Canon Barnwell: “Seeking Justice with Love”
In the name of Jesus, our Teacher, our Savior, our Advocate
Jesus said to his disciples, as we just heard, “If you love me, you
will obey my commandments.” (John 14:15) Jesus gave us many commandments
in the four gospels both directly and indirectly through the wonderful
stories, the parables.
This morning I want to focus on those particular commandments that
enlighten and direct us in outreach and justice-seeking ministries. I
should say at the outset that outreach and justice ministries are of
course only part of what the church is all about. As canon missioner
here at the National Cathedral, my charge has been to support and
develop such ministries in the District of Columbia, and as possible,
When Jesus began his ministry in Luke’s gospel, preaching in the
synagogue in Nazareth, he could have chosen any passage to read from the
Hebrew Scripture, what we call the Old Testament. Significantly, he
chose a passage from the prophet of Isaiah to introduce his ministry,
and it is this passage that compels us as Christians—whether through
direct service ministry or public policy advocacy—compels us to do our
best to give all of God’s children a real chance at a good life. Isaiah
wrote and Jesus quoted that first day of his ministry in Nazareth this
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18)
Some forty years ago when Dr. King gave his last Sunday sermon from
this pulpit, he retold the story from Luke of Dives, the rich man, and
poor and sick Lazarus. (16:19-31) When they died, Lazarus went to
heaven; the rich man, Dives, went to hell.
The rich man’s problem, King said, was not that he was rich. His
wealth in fact gave him a great opportunity to help build a just
society. His problem was that he passed by “poor and sick” Lazarus, who
was forced to beg for food, every day, and “he never really saw him.”
Lazarus was completely irrelevant to the world the rich man had made for
himself. “He had become invisible” to the rich man. We pass by the poor
and sick every day in our rich country without ever seeing them, King
Things haven’t changed very much for those poor and sick and for many
persons of color—if they have changed at all.
Many of us pass by those African Americans in prison (one out of
every 15 men over the age of 18 is behind bars) and we never acknowledge
them. Imagine that! One out of fifteen of our own people of color in
jail. Our prison rate is the highest in the world! It is so sad.
We pass by all those black families in the District of Columbia who
make $55,000 less each year than their white counterparts and we hardly
notice. According to the Washington Post one in three working families
in the District live in poverty—these are working families in poverty.
“The common perception is that people who are low-income…are not
working enough. They are working. They’re just not earning enough,” said
Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. [Washington Post, April
Like Dives, we pass by the thousands of homeless men and women
(mostly black) every day and we look the other way.
We pass by those suffering from AIDS right here in the Capital (the
numbers are staggering, the highest in the nation), and, as a society,
we do not see…
Rev. Jeremiah Wright may have gotten some important things wrong, but
unlike Dives, Wright—with his church in South Chicago—has seen and still
sees the devastation of our cities, and his congregation has responded
appropriately and effectively with their outreach efforts—everything
from prison ministry, to AIDS prevention, to mentoring young people in
trouble, and on and on.
With all due respect: If we are going to criticize Rev. Wright with
all of our effusive eloquence, maybe we as a people should take the log
out of our own eye and see, see what he and his people see, see what is
really going on among those Jesus called “the least of these, our
sisters and brothers.” (Matthew 25:40)
So how do we who love the Lord obey his commands and respond to the
world as it is?
First, I hope that we make our own something the great theologian
Paul Tillich said some fifty years ago: “Love without justice leads to
sentimentality; justice without love leads [eventually] to tyranny.” If
we are true to the one who came from God to bless and guide the entire
world with unconditional love, we must pay attention to how Christ gave
his love: how he gave it to the poor, the guilt-ridden, the blind, the
lepers of society, the broken-hearted.
To the broken, Jesus gave his love gently with a touch, with a
loving, encouraging smile, we can imagine.
But he also gave his love to the arrogant, the self-righteous, those
who would put down the poor and oppressed. Yes, he even gave his love to
the rich and powerful like Dives. But for people like him, Jesus had to
get their attention.
So he gave them what we might call “tough love.” “White washed
tombs,” he called the Pharisees. “Woe to you who are rich now,” he said
to all who would listen. “Go and sell all you own and give to the poor
if you want to follow me,” he said to the rich young ruler. To make his
point symbolically, he turned over tables in the temple, where merchants
in their pursuit of wealth were desecrating what was holy.
The love of Jesus could never be called a sentimental kind of love.
But make no mistake: Jesus spoke his many harsh words to the rich and
powerful because he loved them as much as he loved those they were
He told the parable of Dives, the rich man, and poor and sick Lazarus
to wake up and save the rich and blind like Dives. He wanted them to
claim the best in themselves, to claim their humanity, to make them know
that they too were created in the very image of a loving and caring God,
a generous-spirited God.
Justice empty of love does not recognize that the rich man is just as
much a child of God as is Lazarus. Justice empty of love leads
eventually to tyranny. Dives just needed to be hit over the head with a
book or something like that to wake him up.
Second, I hope that when we do give of ourselves to the hungry, the
sick, to those in prison, to the homeless, the near homeless, those
working families in DC who live in poverty, I hope we will see the
Christ in those persons, as Jesus himself (in Matthew 25) promised we
would. And what a gift to us that is!
Those most in need know just how temporary, how fragile this life is.
Many of them will tell you in their own way that it is only God upon
whom we can ultimately rely. These same people often show us the face of
Christ. Visit the 8:00 Sunday morning service at Epiphany Episcopal
Church (a few blocks from the White House) some time. You will see maybe
two hundred homeless people and their Episcopal friends worshipping
Instead of a sermon, you will hear those same homeless people testify
to what God’s love means in their lives. And when the collection plate
is passed, you will see them put in several coins, maybe a crumpled
dollar bill or two. This is not a tenth of what they have; often it is
all that they have.
Visit Epiphany Church some Sunday at 8:00 and you will see the face
Seeing the faith of Christ in those Jesus called “the least of these
our sisters and brothers” will empower you to serve those same people,
not in a condescending, paternalistic way, but in a most appreciative
and thankful way.
Third, in order to do our part to make sure all of God’s children
have a real chance at a good life, I hope we will develop partnerships
with churches and service organizations across race, class,
denomination, geographic lines in this very segregated city and other
segregated cities as well.
Most every Sunday, I visit a different black church in the District,
representing the National Cathedral. I am always greeted warmly. Seldom,
if ever, do I hear inflammatory rhetoric, but I do hear preachers who
see the poor and the sick, who see the two million of our citizens now
in prison, who see the homeless and the near homeless in this rapidly
gentrifying city. (I am usually the only white person in these services,
which remain, as Dr. King said, “the most segregated time of the
I not only hear preachers who see Lazarus, really see him, but I see
their churches, in a spirit of thanksgiving and joy, I see them bringing
life and hope:
- To young and older black men, many of whom are unemployed.
- To mothers overwhelmed with too many responsibilities.
- To the elderly, who give what they have to their beloved churches.
I see that most every Sunday. And the really good news is that these
black pastors and their people give this life and hope without fanfare,
without commentary. “It is just what a people of God do,” they will tell
There was a time when we historically white churches thought we were
doing historically black churches a big favor by partnering with them.
No more. In my experience anyway, those churches have at least as much
to give us as we have to give them, maybe more.
The National Cathedral has begun a partnership with such a church, a
caring church, a brave church, Covenant Baptist in Anacostia. We are now
getting to know each other, reflecting on Scripture together, telling
our stories. Soon, we hope to do the DOCC program together (the
Disciples of Christ in Community program) over 15 or so weeks, moving
back and forth between the two churches…
Finally, besides developing these bridge-building partnerships with
churches and other organizations that serve low-income persons, I hope
we will also be justice-seekers. I hope we will stand with those we
partner with and speak out with them and support them on justice
- On issues related to a living wage or affordable housing or health care.
- On issues related to better public schools.
- I hope we will stand with them and try to break open those racist glass ceilings that block advancement of people of color still!
- I hope we will all find ways to keep our young men out of prison.
We have a great opportunity to make our stand through the
non-partisan Washington Interfaith Network (or WIN). Fifty-five faith
communities come together from all walks of life from all across the
city to advocate for public policies so important to low-income DC. WIN
has been most successful, receiving promises from the mayor and city
council to provide a billion dollars for affordable housing over a ten
year period and another quarter of a billion dollars for improvement of
public school facilities.
Along with seven other Episcopal churches, the National Cathedral is
an active member of WIN. I hope and pray we will continue to support WIN
and will heed the words of the first Jeremiah, who, over 2500 years ago,
said, “Seek the welfare of the city…for in its welfare, you will
find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) That could be WIN’s motto. Would
that it would be our motto as well!
So: Can we see, really see “poor and sick” Lazarus and not pass him
by as though he were invisible. Can we see the Christ in him?
Can we respond with justice and love for all?
Can we become strong partners with churches, other faith communities,
and effective agencies that serve those in greatest need?
And finally, can we stand with those faith communities and agencies
on vital issues of social and economic justice?
I began this morning with Jesus saying in John’s Gospel: “If you love
me, you will keep my commandments.” In the next sentence, Jesus goes on
to say that, after he leaves us, he will ask the father to give us
another Advocate, who will be with us forever. That Advocate we call the
When we try to do God’s will, no matter how far we might fall short,
we can count on God being with us, no matter what. He will never leave
us alone. He will be our Advocate forever.
In the early days of the Montgomery boycott, Dr. King lost his nerve.
He became terribly frightened, not so much for himself but for his
family. Late one night, after a particularly menacing phone call, by
himself, sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, the young
Martin was about to give up.
But then Jesus came to him and gave him new strength to carry on. “I
heard the voice of Jesus,” King wrote of the experience. “He promised
never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.”
When we try to obey the commandants of Christ, try to walk that road
that he lays out for us, no matter how many times we might stumble, we
can know beyond doubt that Christ our Advocate will never leave us
alone. No never alone. Christ Jesus promises never to leave us
And that is good news indeed!