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.

Practicing Lent: Service and Justice

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: Justice is a sexy word these days. Many congregations boast of their “social justice” programs. But I think it’s important to make clear that there is a difference between “justice” and “mercy.” Even Scripture draws a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament book of Micah we read, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The Christian community is called to do both of these; extending mercy and acting for justice. But they are not the same.

Before moving to Washington, DC I worked for a congregation that had an incredible feeding program for the urban poor in San Diego. On Sunday afternoons, this program could feed hundreds of people. And while this work was good and deeply Christian it was not justice, it was mercy. It was a noble and charitable act extended by privileged Christians to those with much less. It’s something we’re called to do. Even Jesus said that we are serving him when we serve others in this way. This is mercy. Not justice.

To seek justice is to seek change. Feeding the urban poor of our city, who while disadvantaged were far from starving, was a good practice but it was not changing the situation of those without a home, with nothing in the foreseeable future that might change their financial situation. Seeking justice changes the future of those without enough. We, as people following the way of Jesus, are called to do both.

Mike: The former assistant bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, used to say that Episcopalians loved that quote from Micah, but we got it backwards. We often love justice and practice mercy. When you first moved to DC, I was a priest at St John’s Lafayette Square, a congregation that was engaging in justice work around housing the homeless. The work was slow. It involved tense meetings with city council members and organizing voter turnout to show political power.

Before I go on, I should point out that St. John’s is most famous for its role as the “Church of the Presidents.” Every US president since Madison has worshiped at the congregation, at least once or twice. People dress up for church. St. John’s can be a fancy place. The homeless are welcome at St. John’s, but we would ask someone who came regularly to try and shower before they came to church. When you are working with a population that faces mental illness and substance abuse, setting “ground rules” can be important. There is another Episcopal church just a couple of blocks away that is known as a “homeless church.” Most of the parishioners at the early service are housing insecure, and they have a big feeding ministry every Sunday morning. Sometimes people referred to Epiphany, the other church, as a more “justice oriented” church. I always had a hard time with that, St. John’s was working with the Interfaith organizations that were trying to get at the root of the problem and house the people that Epiphany served.

Jason: Every congregation–indeed, each individual–has a particular charism, a unique calling. Some are passionate about works of mercy, while others are just as passionate about working for justice. Both are deeply Christian and all Christians are called to do both; offering relief to those in need and changing the systems that create the need for relief. All at the same time. At the core of the practices of mercy and justice (what we are categorizing as “service”) is a call to relationship with the “other.” Since the most ancient of conversations between God and the Hebrew people there has been a unique distinction of God’s people: they were always called to consider the outsider, to offer basic human dignity to those that others may not. Who is our “other”? Make it personal, who is your “other”?

Mike: There’s a quote from Australian Aboriginal Organizers from the 1970s that I find really compelling. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I shy away from the service and mercy paradigm sometimes because it can be “paternalistic.” After “serving” the poor, I can walk away feeling like I have proved that I am a good person. But the boundaries between service and justice are permeable. Often, through long time mercy work, I have known people who built relationships with someone who might be called “other:” a social worker who befriended a client, a priest who ended up serving as the godmother for the children of an undocumented immigrant couple. Relationships that are formed in service, if we let them, can transform us. We can realize that without “the other” we are not whole. When we do so, I believe, we get closer to that reality that Jesus described as “The Reign of God,” and Dr. King described as “The Beloved Community.” To get there we’ll need both service and justice.