Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday 2014: The Three Americas, and What Has Been Going On, and What's Coming Up Here

Palm Sunday: Occupying The Abandoned Temples of the American Dream Empire

First, before getting to the Palm Sunday message, it has been an exciting past month or so here in the 74126 area; we have become a center for service learning and missional trips lately. We are gradually becoming a center where people can “come and see” the effects of racism on many ethnic groups, economic injustice and classism, and the evil and suffering that happens when the marketplace is not tempered with the moral imperative, when government and other groups focus on numbers and not on need, on individuals and not on neighborhoods.

Already this year we have hosted groups working with us on Tulsa’s northside from Fayetteville, AR and Oklahoma City and Dallas area and from around the country during the Life On Fire event here, and from many places and schools around the Tulsa area who have not been familiar with our part of town. We just finished hosting three classes of graduate social work students from OU who have been working on research projects with us as well as doing direct help for us. We met a lot of people and made connection at the Tulsa Eco-Fest held near our area at the Tulsa Community College Northeast Campus. This past Sunday I made a presentation on our area and our work to the Adult Forum at Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa. We were scheduled to host a big contingent from Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during their conference recently but their schedule had to be changed, and we hope to connect in the future.

Coming up, On Wednesday afternoon, April 23, we will have a big group of volunteers from a Tulsa company coming to work at our gardenpark and orchard on N. Johnstown Ave. And just this weekend at the Global Society for Arts in Health convention held in Houston, a presentation on our area and our work was given and well received and more connections made. On Saturday, August 26, we will host a lunch for the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association as they “come to see” and learn about missional church manifestations in a progressive theological spirit.

And still so much to be done; figuring out ways to pay and staff and continue to reach out with our neighbors on projects even as we continue to go deep and grow our relationships and presence; funding the big projects we are nurturing (the closed Cherokee School reopening and repurposing; abandoned and neglected properties and low-rent “relocation” housing possibilities; organizing for justice with the Industrial Areas Foundation) are getting seeds planted but need a boost in effort and partners and money. And we still struggle to stay open month after month, still trying to build up the foundation of supporters who will give at least a nickel or dime a day to help us with the basics of utilities and mortgage which, because we put it all into mission and have not yet started any salaries, means every contribution is going to direct missional work of feeding and clothing people and growing their overall health and community.

We are also trying to get the word out about us better to more people and potential partners this year. If anyone is able to help us produce videos about what we do and why and with whom, please let me know. And we are hoping this year to begin the long delayed work of fixing up our community center and creating social events at the gardenpark and orchard. The more volunteers the more we are able to do. We would love for this year to be the year we get great signs up at the park, and great art at the park and outside the community center, as well as the new outside deck and benches at the community center, the new deck and stage at the gardenpark, and the big 20 foot table at the park.
And, before I print the message below, Here is the list of coming events planned so far for the next few weeks; your chance to connect with us:

Free Breakfast Second, Third, Fourth and any Fifth Saturdays 9 am, weather permitting, Welcome Table Community GardenPark and Orchard, 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. Free Supper, First Saturday 4 pm. Growing your own food is like printing your own money. Get a Free Garden Bed. Just come eat with us and enjoy the gardenpark.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, 10 am to Noon, Free Food and Clothing and More On Community Days, Welcome Table Center, 5920 N. Owasso Ave. serving the 74126, 74130, 74073 zips. Also free books, computer center, art studio.
Community Breakfast Second Saturdays, 7 to 10 am, $5 with Kids 10 and under free, Odd Fellows Lodge, 6227 N. Quincy Ave. 

We just finished our wonderful Community Easter Kids Celebration on Saturday with the local United Methodist Church, 6050 N. Johnstown Ave. including kid gardening at our gardenpark and orchard. It was so good to see the children enjoying an actual hunt for easter eggs and surprises instead of what happens at so many institutional egg hunts which are more like race and grabs as the eggs are just laid out in an open field.

Palm Sunday Worship with communion was held this morning at Turley United Methodist Church, 6050 N. Johnstown Ave. at 10:30 am followed by free lunch afterwards. One of our “rules of life” for our missional community is to eat together as often as possible, at least three times a week.

Wednesday, April 16, 12:30 pm lunch for seniors (55 plus) at our Welcome Table Center followed by trip to Aquarium in Jenks. 
Thursday, April 17, 6:30 pm free dinner and Maundy Thursday communion worship at The Welcome Table Center
Friday, April 18, Good Friday worship at noon with us at All Souls Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave. and/or Good Friday service 6 pm at Turley United Methodist.
Sat. April 19, 10 am Our Area Public Forum, Rudisill Library, Pine & Hartford Ave.
Easter Sunday, April 20, Sunrise Prayer and Meditation Event, 6:30 to 7 am or so, on top of the hill at The Welcome Table GardenPark and Orchard; come feel the spirit of resurrection and renewal at our miracle among the ruins space,  followed by breakfast at The Welcome Table Center. Worship at 10:30 am at Turley United Methodist Church. Come for any or all. 
Earth Day Tuesday, April 22, Turley Litter Pick-Up and Free Dinner for volunteers who help, 5 pm meet at The Welcome Table Center. 
Turley Community Association, Tuesday April 29, 7 pm O'Brien Park Center, 6147 N. Birmingham Ave.
McLain/Turley Area Planning and Partner Meeting, Thursday, May 1, Noon with Free Lunch, The Welcome Table Center.
Mobile Food Pantry Day, Friday, May 16, volunteers begin at 10 am, food pickup at 11 am, The Welcome Table Center. Get vouchers at Wed. and Sat. community days. We eat lunch together with volunteers once the event is over.  
Community Picnic on the Cherokee School playground, Sunday May 18, 11 am to 1 pm. See below for more.
Every Saturday 6 pm 12 Step Recovery Group, at the Welcome Table Center.
Last Thursday at 6:30 pm, Turley Area Alliance Against Crime, at the Center.
Each Thursday, 7 pm, Turley Fire and Rescue Dept meetings, 6404 N. Peoria.
Our diabetes management class and free healthy lunch just finished up on Saturday its important six week presence at The Welcome Table Center and we have been glad to co-host that with the AreaWideAging Agency.

Palm Sunday Message: The Three Americas, or Occupying The Empire’s Abandoned Places To Remind The World That God Lives Here

This Sunday’s meal message was about how Jesus “occupied” the Empire’s Temple and mocked the false values of Caeser’s Empire when and how he rode into Jerusalem for Passover, with some street theater in the midst of a dangerous time and place to show both people and the powerful that another world was possible, not only possible but could begin right now, right here, with these people. Many of the most vulnerable had been left behind both by the occupying Roman forces and by their own leaders. Jesus was sending a signal to both the haves and the have-nots that the God of the most vulnerable was still with them and was full of hope love and justice.

In that spirit, I talked about how our tradition in our community was to spend Palm Sunday “occupying” one of our abandoned places. In the past we have done it at places we eventually came to own and renew, such as the block of abandoned houses where the park is, and the vandalized church building where our community center is now, and we have done it at the old closed Cherokee School and one of the first was when we put pots of flowers along North Peoria Ave. and at our on-going gardening and beautification project occupying 66th and N. Lewis intersection. We talked about the Palm Sunday that we finished worship by going to an abandoned building and sign out front, where a civic club had been that shut down and several restaurants had been in and shut down; we “occupied” the sign and put up messages of welcome that God is Love and that God Lives in our area, even in such places as ours that others fear to come to, or run down, or just neglect.

And though the weather kept us indoors this Palm Sunday, we decided to throw a picnic for our community and any who want to join us on the playground at Cherokee School, 6001 N. Peoria Ave. Sunday, May 18, 11 am to 1 pm. Bring potluck (no alcoholic beverages) and sports equipment, and for former students bring yearbooks photos; the playgrounds and basketball courts and tetherball and grounds are still there waiting to be used. It will be our delayed Palm Sunday event.

On a deeper level, with such events and with all our work in our four directions initiative of far north Tulsa, we are fighting against the division of what I call the burgeoning polarization into the Three Americas; what we see happening in our metropolitan area seems to be found elsewhere as well. There is a dominant (always with minority strains fighting against it) “big box store” culture in the surburban areas of individualism, libertarianism, consumerism, and uniformity of “red-state” politics and theology and culture. There is a growing dominant “urban cool” “blue-state”culture in the denser populated areas of downtown and various entertainment and restaurant and artistic districts with consumerism still strong but modified as consuming creativity, and with a stronger “tribal” than libertarian vibe. Both of these Americas are places where different forms of the American Dream might attract you, but they are places where people go to, in various ways, “make it.” They are places with growing numbers of people (but not “peoples”) and therefore they are the places where government and businesses--both run with marketplace mentalities--invest in with infrastructure, entrepreneuriship, and resources.

And then there are the third districts, the abandoned places, the boarded up places, the no sidewalks and streetlights places, the places where post offices are closed and health clinics are closed (with kudos to those who are fighting against this in our area with health clinics beginning to open to reverse this trend) and schools are closed and with community centers and community pools closed or threatened to be closed and with shopping centers closed—even though there are the areas of highest need for these. This is a form of America that both of the other two zones turn away from. The Third America. While those who remain intentionally and would not live elsewhere, or those who can’t afford to live elsewhere and move here but are always hoping to “make it” by leaving, wrestle with growing lack of connection with one another and with those in power. And the land itself becomes disconnected with the people as its ownership transfers increasingly to those who live in the other Americas and as a result of the weakening of the power and voice of those who live here the land itself can be repurposed away from communal needs to the needs of corporations and businesses (where environmental injustice comes in to mirror economic and educational injustice, with landfills and salvages dominating the landscape) owned by those who live elsewhere, and the local businesses and nonprofits that do remain are often struggling against the tide, or are also in some cases adding to the blight.

On Palm Sunday, and as we move into Holy Week, with the simple meal fellowship of Maundy Thursday and the mandate to love one another, with the all too familiar abandonment and destruction of Good Friday, with the despair and sitting with grief of Holy Saturday and with its story of unseen forces still at work getting ready for renewal, with its story of Jesus relocating to Hell itself to turn it into a place not even abandoned by the love of God, and with the story of the unexpected life and the miracles of hope that Easter celebrates, through it all we seek to love the hell out of this world of the Third America, to connect the disconnected on a grassroots level and also to connect the other two Americas with the Third America, the Third Place so to speak. Like the disciples of old, we don’t do it well. But we too remain, or we return, or we relocate our lives because we have been the recipients of a grace that abounds that reminds us that Love overcomes death, injustice, neglect, helplessness, shame, failures. We do not know what the future holds; every month brings new challenges and the same old struggles, but Palm Sunday teaches us that the future of new life is already started. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

A Summary of Our History, Projects, Partners

The Welcome Table Missional Community/
A Third Place Community Foundation

Renewing The Far Northside: Volunteer Grassroots Response

2002-03 Epiphany Church began in Owasso, suburb of Tulsa
2004 moved to 6305 N. Peoria Ave. Turley/McLain School area
2005 became The Living Room Church and began partnering with Turley Community Association and Cherokee School on beautification projects
2007 Opened A Third Place Community Center at 6416 N. Peoria Ave. and moved in it and began working with OU Graduate Social Work program on community forums;
2008 hosted OU Health Clinic;
2009 created A Third Place Community Foundation and began demonstration gardening with Turley United Methodist Church and providing school gardens and landscaping for Cherokee Elementary School and helped form McLain School Foundation;
2010 bought a block of abandoned houses and trashed property at 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. to begin transforming into a community gardenpark;
2011 bought an abandoned church building at 5920 N. Owasso Ave. and moved the community center into it and planted the community orchard;
2012 created The Welcome Table Free Corner Store Food Pantry.

Area We Serve:
Primarily from 46th St. N. to 76th St. N. and from Highway 75 to Osage County Line; all within the McLain School boundary; far north Tulsa and Turley community area but our food store also serves the Sperry area. We are located in 74126, one of the lowest income zipcodes in the Tulsa area with a life expectancy 14 years lower than midtown Tulsa. We also serve 74130. 

Current Offerings:
Twice a Week Free Food Store;
4-5 times a year Mobile Pantry giving out 5 tons of food in one hour;
occasional Mobile Eatery from Food Bank
Computer Center/Free Wifi
Free Books
Clothes and More (take what you need; leave what you can)
Community Art Studio and Art Events
Washer/Dryer and Shower
Community Recycling Bin
Weekly 12-Step Recovery
Community Holiday Events and Festivals
Monthly Community Planning
Monthly Turley Area Seniors
Community GardenPark and Orchard and Free weekly meals at the Park

Current Community Projects
Abandoned Properties: Demolition or Upkeep
66th and N. Lewis Intersection Transformation
Welcome to Turley Sign Project
Roadside Wildflowers/Trash Pickup
Prairie Trails Wildflower Preservation Rest Area across from our park

Planting Project Seeds: In Conversation or In Vision
Cherokee School, closed in 2011, Repurposing
Scattered Site Low Rent Housing Program, plus “Relocation Homes” transforming abandoned homes
Osage Prairie Trail Awareness and Appreciation Event(s) and Community Info Kiosks
Far North Main Street from 46th to 66th St. on N. Peoria Ave
Community Lay Health Advocate Program (turning health clinics inside out)
Village Post Office to replace closed post office

Current Partners
University of Oklahoma-Tulsa
Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma
Tulsa Health Department North Regional Wellness Center
Tulsa Food Security Council
Tulsa Community Gardening Association
Tulsa Sponsoring Committee: Industrial Areas Foundation
McLain School Foundation
Turley Community Association
Turley United Methodist Church
Turley Fire and Rescue Dept
Tulsa County O’Brien Park and Recreation
Sarah’s Residential Living Center
Newsome Community Farms
Oklahoma State University Extension Dept
The LightHouse Charter School
Gilcrease Elementary School.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

This Is Church?

The Missional Church Conversation
Rev. Ron Robinson

Everyday we do church at The Welcome Table, but it is almost always with lots of different people each time in different ways, serving, connecting, listening, working together for others, sometimes praying, sometimes sharing communion....Here is part of why we do it the way we do:

1. We have entered an era where we need a “bigger bandwidth” of church manifestations because we are not in a one-size or kind fits all world any longer.

2. The Church Doesn’t Have or Create A Mission; The Mission Creates and Has The Church. And The Mission is Given To Us: bring good news to the poor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, free the prisoner, liberate the oppressed, end all debts. Creating communities where people don't have to think alike to love alike is a great launching pad for that mission, but it isn't the mission. 

3. Go to others; not expect others to Come to us (recognize shift from churched to unchurched culture); Be Incarnational, and even if you have the resources and ability to be attractional use attractional to become incarnational.

4 Church is not to be content to be a safe home until all homes are safe. Church is not to be content to be growing and thriving in a community that is suffering and declining. Don’t be the best church IN your community, but be the best church FOR your community. Shift from internal to external ministries, from programs to people development, from church-based to world-based leadership. 

5. Be Church of the 3Rs: Relocation. Reconciliation. Redistribution. Growing teams of “remainers, returners, relocaters” for renewal in “Abandoned Places of the Empire”. Connect The Disconnected. Grow Faith Where Life Happens.

6. A Mission Statement doesn’t equal Mission. Focusing on mission as purpose is not the same as missional, the word from which, from the Greek word missio, means to be sent. Missional has turned upside down the old connotation of the missionary; now being missional is not about the church going to convert the world, but going into the world to be converted by it, to discover how best to serve it and transform it and ourselves, by “meeting God already present and active in the neighborhood.”

7. The Post-Modern Culture: We no longer compartmentalize; we live in a blurry yet holistic world; boundaries of sacred and secular overlap; spiritual and material, personal and political or social are not kept separate; no one can go it alone in such a world; the church and non faith based nonprofits and business and government and philanthropic groups all need to play a part in the Mission, but they won’t inhabit completely separate realms but will be partnering. Can’t say this problem is only for government or this role is only for the church. 

8. Post Modern's EPIC Characteristics: Experiential trumps knowledge;  Participation trumps spectators; Image-Driven trumps print/text;  Communal trumps individual. 

9. Emerging Church Characteristics: Focus on three things: life of Jesus, blurring secular/sacred spaces, and community.

10. Four Paths, or The Loop, of Church-ing: 1. Missional Service; 2. Community Life; 3. Discipleship/Leadership; 4. Worship that refreshes the soul for missional service.

11. Focus not on “a church” but on “the church” which can have many manifestations. Church is not a what, but a who; Church anywhere, anytime, by anyone. Postcongregational. Grow smaller to do bigger things.

12. Ask the questions: if your church ceased to exist, who beyond in the community would notice and who would be affected? Who does your heart break for? Who does God's heart break for?

Also aligning with the 12 Marks of New Monasticism:
1.     "Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire."
2.     "Sharing Economic Resources with Fellow Community Members."
3.     "Hospitality to the Stranger."
4.     "Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of a Just Reconciliation."
5.     "Humble Submission to Christ's Body, the Church."
6.     “Intentional Formation in the Way of Christ and the Rule of the Community Along the Lines of the Old Novitiate."
7.     "Nurturing Common Life Among Members of Intentional Community."
8.     "Support for Celibate Singles Alongside Monogamous Married Couples and Their Children."
9.     "Geographical Proximity to Community Members Who Share a Common Rule of Life."
10.                        "Care for the Plot of God's Earth Given to Us Along with Support of Our Local Economies."
11.                        "Peacemaking in the Midst of Violence and Conflict Resolution."
12.                        "Commitment to a Disciplined Contemplative Life."Type your summary here Type rest of the post here

Friday, January 17, 2014

Divine Strangers: The Marks of The Missional Church"

 “Divine Strangers: The Marks of The Missional Church” by Rev. Ron Robinson, delivered January 19, 2014, Turley United Methodist Church.
see or Also

Readings and Sermon: Divine Strangers by Rev. Ron Robinson

1.     Isaiah 49: 5-6

5And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

2.     John 1: 29-36

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”


Just about everywhere you turn these days in church circles, you are likely to hear the phrase “the missional church.” Other terms might be the incarnational church, the externally-focused church, the inside-out church. Here in Turley, here in this very space next month, we will host a local and national gathering of missional leaders and seekers called Life On Fire.

In itself, that is amazing. Just Seven years ago this month, when our own little church group here called The Living Room back then, went missional and we moved out of the building where we had been trying to attract people to come to us and join with us and we instead moved into a building that we gave back to the community, without the name of the church out front, it seemed back then like we were pretty much all alone. We got a lot of blank stares. “You do church, how???” A lot has changed quickly since then. We have even been on the cover of a national religious magazine. In some ways that church from then has died; in some ways being reborn in unknown ways; regardless I know, and more importantly, the community around us knows, that it was worth it.

For as long as it is just church folks talking about the missional church, you know we haven’t really made the kind of difference that is needed yet. What is still to come is for people out in the world who aren‘t a part of church to know and be talking about the missional church, for them to hear the word church and think first about people of Great Love doing acts of justice and kindness and mercy for others they don’t know, right around them and far away, and—here’s the catch-- without expecting anything back from them except the hope that the people served will be inspired to serve others themselves. That I believe is the way of Jesus, who didn’t count attendance, just action. When the term missional church is truly redundant, we will know this next great reformation of church will have taken root.

So today I am going to talk about what I have learned this past decade about the missional church, how it is truly helping to resurrect people and neighborhoods and churches that others have considered dead; how it is bringing people of diverse faiths together for a common mission of making the Sacred visible in the world, especially in those places where others with wealth and power have abandoned. I love the mission statement of the United Methodist Church printed on the cover of the order of service because it seems to fit with this focus on action beyond ourselves, not being content just with our own personal spiritual life: disciples making disciples (those who follow in the spirit and way of Jesus) for the transformation of the world.

But first I want to talk about those two passages from the Bible that are part of the ones selected to be preached on today in many different churches around the whole world, including in some of my traditions Universalist churches. They are good passages for today’s message.

Let’s start with Isaiah. Here is the dramatic background for this writing: the people are in exile, virtual slavery, conquered and taken off into another country, Babylon, with their city of Jerusalem having been destroyed and the center of their world, the First Temple, having been decimated. Much worse than anything we have gone through, even on Sept. 11, 2001, much worse even than the neglect here close to our home, but in some ways that Babylon mindset has been our experience here in the McLain High School area of far north Tulsa and Turley neighborhoods, as we have seen so much deteriorate and close and people and institutions leave us, and as our access to those in power has weakened.

To these captive, abandoned, people, Isaiah says don’t look to the past and try to recreate it or live in it; and don’t think that the only world possible is the world you are in now, here in these circumstances; your God was not destroyed when your Temple was, but here in this new land where you are the foreigner your God is still with you, the God that says there is more to come; don’t dwell In what you have lost, for that separates you from the movement and mission of the liberating God; living in what you don’t have keeps you from experiencing the abundance of what you do have, what you, even you, have to share with the world, now and in the future…

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is our legacy and our reminder: we are not meant to exist so people can search and find our light—it is not even ultimately our own light—but we exist to be a Sent people, to carry Sacredness and light up the world, to all of the world, every inch and end of the earth, it says, which means no place, no person, is unworthy of the light, which means that the places and the people with the world’s least light are where we should be. In doing so, Jesus says, we  ourselves will be freed. We will find our true home.

And then there is the encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus as told in the Gospel of John. Twice, the Baptist says he did not know Jesus, did not recognize him as the Anointed One. Jesus was as a stranger to him. But he says he saw the Spirit in him nevertheless when he didn’t know him, and he says God informs him then that “the one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain” is the one that will also bring people into the realm of God by moving in them spiritually just as John has been busy bringing individuals into God’s people through physical action of baptism. Here then, Jesus showed his true colors, his true self, so to speak, to John and it is important how he did it--not by announcing himself, not by convincing him with a clever sound bite or perfectly reasoned message, but only when John saw the Divine Spirit within Jesus, how he moved in and through the world, always on the go, constantly giving evidence of the Spirit in his life, through his deeds. In fact, in the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist questions if Jesus is the Anointed One, and Jesus answers by saying look to the results, to the actions, not to the ideas or beliefs about him, but see the blind seeing, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. So it is with us,  that those who we see the Spirit show through, even if we don’t know them, even if they are different from us, then with them we too can experience the Divine, the depth and ultimate meaning of life.

We need more strangers in our life if we are to live more fully in the Sacred.

Jesus was a Divine Stranger who spent his time with strangers, even enemies. The goal was to show them what God’s love and justice was like, as opposed to the kind of world they were surrounded with--to inspire them, right where they were and just who they were, to also live lives of generosity, mercy, service. Again, he didn’t stop to count his followers; instead he commanded them to love one another and to also make sure they left no one behind, and if they needed to count people then to count the poor they blessed, the sick they healed, the hungry they fed, the thirsty the gave drink to, the prisoners they visited, the oppressed and the debt-ridden they set free.

The church should be and do the same. Doing that changes the scorecard for the church, on the marks of what makes it a success, and it may mean changing the playing field, going into new territory, living outside the walls of any building or giving the insides of the walls away to others, and maybe even changing the game, the purpose, itself.  If it does so, then where the church now sees itself as failing and dying, it will see itself as thriving, no matter its own size, no matter whether it has a building, or even bylaws, budget, and board. None of which the church that sprang up after Jesus had. There were no 501c3 organizations then. Its task, its mission, is clear: Finding divinity in strangers, and being the Divine Stranger out in a world that increasingly is saying we should only live in neighborhoods with those like us, go to school with those like us, go to church with those like us, and to fear the stranger.

That’s why the first principle of the missional church is that God’s Infinite Mission creates the finite church, not the other way around. If we breathe in the rich oxygen of Mission we will find ways to be together as church fulfilling it. Which is why the second principle of missional church is that there is no one way or manifestation of how church should be. Even our existing churches can become more missional, trying to be the best church for the community not the best church in the community. That change may be hard and may change the church too. But In our world that is a far from one size fits all world, we need church forms all over the spectrum to connect with as many different people as possible.

According to one researcher, in the year 2000 the once almost uniform way of being church, the local public congregation, had dropped to only representing 70 percent of church-goers, and by the year 2025, just a decade away, it is projected to decline to representing just 30-35 percent, still as visible as any other ways but not the predominant way as it once was. The other 70 percent of church members will be the church in all sorts of ways and communities and relationships. This is important because people being naturally attracted to churches as we have them today are dwindling: one statistic I saw is that 70 percent of those over 70 go to congregations, but only 35 percent of those between around 50 to 70, and only 15 percent of those over say 35 years old, and only 4 percent of those 18 to 35, and for the first time the numbers aren’t increasing as people get older.

If we put our future into Mission, though, and not into maintaining the status quo organization, and let mission form the kind of church communities needed, what some see as scary numbers will be quite exciting to others. We may see that for people of faith even organizations dying can lead to a resurrection of the Spirit and new forms of being the church. That is what I call the third principle of the missional church: We don’t attend church; we become church, and it can happen anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The focus is shifted from sustaining “a church” to being a part of “the church.”

I know that when we have our worship at The Welcome Table with people we know mostly, and have met through work with us during the week, sometimes we have three people—I never say “just” three-- and it can still feel very much alive with the Spirit, and can be church happening. In fact, you might say the fourth principle of the missional church is “Grow smaller in order to do bigger things, and to go deeper into life”. I also know that when, like this past Friday, we have 46 people show up who mostly don’t know each other, to help feed 125 families that they don’t know, almost all of the people coming from our neighborhoods here,  people of many faiths, and we eat together afterwards and bless the food together and bless the people who have come, and pray for all those who need food but couldn’t get it that day, that the Spirit is alive then too, that it is church.

It may seem like a new way of being church, but as our scripture reminds us today, it is really part of a very ancient way.

May we be nourished by this ancient way, modeled by Jesus and so many after him, refreshed in the Spirit of Love Everlasting, all for the continual service to the mission of the Divine Stranger calling us to go beyond our labels, our comfort zones, our theologies, all for the healing of this bruised, but blessed,  world. Amen.

[Four Missional Principles: 1. Mission Creates Church, not the other way round. 2. For a diverse world, many manifestations of church are needed. 3. Don’t attend church; become church, anywhere, anytime, with anyone. 4. Grow smaller to do bigger things.]



Monday, November 11, 2013

Life On Fire Harrisburg, PA Sermon: Living Missives of the Sacred

Life on Fire: Sermon at First Unitarian Church, Harrisburg, PA, Nov. 9, 2013, Rev. Ron Robinson

 Reading: from Isaiah, chapter 58

Is not this the fast that I choose:  To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.



There is a story being told in many churches around the world today. It seemed appropriate for my themes so I want to share it too.

It comes from the Gospel of Luke in the Christian scriptures when “some Sadducees, those who sald there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

          34(After probably a long withering look of disbelief and shaking of head at how people can get so many things backwards about what matters in a spiritual life, how we can get so distracted from our mission and try to substitute for it all manner of things in a literalistic and legalistic fashion, and with a little frustration), “Jesus said to them, according to the story and in my version, don’t bother yourself about such things; some things happen here that won’t happen there, because we will be all changed there; don’t get stuck in your default mode of one world when that world will be no more. And for the coup de grace, he adds the sound bite: 38”Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.”

And so are we all to be, alive, and on fire with passion, with love for others, and commitment to and for the living.

 This was an important scriptural story to our faith tradition’s founders; it conveys one of the cores of our witness about the Holy: that it is to be found ultimately not in what is dead and gone, as informative and inspirational as that might be, or in the finer points of speculative argumentation and reasoning, nor in the deadness of the status quo and how we have always done things and complacency in the face of injustice; but in the messy fired-up always imperfect lives of struggling people and in the unfolding continuing revealing changing spirit of life itself that keeps manifesting in new ways. To draw near to the Holy we say is to draw near to that experience; as Isaiah prophetically reminds us still, it is in solidarity and familiarity with those without that we truly earn the name of religious community.

          And often, particularly these days in the cultural wormhole of much change, moving between dimensions, that means changing radically our community, our sense and purpose and actions of community to keep it in the land of the living. It means getting out of ourselves, and over ourselves to become our deepest selves; striving to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community; seeing ourselves as “a people” (not “a collection of religiously oriented individuals” [Conrad Wright, Doctrine of a Church], a people to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world. Sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are to be not members of a religious club, but living missives of the Sacred. That is what will make our lives catch fire, make them into sacraments.


I remember a time about five years ago when some of the church leaders from Boston came to Tulsa and were listening to me try to describe how we were doing inside-out micro-church in the far northside area of abandonment and poverty and I could tell from their blank gazes that none of it was sinking in, our unwillingness to have members for example or our decision to give our space away to the community, or not having the name of our church on the front of the building, or how we put service before worship, but to their credit they kept listening from afar, and in the past few years, especially after being on the cover of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine, I have been privileged to be a frequent preacher and lecturer and workshop leader of what is called the missional movement catching fire among us, a movement I must emphasize that is really more about changing the wider community beyond; where necessary, changing the church in order to do that. I want people to know more about, or at least primarily about, the zipcodes their churches are located in then about their bylaws, buildings, budgets, board procedures, or the like. Good thing we are a home for heretics.


The title of the sermon comes from the gatherings some of us have started to share and explore together of the church that is radically focused outward to and with others, so radical that for some it might even mean living covenanted community lives of service beyond any congregational or organizational structures, while still being deep within a tradition or faith movement.  In part this falls under the beyond part of the “Congregations and Beyond” recent conversations of the UUA. But These gatherings of missional-driven folks are also for those who are remaining part of established churches and want to help turn them more toward counting people served than people in pews or as pledges. 

After a few years of workshop gatherings and online communities we had our first Life on Fire meeting in September at the UU church of OakRidge Tennessee and we will have our second one Feb. 28-Mar. 2 at our place, The Welcome Table in Turley and far north Tulsa neighborhoods in Oklahoma. In good UU fashion, and missional fashion, even though mostly we UUs have started the Life on Fire events, we have been enriched by the presence  and leadership of those in other churches and faith communities and welcome and need them too.  


When we planted our faith community ten years ago, we began in a fast growing suburb. The intent was not to become what we have become, but to be an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both UU and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before. The intent was to start one that is focused on gathering people together around a message of religious freedom, one focused on how people relate to one another and support one another in the gathered community, one  where communal worship is the primary and central act of and for the gathered community as it sends out a message to the wider community.


Now here is where I say that there is nothing wrong with any of that; it is just that it is now only one way, one manifestation possible of the church and that we don’t any longer live in a one-size-fits-all world, and that includes church; and we certainly are moving into a landscape where we need “a bigger bandwidth” of church in order to meet people where they are in their new diverse expectations of community and faith. Our wider culture has become like the cell phone that is only minimally a phone, if that, but our churches are too often still like the 1950s phone my father still has in his house and only recently was forced to stop using: one size, one color, attached to a wall you had to go to use, and where you had to dial and wait for each number. That is more like what we call the modern Attractional Church, focused on getting people to “come to us and be like us” But that kind of organization  is one that takes more and more resources in this highly competitive culture; it is why the large are able to pull it off and are getting larger, and yet at the same time even they are still losing their overall market share, shall we say,  of the general population.  

Church researcher and consultant George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution captures well the post-modern, post-denominational, post-Christian, and post-congregational world coming at us quickly. He predicts, and all predictions are dubious but this one continues to be borne out,  that in 2025, in just a dozen years, that 30-35 percent of Americans will get their primary spiritual community connection and experience and expression in local institutional or organized churches, whereas in 2000 it was 70 percent; 30-35 percent will be in a wide variety of alternative faith-based communities from house churches to marketplace gatherings to new monastic communities to missional communities to recovery groups to pilgrimages to places and events, just to name a few venues, compared to just 5 percent who were connecting this way in 2000.   

How will Unitarian Universalism match up in those categories by then? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now.


The take-away is that no matter how good we get at what we have been doing we won’t change those numbers much at all, especially without the massive resources required to be competitive in trying to attract and keep people—But it is also why the small and very small groups, with a big vision, and large risk-taking, can thrive by changing the competition, changing the scorecard of success(as missional church author Reggie McNeal describes it). Why maybe instead of working on ways to grow larger, many of us should be working on ways to grow smaller in order to relate to more. Why success should be found in how grand and how many times we experiment and fail and learn from it to shape our next response. Our task: How can we become church anywhere anytime and with anyone? That question itself challenges so much of the reigning model or mindset of why so many of us have “come to” church in the past—to “find our home, our people” and to create a center for distinguishable religious ideas. In a deeper cultural framework, we are talking about the shift from a modernist focus on fixed places and identities and centers to a new post-modernist focus on fluidity and margins and edges.


Once upon a time: There was a young man who had grown up having a hard time, as a sufferer of ADD, sitting still in worship every Sunday in the spectator-manner of his church, and so when he became a young adult he decided that he didn’t have to keep “going to church” and so one Sunday he followed the invitation of a friend to join others who had being going out on the lake in a boat; while out there, in a lull from swimming, his old habits reared up and he felt guilty for not “being in church” and so he asked his friends if he could say part of a psalm he had memorized and then say a short prayer, and his friend said sure, and he asked his friends if there was anything he could include in his prayer for them, and he did so. And they went back swimming and partying. Next Sunday the same thing happened, but this time he had also brought a Bible with him for just a short time of reading and saying the prayer and then they kept on partying. Gradually as more friends joined in, soon they were also spending time at the lake helping tow boats that had broken down, and were cleaning the park, looking for other ways to do random acts of kindness. They even set up elements for communion on some picnic tables (next to ice chests of beer I imagine), but mostly though they kept partying before and during and after the time of prayer and communion and service. And all the while his worried family back in the pews kept bugging him to “come back to church.” (Exiles, Michael Frost).

They thought church is something you attend or go to; but it is something you become.  Imagine if we inspire and turned small groups of people loose to go places and do things like this intentionally.


In my missional community, we haven’t gone quite as organic and spontaneous as in this story, but about six years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be an attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, it became clear we needed to change to change our area, believing that churches or any groups should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker. As one missional leader has said (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution) we risked becoming smaller to do bigger things.

We learned that the numbers we needed to be concerned about were not the numbers in worship or that might join as members but the numbers of the poor and sick and oppressed in our zipcode area where people die 14 years sooner than they do just six miles south of us. (Levin study, OU).  

So In January 2007, with a core group of just six to eight people and about a dozen in worship on a good day, we made our big missional transformative move; we had just lost our biggest financial contributor from our original group,  but we felt called to serve our community and its severe needs especially because there was an absence of any other nonprofits or government and the other churches were only interested in their shrinking memberships. We were already shrunk so didn’t have to worry about that. (Note that even if you are in a zipcode without such dire basic needs, there is still much to be done where you are; I would love to not be focusing on the basics of food, water, clothing, homes, and instead be serving our neighbors in other ways.)

We talked among ourselves, and with our neighbors, about what the community needed. More People who believed like us was not on the list. Neighborhood Pride, spirit, safety, healthy food, cleaner environment, sense of a community, better animal control, better schools, these were tops. A church that helped that to happen is what was needed.

With fewer people and less money than when we started, we took a leap of faith and paid more and rented a four times larger space across the street and  opened up,  not billed as a church, but as a community center with library computer center clothing room food pantry health clinic and gathering space, in which we created space to worship amid the space we gave away for the service of others, rather than having a separate worship space of our own, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  Lately we have been more of a roaming worship group to build relationships with others around us and to experience the kinds of dynamic worship we don’t have the resources to do week in and week out.


One of my take-aways of our many radical changes as a group is that As we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world needed us to be.

In doing this We were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. Church in the new and ancient way that didn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws,boards, budgets. Those may be deemed helpful, but they aren’t what makes a church a church; that is its mission. And Church doesn’t have a mission; The mission has, and creates, church. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Theodore Parker who reminded us that the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for the 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century will not do for the 21st.

Even as far back as the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism formed by the oldest churches in our Association, church was grounded in its covenants, which is a way of saying its mission to and with others, and not just with those who joined a particular church, or became its leaders; for a church to be considered whole and healthy, then and now, it needed to be in covenant with the world around it; in fact, the more it struggles with its internal covenants with one another and its leadership, the more it needs its core identity of a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. 


In our zipcode, in what has been described as “an abandoned place of the American Empire” [The New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al]…by 2009 we completed the first transformational missional move by creating the separate non-profit A Third Place Community Foundation to connect  more deeply with others and partner with them for renewal in our area, and to be the organizational wing of our mission, while as church we became organic, incarnational, even smaller so that we could keeping dreaming and doing bigger things. Which we did the very next year.
In summer 2010 through our nonprofit we bought the block of abandoned homes and trash dump and transformed it into a community garden park and orchard. Then in 2011 the nonprofit bought the largest abandoned building at the time, an old church building, for our community center. We called both the center and the park The Welcome Table. And so our church/missional community that had started as Epiphany Church then became The Living Room Church then Church at A Third Place became The Welcome Table. Four location changes and four name changes in 8 years, not mentioning how we started in living rooms, in a hotel meeting space, in the back room of a Panera Restaurant, and how we still look for ways to worship in the garden or at our service sites or places we partied like a bowling alley. And we may be morphing in a major way again very soon.

The impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church becomes.

Our reason for being, what calls us together, is to be sent out to make visible in the world that Sacredness of Life that compels us to love the hell out of this world. To discern who our heart breaks for, and let that guide us into how we become church.

          Now we have been expanding our food pantry into a free corner store for our area where 55 percent say they are unsure if they will have enough to eat, where 60 percent say they can’t afford healthy food, and we have a community art space, and crafts space, and free clothing and more space; we hold community events and community organizing meetings and put on free holiday parties and throw open the doors to the community, because no one else in our area is; we are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group organized, and we have the lofty dream of trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the recently closed school across from us. Meanwhile the community garden park and orchard is growing and becoming an award-winning site for events itself. And we do all this and the last time we worshipped together this past Sunday we had five people, a good turnout. I never say “just” five people, or two people. We embody a theology of enough. We are a church of enough-ness.

Of course we do this living like our neighbors, going from cut-off notice to cut-off notice juggling bills, and knowing that it all could be cut back, curtailed or especially if we don’t get some more regular $5 and $10 or more a month donations from online and face to face supporters to offset those who have died or moved from our community, that one of these days we could close much of what we do, just like so much else has closed in our neighborhood. (One of the things I say when I am often asked, especially  by our  partners, the graduate social work students, about what is the most successful thing we have done, is to say, “Just still being here” because so much else comes and goes and people don’t expect a good thing to be able to last in our neighborhoods.) We face that reality with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go. We find we must grow deeper in radical trust, and the spirit of abundance in the midst of scarcity, in order to keep making leaps into the missional abyss.

Which is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, following that ancient image of the Divine as the bush that burns but doesn’t burn itself out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning, but as a Spiritual Departure point not a Destination Point.  It is why in our place we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as bearing witness to life in our neighborhood, giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, modeling a way of non-violent response instead of drama and anxiety, this is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin. And this is missional work that is needed I believe in every neighborhood no matter its means, though I do remind people that some neighborhoods have more resources to bring to bear for healing than others do, and some of the best healing work we can do in some neighborhoods is to get them liberated from the possessions which possess them, and help them to find ways to relocate in part or whole to be where those with the least are located.

Now While my faith and particular theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, in our new unchurched and dechurched world it isn’t where I personally, or in community, seek to first connect with people. Not with shared ideas, not even with shared spiritual practices such as worship, but it is first in shared mission, something I can do with practically anyone. As a Christian, then I don’t ultimately need, or think ultimately the world needs, more Christians. As a Unitarian Universalists, then I don’t ultimately need or think the world ultimately needs more Unitarian Universalists. Those are not my missions. What I need and I think we need and the world needs more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit. If that results in more people coming to adopt my specific faith perspective, great; but if not, if the specific communities and organizations I am connected with were to die away as the world changed from adopting their ways, then that is a legacy of radical love for the ages I will embrace.

What I believe is that whatever happens in my community or in our wider church movement, the life and legacy of what we have done will, like all of us, ultimately live deepest in the relationships we make, regardless of what form they take or how long they last.

Our goal is not self-perpetuation, but growing our soul, and we do that by giving ourselves back to that Great Love, in which we live and move and have and find our being. And it is in sharing that Love with others for others, especially those most in its need, that will set our lives, our churches, on Fire, with a sacred mission into this bruised and blessed land of the living.