by Rev. Dr. Joshua Long, Harrison First Presbyterian Church
We know what we would like it to mean. We’d like it to be an indicator that we are a special kind of people, gathered together around a new, a holy, a blessed way of living. We’d like it to mean that we’re the kind of people who not only say “we’re a family,” but who also actually live like we are a family! We’d like our communities to stick with each other even in the tough times; we’d like our communities to really be known by their love, just as the hymn says – and not by our anger, our silly church sign puns, or our crumbling building facades. We’d like our churches individually and the capital-C Church together to be, as the Book of Order used to say, “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.”
But they took that out of the Book of Order . . . I’ve always wondered why. On my cynical days, I wonder perhaps if it was because it was just too much to hope for.
Because too often, the Beloved Community isn’t all that holy or blessed. Too often, it’s not even all that beloved or be-loving. Too often the Beloved Community is really the Hurtful Community or the Disappointing Community. Too often in our church communities, people lash out and act out; too often they walk away and go to other communities – to younger, cooler, sexier, trendier communities. We get traded in for Trophy Churches, for “the Church of what’s happening now,” or for what one of our colleagues calls “Six Flags Over Jesus.” The truth is, I’ve met far too many people in my area who, when they learn who I am, have told me, “I used to go to your church.” It’s sometimes hard to bite my tongue and not say, “Yeah, you and half the village.”
But sometimes . . . oh, those wonderful moments . . . sometimes we do get a glimpse of the Beloved Community. Sometimes it really does come through. Sometimes one of our own has a crisis and everyone pulls together, arranging rides, meals, prescription pick-ups and general support. Sometimes a member quietly comes and reports, “I’ve now read through the whole Bible – and I love it! I’m going to start over and keep going!” Sometimes the lady who’s been mad at you calls out of the blue and says, “I’m sorry. I’ve been angry with you for too long. Please forgive me.” Sometimes the congregation steps up and raises double the target amount for a mission project. And then we remember that this is God’s community – and He is still at work!
As I thought about this article, the image that kept coming to mind when I thought of “The Beloved Community” was two ladies sitting together in worship, one of them holding a small white board and a dry erase marker. It’s an unusual image, but these were unusual ladies. One of them was an elderly woman – let’s call her Muriel – who was profoundly deaf. The problem was, Muriel was a very extroverted people person. Have you even tried to visit a profoundly deaf max extrovert? Let’s just say I didn’t have a seminary class on what to do in that case! Simply put, Muriel needed to be among people. She needed to be in worship, but just coming and sitting wasn’t enough. She also needed to have a way to stay connected to worship. And so Janice (the names have been changed to protect the justified!), a younger woman who always sat near her, hit on the idea of the white board. During the sermon each week, as I preached, I could see Janice writing furiously, transcribing my words into note form so Muriel could follow along. Every little bit, I’d see Muriel smile and nod, and then Janice would erase everything and start over. Once at the end of the sermon, I remember Janice writing a big “AMEN!” at the end and holding it up for me to see! And just like that, with that small offering, Muriel was blessed – and at the same time, Janice was blessed, and I was blessed, and I think the whole beloved community was blessed by this act of loving community.
So, it does happen sometimes. Sometimes, we see the Body of Christ come together. Sometimes the Beloved Community comes through. But here’s the thing: that only happens when we choose to be a beloved community. And that is a choice we face every day. Love is a choice; it is a series of deliberate actions. We choose to be that provisional demonstration of God’s Kingdom; we choose to shine that light to the world – or we don’t. We choose to be known by His Love – or we don’t. It really is that simple.
The question is: what will we choose today? Will we choose love, or will we choose indifference? Will we choose community, or will we choose isolation? Will we choose to find a way to show someone on the margins that they are still a part of us, or will we choose to say, “that’s not my problem”? The choice we make could lead to us shining the light of Jesus Christ; it could lead to blessing for us and for all around us; it could lead to a loved and loving community – or it could lead to more of the same bland, dull, dark, disjointed lack of community that has become all too familiar in our world.
Friends, let’s choose to love! Hallelujah! To Him alone be the glory!