Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Promise of Unitarian Universalism: Reviving The World

The Promise of Unitarian Universalism: Reviving The World
Revival Fort Worth Thur. Jan. 22, 2015
Rev. Ron Robinson
[The original text from which the talk was given, accompanied by our Miracle Among the Ruins Slideshow, which you can see at www.youtube.com/watch?v=bE8ALvs8vyo

Revival. Such a scary word, for many of us, but Revival literally means Life Again. And what could be more progressive  than that. Life so abundant and generous in spirit that it will always find a way to come back, be made new. Life Again is another way of saying one of our foundational beliefs—that more truth and light is yet to come, and will come, that revelation is unsealable, semper reformanda, we are always being reformed and reforming, revived and reviving. Not only the culture, not only ourselves, but the church as well, always in need of revival. As Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preached in 1841: the church that did for the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church that did for the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church that did for the fifteenth century was not doing for his 19th century, and the church of the 19th century, and 20th century, does not always do for the 21st century.  It is also a part of ongoing revelation that the old can take on new life again too; we aren’t creating out of nothing; today we often hear, for example, about ancient-future faith, the revival of old practices in new settings.  And Life Again for All is a core theological position; Glory is for all. All are revivable.
So with our minds maybe we can connect Revivals and Unitarian Universalism, but I know for many it is still hard to connect them in the heart and soul. Now I was raised a Methodist in my small community on the edge of Tulsa and I remember Revivals, and how I led a march for Jesus from our church to the local high school. For 40 years, however, almost all of my adult life, I have been a Unitarian Universalist and I know the revival spirit can be a challenge to our once dominant culture of looking at the hymnal and keeping in our designated places with little movement while we sing the Amen chorus, as if we were going to forget the words. But we should strive for a holistic faith; we know that a spirit of revival and reason can go together.  I also know that at the church that ordained me, one of the largest if not the largest UU church (being in the smallest I tend not to keep up with such things) at All Souls Tulsa there is now weekly as one of its three Sunday morning services a revival-style worship (the humanist non-revivalist one is growing too, btw) and under the church’s umbrella on another day than Sunday there is charismatic worship where I’m told speaking in tongues by a few might occasionally happen.

One of the most promising gifts of Unitarian Universalism to the world (though it can also for some be the most frustrating and challenging) is that in our tradition no one could come in from outside and tell the Tulsa church it couldn’t do that, follow its truth, embody Unitarian Universalism in that new way. Local people discerning together, risking together, is our way. It is why we have such a theological bigger bandwidth among us; non-creedal but with many liturgical expressions for a world of such pluralism. Churches where in worship God and Jesus are rarely mentioned liturgically, to our Trinitarian Universalists, to places like First Church of Christ, Unitarian. Alleluia for that!
And no one in authority came to me in Tulsa seven years ago and said that we couldn’t transform our small church, by small I mean 7 leaders and maybe a dozen in worship, that we couldn’t go missional and incarnational when we moved and took down the church sign and put up a sign for our newly-created community center and health clinic and food pantry and clothing room and library and art room, in which the church finds space for some of our worship; or when we started a nonprofit to partner with many in the community in order to buy and reclaim abandoned properties to improve the community health of our high poverty, lowest life expectancy, multi-ethnic neighborhood, nor did anyone stop us from going organic as well as missional, from following the saying that you don’t attend church, you become it, and so we could become it even without a building, bylaws, board, budget. We still worship though not just with ourselves and for ourselves, but with others often too, and with others not just UU, being church in ways that existed for centuries before 501c3s.
Unitarian Universalism is built for Revival.
We have a freedom in our movement, at our very heart, perhaps a calling even as well, to foster the spirit of revival, to experiment and make major changes; we believe in abundance spirituality, that the diversity of Creation is a good thing, that scarcity mentality and fear lead to spiritual dis-ease. And yet we too often it seems recoil from risk. Or we are great at thinking radical new ideas, but not at creating radical new forms of community for them.
But this too is changing. Halleluia. For we are in an emerging one kind does not fit all world, and that goes for church too. Many expressions of UUism are trying to sprout in our UU garden. They need to be watered right now in their early phases. Thank you for lifting them up here and for being one of their “master gardeners of their spirit.”


This year marks my 40th Year as a Unitarian Universalist and In some ways I have been a poster boy for one of the promises of Unitarian Universalism--that you can change without having to change churches or religious affiliation; in fact at our best we should count on changing people; it should be one of our markers for success, on changing communities, and on how much our own communities can change to be able to do so.
Between the time I was 18, not long after having led that march for Jesus through my part of North Tulsa, and the time I was 20, I had come close to Mormonism, Bahais, Eastern Religion, and still kept enough of a tie with Methodism that I was married at 20 in the Methodist church. And then in college literature classes I kept seeing the term Unitarian applied to these major literary figures I was studying and loving so I studied it. I felt at home so I went looking for its actual home in my small college town in Oklahoma, where mind you the Mormons and the Bahais had a presence, and where I knew Muslims as well, but no Unitarian Universalists. Could Unitarianism have been a 19th century religious movement that had gone the way of the 19th century political movements I was also studying, the Whigs, the Know Nothings?
I soon found a UU church for real—when All Souls Tulsa hosted a meeting for activists working on the Equal Rights Amendment--and then I moved to Oklahoma City and joined my first UU church. I was a kind of social action interested agnostic humanist with my own “cross cringe.” Here, back then, the promise of UUism said to me, I could still be in church and think what I thought. Yes, I soon had a bumper sticker on a 1976 Datsun B210 that said To Question Is The Answer. Unitarian universalism. But the first UU sermon I ever heard was one on Christology based on a book published by the UU Christian Fellowship, so that should have been a sign that this was a Church where Change and Transformation Lay Ahead for me. And one Sunday morning a small Texan, a UU from Austin, whose grandfather had a small town in Oklahoma named after him, stood at the pulpit and guest preached a sermon called Taking Freedom Seriously, which was really about taking God seriously, in a revived way called Process Theology, and in doing so the great theologian, and not bad ornithologist, Charles Hartshorne, launched me on a path as a new Theist, giving the word God back to me. It most likely would not have happened without Unitarian Universalism in that mostly at the time humanist congregation. And, importantly, I have faith that my story happened in reverse for another; that they entered that free church on another spiritual trajectory and found there a different launching pad to the depths of the Spirit of Life and Love and Liberation.
What we often forget is that just as we change within our churches, and because of it, so too our churches change. Talking about this once during my student ministry years, a woman had a puzzled and then eureka look on her face as she said “I just thought when I joined the church that it had always been the way it is, and that it would always be the way it is now (it hadn’t been, and wouldn’t be, and she added], but I really don’t want a church or life to be like that.” She was realizing that a church shouldn’t be ultimately about us, us as individuals or as a community, particularly one set apart from the past or from the future or from other ones; it should welcome us, grow us, but be about us getting over ourselves and our egos so we can get into the lives around us and beyond us.                                                                                                                    

For many years growing up and for much of my time as a UU, religion for me was something I thought about; it was questions and conclusions, and being in a circle of people that supported that process and had fun doing so, with a little bit of service to others thrown in. In some ways, sadly I think now, Unitarian Universalism’s promise was that it promised to leave me alone in my pursuits of the good life and upward mobility, measured by my accomplishments and affluence and appearances. I was still involved in social justice movements and the church did help with those, but primarily only with issues and connecting with people who were a lot like me. It might have been about the personal freedom to think and act, but in many ways it was still about freedom from—freedom from the covenants of transformative community, especially from the covenants with the least of these, freedom from radical commitments of justice living that call us to live with those without justice.
Things got a bit more real, church was revived for me again and the movement incarnated and embodied in more communal ways when we moved back to that same small college town, still then without a UU church, and so, to abbreviate the story, we started a church. Unitarian Universalism’s spirit said go for it, but other UUs who knew about our town said “you are starting one where?” and those not UU in our town, knowing I wasn’t a minister, asked “Can you just do that?”…We found that there were liberal religious voices in our community but they needed a presence, a form, to amplify them. For many the risks of community’s downsides were too great for them to get involved, or their closets were too comfortable, but for those who did take the risk suddenly we emerged as a body among other bodies, a force in the community.

A couple of years after we started, when the lone black church in town was firebombed on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, our church took the lead in the response and hosted the gatherings for the wider community to take action. And on a Christmas Day when it fell on a Sunday, ours was the only church to be open in the morning for worship, about the only place open back then at all except for the police station across the street—ten of us showed up to worship—but because we were open, a man travelling alone from Iowa with all his belongings in a truck and looking for companionship on that morning of all mornings had a place to go. He said just the words Unitarian Universalism sounded welcoming. Now I am one who still finds that group of syllables problematic in many ways, and I did then, but that day it worked and I was grateful for the blessing he bestowed upon us. Because he was there, our own presents could wait  we told the kids, we visited with him longer than we would have after the service, long enough for another man to drop by who said he’d only been to the twelve-step group in the church but he was nervously out for a walk to get out of his head, so to speak, and needed a place to be that day and was glad to see a few cars still parked outside, while other churches and businesses were closed.
 So The missional lesson came early to me and I did not know it; as the reading from Genesis printed in our hymnal says, Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. Church happened as much or more after the worship service that day as it did during it. I would say even Christ was surely born again as well among us that Christmas day, there inside a building where many other faiths in town, through their closed doors, thought Christ could never be experienced without being named in specific ways.
I will say here that one of the many different challenges for us today than it was back then in the early to mid 1990s is that no matter how well we do as congregations, how much we get our message out, more and more people aren’t looking for, or waiting for, or reading about, religious congregations. There are alternatives to form their spiritual communities and social justice actions or to even think about religious things freely; online and in many places and ways these needs are met that once upon a time were the domain of congregations. And it takes more and more resources to connect with folks than it did back then. We are feeling that stress in our Association, and we are not alone.
But the promise of Unitarian Universalism is that Life Again can come, and will come as we open ourselves up to the Spirit that is now creating a wider and wider, bigger bandwidth of forms of churches that together make up the Church Universal. Even Unitarian Universalism can be revived, and can be transformed as it seeks the transformation of the world.
But here is where I want to revive our history as an heretical faith and say heretically that all this talk I have been doing about Unitarian Universalism and its gifts and promise is not what I ultimately came here to preach, and that if we only hear this good news about ourselves then we will not be heard by the world today, and it will ironically keep us from becoming our most promising selves and realizing the vision and mission that calls us into being Unitarian Universalists in the first place, and the ends toward which we aim, and the why we are here.

I love the theme for this Revival: The Promise of Unitarian Universalism. But what I love most about it is the power and layers of meaning in that word Promise. For me the promise of the movement is not ultimately about what the movement can become, what the future holds for it. For me it is about the promise the movement makes to the world. The promise of UUism is its promise, its faithfulness, its covenant to the world. Covenant is that great other word of promise; in our relationship to the world, which is one of the great covenants of our tradition that makes us a church and not just a collection of religiously oriented individuals (as UU historian Conrad Wright wrote).
We are a covenant making, promise making, covenant breaking, promise breaking, covenant remaking, promise remaking, people—this is because we are The Love People, siding with love, loving the hell out of this world, doing small acts of justice with great love, love beyond belief, or like St. Paul wrote, faith hope and love these three, but the greatest of these, greater than what we think, believe and have faith in, greater than how we feel, hopeful or not, greatest is love, that is how we live, commit, respond to the world, and I would say especially to parts of the world so desperate in need of someone making and keeping promises, faithfulness, and being in covenant with them.
And so I am only interested in the revival of the church if it leads to the revival of the world, bringing life again to the dead and dying parts and people of the world, for that is where the real mutual transformation and blessing will happen.

Here is a glimpse of what revival of Unitarian Universalism in the world looks like in our Welcome Table parish, our two mile radius of far north Tulsa. We are ever changing, so much has changed since the UU World did a cover story on us four years ago, but this is the picture now. Come and see, the early disciples said to those curious about Jesus, and we echo that about our place and people, our miracles among the ruins as we call it. [come join those who come on mission trips to stay with us; come to a missional revival life on fire gathering may 29-31 focusing on spiritual practice in missional settings].  There is a bigger bandwidth of missional church too, but here is our part of it, and stay tuned for more changes.

In the 12 years of our existence as a church, we have met in ten different fairly regular spaces, and have also worshipped in many more places even then those (including at abandoned buildings, in closed school grounds, and at our first community garden area on land owned by another church, and now regularly we worship in the two properties that once were abandoned and are now owned by the non profit foundation we started; in addition to that, we regularly now worship with two non-UU churches each month as well). And during that same time, we have had four different name changes.
Of course, four years from now, 12 years from now, sooner, or later, we might also be non-existent as a group, that is always a part of the risk of being an organic missional church, and of Life itself,  but I trust that even were that to happen that the relationships we have formed would continue the mission of the church and find new forms to do that [how many of the first century Jesus follower gatherings can you point to as continually existing, even back then beyond a few years? Few to none, but the missional living they did continues to be present and changes the world today].  
At heart, ours and other missional churches say that the church does not have a mission; instead, The Mission has, creates, the church. The why of what we now call The Welcome Table Church is what determines the how of The Welcome Table.
And in talking about the why of our church, we always start with the people outside of us in our zipcode. That is one of the key markers of what is called the missional church movement. The problems of the world come before the problems of the church because the church is a response to what ails the world. So what is the promise of Unitarian Universalism to these people? Remember, too, The point is not to become the Best Church In the community but the best church For the community.
We live and have our ministry in the 74126, a zipcode that covers far north Tulsa, we are on the edge, more ways than one, part in the city and part outside the city limits. The main number we focus on as a church is not how many are worshipping with us, but what drives our church is that we die 14 years sooner than in the zipcode with the highest life expectancy just 6 miles away down the same street we are on.

Now in the revivals of old, there was a time during the sermon about here where the general sins of the people were highlighted, reminding people of their need for rededication and renewal in the Spirit. Here likewise are some general sins, and they aren’t sins of the people who make up the statistics.
In 2009, the University of Oklahoma did a nutrition study with us that found in our area 60 percent can't afford healthy food even if there was access to it; 55 percent worry about amount of food they have; 29 percent skip meals. In 2013 we did another study with OU of those who came to our free cornerstore pantry. It showed that 52.6 percent of those who come to us have high food insecurity; and 42.1 percent have very high food insecurity, experiencing hunger symptoms when surveyed; 68.4 percent of households have at least one member with nutrition-related chronic disease; 53 percent suffer depression and admit it; 47 percent with anxiety; 53 percent have high blood pressure; 32 percent high cholesterol; 47 percent obese. And don’t forget that almost 100 percent of our church and foundation volunteers and leaders are among the statistics reflected here; we are grassroots; not coming in from elsewhere.
Pretty much mirroring our neighborhoods, 42 percent of those we serve are black, 36 percent white, and 63 percent have under $10,000 annual household income, meaning they are part of the couple hundred thousand Oklahomans who are too poor for Obamacare because our state didn’t expand Medicaid.
 I say instead of, or at least along with trying to combat racism and classism by welcoming people inside our sanctuaries, let’s take Unitarian Universalism to where they live; live with them, serve with them, learn from them.
in our area 40 percent of the vacant residences in our two mile service area, our “parish”, have been abandoned, are not for sale or for rent. Many are damaged, burnt. And that doesn’t count the abandoned commercial buildings. On one short three block stretch of homes, 17 at last count were abandoned; but, but, but, equally importantly, right in the middle of them are some well kept homes by people refusing to let despair win, and one of our partner groups is there transforming them into small group homes for those in need, and the best block party in the area is thrown there each summer.
Recently our post office was closed (even though many the people in our area don’t have computer access for email and there are no alternatives like ups or fedex, and we have a rising aging population and there is limited public transportation or the means to have or keep up an automobile or pay for gas; while the government kept open post offices in wealthier zipcodes with many resources).
Here is what I want to emphasize too about the promise of Unitarian Universalism and its revival in an emerging world. In our area, We do Unitarian Universalism and we do non-creedal Christianity together; we are part of the small Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and we do them both together without the ultimate aim of making more UUs or more Christians or more UU Christians. That is not our mission; spreading God’s radical love is; if anything else happens, great. Most people just know us as either the Welcome Table Church or A Third Place Community Foundation. We live and serve in what is called an Abandoned Place of Empire, and it is not just UUism that hasn’t had much presence in it. There is only one small mainline church still in our area, and it is the community’s very first church, and has come close to closing in the recent past. The other mainline churches fled along with white flight in the 60s and 70s.  
The term Abandoned Place of Empire makes reference to the early centuries of the common era as monasteries and alternative communities left the major cities to live a different way of life and in a different set of values than that of the Roman Empire’s dominant culture of war and wealth and power and honor and shame.  Now it is used to designate those very uncool, unhip, under resourced high poverty low life expectancy zipcodes of the American Empire where business investment and public investment flees, where people who remain often feel shame for their lives because, they think and have been told, if they were only rich enough, smart enough, had made better choices in their lives, hadn’t gotten sick and broke, they too they often believe would be able to move to the places where the supposed American Dream good life happens.
The point of the mission of the missional church, you might say, and I hope one of the promises that can be made to them by Unitarian Universalism even if they never become UUs, is to let these people know that the American Dream might have left them behind, in a kind of worldly Rapture it feels like in our area, but that they are still and can be still a part of a Loving God’s Dream of justice for all.  
What would Unitarian Universalism and other progressives gain by being present in the Abandoned Places of Empire? Well we love being in a place where a little bit goes a long way. Where we are reminded daily that life isn’t ultimately about how much we have, or how much we can experience and take in and feel good about, but about how much spirit of life and love and liberation we can grow with and for others.
It is vital to know that Only after we had lived here and listened to our neighbors did we make our missional move. Only then, as a way of relating to those we knew and loved, did we start a center for community meetings and holiday events and a free bookstore. A computer center. Free wifi access even when the center is closed (people huddle up against the building to use it, as they use our hydrants for water when we are closed, and as they use our outdoor electic outlet to charge their phones when we are closed). Only then did we grow our free foodstore that serves between a thousand and two thousand people monthly. Only then start the take what you need leave what you can clothing and household items room. Or the community art room. The recovery group. Provide showers and laundry.
Recently we made news by giving away space heaters and coats and water during the freezing weather to people who live in cars, campers, houses without electricity or water; what the news didn’t show is that same woman who received a heater gave up one of her two coats for us to give to someone without one; she is also one of our new volunteers, as just a few days out of prison I asked her to take on one of our most important positions, and she often worships with us now too. Of course every worship is a part of a meal; it is how mission, community, discipleship, and worship can all intertwine. She is like the People who receive food who bring us food, or slip me money, when they have it.
This too is Unitarian Universalism, and much more.
As it was that our faith led us to stand in the gap for four years that we hosted a health clinic, and now partner with the local health department which eventually built a new medical center and clinic in our area.
And Many Unitarian Universalists joined with those of many faiths and helped us to buy a block of abandoned houses and turn it into a community gardenpark and orchard where events and meals are also held as well as where we teach nutrition, health, form relationships, grow food with one another and for our foodstore. It is in an area where hills of trash and debris and dead animals were, and where many people from other parts of town were and are still afraid to come to, but where this past Fourth of July three white women aged 30s, 60, and 80, stayed up by themselves, unarmed, until three in the morning talking and watching all the fireworks gradually die out.
We worked to get more than 25 abandoned burned out houses torn down and up to 250 pieces of property cleaned up. We partner with three of our schools in our area and have worked behind the scenes to help get one closed school reopened, and we helped start a foundation for support at one of them, our public high school, my alma mater that went during white flight from 95 percent white to 15 percent white in just one decade. We support the few other nonprofits in our area and work together to throw community resource fairs, and have helped provide beautification at some of our struggling local businesses. By paying some of our local neighbors on contract at $10 an hour when they work for us we seek to set a standard of fairer wages, and through it have helped several to remain in their homes.
All of this I believe is the promise of Unitarian Universalism in reviving the world, being good for nothing you might say.
Remember We don’t have church membership (yet anyway); that no one gets paid a salary either in the church or nonprofit we created (we are not averse to that; we would like to see that happen but with limited resources it hasn’t yet taken top priority). Miracle among the ruins indeed.
We have done it through partnerships with others and not caring whether they became a part of the worshipping part of church or not, whether they believed like us or not. We have done it by reminding ourselves and those who come to us that all we do is just forms of what we really do, what we really give out and redistribute, and that is community—what theologian Jorgen Moltmann says is the real opposite of both poverty and wealth—what we really redistribute is God’s radical peaceful Love for All.  Knowing this helps when we get stolen from, when we get vandalized, when we have our buildings burned down by people passing through and using them; yes, we curse then we realize our blessings of being in the right place serving the right people and getting the chance to grow our spirit of generosity and abundance and help others experience it too.
 We have done all this with whole new groups of people who cycle in and out of missional relationship with us. Only a very very few have been with us from the time we started in 2003 trying to build a normal kind of church in a fast growing suburb. Even almost all of those who were with us when we made our missional transformation leap in 2007 and created the community center for others in which we as a group would then gather for worship have moved or died. But there is Life Again always.

The promise of our faith, the revival spirit, is that it call us, prompts us, guides us into Life Again. The promise is that we can and should continually recreate ourselves as church in order to meet our mission, the mission of making justice and love visible in the world, especially with and for people and places that others choose not to see or love or live with. And to bring to the world Life Again, and Again, and Again. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

God's Starting Point: Today's Communion Service and Homily at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa


PTS Chapel Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014
coming World Communion Day

Leader: Rev. Ron Robinson

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Psalm 118: 22-23)

Invocation
In the light of truth, and the loving and liberating spirit of Jesus, we gather in freedom, to worship God and be strengthened in community for the work of justice in the world. 
Today is the hour which God has made; Let us rejoice and be glad therein
For what does the Eternal require of us?
To live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Sung Response
Bless the Lord my soul, and bless God’s holy name.
 Bless the Lord my soul, who brings me into life.

Prayers
Draw us into your love, Christ Jesus: and deliver us from fear.

Make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Silence and Speaking Names For Prayer
(respond with "God of Mercy, hear our prayer")

Deepest Source of All, may our prayers be times of listening as well as speaking. May we be open to what Life yet speaks to us of truth, joy, and goodness. And as Jesus taught to all those who would follow in his radical, inclusive, compassionate and transforming way, we pray with him:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread and through our understanding love, give peace and joy. Amen

Through our lives and by our prayers: may your kingdom come!

(parts of the above come from Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals)

Sung Response
Dona Nobis Pacem

Scripture:
from Matthew 21, and this week's selections from the Revised Common Lectionary
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Matthew 21: 33-44, NRSV)

Sung Response
We’re gonna sit at the welcome table, we’re gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days halleluia, we’re gonna sit at the welcome table, gonna sit at the welcome table one of these.
All kinds of people around that table, all kinds of people round that table one of these days halleluia, all kinds of people around that table, gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.

Communion
Words of Invitation:
“God’s Starting Point” 
Rev. Ron Robinson

I love the parables. Parables got me into seminary. When people ask me why I am a Christian, I tell them a parable to try to evoke how I am a Christian.  The parables have an abundance of meaning that just keeps on giving each time I return to them, much like the beloved community they point toward. But some of them….you have to drag me kicking and screaming….to enter into. This is one of those.

If nothing else, I suppose it is a reminder that the hardest conversations, the most complex and nuanced of experiences, oh the places we do not want to go, like into a minefield of mirrors of class and ethnicity and multitudes of perspectives and risk and triggers of many kinds, are the places we need to go, sometime in our life, if we are to seek to put ourselves where we will catch a glimpse of God as the White Rabbit dropping out of sight quickly down a hole daring us to follow.
The hole in this parable I want to take us down today—out of the numerous ones that might be calling to us—is the one with the sign that says: Check Your Baggage Here. Those bags of expectations we have inherited, those bags we have filled up from our own life’s lessons, those bags to which we have held on to the tightest, the bags of our notions of right and wrong and justice and success and honor, and safety, and shame too, and fear too.

Down that hole we see that:
There was a city that built parks and schools and businesses of many kinds and churches and civic associations and services like post offices and sidewalks and street lights and fire protection and water lines and built homes with gardens. It was like a vineyard. And then the city left for another country, another people. Some called it white flight. Some called it the American Dream. Some called it Market Forces. Soon the people who remained turned away from one another, or upon one another, as they had been turned away from, as the vineyard dried up…After a while, whenever the city would hear of some crime in the old vineyard, or whenever the city had a Good Idea for the old vineyard, from the other country where it had settled, the city would send a representative with a new program idea, but no money for the vineyard, and the people turned on the representatives of the city who came in from elsewhere to fix them, even though they were just doing their job, even though they had good intentions, even though they loved the people of the old vineyard but not enough to live with them. The city even eventually sent in from the other country its finest, bravest, smartest ones who would surely be able to get the most out of the old vineyard because, after all, weren’t the old vineyard and the other country really all one place together. But the people met these representatives as soon as they landed and made sure they never came back…And the city wondered: what would happen if it came back itself? And in the online comment sections of the city, and in its high private places, the city decided enough was enough and that the old vineyard was good for nothing but being levelled, incarcerate them all, and start over, or just use the land for all the waste of various kinds the city needed to get rid of. Time to move on. There was so much great stuff going on for the city in its new country.
Then Jesus said back: Don’t you remember how God is? The rejects are God’s fruit. God’s great stuff happens with them right there. I tell you what. Your Gathering Places, Your Rivers, Your Greens, Your Malls, Your Mega-Churches, Your Young Professionals will be taken from you and given to those who get God and where and who God starts with.

The stones that the Empire rejects are the stones that God wants us to build our homes with. And the Empire rejects these stones for a lot of sensible good reasons. They are broken stones. They are mix matched. They have been in toxic places. They force us to rethink our very homes themselves and how we have built them in the past. They are the foundation then for a new kind of home, city, for God’s dream.  

And so it is with the Christ table. This is God’s starting point, more departure point than destination point; our destinations should be wherever we can go create tables with and for others without them. And it is good that we celebrate the table for what it is come each year at World Communion Day. For here we check our baggage, even especially our theological spiritual religious baggage and whatever names and addresses we have attached to our baggage. Here we come rejected and rejecting both, eating a meal that reminds us we are fed by One who sees us as more than what we have done and more than we see of ourselves and one another. Here we come from the vineyard and from the city and from another country all. For here at the table, the hardest table to sit at, the one you really don’t have to have an invitation to, we can begin again in love. I come to the table today and I have with me on one side the spirit of that grandfather of mine who settled in North Tulsa at the time of the first world war and became a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and with him are the spirits of those who used him and poor whites like him for their own gain, and I have on my other side the spirits of all those neighbors who suffered, and suffer still, and rage against still, the world created by those on my other side. This is the table even for those, local and global today, who can’t physically yet come to the table with one another, for all kinds of reasons not for me to judge but to make space for. This is the “as if” table.

Words of Institution:
Jesus said: I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me. And his disciples asked him:
When did we do this?
And he said, you did this for me when you did it to the least of these.
Here is the bread of life, food for the spirit. Let all who hunger come and eat. Here is the fruit of the vine, pressed and poured out for us. Let all who thirst now come and drink.
We come to break bread. We come to drink of the fruit of the vine. We come to make peace. May we never praise God with our mouths while denying in our hearts or by our acts the love that is our common speech. We come to be restored in the love of God. All are worthy. All are welcome.
(Robert Eller-Isaacs, based on Matthew 25, alt. Singing the Living Tradition hymnal)

 Receiving From the Plate and Cup While Singing
Let us break bread together on our knees. Let us break bread together on our knees. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, o lord have mercy on me
Let us drink wine together on our knees. Let us drink wine together on our knees. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me.
Let us praise God together on our knees. Let us praise God together on our knees. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun O lord have mercy on me.

Prayers for the Coming Hours: Sext

The sun is overhead. The traveler reaches a crossroad.
Give me courage for this hour.

The hour when the fruit of the forbidden tree is eaten. The hour Jesus hangs upon the cross. The dull center of ordinary time. The mid-life crisis of our day. Tempted to lethargy and apathy and despair. Hard to hold on. We can’t look at the sun directly. We can’t look directly at this hour. Half of life is spent and night is coming. Still God prepares the way, and opens the door. God works to unseal the heavy doors that we have built around our hearts. News from God comes rushing through dark alleys into your heart (Rilke).

O Merciful One, may we know You more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.

Hour by Hour, God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, lifts up the downtrodden. You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
 Give me courage for this hour.

Benediction:
Draw us ever closer into your community, O God, that we might love one another and work with one another in ways that mirror your care and unending love.

Let us go out into the highways and byways.
Let us give the people something of our new vision.
We may possess a small light, but may we uncover it, and let it shine.
May we use it to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
May we give them not hell, but hope and courage.
May we preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
Amen. 
(attributed to the Rev. John Murray, an early British and American Universalist)

Going in Song
Go now in peace, go now in peace, may the love of God be with you, everywhere, everywhere you may go.

Rev. Ron Robinson is the Executive Director of the national Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, is an adjunct faculty in practical theology and director of ministerial formation for Unitarian Universalists at PTS, is a church planter with The Welcome Table missional community in far north Tulsa and is Executive Director of A Third Place Community Foundation begun by the church.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Life = Mission Trip, a sermon in New Orleans

Life = Mission Trip
Sermon by Rev. Ron Robinson at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014


Today I will talk about what a very few people can become and do when their lives catch on fire with mission to love who and what others find unloveable, or as we say, when they love the hell out of this world, and how this is part of a big revolution in the why of church, that affects the how, the what, and the who of church.

But first let me say it is a privilege to be preaching here today. Let me say thank you because New Orleans has played a role in my being here, and in what I am preaching about. Twenty years ago I think this very weekend my wife and I were here in the church for worship just having finished a week being feted around the French Quarter from party to party up above the Quarter (in some amazing places) and to very nice restaurants down below. I had received that year’s Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for a Novella. It was one of the rewards for the writer’s life I had dreamed about and worked toward, but at the same time I had also recently started a UU church and was helping to start others and was getting more and more drawn toward ministry. Soon even such enticements as we experienced in New Orleans for the literary life couldn’t compete with where I felt my life needed to go, into “downward mobility” with the poor and suffering and into the stories of others whom few were paying attention to and seemed in fact to be turning away from. For me the move into ministry also meant going deeper into the story of radical hospitality and missional living I found most gripping of my soul in the life of Jesus and the early communities that were planted in his spirit.

And then again a few years later I was back here in this church for the very first Revival of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, feeling the spirit moving and directing more into the model of freely following Jesus’s model of ministry. Then a few years after that, already through seminary and ordained and serving in ministry, I came back to New Orleans five months after Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood. I was only here as a witness to briefly meet community organizers who were living amid the abandonment and destruction, living in place of those who had lived here before amid the abandonment and destruction before the flood. I came just to see the presence being created and re-created in what has come to be called, about many such places of poverty and inequality, an abandoned place of Empire. I was moved by the image I took away from the Ninth Ward, of kerosene lamps dotting the dark no power landscape where people were staying in damaged houses in mainly empty neighborhoods in order to show the world that these houses were still homes, waiting for renewed life.

By the way, the term abandoned place of Empire originated in the early centuries of the common era as monasteries and alternative communities left the major cities to live a different way of life and in a different set of values than that of the Roman Empire’s dominant culture of war and wealth and power and honor. Now it is used to designate those very uncool, unhip, under resourced high poverty low life expectancy zipcodes of the American Empire where business investment and public investment flees, where people who remain often feel shame for their lives because if they were only rich enough, smart enough, had made better choices in their lives, hadn’t gotten sick and broke, they would be able to move to the places where the supposed American Dream good life happens. The point of the mission of the missional church, you might say, is the let these people know that the American Dream might have left them behind, in a kind of worldly Rapture, but that are still and can be still a part of God’s Dream of lovingkindness and justice for all.   

Just a few months after that time in New Orleans I was in another such place on a global sense, witnessing the presence and visions and dreams of our Universalists in the Philippines, seeing how relational church can be, how committed it can be to its neighbors. And a few months after that I was at a missional church conference and there, all these experiences building up in me, I had an epiphany of how to turn our own small church plant inside out in order to better connect and serve our neighbors in our own abandoned place of Empire in Tulsa. That transformation really kicked off our still emerging experience of being a part of the missional church movement, which in its own way helped to launch these Life on Fire gatherings such as we had here this weekend, here at the Center in one of the great and few places where the missional spirit and the progressive spirit are intersecting to change lives and the world, right here and beyond.

We are beginning to do through our Welcome Table Church and our nonprofit organization A Third Place Community Foundation a little of what the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal does in the hosting of groups on mission trips to learn contextually about poverty, racism, classism, and hopeful struggle, to serve, and to take insights back. The Center’s experiences and our own experiences have helped me to see and describe church itself now, and in fact life itself now, as being a Mission Trip.

When people ask me what our church is like, I ask them if they have ever been on a mission trip, going to serve and work with others perhaps on rebuilding after a disaster or just to help in a poverty area with few resources, where you get outside of your comfort zone, go to others instead of expecting them to come to you, where you form close bonds as a small group in a short time, sometimes the smaller the better, and you do this in part by eating together a lot, where the daily aspects of life can be rough, where risks are taken and mistakes made and there is a lot of the blessings of imperfection around, and a lot of grace and forgiveness, where the service to and with others comes first and worship and learning fits in around it, where you are trying to make an impact both on your life but also on a particular area, where you have to take your clues from the folks who actually live there or else the mission will be all about you instead and you will just be perpetuating the disaster or conditions that sent you on the mission in the first place. Then I say that is what our church is like, what church can be like, all the time.

When I think about lives on fire, about missional incarnations changing church in its core, I am reminded about where I live in the Tallgrass Prairie, an ecology that once stretched all the way from Canada to the Gulf coast in east Texas. On the prairie there is a phenomenon that is a metaphor for the spiritual landscape of our time, for on the prairie, fire is a blessing, a way to keep a healthy growing diverse environment by burning away the invasive species that seek to create a monoculture that will eventually ruin the soil. Now in what is left of the Tallgrass Prairie we have to do our own burnings, own clearing away of all the underbrush that stifles diversity and new life. And after a prairie wildfire sweeps through an area, the blackened earth doesn’t remain that way hardly at all. In no time, green life is sprouting and the native wildflowers and the big bluestem and other native grasses bring forth the kind of natural diversity that feeds the wildlife and bees and butterflies that keep the earth an Eden.

In our own lives we can at times experience this transforming power of new and renewed and abundant life coming out of crises and scarcities. In church life we are undergoing the prairie fire now, and have been culturally for some 50 years as modernity and churched culture that existed for some 500 years have been burned away, swept away, from their formerly privileged position. In this new environment we are seeing what is called “a bigger bandwidth” of church shooting up; many diverse new or renewed sprouts greening the landscape of spiritual community. Some remain institutionally connected; others are independently organic. We have moved into a post modern, post Christian, post denominational, and now post congregational culture. From organization to organism. When I say post, it is not that any of these elements have gone away, or should go away necessarily; it is just that they do not have the same central place in culture as they used to have; now they are only a part of the wider spectrum of church manifestations, only one of the frequencies of the bigger bandwidth.  And the health of a movement we will be judged not in how strong are its remaining traditional bodies but in how much diversity of new manifestations and expressions it can become incarnated in a multitude of places and peoples. How vulnerable and risky church can become will be a measure of its success. One church of one kind for one big area is giving way to church by anyone anywhere anytime anyhow. How it gives itself away to build up the world is its identity.  

The fire that has been sweeping through church life is the Missional Life. Missional is different than mere mission as purpose. Missional means a people being sent to connect and serve with other people, going to where the most suffering and the least resources and abilities for healing are present. One’s mission could be to take care of people in one’s own group; that would be the opposite of missional. When we say one of the markers of the missional church is that the church doesn’t have a mission but the Mission has the church, creates the church, sustains the church, that’s the difference we are talking about. Missional is also the opposite of the old Missionary Church; the missional church goes into the world not to convert the world to becoming like it, to grow its membership, but it goes into the world to be converted by the world and its needs, it hurts.
Some call it incarnational versus the old attractional model of church. Incarnational as going out, making values real in the world, embodying our message, rubbing up against the people others flee from, who are not, also, attracted to us no matter how attractive we try to make ourselves.

 This gets to the heart of what a church is and is for. For example let me say upfront that  the mission of our form of missional church called The Welcome Table is not to increase the numbers in our church or in our Association, and not even to get more people believing the way we do; if all of that happens as a byproduct, that is fine. But the numbers I am interested in that drive our mission are the numbers dying in my zipcode 14 years before they do just six miles away down the same street. And The numbers we serve in our free food store that are going up when we want to see them go down. And The numbers without health insurance that are way too high because our area is full of people too poor to get in on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. And the high percentage numbers of abandoned houses and rundown properties. And The numbers of disabled and those with mental health difficulties and the numbers of those with felonies and the numbers who don’t have transportation and the numbers of children whose parents are addicts and the numbers of schools and post offices and community pools that closed because resources for public use are being cut to the bone and are being redirected to places where there are numbers of people who already have other options instead of remaining in places like ours where the need is great and few options exist, where very few nonprofits are located and where the other churches are mostly closed through the week too. And yes, I agree that there is suffering of many kinds in the wealthiest of neighborhoods, but that the resources to address that suffering varies greatly from place to place so place still matters.

The numbers I focus on as fulfilling our mission are the one to two thousand people fed each month in our food center, not only with a little bit of the food they need, but fed also with a place of peace and non-anxiety and radical love for them and sense of community of neighbors helping neighbors; the numbers of one to three hundred who will show up for our holiday parties we throw for the community because no one else is, parties thrown in the large abandoned church building we bought and are turning it into a community center, serving others out of it even as it needs so much work itself.  The numbers of abandoned houses, we are working to get to be repurposed for community and for residents who will help in the community, as we have been helpful in getting some rundown abandoned houses in our neighborhood torn down and open space created, and as we bought a block of abandoned homes and illegal dump site and have turned it into a community gardenpark and orchard where many community free events are held and healthy food is grown and taught about and eaten by folks with few healthy food options.

I don’t focus so much on the numbers who worship with us weekly, some two or three up to twenty, though more is the merrier as some of our graffiti says in the sanctuary of the abandoned church building we use. We worship in space we have made and given away to others; we worship all over the place; we worship with other churches, mostly not UUs. This helps us and our people to grow and live in a “theology of enoughness.” We never say “just two or three or five.” We are a Church of Enough in a culture that says you can never have enough, or you get what you deserve.

Making more Unitarian Universalists, or making more followers of Jesus in my case, is not then the end we seek; making hurting lives in our neighborhoods just a little easier, so those souls can perhaps become their own green shoots out of burned soil is the end we seek and what we measure for success; anything else might be good and be welcomed but is secondary.  

 When we planted our local faith community ten years ago, we began in a fast growing suburb ten miles from where we are now, and with a different name, and purpose. In the past ten years we have rented 8 different places and used more than that, and we have used four different names, and I rather wish we had never used any name because that so easily gets you focused on yourselves instead of others.  But back then 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. 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.

 Seven years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be that attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, both relocating the church and returning with our family, it became clear to us that we needed to be able to respond better to the lives of our neighbors, and that what they were saying they needed was not more sermons and programs. We decided we needed to change in order to change our area. We believed 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 in order to do bigger things. We now strive 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”, a people, a very few people, all unpaid so far, who feel called and connected to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world.
Be-Loved, Be 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, not even ultimately bearers of a religious message with our elevator speeches, but to be living missives, embodiments of what we find Sacred, and incarnating that in places and peoples deemed profane not Sacred. That is what will make our lives catch fire, what will make them into sacraments.

In doing this We and the many new church missional manifestations in the world today, some much more radical than we are, are 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. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who reminded us in 1841 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.

I teach and love church history, and it reminds me often these thoughts and struggles are not new. We talk now of ancient-future faith because so much of the post modern era, the 21st century, has strong echoes in the pre modern and first century. In the very earliest centuries of Christianity, its communities were more organic than organizational; we have few of them intact through the centuries, but we have their legacy; they were more of a social movement. Even in our more recent church history, back when many of the oldest churches in our Association gathered to write the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism , it grounded its covenantal nature in 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 to be as a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. Often its own internal healing will occur from seeking to be healers to and with others. We know this truth in our own lives as well. If we waited to be whole ourselves before offering ourselves to others, we would not only never be whole in ourselves, but we would never help others. And yet what we do with our lives, our churches, on this grand mission trip is to offer up the depth of our selves, and so, to paraphrase our early Puritan ancestors, the errand into the wilderness for our faith is a journey into the wilderness of our souls, and as we grow them alongside others we are able to offer more to the world and receive its many surprises of blessings in return.

This is why one of the next Life on Fire gatherings will be back in Tulsa at The Welcome Table next May 29-31 for a focus on Spiritual Practices in Missional Settings. All of those spiritual practices we often associate with retreats to far off places of great natural beauty and solitude? What if we set them into abandoned places of Empire, and engaged in them with people who live in such places? What new practices might we even develop?


The ultimate impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church in many manifestations 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 connect the disconnected and to love the hell out of this world. To discern where hearts are breaking, and let that guide us into how we become church, become a people so bold, and on fire to go break our hearts together with theirs, and in doing that know the blessings for all that will flood in when we do. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Spirituality of Missional Messiness


By Rev. Ron Robinson
Preached in Bartlesville, OK, Sunday, July 27, 2014

This past month at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Providence, Rhode Island, I led a workshop called Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Love Reaching Out. There I shared much about our local all volunteer group in community and service with neighbors on the north edge of Tulsa, and how it reflects the missional church movement today. It was a lot like what I brought here when I preached last October. I updated it  with our current "S.O.S.", our Summer of Service Miracle Among the Ruins projects we have going on now through the UUA www.Faithify.org site to raise funds by Aug. 8 for our community center initiatives in the abandoned church building and for a kitchen greenhouse in the gardenpark and orchard where abandoned houses once stood. Both so we can serve more and throughout the year in our part where people are dying 14 years earlier than in other parts of town.

All very inspiring I hoped, and hope. I try to get across the possibilities of turning church inside out in a new culture where fewer and fewer seek church in the same ways as before. Church as something we create, not something we go to or attend.

Before the workshop, though, I said that what was really needed were two workshop slots, one for sharing the information and the inspiration, but then one more for getting real, for sharing the struggles, the frustrations, the setbacks, the constant learnings, the personal failings, and how to sustain mission and grow the soul in and through it all. How important it is to develop a spirituality of messiness for our messy world and lives, especially in a place where people often have felt shame for the mess of their lives and where there is so much physical and spiritual deterioration of the neighborhoods.

I began to hint at this when I was here last time. Looking over my sermon from then, I found these words near the end when I talked about how almost every month we go broke and wonder if we might have to close or curtail a lot like so much else that has been closed or moved from around us. I said:

“We face that abyss with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go, and we have to grow deeper in radical trust and the faith to keep making leaps into the abyss.
That is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned 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. It is why we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, and promoting a sense of abundance instead of anxiety, is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin.”

So think of this sermon as Part Two of that, or as I joke about it as “The Anti Workshop Sermon” because it is not so much about presenting something new and inspirational as it is about finding inspiration and connection and hope again in the wake of things that don’t turn out the way you hope, when you lose connection, and you run dry of inspiration. 

In Providence, at General Assembly I think the part two of my workshop came in the form of the esteemed annual Ware Lecture given this year by Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus fame but who has been working in and with the poor for many years, along with those in the progressive group Leadership Conference of Women Religious who have pushing for action on behalf of the poorest among us. Her talk was about the calling to “Walk Toward Trouble.” To not turn away from suffering, to acknowledge it and all its difficulties, complexities, and conflicts. She embodies what Jesus really meant when he is reported to have said “the poor you will always have with you,” meaning NOT that you can then ignore the poor and their worlds, BUT that if you are a follower of his you will always be among the poor, the hurting, those treated unjustly. That that, and not some serene perfect feeling of detached oneness, is what it means to live religiously. Engaging in Reality, she reminded us, is more important than engaging in capital T Truth, and that it calls forth our humility as a religious action more than our certainty in a religious principle.

It was a word I needed to hear because often when we open up our doors, when we open up ourselves, we are walking toward trouble, walking with those who are troubled, walking with those who cause trouble, who are trying to get away from trouble, and the secret is that all of those make up the We I am talking about. I tell those who work with us that we are going to disappoint one another, break each other’s heart, frustrate one another, wear each other down, abandon one another, the same as we might experience all of that from someone who comes in the Center’s door or through the park’s gate. 

How we learn to grow from all that will actually help us grow through the thefts, the gossip, the vandalism, the rumors, the fires, the repairs, the addiction to drama, all those things that are really a relatively small part of life together where we are but that because of the messiness of life in general make any sane person want to throw up their hands and say where’s the nearest deserted island to flee toward, or I get enough of that from my own family and friends why do I need to immerse in it with strangers? Especially if what I am seeking, as so many people say, is community.

Beloved Community is a term for what we often say we wish to offer the world. But I think that is too often a limited concept in our minds. Community of the Beloved conjures up and is often lived out as a community of like minded, like values, of the liked, and that tends to keep us focused inward on those who come to become us, especially if our own family and work connections are anything but like us, the drive for a community like us then becomes even stronger. And it makes us want to stifle any healthy differences that might seem to endanger that community, and as life’s ironies would have it that of course leads to the kind of inwardness that eventually has people either leaving out of boredom or eating each other up.

If, on the other hand, we sought to become not community but what is called communitas, the gathering that is oriented outwards, that gathers to help itself scatter out into the world to, as we say, love the hell out of this world, whose Beloved are those we do not yet know, who we might not in our normal lives come into contact with, who in fact we might want to cross the street to avoid, then we would have the messiness of the world and our lives in it always before us as visible reasons for why we gather in the first place.

How to find a spiritual center while on this kind of missional messiness?  It isn’t easy. People often ask me how I do what I do. I tell them I do it poorly and that’s all right.  That’s true, But it is more than that. I could also do things a lot  better in my life, like most of us I believe, and I keep working on that, most of the time, but it is still more than that awareness. I have learned that for me the spiritual center, that place of deepest connection to wonder and gratitude and oneness with the universe and eternity, is found in the very places where topsy-turvy life meets us, challenges us, surprises us, and takes us deeper.

It is why I have been so sustained at the toughest and most tired times by the unconventional wisdom of Jesus’ parables, especially two of them which are being read today in churches around the world, including by some of ours that follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, something that the national organization I serve, the UU Christian Fellowship, helped to start as a way to bring churches closer together. The study of these two parables, one called The Leaven and the other The Mustard Seed, put me on the path to seminary and ministry in the first place after I attended a workshop put on by Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa with the parables scholar who was soon to be my seminary teacher and advisor, Brandon Scott whose popular book ReImagine the World is about how the parables not only helped the followers of Jesus to reimagine and live differently in their world of oppression and poverty but how they later helped people to reimagine their relationship with Jesus as well, not so much as having faith IN Jesus as having faith ALONG WITH Jesus, having a faithfulness, a trust, in what Jesus trusted. That radical shift that was there all along, but was buried in dogma by many for centuries, is emerging now to help shift the foundations and the focus of church.

When I was growing up in church, I rarely heard much about the parables of Jesus. And when I did they were all about conventional wisdom and morality tales of being good, or they were seen as allegories about the Church, but in a way that reflected more the values of the American Dream and society than about the challenge to those very values. You got their lessons in Sunday School and then were supposed to not need them after that. But today the parables are seen as the key to Jesus’ message, ministry, mission. These parables about a revolutionary vision of God and about a counter cultural mindset, called back then the Kingdom of God which was itself a parable since everyone knew Kingdom was Caeser’s Roman’s, they have themselves gone through a revolution. So much so that for many who write on them today, you can’t deeply understand even the stories of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus without seeing them as parables themselves, parables about Jesus told in the spirit of the parables he himself told.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world itself, in all its messiness, especially those parts of it and those people who were treated as disposable objects.

One of my favorite parables is when Jesus said: God’s Spirit, God’s Empire, is like leaven, which a woman stole, and put into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. That’s it. That seemingly simple parable is, as Professor Scott says, about God changing sides. God’s Relocation. First instead of evoking God as holiness, purity, as in the tradition of unleavened bread, Jesus brings together the Sacred with leaven, yeast, something ordinary, unholy even, something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. Next in the parable God is likened to a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven and mixes it in the flour, and then in another seemingly foolish act she puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what naturally happens then? It all goes bad, becomes useless, wasteful. And that’s where the parable ends.

The God, or spirituality, of this parable has relocated…from separateness to being mixed up, from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status to something that happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; also the notion of Spirituality is relocated from fullness and contentment to emptiness and waste; also from The Spirit as A Static Being or Stoic beingness to a process, a messy movement, one that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is to be considered worthy and respectable and the good life.
In the ancient world there was a divinely ordered sense of life, and it is strange that so much has changed since then and yet strong traces remain, perhaps in some places more than others. The world was seen as fixed and with set roles to maintain as life’s purpose, and its ultimate values prized wealth and property, power over others, health, knowledge, strength, beauty, achievements. The statues and art of the time reflected this as well as the organization of relationships and community. This was the default mode of the world, but Jesus’ parables re-imagined the world, called people to a different default mode.

Again, he said, God is like the mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden and it grew and became a great shrub and put forth large branches so the birds of heaven could nest in its shelter.

Jesus’ hearers would have heard that and been shocked. Mustard was illegal to use in gardens because it is an invasive plant, taking over, spilling out of garden beds, ruining all the perfection and symmetry. If you were going to use a horticultural image, God, in the Empire’s understanding, was supposed to be likened to the Great Cedar Trees of Lebanon, tall and strong and everlasting in their fixed spots with deep roots, not wild and noxious.
The image of God became the image of the poor and powerless, the outcast, the disruptive innovative force. And Jesus didn’t just teach this with striking words, but he lived as if the world of the parables was the real world. In a time of great scarcity he risked all in the spirit of abundance and generosity, showing the possibilities of the real power that came from such a re-imagined God. 

But who would want to follow that kind of God, they asked? And still do. It makes no sense. It won’t work in the world. But the parables turn God upside down and inside out and call us to do the same with our lives and our communities, to reimagine the world as if Caeser were not still in charge. Caeser as unbridled affluence, appearance, achievement, security, even the sense of coolness, consumption, fear, scarcity even in the midst of endless options and varieties of goods that replace the Common Good.

Spirituality that is found in what the parables point us toward is a kind of counter dominant culture spirituality. 

The new Empire of Experiences, of EntertainmentMarketplace, says find our Spirit or the good life in owning the latest gadgets, in making our personal life easier, in separating ourself from others especially those most unlike us, in a gospel of prosperity or perfection, in spending money to travel to faroff places or people to find enlightenment and fulfillment, or in just turning off and tuning out of the world across town or outside our doors? The parables spirituality says all of that is an illusion, a treadmill that never changes you or the world. Not like walking toward trouble, like groping in the wilderness for the hands of others, anyone’s messy hands, and seeking a life together.

Because we are here in a Unitarian Universalist church, and can do such things (though we aren’t alone in this of course) I will end with a final parable of Jesus that sums up all this for me, as if a parable can ever sum all up, when what it really does is keep breaking things open, apart. 

This parable isn’t found in the common lectionary because it comes from The Gospel of Thomas, one of the important texts for part of the early church that is still not officially by many considered as sacred text on the same level as the ones we have gathered together in the Bibles now. It is the parable of the Woman with A Jar.

Jesus said: “God is like a certain woman, who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.”

I am tempted, as Jesus would have, to end on that stark abrupt note and leave us hanging with that image. 
But talk about messiness and the realities of life. I have said this parable in contemporary terms is like being broke, skipping meals, getting by just waiting for payday or for the monthly check, then once getting it you rush to the bank or cash checking place to deposit it in order to be able to buy food for the family for that night, and on the way the check blows out of the car, the card is lost or stolen, and there you stand at the teller’s window realizing it. 

The jar full of meal the woman had likely would have fed a family for a month. And That awful moment, Jesus seems to be saying, can become an awe-full moment. That moment of being drained and feeling alone and empty has the possibility of reminding us Whose we are, that we are not the controllers of all things in our life, that we are part of others, in need of others as they are in need of us. It is a moment when all the messiness of life and our life comes out into the open, and we are left at a threshold, and God or life is like that, full of opportunity and full of risk, continually opening up our lives to depth and new beginnings, even though they be hard ones. 

Like in the more familiar parable of the prodigal sons, this woman, like the elder brother in that one, is left at the end of the parable in a place of uncertainty, in his case he can either remain out in the field in his sense of being right and just and miss out on the party inside calling to all, in her case she can remain within her own narrow world where she doesn’t notice the world around her and within her, remain in remorse and shame and isolation. Or, in both cases, they can take a leap into an abyss that is called living in and for the unknown future, living with and for others beyond themselves even with a messiness of feelings and failures that go along with it, and in doing so open themselves up to a Spirit that can lift them from the depths of despair to the heights of hope.


As can we