Saturday, July 18, 2015

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

What Feeds Us
Rev. Ron Robinson, Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Sunday, July 19
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it...
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides...
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it...
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields...
In the voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing from the ground they will not return
Whatever he grief at parting.
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
- Wendell Berry
Today we will be off for the annual church camp east of Tulsa called the Southwest UU Summer Institute. I first heard about it at a person’s house for a newcomers party when I started attending my first UU church in 1977 in Oklahoma City. Except for one or two years, I have been going to SWUUSI ever since. This year’s theme is Food and Justice and Faith, something dear to our hearts in our church, or missional community, in far north Tulsa. My wife Bonnie will be doing a workshop on planting a garden and harvesting community; I will be doing a workshop on church as a garden, as a meal, as a store, and as a shelter. This sermon grows out of preparing for the workshop.
First, a few facts, then a few parables, or miracle stories, on what really feeds us.
In 2009, the University of Oklahoma did a nutrition study with us that found in our area of far north Tulsa 60 percent can't afford healthy food even if there was access to it; 55 percent worry about the amount of food they have; 29 percent skip meals. In 2013 we did another study with OU of those who came to our free cornerstore pantry. It showed that 52.6 percent of those who come to us have high food insecurity; and 42.1 percent have very high food insecurity, experiencing hunger symptoms when surveyed; 68.4 percent of households have at least one member with a nutrition-related chronic disease; 53 percent suffer depression and admit it; 47 percent with anxiety; 53 percent have high blood pressure; 32 percent high cholesterol; 47 percent obese. 63 percent have under $10,000 annual household income, meaning they are part of the couple hundred thousand Oklahomans who are too poor for Obamacare because our state didn’t expand Medicaid.
Getting people food then is just a small part of what is needed, but for many it is what is needed right at that moment they come; it takes a little bit of the hunger and anxiety edge off that makes it just a little bit easier to make better daily life choices and responses, to move, if just for a little while, from deep to light survival mode. In our zipcode that dies 14 years sooner than those on the other side of town, the matter of food is a matter of physical and mental health, and from those, a matter of civic health, the ability to participate in society, which itself feeds back to better overall physical and mental health.
Food is part of the social determinants of health that along with genetics accounts for 80 percent of that life expectancy, and yet as a society we only spend 20 percent of health dollars on those social determinants, like food projects and neighborhood environments, which contribute to 80 percent of health outcomes. Our zipcode has the worst health care access of any zipcode in Tulsa, but as important as that is to life expectancy, and we need better access, we need even more the shift to resourcing the social determinants.  Community matters, above all. It is why we repeat, and repeat, that we do not aim to give out food, as much as we strive to give out community opportunities. It is funny though that so many people want to fund food; they believe helping us give food, which is vitally needed, will affect those statistics; but what doesn’t get funded, and what would really affect those statistics, is to fund community opportunities, increasing portals of relationships.
Now for the parables and miracles.
First, The parable of the Whole Wheat Rotini. In ordering food from the Food Bank for our free grocery store, we had a chance to order boxes of whole wheat rotini pasta without having to pay a shared fee for them; we thought, pretty healthy, pretty easy to cook, win win. Now, our store is like a store by design—people shop in it for what they want; we don’t just hand out bags of groceries (we do that a few times a year as we did this past Thursday when we give out four or five tons in one hour, but that is an outside event and not in the store). And week after week the rotini sat virtually untouched. We kept upping how many bags they could to count as one item; kept getting untouched.
So we started carefully asking how come—the first response was often that it being whole wheat, looking brown, was just too different from the noodles they were used to and their family wouldn’t eat it and so they didn’t want to waste one of their precious number of allowed items for something that wouldn’t be eaten by their family. Well, that’s why we do the store the way it is; people’s choices empower them which creates capacity within them which brings hope which brings change. That was a good familiar lesson to be reminded of—how to work in relationship as an ally, and not as “a provider”. Allies “don’t know best”. End of parable, I thought. But the good parables, like good relationships, keep opening up more truth.
As we were asking and prompting about the Rotini, a few brave souls opened up to us that it would do no good to take the pasta home because they didn’t have water turned on in their home. Once we started asking about that, more and more said the same. Choosing between electricity and food and medicine and water, water usually was the first to go. The Rotini sitting on the shelves then led us into a more intense water ministry; we were able to get a lot of tornado leftover bottled water from Oklahoma City, giving out double cases to those without water at home, and we got other donations of water in bigger jugs, and told people to keep the jugs and come back and use our hydrant out back of the community center, or the hydrant at our gardenpark and orchard. This summer the water donations have dried up, the tornado water all gone, and it is one of the most requested items. And now, thanks to a failure of being able to give away whole wheat Rotini, we are tracking the prevalence of a lack of water in homes, which is allowing us to get a better understanding of what home consists of in our neighborhoods, where campers, RVs, shipping crates, tents, cars that don’t run, abandoned houses, abandoned trailers, someone’s garage, campsites and more are homes; and we have learned more about what it takes for someone to be fed, which is more than food. As always, we, who live in the neighborhoods too, are taught by our neighbors, and in return we can be a more effective partner shining a light on realities and walking toward the suffering. The parable also teaches me that we should have a right to at least a base amount of water in the home for free; over a certain amount, charge; but allow a set amount for free.

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

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

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

Monday, June 01, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Type your summary here Type rest of the post here

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday Homily

Good Friday service, All Souls, April 3, 2015
traditional reading: Mark 15: 16-41

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters[c]); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22 Then they brought Jesus[d] to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.[e] 29 Those who passed by derided[f] him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah,[g] the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land[h] until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[i] 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he[j] breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”[k]
40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Good Friday Homily:
“Crosses and Conversions”
Rev. Ron Robinson

We are here today not just because of what happened some two thousand years ago, as momentous as that turned out to be; we are here because it keeps happening, keeps happening. Think of all that has occurred of unjust suffering since we were here just one year ago, far away and close at hand, in headlines and heartbreak, incident after incident across the country, execution after execution, until it becomes almost, almost as unremarkable and as forgettable as all those many many Roman crosses that lined the roads leading up to Jerusalem at Passover time.  What one scholar (Dom Crossan) calls “the normalcy of civilization.”
An oppressed community torn asunder, leaders killed, potential leaders killed, dispersed, reacting in fear, turning on themselves; the living “as if” another world of love and justice and plenty for all is possible, is met by those living for power and position and the status quo which gives status to a chosen few. Keeps Happening, keeps happening. The victims of so much domestic violence, of terrorism, of sudden acts of insanity. Headlines and Heartbreak all around us. The temples of our lives, of our communities, ripped in two.
And Beyond our personal losses, our fears, our never too deeply buried pains and shames that we carry Good Friday to Good Friday, beyond the tragedies that make Breaking News become ho hum, will there ever be a time when Good Friday for us does not remind us of the race-based Good Friday killings three years ago? Or maybe for some it already is fading? Is something that doesn’t just spring to mind with every mention and thought of the holiday?
Oh how we might long for a centurion’s conversion of our society? Maybe his statement of belief was more mocking at Jesus’s death; scholars debate that point; but maybe being up close and personal to the cross, having it all confront him, something about this particular minor nobody, in the eyes of the Empire, turning still to his God, this nobody unashamed to cry out to his God, seeking his God and not Caeser even at that moment when it would seem Caeser was in control, maybe it was a conversion moment when the suffering so common in the world couldn’t any longer be put out of sight and out of mind.
I am reminded of the phrase that Sister Simone Campbell uses to describe the mission of her progressive Catholic nuns travelling the country on buses seeking to, as she puts it, “walk toward the wounded; walk with the wounded.” It is turning toward the cross, as did Jesus as he taught and healed and liberated people in the shadows of all those Empire crosses. It calls to us today to walk that way too.
The recent documentary on the Good Friday killings in north Tulsa, Hate Crimes in the Heartland, helps us to keep the wounds and sufferings of our community in front of us. It is shown every so often here in Tulsa and I believe will be shown again next month. It is a way to walk toward and with the wounded. As quickly as was the response by law enforcement, as much as the community leaders sought solidarity and helped maintain a calming presence, in the zipcode where most of the killings and woundings took place, and where the killers also lived, the wounds still run deep, as does the fear and the shame and the anger and desperation. As long as Good Friday is happening every day for people who die 14 years sooner than others in our community the wounds still need witness.
There was a centurion’s conversion of a sort I was witness to that Holy Weekend three years ago. Much of my family and I still live in that zipcode; my father among them. Two days before that Good Friday he had turned 80 years old; we were taking him out to dinner that Wednesday night to celebrate but first I talked him into being a guest presenter with me to a class of graduate social work students who worked with us in our neighborhoods. That night we talked about the history of racism, segregation, abandonment of our area by business and government and schools just as soon as it was integrated, about white flight and redlining. My father’s father, a machinist working near Greenwood, had moved our family to north Tulsa at the time of world war one. My grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan as so many were in Tulsa and Oklahoma, of all social classes; his own grandfather had owned a slave;  I hear very few other families owning their past, though, from that time, and when we don’t we let shame and guilt still give those days and racism power; to do so, though, is to turn a little bit toward the cross. I have a photograph of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, shot from a distance of the burning and smoke, that I found that had been hidden in old photos in my grandparents’ attic, right alongside all kinds of other family photos. But those days weren’t the last word.  And so my father, growing up and living all his life so far in our northside zipcode was determined that even though he had been raised racist, that he wouldn’t raise us the same way if he could help it. He didn’t flee from the conflict of integration but stayed and was among the volunteer first basketball coaches of an integrated junior high in 1967 in North Tulsa, forming relationships that last to this day.
And yet, when at age 80, he met with that class of social work students and we talked about race and history of north Tulsa, he told them that most of the racists had all moved away, that it was nothing like what it had been. It was a common refrain; it does no good to keep looking at the past, my white neighbors and family would say; that’s not a cross we need to keep bearing. (of course my American indian neighbors and family have a different take, as do many of my African American neighbors). And then two days later the race-based killings on Good Friday happened. And my father had a conversion of sorts. He said he was wrong to have told the students that. Like many people, maybe the centurion too, he was learning the difference that the cross of racism, and the many other sins among us, is more than something that bad people do to good people; it is in the very Empire itself, and so things Keep Happening, Keep Happening. And that the one hanging from the cross, with so very little on his suffering lips besides a lament, he has spoken volumes through the years about the clash of worldly power and Divine Love that does not let the cross have the last word.
And I love that the documentary is also not letting the daily media narrative of the killings have the last word either, to make it old news. For in the documentary you also get glimpses into the lives of the killers, and they too become a part of a Greater Story. The teenager, of American Indian and European American ethnicity, whom my aunt had babysat for when he was a toddler and who had seen first hand the violence of his own upbringing, violence that continued throughout his life and up to the week of the killings; and the documentary shows how the older killer too was from a family with multiple races and ethnicities, with a black half-brother. The documentary of the Good Friday killings invites us to walk toward the wounds all around, to wonder at how the Empire’s white supremacy, the struggle to maintain white normativeness, might have shaped deep down some of the hate on that Good Friday.

But the last word is not for today. No word holds the truth of this day, then or now. Today we enter into the world of silent witness. The world of the mothers, the women, the scandalous supporters, maybe their presence was part of the centurion’s conversion too, all those women left behind by the violence who followed Jesus underneath those crosses meant for them too, and who did not turn away from the suffering, but who stayed, who stood nearby, like centurions in their own right, centurions on behalf of a vulnerable God, a silent presence with their bodies, against an Empire breaking bodies, and in whom we see the presence and spark of that spirit that reminds us that although Good Friday keeps happening in so many ways and places, in headlines and heartbreak and horror, so too we keep happening, we keep forming community, coming together, to be silent together, to open up together at the foot of our cross to our own prayerful potential conversion. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Promise of Unitarian Universalism: Reviving The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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