Sunday, May 06, 2012

ReShaping the World: church in likeness to a different God

Reshaping The World: church in likeness to a different God

Rev. Ron Robinson

Ballou-Channing District, UUA, Keynote Sermon, Fairhaven, MA, May 5, 2012

Introduction: A Bigger Bandwidth

In a world with a thousand broadcast channels, in a world where a phone is rarely a phone but a portal to the universe, in a world where books and movies and people come to me on a screen wherever I go, in a Google-made world overlaying a Gutenberg-made world, in a world where viral and contagious and tribal are affirmations, in a world of social solitude, in a world where hot dogs are stuffed into pizza, yet a world where a growing number of children don’t know how to eat a meal that doesn’t come to them in a single serving self-contained package handed to them, in such a world it should be no surprise that Church must become expressed in a much broader bandwidth of communities, including the missional communities I will describe.

A broader bandwidth means just that; a broadening out, not a replacement for, not a new model church replacing church as we have known and loved it and hated it. It means church doesn’t have to be alike and bless the world alike either; in fact, if we do continue to have a monoculture of what is required to be church, we will not be able to bless but a quickly shrinking segment of the world that is attracted to that culture.

 To forge a bigger bandwidth of church, the church first needs to forget itself, its anxieties, its identity crisis, its own needs to change, and focus instead on what it takes to change the hurting world right around it, to become its change agent.  This is an ancient/new role for church which is now a cultural outsider rather than insider as it was in the modern age. The mission of the church in that setting was to be what we often called “being a beacon.” Which is another way of saying look to us, at us, be like us, and we will save you from the stormy seas of the world.

 But then, not so very long ago, that context and that dynamic changed. And we are struggling to understand and live out the change, that church is not insider, not beacon, not ultimately even a safe harbor, fair haven,  but church is the already shipwrecked persons creating rafts from the wreckage itself and forming community while searching and rescuing others, resisting the waves and the tide in order to remain in the stormy sea until all are found. 

I.                   The Default Mode of Church

It happened on a Sunday night in 1963, in Greenville, South Carolina, when the Fox Theater, despite opposition, began showing movies on Sundays, just at night. That moment in that place has come to mark the end of the churched culture in the United States. That event in Greenville was scandalous; imagine if they then could have seen ahead to our Sundays now and what competition  congregations face for people’s allegiance.

 I use that signature 1963 moment as a stereotypical generational boundary timeline dividing default modes of what we think about when we think about church. Those like me who were born before that event [I asked for a show of hands of how many present were born before 1963; some 99 percent of the hands in the pews were raised]might in our mind’s eye not only have a fairly uniform image of church, despite our individual different histories, but we will also have a deep imprint of the place of church in society, which affects our understanding of church and mission.   

Our default of church is as a set aside place, a what, an It, a special looking building, with a name on it that tells you it belongs to others like it, with a main room where people gather for an hour or so once a week and do a thing called worship and Sunday school and listen to someone speak for a big portion of that time, all supported by a legally constituted organization with leaders and members and multi-generational families, above all as a group one comes into, either by birth or by choice.

The prevailing church model today does much good in the world, and will continue to do so. But what I want to leave you with today is that no matter how good the congregation and its people are, and no matter how much it grows in number as well as in vitality, that fewer and fewer percentages of people in the world around the congregation are likely to be attracted to it—though still hungry for spiritual depth and connection and service. The pool, or mission field, of people who seek to be nourished by a congregation, any congregation, will shrink, and the competition by congregations for them will be fierce, cutting across denominational and religious lines as we are already seeing, with the already haves having the upper hand in landing the potential new members.

The good news in that situation is that this new environment, this new spiritual landscape, in this so-called unchurched world, post denominational world, and now post congregational world, this change is opening up whole new ways and niches of being church. Especially for those who can turn vulnerability under the old default mode into becoming vanguards in the new broader bandwidth.

The church’s new measuring stick will be how it grows the world’s vitality and resources rather than its own. How many beyond itself is it serving? Not how many are serving it. How will it be able to connect with those growing percentages who are unreachable by congregations. In a given week now 65 percent of people in their 70s and above are in a congregation; for baby boomers the number is 35 percent; for Gen Xers it is 15 percent and for Millenials, some of whom are already at 30 years old, it is 4 percent [from Mike Breen in Launching Missional Communities]. And due to the culture shift from churched to unchurched, with the highly competitive marketplace churches are in now,  there is not projected to be the kind of return to church as younger generations age, as was the case in the past. To survive will mean embodying discontinuity with the past [radical discontinuity says church consultant and author Lyle Schaller].

So, if they aren’t coming to church, the missional church says, go to them. Quit thinking of the church as a what, as an It, and remember it is a Who. Church is at heart not a 501c3 religious organization;  it can and has existed, in 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, but church can be lived out organically as a way people, two or more at a time, especially in covenant, participate as expressions of “the church.” Imagine. Church anywhere, anytime.

For Church does not have to be only in the mode of help an us to become bigger and better, more competitive, where people despite our best intentions become the means to some organizational end; to seek that is to follow the default mode of consumerism, to give allegiance to the Empire which is always seeking to co-opt the church, now as in the days of Rome, to subsume it with the controlling worldview that says the quality and meaning of life is about what you have and can get, not just in things either, but also in terms of appearance and achievement and personal power and the ability to tap easily into a wealth of choices and experiences especially those that are “cool” “hot” “trendy”, and that what you give is of secondary importance, something you do with your disposable time, talents, and treasure. (Believe me if the prevailing quality of life standard was to live so as to be able to give easily and naturally and neighborly, then my zipcode would be booming and not busting).  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, becoming Pepsi people not Coke people; church can be about turning outwards, helping others grow, serving the ends of others, giving ourselves away, incarnating who we are into the greater life, and of course always inviting others to do so with us, and nurturing leaders to keep this movement alive. (That nurture part is why spiritual direction is companion to mission; both take more seriously the need of going inward and going outward at the same time).

I.                   Missional Examples

So, exactly, what is this bigger bandwidth of church looking like as it seeks to respond to the growing diverse frequencies of the world?

There is the 3 am coffeeshop church for those on the nightshift. There is the café church that sells its food for whatever people wish to pay, and who gather for study and worship in the café. There is the church that sends and pays for two couples to move into an apartment complex, one of the great unchurched areas of our culture, to live and form relationships and study and worship in the clubhouse. There is the house church with two couples sharing the residence and who organize a community garden for their neighborhood. There is the church of 80 who can’t fund their minister full time and sustain their building so they divide into 8 groups of ten based on their residential geography and these become eight new congregations who meet together once a month for bigger worship, and the pastor moved into a poor neighborhood and worked part time at a car repair shop so he could scale back or eliminate his paid ministry, turning it into connecting and coaching the different small groups; over time his parishoners also began downsizing and moving into the neighborhood with him.

There is the movement of so-called new friars, a few families who move into urban slum areas around the world, and let their simple living and serving their new neighbors be a witness to their faith. There are the new monastics who live in co-housing or in proximity to one another and who eat together and help one another and serve others throughout the week together, especially in the poorest areas of a community, and who worship together daily or several times a week. There is the large church that takes its established small groups and turns them loose to become missional groups---meeting weekly.  One missional group may primarily be related to one school or one neighborhood or one apartment complex, or an even smaller segment of those, even one family to one family, one person to one person. There are the organic churches who are at most 16 to 20 people and who meet weekly in groups of 4 for sharing and serving in life transformation groups with one of them intentionally leaving to start a new group of 4. There are churches who meet in bars, parks, restaurants, bookstores, after movies, during lunch at work, in tutoring students at school.  But the question arises: is that really “a church”? The answer is that the question still assumes modernity’s definition and emphasis on “a” this or that thing, like a taxonomy, something that can be affixed, known, named, organized. When what is happening is not “a church” but manifestations of “the church.”

Despite the varieties of missional communities, they each find a way to carry out the four focuses of becoming church: mission, discipleship, community, and worship. They serve others together (mission), they study together (discipleship), they eat together and care for one another and build ties with one another (community) and they worship together, either by conducting their own worship in small groups, or with a cluster of groups, or with their own larger church, their sending church, or by going to worship with others in their churches, as a way of relating to more people and participating in a worship they could not with their size create.

One of my favorite stories of radical missional church incarnation is from Michael Frost’s book Exiles, about the young adult who had attention deficit disorder and had always found it difficult to sit still in the pews with his family during worship, and so when he became an adult it dawned on him that he really didn’t have to go to worship anymore as he had in the past in the congregational setting, so he went with friends to the lake on Sundays. But he felt a little guilty and he wanted to be spiritually nourished so while he was partying at the lake he asked his friends, most who had not had his church background, if he could take a moment to pray and he asked them if they had anything he could include in his own prayers, and he went on partying. The next Sunday he brought his Bible and took a few minutes to do the same, adding in a brief reading, and then he went on partying. Not taking more than a few minutes at first. But then he and his friends started adding more prayers, and they started doing small acts of service at the lake, cleaning up, towing boats, and then they sat at picnic tables and had bread and juice for communion alongside the burgers and the beer, and wove spiritual issues into their conversations. Still, it was a party; still, his family pestered him to “come back to church.” Imagine such an organic expression of church being seeded intentionally?

II.                 The Welcome Table missional community and A Third Place Community Foundation

Finally, in exploring varieties of missional church, noticing how they are fundamentally different from an existing church that does a lot of good in the community (though that is part of the bigger bandwidth; we need more of those churches, and they can find ways to be even more a part of the transformation of their communities; perhaps just taking boards and committees and worship outside of the building and into relationship with others more; by giving more and more of their plate offering away; by forming non-profit foundations to partner with others easier and to tackle specific missions), there are those like us.

In the workshop this afternoon I will go into more specifics, into what I love to talk about the nuts and bolts of our failures and current struggles, because another marker of the new measurement for success is how often you are failing, as a sign of how much you are risking, but our story is that we decided we exist not to attract like-minded or common values people into a warm supportive community of our own (though we think we are one) from which we would do projects in the community, but that we exist for the healing transformation of our immediate neighborhoods, ones which have the lowest income and lowest life expectancy in our area, 14 years lower life expectancy than in the highest area just six miles from us. We asked that all important question: if we ceased to exist, would our neighbors notice, and would it affect their lives in meaningful ways? [see Missional Renaissance, by Reggie McNeal]. So five years ago we took down the signs that said we were a church and when we worshipped, and we moved out of our small rented space and we moved into a much larger rented space across the street at a higher lease we had no certainty we could pay for; and there we re-emerged as a free community center with a library, computer center, food pantry, health clinic, clothing and giveaway room, meeting space for community events and parties we threw for free, and where the community was invited to come voice their hurts, dreams, disappointments, visions, and there connect with one another and with our partner groups. We still worshipped, often more times than we had before, and in various ways, but our gatherings were right there in the center, sometimes even as other activities were happening; we became a guest in our space given away for others, or we worshipped out in the places of the community we were working on, our blight to beauty sites, or our community gardens we had started, or we worshipped with other churches.

Since then, we created a non-profit foundation (A Third Place) with others in our community from a variety of faiths to handle the organizational matters and help us do more with our neighbors. Such as purchasing a city block of abandoned trashed and burned out homes and turning that space into a community garden and orchard and park to produce healthy food for our unhealthy area. It too is becoming another public space for community to happen among people who otherwise wouldn’t connect, in an area of great ethnic diversity at a time of polarization and violence; it was our zipcode that was in the world news lately for the Good Friday racially motivated killings; both the white shooters and all but one of the black victims lived in our area, a two mile radius from our center, which is our focus, our parish. A Third Place is called that, as a part of a global third spaces or places movement to reclaim public spaces for the common good, where people who are different from one another can meet and create together; the first place is  your home, the second place is your work or church or civic group where you are with people who think like you; but the world needs more third places, where cross cultural life is nurtured.

And we have bought the largest abandoned building, at the time, in our area, an old church complex that had been rundown and vandalized, and we have moved the community center and programs into it, expanding our food pantry by doing so, and making the building such as it is an asset again, and keeping our money turning over in our community rather than going to a landlord who lived outside our area. Our food pantry gives out sometimes 11,000 pounds of food in a month. We also have coordinated the daily summer free lunches for more children in our area than anywhere else in our town, and we put on free community celebrations that uplift and feed hundreds of people and provide free entertainment in an area where no venues exist.

We are a tiny group—sometimes four to a dozen worshipping together—but we partner with many and are always looking for ways to incarnate ourselves in and with others, and we have our hearts and hands and heads in coordinating everything in our community from food to parks to the schools to health projects to streets to trash to crime prevention to animal welfare to disaster response planning to working on incorporating part of our community that isn’t so it can have more of a voice and seat at the table. We see ourselves as The Church of Another World is Possible in this abandoned place of Empire. And we are all volunteers, so far; we are hoping to change that.

Well, that is all well and good, some say, but what does that have to do with church? How are you not just like another social service?

Well, I answer, I wish we didn’t have to be doing what we are doing. I wish there wasn’t such places like ours. I wish other renewal groups were active here; I wish government was funded to an extent where it could do its job here; I wish the businesses here cared more about the people’s lives beyond the time they are in their stores; I wish the few small churches here weren’t so fragile and in scarcity mode themselves and were more socially justice oriented and just plain helping your neighbor oriented. And I wish that more of my neighbors would help us and give back to others and build community with us too; we wouldn’t need any financial assistance from outside our own area, even with the poverty we have, if others living here too weren’t wasting their money on addictions; I wish they didn’t have to wear themselves out trying to find work, or to get healthy, or caring for multiple generations so that they could give more of themselves.  

But none of that is happening, and there are people hurting, and community at risk.

III.              The Church Doesn’t Have A Mission; The Mission Has A Church

And here is the radical turning point of missional church, and the turning point for this sermon: I believe the mission of the church is at heart about serving, saving, the most vulnerable of our neighbors; and if your neighbors aren’t vulnerable (though I bet they are in many ways; as my wife Bonnie says, the people in the wealthy suburbs have power but don’t know they have needs; the people in our area know they have needs but not that they have power; it is harder work in many ways to get the powerful to know they are in need) and you can’t figure out a way to give yourself away to them then you should move to a different neighborhood. I believe the church should not be growing more vital and healthy when the world around it is dying. I don’t believe the mission of the church is to attract more people to think like us, and lord knows its not the mission of the church to make more people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists, or call themselves Christian either, for example; if that happens as a byproduct of fulfilling our mission, then well and good; but it isn’t why we exist and the more we make it our focus, the more we worry about church even, as an institution and organization, the more we lose sight of our calling to love and shape the world bent out of shape, and the more we will just end up paralyzing the church anyway with anxiety. It is why I didn’t call this sermon ReShaping the Church, because you start with the need to ReShape the World and let that guide what kind of church is created to help carry out that task. It is the same reason we say The Church Does Not Have A Mission; The Mission Has or Creates The Church. That’s why the Mission remains the same while the forms of church vary in order to better respond to the Mission. Always seeking to change your mission, and god forbid always seeking to change a mission statement, like you change bylaws, or leaders, is to never know your purpose and to avoid commitment to it.

Is your church's mission just to get more people to think alike, even to have a like approach to religious issues? In hopes that this alone will create a beloved community? Is it to attract those who already think alike, e.g. are already religious liberals or spiritual progressives, but just don't know yet about your church, or just don't know yet about all the benefits they could receive from being a member of your faith community? So they can get support for thinking a certain way?
Do we want our churches to just grow as echo chambers in a world that needs more “edge” places, those boundary margin lines where habitats converge and life is most abundant and creative? Do we think we can best change our world by having bigger churches of the like minded religiously? Who are fed by message and not by mission? Is what we do on Sunday really changing Monday life? Do we put our trust in an approach that thinking rightly will lead to right action, just as we hope that worship will lead to service?

The mission calls our church not to get bigger so we can put on more programs and better worship to grow liberal minds. But instead the mission calls the church to grow the soul of the neighborhoods and lives around us, outside of us, and as we do that, in relationship with those very different from us, we trust that what guides us and inspires us will grow too.

IV.              The Progressive Struggle to be Missional

But we also struggle as missional progressives because of the very church and culture in which we have been nurtured as progressives. Not only do we have that default mode to contend with about a one church model fits all, but there are aspects of progressive or liberal faith, some might say its very core, which make it hard to grow missionally. Our faith, or at least our church manifestations, are rooted and have their DNA in the modern age and culture; the problem is, the air and livable environment of that age and culture is quickly being sucked away. Congregations as we know them now were at home, perhaps too at home, in that age and culture of modernity. They struggle in the new air and environment of that which is growing up around them as a kind of post modernity. Likewise missional communities were the anomalies of the modern age, but they are thriving in this new culture.

Pay attention to this quote from "Understanding North American Culture" chapter two of the groundbreaking work, Missional Church; this section written by Craig Van Gelder: "Freely choosing, autonomous individuals, deciding out of rational self-interest to enter into a social contract in order to construct a progressive society, became the central ideology of modernity." Read it once again.
So much of us fits that description to a tee. Our churches are embedded in modernity.  Our liberal theology, as Gary Dorrien pointed out in his trilogy of history on American liberal religion, has its DNA the middle ground, a mediating message, between the orthodox right and the non-religious left, to simplify it; but that stance means liberals are prone to be in reacting mode, balancing, one foot weighted one direction and the other foot weighted the other, always worried about identity, always trying to get the Message right, and all that energy saps mission.

Missional church is embedded in a different culture, though still navigating through the wreckage of modernity. Its historical DNA is not in Reformation and Renaissance and Enlightenment. Its roots are deeper than Plymouth, deeper than Wittenberg or Geneva, deeper than Rome. I find them in the pre-church, pre-Christian even, radical meal fellowship events growing out of and connected in ways to Jesus, but where there were no qualifiers placed on who was served, and where a new image of God sustained them.  
And, If I were talking to my missional brothers and sisters from more orthodox communities today, I would challenge them to see the gifts of progressive faith for their ministry.  We have experience on how to engage with all of the world, in all its pluralisms, that the non-progressive missionals need in order to better know and love the world and become the church in the process.
So, to reframe van Gelder’s  summation of modernity and put it in postmodern missional ways: we are not freely choosing; we have a calling, in some sense experience ourselves as having been Chosen, created by the Mission; we are not autonomous individuals but are inherently and primarily relational and communal persons, finding deeper definitions of freedom in that; we are not entering into community out of rational self-interest but struggling to give up ego and to give one's self to all that the culture of consumerism and self and nationalism says does not make sense; we are covenanting to imitate and in doing so help initiate the "empire of God" or beloved communitas, that way community turns outward not inward upon us.

V.                Likeness To A Different Image of God

The nature of church, though, is not created in a vacuum; it is connected and grows ultimately out of how we view the nature of God (even if our view is to see an absence there). For how we see and depict the nature of God will shape how we see the nature of Nature or Creation itself, which shapes how we see the nature of humanity, which shapes how we see the nature of evil and suffering, which shapes how we see the nature of what is restorative, healing, saving, from which the mission of the church is grown.

For me the epitome of modernity’s God is reflected in the William Ellery Channing 1828 sermon Likeness To God. We have often looked at this sermon as a foundational understanding of how our tradition elevates a theological anthropology, or human nature, as its starting point, from which today we use the terms inherent worth and dignity of all as our first principle. But the human nature Channing defends, and commits to building a church around supporting, is what it is because of the nature of the God he sees. The title of the sermon is drawn from the famous words of Genesis that we are made in the likeness of God; and ever since religious leaders have been wrestling to figure out what that likeness is; often not wrestling enough, but looking in the mirror and finding the likeness there. The orthodox Calvinists of his time, against whom Channing was preaching, saw humanity’s likeness to God as destroyed in the Fall of Adam, and only possible of obtaining again through the atoning work of Christ (a position many of the Universalists of the time also took, though they would argue that the atoning work had been done and for all). Channing’s sermons here and elsewhere lifted up the truth that the likeness to God was something we too could help cultivate, create, especially as we focus on the “essential capacities of the Mind.” His image of God was one of Mind. And God’s greatest gift is how God communicates his self. (See how the church of modernity resembles the God of modernity? With a focus on the self, on the mind, on communicating a message?). God to the modern is ultimate knowledge; is what all is attracted toward; is the brightest and most honorable, the highest good; and proof of God is even in us; so wouldn’t church made in the likeness to this God also be about us, our goodness? Channing, while stating that God is to be seen in nature, puts the focus on us as the viewer, and states that we should care more for our own spirit than for all the outward world. And Channing goes on to state even that we know what the image of God is because we can know our own soul; to see God see ourselves, the way parents and children resemble one another. The Rev. Carl Scovel, in his lecture Beyond Channing and Church, is right that Channing’s image of God, and Jesus, is something akin to a benevolent Boston merchant, that there is little of the radical nature there that calls us to upend our lives and overturn the powers and principalities of this world. But that is because Channing, in his historical moment of change, was reflecting the God of modernity against those who were still forming their lives in likeness to the God of a medieval culture.

Yet Channing is right, and right for our times, when in that sermon he says you cannot and should not sever the connection between Creator and creatures. This is a key insight for the missional church; it is why the missional church challenges how we have separated faith from daily living, confined it as church to certain times and places and certain people. The real problem for us, though, a church made in the likeness to Channing’s likeness to God, is not the inherent connection of God and humanity but it is the attributes ascribed to God, that God is found in Abstraction--beauty, truth and goodness, glory and honor and intelligence. Church made for those attributes does not get dirty in my zip code, the 74126; it is the kind of church that sends its buses into my neighborhood to collect people to take them across town to make them feel good and safe, unlike those left behind, and then it drops them back off to their abandoned blocks and un-neighborly-hood; or it is the kind of church that never comes into the zip code in the first place because of fear or of shame, or the people here do not think, vote, look, or listen to the same media as them.

In Channing’s sermon, his radical break-through was reclaiming the divine nature of the creature; much needed for his time. Now, for the missional church there is a reclaiming of the human nature of the Creator, or at least that we meet God in very different ways and people and places than before; that to be filled with the divine, to partner with God, is to go be where that liberating spirit—call is the Transcendent, The Goddess, the Human Spirit, or something else—where it is already present and transforming the world, especially in the abandoned places and people, in the areas of poverty and shame and despair; don’t worry about what to call it, but worry that it is calling you to go be with others without trying to make them like us, without trying to get them into our doors.

 For the missional church, God has changed sides, and so the church must do the same to follow God. It is why the missional church wakes up in the morning  and thinks: where can I go find God in the neighborhood? Not how can I get more of the neighborhood to come on Sunday and find God here?  

Channing actually helped prepare the way for this. From modernity’s emphasis on the mind and scholarship and freedom from dogma and the separation from religion only being the purview of the church, and from the rise of historical and biblical scholarship through the academy as well as through the progressive church, because of that we have begun to be able to reclaim a different perspective on God, to experience the paradoxical power of the Vulnerable God, one different than was available to Channing. Particularly we now have again in our midst the paradigm exploding parables of Jesus, told at those radical meal fellowship events, and how they reveal a very different image of God, for us to follow and form communities in likeness to. In Channing’s time, parables were predominantly used as platitudes, but now we know they reveal the heart of mission, which was to imitate and initiate the kingdom of God as a counterweight, an alternate world, to the prevailing kingdom of Rome and its ways. As now the new Rome is the new American Dream consumer marketplace Entertainment Empire spreading a false notion of quality of life; against it is God’s Dream of justice, where, in the words of the theologian Jorgen Moltmann, the opposite of poverty is not property and wealth; the opposite of both poverty and property is community.

Jesus said God is like leaven, which a woman stole, and hid in three measures of flour until it was all corrupted. God is no longer in the pure but the impure, not in what makes us holy and to be kept apart (sound like any church you know?), but God is in the midst of the outsider, the scandalous, the wastefulness as the world judges what is of worth. So too should be the church. Jesus said God is like mustard seed that a man took and threw in a garden and it took over and grew wild and tall so that birds could nest in it. So, God is then no longer in the orderly, presentable, measurable, tidy and controllable; God is what breaks out of the neat boxes in which we try to put our lives, and church. God is what we get lost in. Jesus said God is like a woman who carrying a jar of meal and the jar has a hole in it she doesn’t know about and all the meal spills out behind her along the road, and when she gets home she discovers the jar is empty. Period. So, God is no longer in what becomes full, in what we can see and touch and make our own and feel good about, in feeding ourselves and our own; God is that moment when we must face absence and emptiness and must choose upon what we base our life, our church.

Church made in the likeness to this different God is a different church indeed. It is these parables that we have used as our touchstones in Turley/NorthTulsa, our TNT zone, for who we hang out with (felons, recovering addicts, the left behind, all of whom are a big part of our volunteers), and where we spend our time, what our priorities are. Putting church under the radar, letting it be like leaven, except the corruption we seek to spread through our service with others is the corruption of hope and community and of giving back when so much around us is defining quality of life as what one can get and have, can hoard.

Jesus said God is the Samaritan, the one different from us, who saves us, when we have been left to die. So church go meet the Samaritan on the road.  Church, let the world save you. Jesus said God is the party that is thrown for the prodigal younger son, who may leave again in the light of morning. God is the mothering father of that parable who has one eye always on the world beyond, lamenting who is lost, and who doesn’t mind shaming himself in the eyes of the world that believes prestige and power and honor and community reputation are the marks of divinity. So, too, the church today is like the elder brother in that parable, who at the end is left out in his field alone, a choice before him to make: does he remain there apart from all others, waiting for them to come to him, does he remain alone in his very real sense of his own rightness, with a firm grasp on his own truth, or does he get over himself and go to the party and experience the God of relationship and endless possibilities? Church, do  you have eyes to see, and ears to hear?

Jesus’ parables shook up his world by re-engaging and reimagining his world, by reimagining God in his world. It was a new consciousness, a new way of being in the world, says parables scholar Brandon Scott, who wrote, “The God Jesus hides in the parables identifies with a polluted world, not the world of the temple…” (Reimaging The World, by Bernard Brandon Scott). This new way of being didn’t require membership in a special group then, under a special name or with a special set of beliefs, in order to participate in it, and it doesn’t require that today either. That’s part of its radical mission-centered way. You don’t have to be a Christian; you don’t have to think certain things about God, or use the language I am using,  in fact those things if you aren’t careful can stand in the way, can hinder creating community committed to the very mission of this God of difference.

Conclusion: The Shadows of What Once Was That Hold Our Gaze

I am a child of the church, and of the churched culture, and of the modern age itself in which the church was embedded and which the church helped to create. I am a child of Channing; it was encountering his work in college that led me to Unitarianism which led me to Universalism. And on all accounts, I often now feel like an orphan. I can lament with the best of them how things used to be. It is ironic that by far the most active Facebook group I am in, facebook which is that embodiment of the new culture itself shaping us, is the facebook group for people talking about the old neighborhoods, old schools, teachers and friends, and the old world in which we once lived. Who remembers this? We ask one another.  It is the question of our age at this hinge of history, one that has implications far beyond personal nostalgia; we are growing real communal ties around what is no longer with us except in our minds, instead of growing community around what might be, especially where it is needed most. 

That world in which I was grown (hear the passive tense, was grown)—church being so much a part of it—has gone away and left its sudden shadow that seeks to keep us attached to it, that still holds our gaze, like the shadows of people going about their daily lives now burned onto the walls of Hiroshima in the atomic blast that killed the actual people themselves. Those simple things and ways we took for granted now seem sacred, in large measure because they are no more or seem so endangered. So it is with church. We have moved as a society from churched to unchurched and de-churched culture. Church itself has moved into a post-denominational culture that challenges how we are known. And now church is entering a post-congregational culture that challenges us with why and how we gather and what we do when we are together. Much is passing away right before our eyes, much that is very very good and has done very good things in the world and people’s lives, but is slipping through our grasping fingers, and quickly becoming only memories that we are also steadily, inexorably, losing, all of this calling into question our very identity. Which is also a very, very good thing. Because even deeper than being a child of the church and of the culture, we need reminders that we are children of something Greater than these, something that can shape these and us. William Ellery Channing used a simple biblical text to open his Likeness To God sermon; it was Ephesians chapter 5 verse 1: Be ye therefore, imitators of God, as dear children. One contemporary translation of that is: Wake up from your sleep: watch what God does and then you do it.

My mother, a theologian of few words unlike her son, used to say: be careful what you imitate; you might become it. Be careful what face you make and show to others; it might freeze.

Prayer: Spirit of Life that bring us freedom, to change sides too, shape us with your transforming healing loving liberating Presence beyond our words to capture but at loose in our world, in unexpected places and people and ways, reshaping it, in small acts of justice done with great love, calling for us to use our freedom, and the gift of this new world, to become church, partners, co-creators, in and for the Mission of the ages: to bring good news to the poor. To set the oppressed free. For the blind to see, the hungry to be fed, the thirsty to have drink, the naked to be clothed, the sick to be healed, the prisoner to be visited, and the stranger to be the host. Amen.  
[A few parts of this left out of the oral presentation too were a discussion of how the missional church fits into the tradition of congregationalism via the Cambridge Platform of 1648, its radical revision of the doctrine of the church, and the Calvinist conception of the Invisible Church; also the tradition within the Unitarian Universalist church history of being missional, as in Jenkin Lloyd Jones and the church as community center approach of the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago, and the various community churches in urban areas; but also how we have been moved by the work of other traditions, such as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and houses of hospitality, and Clarence Jordan and Koinonia in Georgia in the 1940s, John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, as well as Shane Claiborne and others in the new monastic movement.)

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