The theme of our summer preacher series this year is “Beloved Community.” Coined by Josiah Royce, the concept of the beloved community was popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While eschewing the utopian vision of Royce, King nevertheless developed his conception of the beloved community out of the idealist philosophy of Boston Personalism in which he was formed here at Boston University.
For King, the beloved community is first and foremost a social reality. The beloved community arises from the personal commitments of individual people to the method of nonviolence enacted socially. As King said, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Nonviolence is the means, but “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” The beloved community is spiritual as well as social, “it is the love of God working in the lives of [people].” The beloved community is global, or as King described it, “a great world house in which we have to live together.” And surely it is the cosmic dimension of the beloved community that King had in mind when he quoted Theodore Parker that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
King fully that this vision of the beloved community would be realized and actualized socially. He was beginning the process of building a late modern sacred canopy in hopes that it would become the societal governing norm, complete with cosmic dimension, over time.
From the vantage point of 2015, some sixty years after King began to popularize the beloved community, it is hard to imagine such a global and universal ethos taking hold. Rather than a single sacred canopy, as Peter Berger himself has acknowledged, what we are experiencing in our pluralistic age is ongoing contestation of our various sacred canopies, or perhaps better, sacred tents. Rather than participating in a singular canopy, we inhabit, in our lives, various tents: the family tent, the work tent, the school tent, the neighborhood tent, the friends tent, and on and on. We inhabit each of these tents differently, fitting our individual uniqueness to the social norms governing each. These tents overlap one another at the intersection of us; that is, we are the locus of overlap for all of the tents we inhabit, even if they would never otherwise intersect and do not regularly have anything to do with one another. The sacred canopy in this sense, then, is much more like the jungle canopy, which exists only after the fact as the limbs of the trees grow to overlap one another organically.
Of course, some of the tents we inhabit are more central to our sense of self and identity than others; they are more important to us than others; they are where we find our deepest sense of belonging. The tent where you find your deepest gladness realized, where you feel you most fully belong, where you experience the greatest freedom, that tent, then, is your beloved community. Rather than a global, universal, cosmic beloved community, these beloved communities are more often intimate, vulnerable, and personal.
Theologically, what King envisioned as the beloved community resonates deeply with what the church aspires to be: global, universal, and mediator of cosmic harmony. The church aspires to be a community of universal love and belonging. It is for this reason that the church all too frequently proclaims itself to be the unique and universal context for salvation.
Alas, in living out the vocation of cultivating universal love and belonging, the church is caught on the horns of a dilemma. In order to achieve what it aspires, that is in order to become truly global and universal, the church must find ways to cope with the many particularities embodied by the human beings it desires to include. In order to do so, the church has two options. First, the church can articulate its canopy in ways so vague and abstract that it can embrace anyone. The problem with this option is that the canopy demands little and so inspires minimal allegiance, and it quickly becomes viewed as superfluous and irrelevant. Second, the church can articulate its canopy in stricter ways and insist that everyone abide by the norms it articulates. The problem with this option is that the demands of the canopy are so oppressive for some, or perhaps many, that escaping the canopy becomes preferable to suffocating under it. In sum, it is sheer hubris to claim that the experience of grace of one person, or even a subset of people, is determinative of what the experience of grace must be for everyone.
Jesus knew something of the challenge of being beloved in community, indeed in the very communities where one might most expect to find love: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Jesus taught the disciples that they too would find places that could not, or at least would not, be beloved communities for them: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” The sacred canopy of Jesus’ hometown was no place for him to be beloved; the sacred canopy he offered could not meet everyone where they were.
So too today the church is wrestling precisely on the horns of this dilemma. This has never been exemplified more clearly than in the response of too much of the church to the recent US Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right for gay and lesbian people to marry. Many churches are experiencing that the strict ways they have articulated their sacred canopies with respect to marriage are increasingly intolerable conditions for many people to inhabit. These same churches accuse the churches that have embraced gay marriage of being “wishy washy,” that is, of demanding so little that they are becoming irrelevant.
Sadly, many of these churches that take themselves to be the ultimate context of salvation have forgotten that the very terms of that salvation are their own interpretation of what God is doing. Of course, this forgetting that the sacred canopy is our own construction is precisely one of the movements of its construction that Peter Berger describes. The problem is that in forgetting we come to confuse our own human institutions with the will of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the serious Christian, set down for the first time in Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”
Just as Saint Paul thought that he knew what he needed and what would be best for him, so too we must learn once again to rely more firmly on God’s grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities of disabled persons and those who accompany them, reminds us that, “community is a terrible place, a place where our limitations and egoisms are revealed to us. When we begin to live full time with others we discover our poverty and our weakness, our inability to get on with others… our mental and emotional blocks; our affective and sexual disturbances, our frustrations and jealousies… and our hatred and desire to destroy.” Beloved community is not easy, but it is precisely by moving together through these weaknesses that the power of the beloved community is perfected.
The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that God is at work inspiring, encouraging, and nurturing beloved communities. Everyone deserves a beloved community. This is the gospel message that Justice Kennedy articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Even when the church is unwilling to be and become a beloved community, and even when the church is unwilling to acknowledge the beloved community that folks are building together, the government must acknowledge and nurture and foster these beloved communities.
This is a challenging gospel for the church to hear: First, not everyone will find their beloved community in the church. The grace of God is at work outside the church, and often as not in spite of the church. Claims to the contrary are mere hubris, but God’s grace is sufficient because power is made perfect in weakness. Second, the grace of God is nurturing beloved communities, not beloved community. The experience of being beloved cannot be fostered in monolithic, universal, totalizing sacred canopies. Instead we need intimate tents where vulnerability and weakness may be cultivated in contexts of trust and security, because it is in weakness that power is made perfect. The church must repent of the sin of claiming that grace for one is grace for all.
Let me be clear, not all beloved communities are healthy. Dyllan Roof, the accused racist terrorist who killed nine members of a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, was nurtured in a community to feel beloved precisely by rejecting the humanity and personhood of black people. This orientation is not unrelated to his experience in church. Unequivocally, this is a perversion of what it means to be beloved. There is no grace here.
The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, calls us to return to the gospel of grace: “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”
Today we gather at the table of grace to receive the grace of God whose own weakness was made absolute, and thus whose power is perfected, in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. What will you do with this grace? Go out, take nothing for your journey, and build beloved communities. Build family communities of intimacy, love, and mutual support. Build work communities of imagination, dedication, and collaboration. Build school communities of learning, virtue, and piety. Inhabit all of the communities in which you find belonging and are beloved with grace, that is, in weakness, that your power may be perfected. And may the grace of God empower you to serve as the point of intersection among these communities such that love and justice may flourish. Amen.
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