Monday, August 29, 2011

Where In The World Is The Church? The Stillwater Sermon, with readings


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.
From John Perkins, Welcoming Justice:
“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.
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. 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."
Matthew 16: 24-26
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Sermon: Where in the World is the Church?

Where in the World is the Church? This question itself carries within it the seeds of the future that is emerging now for the church.
The questions used to be how to get the world into the church. So we produced a “come to us” church based on the model of the Marketplace, the dominant culture and myth of our time; the question was how do we attract and keep more people so we can build bigger buildings and more staff to attract and keep more people, or to even just stay the same, all so we can get more and more people in tune with our message, get them thinking like us, which we believed would change the world.
Now the world has changed all right, into an unchurched postdenominational, definitely not one size or kind fits all world, and the churches that will be sustainable and influential in the new environment are those who either have loads of resources to compete in the come to us religious marketplace culture, where rewards are fewer and fewer all the time at higher and higher costs, or they are ones who are changing from a “come to us” church to being part of a “go to them” church, or even more radically, becoming “come out of them” church that erases distinctions between us and them.
These new, actually also ancient, kinds of church expressions in the world have different measures of success; instead of being about ourselves, they will be about others. Not how many do we count as part of us, but how many are we serving, and serving with, beyond ourselves.
The new measures of success will be more aligned with what have been called the Three R’s of Community Development, which I think are also the Three R’s of a Spiritual Life. Instead of how many people come to our place, the first R is about how are we relocating ourselves to the places where there is the most suffering and wholeness needed. Instead of how big a budget and building and staff and programs for us can we create, the second R is about how many ways are we working to redistribute goods, and The Good, to those without. Finally, instead of making religion foremost about what an individual thinks and feels, about what one believes, and about getting that into a marketable message to get others to think and feel like us, the third R is about how much Reconciliation is going on, about how are we, as a finite imperfect in process hurting broken people ourselves, engaged with the problems and issues and histories and messiness of ourselves and others as a people, for the mutual healing and transformation of all of us.
These Three Rs of Relocation, Redistribution, and Reconciliation come out of the life and work of John Perkins. He was born some 80 years ago in rural Mississippi into his poor African American family. His father left when he was very young trying to find work; as a young man, John saw his older brother, a returning WWII veteran, killed while standing in line, unarmed, at a movie theater, gunned down by a white police officer. John was full of anger, a ticking time bomb; he also hated church because it seemed to do nothing for the community in the face of such injustice. He had 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 to settle his life 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, one that had a prison ministry; and there in meeting with the inmates and encountering the bible for really the first time in depth he began taking seriously a new Jesus he was meeting for the first time. A prophetic Jesus that calls out for justice for the poor and oppressed, and who goes where they are rather than waiting for them to come to him.
This was in the late 50s, in the thick of the growing civil rights era in the South, but the Jesus he was now following, who calls us to pick up crosses, to risk all for justice for the poor, this Jesus now pointed him back home to rural Mississippi, back away from the relative safety of California. At first he was only going back to teach this new understanding of the Bible and its justice mandate, primarily to the youth, he told himself, 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 the people more than a message:
So the church began a community center and then a farm, food was distributed, health care given, child care provided, adult classes begun, and worship held, and civil rights supported. But then the more public his ministry became the more it was seen as a threat by the powers of the status quo. One night he and a van full of youth coming back from a rally 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.
There, In the hospital, in the caring response of a white nurse coming so soon after his treatment by white jailers, he received an epiphany that helped him to put his hatred into a larger vessel of God’s love, and gave him a new focus or aim to his work, reconciliation, especially among the races.
It all begins with the realization that Where We Are Matters.
Our church couldn’t do what we have done and what we will do if we had stayed in the fast growing suburb where we began, where certainly there is a need for a spiritually progressive message, but where our meager resources were dust in the wind at even trying to get that across to a culture that likes their churches like their box stores, fully equipped from the get go. And besides, more importantly, was that the Mission that most needed us? When nearby was the far northside Tulsa area. A healthy food desert where 55 percent worry about how much food they have and 60 percent say they can’t afford healthy food. Where Our average household income keeps going down and is now just barely above $20,000; where our life expectancy is the lowest in our metropolitan area, fourteen years lower than the highest area that is just six miles to the south of us along the same Peoria ave.
If church is about finding and gathering in people like us, then this is the last place to be; but if church is about being sent to serve among others and finding ourselves there, then this is the first place to be.
A phrase has sprung up to describe places like where John Perkins lives and where we live, the abandoned places of Empire. It harkens back to the Roman Empire, there at a time when the Empire was crumbling, and 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 Consumer Entertainment Marketplace with dominant cultural values that champion Appearance, Affluence, Achievement, Uniformity, Coolness, Convenience, Comfort, Strength and Safety. And above all, perhaps, this Empire prizes personal autonomy full of choices never ending. This Empire says the good life, even the spiritual life, is found in being surrounded by the so-called best things, smartest people. The goal of this Empire is for places like ours to exist only as places people leave, as places where people live as a kind of punishment for not being able to buy into all the Empire provides us.
John Perkins says think of the shame people fall into who have remained 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 of property is community.
Our mission as church responding to the world, rather than expecting the world to respond to us as church, our mission is to initiate and imitate beloved community in places and people others abandon.
What might these “go to them” or “emerge out of them” churches look like and do?
Well, If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the photograph of me that was on the cover of this past Spring issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine answers much better and more completely that question, and captures the essence of our mission on the northside of Tulsa, and of the missional reformation of the church underway.
The cover photo showed a room inside a building. The building is an abandoned rundown exposed to the elements vandalized woodframe ruin. It used to be a parsonage, the home for the ministers of the oldest church in our community on the northside of Tulsa. The parsonage sets on a corner of the same property as that church’s former building, a redbrick complex itself having likewise been abandoned, rundown, exposed, vandalized and foreclosed.
And as the church had once been near the actual center of the community, one of the largest and oldest of buildings of the community, it is no surprise that the community itself has in large measure become abandoned, rundown, vandalized, and closed. Since the magazine issue was published just a few months ago, our community’s oldest school across the street has been closed, and our post office has been ordered closed.
The photo shows the room with broken and boarded up windows, and a recliner which has either been left behind by a previous owner, or equally possibly, it is one that had been dumped on the road and left for months until someone decided to drag it into the old parsonage to use as they camped out there. It is the only piece of furniture in the building.
The photograph is both a literal representation of a real place in our community, and it is a metaphorical representation of the whole community, evoking its history and evoking its current state, and I hope a little of its future too. Because there in the photo I sit on the recliner, looking very much at home, a representation of our group’s hopeful presence in the ruins.
There are a lot of homes and businesses in that kind of shape where we live, but the photograph was taken there because our church, our missional community, and the nonprofit foundation we created to better reach out to our neighbors, was at the time in the process of buying the house and the old church building. We have since moved in and we are, amid the still vandalized structures, relaunching our community center, food pantry, clothing room, computer center, library, and health hub there, and soon we hope a room dedicated to veterans and their needs, and perhaps even becoming a postal home, and perhaps a school of sorts, filling in the gaps of what has been closed.
And the center is just one of the projects we are engaged in. With the help of many others, our small group also bought an acre of abandoned homes nearby and are actively turning that space into a community kitchengardenpark where we have recently added a 40 fruit tree orchard. And we have other sites nearby that we are turning from blight to beauty, and we have partnered with the University of Oklahoma on a radical new health care for the poor initiative, aimed at training some residents of our zipcode to be medical mentors, or master patients, and connect them with others in their neighborhoods who are repeat and unwarranted users of the emergency rooms. It is a way to turn medical clinics inside out the way we have turned our church inside out.
And with other partners we are addressing other aspects of the life and death matters in our zipcode. For example, this week we host another meeting trying to organize people and resources to bring some simple things like sidewalks and better street lights to our area where a neighbor was recently killed by a truck while he was pushing a shopping cart load of groceries in Peoria, which is also a state highway where we are, at twilight. We have families where the mother or father is in a wheelchair and they are without transportation except for it and whole families, including children, often walk around the mom or dad in the motorized wheelchair in the lane of Peoria on their way to the store or other businesses.
To us this is being church; we talk about all our community work as the body, the arms and legs, hands and feet of the church, what we do with people of many different faiths or none at all, with our own worship time in a small group as the heart of the church. The important thing to me is that we have done all this with no paid staff, some of us have jobs elsewhere and some of us have no jobs, and we have usually just from four to fourteen in worship on Sunday mornings. It is always enough. We are always enough. Sometimes in fact you need to become smaller to be able to do more to change the world.
It is all part of the new missional reformation of the church; something we as participants in the original radical reformation of the church in the 1500 and 1600s should know something about. Or as our theologian James Luther Adams once wrote, our church history is a history of always reforming. The church is dead. Long live the church.
The new reformation says the church should not worry about itself and its own life but worry first and foremost about the life of the world dying around it; not worry about having a mission and trying to create a statement to describe it in order to attract people to come to an organization and building called the church; instead, it should worry if a Mission has it, and if that Mission is worthy of the precious lives that will be called to serve it, and if that Mission is dedicated to serving others in the world, including those who may never seek to become its members, and especially those most vulnerable, most abandoned.
A reformation that asks not how can a church get more of the world to come to us and become like us, but ask where and how, in the world, is the church finding and making and sharing itself? A Reformation that even says don’t talk about the church and its problems before you talk about the world around you and its problems; because they will then lead you into the kind of church you need to become.
Here is what we need to remember: The church is not, at heart, or need to ever be, 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 have 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—what the modern culture made its dominant traits--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. Random acts of Church.
For some groups in order to become church, become disciples of love and justice, means having no name, fearing, with some cause, that even 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 named Sean 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 during 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.
Now imagine Sean hadn’t accidentally created this way of being church, but if he and others had been intentionally sent by his church to the lake to serve, create community, and celebrate. Some churches now tell some of their members to stay away from church and take their money away from the established church for a year and go build relationships and serve and be the church outside of their worshipping community, perhaps in apartment complexes, one of the most unchurched places of culture, or a garden in a food desert, or a school where the children have many strikes against them, and they only ask them to then come back and share their stories of how community has been formed and their church has been renewed and grown outside of itself.
Another time there was a church of 80 members and it had of late always struggled to grow, to make building expenses, to pay a minister; it just seemed stuck, and turned inward, turning on itself. Then one day the minister called them all together and divided them up into eight groups of ten based on where they lived. Then announced that he was downsizing and simplifying and moving into a poor part of town and going to work part time at a body shop where he could make the money he needed in his new environment, and he told them to look around at their group, and he announced this was their new church; they were to meet in homes and where they could near where they lived and worship together weekly and serve their neighborhood and one another, and he would be their minister and help coach and connect them and they would come together as they had just every so often, now to hear and celebrate their stories in worship.
Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance, writes: “An explosion of missional communities…will occur…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.”
I hope some of these communities seeded by churches or networked as grassroots missions by groups of two or more people will be from our free churches, because we have a tradition and faith stance of openness and embracing freedom and abundance and hope for all that others could be enriched by, especially others in abandoned places and abandoned times in their lives when reactions of not having and being enough, and feelings of fear, so often rule how their world is seen.
But first, like John Perkins, like Sean, like those who Jesus said would follow him, we must go to the deserted places, and there be willing to be changed without knowing into what, trusting when we do the counter-intuitive, when we let go and turn ourselves and our churches and other groups inside out, that this is when new life comes, when crosses become communities with a cause.

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