Sunday, January 22, 2012

Moving to the Beloved Community

Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
January 22, 2012

When I was growing up in Statesboro in the 1950’s, we used to visit my granddaddy’s farm.  We would go out there to ride the ponies or pick vegetables from one of the gardens, or pull-up peanuts, or fish in the pond.  Now I don’t want to pretend that I was ever really a farm worker.  My daddy once told someone that the only cotton I had ever picked was out of an aspirin bottle.  And that’s the truth.  But my daddy loved that farm.  And when my granddaddy died in 1962, daddy sold the extra property he owned – like our cabin at Cypress Lake and the little house that he and mom first lived in – and borrowed money – so he could pay his other family members for their shares of that farm and own it for himself.  And he farmed it for a good long while – when it was still possible for one to be successful as a businessman and part-time farmer.  Although he visited the farm often, his goal was to move to the farm and live there.  So he and mama worked really hard and saved their money till they could build their dream house on the farm.  In the last days of his life, his dementia was pretty bad and sometimes he would forget where he was.  Once, he asked my Mama – “I didn’t sell the farm, did I?”  And she said, “Oh No!  You didn’t sell it.  We live here.  We built our house right on the old Turner place.  That’s where we are right now.  We are at home - on the farm?”  And he said, “We are?”  And he just smiled a big smile.   

You know – just like my childhood visits to the farm, we tend to visit “the beloved community” sometimes.  I was so proud last weekend when Rev. Francys Johnson preached at our annual MLK service, that he noticed and commended our congregation as one that dreams King’s dream and Stands on the Side of Love.  And there have been many times recently when I’ve thought to myself – yes, we are in the midst of the “beloved community.”  It’s a wonderful place where our 2nd principle of affirming justice, equity, and compassion in all our human relations seems to shine.  What a wonderful gathering of the beloved community we had here in this place last Sunday morning in the MLK service and afternoon at Marvin’s Memorial Service.  The love in these rooms just lifted us all up.  And as our choir sang “I’ll Fly Away” Sunday afternoon, we did feel like we were flying in the beloved community.

Then during the week, we’ve had opportunities to share and work with folks of different faiths  -- most more conservative than ours – as we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and worked with others to provide a nutritious meal to about a hundred folks in need. 

But like my granddaddy’s (and later my daddy’s) farm, the beloved community tends to be somewhere we visit – but not where we live.  We go there at special times – in a crisis situation – or when a special celebration occurs – but then we go back to our regular homes and draw the curtains.  Our goal should be to make the beloved community our home.  Not that we won’t leave it sometimes – because we are human – but it should be home, the place we come back to and where we work and live and have our being.  Now it may not be that easy.  We may not be able to do it all at once.  But like my hard working mom and dad, we should be working on getting there.

 “‘The Beloved Community’ is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of good will all over the world."

 According to the King Center Web page:

“For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony….

“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. In the Beloved Community, …love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

“Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”

If you look at or read the news, we seem to be so far from this goal in the world today, that you wonder if we should just throw our hands up in despair.  It seems impossible.  When things in my life seem impossible, I try to remember the serenity prayer.  That is – to be granted the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  And there ARE things we can do that will help us toward that bigger goal of living in the beloved community.  Our “story for all ages” provides us with a good example.  We can begin with our neighbors.

Jesus said – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  And when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” – told the story that we’ve come to know as “The Good Samaritan.”  Now, I’ve heard this story all my life.  And for much of it, I thought – YES, we need to be good neighbors to the Samaritans – to those who are oppressed and looked down upon.  And, in fact, one reason I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism was because of our work for social justice and civil rights.  But I was missing a major teaching of this story.  The SAMARITAN was the good neighbor because HE reached out to one who was a member of a group that was narrower in their focus.  He reached out and cared for those whose teachings were
oppressive.  And that’s where we Unitarian Universalists seem to have a hard time.

Who is our neighbor?  As the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt reminds us:  "Not just the hungry, not just the homeless, not just the prisoner, not just the lonely heart.  (She goes on to say) Our neighbor is the brother – like my own brother – who is a born again Christian.  Our neighbor is the mother, like my own mother – who is a member of an evangelical church.  Who is our neighbor?  Our neighbor is the co-worker who leaves tracts on your desk; our neighbor is the family who won’t let your children play with their children because they are not saved.  Who is our neighbor?  Our neighbor is the protestor who claims that God hates faggots; our neighbor is the evangelist who declares women should be silent in the churches; our neighbor is the neighbor who invites you to prayer meeting and encourages you to leave that place you say is a church but she knows is really a cult.  All these people are our neighbors:  not just the ones we like, or feel good about talking to, or have hopes will one day see the light of liberal faith.  We cannot create the radical change in the world that liberal religion is meant to create if we are only hanging out with one another; we cannot offer a healing alternative to the religiously injured, lying half dead on the road of life, by keeping our faith a private pleasure.  We can create radical change only with radical engagement, only with the radical faith modeled in the ministries of so many faithful prophets and sages and wise people."  (Rosemary Bray McNatt, address to CMwD, 2005)

Now let me quickly add that it’s understandable why many of us have a hard time reaching out to some groups, especially more conservative Christians.  Many of us have been in situations where we personally have been hurt by some of the teachings of these churches.  And the sting of rejection of who we are or what we believe lasts a long time.  I know that. 

However, if we are going to swim with Christian churches in our efforts to make the world a better place, we don’t need to dive in that shallow end of the water and hit our head on the rocks causing us more pain.  We can dive in at a deeper point – or wade in shallow water – and let our love stir it up - and we’ll be okay – especially if we have other UU swimming buddies with us. 

Actually, our congregation HAS been wading and swimming in these waters for some time.  We’ve made some connections with African American ministers and churches through the years in our civil rights efforts.  And in 2007, we joined forces with the First Presbyterian Church of Statesboro to build a Habitat House.  In more recent years, we’ve joined an interfaith / community coalition as a partner in Feeding Statesboro.  Other partners include Trinity Episcopal, First Presbyterian, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the Christian Believers Outreach Mission.  And there are community volunteers who represent a variety of faith traditions. We are so pleased that these folks are willing to work openly with us.  Not everyone will do this.  We’ve reached out to some who have basically let us know that they were not comfortable working with us.  And we have thanked them and shared our hopes that our separate efforts will lead to a better world for all. 

Now please know that my encouragement of our efforts to work in these interfaith and community efforts does NOT mean that we refrain from Standing on the Side of Love for our principles, some which may offend others.  We are not trying to offend, though.  We are trying to promote those principles which we believe are important if we are to live together in a beloved community. 

You know, last year we finally completed all of our Welcoming Congregation workshops and had our vote – which was unanimous – to apply to the Unitarian Universalist Association for official welcoming congregation status.  And they have granted us that status which we will be celebrating in a service on February 19.  After we had our vote, I ordered some rainbow flags for us to use in various programs.  One of the AA groups that meets in our building – the one that is intentionally inclusive – was hoping for some kind of symbol, like the rainbow flag, to let others know they had found the right place.  So initially, I thought of putting one of our little flags out on the lawn or somewhere on the day that they met. And what initially went through my mind was that I would take it down on the days the other AA group meets, because the flag and what it symbolizes may offensive to some of them.  But then I thought – “NO Jane, this is one symbol of who we are as a welcoming UU congregation.  And if an AA group meets in a synagogue, they don’t expect them to take down the Star of David.”  So I nailed that flag up to the post on the front door, and there it has remained. 

Now, some may ask – “but aren’t you afraid that people will think that our congregation is a GAY church?”  And my response to that would be…  Hey – we WANT them to know we are a GAY church, and a Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Church – and one with lots of good straight folks who serve as advocates and allies.  And yes, we are a Pagan church – and a Buddhist, Christian, Mystic, Humanist Church.  We’re even the Agnostic church and the Atheist Church.  And hopefully we can become the Church for that growing group of NONES – spelled, N-O-N-E-S, who need a spiritual home.  We lift up that quote from Unitarian martyr Francys David who said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” 

Here’s a joke I found that is funny because it’s so true. 

A visitor to a Unitarian Universalist church sat through the sermon with growing incredulity at the heretical ideas being spouted.  After the sermon a UU asked the visitor, “So how did you like it?” 
I can’t believe half the things that minister said!” sputtered the visitor in outrage.
“Oh good – then you’ll fit right in,”  the UU replied.

Now that doesn’t mean we can believe and do whatever we like as Unitarian Universalists.  We do have principles that include the respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all as well as justice and equity for all, and support for one another in our own spiritual paths.  In short, we support Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community – which in reality was the hope of Ghandi, Jesus, the Buddha, and many other religious leaders.  We support the idea that we must love our neighbors as ourselves – and in this global community, our neighborhood reaches far and wide. 

Who is our neighbor?  It’s the man who needs a pair of shoes as he walks around Statesboro looking for work, as well as the young girl in the Central Asia hoping for an education and a chance for a better life.  It’s the believer and the unbeliever, the conservative and the liberal, the 99% and the 1%.  It’s the Democrat and the Republican; and yes, it’s me and it’s you.”   If we want to not just visit the beloved community, but live there, we need to learn to love all of our neighbors. 

So – right now I’d like for you to think of just one thing, one thing you can do this week to bring you closer to living in the beloved community; one way that you can love your neighbor, and pick something that may be a little challenging for you.  I’m not going to ask you to tell someone else or report back on it. Okay – do you have one in mind?  Now this may sound a little silly for some of you – but just go with me on it.  Now whisper that in the cup of your hands, share “I’m going to…” and whisper it in your hands.  (READERS -- you do this too!)  You have it in your hands?  Now place your hands over your beating heart as a symbol of your commitment.
Our children’s affirmation says: "We are Unitarian Universalists:  People of Open Minds, Loving Hearts, and Helping Hands."  We think, we feel, we do.  Now you may say – “But Jane, you had us go from head to hands – then to heart?”   Yes, I did – because sometimes that’s the way it is.  We may not FEEL motivated to do that which we know we should.  But if we know that right thing – and we do it – then sometimes the feeling, the peace, and the joy that comes with loving acts will grow.  But, you don’t have to wait for the feeling.  As Dr. King says, “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.”

You have connected your plan in your mind for loving your neighbor metaphorically now with your hands and your heart.  May that symbolic act and connection go with you from this place as a reminder to do the real thing. 

Oh, may it be so! 

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