Thursday, September 01, 2016

When The World Heals The Church

When The World Heals The Church
Rev. Ron Robinson, preaching Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, at The Welcome Table Christian Church, Arlington, TX
Reading: Luke 13:10-17


Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


 Sermon:
Thanks for the invitation and privilege to be here with you this weekend and in worship today. My debt to The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is deep; it is the church in which my mother was raised; it is the church which built an amazing seminary in which I was educated, and where I am now blessed to teach, and where I was inspired by so much that has led to the ministries of our own Welcome Table in north Tulsa today. And I have been promoting for more than a decade the wisdom of one of your denominational Vision Commitments—one thousand new congregations in one thousand new ways by 2020; one thousand new ways, which reflects the missional bigger bandwidth of being church in new environments that our hurting world needs.


At The Welcome Table church where we are, in and for the high poverty, low life expectancy, beautiful far northside of Tulsa, one of our favorite mottos and mission statements and tee-shirts is that we are there to “love the hell out of this world.” I like to think something like it was Jesus’ mission too, since there certainly was in the gospel accounts like in Luke today a lot of pain and struggle and hurt and oppression all around him, and which he entered into.


This motto I think even resonates with some of the theological tradition of Jesus’ birth and death as well as the way he lived his life. For God so loved the world, says John 3:16, Jesus was sent into it, and so, therefore, we are to go and do likewise, to be a sent people. And in some of our Christian traditions on Holy Saturday, which comes between Good Friday death and Easter Sunday resurrection, we commemorate the stories and speculations that grew up that Jesus’ loving and liberating spirit would have even gone into Hell to set free the souls there.


So, Loving the hell out of this world is something the church across the millennia has done when at its best, when it is living out its reason for being, which is to make Jesus continually visible in and through our lives and the world right around us, particularly visible in those places within us, within our communities, which seem the most hellish, in the places and with the people others abandon, neglect.
But let me say here that when we talk about Loving the Hell out of this world it really means we first have to let the world love the hell out of the church.


When I was growing up in the north Tulsa zipcode where we have returned to live, it was anything but hellish to me or to many around me, at least in outside appearances. We were the poorer working class side of town, but we were baby boomers and the Great Depression and the Great Wars of our parents and grandparents seemed like ancient history already, and society and its funding seemed made for us. And It was a segregated area back then, and we were white. It was a blatantly sexist and heterosexist time. Many of us just did not, could not, see the hell around us that others were going through. And our nostalgia often blinds us still to today’s struggles.  


That is why in the scripture today, leaping out at us that before anything else, it says Jesus sees the woman in pain, in pain for so many years, so important to make a point of the number of years, because others had probably grown so accustomed to her sight that they no longer actually saw her and paid attention.


Today in my neighborhood, my zipcode, it is a lot easier to see the death and destruction and struggles around us. It has deteriorated as the businesses, population, government supports all left with white flight when the area was at first integrated, then redlined and re-segregated. As it has become poorer and filled with people with darker skin, the life expectancy of our folks has shrunk, even as medical advances have grown. When our church began our missional transformation, to become not the best church in our community, but the best church For our community, the life expectancy gap between our zipcode and one just six miles away from us on the other side of town was 14 years. After nine years, and thanks to work on many fronts by many partners and others, this year the life expectancy gap shrunk to some 11 years. It is still an outrageous injustice that we die so much younger; and for us, those deaths are not just statistics but have names; but we are seeing that living out our faith and putting our limited resources and energy into community transformation rather than trying to grow more of us church members, has made a real difference—we often hear talk about being a life-saving faith, and in our area we have the data to prove it, with much to do. And because of the continuing deepening poverty, and the failure of the state government to do its part, we are never sure if the data is going to show us continuing to narrow the gap, or if it is growing again. Faithful Justice is being committed to a place and a people even if, especially if, things are not changing for the better.  


With all of the decline, the visibly fraying infrastructure and abandonment, still people even in our area have trouble seeing the wounds of others in our area; and if they never come to our side of town, and spend time with us, they will for sure not know so many do not have water or electricity in their homes, or that their homes are tents, campers, cars, boarded up homes, floors of friends or family, that as our surveys in our free food store have found 52 percent have high food insecurity, hunger pains when they come to see us, that so many have skipped days regularly from eating, eat spoiled food, that 47 percent are anxious and depressed, that 33 percent have diabetes, have chronic nutrition-related diseases, that 60 percent cannot afford healthy food and don’t have access to it. That we, a relatively small group all volunteer most all neighbors who also receive as well as help give, that we give out all told some 20 tons of food a month through our free food store, our gardenpark and orchard, and our meals.


Even I have trouble seeing, and I am continually being taught to see the struggles of my neighbors. This is especially true of residents who have lived in our area all their life and have remained through all the changes, but they still are often looking at our neighborhoods with yesterday’s sight and even they can’t fathom, until they have come face to face with it, the hunger and the sickness; that some of our children are growing up never having experienced a sit down family meal cooked at home, but only have eaten from packages.


In many ways, I think too often the church is like those life-long residents of our area—not seeing how the people around us have changed; our so-called blind side is thinking church can remain fundamentally unchanged and still connect with them the same as before, not seeing how they can help heal us, help us discover the depths of the gospel and of our purpose as the church.


But Seeing is liberating. Over and over in scripture, Jesus sees things and people others do not. And learning to see as Jesus sees changes everything. Who does Jesus serve, hang out with, take risks with? Who does Jesus’ heart break for?


To follow Jesus is to walk toward the wounded, the shamed, the oppressed, and to love the hell out of them. To follow Jesus is to know we are the wounded, the shamed, the outcast. Especially for the church to see itself as needing to have Jesus lay hands on us again, as he does the ailing woman, for us to be charged up again with the healing spirit and reminded who we are and who we are for. I like to think that instead of reflecting Jesus in the story this morning, as so many sermons have traditionally taught us to see ourselves, that the church is the long ailing woman, and the world around us is Jesus, the world healing the church of its isolation.


Even in biblical stories when it isn’t Jesus doing the hands-on ministry, it is someone else tracking him down to touch his garment, or going out and physically bringing friends to him. Risking rejection and scorn and failure.


Some, like those in the story today, of course, will want to make religion all about their rules and preserving the status quo. And I will say it was very important for the Sabbath to be observed; it was then as ever under pressure by the Empire; it was a way for the people following the God of Israel to be counter-culture and to fight back against their oppressors and their occupation. But even the good we can be about, maybe especially the good we are about, can become a barrier to what we are called to do.


So easily can the how of church, this or that practice or tradition or success even, such as the Sabbath keeping in our story today, can take the place of the Why. Jesus was reminding them, and us, of the Why of the Sabbath, the why of our being here, of responding to the felt needs and pains right before us, right around us, among us, and within us.


We believe we can best see one another, see those we would not otherwise see, when we sit with one another at the Welcome Table in our many church settings beyond the worship time—at our free food store events, or at meals at our community gardenpark and orchard, or in the community holiday festivals we sponsor, when someone is waiting to use our washing machine or shower, or browsing books in the free bookstore, or outside in the chairs we place by the outdoors electric outlet where people stop to charge up their phones or connect to our free wifi when we are not open inside. All of these encounters become the Welcome Table. And we are reminded by the community that The Welcome Table is not a place people come to; but is a place we create together, anywhere, anytime, by anyone, for everyone.  And, most importantly, they are places where the world can teach the church to see, to love, to be changed. The old missionaries went into the world to convert them; today's church needs to be a missionary church going into the world to be converted and changed and charged up by it.  We would not have accomplished anything in our area if we hadn't learned to fail to what we thought needed to be done, failed at what we wanted to do, so that God could show us what really needed to be done.


As I said yesterday in our time together in our workshop, I am inspired by your embodiment of The Welcome Table, and the potential you have for helping create welcome tables in a myriad of ways wherever you may be, in the myriad ways of being and becoming yourself, carrying the spirit of your gatherings with you throughout the week, a sent people in the loving and liberating spirit of Jesus,  laying hands on the world, yes, but never forget to let the ever-changing, ever-hurting, ever-teaching world, where God is already present, lay healing hands on you.  


 


Visions of Liberation: A Lesson on Freedom

Visions of Liberation: A Lesson For Politicians on Freedom, and A Call to Civic Engagement for those of us who complain about them
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, OK July 24, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson


 It seems to be a custom for me to preach the Sunday before our denominational church camp begins, and to tie my sermon into it in some way. This year the theme speaker at the camp now called The Point (www.thepointuu.org open to all) will be the Rev. George Kimmich Beach. He is known for much among our UU movement, especially as an author, and especially as an editor of collections of essays by our renowned 20th century theologian James Luther Adams who was his teacher. James Luther Adams was known as “the smiling prophet” and it is no wonder that the theme talks are on both the “savoring and saving” of the world.


So this Sunday, instead of giving you a preview of what my workshop will be about at The Point—missional church as you have heard from me before-- I want to preach about the lessons on liberation from JLA, as he is known. 


I have also been moved this week to preach on James Luther Adams theology because of how in political circles especially, and in some political circles more than others, the word Freedom is thrown around too freely, you might say, and how community is constructed in such a way as to foster a disunity at its core, and anything but a sense of vastness or greatness to its reality; how the concept of freedom is misunderstood to the point of it being twisted to very opposite ends, along with the perversion of what it means, in a religious sense, to be strong.  


Free Community is our tradition’s historic territory; Lord knows we have struggled with it and learned about it more than most, and so we better have something to say about it these days.


Yes, Our religious history, our tradition, our faith communities that go back to the very beginnings of this nation’s history, and in fact back before that into the church dissent for congregational freedom in England, our central force as a movement has been about upholding and embodying the depths of what it truly means to live in freedom. Our debt is to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, a synod attended by some of our oldest churches among the Unitarian Universalist Association, as it spelled out in the first document of radical congregational freedom how one actually lives in the depths of freedom, and that is through covenant.


You want to secure freedom? Then it only exists as you become members of a free community, one based on covenant more than creed, and you form a series of other relationships also built on freedom’s other names—love and responsibility—such as covenants between churches, between the church and its leaders, especially ordained ones, between the leaders, between the church and its wider community, and between the church and how it understands and experiences the Sacred. All of these are associational realities, and Associating was at the heart of James Luther Adams life and theology.


James Luther Adams—who taught at Meadville Lombard and Harvard and Andover Newton seminaries—was not our only theologian of freedom, but he was living and working before and after World War Two, with its very challenges to freedom, and also during the liberation revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies on up to his death in the 90s. In fact he was inspired by our process theologians with whom he was pretty much contemporaneous, like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and Henry Nelson Wieman, whose views were about the whole of cosmology and God as exhibiting both Freedom and Relationship and Novelty and Risk, especially Risk, not safety, at the core of existence itself. Existence which risks to be and become.


But JLA, a parish minister before professor, an always social justice activist and organizer beyond the academy, was the most connected to Unitarianism and then Unitarian Universalism. He rose to prominence among us for leading the very first Commission on Appraisal review and report, critique and challenge, of the American Unitarian Association in 1936 called Unitarians Face A New Age; it was really the beginning of his constant critique of religious liberalism as a whole; the report called for stronger association within our churches, between our churches, and with our wider communities, particularly those in our communities whose very freedoms were being most endangered by those in power. He always called for us to be more powerful to challenge others in power, and to share our power in solidarity with those struggling to claim and live out theirs. Make America Powerful Again, by amplifying the power of the powerless, not by concentrating it in fewer hands. In voluntary association is freedom born and strengthened; freedom is a reality only in relationship (all else is simply loneliness and license not true liberty); freedom requires the presence of others in order for it to freedom.


His personal story also mirrored many among us in our churches, at least those born in the first two thirds of the 20th century. His father was a fundamentalist preacher in the Pacific Northwest; JLA worked for a railroad that sent him to college in Minnesota. There, away from his family and in a higher education setting, he left the faith of his childhood and became a vehement opponent of religion, writing and speaking constantly in his assignments against religion, until one of his liberal arts professors commented back that JLA should be a preacher because religion was obviously the passion of his life, and introduced JLA to the humanist Unitarian tradition at First Unitarian of Minneapolis.


Not six months later he was a student at Harvard Divinity School. And his free to change theology didn’t end there either. He became one of the leading Unitarian Christians among us, and in connecting us ecumenically to other faith communities and other Christian theologians, especially his introduction to American audiences of the major German Protestant theology of Paul Tillich.  But he is also remembered for his pivotal work for us re-shaping us again coming out on the tail-end of World War Two, as he had going into it with the Commission on Appraisal. He was an author and advocate in the late Forties of Unitarian Advance which led to a greater room for theological pluralism, more communities, more commitment, more growth, and helped to quell the humanist-theist divide (or to make it a constant marginal rather than front and center issue among us) and which gave us some of the language that continues to be reflected in our current principles language.


Through it all, this pre-eminent theologian of freedom insisted that “freedom from” is secondary; that “freedom to” is primary. Freedom’s reason to be is to work and live toward liberation, toward a more just and loving community around us. A “freedom from” various risks can simply lead to the continuing of a status quo that oppresses those without status in society.


There is in this vein the famous anecdote he tells of his time in a Unitarian church in Chicago while he was a nearby professor. It was during the Sixties and the civil rights movement and the struggle to end segregation and its legacy of poverty that had children of Chicago living with rat bites. And during church board meetings there were debates about how visible the church as the church, as an association itself existing only in and for its wider relationships, should be in trying to end these racial injustices. One particular Board member insisted it was not why he went to church and what the church was about, that church was only for cultivating personal spirituality, the freedom of the individual mind—what our 20th century pre-eminent church historian and Harvard professor Conrad wright called such church as mainly being “a collection of religiously-oriented individuals” rather than church as a freely covenanted body, which has been our way, and our struggle, for centuries. JLA says the discussion on action the Chicago church should take went on for hours, into the night.  Then at one point when pressed by others to say not what he thought the purpose of the church was not for, but what it was for, the Board member thought and said: “I guess it is to get ahold of people like me, and change us.”


Conversion from “freedom from” to “freedom for.” Especially, for JLA, “freedom for excluded people.”


In the splendid trilogy called “The Making of American Liberal Theology”, which runs from the 1805 Unitarian theological takeover of Harvard University up to 2005, Gary Dorrien highlights the work of James Luther Adams and says acts of conversion are key to JLA’s understanding of the religious enterprise, even and especially for liberals. That is, Conversions that pivot us away from our own concerns, especially those middle class concerns that have tended to shape and reflect us, and toward the plight of others. Conversion even away from liberalism, which has tended he says to keep us focused on providing “religious sanctions for the values of middle class respectability” while the forces of oppression rise.


Dorrien treats JLA in the same group of theologians as he does Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, JLA leads off that chapter devoted to “Visions of Liberation”. JLA’s critique of liberals is similar to that MLK gave in his Epistle from the Birmingham jail. It is about liberalism’s lukewarm nature, its posture of passivity, what today we might call its captivity by its own (now waning) privilege. JLA’s conversion toward what would be known as liberation theology came in his early travels to Germany and Europe before World War Two, but after the rise of power of fascists. He witnessed both the timid capitulation of the liberal German church to the Nazis and met with leading members of another way of being church relating to society, the Confessing Church of Germany struggling against the power and values of those controlling the state, struggling even unto death. 


Historically, the roots of religious liberalism for Dorrien, and which he finds Adams critiquing, is a drive for the “third way” or middle ground of response to the Enlightenment. Religious liberals did not want to reject religion or reject the Enlightenment so they are always tempted to remain in the middle critiquing both extremes of each, and that makes them {us) susceptible to being a people who live in critique only, and who think it freedom, whose religious DNA or default mode is intellectual argument (religion is not this perspective or that perspective but this other perspective) which makes religion tilt toward emphasizing the mind and reason, and makes it about identity (who are we?) rather than about the “powers and principalities” within and among and around us creating and sustaining sufferings and injustices.


Adams came of a theological age in the wake of the deflating of the social gospel movement that, for all its strengths of compassion, had its overly optimistic view of “progress and brotherhood onward and upward forever” dashed by so many forces that culminated in World War One and the rise of fascism that led to World War Two. Adams, like many theologians of his era, had a more tragic view of history. It is why, for him, the deeper forms of freedom that come through voluntary associations and commitments to and for others especially “the excluded” the so-called “least of these” are so vital to the Common Good. Something we need to remind the nation of today. After all, it is the Common Good which binds us not the Common Great.


 If he were here today, JLA might say: we can’t just say we are going to make a country great again by the sheer power of our personal will, and beware of those who claim and ask for your trust to let them do it especially by themselves alone, and quickly, even if you might agree with what greatness might mean, because history shows, millenias of history shows, where such hubris, especially in the form of rampant nationalism, leads: to rubble.


Instead, as another theologian summarized JLA’s theology, “free [people] put their faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.” And for him, it is the very fact that “humans possess the…power to participate in the divine creativity” that warrants our faith in humanity. After all, he noted, freedom itself can also be used to dominate and oppress; it is only when it is rooted “in a will to mutuality that it is redemptive.”


Dorrien describes Adams’ belief that we are fated to be free, and that freedom and responsibility [how does your freedom lead you to respond, and where, and for whom?] are intertwined; “every attempt to escape from freedom and its responsibilities is an act of freedom; thus the burden of moral responsibility can not be relinquished…every faith is a faith of the free, but many faiths are unworthy of being chosen.”


For Adams, first, God is that kind of freely creative responding in love power that is a “commanding reality that sustains and transforms all life.” Second,  freedom “rightly used seeks freedom and social justice for others”—not for excluding the vulnerable so some can have more supposed safety, and more supposed freedom and choices and resources. True freedom is a liberating love, then, for all. And third, It is also a community forming power, and has a moral content and character and orientation to justice. It is more than just about freedom of belief and how one believes differently from others. Liberty is not simply license; that is a false sense that has more to do with being alone with a selfish will. It is instead a vision and action of liberation, and is inherently relational, associational.


Freedom “cannot abide a social evil such as racial discrimination,” he said, “and be genuinely free.” Such limited understandings of freedom as we encounter, that are not part and parcel with the Common Good, are masks, he says, “for a hidden idolatry of blood or state or economic interest, a protection for some kind of tyranny.”


These days, just as Adams experienced in pre-war Germany and in segregated America, there is the temptation to cultural pessimism and retreat; as I suspect Kim Beach might tell us this week there is always the temptation to only savor or only save, to lose oneself in the Is—ness of being or the ought-ness of doing, instead of letting the one lead us into the other as we see our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, particularly of “excluded others.” And pessimism and retreat is often a characteristic of those with the privilege to do so.


Instead, We need to resist the calls to a false freedom that would have us retreat from the risks of suffering, ours and others, and that would wall us off from the experience of deeper conversion to love and justice that happens when we open ourselves and embrace the radical associating with one another, especially those different from us, which the prophets of many ages have called us to do.


We need to remind our communities of the soul of our communities, that we need one another in order to experience real freedom, and commit to making such soul greater.


We need to restore one another, not repel one another; let in to our communal lives that creative reality of love and liberation that can re-create us, that moves forward not back, that can make all things new, and truly great, for all.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Missional Charge To Church: Hope Unitarian Church


Charge to the Congregation, Hope Unitarian Church,
installation of the Rev. Cathey Edwards, Sunday, April 17, Tulsa, OK
Rev. Ron Robinson


It is a special privilege to be asked to charge THIS congregation today because for close to 40 years you have CHARGED me up.

I remember as a fairly new UU and journalist for a state magazine sitting in the minister’s office of the Rev. Bill Gold, one of your first ministers,  interviewing him, and learning about, his views on church and the community and why Tulsa had the highest per capita percentage of UUs outside of Boston and what a difference it made for the community beyond these beautiful walls.

 I remember the Rev. Jim Eller’s worship services here as we were coming into Tulsa being inspired to start a new church in our then home in Tahlequah, and his promoting a culture of abundance and not scarcity here over the idea that a Hope family might shift to our new church closer to their home, an early lesson in remembering why church exists in the first place as a movement of transformation beyond itself.

I remember particularly joining the Rev. Gary Blaine and Hope members at a weekend retreat at Western Hills Lodge with Professor Brandon Scott studying the counter cultural power of the parables of Jesus challenging us with new default modes for our lives committed to transforming the world, and how on the short drive back home I felt my call to seminary and ministry become urgent. And ever since then, you and your subsequent ministers, my colleagues, have supported my peculiar ministry journey and our new missional work on the northside.

My FIRST charge then is that you continue to CHARGE UP people to change the world--not just charge up one another, but more importantly do it for the one like I was, who will never be a member of your church, never pledge, never serve on a committee, who you may never know how they are changed because of what you do incarnating your mission beyond yourself.
Trust it will happen. Trust that when it happens it is more important than anything else. Particularly more important than how you might feel on any given Sunday about your minister, or one another.

In order to practice that kind of radical trust, though, to give yourself away, or as it is said, to get over yourself, for good, requires my SECOND charge to you: for trust grows only in the soil of VULNERABILITY. TO BE VULNERABLE is to risk hurting and being hurt and yet not letting that hurt DEFINE you, but REMIND you that you are alive and in community, and that your life here, like all life in many different ways, is meant to grow and seed and die, and it hurts to do all of that;
to be vulnerable is to risk disillusionment and disappointment and not letting that become despair, to be vulnerable is to risk, to actually court, failing at what you want to do and accomplish (and in that very failing perhaps discovering what the Spirit of Life and Love and Liberation needs you to really be and do);
to be vulnerable is to risk being led, by those you elect to lead you and by the ONE you have called to lead you even through uncertain and anxious and hurting times, and most importantly even to be led by those you exist to serve.
In fact, the only growth you should really be concerned about is the growth of vulnerability and risk-taking. Those make up the soil, the soul, of community for the community. They should be the first measure of your success.

It is difficult to be a church these days, which is a good thing. When it has been easy to be church church has lost its way and lost its mission of making its understanding of the Sacred visible in the world, especially with those who feel disconnected from the Sacredness of and in the world. We are I believe in a post-denominational, post-congregational culture, as congregations are finding that they are not, as they once were, the central place and way people seek to become connected and engaged in a spiritual or meaningful life.
That doesn’t mean congregations are not still vitally important for today’s world; they are. I wouldn’t bother being here today if I thought otherwise. But it takes more and more resources from smaller and smaller wells to try to keep up with life AS IT USED TO BE. The good news is that when you give up trying to maintain life as it used to be, or as you want it to be, a whole universe of new possibilities of life and of church opens up to you, as you become a part of a bigger bandwidth of what it means to be church. Your very fragility becomes your hope.
So my THIRD and perhaps most radical charge for you today is to give up any anxieties surrounding being A church, and all the angst of survival that congregations find themselves in, and become a part, your own part, of THE church, that is of the movement of the liberal and liberating, free and freeing spirit known by many names and many traditions and many kinds of relationships, one that is being manifested in many forms in our world today, religiously, culturally, economically, politically. We are not in competition with these forms of the Spirit, with these groups. I repeat. We are not in competition with them.  We have acted like we are way too often. We are to be collaborators, co-conspirators, servants of and with them in the wider movement of the wider Spirit. Bring our gifts and perspectives to them, and let them help connect us to the world outside our own experience.

It is this wider movement of the liberating spirit emerging in this moment, and the suffering people being lifted up by this movement of movements, who are the ones truly CHARGING you today, beckoning to you today to take this turning point in your community history to come join fully in the transformation of the world wherever it is underway, and in doing so find lives, and YOUR life, transformed.  Because we know this to be true: the covenant we celebrate today between church and minister will grow stronger only as you strengthen your other covenants of the free church: the one between member and church, yes, and the one between churches and between ministers, even more, but especially as you strengthen your commitment to the covenant between church and the place around you and the mission to it that has called you into being in the first place.

We ARE in uncertain, fearful, hurting times when people are shrinking their vision, their generosity, their values, their connections with others, and linking God, linking the Good Life, to convenience and comfort instead of to conscience and community, to those who have MADE it instead of to those who have LOST it. When you may feel yourself as a congregation most uncertain, most fearful, most hurting, just turn the focus of your attention inside out and you’ll turn your own lights back on.
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. (You know I have to get a little history in somewhere). At that installation, my colleague The Rev. Tom Schade gave the charge to that historic congregation, and 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 … 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, (and) 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?”

So today may my charge to you find its FIRST recipient in your minister: Charge Her Up and turn her loose to charge up the world. Create the space and energy for her to be as Vulnerable as all get out so she can be a witness for the vulnerability so needed in the world receiving the lie that vulnerability and compassion are bad. And COVENANT with her today Not For Your Sake alone, so HOPE will HAVE a minister, but ultimately for the WORLD’s sake, for all those without hope.


We are One, but know that the We is not just this congregation, especially not just this gathered people today who become a people. WE includes all those who have gone before you in this space, and all those who will inherit what you do here today in all the spaces in which you may become church. Both those past and those to come whom you have never and will never meet should have voices at your table, charging you to carry deep within you this truth: you do not ultimately exist for one another alone, or for the perpetuation of this institution or its beautiful place, or even for our faith’s tradition; instead WE exist FOR the ONE, as the old hymn says, FOR the Earth made fair and ALL her people One. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Seeing and Believing and Doing

Seeing and Believing and Doing
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, April 3, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson, The Welcome Table, serving North Tulsa and Turley


The 19th Century minister, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, one of the founders, albeit reluctantly, of the American Unitarian Association, used to sum up his ordination sermons for new ministers with this admonition: “Teach them to see.”
By that he meant not only to bring new knowledge and new understandings of religion to the communities, the whole communities, they served--though he did mean that, and that was, then and now, an important role of religion and religious leaders, especially of liberal religion that seeks to be liberating—but what he ultimately was getting at as their ministry duty was to help people cultivate a newer, broader, deeper way of seeing life. To see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To see one another, and each person seeing themselves as being, in the title of one of his famous sermons taken from the Book of Genesis, likenesses of God; not the same as, he would have hastened to explain, but as bearers of the spark, the possibility, of the divine.
Teach them to see, as fully as possible, because we can so readily become in our way blinded to limited narrow perspectives; in some ways that is an inevitable blessed truth of our finite lives; it is a blessing because it pulls us toward community. It is a problem only when we think we see it all, that everyone’s perspective must be the same as ours. And it is a problem when we don’t even fully see our own perspective; when we don’t go deep enough right where we are and see, as William Blake famously said, a world in a grain of sand. I so admire the naturalists who, for example, study life as it is revealed writ small, like David George Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen on nature revealed in a single square meter of forest floor.  
  • Haskell said in his study he was “applying the contemplative approach of narrowing down our gaze to a tiny, little window and thereby hoping to perhaps see more than we could by running around the whole continent just trying to see it all and do it all. And that's the contemplative gambit, narrow your gaze down to one breath, to one image, to one tiny, little patch of forest. And then from that, perhaps you can, like a pinhole camera, you can see further into the universe and the focus of the universe becomes crisper for you. (on the Diane Rheem show, NPR)
Haskell did his study on a small patch of old growth forest. That’s a cool place to do it. It is, though, where you might expect to see a lot going on in a little. But I believe we can and need to learn to see life most fully in the places where we are often taught it is the hardest to find, and in the people where we are taught there is nothing new or more to see, and in the times of life to see them too, especially the bad times, as not all in all bad and so miss the way they may open toward goodness.
Because if we don’t learn and teach people to see life and life’s spirit where others may not, then we will shrivel not only our powers of sight but our world too, and further divide it up between the full and the empty, the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad.
And that leads to seeing life as irrevocable, irredeemable, as fixed. Which takes all the creativity and transformation out of it. Which takes all the love out of it. Which takes all the justice out of it. Which kills it.
In our hymnal we have a reading taken from the Book of Genesis chapter 28 that says “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” It is powerful because it refers to a place that Genesis describes as just “a certain place” where Jacob came to in his journeys; it was a stony place, for he took a stone and used it as a pillow for his head as he slept, and in his dream he received a vision from God, and when he woke he was grateful for the gift of this certain, stony place.
The place where I live and work is like that. A place where others see only bad statistics, and some of them are bad—we rejoiced that in the eight years of our missional ministry there we have seen the life expectancy gap narrow from fourteen to eleven years, and of course followed that with continued outrage at such a continuing discrepancy, especially as the longer we are there the more an abstract term like life expectancy takes on real names of real people who have died among us too soon.
I get to talk with lots of people about our place, mostly in their own places but also when some come to work with us, and I tell them we are more than our statistics, though it is important to know them, and we are more than our stories of struggle with injustices and neglect; that we are most of all a place and people of spirit and that’s a story that doesn’t get told enough, even by our own folks who too often feel ashamed for living where they do—that if they had only been better, smarter, stronger, they and their kids would be able to move away like so many have done. That the good life, as it comes to be seen by them, is only possible somewhere else, and for someone else. That attitude seeps into the soul and as much as anything else affects that shorter life expectancy just as much or moreso even than the travesties of not having health insurance, of being too poor for Obamacare because of our state government refusal to accept Medicaid extension.
In fact one of the things we try to get people to see more fully is about health and life expectancy in our area itself. It is more than meets the eye that watches TV news or reads the newspaper. As much as we need more medical care access, more culturally competent medical care access, like having medical professionals that you see around you in your life and trust because they know you and live among you, and we desperately need more of that, even with that clinic access alone will still be a minor part of increasing life expectancy. Genetics accounts for some 20 percent; medical care access accounts for only ten percent; 50 percent of a longer life expectancy comes from lifestyle choices, and 20 percent, twice as much as from clinic access, comes from our environment, the social determinants like how much blight we live around and crime and stress and hunger, all of the things which in fact tilt people away from the very healthier choices when they are available.  (OU Community Medicine Report, see my report on the presentation and the report at http://turleyok.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-view-from-74126-on-health-care-after.html)
Seeing this, and seeing what often prevents people from making these choices, is hard when you are not where you can see and hear and learn from the people themselves. I just had a conversation with a good intelligent liberal friend and colleague who was trying to learn why people might not take advantage of the medical options that were available to them. He couldn’t see their whole life, just the choices they were making as if in a vacuum. I began to show him, to teach him to see, how the stresses of subsistence living, where your life is structured in smaller increments, meal to meal, day to day, opportunity to work hour by hour, perhaps with the addition of addictive self medication to supposedly help you cope with the stresses, and with how you see your own self worth, all of this means that you are not going to take the time to make appointments, for example, for preventive health. You are going to get by until you can’t get by, and then you are going to go to the place that has to take you, the ER, and not worry about the expense because you know you are never going to pay it anyway. And you don’t have the social network with the skills to help you overcome all that. If the hospital tries to shame you into better behavior it instead keeps you more mired in the attitude that is self-defeating.
We set up our clinics, our classrooms, our nonprofit helping agencies, our churches, our civic meetings, our elections, so much around the perspective of those with resources and without so many stresses, and then blame people, as one suburban progressive banker did to me at a regional event, for more of the folks from my area “not being at the table.” Talk about wanting to teach him to see; his privilege of having time and means and the kind of job that set him at the table, not to mention the way we run so many of our public meetings comes from a model that is based on higher education or even the classroom, a model that is a trigger to so many people who struggled in school for so many reasons.
When I get to teach people to see in person, I tell them I see my place with three sets of eyes. I am trying to get them to see it that way too. I see our area as I saw it growing up until the time I was graduated from high school, seeing it both as it was in a negative way, the legacy of racism and segregation, and in a positive way, the way there was so much social capital, connections among people, a more income integrated neighborhood, and more common resources put into the area in schools, parks, infrastructure; how you went to school together for example as my wife and I did from kindergarden through high school, which made it so much easier to communicate with the community than now when any neighborhood the kids of the same age might go to five to ten different schools, including home and online.
And I tell them I see our place as it is now, with its abandonment and isolation and ill health, its prison culture attitude as a place where people with felonies often come to live. But that I also see it with eyes of the future, and in some ways the future of transformation is happening also for those with eyes to see, in small ways not only in our Welcome table undertakings but in what some of our partners and neighbors are doing.
If I am rushed and can only take people on a tour of one part of our area beyond our properties, I take them to one three block stretch in our area. If I can to teach them to see I have them drive from one end of Peoria avenue in Tulsa to the other and observe carefully the disparities. But at least I take them to 53rd Street from Peoria to Utica and ask them to count the number of boarded up abandoned houses where families used to live, where dollars used to turn over into the community, and I tell them to also look at how right in the midst of that abandonment there are people putting extra energy into making their certain place a gate of heaven, and I tell them not to miss the small house with one of the best yards that is Sarah’s Residential Living where one of the houses that would have been abandoned is now a small intimate living space for seniors who need monitoring but not assisted living, keeping them in a homelike environment; a wonderful vision and response to a deep need, and how three more houses along that street are now owned by Sarah’s just waiting for volunteers to help transform them too.
Being able to see this way, these things, is to see more fully. And that is what we need. And when we can see a place more fully, we see the people more fully, and we see our connection to them. We can begin to believe more fully that another world is possible; yea, it is even already here and yet to come.
Today in many churches of many traditions across the world sermons will be preached about a classic story of this form of teaching to see, about seeing and believing in change. It is the story in the gospel of John about so called Doubting Thomas. No surprise that many will see it not as fully as it was meant to be seen, and will come away from it with a too limited perspective. It has much to teach us I think about how to see life. It was considered an extremely important story to the Johannine community that produced the gospel of John several decades after Jesus death; it was the story of the original ending to John’s gospel. It sums up so much of the wisdom the whole book was trying to make over and over that life and truth and the truth about people is more than what we see, that understanding comes from grasping the spiritual, the poetic, the metaphorical, that we can give ourselves and our lives to a story that can be more than real, it can be true.
Here are the highlights of the story and I comment on it, and we can see many places where John’s overall themes of spiritual truth, as opposed to literal truths, are resonating. The story picks up after the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary of Magdala soon after the crucifixion.
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 
Right here we are to see how times of fear and anxiety present us with the option to respond out of scarcity, to lock the doors and hide inside because of what has been taken away from us and what might at any moment it is felt be taken away from us; or to respond as jesus does, to see the situation with peace and ignoring the locked doors. The story goes on:
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Apparently being there somewhat miraculously and speaking peace to them wasn’t enough even for them for he felt the need to show them his wounds to signal who he was. Meeting them where they are, you might say, one of the first lessons of chaplaincy, of ministry, of truly seeing people. Only then it says the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Over and over John stresses peace, wants his listener readers to focus on it, see its need. John is composed at a time of great conflict, but wants the reader hearer to be reminded of peace. See that we should savor the world even as we see where it is in need of saving, as the famous John 3:16 points out that God first loved the world, all of it, no exceptions as we say, with all its hellishness, and because of that sent a Savior to love the hell out of the world.
Jesus goes on to say: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
I love that phrase because it fits in with our missional faith mandate to not set back and wait for people to come to us, to come see us, but to go be sent, the original meaning of the Greek word missio, to be sent to be with them. Here the disciples have been seeing themselves as a fortress kind of group, inside a locked room, retreating from the world, but Jesus is again articulating that to be one of his followers means not to be locked up at home but to be out serving the people.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Again Jesus is trying to get them to get over themselves for good, to live in a state of mercy and trust at a time and place when they more naturally would see their plight very differently, full of fear and blame.  
Now we get to Thomas and the heart of the story and of the whole gospel of John.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut [What again? They are slow learners; they have still locked their doors.] Jesus came and stood among them again and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 
Unfortunately that is where too many tellings of this story and in popular parlance end, with Thomas’ conversion so to speak, coming to belief. But the ending is not quite here. For Jesus then said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas is to be remembered not only for the change of mind, but the whole point is not his belief; it is his admonishment by Jesus that his way of believing is too limited; his sight too narrow. There is more than physical sight, touch, experience, all external to one’s self; there is also the internal way of knowing, of deeper sight and truths than by those who have to have all things nailed down, and there is trust in what you can not yet see.
I trust even though I can’t yet see or show easily to someone else that another  world is possible, a resurrected world if you will, even in my place and even in so many people others are quick to give up on, and in myself.
This has meaning for us too in how our religion can help transform the world around us into a more generous and just world. It means seeing ourselves anew, and also getting over ourselves for good too. My colleague Tom Schade writes about this often in his blog The Lively Tradition. Recently he has written about how what we take often for granted, it has become so rote and ordinary to us, the 7 Principles statement in the UUA bylaws, that it is often denigrated and dismissed, but how when we see them as not something whose purpose is to define who we are but as our mission steps for how the world should be, and guides for taking action in the world, we can transform ourselves from a small religious institution to part of a large and emerging progressive social spiritual movement.
  • There is a facebook meme that connects each of the 7 principles with what is pulling people together out in the streets.
    The inherent worth and dignity of each person with the black lives matter and trans rights movement; justice equity and compassion with the income inequality movement; acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth with the immigrant movement, including the response to islamophobia; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning with the climate change movement and fighting for science education; the democratic process in society at large with the voter rights movement; world community with peace and justice with the anti-war and acting like an Empire movement; the interdependent web of all existence with the fight against environmental classism and racism, for example, ala the Flint Michigan water crisis, the way natural disasters affect the poor and the vulnerable so much harder.
  • Rev. Schade says “People are fighting for the principles we have named as the Seven Principles in the streets everyday.  They may have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. We are not their leaders. The question is whether we will see them as our leaders.”
We need to see our principles, and our institutions, as ultimately about more than just ourselves in our own locked rooms, just getting by. In a book called The Small Church At Large, author Robin Trebilcock writes it well, saying that the only thing that it not good about a small church is when it is has a small vision. As another author frames it, Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution, we need to grow smaller to do bigger things in the world.
And we need to see our mission as being about the world and helping others to see themselves as more, and capable of more, than they see themselves now. That is what being a liberal religion, in all its manifestations, has always been about.
Tom says, “It is as though we think that our congregation is the Beloved Community, rather thinking of the Beloved Community as all humanity made fair and the people one.”
The virtues of how liberal religion is lived is the best way for people to see our faith and to see the possibilities for their own lives and their own places and times. These virtues are reverence, self-possession, gratitude and generosity,  honesty, humility, solidarity, and openness. We live in a time particularly it seems when it is hard to see these as blooming all around us, but that is because we are letting ourselves be blinded.
After our tornado in our area this week, it has been easy to focus on the destruction and the interruption in lives that are already struggling, and how the official response is so slow and so limited and the fears that the effects will linger and add to our abandonment, but what I kept seeing the past few days was, what we also should expect, and that is the ways people opened their lives and their homes to one another, in a place that so many people see differently, where they think it is not even live and let live  but die and let die.
Tom writes:
“The well-being of the planet and all who live on it depends on each of us making these values the cornerstones of our lives.  These virtues are the ethical implications of the way we religious liberals understand the world. Our mission is to embody these virtues, persuade others of their necessity, and convert the world to living in accordance with them.”

I hope if nothing else we might see anew the value and vision and possibilities of what we do deep down when we come together on Sunday mornings and, most importantly, what we do when we carry our Sundays vision with us into our Mondays. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015 in the 74126: "They Made Known To Others What They Had Seen"


Christmas 2015 Common Meal and Candlelight Worship: Lessons and Carols and Communion
The Welcome Table: A Free Universalist Christian Missional Community

We eat our meal together, and worship together, around the same table


INVOCATION
Today is the day which God has made: Let us rejoice and be glad therein. What is required of us? To live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This is our covenant as we walk together in life in the ways of God known and to be made known: In the light of truth, and the loving and liberating spirit of Jesus, we gather in freedom, to worship God, and serve others

INVITATION
from "Christmas Beatitudes" by David Rhys Williams
On this blessed day let us worship at the altar of joy, for to miss the joy of Christmas is to miss its holiest secret. Let us enter into the spiritual delights which are the natural heritage of child-like hearts. Let us withdraw from the cold and barren world of prosaic fact if only for a season. That we may warm ourselves by the fireside of fancy, and take counsel of the wisdom of poetry and legend.
Blessed are they who have vision enough to behold a guiding star in the dark mystery which girdles the earth; Blessed are they who have imagination enough to detect the music of celestial voices in the midnight hours of life. Blessed are they who have faith enough to contemplate a world of peace and justice in the midst of present wrongs and strife. Blessed are they who have greatness enough to become at times as a little child. Blessed are they who have zest enough to take delight in simple things; Blessed are they who have wisdom enough to know that the kingdom of heaven is very close at hand, and that all may enter in who have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand.

"O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL"

O Come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant
O Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem,
Come and behold him, Born the King of angels
O Come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Sing choirs of angels, Sing in exultation,
O Sing, all ye citizens, of heaven above
Glory to God, In the highest
O Come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

LIGHTING THE ADVENT & CHRIST CANDLES
In Advent season each week we point the way to Christmas. Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope, these are the touchstones in our journey preparing our hearts for this holy day when we begin again in the spirit of the Child. And so we come to Christmas once again, as have those before us through the centuries, the mighty cloud of witnesses who have lighted our way with their lives of faith, hope and unconditional love.
May the lights we burn tonight warm us with memories of their inspiration and their aspirations.
In miracle and mystery, Jesus was born, light shining in the darkness. In miracle and mystery, all are born, new lights of life full of hope. May our lives be the Light of this Good News.
Peace and joy and hope and love---which never come easy and are easily lost—all come together in the liberating spirit of God.
May God’s light heal our lives and world.
And may this light, on this special day of birth, remind us that to be in the spirit of Christmas we must be where peace needs to be born, Where joy needs to be sung, Where hope needs to be found, And where love needs to be shared.
We light these candles once again in this Season which reminds us how to live most fully all our days. We light these candles to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world.
With the coming of this light let there be peace. Blessed are the peacemakers.
With the coming of this light let there be joy. Blessed are those who mourn and who suffer in this special time, that their hearts be lifted.
With the coming of this light let there be love. Such great love helps us to love God and one another, especially our enemies.
With the coming of this light let there be hope, that goodness will prevail in our lives and world, that oppression will end, that what unites us is stronger than what divides us, that we will find our way in the light of God and fear not.
With the coming of this light let there be born once again the simple transforming freedom the Christ Child brings to the world, through which the light of God shines in all, that we may be God’s people every day, and care for one another and for all of God’s Creation, with our hearts, minds, souls, and our hands.
We light these candles to proclaim the coming of the light of the loving and liberating spirit of God into the world.


PRAYER

O God, who hast brought us again to the glad season when we remember the birth of Jesus, grant that his spirit may be born anew in us. Open our ears that we may hear the angel songs, open our lips that we may sing with hearts uplifted, Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all. Amen. (King's Chapel Book of Common Prayer)

FIRST LESSON: Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


"AWAY IN A MANGER"
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes
I love thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle, till morning is nigh

SECOND LESSON: Luke 2: 8-12
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

"THE FIRST NOWELL"
The first Nowell, the angels did say,
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
Born is the king of Israel.


Third Lesson: Luke 2: 13-20
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

"ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH"
Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o'er the plains
and the mountains in reply echoing their joyous strain
Gloria, In excelsis Deo; Gloria, In Excelsis Deo.
Shepherds why this jubilee? Why these songs of happy cheer?
What great brightness did you see? What glad tidings did you hear?
Gloria, In Excelsis Deo; Gloria, In Excelsis Deo.
Come to Bethlehem and see, Him whose birth the angels sing
Come adore on bended knee, Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, In Excelsis Deo. Gloria, In Excelsis Deo.

PRAYER OF PEACE AND JUSTICE
"The Work of Christmas" by Howard Thurman
When the star in the sky is gone, When the Kings and Princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The work of Christmas begins. To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To teach the nations, To bring Christ to all, to make music in the heart.

HOMILY: Far North Tulsa and The New Nazareth
"and when they had seen this, they made known to others....." each year my christmas homily takes off from one of the words or phrases in Luke's nativity of Jesus gospel. this year it will be this phrase.
So much of what Christmas is about is how to see, what to see, anew. So much of what we do here in the 74126 is help people, whether residents or from other parts, to see our place and people anew, deeper, as God sees us. For us to see ourselves anew too, full of possibilities. We are small, like Nazareth, like Bethlehem, but we have and are enough. And, just as with the Christmas lessons and story, at the same time as we are enough we know More is to come, more truth light love liberation, and that in living in our world of simple enough we ourselves are part of the More in the lives of our neighbors. Enough and More, the inhaling and exhaling of the Spirit of Life, the way God incarnates in and through us. 


For we are one of the "new Nazareths" where it is said nothing good will come, so no one invests, where all attention and power goes to the Sephorris of the world, those commercial cool places where money flows like the Empire built city of Sephorris of old just a few miles from Nazareth.
But because God with Christmas said Nazareth Lives Matter! Nazareth is known today and Sephorris is not.
Christmas is about seeing the Nazareths of the world right around us and within us, for that is where Incarnation happens.
God comes again and again as the candle of light where the powers keep extinquishing them.
Just as we have helped to narrow the life expectancy gap here from the outrageous 14 years we died earlier than those in south Tulsa to the still unjust 11 year difference, we are part of God's candlelighting here.

Finally Christmas reminds us that it is not our projects of food, art, justice, and parties that truly give birth to an emerging world of resistance and resiliency here; it is the way we as people of peace connect with other people, learn from our neighbors lives, and together love the hell out of this world.

It is always about people, about others, especially about loving our enemies, about "those people." In this time when much in the public life is about making enemies, maintaining enemies, being afraid of enemies, Christmas calls us to move in love toward our enemies; they are the world into which our Emmanuel will come, our salvation.


It is about people not projects because Christ came as a person and not as a project. As we near the beginning of Christmas time, remembering Christmastide begins not ends Dec. 25, this is our lesson to remember and share: Christ came/comes not as an Idea, as a philosophy or theology, not as a Principle, not as A Set Of Great Teachings, or Creed, not for God's sake as Bylaws, Buildings, Budgets and Bottom Lines, not as a Mission Vision Values Statement, not as a source of money or status (and so neither should the church). Christ came/comes as a defenseless living being, hungry, in a violent oppressed impoverished place, into a loving but out of the norm family, and into a community of resistance (and so should be the church's location and mission).

So it is how we dedicate ourselves to practice Christmas, incarnation, all year round: to keep moving into the neighborhood, as God did with the birth of Jesus and does still, waiting each day for us to go join in the party.

PASTORAL PRAYERS

READING: “The Christmas We Are Waiting For” Sister Joan Chittister
The waiting time for Christmas is almost over. But so what? After all, there is nothing special about waiting. It's what we're waiting for that matters.
One of my favorite Christmas scripture readings takes place when John is in prison. It is a gospel that confronts us with the need to make a choice about what we are waiting for.
John is no small figure in scripture. He bellows to peasant and king alike across the land that the world cannot continue as it has been, that we have to learn to think differently, to live differently, to see life differently. And for those actions John paid the price. He is in prison in this scripture, for confronting the King.
John has unmasked the evil of the system, he has called both synagogue and empire to repent their abandonment of the Torah, their substitution of Roman law for Jewish law. John, in other words, is a strong and thunderous voice. He calls in no uncertain terms for repentance. He announces the coming of the Messiah who would -- like Moses -- free the Hebrew people again.
But in prison, John, weary from trying, disheartened by failure, surely depressed, maybe even struggling with his own faith, sends a messenger to ask Jesus what surely must be more than a rhetorical question: Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?
Are you the one for whom I have spent my life preparing? Are you the one I gave up everything to announce? Are you the one who shall free Israel -- or have I wasted my time? Has it all been for nothing? "Are you the one?" John pleads.
But if John's question is bad, Jesus' answer is even worse. Tell John, who has lived to banish the empire, that the blind see, the lame walk and the poor have the gospel preached to them....
Not a single mention of an army to rout the garrisons, no talk of thunderbolts and falling thrones, no designation of the leader who would overthrow the emperor. No great religious crusade, even. No new outburst of religious enthusiasm, no embellishment of the temple, or the sacrifices, or the processions. No great blinding political or religious action at all. What John was waiting for, what John expected -- the rise of Judaism to new glory -- did not come.
The answer was searingly, astoundingly, clear. John had spent his life doing church, but Jesus did not come to do church; Jesus came to do justice. The Messiah was not about either destroying or renewing the old order. The Messiah was about building a new one where, as Isaiah said, the desert would bloom, the wilderness would rejoice, sorrow and sighing would flee away and the good news of creation would be for everyone.
On Christmas the question becomes ours to answer.
For what have we waited? For what have we given our lives? For religious symbolism or for gospel enlightenment? For the restoration of the old order or for the creation of the new?
Think carefully about the answer because on it may well depend the authenticity of our own lives and the happiness of many who are even now crippled by unjust systems, blinded by their untruths and fooled into believing that, for them, God wants it that way.
Merry Christmas to you all. And may, where you are, the desert be brought to bloom.


HYMN FOR CHRISTMAS EVE COMMUNION
"O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

COMMUNION
We lift up our hearts in God for the gifts of Life given for all.
Thanks be to God.
As Christmas reminds us of how the Divine came into the world in one so small, young, and fragile, so the Gifts of Life Abundant are in the ordinary made extraordinary, in the bread of the earth and the juice of the grape becoming food of the Spirit, incarnations of the Sacred.
Thanks be to God.
As Christmas calls us to be mindful of all those in need, all without a room, all with grief and fear, and to work for a world more just, so may this token of our daily bread, and this token of our cup of forgiveness which quenches the thirst of the soul, call us to go feed others.
Thanks be to God.
As Christmas offers us peace and light in times of darkness, may the sacred offering of this small meal, one to another, inspire us to acts of lovingkindness, all in the Spirit of the One born upon this night who showed us faithfulness without fear, preparing a welcome table for all.
Thanks be to God.
And so we join together in saying the prayer Jesus taught to those who would follow in his radically inclusive hospitable and justice-seeking way of the Spirit.
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, the power, and the glory, forever, and ever. Amen.


BREAD OF NEW LIFE, CUP OF NEW HOPE

From the beginning of the community gathered around Jesus, it is a community at its truest when it is a community that goes to the manger instead of gathering people into the inn; it is a church that is where those are who have been left out; we become our community when we go to the mangers, and we can trust that the star of Christmas will shine over us there, a greater light than all inside the inn, that we will have a community that reflects the diversity of God's world just like the diversity that gathered around the manger. Our communion is where we re-enact the manger, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, letting Christ be born anew within us so we can be born anew for the world and help it be born anew.
All are worthy and all are welcome in this free and open communion. We follow the practice of intinction, or dipping of the bread into the cup before eating.
May we remember that in our times of hunger and brokenness, of sadness even in holiday season, that God provides wholeness and abundant gifts of Creation all around us, among us, and within us all, more than enough to share with others. There is always enough of what all need if we all share and take no more than we need. That is the way it is in God’s inn called the manger, God’s welcome table, open to all regardless of who they are, what they believed, especially for those who are suffering, and oppressed. Come let us celebrate at the table the birth of the one who would make table gatherings in the midst of strangers and enemies, in the abandoned places of the Empire, reminding all there of God‘s healing presence.
The gifts of bread and juice, of plate and cup passed one to the other, are Christmas gifts from God that remind us of the gift given to the world on that first Christmas morning, and remind us of the gifts we ourselves are as we too, as all are, children of God.   


SHARING CANDLELIGHT FROM THE CHRIST CANDLE
"SILENT NIGHT"

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child, Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Al-le-lu-ia
Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face, With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus Lord at thy birth.

BENEDICTION
Go now in peace, and may the peace of God go with you all the days of your life. Go now in joy, finding the deepest spirit in the simplest of things. Go now in love, dedicated to making it visible as justice for all. Go now in hope, the spirit of the Christ Child bringing light into your life and world.