Our Common Life

mlk beloved community

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on January 14, 2018, the Sunday before the Monday observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 17:20-23

This is the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, and we often take this opportunity to reflect on King’s legacy in light of our faith. Of course the obvious theme for a service like this would be racial justice, an issue as important today as it was in 1929 when King was born and 1968 when he was assassinated. I believe that persistent racism is one of the foundational issues of our time, and lies at the root of many other challenges we face. I have preached a number of sermons on racial justice in my two years at First Church Simsbury, so rather than just making another impassioned plea on the topic, I thought I would look at something else important to King’s legacy, reconciliation.

In 1960, King said, “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” The Beloved Community was King’s vision for a society built on justice, equal opportunity and love. The Beloved Community is a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

This past week, I attended a conference for Senior Ministers of larger, multi-staff, UCC churches in St. Petersburg, Florida. And yes, it wasn’t awful that last Sunday morning in Connecticut, I woke to -11 degrees, and that same evening I arrived in St. Pete where it was a balmy 68 degrees. But more than the warm weather, and even more than being in the company of colleagues, I was thrilled by the Featured Speaker, Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton, the founder and leader of the House United Movement, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to bringing people together across political differences for the common good.

I have often been inspired by the words of Jesus’ prayer in the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, “that they may all be one,” as I have been inspired by the vision of King’s Beloved Community, and I feel called to ministries that promote reconciliation. That said, there seems to be an inherent tension between bringing people with diverse beliefs together while also speaking the sometimes challenging truth of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul speaks to this challenge in First Corinthians. The church in Corinth is divided about spiritual gifts. Members of the church disagree about which gifts are more important, especially with regard to the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Speaking in tongues is a mystical, ecstatic experience, and there were those that believed this kind of joyful manifestation of the Holy Spirit was necessary to faith in and the worship of God. Prophecy means speaking God’s truth, even when this truth makes people uncomfortable. The people in the Corinth church are asking, should church be all about preaching the truth of the gospel, even when that truth may divide us, or should church bring everyone together around a feel-good experience of the Holy Spirit? A question as relevant today as it was then.

I continued to ponder these things this week as I prepared for this worship service, and these questions were still on my mind as my wife Lourdes and I set out Friday evening for a little R and R.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey for the Simsbury High. The parents of all the girls had agreed to gather at a Simsbury institution, the Red Stone Pub, for some “team building” of our own.

I have known some of these families for seven or eight years, and I met others for the first time this season. Upon arriving, I quickly found myself in a conversation with a couple other hockey dads when one, who I didn’t know well, said, “I love to talk about politics!”

Now, I have perspectives on all the significant issues of our day, perspectives I hope are informed by my faith and the teachings of Jesus, perspectives I am not shy about sharing in the right context and circumstances. I assessed who was in that circle and knew there were significant differences represented there. I had hoped that this evening would be an escape from such conversations so I quickly asked the dads which colleges their daughters were interested in attending. They laughed at the obvious change of subject, and gladly went along.

Before we had talked much more, our attention was drawn to something in the corner of the bar. There was a metal ring, about so big around, hanging from the ceiling on a string. On the wall between the dartboards there was a metal hook. The objective was to stand facing the wall, and swing the ring on the string toward the hook, attempting to get the ring to fall over and hang on the hook.

That’s all there was too it. It wasn’t a game, meaning that one didn’t compete or keep score. We just took turns trying to get the ring on the hook. And it turns out that this seemingly simple exercise was not as easy as it looked, but was really fun and very addictive!

A large group of hockey parents soon gathered around to cheer each other on. Each miss was met with a collective,”Awwww! So close! or All most!” While every successful ringing of the hook brought forth happy shouts of congratulations, whoops of joy, and hands thrust in the air!

In this non-church setting, I sided with the Corinthians, opting for a feel-good ecstatic experience instead of an uncomfortable conversation about what is true and right.

But in fact, Paul’s answer to the church is that both gifts are necessary, truth telling and experiences of the Holy Spirit. King also recognized the need for both justice (truth-telling) and reconciliation (an experience of coming together as one). His vision of the Beloved Community could only be attained, he said, if the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism were confronted.

I am very aware of the presence of this tension in our church. I spend a ton of time asking myself how to preach what I prayerfully and faithfully understand as the application of our Bible lesson for the world today, while not leaving those who disagree feeling judged and excluded, and sending everyone home hopeful. There was much discussion of this very question between the ministers at the conference and Dr. Hilton.

I can certainly empathize with those who would like to leave difficult conversations out of church on a Sunday morning – after all I succumbed to the same impulse at the Red Stone, but Paul reminds us that church requires that we embrace both truth and the unifying spirit.

This said, I returned from St. Petersburg newly committed to seeking and maintaining balance between messages of justice and shared experiences of reconciliation in worship and within the church. Where and how might we create experiences like the one I had around the Red Stone Pub ring and hook game, experiences where we cheer each other on through disappointment, and celebrate victories together?

I was inspired by a colleague, Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter at The Village Church in Wellesley, Mass. You will have noticed that I didn’t make the usual announcements at the beginning of worship. Rev. Butter includes this information instead in what she calls Our Common Life. But instead of just reminding people about events in the bulletin, she takes the opportunity to tell a little story or interpret scripture in a way that lifts up opportunities to participate in the life of the church. Ministries of the church function like the ring and hook game, they bring us together across differences. Our Common Life emphasizes opportunities for reconciliation. You will see Our Common Life in your bulletin after our prayer time and before the offering.

In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God is made known in him, in Jesus, and this connectedness with the divine, remakes itself through Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, that’s us, the church, and the church is meant to model this connection with the divine in all human relationships. The oneness that Jesus prays for is more than a good feeling in a worship service, it is the mission of the church. The church, our church, has a unique responsibility to come together across our differences to demonstrate to all, that we can be one in and through God’s love. Allen Hilton has a book coming out in the spring, A House United: How the Church Can Save the World. May it be so.

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