Sunday, March 20, 2011

Abandoned Places, Abandon Church!: Part Two of Embodying Progressive Missional Faith: An Epistle To Plymouth

See part one in the post below. This post is "An Epistle To Plymouth" at the Installation Service of the Rev. Gerald E. Jay Libby as the 24th settled minister of the First Parish in Plymouth, Mass, Church of the Pilgrims, founded Scrooby, England, 1606, settled in Plymouth, 1620. Delivered today. This text and the delivered text are not exact; more here than given orally, same as in the earlier sermon at Worcester.

"An Epistle to Plymouth"
Rev. Ron Robinson

O God, May my words reflect Thy Spirit, May our minds and hearts be open to all the abundance and diversity of Life Itself, and May this time together inspire us to help make Thy Love Everlasting visible in the world.

First, my friends, from The Selected Texts for today from the Revised Common Lectionary comes this passage especially appropriate on this day of new beginnings: It is from the start of the 12th chapter of Genesis. Adonai said to Abram: Go you forth, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.”

This pivotal passage in the Bible gets even more power and meaning as it comes right after the incident with the Tower of Babel. There humans discovered God does not like uniformity, ego, hubris, and edifice complexes designed to put more and more people into one single place for their own identity and selfish aims. Right after the story of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the people into cultures of peoples, then comes the story of Abram. He is not yet known as Abraham, and at this point is all of 75 years old. When he was a child his father had heard the Lord call him out of their home in Ur to go to Caanan but his father had settled in Haran. It was from there Abram is called out, out of his comfort, his safety, his identity, in response to the Voice that interrupts our plans, and confounds what we know, turns us inside out, and reminds us of whose we are and what that means.

Greetings and Gratitude, I bring to you, the oldest congregation in our Association, from a very small band of folks in the far northside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who are an emerging congregation in our Association. Gratitude for your gifts today, and your history, and your invitation to be here. Consider the invitation given to come be our guests. Perhaps, though we have a great age difference, we can find ways to walk this road as together, oldest and newest, in both service and spirit.

Walking together. That is what this occasion is all about. It is a phrase from the prophet Amos made popular among our religious tribe by the one whom recently we lost at the age of 94, our historian of The New England Way, Conrad Wright. He helped restore our foundations as a people of covenant, especially those covenants or promises that constitute and create our free church. These include the covenants between a person and church; church and its elected leaders, including minister. Also church and church; and minister and minister. These four are our internal covenants helping to establish right relationships and Identity. They are like the materials of a ship that hold it together and give it a particular shape.

But there are two other more externally focused covenants: 1. that between church and world, be it known as parish, or immediate neighborhood. and 2. ultimately the covenant and connection between church and God, howsoever is called the Transcendent Spirit that is also within, among, and yet beyond us, the Voice that calls us or rises within us, and sets us on a journey, sending us out to be servants among scattered peoples. These two external covenants are like the Sea and the Wind; they are what give the ship of church its purpose, its reason for having its particular shape, and when they change in drastic ways they can sink or stall the ship built in the best of ways for other environments.

The four internally focused covenants are often the ones we spend most of our time dealing with; they are the ones that present us with urgent matters; and because of this they are the easier to grasp, and to write guidelines and policies about and create celebrations like this one. But if you are not grasped by the other two, the church will not be complete, not be church; instead it will become, as Conrad Wright said, merely a collection of religiously-oriented individuals who, if they were to disappear, would not cause much of a disturbance in the lives of the people in their surrounding community. That’s a good question to ask at annual meetings and pledge dinners: are we creating the kind of disturbance in the world that if we were to disappear would be noticed and felt by people in our community, and who are the ones whose absence would be greatly felt?

Today we do celebrate one of these internal covenants, that of church and minister. Know this: this covenant will only be as strong as are all the others. Where any one of them is weak or broken, the others will suffer. Strengthen any one, such as this one we celebrate, and the others will be stronger. Especially, though, to strengthen this covenant do we now need to put a priority on the external covenants we have neglected so long, for they are the Ground of being for the others; they call church into existence in the first place and continually re-orient church toward others, and re-create it among others, as a manifestation of The Spirit’s very own nature as sending, giving, liberating, serving, restoring.

When we make the shift in priority from internal to external covenants, and let them guide how we become church, we shift from a church having a mission, one that it can change like it changes boards or plans or programs, or ministers, to The Mission having a church.

Put in your mind, heart, and lives the mission of healing a hurting world, even writ small in very local ways, and let that dictate everything else, no matter what may then need to be changed. Engage the parish deeply, and let that wisdom, those needs, then create whatever form of church is mandatory to carry out the mission, and whatever personal transformations are called for in order to be sustainable servants.

As you do this, be prepared to see your world anew and not turn away from what you see. This is true at least for those of us like me who were born before 1963 especially, born and raised in Churched Culture. We, who perhaps have been here the longest, and longest steeped in church, are actually now the immigrants, the pilgrims in what has been our own land. Those who have come after us, those who are not and may never be Churched are the natives of this new land, new culture, and if we are to survive and to thrive and leave a more loving world behind us, we will have to learn from the natives, and let them lead us. Without them becoming us, and without them losing touch wiwith their varied cultures so they can continue to be the church there.

A come to us church could thrive in a churched culture with little variance between it and others; but in our world of great distance between our church culture and life beyond, a come to us church must have tremendous resources and resiliency to bridge that gap. And those are few and far between. But the good thing is that being church is older than our models of it, older than Plymouth, older than Wittenburg, older than Rome. Originally church was a “go be with them” people, and is becoming so again.

Here is what we need to remember: The church is not, fundamentally, a 501c3 nonprofit religious organization; it can and has existed, ancient and emerging times, without bylaws, boards, budgets, and buildings, and clergy. Church does not hahave to be thought of as “a” church, that one “goes to” on the corner of this and that, and is even named a certain thing, but church can be lived out organically as a way people, two or more at a time, participate as expressions of “the church.” Imagine. Church anywhere, anytime, by anyone. For Church does not have to be only in the mode of help us to become bigger and better, more competitive, where people despite our best intentions become the means to some organizational end; that is to follow the default mode of consumerism; church doesn’t have to be about attracting and extracting people from one environment, at great expense, and placing them in our environment, always worrying they will leave us; church can be about helping others grow, serving the ends of others, giving ourselves away, incarnating who we are into the greater life, and of course inviting others to do so with us.

Church may in the end choose to fulfill its mission being an organization with boards, budgets, bylaws and buildings, and marketing campaigns, and to make its worship time so attractive it can compete with all around it and fill up its pews again, but when we expand the horizons of church and then choose which one to move toward we will--to use the words fashioned by your, our, ancestors in Scrooby—have done so as the Lord’s free people, knowing we have chosen to be the church in certain ways. In a changing world, we need all the options at our disposal and to exercise as many as possible, even emanating from the very same people. There is no longer a one size one kind model of church; especially not if it is seeking to make visible in the world a Free Spirit of both Intimacy and Ultimacy.

Of course, if Mission creates church, how do you know what the mission should be? Who decides? How can it not change, even as church changes to fulfill it? How can a non-creedal people walk together down Common Mission Road? I am tempted, on this occasion especially, to say that these questions are why you have called a minister and why he has answered both this call and his own calling. But the questions, real and honest they be, are signs themselves of our misplaced priorities, of our old habits, of turning inward, turning only toward concerns for one another and those internal covenants that keep us perpetual in an Identity Crisis, our favorite crisis.

Mission comes from the Greek word missio, being Sent, and so is rooted in those beyond us covenants with the World and with God. Mission becomes then clear and compelling. As writer on the missional church Reggie McNeal says, no church ever votes to become missional. It simply begins living it and soon becomes it. Living into being the likeness of God in the world; or moving the world a bit closer to the Sacred.

In the Jesus tradition I follow in freedom, we take our missional words from Jesus who took his from Isaiah: to take God’s world transforming message of good news to the poor, to heal the sick and broken hearted, to free the captive, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of Jubilee when economic justice abounds and even the land is made whole anew. We are to be a Loving Liberating Justice For The Poor God’s Sent People. We fail, because we are people. But our mission is clear. We may differ at times on ways to best carry out the mission, that’s healthy conflict that is externally-focused; but the core mission is a given. All I know is if we argue over what to call it, we will miss it calling us.

You might have qualms about the word missional; it smacks too much of missionary colonialism; coming from Oklahoma, I get that. Here is the key difference: we do not take our Truth out into a world without truth or God, to make people out there like us in here. History has shown that doesn’t work; and theology has shown it limits God and turns God into an idol, something that can be possessed and manipulated. Instead, we are sent into the world to discover and uncover and nurture God’s surprising presence becoming visible there through the mutual relationships of service and study and celebration with others, especially with those most vulnerable, and those most unlike us.

Going back to our metaphor of the church as ship, with the world as sea, and God as the wind, my own community has helped me push this metaphor even further. For in our world today, our task is not just to craft a ship in dry dock then launch it into the world, like ocean liners or even like schooners, worried that it might sink, worried about its captain and crew; so much of church planting and church transforming is like that; it is what happens when we put first changing the church, something we are always trying to do it seems as our starting point, instead of what the real starting point should be, about changing the world.

What if we viewed church as a group of swimmers already adrift in the sea, survivors of wrecked ships already, joined by others dropped in to help them, who band together and assemble in the churning waters makeshift rafts to hold them and what they can salvage; rafts that are built so if they capsize, and they will, oh they will, they will easily right themselves again, even as the wind and the waves take them toward distant shores toward which, like Plimouth, they didn’t originally intend to land.

These are exciting experimental times with many amazing radical stories of how people are becoming church like this in response to such a Mission. Some of these ways are known by names used, like Church Under The Bridge, Church Without Walls, Pilgrims in the Park, The Salvage Yard, The Simple Way, and my favorite based on a saying of St. Paul, Scum of the Earth. Our own small group in Oklahoma is now on its third or fourth name in eight years, now The Welcome Table to bring it in accord with the name of the community center we started and the name of the community gardenpark we have started where abandoned houses once stood. And we are in our sixth main meeting space in that time, though we have worshipped also at gardens, in streets, parks, and bowling alleys while also being in service there.

But some groups becoming church, becoming disciples of love and justice, have no name, fearing, with good cause, that naming inevitably turns us toward ourselves and turns us more into an organization than an organic movement.

My favorite story in this category comes from Australia where a young man had grown up having a hard time, as a sufferer of ADD, sitting still in worship every Sunday in the spectator-manner of his church, and so when he became a young adult he decided that he didn’t have to keep “going to church” and so one Sunday he followed the invitation of a friend to go out on the lake in a boat; while out there, in a lull from swimming, his old habits reared up and he felt guilty for not “being in church” and he asked his friends if he could say part of a psalm and then say a short prayer, and his friend said sure, and he asked his friends if there was anything he could include in his prayer for them, and he did so. And he went back swimming and partying. Next Sunday the same thing happened, but this time he had also brought a Bible with him, and after a short time reading and praying they kept on partying. Gradually more and more friends were joining them. Gradually the prayers had more things mentioned. Soon they were spending time at the lake helping tow boats that had broken down, and were cleaning the park, looking for other ways to do random acts of kindness. They began to take time out for more bible reflection and they held communion on the picnic tables, and they kept partying before and dduring and after. Pretty soon worship was more party than program. And all the while his worried family kept bugging him to “come back to church.” They thought church is something you attend; but it is something you become.

Is that young man and his friends still there doing that? I don’t know. Maybe not; maybe they spun off and did the same thing in other places and ways. Was it a transient thing? Perhaps. But their story has lasted, and inspired, and that is a powerful thing, the most powerful change agent. The world now needs such random acts of church. And now think of something like that story, and like many other different ones in all kinds of places and times, happening not just accidentally or spontaneously, but intentionally too, from here, seeded even by people who love the pews they can’t any longer sit still in.

Reggie McNeal, in Missional Renaissance, writes: “An explosion of missional communities…will occur. These will be groups of believers and nonbelievers who will operate in noninstitutional settings. They will range in size from a handful of participants to a few dozen. Gatherings will take place in homes and restaurants, bookstores and bars, office conference rooms and university dorm rooms, hotel meeting space and downtown Ys, and yes, even churches. Their community life will center on an intense desire to grow spiritually and to aid the community. Some will be connected to churches; many will not be. Affinities will be common passions and similar life rhythms. Leadership will emerge from within.”

What this requires is nothing new, but that we begin again, as we did 400 years ago, gathering people in a new way for a new way, people willing to turn default modes of church upside down and inside out compared to the dominant way of being church at the time. What this requires is that we begin once more sending out such a people again out into the world, even sending them out as small groups while others stay in more familiar land in order to support them. What this requires is being willing to find home again in different harbors than we first imagined. And we require leaders again to remind the people of these requirements, these covenants, thesthese compacts.

Like Abram after Babel, we too live in a changed and much more scattered and diverse world. Like Abram, we have settled into our ways, with our father’s calling unfinished. The mission, the adventure, is a distant fading memory. Until, until, the Voice is heard that says Go you forth, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.

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