The coincidence was startling. It was last Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the daily devotion from The Upper Room Disciplines was Acts: 4:32-35. It was also one of the lectionary passages for yesterday.
The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need. (CEB)
Acts 4 describes God’s hopes for us as disciples of Jesus Christ. You and I are called to live in community with one another, honoring differences, making sure that each person’s needs are cared for, and bearing witness to God’s abundant grace for our world and every living creature.
Driving to the office last Wednesday, I listened to NPR’s On Point, which focused on Dr. King’s legacy. When King was killed on April 4, 1968, he had been in Memphis to support black sanitation workers who were on strike and had experienced a pattern of abuse and neglect. King had been there previously and said to a group of labor and civil rights activists and church leaders in Memphis on March 18, “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.”
On April 3, King was back in Memphis and preached to a crowded church about the sanitation strike and his own future. It would be King’s last speech. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” King also warned that “the whole world is doomed” if something “isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty.” The next day, shortly after 6 p.m., Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot while he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
Economic, social, and racial justice were all woven into a single garment in King’s ministry. “The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.” In NPR’s April 4 On Point program, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of the Poor Peoples Campaign, which was organized in 1968 by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said, “In some ways, we’ve moved forward and we’re thankful for that. But in other ways we’ve made it worse. We have more poor people in this country now than in ’68. 140 million people are poor or working poor. That’s 43 percent of the nation. And we are having elections where there is no discussion of poverty. Only the middle class and the military. That’s a tragic reality.”
The single garment of destiny has yet to become a reality. In a meeting last Wednesday, we shared memories of April 4, 1968. I remember the day King died but without any details. All I know is that my parents were very sad. One said, “I was in college and remember a white friend who came into the room and said, ‘Thank God, that bastard is dead.’”
It was also remembered that Robert F. Kennedy flew to Indianapolis that night and, despite warnings, went directly to the black ghetto and addressed a large gathering in one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” A single garment of destiny.
“There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.”
We also reflected on the interesting confluence of King’s assassination with the 50th anniversary of The United Methodist Church. It was a few weeks later, on April 23, 1968, that the Evangelical United Brethren Church (75,000 members) and the Methodist Church (10.3 million members) merged into one church. The merger was notable for several reasons. One was that the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church was eliminated. In addition, the merger assured full clergy rights for women. Still, both racism and sexism linger in The UMC to this day.
The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death reminds us that we cannot be tied together in a single garment of destiny until we become the Beloved Community, which was one of the primary tenets of Dr. King’s teaching and theology. For King, the Beloved Community was nothing more than the reign of God on this earth where all people share equally in its welfare.
In a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery Alabama’s buses, King said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
In the Beloved Community, everyone has a place at the table in a single garment of destiny. In the Beloved Community, everyone is valued, and differences are welcomed. In the Beloved Community, we learn from, encourage, and challenge each other to become our best created-in-the-image of God selves.
I wonder. As The United Methodist Church is faced with important decisions about the future of our denomination around human sexuality, is it possible to reclaim the Beloved Community? Over several hundred years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations attempted to weave a single garment of destiny, struggling to welcome African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, embrace those who are divorced, and affirm women in ministry. With God’s help, we continue to journey to the Promised Land but are not there yet.
“The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.”
Now the possibility of full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals stretches that single garment of destiny and abundance of grace in our denomination. Dare we become Beloved Community for each other? Dare we proclaim today, “If one refugee is down, we are all down. If one opioid addict is down, we are all down. If one LGBTQ individual is down, we are all down. If one human trafficking victim is down, we are all down. If one person with bi-polar disorder is down, we are all down. If one poor, single mother is down, we are all down. If one African-American is down, we are all down. If one person with a physical or mental disability is down, we are all down.”
May the abundance of grace which turned a rag tag band of Jesus followers into a mighty movement of discipleship, outreach, and abundant grace, tie each precious child of God into in a single garment of destiny today as, together, we all become the Beloved Community.