Beloved Community, the Beatitudes and Radical Empathy
Oct 04, 2020
For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice engaging the Beatitudes led by Josh Comas-Race, click HERE.
To watch or rewatch this week’s online worship service, click the YouTube link above.
LOVED by God: Beloved
We are in the midst of a Fall sermon series on Beloved Community, if you’ve been around the last couple of weeks – you’ve heard Lydia and Steve both speak to this. It’s not solely a Sunday Virch experience though – our community groups have also been engaging with this idea of Beloved Community, as they meet with one another throughout the weeks. And I’d say even beyond that, the hope of us spending time exploring beloved community is so that we can take on this way of being out into the fullness of our lives, in our neighborhoods and cities.
At the heart of beloved community is this idea…that a human community can be built on love. And that such a community can promote and establish justice, welfare, create deep belonging, and be unified even across differences.
And so this type of community – beloved community -is not just a representation found in a church community, or a cul de sac community, or a school community, or a sports community.
Its only platform really is all of humanity – stretching across and encompassing all the communities that we touch, where we worship, where we work, play and live.
It also encompasses ALL of who we are as human beings – our failings, our short sightedness, our particular traits, behaviors, opinions, amazingness and our okay-ness. And it has to account for our history – the experiences that have shaped us – where we’ve come from, and where we stand today.
Beloved community, then, is pretty vast.
It is not easy to create.
And yet we need Beloved Community, more than ever.
We need help. I need help.
To live this life together.
Howard Thurman, who was a theologian and mentor to the beloved community, says that,
“The term beloved community has a soft and sentimental ring. It conjures an image of tranquility, peace, and the utter absence of struggle and of all things that irritate and disturb. But beloved community is far from such a utopian surmise… Disagreements will be real and germane to the undertaking of us becoming at home in our world – under the eaves of our brother and sister’s (siblings) house.” (1966: 206)
If prophetic voices like Thurman’s are right, Beloved Community is a deep, bold, vision that will ask of us provocative fundamental questions. What do you believe of God? Where do you stand today, where do you belong? Who do you notice?
These mentors of beloved community, say that our starting point – the only way we can even discuss – no less vision or BE A PART of CREATING beloved community IS TO KNOW deep in our beings, that we are loved by God. That we are God’s beloved. AND that every single person around us – is also loved by God. This is the starting point, the belief system, the theology that we have to buy into. If we are not close to this truth – this deep love of God for all of us – then we can not be close to co-creating this wild and messy beloved community that we are talking about this Fall. The courage, the power, the capacity it demands of us will be too much to bear ourselves without this anchor of God’s love.
Still though, this Beloved Community can feel abstract. So I want to help us get somewhere more concrete….the first step 1) acknowledging this deep love God has for us – the second 2) a “tool” of sorts to get us on our way- “ radical empathy” (which you’ll hear more of in a moment)… and third 3) a posture I’d like you to consider, a willingness to see that any moment where you are in time and place with other living human beings is the foreground for beloved community. This is WHERE you move from concept of beloved community- to reality.
ANY TIME AND PLACE WHEN YOU ARE INTERACTING WITH OTHER HUMAN BEINGS.
Scripture – Matthew 5:3-12
Jesus gives us a way into this practical, concrete picture of beloved community in the scripture we will read together today. This is the scripture that our community groups are spending 7 weeks in – exploring the foundation by which we can create beloved community.. Here’s the starting point he gives us, and Jesus said: (follow along on slide)
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There is a lot to draw out from these verses, the beatitudes – the first words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…
I just want to mention a couple of things – one is context, which I think is informative:
- That the large crowds that are following and listening to Jesus come from all over.
From Galilee, a very Jewish area, that they came from the Decapolis, (these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy), and they also came from Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”
- All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-”christian”, “christian”, very, very, elite religious – and non-religious.
- People who were curious to learn more from Jesus and people who thought they knew all they needed to know of Jesus.
- People who were oppressed like Jesus himself – and people who were the oppressors.
- This crowd is a representation of the wide, massive spectrum of humanity.
– and JESUS is speaking to everyone, not just some of them.
And so in that vein,
- There are some ways that these beatitudes have been TAUGHT that I think might miss the full spectrum of humanity. One way that I’ve heard is to take on these attributes that Jesus lays out – to lead a more godly life: Be more mournful, more poor in spirit, more meek. Or be more invested in fixing the problems of the poor, the meek, and the mourning.
But I think Jesus here is less interested in teaching us new things to do, to check off – to be more holy and in turn get his blessing. And I think he’s less interested in US fixing problems that we have no knowledge or history of – coming in from a distance to be a savior of sorts.
I think he’s more interested in inviting us to a new way to live with one another in beloved community.
These verses are not just platitudes, like a sweet way to go about a godly life. THEY ARE robust, disruptive, in-your-face words that shake the dominant culture. Suggesting that to inherit the riches and glory of heaven – one must unlearn all that one has known of power, authority and even of God.
This was very hard to swallow for those whose inheritance had been built on generations of religious exclusiveness.
You see, the systems of power that were at work in Jesus’ day were really good at erecting boundaries. They had an established way of being with one another in community, which is to keep people unlike them OUT. And not only OUT, but DOWN, and oppressively so. Their community is self-sufficient, separate and sacred to them.
The way of life and living, loving God that they knew had never been touched. They knew what was required of them to ‘obey’ or ‘not obey’ the commandments of God. And their community operated this way too.
And yet, Jesus in these verses says, here’s a different way of being in community – and it requires you to move in from the edges of the crowd, down from your hill, OUT from your system and connect to all of these people here (those you deem unclean, impure). Community is rooted in concrete experience – IN REAL LIFE – natural and free.
This is the point of beloved community that Jesus makes.
And Howard Thurman echoes this, saying that,
“Community cannot for long feed on itself, it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, our unknown and undiscovered brothers and sisters.” (Thurman 1971: 104).
Jesus was saying the comfort, the inheritance of the earth, the mercy, the kin-dom of heaven, that everyone in that CROWD wanted (including the religious elite), could only be realized in partnership/community with the people that fill the earth.
AND THIS – THIS way of being, is to be BLESSED, blessed in relationship with those we know we despise, and those unknown and undiscovered siblings that we live among.
You see these beatitudes are a summons to live in the present, as if it is the future we vision for, dream of…to love our neighbor as ourself. And I think there is a concrete tool by which we can embody love, and that is empathy. RADICAL empathy.
Author and journalist, Isabel Wilkinson says,
“The missing link in our age is empathy and the recognition of the shared humanity of another who may on the surface appear different from us. Empathy is a muscle that goes flaccid with disuse. The lack of empathy is the source of division, injustice, and unnecessary suffering. The times in which we live call not just for empathy, but for radical empathy.
And she makes this distinction by saying:
“Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. This is not true empathy. It’s role playing. And it still centers yourself. It’s a good start, but not enough for the dangerously fragmented world we live in. Radical empathy on the other hand, means putting in the work to learn and to listen with a heart wide open, to understand another’s experience well enough to know how they are feeling it, not as we imagine we would feel. It is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will.”
As I mentioned many of our community groups are engaging with Beloved Community content – The Beatitudes are one part – but another part of the content actually set tracks for this radical empathy. By sharing with one another childhood stories of experiences of passion, strong emotion, of your town, of what has been passed down to you. And the aim of these story sharing times – is to know more of your context, your history – what shaped you – formed you – what memories or moments stung, still reverberate in your bones and body. These are not just frivolous icebreakers, they are not just community-building prompts. THEY ARE active inroads to know one another deeply, to tap beneath the perspectives and opinions that might be so quick to fall out of our mouths – and tap the well of the abundant love of God that comprises that person, that is so recognizable in our own beings, that becomes visible and impossible to ignore in them.
DOUBLE DOWN WHEN IT’S HARD?
I find that these days that the margins of my kindness are eclipsed by compounding bad news, hard conversations and pain in my heart. And when I’m confronted with differing opinions or perspectives that I don’t agree with or understand – I’M SO QUICK TO DOUBLE DOWN. I double down on the point I want to drive home, to stand my ground.
And in that doubling down – I can feel myself narrow, where everything in me constricts, becomes rigid from my jaw, all the way to my heart.
I do this enough that I’ve learned that this doubling down is often an invitation to PAUSE with God for a second. God often asks, “Where are you standing Ivy?” “Are you on some hill of isolation?” “You’ve climbed really far.”
I often realize that I’ve come very close to the issue or subject of what it is I’m in discussion over, which isn’t bad, but I’m often really far from the PERSON I’m having it with – and far from that sense of God’s love for me.
The further out of focus people become – the further their landscape, their life… the further they are from being real to us.
We have to tap back to God’s generous spirit in these constricting moments.. It takes such supernatural loosening to stay engaged with a heart that’s wide open. With radical empathy.
“It is the generosity of spirit that opens your heart to the true experience and pain and perspective of another. And, radical empathy does not necessarily mean that you agree, but that you understand from a place of deep knowing. In fact, empathy may hold more power when tested against someone with whom you do not agree and may be the strongest path to connection with someone you might otherwise oppose.”
It may be really helpful in building beloved community.
THIS IS THE POWER OF these beatitudes. It’s why Jesus didn’t use individuals to identify who the “Poor in spirit” were – or say the names of those who were meek that he had met, or point to the faces in the crowd that were mourning. He left it open, descriptors for us to wrestle with, to define.
Because the invitation the Beatitudes lay out is the invitation of beloved community. And it is for YOU and I to fill out the names, the faces, the stories of the individuals who we encounter – all around us. Everywhere. And it is to see not only the people who we might perceive on the surface as completely different from ourselves, but to see ourselves in those people.
BELOVED COMMUNITY – TODAY’s CALL
Beloved Community, is an ancient spiritual call….
That Jesus responded to…
That philosophers have pontificated about…(Josiah Royce)
That Civil rights leaders, have laid bricks in building.
That churches respond to – like ours – with vision…
This Fall, we are in a moment of POLARITY and PROMISE… We are in the largest antiracism movement (many of us), have seen in our lifetimes, and we are in the most deadly pandemic any of us have encountered.
The polarity is obvious.
The promise is “beloved community. ” A spiritual, personal, collective call to all of us. A call to the human heart.
Jesus said in the verses to follow the beatitudes that “he came not to destroy the law, -that laws are necessary for structure and guidance of society – but they aren’t always sufficient – so he said he came to fulfill the law” – to give dimension to it. To puff it out – to give it texture – to give it heart – and that heart is US.
Us – as living, breathing beings.
So let us with radical empathy fill out justice to be a living breathing thing , and love to be a living breathing thing, and mercy to be a living breathing thing…. WE, humans are the ones who populate this earth with these values.
They can not stay locked up in systems.
As I close, I want to say that beloved community has always and will always be a life-long pursuit.
An ever-evolving way of being, living, and responding to the people around us.
AND YET – it is a compelling vision ….
It is, as any true vision is – one that will always guide us to deeper belonging with one another – and into LIVED wisdom.
BUT it’s one that can not be contained, or claimed, or printed on a “BANNER”, declaring:
“WE ARE BELOVED COMMUNITY”
Because it will be up to those who have been most left out – marginalized and oppressed to reflect back to us whether that’s true or not… did they find comfort? Experience the kin-dom of God in beloved community with us?
“BELOVED community – can never be achieved as an end in itself. It must emerge as an experience after the fact of coming together” – Thurman
And so we must come together – before we declare ourselves anything we are not.
We must come together and join with the spirit of God, that is still in the making, still on the move…
WE THE PEOPLE, are needed to help create a beloved community – to form a more perfect union …
WE THE PEOPLE, need to promote the general welfare and develop a culture of radical empathy.
WE THE PEOPLE must establish justice as we do the ongoing work of fulfilling the law of love.
It is on us, to greet one another across difference with the blessings of the image of God in each of us.
We are ……who we have been waiting for.
Blessed are those who come down off their hills, for they will be in godly company.
Blessed are those who pause when they double down, for their hearts will be loosened by the spirit.
Blessed are those who breathe life into vacant forms, for they will create beloved community, rather than destroy it.
Blessed are WE, for we need each other.