Sunday, March 20, 2011

Abandoned Places, Abandon Church! pt. 1 of a Progressive Missional Faith: The Three Rs of the Spiritual Life

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Worcester, Mass, March 20.


From Luke 13:20-21. The Parable of the Leaven: And again he said, To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman stole and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was corrupted.

And From Jorgen Moltmann's "The Source of Life"...Moltmann saw the devastation first hand of whole communities in Europe during and after World War Two:
The ideology of “there is never enough for everyone” makes people lonely. It isolates them and robs them of relationships. The opposite of poverty isn’t property. The opposite of both poverty and property is community. For in community we become rich: rich in friends, in neighbours, in colleagues, in comrades, in brothers and sisters. Together, as a community, we can help ourselves in most of our difficulties. For after all, there are enough people and enough ideas, capabilities and energies to be had. They are only lying fallow, or are stunted and suppressed. So let us discover our wealth; let us discover our solidarity; let us build up communities; let us take our lives into our own hands and at long last out of the hands of the people who want to dominate and exploit us.

Sermon: Abandoned Places, and the Three Rs of the Spiritual Life

First let me give thanks to your church and let you know I have many times spoken of you when I have preached on the presence and what I call the parable of the free church. One Sunday several years ago I was here for the first time sitting right about there…what I remember and tell is that right after the Lord’s Prayer the Rev. Merritt preached a powerful sermon about her belief in God and why it was important for atheists to be a part of this church. That combination of tradition, personal testimony, and inclusive community helped me to see anew and feel deeply what we mean by the free church, and like all good parables it has me still thinking and trying to live into it.

Jesus’ parables are one of the guides for our community back home. A favorite is when Jesus said The kingdom of God is like leaven, which a woman stole, and put into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. hat seemingly measures of meal, until it was all corrupted. That seemingly simple parable is about the radical fact of God changing sides. God’s Relocation. The kingdom of God, was itself a parable, for the kingdom, the world, the Empire as everyone knew, was Caeser’s. The evidence was everywhere; if you needed reminders just look at your coins or your crosses lining the roads. Caeser was Lord and Savior and what was divine was power and honor and property and propriety and security. Jesus immediately challenges those assumptions by claiming the world is not Caeser’s but that of the God of conquered, small poor Israel.

Then Jesus goes on to link this God with leaven, something ordinary, and also unholy, not like the purity of the unleavened bread, rather something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. Next God is likened to a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven, and then foolishly puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what happens? It all goes bad, becomes useless. And that’s where the parable ends.

The God of this parable has relocated…from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status and acts to what happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; relocated from fullness and contentment to emptiness and waste; also from A Static Being to a process, a movement that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is worthy and respectable. Jesus challenged the authorities of his time, as this parable challenges us today, to also pick sides, to relocate, to go experience God, and help make God visible, where the powerful and the privileged won’t go and even seek to keep hidden from others, in hopes of keeping their honor, their marketing, their economy intact.

One of the best examples of this parable in action in our times can be seen in the life of Civil rights and community organizing activist John Perkins. Little known to the general public, he has had a huge affect especially on young people today seeking to change communities the way an earlier generation sought to change laws.

John Perkins was born 80 years ago in rural Mississippi. His father left when he was young; He watched a white police officer kill his unarmed older brother while standing in a line at a movie theater; his brother had recently returned from service in World War Two. John was full of anger and was a ticking time bomb; he hated church because it seemed to do nothing for the community in the face of injustice; he had quit school at third grade to work. He married but continued to drink and party. His family, seeing his anger and despair and fearing for his life, managed to send him out of Mississippi to work in California. There he began turning his life around and became part of the black middle class of the time and in that place; then through his young son Spencer he began attending a church that had a prison ministry; there in meeting with the inmates and encountering the bible for really the first time he not only became a Christian but began taking seriously this Jesus he was meeting for the first time. A prophetic Jesus that calls out for justice for the poor and oppressed. And It was the late 50s, in the thick of the growing civil rights era in the South, and the Jesus he was now following led him to go back home to rural Mississippi.

At first he was only going to teach this Bible, this Jesus, to the youth so they would get the message earlier than he had when he lived there. But soon the needs of the community, and the voice of this Jesus, were calling out to give more than a message: so a community center and farm was started, food was distributed, health care was begun, child care was given, adult classes begun, and worship held, and civil rights were supported. The God that relocated him also showed him that the work of God is in redistribution, both of goods and justice.
The more public his ministry the more it was seen as a threat. One night he and a van full of youth were stopped on a rural road by police who arrested him for contributing to the delinquency of minors and took him to jail where he was beaten and tortured near to death. In a hospital, the care of a white nurse coming so soon after his treatment by white jailers gave him an epiphany; it helped him to put his hatred into a larger vessel of God’s love, and gave him a new focus, racial reconciliation.

And so were born the 3Rs of community development that has guided and grown his work in the past decades and inspired many other communities: One R is for relocating to places of struggle and abandonment; a second R is for redistribution of services and spirit; and a third R is for reconciliation of peoples.
Actually he points out that to do this work requires combining three groups of people: remainers, those who have never left an area when others have and who have a native’s wisdom; returners, those like he was who came back where they had been and brought new gifts of service and wisdom and perspective with them, and relocaters, those called out to go to new places, called out by their own discomfort at being in comfortable places. All are needed. And while there is nothing like actual physical relocation, getting new neighbors, there are many important ways people can relocate their time, talents, and treasure to abandoned places. I just hesitate to go into them because they so easily become our default mode and will distract us from a more radically transforming calling whose simplicity itself might be what’s the most challenging.

A phrase has sprung up to describe places like where John Perkins lives and where I live, places located all over the place in rural and urban settings. It is called the abandoned places of Empire. It harkens back to the Roman Empire, there at a time when the Empire was crumbling, new communities on the edges were being created as small alternative socieites with values of cooperation instead of conquering. But now The Empire we feel at odds with is a contemporary American CoConsumer Entertainment Marketplace and Governmental Empire with dominant cultural values that champion Appearance, Affluence, Achievement, Coolness, Convenience, Comfort, Strength and Safety. And above all, perhaps, personal autonomy full of choices never ending. Challenging those American Dream values now is akin to Jesus casting God as leaven, as unholiness. This is an Empire who says the good life, even the spiritual life, is found in being surrounded by the so-called best things. The goal of this Empire is for places like ours to exist only as places people leave, as places where people live as punishment for not being able to buy into all the Empire provides us. We are the “Left Behind” places, as if the Rapture had already happened, in an economic, political, communal sense.

John Perkins says think of the shame people have who remain with constant reminders they have not been good enough or smart enough or lucky enough or young enough to leave as they should. That shame breeds a paralysis that makes it hard for people to become active with others for their own and their community’s behalf. It makes it hard for them to see the counter-truth, that as theologian Jorgen Moltmann says, the opposite of poverty is not property but the opposite of both poverty and property is community.

Even the good news of our community, the 74126 zipcode, far northside edge of Tulsa covering an unincorporated and incorporated urban rural small town area, once working class and growing before a racist response to integration occurred and white flight began to suburbs and investment in schools and the community ended. But I sometimes wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to relocate there, where five years ago we bought a home on two acres with a great view for $28,000. Ten minute drive from downtown; ten minutes to a lake. A realtors dream.
Then I remember hardly a night goes by we don’t have a shooting; just between May and August last year there were 311 shootings in Tulsa, and the highest concentration were in our area, which doesn’t actually have the highest crime rate overall. And we also have the city’s huge mountain of a landfill that has risen up in just the past decade to rival the height of the natural hill behind our house, and it is perpetually on fire and being closed for environmental damages, which just means even more illegal dumping on our streets. We are in a healthy food desert where 55 percent worry about how much food they have and 60 percent can’t afford healthy food, and I do wonder if that number would have been higher if people were more aware of what constitutes healthy food. We have no home pizza delivery, no movie theaters, our parks have been closed or redesigned to be used by people driving in from the suburbs, and most of the businesses we do have are owned by people who live elsewhere, as do our teachers and police and many of our preachers; even some churches only rent in our zipcode for the low rent not because they serve people from here. Our average household income keeps going down and is now just barely above $20,000; When we bought our property it had been abandoned for several years like 40 percent of the vacant homes near us, and we had to plead our case to the bankers to get the loan to buy the place; they didn’t believe me, an executive director of a national religious organization, and my wife, a physician, were actually going to live there, moving from our new home in a new subdivision in a fast growing suburb. A place where after spending more than the purchase price on renovation and remodeling the value of our property has remained virtually the same because the the rest of the ones around us have continued to decline.

The opposite of poverty is still even the good news of our community where We have the lowest life expectancy in our greater area, fourteen years less than the area with the highest rate just a few miles away, but we have the fewest, meaning none, health care services in the area. One of the first things our micro-church helped to bring to our area, locating it in the community center we created, was a university health clinic, but the economic and social dynamics of funding it and supporting it were not sustainable for funders and it has closed; while similar clinics in other parts of the city remain open full time, ours couldn’t maintain even a half a day one day presence which it had been reduced to by the end. Getting people to come wasn’t the problem; getting the right people to come, those with some insurance possibilities to help offset the uninsured, was the problem; there just weren’t enough of them, and those that were already were going elsewhere. On the advantage side, in the edge communities and out of desperation can come what we call “creative disruptive innovation” and we are now planning a health care mentoring network hiring people from our neighborhoods to partner both with their neighbors who are high users of the emergency room and to themselves teach medical residents about the communities in which their patients attempt to live.

The opposite of poverty is even our community where government and educational services have been cut and the fact that we are a small blue conclave—my precinct voted 225 to 25 for President Obama--in the only state where every county voted against Barack Obama, doesn’t bode well for having slashed state funds directed our way.

So If one adopts the values of the Empire, then ours and the places John Perkins has lived, are the last places you would want to live. But if you follow the values of the parable of the leaven, if you are intent on growing a soul in relationship and community with the most vulnerable, then these and ones even more severely stressed in other countries, are the first places. And once you relocate, and begin the work of redistribution and reconciliation, you’ll kick yourself for not going sooner. Every day presents an opportunity for the kinds of small acts of random justice, random love and beauty, random church, that sustain and deepen our lives of faithfulness to the Spirit Everlasting. They are the kind of places where a few people with a few resources can spread hope like leaven. They are places where it is easy to experience the counter truth that the opposite of poverty and property is community.

Besides the visible things we have created in just these past four years since we turned our little church group inside out and began incarnating ourselves into the community, instead of expecting the community to come to us, becoming like a guest in our own place, besides the clinic and garden and food pantry and computer center and clothing room and concerts and festivals and all the one on one personal assistance, what has really begun to be seeds of change in our zipcode is simply the ways people have begun to have a way to share their presence with one another through our presence. Which has been done with under a dozen leaders, with no paid staff.

What we have had has been God’s leaven, another name for which is beloved community, or communitas, the kind of community that forms itself by turning away from itself, outward with others. It is communitas on one side, and Empire on the other,and I say, as a Universalist, that God has chosen sides, has moved into the neighborhood of abandonment and not the gated community, and is hoping but not waiting for church to move there too. God hasn’t given up on those behind their gates, not given up on the well-off, on the cool and beautiful people who wouldn’t be caught dead in our zipcode; no, unlike the Empire, God is big enough to be an active loving presence everywhere, with everyone; It is just that God will transform our gated lives and communities not from within them but from the 74126 zipcodes that are located everywhere. I believe it is the next great adventure, mission, frontier, horizon for us as a progressive spiritual people to find ways to be there too. I am sorry I haven’t been able to tell you about the lives we have literally saved, about the joy that overshadows the setbacks. But these words by John Perkins I close with will I hope suffice.

“So what does it take to make beloved community happen? I really believe that it begins with a place. I’ve preached relocation all my life because the communities I’ve been a part of have been abandoned. Everybody left, so I called them to come back. But my real concern is for the place. If the church is going to offer some real good news in broken communities, it has to be committed to making a good life possible for people in the place where we are. If you care about a place, you’ll care about the kids in that place. If you don’t care about the kids, they’ll knock out your windows. But the kids in our neighborhood don’t knocfor the place. If the church is going to offer some real good news in broken communities, it has to be committed k out our windows. One of the first things we did when we came here was to put in a sandbox and build a jungle gym. We made sure there was a field for kids to play ball.

When you’re committed to a place, you also care about the beauty of the place. The flowers around our place are important. Every summer the children come running to ask me if they can take some flowers home with them. They don’t have pretty flowers at home…Shared beauty makes people want to share life together. You don’t have to tend your flowers in a neighborhood very long before you have something to talk to your neighbors about.

It may sound simple but I think you’ve got to have neighbors you talk to and get to know before you can love your neighbor as yourself. That’s why community development has been so important to me all these years. The church can’t organize the perfect community. If people aren’t drawn by the cords of love to a vision of beloved community, you can’t force it on them. But we can organize for justice. We can develop a community so that there is a place for people to know one another. That’s the work God has given us to do. Only God can send the rain, but we can till the ground by committing to a place and making sure people can flourish there. That’s the first thing the church has to do if we’re going to interrupt the brokenness of society.

As we commit to our communities, we also need to learn how to see them as economic places. It’s not enough to just move into a place, plant some flowers and be nice to your neighbors. All of that is good, but that won’t address the brokenness of people’s lives because the structures of the community are broken. People need work, good housing, education and health care. So the church has to invest its resources in developing the community. We also need to use our influence to get businesses and government to invest in the community. ..I wish churches spent more time thinking about how their members could love one another and share a common life by working together as a community. Part of the reason our churches are so individualistic is that we just accept the economic systems of our culture without question. We assume that the people who can get the good jobs should go wherever they have to and the people who can’t get the good jobs should just take what they can get. But churches that want to interrupt the brokenness of society ought to be about creating jobs in the community and giving neighbors an opportunity to work together. If we take our communities seriously as economic places, we’ll spend more time thinking about creating good work than we spend thinking about more relevant worship styles or bigger church buildings." Amen, John Perkins.

So, Go, find the abandoned places and the people who will be the leaven in your own life and for your own church, even as you then walking together with them become the leaven in the world which no Empire can withstand.

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