Wednesday, September 29, 2010

311 At The Welcome Table: communion homily at Phillips Theological Seminary

PTS Chapel Communion Homily, Sept. 29, 2010: 311 At The Welcome Table
Rev. Ron Robinson

As on The Daily Show, when they have more footage than they can show, here is my "extended" version of the shorter homily given today; I will link to the actual podcast of it when it is up. The liturgy itself will come in a next post. The lectionary readings used for this week's chapels leading up to World Communion Day included this one I used from 2 Timothy 1:1-14:

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.


I should say right upfront: If the idea of a Unitarian Universalist leading Communion strikes you as….interesting?, if not a tad heretical….know you are not alone. In fact, you would be joined by many Unitarian Universalists today, especially those outside of our oldest colonial era churches back East where it is somewhat more commonplace.

A characteristic of our faith is that each of the free churches in the UUA determines its theological orientation, most are now rather pluralistic, but even among those churches with a more particular orientation and worship tradition, whether it be an unapologetic humanist atheist church up north or an unapologetic neo-pagan church in Texas or say, First Church of Christ, Unitarian of Lancaster, Mass. Founded in 1635, all impose no theological tests for membership, including on their ministers. Free pulpit, free pew, free church. Confusing, I give you. But at our best, Covenanting with one another to engage with one another, learn from one another precisely because of our differences, guided into the future together by that old admonition in our DNA that there is more truth and light yet to be made known.

So definitely don’t assume our service today is typical of what you will find. It is not typical even among our Christian churches, and it is not even what you will find down on North Peoria when our own group there has communion each Sunday morning, because we are smaller and primarily missional and we are more conversational than homiletical, informal than formal. Whether one chooses to participate or not, for whatever reason, is fine with us, there and then or here and now: your presence blesses and itself helps create the Welcome Table.

Okay, so much for the introductory tap dance.

If I have a point today, it is that communion need not be primarily about a point. I know we are in a seminary and so thinking about and coming to conclusions about and sharing our ideas about such things as this is vital and needed. That’s why I said primarily not about a point. It is primarily about people, and too, a people, and, as well, yes, the spirit of a person. Maybe if we’d practiced it that way all these millennia there wouldn’t have been so much bloodshed because of it, or angst over it.

Do not, it reads in Timothy, be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

I believe that, but I also believe what a seminary professor of mine once said, well probably more than once said, in words to the effect of “Don’t preach on not being ashamed of the gospel until you first preach on why, in light of the actions of the centuries between Paul and us, you might be ashamed of it now, for what it has become or how it has been misused.” Or at least consider the model of the heartfelt call by WEB Dubois to white Americans: “I don’t want your guilt; I want your responsibility.” Shame makes an idol of the self and tends to paralyze us; responsibility is other directed and motivates us. So don’t be ashamed of the gospel, or of the way it is embedded in the practice of communion, but, in light of a history that contains so much fearful exclusion and terrifying triumphalism coming out from such radically inclusive liberating sources, do be responsive---for it, and to it.

I must say too that even in my own particular heretical tradition, UU Christianity, of our general heretical tradition, UU, (and I suppose Christianity itself should be seen as a kind of heretical tradition within the Empire culture of the world), while I do love our high church of Unitarian Universalist Christianity, Kings Chapel in Boston on the freedom trail, or at the Universalist National Cathedral in Washington D.C., or the Trinitarian Universalists in Rhode Island, or those old Puritan churches of the Massachusetts Standing Order, still I admit that for me the radical economic and theological communitas of Eucharist would get lost or diminished after a steady diet of the liturgy inside all that architecture and history and formality, when so much money has to go to maintain those things, instead of creating the world envisioned by the very liturgy itself. While I did get a thrill out of leading communion using Paul Revere made communionware in Salem, Mass., I don’t think of it as often as I do my current dream of participating in a kind of moveable communion along the hot and hotly contested downtown Tulsa streets during the Gay Pride Parade.

Because the most important thing to me about communion is the sharing of the experience of it, as an encounter in community, one that can be an opening, a garden if you will, where God, beyond any name or doctrine, acts in and among and through us to literally grow souls and the soul of the world, and in my theology, to grow God as well. Communion can refresh us and remind us to be in community all the rest of the time with people who are, thank God, different from us.

It is not about making a point, but about making a people.

There once was a young Tulsan in the early 1950s, not me, whose family attended a big downtown church where his father was on the vestry and after six months of arguments and stalemate about intinction, yea or nay, came home to announce they were leaving the church and joining All Souls Unitarian. Thus and thereby Putting that issue to rest. The young man grew up with decided opinions about communion and went to Harvard Divinity School where they found some theological force, but then he happened in 1963 to do his internship at that flagship Anglican Unitarian Congregationalist Kings Chapel. He used to argue against communion to the supervising minister there—we encourage that sort of thing—until finally the senior minister leaned across the desk, looked him in the eye, and said, “Friend, this is my body. I would break it for you. Friend, this is my blood; I would shed it for you”

That got the student feeling about communion a little differently anyway. And soon after that, came Nov. 22, 1963, and Boston particularly reeled from the shock of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It just so happened that the intern had been scheduled to preach his first sermon to the church on that Sunday following the shooting in Dallas. He goes to the senior minister and says, “but of course you will want to be up in the pulpit,” but, being a wise mentor, the minister says, “no no, it is still your turn.” And so the intern preaches and helps administer communion, and he watches as the people silently line up, stack up against each other, first in the pew boxes then in the aisle, come forward, receive, and return. So simple. So simple church can be, even in such ornate surroundings after all.

And he knows it is true, what his mentor later told him after he’d asked him how he’d done, as they were walking across Boston Common from the church to the Parish House, Something like “You were fine. It didn’t matter. I could have been up there preaching my finest words, most healing sermon, and they would not remember. It isn’t what they came for.” Not a point about suffering or hope or God. They came for communion. To be a people.

Even a temporarily gathered people, and gathered for not explicit religious services.
As related in the book Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Parker, UU seminary president with remaining dual affiliation as a United Methodist minister, tells how she, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, stopped doing and going to communion because of how it had become only a story of suffering and acceptance of pain in order to draw close to God; how she as a young minister preaching the same thing as part of communion liturgy had one of those come to Jesus moments when a victim of domestic violence sought her counsel and spoke of needing to accept her own situation, for didn’t Jesus accept his on the cross?

But then Parker was in a recovery group with a fellow traveler who himself had once been the abuser of his children, and who was learning to live with all he’d done, without it spinning him into a shame cycle that would lead to more abuse, and there she began to experience a different kind of community, one that lifts up lamentation, solidarity, struggle, the telling of truth, accountability, and possibilities of new life that form bonds unheard of. She experienced a new kind of people. It only happened because she was able, in this new setting, to sit close together with one whose experience reminded her, in ways, of her own abuser, and yet because of being a people she began to see both him and herself as more than what their respective shame tried to make of them apart.

And Soon after that she was at a worship service led by a woman she knew and trusted. Still, when it came time for communion, she thought of slipping out. But this time instead she risked staying, and the service was more about being present with suffering, about being a feast amid famine and funeral, about life and finding food for the soul there. That night when, as a part of the small group, she received the plate and the cup from another, she had a liberating vision of receiving it from, and giving it to, the one who had abused and betrayed her.

A people, not ashamed of their pain, able to see it in others; and, being seen, becoming more than they had been.

Which brings me to the 311 at The Welcome Table.
Between just May 1 and Aug. 4 of this year, those 96 days in Tulsa, there were 311 reported shootings. Doesn’t count the ones not reported. Doesn’t count the ones just across the city limits line. Or the ones before or since for this year. The bulk of them on the northside. My friends from school days on the northside, now police officers who track this thing and are in the group 100 Black Men of Tulsa, say there is not a day without a shooting on the northside; those statistics back it up. I can tell you I hear many of the shots myself. It happened just the other night when the 14 year old boy was killed in the convenience store. I was at McLain High School on North Peoria, my alma mater, the next day, where many of his friends were, and learned sketchy details of it there, and also learned of the grief and anger, and yes the Empire’s old innate response of honor and shame and revenge was very much present too. Made me wonder what kind of table the students will choose to sit around? What kind are we preparing in the presence of mine enemies? This is about communion.

Instead of seeking to be “over and against” this, to use the theological language, we need to go “under and within”, with a multitude of welcome tables, of holy communion, everyday Eucharist in the neighborhoods here. Of all kinds. And it is happening some here and there. But imagine: Welcome tables as abandoned homes that become safety centers for connections. In greenspaces, gardens, in front yards and backyards next to the boarded up row of homes. In parties thrown in parking lots (it would help if we could ever get pizza delivery). We need to see all the so called secular space as sacred space, worthy of our communion. And everytime we come to the table, wherever and however it is, we need to see it as including the 311 shooters, and the shot at, and their families and others in their blocks.

Timothy says:
to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

When you practice that, though, it can get messy. Like the communion bread itself, torn and soaked.

This past Friday our little group celebrated approval of the loan to buy a big church building, built in the 1920s, one of the very oldest still standing in the area, near 59th and North Peoria, but abandoned and rundown. Years ago it had been my own very first church building, with its Good Shepherd stained glass window one of my earliest memories. It will be our new and expanded and improved community center, clinic, chapel, classroom. But then on Saturday we discovered it had been seriously vandalized; stained glass windows, except the Good Shepherd facing the street, all broken out, graffiti spray painted throughout, again fortunately not on the original Indian art painted itself directly onto the concrete walls of the prayer room in the days it had belonged to the Indian Methodist Conference; doors busted, glass mirrors and lights strewn about. I thought of my grandparents and those in their generation who helped build it, all those married inside it like my parents, and the funerals, the baptisms, the wild onion dinners. The last funeral in the sanctuary was for the pastor of Zion Baptist Church when they owned it; he was shot and killed sitting in his car in a nearby elementary school parking lot, unsolved to this day I believe.

See, I told you, we heard the folks around us say…Try to do something good here, and that from our neighbors. Thank God it didn’t make the Tulsa World, this old reporter says, because I don’t even have to imagine the reader comments. But Jesus comments differently. He says come and see a new world not only possible but present in small ways. Not ten minutes after we discovered it on Saturday evening a sign was nailed to the building that said “We love the vandals. God loves the vandals. We pray for the vandals.” Still there is that fight against that old familiar feeling, the shame thing, that says the people living here deserve what we get because we live here; what do we expect? if we were cool enough, smart enough, rich enough, all the enoughs of the American Dream, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. The place is just for those starting out or with nowhere else to go. So we learn to accept what comes. The Jesus Dream is about a different kind of having enough, enough of the spirit of love to share with damaged places and people, us included.

The next morning, we few gathered inside next to the Good Shepherd where the light was coming in, and we sang the song we sang a minute ago about building a promised land, and we read Genesis 28, that God is in this place, even this place, even as is, as the realtors say, even as it is now, and if we don’t pay attention we will not know God is here, and then to help us pay attention we passed to each other the bread of life and the cup of hope, and we said
communion is about living in the world of vandalism and violence, but where there’s more than enough love and help, forgiveness and fun, health and hope, to share, with all, the 311, and the more to come. Communion creates and shapes a community as much or moreso as it is a practice of that community.

So we returned to the current community center where we normally worship and we ate our common meal with others who came in and joined us. And shared favorite bible passages and made small talk until we drifted away, a few to go garden together, a family on to home, a few to show a visitor around, a few to check on family. All Taking with them a piece of the welcome table for the days ahead, for others.

I brought mine to you here.


Anonymous said...

Very powerful. Thanks, Ron, for the depth of your feeling, and your caring. --don s

Anonymous said...


Ron said...

You can hear the homily and the reading of scripture the homily is based on, at the seminary website under Chapel Recordings on the homepage at