We keep trying to privatize God’s love. But not just privatized, but weaponize. That we can say, you know, we know exactly who God loves and who God doesn’t love. To me that does not leave too much room for faith. I had a confirmation class a little while ago and I said to them, you know, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. To the opposite of faith is absolute certainty. When you know exactly how God is thinking and exactly what God is doing, then you have left no room for God and now you’re actually trying to play God.
Easton: This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright.
Rob: Hello, everyone, this is For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m your host Bishop Rob Wright. And today, we have a wonderful guest with us. Today, Bishop Dion Cay Johnson from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. Bishop Dion, welcome.
Dion: Thank you, Bishop Rob. It’s a great delight to be with you this morning.
Rob: Now, we’re using our titles. But Bishop Dion and I have known each other for a couple of decades now. Isn’t that right?
Dion: Yes, when you had small Wrights.
Rob: That’s right. When I had very small Wrights. Very small children. Well, a bit of your bio. Dion Kevin Johnson is the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. He was elected there on the first ballot in 2019. He is a native of Barbados, he came to the U.S. when he was 14 years old. He studied at Case Western Reserve. He is a graduate of the General Seminary in New York City. He has served congregations in Ohio and in Michigan. And his bio information, if you google him on the web, it ends with this wonderful sentence. Johnson is the first black gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Now, that’s not why we want to talk to you. But that will be part of our conversation today.
So, the question I always start off with folks is, I mean, there’s the sketch. But say a little bit about you. Because all of that, underneath all of that, is your life with God. So, say a little bit about your journey, you know, through school and marriage and all of that to this place now.
Dion: Awesome. Well, thank you. And again, it’s great to be one of your guests. Well, I would say that a big part of my journey started at the, on the lap of my grandmother. She was one of those people, she sang when she was happy, she sang when she was sad, she sang when she was angry, she sang when she was mad, a little bit of Dr. Seuss there. But those hymns that she sang, she had a hymn for everything. And that really was the foundation of my faith. I can probably quote you more hymns than I know exist because of her. So, she was one of the formative people of my faith. And she really taught me a lot about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Not necessarily to be Anglican, or to be Episcopalian, but to be an apprentice to Jesus, by how she lived and how she interacted with people and how she treated people.
I mean, there’s a mantra that she always had that said, you hold a light for the devil to see. Which means that you treat even the people who treat you as if you were the devil, you always treat them with respect and with love. And that’s a hard thing to do sometimes. But you know, she embodied it. And so, she was a great motivator for me to do the things that I have done.
My family and my brother and I immigrated from Barbados when I was about 14 to the United States. And that was another formative moment. Because it took us out of a culture put us into a whole new culture and a whole new cultural understanding. But we had that good foundation of being motivated to know who we are. But more importantly, to know who’s we are. And that’s been a really good guiding, a guiding star in many ways for me. Knowing who’s I am. I may be somebody else’s problem, but they are not necessarily my problem. I’m pretty grounded in who I am. So, navigating different cultures, new school systems, college, and all of that stuff, I have tried to approach all of that with an openness and of joy. There’s joy in the space that we get to share. There’s good news and it should feel and smell and taste like good news. And so, for me, I just I enjoy being and looking for the good news in our world. And that kind of guides who I am and how I approach life and ministry.
Rob: You know, a lot of people get to see you and I and others, you know, on this side of many toils and snares and troubles and uphill climbs, you know, working out who we are, and who’s we are. It’s not a small thing. You’re an immigrant. You’re a black man. You’re a gay man. And you’re a Christian man. And you’re more than all of those things, but those are part and parcel of who you are. So, while we know who we are, and who’s we are, and that ought to be the trajectory of our journey, there are struggles in all of that. There’s rejection in some of that. There’s difficulty in some of that.
So, you know, we just had the Archbishop of the ACMA church, Anglican Church of North America. And they have very clear ideas about people who are gay and lesbian and their life, you know, especially endeavoring to marry, that is inconsistent with scripture. And you know that. And a whole movement has formed. And that is a driver for many people, especially since 2003. And of course, you and I were just at Lambeth. We are recording here today, the day after the Queen has died. And you and I both know, along with 700 Bishops, that this conversation about gay and lesbian folks and them marrying, as being consistent with scripture, not being consistent with scripture is still an awfully big deal.
So, we’ve heard from from Archbishop Foley Beach. I want to hear from you, how do you stay tethered to this idea of who you are? And who’s you are? Especially when people pull bits and pieces of scripture and try to beat you over the head with it and try to exclude you? How do you do that? Walk us through some of that?
Dion: Well, part of it for me is recognizing that the understanding of marriage that we have come to is very different than the biblical understanding of marriage back in the day. I mean, I’m a product of having a degree in history. And so, I tend to look at the history. And what has the history taught us? You know, in the Episcopal Church, there has always been gay bishops. They’ve always been gay parishioners, they’ve always been gay priest, they just weren’t out, and in many ways, they weren’t given the opportunity to be honest and open and who they are. And they have, in many ways, move the church along and paved the way for people like me to be fully who I am.
I’m not going to win an argument with some of our more traditionalist thinking on marriage, sisters and brothers, over what the Bible actually says about marriage. But what I can say is that that concept of one man and one woman is actually not biblical. You know, we look at marriage in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. And we’re talking about people with multiple wives. I mean, the patriarchs all had, and they were patriarchs, all had multiple wives. If you’re going to talk about the biblical understanding of marriage, it means that we have to start talking about what does polygamy mean? And I don’t think many of us want to have that conversation.
But for me, I look at the passages that we pull out, you know, we always pull out Leviticus, and we always pull up the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we don’t look in the wider context as to why those stories are in there and what they actually mean for us. I mean, I had a conversation at Lambeth with someone who mentioned the whole Sodom and Gomorrah thing. And I said, you know, have you ever read Ezekiel 16? And you know, they just seem kind of surprised, like, well, you know, the Bible. Yeah, I know the Bible quite well actually.
Rob: We ought too. Yeah.
Dion: Exactly. I said, read Ezekiel 16, around 49. And it says, you know, it tells you what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was. It wasn’t about sexual stuff. It was that they were arrogant, that they weren’t concerned with the poor, that they weren’t showing hospitality. I mean, that’s just one example.
But throughout the scripture, you know, that same passage in Leviticus that says that a man lying with a man and his abomination, two lines down says eating shellfish is an abomination. But yeah, you know, why is one admonition higher than the other? And so, part of it, I think, is selective proof texting. We selectively pull the ones that support where we are without looking at the wider context. I remember from seminary; the great big German word, the place in context that these things happen. And yet, you know, we are allowed too– For instance, evolve on things like divorce. But yet, we’re not necessarily wanting to budge on things about same sex marriage. You know, what did Jesus say about same sex marriage? Nothing. But he had a lot to say about divorce. He also had a lot to say about how and what we do with our money. And yet I don’t hear any of our biblical literalist saying, “Oh, you know, there’s some clear things in there about how and what we’re supposed to do with our money that we are not following.”
Rob: You know, I’m so glad you said that. When I had Archbishop on, I sort of tongue and cheek asked him toward the end of our time together, said, “Have you ever been to Red Lobster?” And, you know, “Do you enjoy the lobster when you go?” And he said, “I don’t eat the lobster. But I eat the shrimp.” And we both agreed that we liked the biscuits. But as you have said, same word. For eating those animals is an abomination. And same word that some want to use for same sex relationships, marriage, et cetera.
And so, for me, and I think for a lot of people, what we want to know is, how do we know what to leave behind? And how do we know what to bring forward? And, you know, my ministry has, you know, over 25 years now has been, you know, really wrestling with all of that. Because we don’t want to be wrong, and we don’t want to speak for God, you know. My mother used to say, don’t be loud and wrong. And we don’t want to be that. And so, we better bring some humility to these texts. And we better do our work and we better live with them. And we better understand that truth is evolving, you know. Because we bring a lot of bias to these things. And I think we’re– At least I have landed, and you know, this is this is not for anybody else. But where I have landed and I’ve earned where I’ve landed, is that it’s clear that you know, love of neighbor is what we lead with. It’s clear. It’s crystal clear. And it’s not the superficial saccharin stuff. It is neighborly love. And you know, and Jesus seemed to have a lot to say about loving the neighbors who challenge you most.
And so, at least for me, and again, not for anybody else, but for me, I have landed on the place where I need to start off with neighbor love. And, you know, we know that none of us can keep the law, 700 some odd tenants of the love. And this is why grace is so important. And so, you know, some people also get really quickly to say, that doesn’t apply. Then what does apply? And I say, there friend, that’s the wrestling. And we know what does apply is that we ought to respect the dignity of every human being. And at least for me– In terms of, you know, I was so proud to be able to be among the first Deep South State to provide for marriage, for gay and lesbian people. And it wasn’t any political thing. And it wasn’t any sort of, you know, people pleasing thing. In fact, I got a lot of emails, that wondered if I was still a Christian.
Dion: I can imagine.
Rob: But to invite people into a marriage with Jesus at the center, no matter that orientation, I think is something that I want to be about. Because here’s the spiritual formation that happens in relationships. You and I were laughing and joking before we started recording about, it is marriage and parenting and have deepened my prayer life more than the church.
Rob: And its marriage that provides a spiritual formation for us that I think is all about keeping God at the center, all about keeping arrogance at bay, and driving us down into a humility that acknowledges our interrelatedness.
Dion: Yeah. To follow up on that, I think what we keep doing is we keep trying to privatize God’s love. Not just privatized, but weaponize. That we can say, you know, we know exactly who God loves and who God doesn’t love. And to me, that that does not leave too much room for faith. I had a confirmation class a little while ago, and I said to them, you know, the opposite of faith, isn’t doubt. Doubt is an active part of your faith. I said the opposite of faith is absolute certainty. When you know exactly how God is thinking and exactly what God is doing, then you have left no room for God. And now, you’re actually trying to play God. And I think we run the risk of playing God when we try to privatize God’s love. When we try to say God’s love can only go but so far and no further. And God has time and time again, whenever we draw a line, has expanded the circle around it to say, this is where I’m going to go and this is where I’m going to push you.
I mean, the Bible– I literally see the Bible as an extended Love Letter of God to humanity. and an invitation to us to join God in that love that formed everything in the cosmos. The problem is we keep trying to say that God’s love can only be limited to certain places and certain people. And the Bible is, I mean, Jesus’s ministry is pretty clear about going out and finding those who are on the margins. You know, we don’t really– We’ve lost the scandalous-ness of Jesus at the well with woman at midday. We lost the scandalous-ness of him going to the Pharisees house, and telling him, “Hey, don’t invite the people who can invite you back.” We lost the scandalous-ness, the tree looking to find Jesus. These were scandalous stories of God’s radical love. And we de-toothed them when we somehow decide that God’s love can be privatized.
Rob: Well, you know, what I like to say is that we’ve made Jesus, you know, a milk cow. A gentle, pet-able milk cow. When Jesus is actually a raging bull. And what I mean by that, is that he is not violent. But he is going to go where he’s going to go. And he’s going to include who he is going to include. And in his own day, didn’t give a flip about, it seems, where the temple was. That is, people like you and I, the religious establishment. Didn’t give a flip about our biases.
And actually, now this is the tricky part with this. And actually said, you have heard, which meant you have read in the law, but truly I tell you. And I think this is the trickiest part about being a faithful follower of Jesus. And that is, God does not stop talking with the last sentence in the book of Revelation. God continues to talk and God continues to push the boundary. And so, it’s critical for us to have a foundation in scripture as it is, and to understand scripture, and the people who produce scripture, understand that they are also human, they have biases, etc. It’s not a perfect book. It’s a complicated book, and it takes a lifetime of reading. And then we draw forward from there. So, Jesus didn’t do anything that was contradictory to scripture, he extended it. He enlarged and he had deepened, he raised the roof, height of the thing.
And so, you know, if we’re not careful– I used to say, you know, when I was growing up, we used to watch karate movies, and we would come outside after the karate movie, and we’d try to, you know, sort of do what we just saw Bruce Lee or Jim Kelly do. And what we learned really quickly is that a little bit of karate will get your butt kicked. And I feel like, and I feel like what’s happening, you know, when we take a look at the Bible is just a little proof texting. A little, you know, one or two snippets of Bible in your back pocket is really kicking our butts in the way that we’re doing violence to each other around this. It’s amazing how we’ve turned to God– I love how you said we have weaponized it. You know, we’ve weaponized even the Gospel of love. And that says more about us than it says about the book.
Dion: Well, exactly. I mean, I don’t know. I was reading a Barna Research article the other day that was saying, you know, the folks wanting to know more about Jesus is at an all-time high. It’s like 85%, or something.
Dion: But people wanting to know about the church is the all time low.
Rob: That’s right.
Dion: And the gap between the person of Jesus and the expression of Jesus’s followers is a problem. I mean, the church has a PR problem. People don’t see us looking, acting, or being like the person we claim to follow. I mean, Gandhi’s great line, you know, I love your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians, is pretty telling. And I think that I mean, part of what we are called to in this time and place, I think, is to be a people who actually reflect Jesus.
Rob: So, let me just drill down there for a second. Now, you were elected on the first ballot, have I got that right?
Rob: And for those who don’t know, what that means is that there was a sense in all of the people who were there to do the electing that Dion was the guy for the job, was the person for the job. Now, what’s funny about that to me, is that it shows God’s mischievousness. Because you’re the Bishop of Missouri, and in Missouri, not long before your election, we were nationally confronted with Ferguson, Missouri.
Rob: Is that right?
Dion: Yes. That’s in my diocese.
Rob: And, you know, tragic murders there, national protects, a lot of discord there. You know, data about the racist nation, racist way in which the police were policing. Hard data, independent research, et cetera. And then, here you come now. A black immigrant, a husband, and a dad. If we’ve got a PR problem as Christians, what are you doing in that context to work that through? Because it’s clear that they wanted you.
Dion: Yeah. I think the biggest piece of advice my grandmother ever gave me has served me quite well and continues to serve for that. She said, to be successful in this life, you do three things. You get up, you dress up, and you show up. And for me, a lot of it is showing up in spaces that you wouldn’t expect the bishop to show up in. Showing up with people that you wouldn’t expect the bishop to sit and have conversations with. I do more listening than I do speaking, I hope. Because, and I do more questioning, because, you know, Jesus asked a lot more questions than he actually answered. And so, part of it for me is going to ask the questions, why are we doing this, this way? How did we come to this place? How can we be better at what we’re doing? How do we share God’s love in a different way? And, you know, there have been people– Obviously, there were some people who didn’t vote for me to be the bishop from. But yet, here I am. And my tendency is to lean in. Lean in, especially the people who disagree. Lean into the people who society tells you you’re not supposed to have a good relationship with.
For instance, I mean, I have a great working relationship with the Archbishop, the Catholic Archbishop here in St. Louis. I’m one of the– I’m the first bishop to actually have a really good working relationship with the Archbishop of St. Louis. Because I made a point of intentionally going and saying, look, we might be on different spectrums when it comes to different things. But we are called to share God’s love and to proclaim the good news of Jesus. So, let’s figure out a good way that we can have a working relationship.
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Rob: Brian Stevenson talks about proximity, you know, as a way to sort of get at it. And I think if we look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we see a Jesus having conversations with an unconventional, nontraditional, conversation partners. I think that’s what blows our mind about him, you’ve already named some of those conversation partners. You know, I think if we take a real close look at scripture, we’ll find Jesus actually in the house of the Pharisees and Scribes, at a dinner party, and he just sort of breaks out. And I always think of Jesus, you know, maybe breaking out in song. He always breaks out in song or breaks out in story. And begins to give us his sort of life altering, you know, questions or offering his life altering questions. But, you know, I wonder what you said is an invitation for all of us, right. So, the invitation for Bishop Dion to all of us is, go places that perhaps you wouldn’t normally go and have conversations with folks you might not normally have conversations with. And all to the glory of God. Do I have that right?
Dion: That sums it up, yes.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah. Well, in this last movement here, you know, I’m really sort of thinking a lot about this notion between people still think that– And you’ve said it already. They think a lot of Jesus. He’s enigmatic. They are still captured by him. This is true over many generations. But it’s the church. It’s the church that somehow loses folks. So, how are you addressing that in the Diocese of Missouri?
Dion: Well, you know, we’ve put the emphasis on the wrong syllable for a very long time. We’ve been trying to– We’ve been trying to build the church rather than create disciples of Jesus. And the institution is going to be fine. I am not worried about the church. And you can hear me say that, it doesn’t go against the vows I took as a bishop. I am not worried about the institution. The institution is going to be there. I am concerned that we are called to to make disciples, to make to apprentice people to follow this Jesus.
And so, here in the diocese, Missouri, we have a cannon on my staff for evangelism and discipleship development, specifically, to help us do some of that work. And I’ve challenged all of our congregations to go outside your door, go find Jesus already at work outside in your community. But the question that I’ve been asking, while two questions I’ve been asking our congregations are, what is your why? Why did God put you here in this place in this time? And then, the second one I always ask is, what do you love? What are those things that you love that call you to faith that you get to share with others. And then challenged people to go out into the world and just do just that. You know, some of my best religious encounters have been the frozen peas aisle in the supermarket for someone who is having a crisis. And I can just say, you know, I will pray for– You know what, let me pray for you right now, here. And that’s been transformative. Whether they walk into the church or not, really doesn’t matter so much to me. But that they have a good encounter with somebody who follows Jesus. Because like I said, Christianity has a PR problem. You know, you hear Christian. And the first set of words according to Barna is judgmental. The second one is homophobic.
Rob: And xenophobic, exactly. Judgmental, all of that.
Dion: Yeah. What never made the list was loving or joyful or hopeful. And those are all things that Jesus embodied. Jesus embodied love and joy and hope. And in many of our communities, we don’t see that stuff. And so, for me, is to bring the joy of our faith, the love that Jesus shared with us, that the excitement of spreading the good news. There is good news. And we get to be it.
Rob: You know, I’m always so struck when we preach that woman by the well. You know, the longest conversation Jesus had with anybody. Somebody he wasn’t even supposed to acknowledge, let alone speak to at that level or length. And you know, her response to all of that is to go to her community and say, hey, I met somebody today.
Dion: Hm-mm. Come and see.
Rob: But even before we get to come and see, we get to, I met somebody today. And I think, you know, when Philip engages the Ethiopian eunuch, you know, the eunuch has met somebody in Phillip, someone who walks it a little bit differently and talks it a little bit differently. And, you know, the eunuch and the woman are persuaded to respond. And, you know, I think that’s the trick. It’s to be those people quietly in the ways that are genuine to us, but to be those people where people have met something, you know, in us.
I was in an Uber in Charlotte, North Carolina last week. And you know, how you just get to talking and usually you can’t tell by the podcast, usually I’m not that chatty. I’m just sort of going about my business. But there was a young lady who was the Uber driver and we got to going back and forth. And she started talking a little bit about her life as a young woman. She moved from California to Charlotte. And she was Ubering. And this was her second job. And she was very purposeful. She was saving up money to buy a house. But then she was 28 and she was talking about her fear of being alone and not being able to find a spouse. And I listened to her and asked some questions. Well, at the end of the ride, I said, hey, you know, would you mind if we prayed? And nothing particularly eloquent or artful in terms of prayer. And I did all that before I told her, you know, what I did for a living. And I don’t know what she thought after that, but I thought to myself, you know, that’s what we should be doing in the cracks and crevices of stuff. To be able to just sort of find that, you know, we talked about one step boulder here in the Diocese of Atlanta. One step, braver. For those of us that are a little shy when it comes to those things, to hold a hand or not, but just a call on a God who dispels fear and who can provide for us. And just to do that with people with good share. I got out of the Uber. I went my way and she went hers. I guess I will never know what happens in her life. But like the sewer that Jesus talks about, we have to be sowing these seeds. I think that’s all we can really control these days.
Dion: Well, and I think that is the heart of it. We get to just point to Jesus and let God do the rest of it. I mean, I say to our congregations, it’s not your job to grow this church. That is above your paygrade. God is the one who grows the church. Your job is to be faithful to your call to follow Jesus. And that’s what it is. I mean, I love the story. One of my favorite stories is Jesus healing Bartimaeus, you know, outside the rich city. And I mean, I said, you know, three things got healed that day. Bartimaeus got his sight, the disciples got their sight, and the crowd got their sight. And the thing is when Bartimaeus was done, Bartimaeus doesn’t go off and find the formerly blind society– He went off– I mean, literally if you read the story, it ends with Bartimaeus getting up and just following Jesus. And for me, that’s what it is. You know, after you’ve had that encounter with Jesus, you don’t go form a committee. You don’t go get a task force. You follow.
And so, what I’ve been saying is that, you know, what we are called to do is to apprentice people to Jesus. We are called to form disciples. Not make good church going, folks. Those are great. Those will happen. But we have to be discipled first. We have to know why we are dropping everything and following this itinerant preacher. And if we’re not willing to do that, if we’re not willing to say, you know what, this is what I’m doing, this is why I’m following Jesus, we can try to fill the church as much as we want, nothing is going to happen until we are grounded in those basics of who we are, who’s we are, and why we are following Jesus. I talk a lot about Jesus.
Rob: Well, I think we have to interrogate some of the things that are happening. We have to interrogate them, not with condemnation, shame, or guilt. But we have to interrogate them and wonder, what can we be doing differently. And I think one of the things we can be doing differently is really just raising up one another, to talk about the good news, you know, in God.
I want to say this before we wind up, one of the things I’ve been thinking about since we left England is that even in our liturgies, that is how the layout of our services, the sequence of events in our services as you know. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that we go right, when we do the prayers, and we should continue to pray for other people. But we go right into sort of the woes of the world, I call them, right? And of course, we ought to be praying, and interfacing, and petitioning. We ought to be praying for people in trouble a crisis of any kind. Of course, we should. But I am very sensitive now that perhaps, that has brought us to a time where we don’t quite focus on the goodness of God as much as we should.
And so, I am asking the Diocese of Atlanta going forward, and anybody within earshot, to shift the way we pray. So, in other words, before we get to intercessions and petitions, how about thanks givings and iterations. And that is, you know, to begin to invite people to sort of come up and out of their sails for just a moment. And to talk about this God, who is a good God. Who is praiseworthy, who is as we say, woke us up this morning and set us on our way. Gave us the portion of health and strength that you and I enjoy today. And so, you know, I think, if we are the people of prayer and prayer leads to how we live, you know, I think one of the things that might begin to make us more buoyant than we have been previously as a church is to begin to focus a little bit on thanks giving, adoration, and praise. Which are three genres of praise. Where? In the book of–
Dion: Yes. Well, we forget that sometimes. We forget the praying. We forget the finding the joy. Because I mean, I go to some churches sometimes and it’s like, folks, this is good news. We should be joyful about it. Let’s not act like you know, we just lost a million dollars. Let’s act as we just won eternal life.
Rob: That’s right. That’s right. Right. Would you go to a party, would you stay at a party that was that down in the mouth?
Rob: Our metric, a thousand years ago, when I was the reactor of a congregation, our metric was, is that our sense that people feel better when they leave than they did when they came?
Dion: Amen. That is our call.
Rob: Well, I could tell you, I feel better having talked to you this morning. And so, brothers and sisters, we are on with Bishop Dion Kevin Johson, the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri. Dion, it’s just a joy to be with you.
Dion: Thank you, Rob. It’s been a joy and a pleasure to be with you. And I look forward to chatting with you again sometime soon.
Rob: Boy, your grandmother would be so proud.
Dion: Just get, dress up, and show up.
Rob: Amen. Amen.