated this simple idea can be. Love, it turns out, takes work.

Ellis and I are currently halfway through our required pre-marital counseling sessions. We were legally married back in 2013, but our “wedding” will be at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning, May 24th. Pentecost. You’re all invited. I’ll say more about that during the announcements, and there will be emails and bulletin announcements over the next couple of weeks.

In order to have our civil marriage blessed in The Episcopal Church, we have to go through pre-marital counseling, just like any other couple. It’s not easy to talk with someone else about your relationship, even when you have a legal guarantee of privacy. It’s not easy, because you have to talk about the ways you disagree with one another, how you work through conflict.

(Before I go on, I should say I got Ellis’ permission to share this little bit about our sessions). Overall, I think Ellis and I do relatively well as a couple. I often am on the other side of the couch, running the sessions, so I know a bit about these things. We’re doing well and even so, airing our laundry with someone else isn’t always comfortable. It requires answering questions we often avoid. Why do you react that way? Why do I respond that way? We’re learning a lot in these sessions, and part of what I’m learning is that love isn’t simple. Love is complicated. The work of love is hard work.

As the complicated nature of love has become more present to me, another line of John’s letter has come into sharp focus. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

I toyed with starting this sermon with the question: “Who do you fear?” or “What do you fear?” Then I decided that it was too early in the morning to start a sermon with that question. It’s too early in our time together. You might not like a preacher who asks you what and who you fear. I need to win you over first. Still, I think the question is valid. We live in a culture of fear. We live in a culture obsessed with security, feeding on fear.

Perfect love casts out fear. Part of why the work of pre-marital counseling is so important, is that the sessions START hard conversations. You face the questions you want to avoid. You talk about things you fear talking about. You may not solve everything, but you break through taboos. You work through the questions you fear.

For justice to work, as for love, I think we need to face our fears. I started this sermon by talking about the relationship between justice and love. I think Cornell West is right. The relationship between justice and love is strong. Justice is what love looks like in public. Justice is what love looks like with its boots on. Which means that justice, like love is complicated.

We know that. We know it deeply. It would be easy to get sucked into the either/or of the news cycle. You’re on this side or that side. Protestors or police. Violence or peace. But it’s not that simple. It’s just not. Justice, like love, is complicated. The pain we are seeing manifest comes from generations of complicated injustice.

We wish it was more simple. I’ve felt in myself, and I’ve heard on the news, the desire that things would just “settle down.” It’s a tempting desire. But here’s the hard truth. If the protestors let Baltimore “settle down,” if we let Saint Louis “settle down” we are indeed “settling.” We are settling for a status quo that is less than justice. We are settling for a status quo that is less than perfect love. We need to keep up the peaceful protests. We need to keep up the hard conversations that work toward reconciliation. Christians never settle for fear.

If scripture is right, only perfect love casts out fear. If Dr. West and maybe Lady Gaga are right, only perfect justice will cast out fear. Until we stop settling, we’re going to live with fear.

We’ve got work to do, as a community, as a city, as a region, as a nation. We have to face our fears. We have to stop avoiding the hard questions. We have to ask about the intersections of race and power. We have to talk about police training and hold officers accountable. We have to keep talking about them, through our desire to just let things settle down. Because without justice, we’re stuck with fear. We will continue to be stuck with fear, until we learn to take God’s love public.

Because, you see, in the midst of it all, God’s love is already perfect. Scripture tells us that God already looks on all of humanity and sees perfection. Where we see fearful difference. God sees perfection. Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American and everything in between. Rich and poor and everyone in between, gay and straight and everyone in between, women and men and everyone in between: God sees perfection. God doesn’t discriminate based on race, language, ability, age, or background. God looks on all of us with perfect love. God sees us all perfectly created. And God longs for the day that we will wake up, and stop being afraid of one another. God longs for the day we will see one another as God sees us: perfect, beloved.

God dreams about the day that we will learn to cast out our fears. The only way out is through, through some long and difficult conversations about race, about privilege, about history, about poverty, about education. But perfect love will cast out fear. God invites us to see one another, not through fear, but through love. Because God is love, even in Baltimore. Even in St. Louis, God is love.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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