Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015: A holy day for Grace's Vision of Another World Possible, Here, Now, Coming

Words from our Thanksgiving Service at The Welcome Table: Community In Mission To Show God's Love...​:
Rev. Ron Robinson

We are inheritors, for good and ill, of the very 1620 religious community who fled Empire but brought it with them, survived, celebrated thanks in New England, but we also know the evil that comes from thinking we are doing good without mutual community, and so Thanksgiving is now for us mostly a holiday of celebrating Grace. 

Grace, that abundance and the sacred are found where and when we least expect it. Grace, which traces its word history back to the Greek charis, used in Homer's Odyssey for that moment when Ulysses shipwrecked washes up naked and helpless on the island's shore but in his vulnerability receives a gift from the Gods of a covering over his body so at his weakest he is at his strongest. 

Thanksgiving reminds us that Grace comes from anywhere, anytime, through anyone, particularly the ones without power and privilege. In the book of Genesis, Jacob discovers this when alone, exiled, weakened, sleeping on a stone and yet it is right then that he has his dream of God's vision and wakes to realize the sacredness was right there all along and he did not know it, as a place like ours abandoned is also the place of sacredness.

As Kathleen Norris writes, about Grace through the eyes of a baby:
"One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate.  The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matte if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.  It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate to heaven.
"And as I watrched the baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God.who can look right through whatever evil we've done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.
"...And maybe that's one reason we worship--to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us."

We see grace in the story from the bible that is being read all over the world by churches today, of when Jesus is arrested by the Roman Empire; at that moment of helplessness and vulnerability, his response is one of grace, to embody the God who reacts not in fear and violence and retribution, even in and out of his innocence, but responds by reminding all that his power was not like the Empire's power, and that it might be able to control his body but not his soul, and when Peter responds as the Empire would respond, striking out in violence against violence, Jesus bestows the gift of grace upon his captor and restores the severed ear, a moment of grace embodying the kind of real power that changes the world and captures our hearts still, an important moment in how one who follows him is to live and respond--as if another world is possible, is here right now, and is coming, and calling us to participate in it. A world of grace. 

Even centuries later, communities who follow Jesus are continuing to be guided by his Gethsamane Garden vision. We lift up this week the community of resistance to the Nazis, the Bruderhof, the radical reformers, who refused to blend church and state together and were persecuted and in November of 1933 were virtually destroyed by the Nazis and their leader Eberhard Arnold died soon after. Before he died, he wrote: "Life in community is no less necessary for us--it is an inescapable must that determines everything we do and think...We must live in community because all life created by God exists in a communal order and works toward community." Grace continues to lift up the truth of those who were silenced in their time by Empire. In community we experience such Grace. 

Our final word before communion, before eucharist, that Greek word for thanksgiving that we participate in each time we gather, comes from Frederick Buechner on Grace. Our Thanksgiving benediction:

"Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach and take it is a gift too." 

And now for the gift we pass to one another, the gift of the bread of life, broken as all is broken, and the cup of hope which makes all whole. 

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Trading Places--From Host To Guest: Radical Hospitality Is About More Than Welcome, or How Jesus Was Reminded What God's Love Looks Like

In a time, again, of broken communities and lives creating widespread refugees and those without houses or places of their own, when great gaps of inequality are growing wider, when mercy is seen as weakness, we need reminded, as Jesus did once, that offering radical hospitality is more than having a big fancy welcome mat and sign out front of your church, your home, your country. It is about more than providing for strangers. More than what the photo above, as nice as it is, says. It is, at heart, about what God is about---trading places, moving from places of privilege to oppression, becoming a guest in your own world, the way in the biblical story God becomes a refugee from Heaven and becomes a poor helpless infant without a home whose family is forced to leave their country to go to another one. 

When our small church decided in 2007 to move across the street into a vacant space three times as big, and when in 2011 to move again a half mile away into another space three times bigger again, and also at the same time to transform a block of rundown properties into a community garden, we did it so we could become more hospitable to the community around us and so we could help our community become more hospitable itself. We didn’t do it so we could become bigger; in fact we became smaller. But we did it so the heart of the community could grow bigger, and to save lives. (speaking of which, It is wonderful to celebrate this week the news that in the 8 years since we made that missional move that the life expectancy gap in our zip code has been reduced from almost 14 years to 10.7 years, between us and the highest life expectancy zipcode on the other side of Tulsa; still outrageous, but shows that radical hospitality and partnerships can indeed save lives.)

We did it in a radical hospitable way, by becoming a guest in our own place. We took down the signs that we used to have up that labeled our space as a church. This leads many of those who then come into the community center or gardens we created---to use the health clinic or get food, clothes, to use the computers they don’t have at home, to get free books, to watch television, to get cool in the summer or warm in the winter, to make art, to attend a community meeting, to party---to often not know that a church worships at times in that space too, or that a church started it all. That is fine with us.

We connect with people first, and as our relationship grows, so does our knowledge about one another; then, if one is needed, an invitation grows from that to serve with us, to party with us, to learn with us, and to worship with us, right around the same tables or on the same sofas, or at the same garden deck and tables, as we use for all our other gatherings.

Becoming a guest in our own place. This mantra grew for us from two related sources.

One is the powerful spiritual connection to place, to the scandal of the particular, to an ecological truth that we are all guests of this place we call our home. Others prepared our place for us; others will tend it after us. We do not so much own what the law says we own as we are owned by this place that calls us into being and puts us into mission to make it a more loving just hospitable place in our time.

We first understood this in our own yards and homes. When we have a healthy place, the soil, the insects, the birds, the animals that come and go through our places, all remind us that fences and buildings and lot lines do not define our place. What we set down amidst the place is what is transient. We are the guests. Nature’s corridor for all that is seen, and most often unseen, is the permanent. Our church’s mission is to create and protect and make visible such corridors for the healing of the land, the people, and the community---all of which here in the 74126 has been damaged by the intersections themselves of racism, environmental neglect, classism, greed and fear.

It is no wonder, in an acknowledgment of this source of our radical hospitality, that our very first act of transformation when we bought an abandoned church  building for the latest incarnation of the community center was to have a community art day and to paint over boarded up windows with a part of a Wendell Berry poem used as a reading in the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal: “the abundance of this place” is painted on one board; “the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and wisdom and indwelling light” is painted on another.

The other source is connected to the two main names we are known by: A Third Place, and The Welcome Table. Booth are grounded in our mission of radical hospitality.

Our community center was first known as A Third Place, and the foundation we created is now called that. It comes from the global movement to reclaim free common spaces where people who are different can meet to make a difference. The first place is your home; the second place is your work or church or friends or affinity group where you are with people who share common values or experiences with you. But we need the “third places/spaces” where, as the bumper sticker on our front door says, “the most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to one another.” Our mission is to create such third places, especially in the places and with the people where others do not wish to go, or to hang out with, and where there has been a decimation of gathering places.

We now call our community center, our gardenpark and orchard, and our church The Welcome Table. We commission people to go create welcome tables in their lives and neighborhoods. The other boarded up windows in front of our building are now painted with signs that also come from our hymnal, that say “We’re gonna sit at the welcome table” and “All kinds of people”. Our source for this is the radical hospitable way of Jesus, who time and time again creates in a variety of ways welcome where welcome has been denied. From birth to death, from manger to cross, with the despised, the sick, the powerful, the oppressed, making a welcome space and offering all the bread of life and the spirit of the Beloved. Whether in a home, on the road, by the sea, in synagogue, making visible what the Empire sought to hide: God’s radical love for all.

Jesus himself will fail at hospitality. He forgets he is a guest too. The power of the Empire’s way of hospitality based on influence and honor is ever-present and corruptive. In the biblical reading for today in the revised common lectionary used by many churches like ours, we encounter this story, which is itself like Jesus encountering the woman; we often try to turn away from the story and what it means. 

While travelling as a guest himself in her land, with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), he acts more like a racist, sexist bouncer outside a nightclub than the one who turned toward all those whom others would not touch. But though we fail at hospitality, we are still welcomed back by the hospitality of others, even especially those we have turned away. So it was with that desperate mother seeking healing for her daughter. She did not take her emotional slap in the face and turn away, but became the true teacher and the healer, the true host,  and reminded Jesus in word and deed of the kind of God of radical abundance he himself made room for within himself and sought to share with others.

The purpose of hospitality is for the mutual transformation of ourselves, for the transformation of the world into one Welcome Table. We can only do so by turning toward and responding to the inhospitable within ourselves and within our communities. Wherever we do not wish to go we need to go. Whomever we do not wish to hang out with we need to hang out with. Only by becoming guests, do we discover our true place, and from it our true mission. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Risking Theology

Weaving together the web and issues of theological touchstones; each is embedded in one another. Imagine it as a sphere not a chart. Imagine these as points of departure, as collections of questions more than, or not only, of responses and answers. They help us to see and frame life. They are not the only lens. 
theology=study of God, and the Image of God
cosmology=study of Creation/Universe/Nature
theological anthropology: study of humanity
hamartiology: study of evil, suffering
soteriology: study of healing, salvation
Christology: study of a particular form of soteriology, views of Jesus as/and The Christ
missiology: study of the mission of lives and communities growing from soteriology
ecclesiology: study of the church, a product of missiology
eschatology: the vision of the ends, be it of beloved community, of death and life eternal in God. 
This is my beginning lecture to supervised ministry students in first semester of their field work. It is about applying "the theological map" to the practice of ministry. Our text for these beginning semesters is Laurie Green's Let's Do Theology, so there is some reference to that, and in subsequent lectures I bounce off of Green's work. But here it is about how constructive theology illuminates the practices of ministry, and vice versa. 
As a foundation for ways that I will be helping you "connect the dots" of your theological reflection on your ministry this year is to refer back often to the "theological map" of constructive or systematic theology which you got a glimpse into during your first theological courses. It is a way of reading the world and particular conflicts. It seeks to lift up and make visible the theological default modes we operate with, and which others are often operating out of, or in rejection to. So it is good to take an early break to refresh about the map and how it shows theology at work in the small and large ways.
Supervised ministry is a course that will enable you to put into practice and further reflection the theological learnings from your introduction to theological work from the first year of seminary, and any other theological courses since then. Among the many lens we will look at, and look through, this semester, this one lens of "the map" is one of the ones that will grow and develop your ministerial skills and will be revisited often during your theological education. 
Professor Joe Bessler of Phillips Seminary is of course noted for the use of the map and its language to illuminate various ways theology is used. I was fortunate in my studies to have 27 credit hours studying with Prof. Bessler, and so whatever shortcomings there are in this synopsis they are mine, and whatever is useful in it is credited to his thought. 
In short, specific particular issues in church and world and within ourselves, and tension points and questions that come up in ministerial settings can be “diagnosed” by thinking about them as points on the theological “roadmap” and considering ways they are connected to other points on the map. 
How people in a given situation may differ or employ the imago Dei will affect how they “read” and “interpret” and “respond” differently in the same situations. It is good at this point in the semester to remember the learnings you have gleaned up to this point in seminary education and how to use them, rethink them, when brought to bear in practice so reflect back to your entry level theological. By the way, the way the map works, is that the imago Dei is also a part of this web of touchstones, and so issues and reflections of any of the map sites, such as evil and suffering, or human nature, nature itself, of the church responding to suffering, or of ethical issues, or conflicts over church and its mission and what it should focus on, or issues of the ends and the end, of heaven and hell, all the eschatological issues, all of these as we work in them will also often affect and change ours and others Imago Dei. 
The issues of church life that we focus on particularly in this course, and there are legion of them, fall under the point on the map called ecclesiology and missiology (the being and the mission of the church; or the mission that calls the church into being) and they are often connected back to what we find salvific, to soteriology and Christology views. When there are differences of soteriology (what brings healing) between people, for example, there will often be differences in how churches are seen by different people. Same for how they view Jesus as the Christ.  
And so dealing with ecclesial issues this semester, what the church should be doing and how, what ministry is, and how we are as ministers, on a variety of issues, is often more about other theological issues than just the issue at hand. As many of you have noted already, you understand that there are systems at work. 
Keep in mind that what some find salvific is connected to what they often see as the "major wrong” in the world, especially in what they see as where suffering is, to how we view evil and sin, and "what needs saving." Classic case is those who see sin mostly as a personal issue, or those who see it mostly as a social issue. But our understandings then of that point on the map called hamartiology, of sin and suffering and evil, and what we find amiss and in need of salvation, is itself connected to our views of human nature and its essence and goals, to what is called theological anthropology; this in turn is connected to our view of Nature and Creation itself, out of which humanity comes and is connected, and how humanity is seen as part of the universe and life itself, which of course is connected with our images and ways of describing and understanding God. Which brings us back to the Imago Dei. 
And on the other side of the ecclesial point on the theological map, the issues of how we see and do and be the church affect and are connected to outcomes of lives of faithfulness and grace and praxis and ethics, all of which contributes to one's overall eschatological understanding, to what we picture as beloved ultimate community, toward the ends or aims or end of life in God. 
So there you have the sphere of the theological map (more sphere than linear).
All questions, conflicts, issues on any of the theological map points, or stations or doctrinal points, are shaped by how we view and see and experience the other points, and how we respond to the issues at any one constructive theological point will have a bearing on the others in the web or weave of the fabric of our theological world. 
When there is a specific issue "within" the church it often has its deeper roots "without" with how different understandings of salvation, christology, or missiology are viewed; often differences "within" church mask differences of other theological stations and responses. Conversely, how we resolve issues within the church and in the church's relationship with the world has effects in other theological ways. Be attuned, again, as you encounter questions, issues, conflicts (healthy or not) to how the theological map might be running throughout even though it is not at all part of the explicit issue at hand. In this way this year can be seen as another continuous step in connecting the dots of theology and of your own ministerial formation and theological reflection.
And as we will be seeing throughout the semester by reflecting out of Green's text, Let's Do Theology, and out of our practices of ministry, there are many other models and ways of engaging in this important work of reflection. Reflection itself is often a word that can come with baggage, I might add; it has a passive air about it, as something that comes received if we just still our minds and meditate on it; there is some truth to this of course, and mindfulness is key in discernment. But I will end by saying that doing theology, applying different lens and being conversant in their use, is also about risk. It is, as Greene says, an activity. I would say in this age it is a risky activity, and one we should take and help others risk taking too. ype your summary here Type rest of the post here

Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Feeds Us: Miracles in the 74126, Meditation on The Loaves and Fishes, The Parables of the Whole Wheat Rotini, The Stevia and the Strawberries, The Halloween Nachoes and the 80 Year Old Woman, Sermon July 19, 2015 Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville

What Feeds Us
Rev. Ron Robinson, Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Sunday, July 19
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it...
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides...
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it...
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields...
In the voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing from the ground they will not return
Whatever he grief at parting.
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
- Wendell Berry
Today we will be off for the annual church camp east of Tulsa called the Southwest UU Summer Institute. I first heard about it at a person’s house for a newcomers party when I started attending my first UU church in 1977 in Oklahoma City. Except for one or two years, I have been going to SWUUSI ever since. This year’s theme is Food and Justice and Faith, something dear to our hearts in our church, or missional community, in far north Tulsa. My wife Bonnie will be doing a workshop on planting a garden and harvesting community; I will be doing a workshop on church as a garden, as a meal, as a store, and as a shelter. This sermon grows out of preparing for the workshop.
First, a few facts, then a few parables, or miracle stories, on what really feeds us.
In 2009, the University of Oklahoma did a nutrition study with us that found in our area of far north Tulsa 60 percent can't afford healthy food even if there was access to it; 55 percent worry about the 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 a 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. 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.
Getting people food then is just a small part of what is needed, but for many it is what is needed right at that moment they come; it takes a little bit of the hunger and anxiety edge off that makes it just a little bit easier to make better daily life choices and responses, to move, if just for a little while, from deep to light survival mode. In our zipcode that dies 14 years sooner than those on the other side of town, the matter of food is a matter of physical and mental health, and from those, a matter of civic health, the ability to participate in society, which itself feeds back to better overall physical and mental health.
Food is part of the social determinants of health that along with genetics accounts for 80 percent of that life expectancy, and yet as a society we only spend 20 percent of health dollars on those social determinants, like food projects and neighborhood environments, which contribute to 80 percent of health outcomes. Our zipcode has the worst health care access of any zipcode in Tulsa, but as important as that is to life expectancy, and we need better access, we need even more the shift to resourcing the social determinants.  Community matters, above all. It is why we repeat, and repeat, that we do not aim to give out food, as much as we strive to give out community opportunities. It is funny though that so many people want to fund food; they believe helping us give food, which is vitally needed, will affect those statistics; but what doesn’t get funded, and what would really affect those statistics, is to fund community opportunities, increasing portals of relationships.
Now for the parables and miracles.
First, The parable of the Whole Wheat Rotini. In ordering food from the Food Bank for our free grocery store, we had a chance to order boxes of whole wheat rotini pasta without having to pay a shared fee for them; we thought, pretty healthy, pretty easy to cook, win win. Now, our store is like a store by design—people shop in it for what they want; we don’t just hand out bags of groceries (we do that a few times a year as we did this past Thursday when we give out four or five tons in one hour, but that is an outside event and not in the store). And week after week the rotini sat virtually untouched. We kept upping how many bags they could to count as one item; kept getting untouched.
So we started carefully asking how come—the first response was often that it being whole wheat, looking brown, was just too different from the noodles they were used to and their family wouldn’t eat it and so they didn’t want to waste one of their precious number of allowed items for something that wouldn’t be eaten by their family. Well, that’s why we do the store the way it is; people’s choices empower them which creates capacity within them which brings hope which brings change. That was a good familiar lesson to be reminded of—how to work in relationship as an ally, and not as “a provider”. Allies “don’t know best”. End of parable, I thought. But the good parables, like good relationships, keep opening up more truth.
As we were asking and prompting about the Rotini, a few brave souls opened up to us that it would do no good to take the pasta home because they didn’t have water turned on in their home. Once we started asking about that, more and more said the same. Choosing between electricity and food and medicine and water, water usually was the first to go. The Rotini sitting on the shelves then led us into a more intense water ministry; we were able to get a lot of tornado leftover bottled water from Oklahoma City, giving out double cases to those without water at home, and we got other donations of water in bigger jugs, and told people to keep the jugs and come back and use our hydrant out back of the community center, or the hydrant at our gardenpark and orchard. This summer the water donations have dried up, the tornado water all gone, and it is one of the most requested items. And now, thanks to a failure of being able to give away whole wheat Rotini, we are tracking the prevalence of a lack of water in homes, which is allowing us to get a better understanding of what home consists of in our neighborhoods, where campers, RVs, shipping crates, tents, cars that don’t run, abandoned houses, abandoned trailers, someone’s garage, campsites and more are homes; and we have learned more about what it takes for someone to be fed, which is more than food. As always, we, who live in the neighborhoods too, are taught by our neighbors, and in return we can be a more effective partner shining a light on realities and walking toward the suffering. The parable also teaches me that we should have a right to at least a base amount of water in the home for free; over a certain amount, charge; but allow a set amount for free.

Next, the parable of the Stevia and the Strawberry.
So five summers ago we were busy at this time trying and trying to raise the funds to buy a block of abandoned houses and trashed out properties up on a hill in our area in order to turn it into a gardenpark and orchard. We did it. Four years ago this summer we planted the orchard. For three years after that we had the spiritual lesson of having, in our healthy food desert, to pick off the fruit as it was coming on in order for the energy of the trees to go into the roots and help establish the tree for its future yield. It is actually a law from Leviticus that we like. And at the garden we have planted successful herb beds full of basils, rosemary, lavender, fennel, dill, several mints, and stevia. It is the bed that we use to show how you can eat right from the beds, while you are working on other beds or just to feed yourself while enjoying the park and the view of downtown Tulsa or Turley Hill or the Bird Creek bottomland.
Stevia is a sweet tasting plant. When the neighborhood kids come into the garden, tentatively, we always try to get them to eat straight from the garden beds. We follow a recipe of Taste, Learn to Cook, then grow. We learned early on that some community gardens in some places may grow out of community first; it seems to be the original typical way, for an urban apartment complex or neighborhood for example where people already know they want to grow their own food for taste and health and pockebook, and have the skills, and all they need is land and organization. But in many places, like ours, there is no community first, the social capital is gone, and there isn’t much experience with tasting or much knowledge about cooking, let alone growing. The garden has to come first, we have learned, and community is one of the things it grows; sometimes there is drought and little harvest of community; sometimes the yield is amazing.
We get a few schools that bring their young people out to see and help in the gardenpark; usually these are from across town and not from our own area, and part of that is because for more than a few years more than a few of our school buildings were closed because of education cuts. Their visits to us are fund, a little chaotic of course, sometimes the work that gets done is not too proportional to the time organizing and helping them, but they are always worth it because we tell them that a little bit goes a long way in a poverty area, but even moreso that they are now the storytellers and ambassadors for us, and what they learn they can teach others about us and places like ours. But there is always some heartbreak when these students travel from across town to be with us; first, it is because for most of them it is the first time they have been north or into north neighborhoods and not just travelling through on a highway; the stories they tell of what people say to them before they come north, about watching out, being scared, is sad. It is even more heartbreaking, though, when the students run straight to the garden bed full of the mints and stevia and start in eating them; they recognize them, they have them in their beds at home.
Heartbreaking because the very same day we might have youth from our neighborhood come by and not only can we not get them to try eating out of the bed with the stevia, we sometimes can’t get them to pick and eat the strawberries. They may not be safe or taste good because they haven’t come from the store, from 1500 miles away. They often do not know what cucumbers are, where pickles come from. The executive director of the Food Bank says that more and more students are growing up without ever having experienced a sit-down family meal around a table with food cooked at home; at school, at home, meals come in a box. This parable teaches me that a 21st century home economics course for all students should be required. And it has motivated us more to create a future greenhouse at the park for teaching as well as growing year round, and to use the park as a social place, as an outside cafĂ©; feeding people from the garden so they will see not only how the food tastes better than anything you can buy at a store, but as gardening social activist Ron Finley says, Growing your own food is like printing your own money. And it has spurred us on to create five gallon buckets full of tomato and pepper plants from the garden to get to people from our free grocery store who want practice growing food at home. We know that the vision isn’t to get people to come and use our community garden, even to come and find community with us, but the vision for deeper health is to go to them and get them growing at home, across different yards, developing the free food movement where they have their vegetables out front by the curb along with other neighbors growing other vegetables out by their curbs, where people know they can walk from house to house sampling. Food as portal to relationships in an era when the old front porch or stoop has often been lost.

We are speaking of what the bumper sticker says: The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another. Especially people who don’t look, act, think alike. One way we do that in our place where there are no venues for entertainment, no movie houses, is to put on community festivals, and usually we do that at holiday times. This leads me to the miracle of the Halloween Nachos and the 80 Year Old Woman.
Once we made our missional church transformation and moved on faith into a rented commercial space twice as big as our original rented space, we held our second annual Halloween festival for the community and whereas before when we invited people to our Halloween party inside the space we called church we had about 20 people who all looked and thought pretty much like us, now in our new space, not knowing who all would show up, we had more than 200. And they showed up not just to have fun in costumes and get prizes and treats, but to eat. We had prepared food in special scary presentation styles, but we also had just chips and nacho sauce. After the special food was gone in a few minutes, the chips and nachos were too. Bonnie went to the store and got more and came back and they were gone. She went to the store and got even more and came back and they were gone. Our party only was to last two hours too. She went to the store again and got even more and came back and it was gone too. That was three trips she had made to the store getting more each time and it was all gone and the party was half over and people were still coming in for the first time. Back she went. Three more times each time getting more than before and it was still all gone by the end of the two hour event. And of the 200 or so people who came, at least half were of different ethnicities than the majority of us anyway who were putting on the party for the community.
One of those who came, though, was an 80 year old white woman, who had lived in the community all her life. She sat and watched the party, and the people feeding on the Halloween nachos, and she was amazed. Those she saw were her neighbors, living on the street she had literally lived on for 80 years, all her life; these neighbors had lived around her for probably five to ten to twenty years, and she was seeing them for real for the first time. She kept saying afterwards: they were hungry; they were hungry. I didn’t know we had so many hungry people in our town. She is herself an amazing person; she is now 88 years old and is still working in child care at her home. But she is a different person ever since that night. And she talks about when she does retire how she is going to come volunteer at our free grocery store to help the neighbors she really met for the first time that Halloween night in our community center. In fact, this past Thursday at the Grocery Giveaway Event, in the 100 plus degree heat, she was there, handing out sacks of tomatoes.
She had not seen the reality of the world around her, and how her world had changed right around her, as the neighborhood went from the employed working poor to the unemployed self-working poorer, sicker, and less resourced people. So, who was fed that night, really?
I close with the ancient miracle story, parable of sorts, one that is being read and studied in churches all over the world on this day. The loaves and fishes, or as it is called in The Message version, Supper For Five Thousand. Interestingly, in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest gospel, the story of this feeding comes right after a story of the feeding of what today we might call the One Percent. Herod’s kind of party that was all about the wants and desires of those few powerful ones who were there in the palace and ended with the execution of John the Baptist. Right after that, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ party, his kind of feeding.
The story says:
“The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.
[We know that feeling; often we set the worst examples for those we wish to serve; we need to remind one another, as Jesus did and as we try to do, that what we really are feeding one another with is not food and water, etc., but it is presence of one another which is blessedness enough and from which all else can grow and flow. We need, as here, to first feed ourselves with rest and renewal and reflection.]
32-34 So they got in the boat and went off to a remote place by themselves (the story continues; in most translations it says they go to a deserted place, an abandoned place of Empire as we might say; not to the coolest part of town, not to the overserved.] Someone saw them going and the word got around. [Oh man! There goes the rest. Everytime, it seems, we try to step away for a day, a week, there is a crisis that seeks to pull us back; we know that so well.] And yes, From the surrounding towns people went out on foot, running, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus arrived, he saw this huge crowd. At the sight of them, his heart broke—like sheep with no shepherd they were. He went right to work teaching them. [one of the key questions of the missional church is for whom does your heart break, or for whom would it break except our society keeps from focusing on them as it should? And let church be grown in response to that question.]
35-36 When his disciples thought this had gone on long enough—it was now quite late in the day—they interrupted: “We are a long way out in the country, and it’s very late. Pronounce a benediction and send these folks off so they can get some supper.” [probably more concerned about their own supper, though, their own interruption in their plans, their jealousy that Jesus wasn’t spending enough time caring about their needs; after all they were the leaders, the insiders?]
37 Jesus said, “You do it. Fix supper for them.” [There is the big difference. To the disciples, the crowd was not a community; they were not neighbors, but needs; the disciples saw them as individuals who should go eat by themselves, in their own homes. Reminds me, of what another 80 year old long time member of our community once said about all the meals we held, all the community connections we sought to create: What’s with them? She said, of the people coming; Don’t they have homes of their own?” Jesus sees them as one people, as part of the group, not as us and them. We feed our own because they are our own.]
The disciples replied, “Are you serious? You want us to go spend a fortune on food for their supper?” [It is always about what it will cost us; and the disciples are thinking they have to do a feeding more like in the mode of Herod than Jesus, to spend a fortune; there is only way to feed that many, they think; and there is if you keep within the same framework, same default mode, as the Empire, that it has to be big and impressive, well done, orderly. To do less might be to shame Jesus, they’d be thinking.]
38 But he was quite serious. “How many loaves of bread do you have? Take an inventory.” [See, he says, you don’t have to look elsewhere for your food, your resources; don’t have to bring in food from a thousand miles away; feeding, church, relationships are really simpler than all that. There is always Enough. The theology of Enough. The church of the Enough, we say. For our needs, not our greeds.]
That didn’t take long, they discovered. “Five,” they said, “plus two fish.”
 Jesus got them all to sit down in groups of fifty or a hundred—they looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass! [And here we see the power of growing smaller to do bigger things; the power of connecting people with one another, in groups they are connecting not with him as the sole teacher and leader and provider; just re-orienting the space changes things, makes the miracle possible. Reminds me of the church of 80 that was struggling to survive to pay a full time minister and pay for its building and programs, and the minister comes in one day, tells the people to get in eight groups of ten based on who lived closest to whom, and he says this is your new church; these are who you will meet with weekly and where you will serve the neighborhoods, and we will get together as a group once a month to share and celebrate; and what was a very vulnerable situation became a vanguard church; the minister also took a part time job in a poorer part of town where his less money could go further, and after awhile more and more of his members were moving to do the same, resourcing and sustaining both their lives and the struggling community.]
Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples, and the disciples in turn gave it to the people. He did the same with the fish. They all ate their fill. [Community, as the theologian Jorgen Moltmann writes, is the opposite of both poverty and wealth; Jesus had helped to create community, how they saw themselves as one, empowering one another; that filled much of their need that so often without it fuels our greed; some think maybe in the more connectioal groups formed they discovered more food among themselves; some think it was a physical miracle of multiplication, making more of what hadn’t been there before. Both those standard approaches to the miracle of the loaves and fishes focuses on the wrong thing; like the disciples, the interpreters are focusing on the physical manifestation, the bread and fish, when we should be focusing on what has been changed in and among the people.]
The story concludes, driving home this point: The disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. More than five thousand were at the supper. [Some might I am sure, and I am naming no party affiliations, today read this and think see all we have to do is cut back to five loaves and two fishes, or the equivalency in the food programs for the poor, because the poor don’t really need more, they just need to be more grateful for what little has been given to them and see how that will miraculously make them feel better? But Mark ends it, with Mark’s great irony: After all that, there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Jesus’ way was to result with more than is needed for those in need, not less and less. The leftovers are gathered together and will be used to feed the community at large, those not there, just as the 99 percent put more proportional resources into the community today than the 1 percent.].
So, in the end, who is fed in the story of the loaves and fishes? Not only those in need and hungry there, and not only the disciples who were fed the truth of growing relationships of love and justice, but the whole community, including those who might have been on the sidelines mocking those who had gone to such extremes in hopes and trust of being fed both by spirit and by body.

What feeds us, nourishes us, helps us grow in service with others and roots our lives in the Ground of Being itself? Love that reveals how we ourselves are foods of the Spirit for another and for those who follow us. Love that, as our reading from Wendell Berry said this morning, in words we have painted outside our community center, reveals the abundance of this place which will be the health and wisdom and indwelling Light. The very hardship, he reminds us, the very audacity of our vision to save lives and the life of the spirit of our community, is its possibility.

Monday, June 01, 2015

A People. So Bold. (charge to the congregation at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR)

Charge to the Congregation at the Installation of the Rev. Jim Parrish, UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR, Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rev. Ron Robinson of The Welcome Table Church, and Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and Phillips Theological Seminary

Your charge is simple. In the words of one of our hymns, you are charged to be “a people so bold.”

I should be bold and just sit down now and let that soak in….but let me go into a little more about that charge. And before I get to the boldness part, let me start with your charge “to be a people…” Before you can act, before you can do, you must know what it means to be, together, especially in our tradition of covenant not creedalism.

To be a congregation is to be “a people”. But not just any people who happen to gather together and sign a membership book and vote on things and generally believe in the same things or same method of believing in things. That, as our  church historian and late Harvard professor Conrad Wright used to say, is not a church, not a congregation, “but a collection of religiously-oriented individuals.”  We, who honor individual conscience, must always struggle not to be a collection, but to be a congregation; for a collection of individuals will always be turned inward, anxious about each individual, making one another, our likes, dislikes, feelings, opinions, into our mission, our default mode for church. However, the more we find ourselves rooted in being a people, something more than our individual selves that will move us into mission to serve beyond ourselves--to get over ourselves, for good.   

A church is at heart not a 501c3 non profit organization with religious aims; that may be what it uses to help fulfill its reason for being, but never forget that the mere perpetuation of the organization recognized by the state is not the end itself but only a means to the deeper identity and purpose, that of making its view of the Sacred incarnate, visible, in and to the world.

So now onto the charge to be bold. Our times today of so much change, change and injustice in the world around us, change of religious landscape, requires us to be bold in order to survive and to thrive. Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, in his ordination sermon of 1841 called The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity, said 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 his nineteenth century. Only a boldness of spirit that relies on something deeper and more permanent than church forms and personal likes and ideas can re-create the church needed for its times. And the church that did for his nineteenth century, and the church that did for our 20th century, even late 20th century, is not doing for our 21st century.

It is a privilege to be standing with you here again today, saying these things which in some ways are a variation on what I have said over the past few decades here. It has been my joy to know to some degree all of your ministers. It dawned on me that perhaps I know something of your history even moreso than many of you who might be new here these past few decades.

So my first part of the Boldness charge is to be bold and know your history, your stories for good or ill, and to know our tradition’s history of faith, for good and ill, to open up and see yourself as a People that is more than just you who are here, or you, including those not here, who are members based on bylaws. You are those who have gone before you, here and elsewhere; their presence is here; give them a voice. Knowing this about the past helps us not only to get over ourselves, but is the first step in opening ourselves up to see ourselves as part of those beyond us in the here and now, to hear their stories, and of those who may be a part of our future. Be Bold and Be vulnerable to Change. Know that Story counts, history matters.

Next, Be Bold and Encourage, Support, Require Your Leadership, and Your new Minister, to be Bold, to Lead.
This covenant we lift up today, between congregation and minister, is vital in order for you to be able to nurture and grow the other covenants we have also in the free church which you are also charged with keeping.  All of these covenant relationships remind us we are a people, are more than those who gather for worship.  Conrad Wright said that ever since the Cambridge Platform of 1648, we have had these relationships, roles and responsibilities, covenants that make up a free church. 1. that between a person and the church (symbolized today by Jim and Theresa joining the church) 2. between the church and its elected leadership, including its called minister, which we celebrate today; 3. Between that called minister and other ministers, in one’s tradition and beyond (which Phil Douglas brought on behalf of the Ministers Association); 4. Between the church and other churches in one’s own tradition and beyond (which Susan Smith brought in her greetings); But also, also, 5. Between the church and its parish, or the world around it; and 6. Between the church and God, or that Experience of the Sacred or Ultimacy which calls the church into being in the first place and gives it direction.

These covenants are themselves an interdependent web that enable our existence. When any one of them is neglected, when the bonds of any of them are severed, there is a ripple effect of added stress and fragility that reverberates into the other covenants. But the good news is that it works the other way too. Strengthen any of them, and you strengthen all of them. The more boldness and trust and leadership you put into any of them, the more the others inherently will grow.

So notice how much of what we celebrate here today will have its success depend not just on how you commit to your minister, but on how you commit to one another, to other churches, to the world around you, and to the Spirit that gives you life. And let me say it will be so easy, so tempting to just focus on the first four of those, for they are the most visible, they are the ones we try to write codes of ethics and bylaws and right relationship covenants around. They are the ones that reigned supreme when we lived in a Churched Culture. But the church that only focuses on those four will not be living its fullest, will mistake the urgent for the important, and will spend its wheels, will relive its past, will not be able to be a people so bold, especially for our new Unchurched Culture, our post-modern, post-denominational, post-congregational culture. No, it is the last two, the more externally focused covenants, which, in fact, the other four are for.  Serving The presence of the Sacred in the World is what calls the church into existence and gives it its shape. And when the world changes around it, the church must change to keep serving the Sacred in it. That takes Boldness.

So, be a people so bold, but Not for your sake--for the world’s sake. We are in uncertain, fearful, hurting times when people are shrinking their vision, their generosity, their values, their connections with others, and linking God to convenience and comfort instead of to conscience and community, to those who have made it instead of the least, the last, the lost.

A few years ago I preached the ministerial installation sermon at the oldest continuous church in our Unitarian Universalist association, the church of the Pilgrims, First Parish in Plymouth, Mass, begun in Scrooby England in 1606 and landed on this continent in 1620. The Rev. Tom Schade gave the charge to this historic congregation, and he captured well, as he does, some of this need to be bold, again and again, particularly in these times. Among the things he said was this:

There is a profound spiritual, religious, political, social and economic crisis in our country today. I won’t go through the list of problems. But the crisis lies in the fact that we cannot seem to get our hands around them; we cannot focus. Huge shifts and transformations going on all around us, but the country and the culture cannot keep up, that our thinking is skittering along the surface, distracted, like a kid with ADD in a comic book store.  And here we are, Liberal Religion, and we have not yet found our voice. We stand for some timeless truths and some rock-solid values and some fundamental commitments, we have not found our voice – a way to speak clearly to the people about how to live in these times.  We will find our voice only through trial and error, and that is the work of our ministry, and to do it, our ministers must be willing to take risks. My Question to you (he added to them, and I add to you), is this: Do you conduct your congregational life in a way that makes your minister brave? Or do you conduct your congregational life in ways that will make your minister more cautious, more nervous, more anxious and more afraid?”

And so I close my charge to you by saying this: the world, right outside our doors, needs your boldness, your trials and errors, your mistakes, your colossal failures, because the love in them will come through and will be planted and will transform the world.

I love who you are and who we are as a faith community, but I love the world out there and all the scared struggling shrinking people even moreso. Let me bring this charge, these greetings, ultimately from them. For them and from them, I say:  Let your new minister lead you in being the boldest people of them all so we have an ally in finding our boldness, and so we, too, can be “a people.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Pauline Guide For The Liberal Church: The First Century Teaches The 21st

An Ancient Voice, Revealed Anew, For The 21st Century: A Guide To Faith In The Margins From St. Paul For the Liberal Church Today
Sermon at Unitarian Universalist Church of Stillwater, OK, April 19, 2015
Rev. Ron Robinson

Thank you loyal folks who showed up today, especially if you knew ahead of time a little bit about the subject of the sermon. Not often these days would a Unitarian Universalist minister, or I dare say many others, touch on Paul of Tarsus, for fear of preaching to an empty house. But we have a history, a heresy, of understanding and applying new ideas and realities in religion, and there is so much new about this ancient voice.

 A new understanding of Paul, “The Real Paul” as the title of one new book by seminary professor Brandon Scott puts it, is not just about setting the historical record straight on this person who back in the time of the millennial change in 2000 was voted one of the most influential persons of the past 2000 years; as is often cited, letters by him or attributed to him, or stories about him, constitute the largest percent of the officially sanctioned Christian scriptures known as The New Testament.
No, I am mostly interested in how what guided him can be touchstones for a transformative spiritual life and growing communities of justice in our century. He certainly has been this in my own life and my commitments to forming a community of liberation in a place so many seek to abandon. And it strikes me that the kind of fast changing world in which Paul lived, one moving from an oral to a manuscript culture (as we are moving from print to electronic), one of great religious diversity, one of great violence by an Empire, links much of the pre-modern and our post-modern world.  

Some 15 years ago, I stood in the pulpit here, newly graduated from seminary, and preached about the top ten lessons I had learned during my studies. Number one was The Real Paul. But since there were ten I covered, my number one didn’t get the full exploration and explanation it, and you, deserved. Since then I have been giving workshops or sermons on Paul, or weaving my continuing study of him, into them; I will be doing so at this upcoming General Assembly of the UUA in Portland in June in one about Faith in the Margins: what the first century church can teach the 21st century church.

Let me start with a little Unitarian Universalist history to let you know I am not too crazy for preaching and looking at Paul, whom so many liberals have dismissed because they think he steered the church from the “religion of Jesus” to the “religion about Jesus.”

Paul’s letters were used by William Ellery Channing in the famous 1819 Unitarian Christianity sermon that helped form our association. A famous quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “as in Adam all fell, so in Christ shall all rise” was often used by the early American Universalist church to defend its belief in universal salvation. Writing after the second world war, one of our famous preachers and authors, A. Powell Davies of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, D.C. wrote a popular and controversial book about the Apostle Paul called “The First Christian.”

Davies was radical for its time because back then, and in some places still today, people would think of Jesus as the First Christian, and Rev. Davies was sharing the news, in that immediate post-Holocaust era, that Jesus was a Jew, and how important for Christianity that fact was, and is, but also how much it was really Paul who shaped Christianity. What I am going to share today though updates much of Rev. Davies contemporary scholarship of his time; we no longer think of Paul as the First Christian, or even as a Christian in the way we commonly think of that term today. Rather Paul lived, wrote, perhaps was killed because he was a follower and leader of one of the several strands of what we might call first century Judaism or ways of following the God of Israel, back when the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem, back before it and the city itself was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era, a pivotal year for the development and continuation of both Judaism and eventually of its troublesome sect turned then into separate church turned then in its major manifestation as Empire of Christianity, far from the anti-Empire revolutionary life and writing of Paul. And we know better now that Paul was only one of the major shapers of what became later as the early church.

In his latest book, “The Real Paul” Professor Brandon Scott of Tulsa’s Phillips Theological Seminary, summarizes the four decades of the emerging picture of Paul, who was the one who does provide us the oldest, first actual writing we have anyway, about Jesus, itself dating more than a decade after the crucifixion. Paul himself probably wrote earlier letters, but we don’t have them.

There are seven letters in the Bible considered authentic Paul, half of the ones attributed to him. Those who read about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles—half of it is devoted to him---before reading his own letters will greatly misunderstand him. Acts was likely written some three or more decades after Paul died. One scholar, Scott says, maintains the differences are so great that Acts may have been written by an opponent of Paul. Take away Acts and you don’t have Saul converting to Paul, converting from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus; instead his own language and story is about being called, about coming to know his purpose that he, who always names himself Paul, felt was instilled in him from the time he was in his mother’s womb. How much of religious history in the West might have been altered if one of our formative narratives had not been about conversion, but about, as our tradition over the centuries has sought to make ultimate instead, honoring and discovering ours and others’ inherent worth and calling?  In Paul’s own writing, in fact, we have his depiction of his previous life as a religious zealot, persecuting others, but then after his mysterious encounter with what he calls the Risen Anointed One of the God of Israel, he writes that even he is worthy of receiving, as the Blues Brother put it, a Mission from God. And if he is, he maintains, everyone is.  

So conversion becomes calling, and that is one of the touchstones for our lives and communities today; how are we all, not just ordained ministers, being called into mission? One of Paul’s first conflicts was over whether he had authority to do what he was doing, and reliance on what we would say is the role of personal experience in religion; he is a forerunner of our own theologian James Luther Adams who calls all to understand themselves as part of the priesthood and prophethood of all.  

But Paul’s specific mission is to be, he says, an Apostle, literally an Envoy, to be Sent. And to whom is he sent? This is the critical step. To the nations, “the gentiles”, to those who are not already a part of Israel, who are not, like his fellow ethnic people, already in covenant with Israel’s God. Everything flows from this for Paul. Far from having left Judaism behind, he takes for granted that they are part of God’s covenant and what he sees as the imminent future transformation of the world by God’s loving and liberating justice for those Rome has vanquished (For him the world equaled the Roman Empire.) True Paul had his disputes with Jewish authorities, and of course most of them did not share his experience of the crucified Anointed One, but he is not an apostle to them, to try to get them to necessarily change in order to be a part of God’s future, as so much of the tradition has cast his thought. Rather, he is concerned about the gentiles, the nations, the peoples under and following Caeser’s oppressive rule and values, and he isn’t writing either for a universal self or about what God is doing for this or that person. His concern is about peoples, and not about what centuries later would become notions of individual, personal salvation.

So that is the next touchstone from Paul: our concern and commitments should be with and for communities, especially with communities that have been oppressed, left out of power; and our understanding of our self should be  understood as being communal beings, part of one another, in community, and even, as he writes in his theoloy, as being part of God’s New Anointing. He has an expansive sense of this community too: he says Jew and Greek, meaning Jew and notJew, slave and free, male and female. No one is left out. And those with this new communal identity, while being different in the eyes of the Empire, and with their differences maintained and their own special gifts of difference acknowledged and honored, now can have, he says, a new deeper, more liberating, common identity apart from the Empire’s.

An aside on how we have come to these new understandings; with the rise of non-dogmatic independent academic and inter-disciplinary study in particular, we not only were able to come to a broad consensus on the seven letters—1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans, but also how to read these ancient texts written as other ancient texts, often not as single arguments like a newspaper editorial, but what are called diatribes, dialogues and debates within them like Socratic interrogations. Recast in this light, Paul’s thought begins to emerge from seeming major inconsistencies. Of course important to note too that Paul is not writing to us, or even to an Empire-wide audience, but to specific groups in specific places about specific problems, many of which we don’t fully understand because we only have one side of the correspondence. And even in the authentic letters are woven other letters, and later additions that are trying to tame down the original radical Paul.
So exactly what is his good news he is sent to share with the nations, and that calls forth these new egalitarian-inspired communities? Communities of vulnerability and conflict of all sorts, but communities who, beyond their own existence, have had a lasting legacy. This good news from Paul, after centuries of misreadings, is where, then and especially now I think, he is at his most radical. In some ways all of this is why Professor Scott calls Paul even more radical than Jesus. And it leads to one of the most crucial touchstones for churches today.

We can see it most clearly in Paul’s letter to the gathered ones in Rome, his last one written that we have, and the one that has long been considered the most theologically concerned of all the letters and so is the one used to make statements of belief. Origen did so before the Empire took over the Christian way. Augustine after it did after. Luther used Romans extensively in the Reformation. Barth used Romans in the 20th century rise of neo-orthodoxy after the destruction of world war one. And this is still true with the New Perspective. It is in Romans that we have this groundbreaking new way of looking at Paul and the other anti-Empire Christians.

If you pick up most Bibles today, which by the way are mostly published by religious associations, you are going to read something like the following in Romans, third chapter: “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.” See how that seems to emphasize first righteousness, which to our ears might conjure up a narrow sense of morality and even self-righteousness; to emphasize next “faith in Jesus” as a kind of mental act of thought giving allegiance to a certain object of that thought, in this case Jesus; and finally, to drive it home, to emphasize “for all who believe”, as if already here there is the creed; what one does to receive righteousness is to believe in Jesus.

How widespread now and through the years has been that kind of translation and interpretation? It has been what many see as the essence of their faith, and it has been what has driven many from their faith, or from being drawn to Jesus, the Bible, the church. Religion is about what you think, so you better think the right thing, and if that is what religion is about then the church better be focused on enforcing that right thinking. Orthodoxy.

But that hasn’t always been the translation of that writing of Paul’s in Romans. Even the King James Version, in all its poetic beauty, captured some of the ambiguity in the Greek by translating it as “faith of Jesus.” Just with that slight change we begin to sense some major theological shifts. Even when faith was still seen as a synonym for belief, and belief was seen as all about a mental proposition and affirmation, even then we could read the King James Version from the 1600s and see the difference between a focus on what Jesus believed and a belief in Jesus. But the scholars of the New Perspective, freed from the dogmatic restraints that shaped so much of the earlier translations of Greek, have helped us see the full impact of Paul’s revolutionary thought.

In “The Real Paul” Professor Scott gives us the following Scholars Version of this passage, this key central passage of the scriptural foundations of much of Christian theology [for the full Scholars Version see The Authentic Letters of Paul; the NRSV uses something close to the Scholars Version but puts it in a footnote, not in a new translation): “God’s reliability has now been made clear through the unconditional confidence in God of Jesus, God’s Anointed, for the benefit of all who come to have such confidence—no exceptions!” It is not faith or belief IN Jesus as some object of faith, but rather Paul says God’s spirit of right relations, of being in right alignment with God’s justice, comes to all those who have the confidence or faithfulness that Jesus had. And how was Jesus faithful? Not by what he thought, but by what he did, how he was faithful not to Caesar and his Empire and what it valued, violence and wealth and power-over, but to the God of the oppressed and that God’s Empire, or Kingdom which was in fact the opposite of an Empire or Kingdom, being instead a beloved community, a kin-dom.

Think what a difference this better freer translation would have made had it been the dominant cornerstone of Christian theology from the time of Paul to ours today? We wouldn’t have been heretics, we who stressed character and deeds over creeds. Think what a difference it would make now if this were adopted, to shift religion from a competitiveness over ideas and right thinking, to a cooperation in bringing about living justice.

That is the next Pauline touchstone for our spiritual lives and church today: live your God, your ultimate concern, if you love your God, your ultimate concern.
All else of the real Paul flows from this radical stance. In fact, in 1988 a biblical scholar, not a Unitarian Universalist, wrote an essay called “A Paul for Unitarian Universalists” (Robin Scroggs in the UU Christian Journal) that talked about how small u unitarian and small u universalist Paul was. Paul was a monotheist. He was also what became known as an adoptionist, understanding that God adopted Jesus, or Anointed him, Christed him, made or revealed him as Messiah when God raised him, he who had been faithful even in the depths of the  Empire’s effort of shaming him with weakness and crucifixion. And that what God did in and for Jesus he would soon do for all, transforming the world. And, with Earth Day coming up this week, let me emphasize that it is this world that Paul believed would be the place of the new, as the old, paradise, not some ethereal region known as Heaven.

Paul ties together Jesus’s death and raising, and the future of the nations, with the story in the Hebrew scriptures of Abraham, saying that even as God chose Abraham because of his faithfulness even before there were the Mosaic commandments, so too the nations, as Abraham’s children too had become part of the covenant with God now because of God’s valuing Jesus’ life and message through the raising of him.  We can obviously disagree, from our vantage point if we wish, with Paul on the specifics of his experience and theology, but give him credit especially for its spirit.

For Paul, Jesus’ death had not been to atone for anything either, though, or to be a substitute for anyone’s else death. Scott says that Paul saw the death as one of the long line of particularly Jewish faithful martyrs “suffering noble deaths”, that Jesus died because he had challenged the Empire through trying to show the nations that God wanted them to be righteous and faithful to God’s way and not Caeser’s way. And so in raising Jesus and Christing him, Paul felt God was rewarding Jesus and also revealing this truth to the nations, that they too were now part of the God of Israel’s new promised life. It is a very different understanding or theology of the cross then the one the Empire Christian culture later produced.

 It leads to our next touchstone from Paul, that God favors those who have been shamed, God in fact favors the ones the Empire considers ungodly, he writes in Romans, and God favors non-violence and will act to restore those who have been violated.

Paul thought, wrongly, that this new social transformation would happen in his lifetime, but he sought to create communities, in the very midst of the Empire, that would imitate and help initiate this social transformation, as a testament to its power and truth, while living in the in-between time. Imitating and initiating social transformation of the world. It is a good mission and way of being for communities today. Perhaps we need a sense of urgency about creating free communities for growing justice around us, particularly in places and peoples and ways we don’t have.

Whether or not Paul actually wrote the great love hymn in First Corinthians or borrowed and placed it in from an earlier poet is debatable, but it captures much of this ultimate focus of his for how to stress the essentials in community. Faith is important--what you trust, or believe; hope is important--how you feel and approach the world and sustain yourself; but the greatest is Love--how you act, how you relate, how you open up to vulnerability and risk and cooperation and a honor diversity of gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and see yourself in others, and them in you, and see your community as part of the movement of God’s way, not Caeser’s in whatever guise Caeser comes, even one that comes in the name of God, Christ, and the church. That too is a healthy reminder for our communities today in a world looking for authenticity.  

What about Paul and sexuality, Paul and women, Paul and slavery? Each are worthy of sermons on their own. While Paul, like all of us, is a product of his time, limited in his understanding, in most cases the way he has been used for the exact opposite of what he stood for has come again from bad translations, from the later letters much after his death attributed to him that are actually against the real Paul, and by insertions into the actual letters by later scribes, or by not understanding that the sins he lifts up are again characteristics of sins of the Empire and not about individuals.

About much of Paul’s context and ideas, Scott says we will likely always be uncertain from the mystery in the evidence of the letters we have. But, he wraps up his book by talking about how for Paul God sides with the losers. And if that is the case, as he believes it to be, then all such striving to be right and mighty in the eyes of God is the wrong kind of faithfulness. And it is a challenge to us today to see whose side we are on, who are we spending time and support with.
So much of the Empire way and values that shaped Christianity long after Paul have also tremendously shaped today much of our culture, way beyond Christianity as well. Recapturing the real Paul, and revealing his good news message again---that real active responsive liberating and justice-making love, not wealth or power or achievements or knowledge or feeling good, is how the Sacred is made real--- that this good news from Paul and about Paul, this new news, will, if adopted, not only lead to what Scott calls the needed “fundamental reconstruction of Christianity,” as important as that is, but it will lead to the reconstruction, the social transformation, of the world itself—ironically, that is what Paul himself envisioned two thousand years ago.
About time.
And Amen.

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