"Toward the Beloved Community"
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 17, 2016
University Baptist Church
On this bitterly cold Sunday morning, we break with perhaps wiser tradition, leave the comfort of our warm homes and come together. Why? We do so because we need each other. We come together because we need to sing. We come together because we need to pray with each other. We come together because we need to reflect on the Gospel. We come together in order to make sense of our crazy-making world. And we come together to take a step toward the Beloved Community.
The Beloved Community. It’s a term that Martin Luther King used to explain the vision of a faithful society that is true to its ideal self. King said we have a choice, between nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. He charged us to choose community rather than chaos.
A plaque at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta says this:
“Dr. King's Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
The Beloved Community. Are we moving toward it or away from it?
Its roots are in today’s scripture reading. After a 40-day visit with Satan and a slew of healings in Capernaum and Galilee, Jesus came to his hometown synagogue, picked up the scroll of Isaiah 61 and read, “The Spirit of God is upon me because God has sent me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the year of God’s favor”—that’s the year of Jubilee when all will return what they have stolen, all slaves set free, and all debts will be forgiven. We proclaim a piece of that each week when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled,” said Jesus. The year of jubilee is come. It’s time to implement all of this. But no sooner did he say this than he was run out of town. People weren’t ready for this kind of vision, for the beloved community. And ever since then, people have been in a tug of war between the status quo and the prophetic pull of God toward the beloved community. If we believe Jesus’ words, “today, this has been fulfilled in your presence,” then we need to be moving toward the beloved community.
Echoing Jesus and Isaiah, Martin Luther King said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . . When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
I think the Jubilee is another name for the Beloved Community. It’s supposed to happen once every 50 years. Fifty years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. And now we are living in a time when racism has increased: Where voting rights have been rolled back; where anger is pouring out in to the streets; where presidential candidates who are explicit in their racist rants garner rabid followers; where it’s easy to get a gun; where inequality continues to grow. Maybe it’s time for another Jubilee. Maybe it’s time to move toward the beloved community.
American Baptist Home Mission Society Executive Director Dr. Jeffrey Haggray wrote this week,
“Our world today is filled with hostile speech and hostile actions…King advocated for a change in the human heart that would steer our society, including the perpetrators of violent aggression, away from violent activity. These timeless words of Dr. King should be heard today: ‘At the center of nonviolence stands the principles of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns…Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.’”
Jesus didn’t read just any portion of Isaiah. He read the most challenging part for the elite and the best part for those who had been left out. It was a good news of radical inclusivity, radical hospitality. Jesus was telling us to establish the beloved community.
Gandhi was once asked what the difference is between himself and most Christians. Gandhi said, “I think Jesus meant it.”
The good news meant caring for those less fortunate than you, not blaming them for their poverty.
The good news meant speaking to powerful institutions and in the tradition of Moses, saying, “Let my people go.”
Followers of Jesus were wary of those in places of authority. Jesus hung out with the poor and the outcast. He turned over the tables and was never afraid to stick his neck out. Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. Sounds great, unless you are one of the elite, the privileged, like most of us. The ruling authorities kept the poor, poor and the rich, rich. Jesus set himself against their practices and in favor of the Beloved Community.
Micah says that God requires us to "do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."(Micah 6:8) That is more important than making friends with those in high places. Doing and embodying the good news is more important than anything.
Let’s unpack those words of good news that upset the hometown folks and inspired a movement at the same time. And let’s look at whether we are moving toward or away from the beloved community.
Good news to the poor
Bringing good news to the poor did not mean granting platitudes and saying "You will have a reward in heaven for all of your suffering."
Good news to the poor meant feeding 5000 people.
Good news to the poor meant turning over the tables of the moneychangers who were ripping off the people on the feast days.
Good news to the poor meant standing with the poor, taking on the role of the servant showing them that God walks with them. God is not against them.
Bringing good news to the poor means doing something about sweat-shop conditions in the third world.
Bringing good news to the poor means having housing that people can afford and jobs that move people out of poverty.
Bringing good news to the poor means advocating not just for a minimum wage, but for a living wage. That’s good news to the poor.
Martin Luther King said, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men [and women] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is dry-as-dust religion.”
Release to the captives
Proclaiming release to the captives meant standing up to the authorities when a captive woman supposedly caught in adultery was about to be stoned.
Releasing the captives meant challenging anyone without sin to cast the first stone.
Releasing the captives meant telling the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give to the poor. Only then would he be freed of the power of greed.
Releasing the captives means instilling hope in people when they have given up on themselves and on God. We can become captives to our own doubts.
Releasing the captives means putting an end to secret tribunals and secret prisons in Cuba and other places around the world, our tax dollars at work.
Releasing the captives means restoring due process.
Releasing the captives means reform in the criminal justice system that incarcerates people of color at a rate that far exceeds the rate of white incarceration for the same crime. It means reexamining what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow.
Recovery of sight to the blind
Granting recovery of sight to the blind certainly meant the restoration of the sight of Bartemaeus. But it also meant the modeling which Jesus did when he stood with those whom the power structure and even the religious leadership had counted off as less than human: the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the entire female gender. That is recovery of sight to the blind. And people began to see with new eyes.
It means taking seriously the Black Lives Matter protestors across our nation.
It means seeing and hearing from the many wounded soldiers—wounded in body and wounded in spirit—who are trying to make sense of the world.
This morning’s Star Tribune has a large article about the survivors of mass shootings and their ongoing struggles with PTSD
We need to stand (with eyes open) alongside those whom our country's power structure considers less than human. When we do, we will see with new eyes.
Set at liberty those who are oppressed
Jesus set at liberty those who were oppressed by healing those with leprosy.
Jesus set at liberty those who were oppressed by calling us not to judge one another. Jesus knew that judging one another made it easier to oppress the one who was judged.
Jesus set at liberty those who were oppressed by making a distinction between himself and Caesar, both of whom were considered the Son of God. "See which one really is the Son of God," infers Jesus "and then render unto each according to their holiness."
Jesus set at liberty those who were oppressed by showing them that even in the end, he was not willing to let the powers that be win. And he bore the cross, and by his stripes we are set free.
Jesus' ministry and his power were in his very holy and righteous work on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden. For this, he was crucified. For this work he is resurrected in the life of the church and believers everywhere.
The key for us is to look at the world through the lens of the poor, downtrodden, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. The key for us is to look at the world through the lens of the immigrant, the welfare mother, the people of Syria, our sisters and brothers in the Holy Lands who live in real fear. When we look at the world from a different perspective and ask, ‘what is good news for them?’ We can find some real creative God-inspired solutions.
Will Campbell said: "Unless worship takes people out of the church and into the street to where the people of God are hurting and suffering, it has no meaning. Church isn't about gathering and mouthing off every Sunday morning. Just to repeat God's words Sunday after Sunday and go on about our business and not take some action to improve the lot of God's people is absurd."
So what moves us toward the beloved community? Is it to implement the words of Isaiah and Jesus? Certainly. Is it to make things better for all people? You betcha. But we only need to look at the toxic rhetoric coming from our campaigns, mirroring the toxic sludge coming out of the taps of the mostly African American town of Flint, Michigan to see that we have a long way to go. It’s common practice to vilify this president on almost every news channel, even call him a child in need of a spanking as one of the candidates did in this week’s debate. No president has had this kind of demonization, even on Christian radio. Are we moving toward the beloved community, or are we moving away from it? We need to be doing things that move us toward the beloved community.
We have already spoken about the things that move us away from the beloved community: toxic rhetoric, toxic water, toxic climate, ignoring of inequality, ignoring that Black Lives Matter, or belittling the movement.
Martin Luther King said, “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”
Things that move us closer to the beloved community include: hearing the hard struggles of those who have been left out: People of color, women, the LGBT community, Muslims.
Gun control moves us toward the beloved community. It is common sense to have background checks for assault weapons.
Health Care for all brings us toward the beloved community. Let me say that Obamacare is a step forward, but it’s far from a just system. A single-payer system would be more in the lines of the beloved community.
A just trade policy brings us toward the beloved community, not one that keeps in place a global system of dependency.
Ways to address climate change and clean up our environment bring us toward a beloved community, so that we will have a world to enjoy for generations to come.
National service brings us toward a beloved community. National service needs to be more than just the military. National service, where we work to bring about change in communities and develop a more compassionate and thoughtful workforce, would be a step toward the beloved community.
Companionship programs like the one we have been experimenting with for the last 20 years with a small struggling church in Nicaragua. When we companion with them, our minds and our hearts get expanded and we don’t think of our neighbors to the south as them, they are us who live farther away. And we are all changed by the relationship.
Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue, rolled out the scroll of Isaiah and said, the Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the captives go free, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor, the year of Jubilee, the beloved community. And then said, today this scripture has been fulfilled. If we believe that, then we must continue to move toward the beloved community.
So, sisters and brothers, be good news people. Make a decision to walk intentionally as a child of God. Remember the first sermon of Jesus. Remember your own integrity. Remember your role in the ongoing struggle to bring good news to the poor, set the captives free, to grant recovery of sight to the blind to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Make God real for someone else through acts of mercy, through audacious, courageous companionship with those who are “other”, recognizing ttat they hold a window into God’s heart. And through it all bring some light to this world in so much need. When we do that, then we are truly about proclaiming the acceptable year of God's favor. Maybe even moving toward the beloved community.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ‘til victory is won.