Friday, January 17, 2014

Divine Strangers: The Marks of The Missional Church"

 “Divine Strangers: The Marks of The Missional Church” by Rev. Ron Robinson, delivered January 19, 2014, Turley United Methodist Church.
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Readings and Sermon: Divine Strangers by Rev. Ron Robinson

1.     Isaiah 49: 5-6

5And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

2.     John 1: 29-36

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”


Just about everywhere you turn these days in church circles, you are likely to hear the phrase “the missional church.” Other terms might be the incarnational church, the externally-focused church, the inside-out church. Here in Turley, here in this very space next month, we will host a local and national gathering of missional leaders and seekers called Life On Fire.

In itself, that is amazing. Just Seven years ago this month, when our own little church group here called The Living Room back then, went missional and we moved out of the building where we had been trying to attract people to come to us and join with us and we instead moved into a building that we gave back to the community, without the name of the church out front, it seemed back then like we were pretty much all alone. We got a lot of blank stares. “You do church, how???” A lot has changed quickly since then. We have even been on the cover of a national religious magazine. In some ways that church from then has died; in some ways being reborn in unknown ways; regardless I know, and more importantly, the community around us knows, that it was worth it.

For as long as it is just church folks talking about the missional church, you know we haven’t really made the kind of difference that is needed yet. What is still to come is for people out in the world who aren‘t a part of church to know and be talking about the missional church, for them to hear the word church and think first about people of Great Love doing acts of justice and kindness and mercy for others they don’t know, right around them and far away, and—here’s the catch-- without expecting anything back from them except the hope that the people served will be inspired to serve others themselves. That I believe is the way of Jesus, who didn’t count attendance, just action. When the term missional church is truly redundant, we will know this next great reformation of church will have taken root.

So today I am going to talk about what I have learned this past decade about the missional church, how it is truly helping to resurrect people and neighborhoods and churches that others have considered dead; how it is bringing people of diverse faiths together for a common mission of making the Sacred visible in the world, especially in those places where others with wealth and power have abandoned. I love the mission statement of the United Methodist Church printed on the cover of the order of service because it seems to fit with this focus on action beyond ourselves, not being content just with our own personal spiritual life: disciples making disciples (those who follow in the spirit and way of Jesus) for the transformation of the world.

But first I want to talk about those two passages from the Bible that are part of the ones selected to be preached on today in many different churches around the whole world, including in some of my traditions Universalist churches. They are good passages for today’s message.

Let’s start with Isaiah. Here is the dramatic background for this writing: the people are in exile, virtual slavery, conquered and taken off into another country, Babylon, with their city of Jerusalem having been destroyed and the center of their world, the First Temple, having been decimated. Much worse than anything we have gone through, even on Sept. 11, 2001, much worse even than the neglect here close to our home, but in some ways that Babylon mindset has been our experience here in the McLain High School area of far north Tulsa and Turley neighborhoods, as we have seen so much deteriorate and close and people and institutions leave us, and as our access to those in power has weakened.

To these captive, abandoned, people, Isaiah says don’t look to the past and try to recreate it or live in it; and don’t think that the only world possible is the world you are in now, here in these circumstances; your God was not destroyed when your Temple was, but here in this new land where you are the foreigner your God is still with you, the God that says there is more to come; don’t dwell In what you have lost, for that separates you from the movement and mission of the liberating God; living in what you don’t have keeps you from experiencing the abundance of what you do have, what you, even you, have to share with the world, now and in the future…

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is our legacy and our reminder: we are not meant to exist so people can search and find our light—it is not even ultimately our own light—but we exist to be a Sent people, to carry Sacredness and light up the world, to all of the world, every inch and end of the earth, it says, which means no place, no person, is unworthy of the light, which means that the places and the people with the world’s least light are where we should be. In doing so, Jesus says, we  ourselves will be freed. We will find our true home.

And then there is the encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus as told in the Gospel of John. Twice, the Baptist says he did not know Jesus, did not recognize him as the Anointed One. Jesus was as a stranger to him. But he says he saw the Spirit in him nevertheless when he didn’t know him, and he says God informs him then that “the one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain” is the one that will also bring people into the realm of God by moving in them spiritually just as John has been busy bringing individuals into God’s people through physical action of baptism. Here then, Jesus showed his true colors, his true self, so to speak, to John and it is important how he did it--not by announcing himself, not by convincing him with a clever sound bite or perfectly reasoned message, but only when John saw the Divine Spirit within Jesus, how he moved in and through the world, always on the go, constantly giving evidence of the Spirit in his life, through his deeds. In fact, in the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist questions if Jesus is the Anointed One, and Jesus answers by saying look to the results, to the actions, not to the ideas or beliefs about him, but see the blind seeing, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. So it is with us,  that those who we see the Spirit show through, even if we don’t know them, even if they are different from us, then with them we too can experience the Divine, the depth and ultimate meaning of life.

We need more strangers in our life if we are to live more fully in the Sacred.

Jesus was a Divine Stranger who spent his time with strangers, even enemies. The goal was to show them what God’s love and justice was like, as opposed to the kind of world they were surrounded with--to inspire them, right where they were and just who they were, to also live lives of generosity, mercy, service. Again, he didn’t stop to count his followers; instead he commanded them to love one another and to also make sure they left no one behind, and if they needed to count people then to count the poor they blessed, the sick they healed, the hungry they fed, the thirsty the gave drink to, the prisoners they visited, the oppressed and the debt-ridden they set free.

The church should be and do the same. Doing that changes the scorecard for the church, on the marks of what makes it a success, and it may mean changing the playing field, going into new territory, living outside the walls of any building or giving the insides of the walls away to others, and maybe even changing the game, the purpose, itself.  If it does so, then where the church now sees itself as failing and dying, it will see itself as thriving, no matter its own size, no matter whether it has a building, or even bylaws, budget, and board. None of which the church that sprang up after Jesus had. There were no 501c3 organizations then. Its task, its mission, is clear: Finding divinity in strangers, and being the Divine Stranger out in a world that increasingly is saying we should only live in neighborhoods with those like us, go to school with those like us, go to church with those like us, and to fear the stranger.

That’s why the first principle of the missional church is that God’s Infinite Mission creates the finite church, not the other way around. If we breathe in the rich oxygen of Mission we will find ways to be together as church fulfilling it. Which is why the second principle of missional church is that there is no one way or manifestation of how church should be. Even our existing churches can become more missional, trying to be the best church for the community not the best church in the community. That change may be hard and may change the church too. But In our world that is a far from one size fits all world, we need church forms all over the spectrum to connect with as many different people as possible.

According to one researcher, in the year 2000 the once almost uniform way of being church, the local public congregation, had dropped to only representing 70 percent of church-goers, and by the year 2025, just a decade away, it is projected to decline to representing just 30-35 percent, still as visible as any other ways but not the predominant way as it once was. The other 70 percent of church members will be the church in all sorts of ways and communities and relationships. This is important because people being naturally attracted to churches as we have them today are dwindling: one statistic I saw is that 70 percent of those over 70 go to congregations, but only 35 percent of those between around 50 to 70, and only 15 percent of those over say 35 years old, and only 4 percent of those 18 to 35, and for the first time the numbers aren’t increasing as people get older.

If we put our future into Mission, though, and not into maintaining the status quo organization, and let mission form the kind of church communities needed, what some see as scary numbers will be quite exciting to others. We may see that for people of faith even organizations dying can lead to a resurrection of the Spirit and new forms of being the church. That is what I call the third principle of the missional church: We don’t attend church; we become church, and it can happen anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The focus is shifted from sustaining “a church” to being a part of “the church.”

I know that when we have our worship at The Welcome Table with people we know mostly, and have met through work with us during the week, sometimes we have three people—I never say “just” three-- and it can still feel very much alive with the Spirit, and can be church happening. In fact, you might say the fourth principle of the missional church is “Grow smaller in order to do bigger things, and to go deeper into life”. I also know that when, like this past Friday, we have 46 people show up who mostly don’t know each other, to help feed 125 families that they don’t know, almost all of the people coming from our neighborhoods here,  people of many faiths, and we eat together afterwards and bless the food together and bless the people who have come, and pray for all those who need food but couldn’t get it that day, that the Spirit is alive then too, that it is church.

It may seem like a new way of being church, but as our scripture reminds us today, it is really part of a very ancient way.

May we be nourished by this ancient way, modeled by Jesus and so many after him, refreshed in the Spirit of Love Everlasting, all for the continual service to the mission of the Divine Stranger calling us to go beyond our labels, our comfort zones, our theologies, all for the healing of this bruised, but blessed,  world. Amen.

[Four Missional Principles: 1. Mission Creates Church, not the other way round. 2. For a diverse world, many manifestations of church are needed. 3. Don’t attend church; become church, anywhere, anytime, with anyone. 4. Grow smaller to do bigger things.]



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