Take a moment and consider a time when you were in a group of people and you felt truly appreciated, truly respected, truly affirmed (credit to Bishop Prior for this invitation at Convention).
What was that like? When did that happen?
These experiences are sacred because they transform us. When we find ourselves fully known and fully loved, we are free to become who God dreams us to be.
These sacred experiences are all too rare. My guess is that it’s easier for us to pinpoint times when we felt invisible, when we had to stay in our place, to not speak unless spoken to, to not be granted the dignity of every human being. If you heard any of the service at the National Cathedral in honor of Matthew Shepard last week, it captured some of the deep spiritual wound that the lack of Beloved Community creates.
Dr. King’s vision of Beloved Community, though, went a step further than the individual experience of belonging and belovedness. Dr. King called us to repent of the original sin of the American church: the sin of racism, bigotry, and the willingness to enslave others to enrich ourselves. And then, the sin of the ongoing nature of white supremacy in this country and in our faith communities. That would include the virulent racism and hate that leads to terrorism, the murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh being only the most recent example. But there’s a more polite and insidious version, too: the passive assumption that racial, ethnic, and religious divisions are other people’s problems to solve.
Friends, this is the world we live in: power and privilege divide us from each other across lines of race, class, culture, language, gender, sexuality, ability, and more.
Jesus walked in a world that was yet more divided along lines of race and nationality and religion, and far more violent and dangerous than ours. And yet, he persisted in crossing those lines, in telling difficult truths and seeking authentic, honest relationships with people it would have been much easier to ignore. Jesus built a community that incorporated enemies: religious zealots and notorious sinners, collaborators and revolutionaries. One way to read the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is that it was a journey of careful and skillful leadership in creating deep and authentic relationships, directly with others, and between others.
The cost that his Jesus’ disciples paid in dropping their nets and their livelihoods to follow him around was not just economic: They became objects of scorn and violence. So they must have had some very powerful experiences of being seen and known and loved to stay together, to continue telling the story, well after his death. And they must have learned some skills in helping build Beloved Community for others: getting 5,000 people to sit down and eat together, and have enough, is a feat of serious community-building.
The Gospels tell us about some of their learning experiences. In last Sunday’s story from Mark, Bartimaus, a blind man, is on the side of the road, begging. When Jesus passes by, he shouts out, calling to Jesus, naming him as the Messiah. But some in the crowd hush him. Stop making a scene, this isn’t about you. Stop bothering the teacher. Keep your voice down. Know your place. Jesus shows us another way, over and over again in the Gospels: God becomes flesh in Jesus Christ not as a king but as a helpless child, giving up God’s power for the fragility of human life. Jesus’ ministry and teachings don’t start at the top, with the Roman Empire or even the elite of his own people, but with fishermen, with the everyday people at the bottom of the totem pole. And in situations like this Gospel text, Mark goes out of his way to illustrate that when the crowd told a blind beggar to mind his place, Jesus stopped, called him over, asked him what he wanted, and gave it to him.
Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom is about: it is about the dignity of every human being. Jesus shows us that true strength comes in setting aside your power so that others can claim theirs. And Jesus shows us, too, that when we are powerless, true strength comes in claiming our voice, even when it is dangerous.
There’s a cycle here, one that Eric Law calls the ‘Gospel Cycle of Living.’ Whenever we show up in a situation where we are perceived as having more power than others, following Jesus means that we set aside our power, that we listen to the powerless first, that we intentionally set aside our status to give the place of honor to others. And, likewise, whenever we show up in a situation where we are perceived as having less power, following Jesus means that we must know ourselves as God’s beloved children, claim our voice, and participate as full members, even if we are not perceived to be so. This is a cycle because once you give up your power for the sake of the experience and leadership of others, you are back down at the bottom of the cycle, and it is time for you to be willing to share your voice and wisdom and leadership again. And on and on.
Being formed as followers of the way of Jesus means experiencing that kind of Beloved Community, and practicing building it with others.
For a long time our faith communities have talked about faith formation as learning – study, reading, devotional work and intellectual work. And often, it is. But head work doesn’t help us experience belovedness unless our hearts are involved, unless we are in the school of God’s love, not just the school of ideas about God.
My invitation to ECMN’s faith communities is to adopt this mindset: Faith formation means experiencing beloved community, and practicing building it with others.
How we treat each other matters just as much, if not more, than what we say or how we worship. So I invite you to embrace that mindset of experiencing and building Beloved Community, not just in what you do for adult education hour, but as you plan your liturgy, as you train your ushers, as you hold vestry meetings, as you craft your newsletter, as you relate to neighbors, as you read the news, and, yes: as you vote.
And, if you want to experience more, if you want to build your skills in creating Beloved Community, your families and neighborhoods are already rich with God’s beloved people—deep and authentic relationships beckon. ECMN’s School for Formation offers a great place to start: the Building Bridges course. ECMN’s camping and Teens Encounter Christ programs are great venues to take next steps, too. We’ve gathered resources at CreatingBelovedCommunity.org to support your exploration.
We are followers of the way of Jesus, and Jesus preached, more than anything, about the Kingdom of God come near. That’s what Beloved Community is: God’s creation in right, loving relationship to each other and to God. We are people of that way, seeking that kind of shalom around the altars in our faith communities and everywhere else we go, right now and each moment of our lives.