April 18, 2021
The news is horrific; driving us to depths of despair, anguish, outrage and anger. We feel impotent as we watch the spiral of violence continue. The senseless killings by police officers of unarmed civilians: Daunte Wright in the Twin Cities, a 13-year old boy Adam Toledo in Chicago, high school student Anthony J. Johnson, Jr in Knoxville. All this while the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd unfolds in Minneapolis.
But there’s more. It’s not just police officers. It’s also ordinary people, usually white men, of course, killing innocent bystanders or coworkers, or family members. Mass shootings every day, it seems. Just in the couple of weeks, in Indianapolis and Rock Hill, SC. We woke this morning to news of a shooting at a bar in Kenosha—3 dead, 2 wounded. The Gun Violence Archive has identified 148 such mass shootings so far in 2021. There are no words. I have no words.
This culture of death, this lust for violence is not new. But in this season of Easter 2021. It is a time when we Christians remember the death of Christ in another culture of violence, that of the Roman empire. More importantly, it is also a time when we celebrate his victory over death and violence through his resurrection. His resurrection strikes at the heart of the culture of violence that rules our world, the evil that threatens our existence as humans.
Still, with the news of the world swirling around us, our faith in resurrection, in new creation, our hope for a new world being called into existence through Christ’s resurrection; well, all of that can seem fanciful, hollow, meaningless. What is appropriate joy in resurrection in the face of the violence that vulnerable communities, vulnerable people are experiencing daily in our society? I’ve often heard bishops or that category of people now called “thought leaders”—apparently we have them in the church, too—I’ve often heard such folk proclaim that we are “Easter people.” Well, what on earth or in heaven does it mean to be “Easter people” when all around us people are suffering and dying?
As I’ve been pondering these things over the last couple of weeks, my attention has been drawn to the Epistle of I John which we’ve been reading in the Sunday morning lectionary but also, coincidentally, in the daily office lectionary. There are three letters of John in the New Testament and scholars associate them closely with the Gospel of John, although it’s unlikely that they were written by the same person. We do hypothesize that they are products of the same community because so much of the language and imagery used in the letters reflects language and imagery in the gospels. They also reflect many of the same concerns as the gospel.
But it also shows a certain distance or development from the gospel. The anti-Judaism that is at the heart of the gospel of John is not so evident in the 1st letter of John. Instead, other concerns take center stage, particularly concerns for false teaching. Leaving those concerns aside, one can detect at the heart of the letter a desire to connect the life of the community with the love that the author sees at the heart of the relationship between God and Christ. We see that to some degree in today’s reading: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”
But that theme comes out even more strongly in verses we will hear over the next two weeks. From 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or from John 4, the reading for the 5th Sunday after Easter: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”
Or a few verses later: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them”
Well, you get the picture by now. A community of love brought into being by God’s love, sharing God’s love with one another and through that love knowing God and abiding in God.
It’s language like this that gives rise to images like the Beloved Community, a term so often used by our Presiding Bishop to call us into deeper relationship with each other and with God in Christ. What beloved community looks like depends on the circumstances of each congregation in their particular contexts. For us at Grace it may look very different than it does for our fellow parishes in Madison or across the diocese of Milwaukee.
It’s not just about the congregation, however. It’s also about each of us individually. How do we embrace God’s love; entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ; growing more deeply in the knowledge and love of Christ, committing ourselves to follow him?
It’s clear that our city, our nation needs beloved communities making God’s love incarnate in the world; sharing God’s love with the world. It’s also clear that it will not be easy. The forces of evil and empire are arrayed against it. There’s an image that was widely circulated on Twitter yesterday. A church in Brooklyn Center, MN, where Daunte Wright was killed, had been offering sanctuary to those injured by the police in the protests there. In response, the police surrounded the church, standing three or four deep to ensure that no one could seek help or safety there.
Stephanie Spellers, who is the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, recently published a book, The Church Cracked-Open. Written in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the nation-wide protests that erupted, Spellers reflects on the disruption to traditional institutions, especially the church, as membership has declined. Coupled with the disruption caused by the pandemic and the long-overdue reckoning with racism and white supremacy, she uses the image of a “cracked-open church” to describe the new possibilities emerging in this moment. Being cracked-open means that as the old structures decline and collapse, there is room for new possibilities, for creativity and imagination as we seek to embody God’s love in the world.
As the old dies and falls away, God’s love beckons to us, inviting us into a future that imagines a world remade as beloved community. We see that happening even here in Madison. This week, the outreach committee heard from Laura Ford-Harris, who is leading the new Boys and Girls Club space on Capitol Square. Their presence here is a sign that as we rebuild the downtown after the pandemic and the protests, we can imagine and bring into being a neighborhood where all are truly welcome.
As we listen to First John’s invitation to us to become beloved community, to love each other and the world as God loves us, may we abide in that love, share that love, and above all may we learn to live that love in our relationships with others, with our neighbors. May the love we share create beloved community, at Grace, in our neighborhood, and in the world.