Ambassadors of Love
Ambassadors of Love
Sunday, June 2, 2019
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
It’s so good to be home after a whirlwind trip to Virginia last weekend. I can’t remember a time when I was more grateful to see Lake Pontchartrain come into view out an airplane window. There is surely nothing more powerful in life than knowing where your people are, knowing where you are loved and held just as you are, knowing you are fully at home in your life. I carried you all with me on my trip to Richmond. I didn’t know what in the world I would say to a divided room of heartbroken and angry and grieving people who are saying goodbye to the seminary they have called home for 30 years. I knew I was called to speak the truth and to speak the truth in love because that’s what we do here at St. Charles. For our almost six years together we have been actively figuring out how we tell the truth about our lives as a community of love.
I don’t say that to suggest anyone who stood in this pulpit before me didn’t value love or truth-telling. I say that as awareness of my unique calling and mindful of this particular moment in which we are being church together. We are called to loving boldness and loving kindness in 2019 in a new and dynamic way. And so when I thought of the 21 students graduating from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, some already serving as pastors, others looking for new work in churches, and others committed to the greater work of the church in the world, I knew my role was to invite them to join me in this particular moment to this ancient work of love. This is what we are about as people who follow the Way of Christ.
In that invitation I told them, “The life and work of the pastor in 2019 is decidedly more complicated than it was 30 years ago when BTSR came to life.
Graduates, whatever your career may end up looking like, know that you are serving the Church in a season of simultaneous death and birth, and that means you will be making a lot of things up as you go. There is no road map for this…we are experiencing all of this in real time. But we are experiencing all of this in real time together. Colleagues surround you and will tell you the truth when they say, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, either. Let’s figure this out together.’ The way forward is collaborative.”
“In the 20 years I have served congregations, I have come to believe the the highest holy day, the one that is most central to the story of our faith, is Maundy Thursday. It is my very favorite night of the year as we gather at dusk, dip our hands into the water, remember Christ washing the disciples’ feet (even one he knew would betray him), we break bread and dip it in a common cup. We speak aloud the mandate given to us that night—This command I give you: love one another. Everyone will know you are my disciples because you have love for one another.
This Jesus Way was meant to be a revolution of love, and we turned it into budgets and bylaws to maintain. This Jesus Way was meant for us to organize around a love so big and so strong that the empire would feel the threat to its power, and we turned it into institutions that need the empire for the tax break. And the tricky thing is, I fully believe I’m right about this AND my livelihood is linked to protecting this institution and the budget and the bylaws instead of leading the love revolution into the streets. I want the love revolution more than I want the paycheck. So I have some figuring out to do, and I need your help…What do we do? How do we…give ourselves to Christ’s radical movement of people committed to love?”
Friends, this conversation is not just for a set-apart group of clergy, it is ours as The Church. Talk of bylaws and budget feels like it just might be the thing that kills us all some days. We’re not giving our lives to the budget and bylaws. No one in this place is symbolically entering the baptismal waters to be made new in the name and way of Robert’s Rules of Order. We are giving ourselves to Christ’s radical movement of people committed to love, and that makes us ambassadors of love. We are representing this way in and for and to the world. And so we balance those conversations of necessary tools of an organization against love and in love because the budget and bylaws support our calling as ambassadors. We keep our priorities as a faith community in check by making sure our faithfulness is first and last to the way of love in all things. Right now I’m doing something of a love scan through my own work and ministry to assess where I need to love more, love bigger, love more boldly.
I am aware that I haven’t always honored that priority. Sometimes I have been overly cautious in my pronouncements of love from this pulpit. You might laugh at the notion that I’ve actually held back, but it’s true. There have been many times I have held my tongue and not spoken as boldly or as fully as I wanted because I knew I was in a different place than some folks in the pew or many of the leaders of Christian institutions around the country. Maybe I thought we’d find a way to catch up to each other by way of polite accommodation or that somehow we could meet in the messy middle to make a way forward. I’m not sure what fear was holding me back, but everything has changed for me in the past couple of years. If my silence for the comfort of one group causes me to soften my posture of love which then results in the oppression of another, I cannot remain silent. I cannot accommodate or soften when outspoken love might be the difference between life and death, and that’s not hyperbole
I’m particularly aware of this growing edge for me this June, Pride month across the country. The same group of evangelical men that is beating the drum again to say I shouldn’t preach has done even more to fiercely shut out and shut down the LGBTQ+ community. I’m all too aware of conversion therapy programs and threats of hell and family cut-offs and cruel teaching that says to stand in the fullness of one’s identity as any part of the LGBTQ+ community is to live apart from God’s love.
Now more than ever, I want to loudly and clearly say that teaching is toxic and untrue. Love is of God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Our study of scripture and our growing awareness of the reality of God should only and always be drawing us deeper and deeper onto the way of love. And if the conclusions we draw are exclusionary or cause harm to others, then the problem is we have moved away from the way of God’s love. They who don’t love don’t know God; for God is love.
If the conclusion of our study and prayer is to shut more people out and make our table smaller, then the teaching is not of God’s love. The love of God always, always, always sets another place at the table—and especially for the folks who the religious establishment is saying doesn’t belong at that table! Jesus got in trouble for this and called to account for himself consistently because he seemed to delight in eating with people the religious establishment called unclean. The way of love did not pass through their teaching, and so he followed love down the winding road that curved past their exclusionary purity codes. We are called to this way. We are called to push back against the establishment of our religious tradition when its teachings aren’t loving—whatever those teachings may be.
This month I’m looking at my own loving posture as an ally because for years I was not a vocal ally but a private one. I had gay and lesbian and trans friends and colleagues who knew I loved them, and I really thought the love in my personal relationships was ally enough. But I realize now that to not lean into my privilege to make more space at as many tables as possible for my siblings left without a chair is not love at all. I feel called this June to stand as visibly and vocally as I can with my LGBTQ+ siblings because I know I need to say it out loud wherever I can: I love you. God loves you. This church loves you. No matter who has cut you out or cut you off, love leads here at the St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church.
I tell my children every day, “I love you so much. I love you to the moon and back. There is nothing you could do that would make me love you less.” I kiss them and hug them and pull them close even when they wiggle away. I stare my husband in the eyes, so deeply grateful for twenty years of life together and so deeply grateful he seems to want to keep me around for twenty more, and I say, “I love you.” I do not tell them once and assume they will remember and know forever. I tell them daily, sometimes hourly, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
We cannot be silent about the love of God here. We must be generous and abundant and overflowing in our professions of love. When we say we aspire to honor God by loving neighbors, we are saying we aspire to embody that love, we lean into that love, we live it out. Love will call us to all kinds of relationships and places of service and ways of justice seeking. Love will also call us to look deeply into ourselves and do some of our own private work so that we can love better and love well. Love will call us to tell the truth about our lives in our community when we are struggling, when we are carrying too much, when we need to ask for help. Receiving love can be even harder than giving it out sometimes, right? But we’re going to keep showing up and doing the work here because we are commanded to love.
Friends, being a community of faith in 2019, particularly in this town, is a challenge. We could be at brunch right now! We are choosing a radical way together. We are stepping into the call to love each other well even when we don’t know what in the world that might look like in 5 and 10 and 20 years. When that call requires we let go of some old ways of doing and believing, I know it’s hard. I know it takes courage. You can do it! I believe in you! When that call requires we step up and speak out in ways we never have before, I know it’s scary. I know it makes your heart race. But we are going to take those steps together even if our knees are shaking. Beloveds, let us love one another. This love we know and experience is of God. And everyone who loves big and loves well is born of God and knows God. If you’ve been in the presence of one who does not love, you already know that God isn’t in those words or in that space because God is love. You know this because you have lived and experienced Divine love. And because you know, you are called to love the world in the way and in the name of Jesus. We are called to this love together.