“Finding the Beloved Community”

January 16, 2011


I Corinthians 1:4-18

John 1:29-42


We pause this morning, during this long weekend, during these January days that have both troubled our nation and called us to a new unity of purpose, to remember the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his time reminded us of our higher calling as individuals and as a nation.

Other events to mark this occasion are happening today and in the days ahead as well.

The interfaith religious community holds our annual celebration of the life and work of the Rev. Dr. King tonight at 7:00 at the new Bethel AME church. This is the fifteenth annual celebration in Iowa City. It was at one such worship service that the Ecumenical Minority Scholarship was first suggested by Bruce Fischer, a former minister of this congregation. I hope that you will bring family and friends and be a part of this service tonight at 7:00.

The University,  just coming back from winter break, uses King’s birthday as the cornerstone for its annual Human Rights Week. It should be a point of pride that the recognition of King’s birthday has been a tradition at the University of Iowa since 1969, and the national holiday has been observed through human rights programs since its inception in 1986. Students, faculty, and staff are urged to make this a “day on” rather than a day off, by participating in service activities in our community.

We have lived with King’s legacy long enough now to know that his life and ministry was about more than “having a dream.” He revealed the depth of racism in the North as well as the South. He exposed the degradation of poverty upon people of all races. And near the end of his life his unwavering commitment to nonviolence led to his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. King’s message was that this nation must undergo a “radical revolution of values,” putting people before things so that what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” might be conquered.

We mark King’s birthday this year with disturbed spirits and heavy hearts, troubled by and grieving over the recent shootings in Tucson; aware of the strained political climate of our times; aware, too, of the violence that is still loose in our nation and in the rest of the world. We confess as well that eighty-two years after King’s birth and nearly forty-three years after his death, we still grapple with the racism, materialism, and militarism.

While we might be tempted toward despair, this year’s University of Iowa Human Rights Week theme reminds us that in just such difficult circumstances, King called us to the hope of building what he called a “beloved community.”

That term, “beloved community,” was coined nearly a century ago by Josiah Royce, the philosopher and founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. King, who later became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, took up this term, gave it widespread common use, and invested it with new and deep significance.

“Our goal,” he said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” The beloved community was not some utopian vision that was unattainable on this earth in this life. Both an inward and an outward transformation were necessary. But King was convinced that if enough people were trained in and committed to nonviolence, just such a community would come into being.

Building any kind of community, of course, is filled with problems. If we would join in the ongoing task of creating the kind of beloved community envisioned by King, we need to begin, I think, by recognizing the difficulty of community.

Real community strips us of our illusions.

In The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his experience in an intentional community. The main character imagines life with others as “something that shall have the notes of wild birds twittering through it, or a strain like the wind anthems in the woods.” Most of the novel, however, tells of the unraveling of the community. Disappointment and gracelessness predominate as the shadow side of each member of the Blithedale community slowly emerges.

That, of course, is the direction of all communities and congregations, because, as one person put it, “Fallen people fall.”

Stick around long enough and you’ll see we all have a shadow side.

Genuine community is born only after we are first “overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others . . . and, if we are fortunate, great disillusionment with ourselves.”

Last Sunday afternoon some of us gathered here in the sanctuary to listen as Paul’s two letters to the early church in Corinth were read. One cannot listen to these letters very long before realizing just how fractious and threatened that community was. There was a spirit of division among the people. Somes said, “I belong to Paul,” others, “I belong to Applos.” The Lord’s Supper approached an occasion of drunkenness and gluttony, separating those with resources from those without. Some were convince that they had all knowledge or all wealth and disparaged the others.

So much for any community, let alone a beloved one.

And yet it was to just these fractious and broken people that Paul wrote, calling them, “dedicated to God in Christ Jesus, called to be God’s people…”

It’s just such people—imperfect, fallen people in imperfect, fallen churches—that King called to join with him in creating a beloved community. While community—even Christian community—is filled with difficulties and dangers, we can and should still dare to seek it, dare to live in it. We are not given any guarantees, but, by God’s grace, the sustaining power of community can be known.

We are aware that King’s beloved community remains to be made real. In our current context, just as we have to recognize the difficulty of community, we need to recognize our fear and what it does to us.

The twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr prayed—in words that have since been adopted by Alcoholics Annoymous—“God give us…the courage to change the things that can be changed.”  Where do we find the power, even in the face of obstacles and opposition to change what can be changed; the power to act when we are tempted toward passivity?

In the face of very real threats and dangers how can we make courage a part of our lives?

Let’s be honest. There is much in this world that can and does frighten us. There is much that should frighten us. Angelo Patri, said that “Education consists in being afraid at the right time.” So we might be learning a great deal in these days.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew enough danger and enough fear to be somewhat of an expert. He said that we can't and shouldn't try to eliminate fear. It is the elemental alarm system of the human organism. Fear warns of approaching dangers and without it we would not have survived in either the primitive or contemporary worlds. “The fear of darkness,” King reminds us, “led to the discovery of the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous advances of medical science. The fear of ignorance was one reason that we built great institutions of learning.”[i]

Fear is normal, necessary, and creative. We can accept the fact that we are going to be afraid many times in life. Out of that fear can come new solutions, creative responses, and personal growth.

Having courage doesn't mean we won't experience fear, but that fear won't control us. Courage enables us to encounter threats, hatred, disapproval, and contempt without leaving what’s right.

Faith invites us to look closely at our fears—to look at those that are imaginary as we as those that are well founded. In faith, we take our fear into ourselves and find that both our selves and our fear are transformed. The outward result we call “courage”—and it springs from an inward struggle.

From that struggle we gain the wisdom that knows the difference between real and imaginary danger. Courage recognizes real danger.

I recently read about a group of people who were taking the kinds of action—united, nonviolent, courageous in the face of real danger—that builds beloved community. They don’t live in the United States—they are Egyptian. And they aren’t Christians—they are Muslims.

You recall the tragic attack on worshippers at the All Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, last month which left 21 worshippers dead on New Year’s Eve. In the wake of this solidarity between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt has been at an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to an image of a cross within a crescent—the symbol of “Egypt for All.”

A year ago this month, on the eve of the January 6 Coptic celebration of Christmas, a drive-by shooting in Nag Hammadi killed eight Christians as they were leaving church services. This year thousands of Muslims showed up at Christmas Eve services in churches around the country. Movie stars, religious leaders, the two sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and many, many others—from the well-known to the unknown, Muslims came to offer their bodies as “human shields” for the worship services, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free of sectarian strife.

What better picture for us of the qualitative change in our souls as well as the quantitative change in our lives required to bring the beloved community into being? They serve as a living example of what President Obama meant when he told us last Wednesday: “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”

It is a global task—and when we despair of the situation in our own country, we take heart—we are encouraged—by the actions of people elsewhere.

In disquieting times, especially in times such as these, may God give us the courage to respond to all that we fear and to change the things that can be changed.



Let us pray:  We thank you, God, for those like your servant, Martin, who call us to create a beloved community. Grant us wisdom and courage that together we might walk in the way of peace. Amen.

[i][i] MLKing, “The Strength to Love,” in A Testament of Hope, pg. 510-511.