Sunday, March 04, 2012

Bless This Mess: Transforming Faith and Church and World

Bless This Mess: Transforming Faith/Transforming Church

Rev. Ron Robinson Stillwater UU Church, March 4, 2012

Hymns: Love Will Guide Us and Amazing Grace
Responsive Reading Psalm 23 from Singing The Living Tradition hymnalText: from Mark 8

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Reading: From Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the search for what saves us, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

Rebecca Parker, UU seminary president, 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; in the book she goes on to say 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? It started her journey to a renewed understanding of suffering and God. One where she refused to be in worship services with communion when they preached Jesus as a sacrifice.

But then, she writes, she was in a recovery group for those struggling with the effects of alcohol on those they loved, and there was 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. 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 together in a community of truth she began to see both him and herself differently.

“At first, I wanted to flee from the group. I was sitting knee to knee with a sexual abuser. But then I remembered that he and I were there for the same reason. We were trying to recover from living a lie, living under the weight of denials, splits, avoidance, absence. We were there for each other, all of us in the group, and we told the truth about our lives because telling the truth restored us to the human community. It brought us back from the dead. It was a way of showing up. Of coming back, alive. It made us free. “

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 again. 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, and all people being welcome at the table in peace. 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.

“Somewhere deep inside me a noise that had been roaring for years became silent. An old ache, like a stone, began to fall. I returned to normal consciousness. Around me were the quiet voices of familiar friends. I knew that in the end all there is, is mercy. The promise was true. Weeping may endure for the night, buy joy comes in the morning.”

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


The world is undergoing some revolutionary, not evolutionary, transformations, again, as it did after the invention of the print culture. That’s a sermon in itself. The church, IF it wants to be an agent for change in its transforming world, must also become transformed and transforming (though not always changed in the same manner as the world, of course, for often the way to transform the world is to go against its grain). And That too is a sermon in itself. When I was here this past August, I preached about the ways the church as church is changing in order to be a force for hope and justice in the world. But still left is the sermon on what change has to happen in us for the church, which is made up of us, to change so the world will be changed. That’s today’s sermon.

I believe the change is not in what votes we take on what decisions, or what programs we start, or what we say from the pulpit or teach in the class; I believe it is not in what money we raise or buildings we build or maintain; or what bylaws or mission and vision statements we write. All of that will come, or not, as needed, when we focus on why we are here, what calls us together and sends us out together.

I believe in order to transform the church so it can engage in the transforming of the world, even and especially the world right around us, with our values and beliefs, we must first transform our own personal understandings and commitments of what it means to be a faithful people, a people full of ultimate trust, and what is required to create a community of such faithfulness, trustworthiness, and transformation.

When Ghandi said be the change you seek in the world, when Jesus said God’s kind of upside down inside out transforming Empire, not Caeser’s status quo power Empire, is already within you, they are showing us where all change begins. People who change our neighborhoods into places of abundant life and justice usually have experienced or are experiencing a change in where they find meaning in life; they are not saints, fully arrived non anxious holy ones; they can be pained and a pain, and are always in process, but they have a longing and hunger for change within and without. This is why we are now finding such depth in partnering personal spiritual direction with community missional ministry, going inward and outward at the same time, letting each part of our life transform the other. Imagine a church where that is the rhythm.

And one of the things I think needs to be changed about us is that we don’t often think we need to be changed; when that is the case we can’t do much about real change in the world, I believe. Of course, we come by this almost inherently. We have historically what you call a high anthropology, or estimation of human nature, at least out of our Unitarian side of the heritage. Remember that saying that the Unitarians thought people were too good to be damned, and the Universalists thought God was too good to damn anyone? A lot of truth in it. Many of the early Universalists actually became Universalists out of a strong conviction in original sin coupled with their notion of God’s even stronger Love; they thought wow if God has saved us, even us, then it is true everyone will be saved. But mostly we came to stake our theology on having a high opinion of human nature, and that got morphed into creating church communities where we focused on how good we were, how we don’t need saving, or changing, and it is the world out there that needs changing, not us, thank you, we are fine, everything’s fine, and we tell each other how fine our lives are.

I was at a conference recently where the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber was telling her life and faith journey. She had been quite an angry rebellious self-destructive youth who had been active in church as a child but grew into a life of drugs and alcohol and the punk culture; her eventual recovery took her to the support groups in basement of churches where she said she learned more about God than in the sanctuaries. For about ten years she was unchurched. During this time she discovered a truth that she had both a capacity for hurting herself and others and a capacity for compassion. Part of her journey during this time she tried to be a Unitarian; she worked for five years as a counselor at Unitarian youth camp; but she says she didn’t find it a fit because she felt the Unitarians had too high an opinion of humanity so that it didn’t square with her reality; she said it was as if we don’t read the newspaper. There was no room in our churches of light for the darkness she knew was part of her and she didn’t believe she could by herself live out an all goodness within her. She ended up getting married, going to seminary, and becoming an author and prominent emergent church leader in the progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Denver where she founded a church called House For All Sinners and Saints which was started in and for the punk and queer inclusive culture but now includes members from all walks of life.

She admits her experience with us was limited and she is making general conclusions, but it is a critique many have made, both those who have grown up among us and left, and those who have come in and then left, and those who have come and stayed. Each religious tradition has its shadow side, and ours might be to know there is a shadow side. Each tradition’s strength, taken to an extreme, becomes perverted into an idol and can threaten to undo the strength it offers to the world. We are no exception. Former UUA President John Buehrens has written about a common experience he encountered during his travels and preaching; that when some people found out that he was married to an Episcopalian priest, they would say something like, “It must be nice to have a religion as a crutch” to which he learned to respond: “well, at least some people know they are limping.”

Maybe it is in part because we have such a high opinion of human nature that we have made church membership so easy and painless, and that seems to carry over into having so little demands or expectations about growing our spiritual life . We aren’t alone in this, however, but, it is very different from how our founding church ancestors treated the matter. Those early Puritans had to be able to show how their spirit had been regenerated, their life changed, in order for them to get the full benefits of membership and to be a part of that movement that journeyed to a new land and sought to create a “city upon a hill.” Their own failings and hubris and cultural near-sightedness often betrayed them and their God of love, but they were a changed people who changed the world and left us a legacy for good and bad with which we are still entrusted.

They themselves found this a hard path to hand down to others, though, and so 350 years ago this very year they approved what is known as the Half Way Covenant to allow children to be baptized even if their parents weren’t full members of the church because they hadn’t been able to express publicly that they had been changed spiritually. This goes to show though the strong faith our ancestors did have in the church covenants because they weren’t willing to lie about an inward experience just to fit in with others. And before too long the sacraments of baptism and communion were opened up to all in the Puritan based churches for the very purpose of helping people to be changed.

Fast forward though to the North American church that came out of The Great Depression and World War Two. It was like the dominant culture that came out of that experience. There was a desire to be settled, there was an emphasis on domesticity, fueled societally by the rise of Madison Avenue advertising and new television technology, and even government funding. The path became: Find a job for life, find a spouse for life, find a house and home for life, and find a church for life, most probably one you inherited and was nearby. That was the American Dream; if there was change it was supposed to be upwards in mobility, upwards and onwards for ever, to a bigger company, bigger house, bigger car, where you would feel even more settled and secure. Change in degree but not in kind. Church in what was called the dominant mainstream church was a reflection that you had made it in the American Dream.

The faithfulness of someone in this particular church default mode, one that cut across denominations, was a faith ultimately in the institutions supporting us and keeping us settled. If you were unsettled, despite it all, maybe because of it all, you kept it to yourself because that was the ultimate heresy, an excommunication for not being good enough, saved enough, to keep job, home, community, spouse, children all in line and settled.

We Baby Boomers, the children of these Settlers, then came into our own and had our own kind of Half Way Covenant with society and its institutions. We unsettled society, but settled into our perpetual rebellion; where we kept our attachment to the cultural institutions, and we have been more attached than our own children have been to them, we still kept these institutions---job, family, church, civic group---unsettled, neither rejecting them totally or committing to them totally. We made society and church about us, in our image, rather than making ourselves into the image of the institutions as those original builders and settlers of the church had done. We created or made over communities of faith that enshrined our own rebellion, our own individualism; our main needs. Where the earlier generations needs were to be settled; ours was to remain on that adolescent cusp where we couldn’t leave but we wanted to, couldn’t wait to leave but couldn’t support ourselves, where everything was about us and our wants and feelings.

And, just like those adolescents, we wanted to make what was wrong with the world, and oh there was always so much wrong with the world, we wanted to make it not really about us, not about our own problems and consumptions: Who, me? As one of our favorite icons had it? What, me worry? Let’s go consume more. And we wrote the book, literally, on burnout, on narcissism. If we did look inward, we got lost there, and not in facing our struggles of soul but in assuring ourselves that we would never have to face them, embrace them, transform them, if we just thought and felt the right way and surrounded ourselves with an echo chamber of people who would help us do that. Theology of prosperity mega-churches have been the landmark for this kind of faithful discipleship to self and culture. But it has infected churches of all sizes and theologies. Perhaps it is both a blessing and a scary thing, as we look around our churches and institutions, that they aren’t making anymore of us, Baby Boomers.

In our new hinge of history, what it means to be faithful is like everything else being transformed. No more the Church of the Divine Settled Ones. No more the Church of The Perpetual Rebellion. No More the Church of the Self Messiah. Now to find faith is to unsettle yourself, to go on an adventure, a quest, with others for others, and while doing so facing your fears, voicing your vulnerability, relinquishing all the material and emotional possessions that possess you, seeking to be changed, holding together our original blessedness and our original brokenness, letting both bleed together you might say as we seek out the bleeding and broken and blessed places and people of our world, because that is where and how we will be transformed into a people and a Spirit capable of amazing acts of love and justice.

Jedis and Hobbits are stories of this new kind of faithfulness and spiritual community and so are the reclaimed stories of Disciples of a State Executed Rabbi from 2000 years ago who found themselves, having lost themselves, changed into a people, found themselves a changed people, found themselves on missions of changing the world.

Before the cross became a symbol of the Emperor’s sword, before it became a strategy to keep those in power through violence in power through violence, before it became a means to silence the sufferers, the cross had been a sign of this kind of faith journey, a resistance to the Empire and a sign of solidarity with those most threatened and vulnerable, and a sign that if you were a follower of that sign you yourself would be threatened and vulnerable, but never ultimately alone. Sociologist of Religion Rodney Starks writes that the early Jesus followers from their outcast marginal space grew in great numbers over the first three hundred years after Jesus’ life, his death on the cross, and after the belief took hold that the cross did not hold the last truth but in fact love and justice held the last truth, they grew all because in order to fully experience and live in that truth themselves they were to re-enact it and re-embody it by nursing the sick and dying during plagues when others fled, by including women when others did not, by honoring children when others treated them as slaves, by including slaves and people of all ethnicities when others ate only with their own kind, by refusing to serve in the Emperor’s military and to kill others, by staying in and with the urban poor in the worst conditions possible.

That is what it meant once upon a time, and can mean again today, regardless of your faith label, to pick up your cross, deny your selfishness, and gain real life, true self, and grow the soul of the world. To be clear about this: it is not good that Jesus was killed by the Empire; violence and suffering is not something to be willed, and I don’t believe God willed it then or now; it is to be resisted against. When the early followers of Jesus transformed the symbol of the cross by owning it instead of being shamed by it, by making it a sign of faith in something more powerful than the cross itself and what it represented to so many then, they were using it as a liberative symbol, as a story, as a counter reality against the world’s oppressive use of it. Evil is not good; good can emerge in the response to the aftermath of Evil. One way that happens is by not trying to pretend there are no crosses still lining the roads of our lives, our churches, our world, the crosses that seek to convince us that change is not possible, but trusting good can emerge by facing the crosses, emptying them of what Empire has claimed them to be, and embracing them not as a sign of that past but as a sign of a different future.

The church that is dawning, or returning to us, is one where part of our reason for being is the sharing of such stories, about ours and our community’s crosses, and joining in the struggles of transformation of them. We do so then not to root ourselves in the cross, in suffering, in that which calls out to us from the deepest part of us to be changed, but root ourselves in the trust, the faithfulness that it will happen, is happening, even when we can’t see it, or feel it, and believe it never will. Root ourselves in that spirit which has been called sacred Presence, grace, even called resurrection, a spirit of change which forms us into agents of change. Which faces us forward. We can then come as persons seeking to be changed, come into communities full of blessed and broken people who will break our hearts as we will break theirs, and go out a little more healed and whole into wider community of broken and blessed hearts waiting for our presence.

There is a theological word for change; it is called Repentance. It comes from the Greek word metanoia, to literally go beyond in one’s understanding, to have a change of heart and insight. It gets emphasized a lot during this season of Lent. We think of our past struggles and we commit to living in the present as if we were already living in a future without them. I wonder what our churches would be like if we took this season seriously all year long and got beyond our own understandings of ourselves and others and the world and came to church not to celebrate our having arrived at mutual understandings and what we know, but came because we experienced ourselves to be people who are in need of being changed, and that we can’t do it alone, in need of what others know, especially those who will never come to us on their own.

Maybe we need to repent of our not being repentance people. I like what author Frederich Buechner says about Repentance when he writes; To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying “I’m sorry” then to the future and saying “Wow.”” That Wow opens up a future we thought the past had closed, and the more we practice it the more it guides us through our hard nights.

The Psalms, like the famous one we recited earlier, have traditionally been a source for strength during times of stress because they are little nuggets of repentance and change and transformation even within themselves. They have a three-fold movement from expressions of orientation, praise for the order of things, to expressions of dis-orientation, lament, anger, fear and loss for the ways things are, to finally expressions of re-orientation, praise for the hope of how they will be. Past present and future folded in together.

Poet and Author Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace uses a contemporary story of contemporary psalm writing that is an example I think of what contemporary faithfulness might mean again in our lives, and communities, if we start out together from a place of pain and power and potential. She wrote:

“When I’m working as an artist in residence at parochial schools, I like to read the psalms out loud to inspire the students, who are usually not aware tht the snippets they sing at mass are among the greatest poems in the world. But I have found that when I have asked children to write their own psalms, their poems often have an emotional directness that is similar to that of the biblical psalter. They know what it’s like to be small in a world designed for big people, to feel lost and abandoned. Children are frequently astonished to discover that the psalmists so freely express the more unacceptable emotions, sadness and even anger, even anger at God, and that all of this is in the Bible that they have read in church on Sunday mornings…..Children who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to writing cursing psalms, and I believe that the writing process offers them a safe haven in which to work through the desires for vengeance in a healthy way. Once a little boy wrote a poem called The Monster Who Was Sorry. He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that.” My messy house says it all, with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”

I know you are about to launch a campaign to gather commitments for the life and future of this church. Normally kick off sermons for such drives are full of great vision and memories of all that has been accomplished and optimistic calls for being all you can be. This sermon about messy houses probably doesn’t follow that model. But I hope you have caught glimmers of a vision of a Possible Church for a new era, one that is truly worthy of our deepest giving, of our grandest adventures in life, because here we have been touched by that Spirit that allows us to bless this mess, even this mess, to embrace our suckiness, to risk and fail our way all the way to great change, deep mercy, new life. We have nothing to lose that won’t be lost anyway, and the faith, hope and love we have to gain is indeed Eternal.

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