Monday, November 11, 2013

Life On Fire Harrisburg, PA Sermon: Living Missives of the Sacred

Life on Fire: Sermon at First Unitarian Church, Harrisburg, PA, Nov. 9, 2013, Rev. Ron Robinson

 Reading: from Isaiah, chapter 58

Is not this the fast that I choose:  To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.



There is a story being told in many churches around the world today. It seemed appropriate for my themes so I want to share it too.

It comes from the Gospel of Luke in the Christian scriptures when “some Sadducees, those who sald there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

          34(After probably a long withering look of disbelief and shaking of head at how people can get so many things backwards about what matters in a spiritual life, how we can get so distracted from our mission and try to substitute for it all manner of things in a literalistic and legalistic fashion, and with a little frustration), “Jesus said to them, according to the story and in my version, don’t bother yourself about such things; some things happen here that won’t happen there, because we will be all changed there; don’t get stuck in your default mode of one world when that world will be no more. And for the coup de grace, he adds the sound bite: 38”Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.”

And so are we all to be, alive, and on fire with passion, with love for others, and commitment to and for the living.

 This was an important scriptural story to our faith tradition’s founders; it conveys one of the cores of our witness about the Holy: that it is to be found ultimately not in what is dead and gone, as informative and inspirational as that might be, or in the finer points of speculative argumentation and reasoning, nor in the deadness of the status quo and how we have always done things and complacency in the face of injustice; but in the messy fired-up always imperfect lives of struggling people and in the unfolding continuing revealing changing spirit of life itself that keeps manifesting in new ways. To draw near to the Holy we say is to draw near to that experience; as Isaiah prophetically reminds us still, it is in solidarity and familiarity with those without that we truly earn the name of religious community.

          And often, particularly these days in the cultural wormhole of much change, moving between dimensions, that means changing radically our community, our sense and purpose and actions of community to keep it in the land of the living. It means getting out of ourselves, and over ourselves to become our deepest selves; striving to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community; seeing ourselves as “a people” (not “a collection of religiously oriented individuals” [Conrad Wright, Doctrine of a Church], a people to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world. Sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are to be not members of a religious club, but living missives of the Sacred. That is what will make our lives catch fire, make them into sacraments.


I remember a time about five years ago when some of the church leaders from Boston came to Tulsa and were listening to me try to describe how we were doing inside-out micro-church in the far northside area of abandonment and poverty and I could tell from their blank gazes that none of it was sinking in, our unwillingness to have members for example or our decision to give our space away to the community, or not having the name of our church on the front of the building, or how we put service before worship, but to their credit they kept listening from afar, and in the past few years, especially after being on the cover of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine, I have been privileged to be a frequent preacher and lecturer and workshop leader of what is called the missional movement catching fire among us, a movement I must emphasize that is really more about changing the wider community beyond; where necessary, changing the church in order to do that. I want people to know more about, or at least primarily about, the zipcodes their churches are located in then about their bylaws, buildings, budgets, board procedures, or the like. Good thing we are a home for heretics.


The title of the sermon comes from the gatherings some of us have started to share and explore together of the church that is radically focused outward to and with others, so radical that for some it might even mean living covenanted community lives of service beyond any congregational or organizational structures, while still being deep within a tradition or faith movement.  In part this falls under the beyond part of the “Congregations and Beyond” recent conversations of the UUA. But These gatherings of missional-driven folks are also for those who are remaining part of established churches and want to help turn them more toward counting people served than people in pews or as pledges. 

After a few years of workshop gatherings and online communities we had our first Life on Fire meeting in September at the UU church of OakRidge Tennessee and we will have our second one Feb. 28-Mar. 2 at our place, The Welcome Table in Turley and far north Tulsa neighborhoods in Oklahoma. In good UU fashion, and missional fashion, even though mostly we UUs have started the Life on Fire events, we have been enriched by the presence  and leadership of those in other churches and faith communities and welcome and need them too.  


When we planted our faith community ten years ago, we began in a fast growing suburb. The intent was not to become what we have become, but to be an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both UU and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before. The intent was to start one that is focused on gathering people together around a message of religious freedom, one focused on how people relate to one another and support one another in the gathered community, one  where communal worship is the primary and central act of and for the gathered community as it sends out a message to the wider community.


Now here is where I say that there is nothing wrong with any of that; it is just that it is now only one way, one manifestation possible of the church and that we don’t any longer live in a one-size-fits-all world, and that includes church; and we certainly are moving into a landscape where we need “a bigger bandwidth” of church in order to meet people where they are in their new diverse expectations of community and faith. Our wider culture has become like the cell phone that is only minimally a phone, if that, but our churches are too often still like the 1950s phone my father still has in his house and only recently was forced to stop using: one size, one color, attached to a wall you had to go to use, and where you had to dial and wait for each number. That is more like what we call the modern Attractional Church, focused on getting people to “come to us and be like us” But that kind of organization  is one that takes more and more resources in this highly competitive culture; it is why the large are able to pull it off and are getting larger, and yet at the same time even they are still losing their overall market share, shall we say,  of the general population.  

Church researcher and consultant George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution captures well the post-modern, post-denominational, post-Christian, and post-congregational world coming at us quickly. He predicts, and all predictions are dubious but this one continues to be borne out,  that in 2025, in just a dozen years, that 30-35 percent of Americans will get their primary spiritual community connection and experience and expression in local institutional or organized churches, whereas in 2000 it was 70 percent; 30-35 percent will be in a wide variety of alternative faith-based communities from house churches to marketplace gatherings to new monastic communities to missional communities to recovery groups to pilgrimages to places and events, just to name a few venues, compared to just 5 percent who were connecting this way in 2000.   

How will Unitarian Universalism match up in those categories by then? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now.


The take-away is that no matter how good we get at what we have been doing we won’t change those numbers much at all, especially without the massive resources required to be competitive in trying to attract and keep people—But it is also why the small and very small groups, with a big vision, and large risk-taking, can thrive by changing the competition, changing the scorecard of success(as missional church author Reggie McNeal describes it). Why maybe instead of working on ways to grow larger, many of us should be working on ways to grow smaller in order to relate to more. Why success should be found in how grand and how many times we experiment and fail and learn from it to shape our next response. Our task: How can we become church anywhere anytime and with anyone? That question itself challenges so much of the reigning model or mindset of why so many of us have “come to” church in the past—to “find our home, our people” and to create a center for distinguishable religious ideas. In a deeper cultural framework, we are talking about the shift from a modernist focus on fixed places and identities and centers to a new post-modernist focus on fluidity and margins and edges.


Once upon a time: There was a young man who 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 join others who had being going 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 so he asked his friends if he could say part of a psalm he had memorized 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 they went back swimming and partying. Next Sunday the same thing happened, but this time he had also brought a Bible with him for just a short time of reading and saying the prayer and then they kept on partying. Gradually as more friends joined in, soon they were also 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 even set up elements for communion on some picnic tables (next to ice chests of beer I imagine), but mostly though they kept partying before and during and after the time of prayer and communion and service. And all the while his worried family back in the pews kept bugging him to “come back to church.” (Exiles, Michael Frost).

They thought church is something you attend or go to; but it is something you become.  Imagine if we inspire and turned small groups of people loose to go places and do things like this intentionally.


In my missional community, we haven’t gone quite as organic and spontaneous as in this story, but about six years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be an attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, it became clear we needed to change to change our area, believing that churches or any groups should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker. As one missional leader has said (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution) we risked becoming smaller to do bigger things.

We learned that the numbers we needed to be concerned about were not the numbers in worship or that might join as members but the numbers of the poor and sick and oppressed in our zipcode area where people die 14 years sooner than they do just six miles south of us. (Levin study, OU).  

So In January 2007, with a core group of just six to eight people and about a dozen in worship on a good day, we made our big missional transformative move; we had just lost our biggest financial contributor from our original group,  but we felt called to serve our community and its severe needs especially because there was an absence of any other nonprofits or government and the other churches were only interested in their shrinking memberships. We were already shrunk so didn’t have to worry about that. (Note that even if you are in a zipcode without such dire basic needs, there is still much to be done where you are; I would love to not be focusing on the basics of food, water, clothing, homes, and instead be serving our neighbors in other ways.)

We talked among ourselves, and with our neighbors, about what the community needed. More People who believed like us was not on the list. Neighborhood Pride, spirit, safety, healthy food, cleaner environment, sense of a community, better animal control, better schools, these were tops. A church that helped that to happen is what was needed.

With fewer people and less money than when we started, we took a leap of faith and paid more and rented a four times larger space across the street and  opened up,  not billed as a church, but as a community center with library computer center clothing room food pantry health clinic and gathering space, in which we created space to worship amid the space we gave away for the service of others, rather than having a separate worship space of our own, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  Lately we have been more of a roaming worship group to build relationships with others around us and to experience the kinds of dynamic worship we don’t have the resources to do week in and week out.


One of my take-aways of our many radical changes as a group is that As we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world needed us to be.

In doing this We were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. Church in the new and ancient way that didn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws,boards, budgets. Those may be deemed helpful, but they aren’t what makes a church a church; that is its mission. And Church doesn’t have a mission; The mission has, and creates, church. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Theodore Parker who reminded us that the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for the 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century will not do for the 21st.

Even as far back as the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism formed by the oldest churches in our Association, church was grounded in its covenants, which is a way of saying its mission to and with others, and not just with those who joined a particular church, or became its leaders; for a church to be considered whole and healthy, then and now, it needed to be in covenant with the world around it; in fact, the more it struggles with its internal covenants with one another and its leadership, the more it needs its core identity of a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. 


In our zipcode, in what has been described as “an abandoned place of the American Empire” [The New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al]…by 2009 we completed the first transformational missional move by creating the separate non-profit A Third Place Community Foundation to connect  more deeply with others and partner with them for renewal in our area, and to be the organizational wing of our mission, while as church we became organic, incarnational, even smaller so that we could keeping dreaming and doing bigger things. Which we did the very next year.
In summer 2010 through our nonprofit we bought the block of abandoned homes and trash dump and transformed it into a community garden park and orchard. Then in 2011 the nonprofit bought the largest abandoned building at the time, an old church building, for our community center. We called both the center and the park The Welcome Table. And so our church/missional community that had started as Epiphany Church then became The Living Room Church then Church at A Third Place became The Welcome Table. Four location changes and four name changes in 8 years, not mentioning how we started in living rooms, in a hotel meeting space, in the back room of a Panera Restaurant, and how we still look for ways to worship in the garden or at our service sites or places we partied like a bowling alley. And we may be morphing in a major way again very soon.

The impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church becomes.

Our reason for being, what calls us together, is to be sent out to make visible in the world that Sacredness of Life that compels us to love the hell out of this world. To discern who our heart breaks for, and let that guide us into how we become church.

          Now we have been expanding our food pantry into a free corner store for our area where 55 percent say they are unsure if they will have enough to eat, where 60 percent say they can’t afford healthy food, and we have a community art space, and crafts space, and free clothing and more space; we hold community events and community organizing meetings and put on free holiday parties and throw open the doors to the community, because no one else in our area is; we are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group organized, and we have the lofty dream of trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the recently closed school across from us. Meanwhile the community garden park and orchard is growing and becoming an award-winning site for events itself. And we do all this and the last time we worshipped together this past Sunday we had five people, a good turnout. I never say “just” five people, or two people. We embody a theology of enough. We are a church of enough-ness.

Of course we do this living like our neighbors, going from cut-off notice to cut-off notice juggling bills, and knowing that it all could be cut back, curtailed or especially if we don’t get some more regular $5 and $10 or more a month donations from online and face to face supporters to offset those who have died or moved from our community, that one of these days we could close much of what we do, just like so much else has closed in our neighborhood. (One of the things I say when I am often asked, especially  by our  partners, the graduate social work students, about what is the most successful thing we have done, is to say, “Just still being here” because so much else comes and goes and people don’t expect a good thing to be able to last in our neighborhoods.) We face that reality with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go. We find we must grow deeper in radical trust, and the spirit of abundance in the midst of scarcity, in order to keep making leaps into the missional abyss.

Which is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, following that ancient image of the Divine as the bush that burns but doesn’t burn itself out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning, but as a Spiritual Departure point not a Destination Point.  It is why in our place we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as bearing witness to life in our neighborhood, giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, modeling a way of non-violent response instead of drama and anxiety, this is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin. And this is missional work that is needed I believe in every neighborhood no matter its means, though I do remind people that some neighborhoods have more resources to bring to bear for healing than others do, and some of the best healing work we can do in some neighborhoods is to get them liberated from the possessions which possess them, and help them to find ways to relocate in part or whole to be where those with the least are located.

Now While my faith and particular theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, in our new unchurched and dechurched world it isn’t where I personally, or in community, seek to first connect with people. Not with shared ideas, not even with shared spiritual practices such as worship, but it is first in shared mission, something I can do with practically anyone. As a Christian, then I don’t ultimately need, or think ultimately the world needs, more Christians. As a Unitarian Universalists, then I don’t ultimately need or think the world ultimately needs more Unitarian Universalists. Those are not my missions. What I need and I think we need and the world needs more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit. If that results in more people coming to adopt my specific faith perspective, great; but if not, if the specific communities and organizations I am connected with were to die away as the world changed from adopting their ways, then that is a legacy of radical love for the ages I will embrace.

What I believe is that whatever happens in my community or in our wider church movement, the life and legacy of what we have done will, like all of us, ultimately live deepest in the relationships we make, regardless of what form they take or how long they last.

Our goal is not self-perpetuation, but growing our soul, and we do that by giving ourselves back to that Great Love, in which we live and move and have and find our being. And it is in sharing that Love with others for others, especially those most in its need, that will set our lives, our churches, on Fire, with a sacred mission into this bruised and blessed land of the living.