A sermon by The Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson, Rector
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
April 23rd, 2023: Racial Reconciliation and Healing Holy Eucharist honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Earth Day Sunday

The first time I can recall the phrase “Beloved Community” entering into my vocabulary was over 7 years ago when the Reverends Craig Lemming and Susan Moss and a few other rabble rousing clergy and lay leaders in our diocese began discussing the possibility of launching a young adult intentional community in North Minneapolis that would be rooted in the concept of building kinship across lines of difference. A group of St. John’s members and others had gone to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a majority Liberian-American congregation, to help clean and clear out space in Liberty House, the residence for this new intentional community. This overtly spiritual program, founded in Episcopal identity but open to all young adults of any spiritual persuasion, would initiate its participants into an intensive one to two year program of personal transformation as they lived side by side in all their differences of race, gender, class, sexuality and religion, in a racially diverse neighborhood, hosted by a predominantly immigrant faith community, and in service to a variety of non-profit organizations throughout the Cities. That program, as many of you know, is Circle of the Beloved. For three years now, St. John’s has had the privilege of being the site placement for one of those fabulous fellows – first Abby Mitchell, then Kat Lewis, and this year, Olivia Holgate. Their presence in our midst is changing us as they reflect back what it means to serve here in the midst of a community with great access to wealth, power, and privilege, while living in a neighborhood where none of these words apply. As we’ve made space in our lives for these young people, they, in turn, are shaping our ministries, bringing their wisdom, and reflecting back to us a little more clearly what it means to build kinship across lines of difference as they strive to be a part of Beloved Community and helping us to create space in our own lives for the same.

You see, Circle of the Beloved draws its name from the idea of Beloved Community, a term first coined at the beginning of the 20th century, but popularized in the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s, most especially by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. King’s work as the visible icon of the Civil Rights Movement, believed that society could evolve, by the commitment of enough people working together non-violently with the goal of rooting out racism and bigotry. His hopeful vision was that we might come to live in a society defined by peace and justice, kinship across all our many lines of difference, a place where wealth was shared to all who had need and not hoarded, where political power was equally distributed, and where conflicts were resolved without resorting to military power or physical violence – a place described in today’s gospel from Luke, where Jesus exhorts “Love your enemies…If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” For King, this was no mere pie in the sky utopia or a vague religious ideal like “The Kingdom of God”. This was Beloved Community. In a speech celebrating the successful conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, when a Supreme Court decision finally desegregated buses there and across the south, King said

“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”

And, it is that love which we still strive toward today. But, love takes effort and intention and care. More to the point, loving across lines of difference is truly difficult and requires our best efforts and our best selves. Loving others means we have to learn to trust that we ourselves are loveable and worthy of love. Jesus says we are to love our enemies, that this is the pathway to a community where belovedness is the defining attribute, and to get here is nothing short of miraculous! As Dr. King says, “It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Creating or enabling communities of belovedness to flourish, across all lines of difference is miraculous, because, as we know, none of us is inclined, once we have something of value, to let it go freely. If we have money, power, privilege, connection, access, and security, we would like very much to keep these things. So, we wander around looking for magical cures to the ills of the world that would enable us to heal racism, poverty, violence, and loneliness, but, which, by some magic, we hope won’t cost us much or anything at all.

So it is that we tend to celebrate Dr. King by remembering his successes, uplifting his beautiful words, and paying homage to the rights achieved during his life and witness, because doing so costs us nothing – almost as if we believe that by celebrating Dr. King, we are defeating racism. Yet, we would be prudent to pay even more attention to the struggles King and the Civil Rights Movement faced, not least against the overtly racist culture of America’s own brand of white supremacy, ensconced as it was in the time in the legal policies of segregation and Jim Crow, but also in the more subtle and often far more insidious resistance of white moderates. In 1963, at a particular nadir in the movement, incarcerated and frustrated, King penned A Letter From a Birmingham Jail, a response to a public letter from white and Jewish clergy, titled a “Call For Unity”. These clergy were, they said, sympathetic to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement, but advocated for different tactics, arguing that Civil Rights Leaders like King should take their fight off the streets, away from the boycotts and demonstrations, and into the legal system, the courts, and the legislatures. King’s reply was simultaneously fiery and weary. He wrote

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

This is the challenge of building a Beloved Community. It has costs, particularly to those of us who hold the keys to unlock access to power, money, and freedom. And, the principle cost, is the letting go of control. For true liberation to exist, across all lines of difference, those with privilege and power cannot set the agenda for liberation, cannot control the message and the timetable. For, as the Reverend Dr. King says further in that same letter, all of us “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”and, as he says, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…”

Sadly, we know well, that too often we regard justice and belovedness like we do money and power and time – as scarce resources. We anxiously worry that if justice is granted for one group of people it won’t be available for us, that if another group of people, different from us, is given access to beloved community, there won’t be any left for us! So the work of justice is derailed time and again. We know that the women’s suffrage movement was willing to exclude women of color for the sake of gains for some over others. We know that the struggle for LGBTQ justice, emboldened at the Stonewall uprising, was led and championed by trans women and gender queer people of color, who today are all too often erased from the story and who are often denied access to the very rights their lives were sacrificed to gain. Even in the Civil Rights Era, we know that queer leaders like Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray were long ignored for their significant and essential contributions to the work of justice. So today we worry that racial justice or trans rights will overshadow the work for Women’s rights or environmental justice, and like the White moderate, those with privilege today act as gate keepers to the work of justice for all people!

Becoming Beloved Community means all of us, across every line and barrier, white and black and brown, gay, straight, trans, gender queer, non-binary, poor, rich, Muslim, Christian, atheist, and Jew, spiritual or not – all of us get free together or we don’t get free at all. The work of creating beloved communities includes liberation for all people, and, indeed, on this Earth Day Sunday, we are reminded that the “network of mutuality” and “garment of destiny” includes this precious planet, our island home, all creatures and ecosystems, and neighborhoods – the land and the water and the air which sustain life – our liberation is connected to all that is. We cannot get free alone.

That process of becoming free, of embracing and empowering Beloved Community might have costs. We may have to sacrifice money, power, time, and even privilege to make space for its flourishing. But, what we gain is everything.

In our work of embracing our priority of discipleship that leads to Justice, becoming Beloved Community, our vestry is reading Catherine Meeks’ brilliant book of meditations The Night Is Long, But Light Comes in the Morning. In it she says, “beloved community is not something that can be manufactured by humans; instead, it is a gift that is given in mysterious ways as humans work to remove the barriers to caring about one another. We must approach the idea of beloved community as a process of making space in the head the heart so that God can enter that space with energy that creates something new.”

You see, when we make room for the Beloved Community, we are making space for the powerful work of God’s Holy Spirit in each of us, in our hearts and minds and egos. It is this power of God, which heals divisions, brings life, and reminds us that each of us is of infinite value to God.

I invite you to join in that process of creating space within us so that together we can be about the vision given in the gospels and exemplified in the life and witness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, of embracing justice and becoming beloved community. As Meeks concludes,

“Beloved community is born when there is a genuine willingness to listen to one’s heart, try to discern its call, and commit to trying to find a path that will allow us to respond to whatever it asks of us. Our openhearted-ness births something that was not present before we engaged in that process: an empowered way to be together. It is in these spaces that radically new ways to see and behave emerge; it’s not just a matter of adding a new layer of paint to old ways. Beloved community is truly a gift from God.”


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