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.

All Saints: a Prayer for Comprehension

Sometimes Jesus teaching doesn’t sit well with our sense of timing. Let me offer an example. If you were a Chicago Cubs fan at any time over the last 107 years “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” could feel a little trite. A Cards fan last year wouldn’t have wanted to quote to a Cubs fan “blessed are you who weep.” It would have felt paternalistic. For over a century the Cubbies had cause to ask “When is that laughter coming God?” But on Wednesday night this week, the laughter came. You can be sure some of the saints above were laughing too.

Cards fans, don’t lament. Remember, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” (Plus, now when we beat the Cubs next season, we don’t have to feel as bad).

The depth of Jesus’ teaching is how it holds together seeming opposites in life: joy and pain. Every life lived fully contains measures of weeping and of laughter. God is with us in the extremes and in the humdrum of daily life. God’s love is comprehensive.

I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. It comes in the office of compline, the prayers we say at the end of each day:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This prayer, like our service today, seeks to comprehend the fullness of life. Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, AND shield the joyous. There is a fullness to this prayer. As I said, there’s a stretch to our liturgy today as well. This morning we will give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize two young souls, and we will bless those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. We will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about holding things together. I’m betting that many of you, like me, are weary of this election season. We’ve been so embattled as a country, and now some are worrying whether we have drawn lines so deeply that after Tuesday has come and gone, we will have a difficult time coming out of the trenches. Will we hold together? Regardless of the outcome?

Then in the midst of this last week came the feast day of Richard Hooker, the theologian with the funny name, who lived in a similarly divided day. By the time Hooker was ordained the church in England had been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic again, and had finally settled with Queen Elizabeth I somewhere on a middle ground. But Richard Hooker saw and described a unique giftedness to this middle way, the via media. The Prayer for his feast day includes this phrase inspired by his writing:

[God] Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.

There’s that word again, “comprehension.”

As Anglicans, we speak of the virtue of “comprehensiveness.” In one Church we hold together and celebrate Protestant and Catholic traditions. We’ve held together different perspectives, political parties, and viewpoints. And our quintessential theologian asks us to see this holding together not as a compromise to maintain the peace, but as a stretching to hold a wider truth.

It strikes me that many of those we consider “saints” lived in a way that was marked by comprehension. They found ways to hold together difficult opposites. They were present to the highs and lows of life. Saints seem often to be set apart, made holy, by their ability to see opposing forces and to find another way through.

The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault seeks that sense of Comprehensiveness as she writes about the Trinity in her latest book. She sees in the Trinity, the “three-ness” of God, a way out of polarity: this or that, the either/or liberal/conservative patterns of our day. Like Richard Hooker, for Bourgeault, the truth is not something I hold on my own. The truth is not something I hold over your head to show you that you are wrong.

Imagine, she says, our political conversations transformed by a Trinitarian perspective which teaches:

“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”

“The enemy is never the problem, but the opportunity.” How often do we see our opponents this way? Bourgeault points to a basic wisdom in Christianity: there is always a third way. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus’ teaching this morning challenged those who thought they held the truth. In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.”

“Blessed are you who are poor.” The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus is challenging us to take a different perspective. Jesus wants us to comprehend.

I think this teaching, like much of Jesus’ teaching, challenges us not simply to change our view from one side to another. Jesus did not play the games of his day. He didn’t pick one side in a debate over another. Jesus re-wrote the playbook. He challenged his followers to grow, to see opponents as opportunities to grow, to wrap our minds around ever-widening ideas. Jesus invites us to comprehend.

And so this day, we hold together, with all the saints, the whole of life. We look for God in the beginning and in the end. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians we pray for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s Love. We pray that God might continue to Keep Watch with ALL, ALL those saints and souls who work or watch or weep. We pray that God might continue to shield the joyous. And all for thy love’s sake.

Trinity, Baptism, and Life Lived Deeply

In the name of God. The Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself.

We’ve packed a great deal into this Sunday. I know. You probably picked up that bulletin and it felt a bit hefty today. 16 pages Angela, our church administrator assures me, 16 pages is more pages than usual. Baptisms. Thanksgivings for Ministry. Great music from the choir as we celebrate their last Sunday until September. There’s a lot going on today.

This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday, and usually the rector doesn’t preach. A seminarian, assistant rector, or passerby is thrust into the pulpit with the task of explaining one of Christianity’s most complex and confounding doctrines. We have a lot going on today, so in eight and a half minutes let me explain to you the mystery of the Trinity.

Here’s a hint where it comes to religion, not that you asked for one, but regardless, here’s a hint: If a religious teacher claims to be able to explain God, RUN. I mean that. If I get into a very self-assured moment and try to explain the fullness of God, stop me. The Trinity assures us, we don’t have God figured out. God is mystery.

And Nicodemus finds himself deep in mystery with Jesus. The teacher of Israel comes to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness. Hoping to hear some explanation. Instead, Jesus leaves him holding a lot of mystery. All of this language of “being born from above,” Nicodemus isn’t sure how to make head or tails of it. Sometimes after Jesus teaches a parable, you get a little aside afterward where Jesus explains things to his disciples: The seed that fell on the road is this, the seed that fell in the good soil is that. We don’t get such an explanation of Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus.

So what do we make of all of this mysterious language from Jesus? A lot of the language here in third chapter of John’s Gospel finds itself into our language about Baptism. Born again. Born by water and the Spirit. It’s there in the Baptismal liturgy.

We’re about to baptize Jack and Arden into the Church. What do we mean by “born again” and “born from above?” Why do we mean by “water and the Spirit?” What is this baptized life we’re describing? The short answer: it’s a mystery.

But we have to approach mystery, like Nicodemus, so let me give you my best approximation of Baptism, Water, Spirit, Trinity, and Christian life? Sometimes it helps to start at the end.

Have you ever thought about what your friends and family will say at your funeral? Who will write your eulogy? What will they say?

As someone who has preached at a few funerals, I can tell you, listing someone’s resume usually doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to name the value and blessing of a life. When you’re talking about what a human life meant, listing accomplishments, degrees, and awards rarely means much. Eulogists don’t use descriptors like “effective” or “successful.” The last thing you want to hear a minister say at your funeral is, “Sarah was punctual.”

No, funeral virtues are different. The quality of a human life, measured at its end, is deeper. When we mark the passing of a human life well-lived, we hear adjectives like loving, caring, funny, engaging, and creative. We hear stories of good listening, of daring ventures, and of deep loves.

In the end, we measure life less by material accomplishments than by inner depth. How giving, loving, loyal, and adventurous was this person? That’s what we really care about. I think that’s what Jesus cares about as well, and I believe that’s what he’s saying to Nicodemus.

You see, even in the time of Jesus, the world’s narrative of life was pretty stuck on material success. If you won battles. If you earned money. If you held power, you were thought to be blessed. We know that narrative well. It’s the narrative of our world as well. From birth to death: work hard to accumulate wealth. Fill up that retirement account. Work to earn the highest position. Get the best grades. Get into the right college. Marry the right spouse. Work for the right firm. Get the title “director” or “manager.” Add another zero to your paycheck. Unchecked, our world has a strong narrative for us, from birth to death.

I think that’s why Jesus was big into being “born again.” Check that narrative, he’s saying. You’re not born just to accumulate. In the sys of God, human life is not about power and wealth. At their funerals, I’ve heard the very rich and the very poor described as generous, loving, and kind. Wealth and power aren’t the point. Money makes certain things easier, true. But I think that with all of this “being born from above” stuff Jesus is saying, check the world’s narrative. You’re born for something deeper.

How do we get there? How do we access this mysterious life of Jesus? The mysterious life of God? I’m glad you asked.

This morning, as we celebrate the holy mystery of Baptism, we will make a series of promises. We’ll promise to continue in the apostles teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. We’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. We’ll promise to resist evil. We’ll promise to proclaim the Gospel. We’ll promise to work for justice and peace. All of those practices, all of them, help us to go deeper. But they describe the deep life more than how to get there.

There’s a promise we’ll make at the beginning of the service that matters a great deal, especially if we’re serious about “being born from above.” After Jack and Arden have been presented by their parents and Godparents, I’ll turn to the whole congregation and ask of you: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” The appropriate response is “We will!” The appropriate volume is loud. Let’s practice that.

Here’s why I think that promise is so important. I believe we only work on the deeper virtues, we only come into the hard work of growing up as moral beings. We only become more caring, more loving, more kind, in relationship. Relationships are at the heart of it all. In his new book, *The Road to Character*, the journalist David Brooks writes, “Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.”

Godparents, you have your work cut out for you. We promise to live lives worthy of Jack and Arden, worthy of their admiration. In Christian community, we understand that we grow up, we grow as human beings, we grow more loving, more faithful, more wise, only in relationship to others who are already loving, faithful, and wise. I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he tells Nicodemus to be “born from above.” In faithful community we learn to look up to people who are living life, and have lived life well. We learn about generosity and love.

And, in the end, that sense of community may be one of the best approaches to the Trinity you can find. Through all of the high theology, the questions of people and substance, and co-existence, the real teaching is this: God is all about relationship. Mister Eckhart the Christian mystic once explained the Trinity poetically this way, and please excuse the gendered pronouns. Eckhart lived a long time ago: “The Father of laughed, and the Son was born. The Father and Son then laughed together, and the Spirit was born. The three then started laughing and humanity was born.”

I love that explanation of God’s life because Eckhart gets the joy and the complexity of God. God is not some static principle, but as they say in Spanish “es una dynamica.” God is dynamic. In Spanish “dynamica” calls to mind the beauties and the difficulties of relationship. It works in English as well. Don’t we talk about “family dynamics?”

Relationships are difficult. I am always surprised when people tell me they don’t believe in God anymore because something happened that caused them to doubt. I want to say, “have you never been in a relationship?” Or “have you never had a deep friendship.” Like any relationship, the relationship God invites us into is not easy. I suspect there are quite of few of us, who, if asked to specify our relationship with God on Facebook, would select the option “it’s complicated.”

That’s okay, even among the baptized. I believe “complication” is what God wants. After all, God is a mystery. And if the mystery of the Trinity teaches us anything, it is this: God desires relationship with us, with all of its dynamics. Because in relationship we grow up. In relationship we learn how to be people with depth. That’s what we’re celebrating on this packed Sunday: all of the complexity and vitality of our lives together. In all of life’s complexities, through relationship with God and with one another, we learn to live deeply. We learn to be born from above.