Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 12, 2023
Matthew 5:21-37 “Creation of the Beloved Community”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popularized the phrase ‘Beloved Community.’ He used it frequently in his writings and his speeches. In fact, in his first ever published article, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he said the boycott’s purpose was “reconciliation…redemption, the creation of the beloved community.” The boycott, as I am sure you all know, began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. Four days later, the longest public protest began, with African Americans in Montgomery refusing to use the bus system for one year and twelve days. Rev. Dr. King, who was a relatively unknown local church pastor until then, became a figure head of a movement. A movement to, as he said, ‘create the beloved community.’
The boycott was an act in opposition to segregation, a movement that was eventually successful. But, Rev. Dr. King said that desegregation wasn’t the ultimate goal. For him, the goal was unity. For Rev. Dr. King it was to create the beloved community. He said desegregation will only “produce a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart. It gives us a social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.” Unity, integration, spiritual togetherness, reconciliation – that was how Rev. Dr. King understood the beloved community. That was his goal, his dream. To be “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Rev. Dr. King’s dream is one we continue to strive for. His dream is the hope that we cling to. And his dream is an ancient one. It was the same dream that Jesus was describing for his followers. The Beloved Community, or as Jesus called it, the Kingdom of God, was and continues to be the point and purpose of our creation.
It may strike you as odd that I am talking about this extraordinary purpose in relationship with today’s rather critical scriptural lesson. Jesus, in continuing his first public sermon, known as the Sermon on the Mount, has now entered into the heart of his message. First, he begins with blessings, the beatitudes. He blesses the people first as an act of grace freely given. That grace is the foundation upon which everything else is built. After his blessings, he reminds the people, the community of disciples and followers who were listening to him, that they were already the salt and light of the earth. They, as a community, already had that gift and he was calling them to embrace it. And, he told them, his teachings were not to eradicate everything they believed in or knew about God, but rather to open up all of their beliefs to let fresh air in. To remove the stagnancy of sameness, as Rev. Dr. King might say, to create a constructive equality of oneness.
So, building upon all of this, we now have moved into his teachings on these ancient and vital laws of how this beloved community was to exist together. In the verses we read today, he quotes, chapter and verse, four ancient Jewish laws, each which can be traced to either the 10 Commandments in Exodus, or the more detailed laws and practices found in Deuteronomy and Numbers. He quotes these four laws and he reflects on them in a new way, by expanding them to include their moral and societal implications for humanity. Upon first reading, it may seem like he is replacing the old with the new. However, he is not. This confusion is easy because there is a word in Greek here that we simply don’t have an equivalent of in English. Let me explain: Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you…”. The word translated into English as ‘but’ is a word in ancient Greek that has two meanings. It can either be a signal that the second phrase is replacing the first. Or, it can be a bridge to build one statement upon another. To elaborate, or expand. Which is what he is doing here. He is not replacing the commandment to not murder, he is expanding it to mean more.
It is not enough, in the Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community, to just not murder your neighbor. That is obvious. But we must also be reconciled with our neighbor. He says, “if you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment….if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,” stop whatever you are doing and “first be reconciled” with them. Jesus is breaking open the commandment to not murder by showing that even anger expressed in violent speech is like murder because it destroys relationships and people. He is reminding the community, us, that the public cycles of anger and violence – physical, verbal, emotional – must be broken for the Beloved Community to be realized.
He does the same with the commandment about adultery. It is not enough, Jesus says, to just not commit adultery. We must also recognize the face of God in everyone we encounter and not objectify them in anyway. Another person, Jesus says, is not an object for our pleasure or anger. Our neighbor is a beloved child of God. Don’t just not commit adultery, Jesus says. Recognize every person, and their body, as a sacred reflection of God, who we are called to be in relationship with, not power over.
The next law Jesus breaks open, about divorce, is a continuation of that. In our 21st century sensibilities, the laws about divorce sound archaic. And in a lot of ways they are. Divorce today and divorce 2,000 years ago are drastically different things. In Jesus’ time and context, a marriage was a contract between men, with women as the currency. A woman had no rights, no way of surviving on her own. Widows had some protections, but very few. A woman had to be bound to her father or her husband in order to survive. And at the time when Jesus was giving this sermon, there was an active debate about when and why a man could divorce his wife. There was a growing belief and practice that men could divorce their wives for anything – absolutely anything. If she didn’t maintain the house the way he wanted, he could divorce her. If she disagreed with something he said, he could divorce her. And if a man divorced his wife, unless her father was still alive and willing to take her back, the woman was left with nothing at all. No recourse, no hope. She would have to become a beggar or turn to sex work in order to survive. So, when Jesus says to the men in the community they could not divorce expect in cases of infidelity, what he was saying is that women could not be cast away because of the whims of men. I know how odd this sounds in 2023, when divorce is a far different thing. But Jesus’ expansion of the law about divorce was remarkably feminist. Yes, feminism in the year 30 is a far cry from feminism today, but when Jesus was telling the men of the community they could not lust after women as objects or cast women off in divorce for any minor reason, Jesus was telling the people that women, too, were beloved. And the only way for the beloved community to be, was for everyone to be recognized for their belovedness.
These laws that Jesus quotes and interprets were, even in his time, ancient. These were laws that had become stagnant. The people may have been following them, but Jesus believed they were doing so in a way that held to separation. In a way, in Rev. Dr. King’s words “where elbows are together and hearts apart.” Jesus was calling forth the community of people to embrace both social and spiritual togetherness. The Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, is not just about doing the right thing, to follow the letter of the law and call it good. The Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, is a seeking of community that is “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
I said last week during the Annual Meeting that there has never been a more important time for the Beloved Community to be real. Jesus, I humbly believe, would have said the same thing. Rev. Dr. King certainly said it over and over again. There has never been a time when the Beloved Community is more needed than right now. And it may seem like an impossible task. It mean seem like too much – I mean, we have enough trouble following the basic laws, how can we possibly be expected to do more. But, I have always believed that the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, already exists. It is already here. We just must be willing to live in it. To be the hoped for world that we long for. It is what it means to be Easter people and cry alleluia. The Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, is the point and purpose of our creation. We have already been blessed, we are already the salt and light of the earth. God is not waiting for us to pay up. The Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, is not transactional. God is longing for us to see what we already are and already have. God is longing for us to live fully into the Beloved Community that we are. And, as I said last week, we do so not by throwing away all that we know, but rather by standing upon the foundation of our ancient and ever-evolving faith, relying on wisdom that is broken open with new light for tomorrow. Amen.
Loving God, you have given us our name by the act of our creation, and that name is beloved. You have set us upon a path to realize all that we are and can be if we lean on you. For all of this, we give you great thanks. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
We know that to live the Kingdom of God into reality for all of your creation, we must do more than follow the laws of humanity. We must seek the unity that is the destiny of your hope for us. We seek to do this by leaning upon your comfort and grace. By listening to the prophets, both ancient and modern. And by being the very community you and we are longing for.
One of the ways, God, that we seek this unity is by lifting ourselves and our neighbors in prayer, seeking your comfort in ways that are beyond our abilities. Hear these prayers of our hearts and spirits that we offer to you in these moments of silence…
Good and Great God, you were and are and will be the foundation upon which we stand and build a future that you call us to. We do this as your Beloved Community. And we do this as followers of your son and our guide along the way, Jesus Christ. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…