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
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

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

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, 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.

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.


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, 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 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 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.

"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.


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.

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.

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.


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.   


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.

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.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Advent Is More Than Passive Waiting; Advent is Active "Hearing Others Into Speech" To Birth A More Peaceful World

Second Sunday of Advent Homily: The Candle of Peace, Yes Peace, More Peace, Especially Now

Rev. Ron Robinson

This Advent Season in particular it seems I feel closer to constant "fight or flight" responses than ever before. Maybe you do too. Maybe it is the merchants at the fear-mongering shop, or maybe it is the way evil is accentuated in a time of goodness (hope, peace, joy, love, and all that), the way the so-called culture wars and clashes of civilizations drumbeat seeps into our consciousness and drowns out the little drummer boy, or just social media culture I immerse myself in while doing good and trying out of necessity to raise money for good. 

Pro and con and making points, garnering likes?, seem the air we breathe in. Guns, of course. But now prayer. Happy Holidays, of course. Blacklives/alllives. Free speech/hate speech. Your "timeline" your "daily feed" will fill in others. 

For me it is often, on the surface, over words. Words are our lands, providing our refuge as connecting us to the stories and people that have nurtured us. But not everyone experiences our words, our worlds, the way we do. Putting up a wall between our words can seem like an insult, like an invasion taking away our land, our words, when it is really just a way to say your words are not my words. Ideally, any walls between our wordworlds might be more like those windows you can see out of but others can't see in. And much of this, of course, has to do with the history of the owners of the words; which ones have always had protected status, were seen as normal or the right words for all (so much so I might add that this very given status for the words and symbols back-fires and takes away the power of them). 

Here are some examples on smaller more personal scales than the above, but in some ways have been just or more challenging for me because they are personal, and as i believe theologian James Luther Adams said in something of this way, what gets under your skin is your God; what gets you to react is what you treat as Ultimate. 

So you probably know I am a deep dweller in the world of the "missional church" (redundancy though I see and wish that phrase was, and oxymoron as i too often experience it). I remember bristling, though, when someone else bristled and offered up the critique of the word missional and how they could not use it, and didn't like to hear it, because of the connections with missionaries and missionary culture and violence of many kinds. And, at least in my religious association (but like most things I wouldn't be surprised if it was found in other denominations too, though perhaps for varying reasons) there is also the bristling at the word "church" for much the same reason, either its connection being "too Christian" for those of other faiths among us, or for its semantic baggage (too institutional in an anti-institutional age, etc). I bristle, and am quick to jump into defensive posture, at such things. Taking away my land where missional is the very opposite of the missionary stereotype/reality? Where the Greek word missio meaning Sent is at the very heart of my experience of God? Or trying to take away my literal "church" which forms the visible real embodiment of what I find sacred and is where i find "my people" and my history/identity? Lately, it is over they hymn I love and constantly use, for missional church reasons besides its beauty, "We'll build a land" by Carolyn McDade, critiqued for creating images and evoking realities of colonizing, taking away lands and cultures. All of which is ironic because that is what I feel happens in taking away my sacred texts and scriptures that are in the hymn, reflecting not colonizers but an oppressed people seeking liberation and committing to co-creating with God a place among the ruins of Empire where another world of love and justice is possible. For some of us the scriptures, the hymns, the traditions of this and other church seasons are not places we "liturgically visit" but live in. 

And so I bristle, when I get defensive and see the critiques. I bristle. I am human. It is okay. But if I turn bristling into debate, or blocking and turning away from the other, then we don't have the chance to create the real sacred edge between our wordworlds where God really is incarnated and dwells and is born. And when I jump to debate mode, or block mode, which is fight or flight, then i am missing out on the real opportunity to go even deeper into my own words I am so bristly about. It is because of the critiques others give based on their own wordworlds of the word missional, the word church, the hymn (and there are soooo many hymns critiqued; I just chose one that recently has me bristling the most) that I learn and grow more in my understandings. With the hymn, for example, the critique helps me to see the realities of different contexts, reminds me that not everyone shares my scriptural waters I swim in, that in some congregations in some locales among some peoples singing the hymn might not only evoke colonizing but in the way the scriptures are sung, used, but not understood in their own life and context, might be more appropriating of cultures in the moment itself. I will still love, still sing the hymn, as still using and promoting "missional church" but I do it all in a deeper, more generous way for having dwelled in the edge place between the wordworlds and affirming others in their different decisions just as heartfelt, mindful and sacred. And my perspective is enriched by having let others know I have been enriched by theirs. (As biology shows us, it is the "edge effect", the spots between diverse eco-regions, the disturbed places, where the most growth occurs. It is the same thing sociologically as what is referred to, and what our local foundation here is named, "a third place." 

Advent, then, this very time when the edges in our cultures seem more with us, and when depression and sadness dwell with us more deeply too, Advent gives us the opportunity, the mandate even, to experience the edge effect. For Advent is the season when we should shut up and ride along with Miriam and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem, and be a quiet presence, attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable right around us, within us. Advent, and Christmas, is the season when we are reminded that life is not about us, at least not about us as individuals with personal likes and dislikes, but about getting over ourselves, our bristles, our own skins, for good. Christmas, as author and pastor Michael Slaughter titles his book, is not about our birthday, what we are given, but about Jesus and giving to the world. 

And what we can give to the world this particular Advent is to recast Advent time, these weeks intentionally marking the time up to Christmas, from a stereotype of just waiting for something big to happen, from a sense of retreat even where we block off all others for a time and dwell within our wordworld, and make Advent instead into a time of active listening and learning, quiet engaging with others, in order to "hear into speech" as feminists taught us. Hear into Speech is a way to bring about new worlds, incarnations of God. This is the life of Advent. The angelic presence leads Miriam into her Magnificat speech of liberation and praise. Zacharias literally goes speechless then to speech with the pregnancy of Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist. Miriam's pregnancy presence leads Elizabeth from her seclusion into speech, and even her son John in the womb expresses himself with his leap of joy. 

The angels in Advent remind us this is not easy work. Angels it is said were of such a frightful countenance as understood in the ancient times of the stories (not the "angelic" presences depicted in so much art) that it prompted the storytellers to introduce them with the familiar speech first from their lips: Be Not Afraid. So we shouldn't be afraid, though we will be, to go into edges of the wordworlds that divide us, and there to hold up our mirrors to ourselves and with others to see things more clearly. To do so takes generosity, but it builds up our resources of generosity too. And if we are not growing in generosity, then what are we doing anyway, particularly this Advent season. 

All one more way we conspire against the Empire this Season with the meaning of Advent itself. The movement focuses on spending less on things, worshipping and loving more, being more generous with our presence and support for the common good. We can add to that the conspiracy of acting as if there really is more room in the inn for another person and their experience, particularly for those who have been historically silenced. Like the ancient stories, it might catch on. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Advent and The Story of My Faith

I love Advent for many reasons but the biggest is because each year it begins replanting me in the Story of my faith. For me everything begins with Story. What story is my story a part of? Each day that answer provides my mission for the day.

(As a member and minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, that denominational part of the story is only part of the story of my faith, for my faith is rooted deeper than the beginnings of the associations in 1793 and 1825, deeper than the start of the very first churches that led up to those associations, back before 1648 Cambridge Platform and back before 1620 in Plymouth and 1606 in Scrooby, back before the Protestant Reformation that gave rise to the movements that would lead to the start of those churches, back through the years and communities both triumphant and heretical and martyred, back to before it was an Empire, back before it was named, a Story with even more ancient roots but planted in the hopes of a few people on the margins of the Roman Empire who still experienced the love of one killed by the Empire. That is why all of the Christian tradition, the scriptures that comfort and discomfort, the hymns based on those scriptures that comfort and discomfort, speak to me and is my struggle, and blessing.)

Advent is the opening chapter of that Story for me; the songs of this season, and the great Christmas hymns plant this story in me again each year too just like the stories in the Bible do that are told this time of year, and just like the stories of the lives of the great, known and unknown, ancestors who also were a part of the Story and have carried it and shaped it down the centuries for me. 

A story of liberation and resistance in a place of oppression, of hope that comes on the margins of society's power, of the Ultimate in the Intimate, God in the most vulnerable. Advent reminds me where to incarnate my life each day. It reminds me why, though God knows there are so many reasons not to be, I am a Christian.

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