The Jesus Movement has a Direction: Out to the Lost, the Least, and Left Out

In 1982 Pope John Paul II became the first Bishop of Rome in over 500 years to set foot on British soil. For five centuries or so the visit would have been unthinkable. At the height of the Reformation the Archbishop of Canterbury was prone to referring to the pope as the “antichrist.” Rome had similar words for the English usurpers.

A few centuries later, on a crisp May morning in 1982, Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Polish-born pope met outside Canterbury Cathedral, and processed inside for a service of common prayer. There at the site of Becket’s martyrdom together they led the gathered faithful in a renewal of baptismal vows, those promises we are about to make today.

We don’t talk about the Pope much in Episcopal churches. So why bring him up today? The action John Paul II took, on that first papal visit to post-Reformation England, signified a great deal. The Archbishop of Canterbury, titular head of the Anglican Communion, and the Bishop of Rome stood together and recalled their baptismal promises.

Over against all the divisions between these two leaders, divisions of history, nation, culture, language, and the nuances of faith, they stood together. They said, “we acknowledge one baptism.” We all, all Christians, share in one baptism. We aren’t baptized Catholic or Episcopalian. There is one baptism. The movement in which we participate, this Jesus movement, is bigger than any one church, any one communion, any one denomination. Our baptism doesn’t brand us for any human organization or ethnic group.

Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie’s commitment to baptism as a sign of unity was radical because so often in human history we have pretended that we, we were the ones who got to separate sheep from goats. So often we want to make the divisions. We want to count who is in, and who is out. All of us practice this separation. We all form clubs for the purpose of keeping some people out.

Let’s be real for a moment. A number of us just survived another Thanksgiving with family. Even in our own families we pretend we get to decide on sheep and goats. Too often hold on to old grudges. Too often we roll our eyes at the family member who “always has to act this way.” Too often we have already decided that this sibling, or that uncle, is a goat. We like to pretend we get to distinguish.

Baptism reminds us, we don’t get to choose between sheep and goats.

A moment ago I mentioned the “Jesus Movement.” This is the name our Presiding Bishop in The Episcopal Church uses to describe our church. “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement” he likes to say. I find the name fitting for these days. For too long the Church felt static, like a building you visited, or a club you joined. “Movement” gives a different sense of Christianity all together. “Movement” makes us sound dynamic, helps us to understand that following Jesus means getting up off our duffs.

“The Jesus Movement” also reminds us of the ancient church. Before Christians were known as “Christians” they were called simply “the followers of the way.” Our faith is about motion, it has direction. We follow a leader.

In the Gospel today Jesus makes the direction clear, his movement isn’t random. Both the blessed and the condemned in the story are confused. They ask Jesus “When did we visit you, feed you, clothe you? When did we minister to you?” or “When did we fail to see you?” Jesus says, when you did so to the least of these, to my brothers and sisters.

Jesus’ movement is purposeful. Jesus’ movement has a direction. The Jesus movement is headed out, out toward anyone who has been excluded, anyone who has been abandoned, anyone who has been left hungry, anyone who is ill, anyone who is in prison, out to those who have been judged. When a human wall goes up to separate, Jesus’ direction is out past the wall to the excluded. Jesus’ movement is inclusive, breaks down barriers, goes to those who are lost, least, and left out. God is concerned with all of those hungry sheep.

The Jesus movement leads us out beyond our comfort zones.

Sometimes the Jesus movement can be downright inconvenient. Pastors can talk big. We can preach about inclusion until we’re blue in the face. We can write “all are welcome” again and again on our signs, but meaning these words, living Jesus’ movement to the excluded, can be inconvenient.

Just Monday I had a phone call. Holy Communion, since before I got here, has observed St. Louis’ local custom on Mondays. This was new to me moving here from Washington. Mondays the church office is closed. The phones are usually on Do Not Disturb. It used to drive me nuts that nothing is open on Mondays. Now, I love it. I tend to take Fridays off, so Mondays are often my day in the office to get things done when no one else is around. It’s quiet. But this past Monday I was waiting for an important call, so I was picking up the phone. An unlisted number came up on caller ID, so I picked up.

The woman on the other end of the line was a bit confused. She had to stop and start again a few times. Finally I understood, she wanted to ask about details for our laundry love ministry. The caller must have heard frustration in my voice, because she said, “I’m not trying to be rude, I had a stroke and I get confused.” I waited for her while she went to find a pen and paper. I repeated the name and location and time of our Laundry Love ministry over and over. 7200 Balson, Classic Coin Laundry, 3rd Tuesday of the month, 6:30pm. I told her the details. We provide pizza, conversation, soap, and quarters. You do your laundry. Again and again I repeated.

My phone has a little timer on the caller ID screen, so I can see the length of a call. I know we hit the 18 minute mark around the time she was searching for a second pencil. At one point in the call I found myself thinking, “Maybe Laundry Love was a bad idea. This ministry might mean I spend more time talking to people like this, people who are disorganized, and needy, and who take up a lot of my time. I am supposed to be on an important call. Should we re-think this ministry?” Then I heard myself with those thoughts, and I rolled my eyes at myself. Have you ever had a moment like that? Where you see what you’re doing and just think, “oh self…”

“As you do unto the least of these…” Jesus’ movement can be an inconvenience. The Jesus movement will lead you out among those who are a mess, who are disorganized, who are unable to care for themselves. Jesus movement always pushes us out beyond the walls of our clubs, our churches, our safe spaces. Jesus’ movement has a direction.

And today we are initiating Katelyn Elizabeth (Kate) into this movement. We will promise to support her in her life of faith. Her godparents and parents will promise to help her grow into the “full stature of Christ.” Kate, I love you, and you’re doomed. We’re setting her up for an inconvenient and uncomfortable journey, out to the lost, out to the least, out to the people who take up too much time. And we’ll renew our own promises to resist evil and to follow Jesus. Because out with those we would count as goats, that is where Jesus is to be found.

Baptism reminds us that we are caught up in this work together. Before we can make decisions for ourselves, God has chosen to love us. We don’t do anything to merit God’s love. We can’t merit God’s love. God loves all the wrong people. We don’t get to choose who God loves. But we can come along for the ride. God’s love has a direction in which we can participate.

On that crisp May morning in 1982, when the Pope and the Archbishop renewed their own baptismal promises, their prayers mattered. Standing together mattered. Britain was in the midst of a petty little war with Argentina, a Catholic country, over the Falkland Islands. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Anglicans were actively killing one another. In his homily the Pope talked about the importance of renewing our baptismal vows:

Christ’s promise gives us confidence in the power of this same Holy Spirit to heal the divisions introduced into the Church in the course of the centuries since that first Pentecost day. In this way the renewal of our baptismal vows will become a pledge to do all in our power to co-operate with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead us to the day when we will profess the fullness of our faith together.

Baptism is not a mark for insiders. Baptism is bigger than the walls of this church. The Jesus movement is bigger than any one denomination. Without our sisters, brothers, siblings from other walks of life we are not whole. Baptism is incorporation into the least exclusive body in human history. Baptism brings us into a movement, initiates us for following Jesus out beyond our comfort zones, to the lost, the least and the left out. If you take it seriously, baptism will inconvenience the hell out of you.

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.

Jason Evans reflections on the border

My good friend Jason Evans spoke this week at Theology on Tap. If you missed it, here’s a bit of the conversation between Jason and my successor at St. John’s Lafayette Square, The Rev. Andy Olivo.

Jason evans: Reflections from the Border | Theology on Tap.

You can read more about how Theology on Tap got started at St. John’s by reading this post.