Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Spirituality of Missional Messiness

By Rev. Ron Robinson
Preached in Bartlesville, OK, Sunday, July 27, 2014

This past month at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Providence, Rhode Island, I led a workshop called Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Love Reaching Out. There I shared much about our local all volunteer group in community and service with neighbors on the north edge of Tulsa, and how it reflects the missional church movement today. It was a lot like what I brought here when I preached last October. I updated it  with our current "S.O.S.", our Summer of Service Miracle Among the Ruins projects we have going on now through the UUA site to raise funds by Aug. 8 for our community center initiatives in the abandoned church building and for a kitchen greenhouse in the gardenpark and orchard where abandoned houses once stood. Both so we can serve more and throughout the year in our part where people are dying 14 years earlier than in other parts of town.

All very inspiring I hoped, and hope. I try to get across the possibilities of turning church inside out in a new culture where fewer and fewer seek church in the same ways as before. Church as something we create, not something we go to or attend.

Before the workshop, though, I said that what was really needed were two workshop slots, one for sharing the information and the inspiration, but then one more for getting real, for sharing the struggles, the frustrations, the setbacks, the constant learnings, the personal failings, and how to sustain mission and grow the soul in and through it all. How important it is to develop a spirituality of messiness for our messy world and lives, especially in a place where people often have felt shame for the mess of their lives and where there is so much physical and spiritual deterioration of the neighborhoods.

I began to hint at this when I was here last time. Looking over my sermon from then, I found these words near the end when I talked about how almost every month we go broke and wonder if we might have to close or curtail a lot like so much else that has been closed or moved from around us. I said:

“We face that abyss with each break-in, each vandalism, each broken heart or hurt feeling, as people and finances come and go, and we have to grow deeper in radical trust and the faith to keep making leaps into the abyss.
That is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned 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. It is why we say we aren’t really giving out food or information as much as giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us. Partnering with people of peace, and promoting a sense of abundance instead of anxiety, is more important than all the programs I have mentioned or that we might begin.”

So think of this sermon as Part Two of that, or as I joke about it as “The Anti Workshop Sermon” because it is not so much about presenting something new and inspirational as it is about finding inspiration and connection and hope again in the wake of things that don’t turn out the way you hope, when you lose connection, and you run dry of inspiration. 

In Providence, at General Assembly I think the part two of my workshop came in the form of the esteemed annual Ware Lecture given this year by Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus fame but who has been working in and with the poor for many years, along with those in the progressive group Leadership Conference of Women Religious who have pushing for action on behalf of the poorest among us. Her talk was about the calling to “Walk Toward Trouble.” To not turn away from suffering, to acknowledge it and all its difficulties, complexities, and conflicts. She embodies what Jesus really meant when he is reported to have said “the poor you will always have with you,” meaning NOT that you can then ignore the poor and their worlds, BUT that if you are a follower of his you will always be among the poor, the hurting, those treated unjustly. That that, and not some serene perfect feeling of detached oneness, is what it means to live religiously. Engaging in Reality, she reminded us, is more important than engaging in capital T Truth, and that it calls forth our humility as a religious action more than our certainty in a religious principle.

It was a word I needed to hear because often when we open up our doors, when we open up ourselves, we are walking toward trouble, walking with those who are troubled, walking with those who cause trouble, who are trying to get away from trouble, and the secret is that all of those make up the We I am talking about. I tell those who work with us that we are going to disappoint one another, break each other’s heart, frustrate one another, wear each other down, abandon one another, the same as we might experience all of that from someone who comes in the Center’s door or through the park’s gate. 

How we learn to grow from all that will actually help us grow through the thefts, the gossip, the vandalism, the rumors, the fires, the repairs, the addiction to drama, all those things that are really a relatively small part of life together where we are but that because of the messiness of life in general make any sane person want to throw up their hands and say where’s the nearest deserted island to flee toward, or I get enough of that from my own family and friends why do I need to immerse in it with strangers? Especially if what I am seeking, as so many people say, is community.

Beloved Community is a term for what we often say we wish to offer the world. But I think that is too often a limited concept in our minds. Community of the Beloved conjures up and is often lived out as a community of like minded, like values, of the liked, and that tends to keep us focused inward on those who come to become us, especially if our own family and work connections are anything but like us, the drive for a community like us then becomes even stronger. And it makes us want to stifle any healthy differences that might seem to endanger that community, and as life’s ironies would have it that of course leads to the kind of inwardness that eventually has people either leaving out of boredom or eating each other up.

If, on the other hand, we sought to become not community but what is called communitas, the gathering that is oriented outwards, that gathers to help itself scatter out into the world to, as we say, love the hell out of this world, whose Beloved are those we do not yet know, who we might not in our normal lives come into contact with, who in fact we might want to cross the street to avoid, then we would have the messiness of the world and our lives in it always before us as visible reasons for why we gather in the first place.

How to find a spiritual center while on this kind of missional messiness?  It isn’t easy. People often ask me how I do what I do. I tell them I do it poorly and that’s all right.  That’s true, But it is more than that. I could also do things a lot  better in my life, like most of us I believe, and I keep working on that, most of the time, but it is still more than that awareness. I have learned that for me the spiritual center, that place of deepest connection to wonder and gratitude and oneness with the universe and eternity, is found in the very places where topsy-turvy life meets us, challenges us, surprises us, and takes us deeper.

It is why I have been so sustained at the toughest and most tired times by the unconventional wisdom of Jesus’ parables, especially two of them which are being read today in churches around the world, including by some of ours that follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, something that the national organization I serve, the UU Christian Fellowship, helped to start as a way to bring churches closer together. The study of these two parables, one called The Leaven and the other The Mustard Seed, put me on the path to seminary and ministry in the first place after I attended a workshop put on by Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa with the parables scholar who was soon to be my seminary teacher and advisor, Brandon Scott whose popular book ReImagine the World is about how the parables not only helped the followers of Jesus to reimagine and live differently in their world of oppression and poverty but how they later helped people to reimagine their relationship with Jesus as well, not so much as having faith IN Jesus as having faith ALONG WITH Jesus, having a faithfulness, a trust, in what Jesus trusted. That radical shift that was there all along, but was buried in dogma by many for centuries, is emerging now to help shift the foundations and the focus of church.

When I was growing up in church, I rarely heard much about the parables of Jesus. And when I did they were all about conventional wisdom and morality tales of being good, or they were seen as allegories about the Church, but in a way that reflected more the values of the American Dream and society than about the challenge to those very values. You got their lessons in Sunday School and then were supposed to not need them after that. But today the parables are seen as the key to Jesus’ message, ministry, mission. These parables about a revolutionary vision of God and about a counter cultural mindset, called back then the Kingdom of God which was itself a parable since everyone knew Kingdom was Caeser’s Roman’s, they have themselves gone through a revolution. So much so that for many who write on them today, you can’t deeply understand even the stories of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus without seeing them as parables themselves, parables about Jesus told in the spirit of the parables he himself told.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world itself, in all its messiness, especially those parts of it and those people who were treated as disposable objects.

One of my favorite parables is when Jesus said: God’s Spirit, God’s Empire, is like leaven, which a woman stole, and put into three measures of flour, until it was all corrupted. That’s it. That seemingly simple parable is, as Professor Scott says, about God changing sides. God’s Relocation. First instead of evoking God as holiness, purity, as in the tradition of unleavened bread, Jesus brings together the Sacred with leaven, yeast, something ordinary, unholy even, something moldy that was to be kept separate and apart while preparing your meal. Next in the parable God is likened to a woman, and as if that isn’t bad enough in the eyes of the world, she is a woman who sneaks or steals this leaven and mixes it in the flour, and then in another seemingly foolish act she puts it into enough flour to feed a feast, and what naturally happens then? It all goes bad, becomes useless, wasteful. And that’s where the parable ends.

The God, or spirituality, of this parable has relocated…from separateness to being mixed up, from holiness to unholiness, from power and privilege and public status to something that happens in the home, out of sight is no longer out of mind, at least in God’s mind and sight; also the notion of Spirituality is relocated from fullness and contentment to emptiness and waste; also from The Spirit as A Static Being or Stoic beingness to a process, a messy movement, one that changes and corrupts from within the dominant culture’s status quo and beliefs in what is to be considered worthy and respectable and the good life.
In the ancient world there was a divinely ordered sense of life, and it is strange that so much has changed since then and yet strong traces remain, perhaps in some places more than others. The world was seen as fixed and with set roles to maintain as life’s purpose, and its ultimate values prized wealth and property, power over others, health, knowledge, strength, beauty, achievements. The statues and art of the time reflected this as well as the organization of relationships and community. This was the default mode of the world, but Jesus’ parables re-imagined the world, called people to a different default mode.

Again, he said, God is like the mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden and it grew and became a great shrub and put forth large branches so the birds of heaven could nest in its shelter.

Jesus’ hearers would have heard that and been shocked. Mustard was illegal to use in gardens because it is an invasive plant, taking over, spilling out of garden beds, ruining all the perfection and symmetry. If you were going to use a horticultural image, God, in the Empire’s understanding, was supposed to be likened to the Great Cedar Trees of Lebanon, tall and strong and everlasting in their fixed spots with deep roots, not wild and noxious.
The image of God became the image of the poor and powerless, the outcast, the disruptive innovative force. And Jesus didn’t just teach this with striking words, but he lived as if the world of the parables was the real world. In a time of great scarcity he risked all in the spirit of abundance and generosity, showing the possibilities of the real power that came from such a re-imagined God. 

But who would want to follow that kind of God, they asked? And still do. It makes no sense. It won’t work in the world. But the parables turn God upside down and inside out and call us to do the same with our lives and our communities, to reimagine the world as if Caeser were not still in charge. Caeser as unbridled affluence, appearance, achievement, security, even the sense of coolness, consumption, fear, scarcity even in the midst of endless options and varieties of goods that replace the Common Good.

Spirituality that is found in what the parables point us toward is a kind of counter dominant culture spirituality. 

The new Empire of Experiences, of EntertainmentMarketplace, says find our Spirit or the good life in owning the latest gadgets, in making our personal life easier, in separating ourself from others especially those most unlike us, in a gospel of prosperity or perfection, in spending money to travel to faroff places or people to find enlightenment and fulfillment, or in just turning off and tuning out of the world across town or outside our doors? The parables spirituality says all of that is an illusion, a treadmill that never changes you or the world. Not like walking toward trouble, like groping in the wilderness for the hands of others, anyone’s messy hands, and seeking a life together.

Because we are here in a Unitarian Universalist church, and can do such things (though we aren’t alone in this of course) I will end with a final parable of Jesus that sums up all this for me, as if a parable can ever sum all up, when what it really does is keep breaking things open, apart. 

This parable isn’t found in the common lectionary because it comes from The Gospel of Thomas, one of the important texts for part of the early church that is still not officially by many considered as sacred text on the same level as the ones we have gathered together in the Bibles now. It is the parable of the Woman with A Jar.

Jesus said: “God is like a certain woman, who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.”

I am tempted, as Jesus would have, to end on that stark abrupt note and leave us hanging with that image. 
But talk about messiness and the realities of life. I have said this parable in contemporary terms is like being broke, skipping meals, getting by just waiting for payday or for the monthly check, then once getting it you rush to the bank or cash checking place to deposit it in order to be able to buy food for the family for that night, and on the way the check blows out of the car, the card is lost or stolen, and there you stand at the teller’s window realizing it. 

The jar full of meal the woman had likely would have fed a family for a month. And That awful moment, Jesus seems to be saying, can become an awe-full moment. That moment of being drained and feeling alone and empty has the possibility of reminding us Whose we are, that we are not the controllers of all things in our life, that we are part of others, in need of others as they are in need of us. It is a moment when all the messiness of life and our life comes out into the open, and we are left at a threshold, and God or life is like that, full of opportunity and full of risk, continually opening up our lives to depth and new beginnings, even though they be hard ones. 

Like in the more familiar parable of the prodigal sons, this woman, like the elder brother in that one, is left at the end of the parable in a place of uncertainty, in his case he can either remain out in the field in his sense of being right and just and miss out on the party inside calling to all, in her case she can remain within her own narrow world where she doesn’t notice the world around her and within her, remain in remorse and shame and isolation. Or, in both cases, they can take a leap into an abyss that is called living in and for the unknown future, living with and for others beyond themselves even with a messiness of feelings and failures that go along with it, and in doing so open themselves up to a Spirit that can lift them from the depths of despair to the heights of hope.

As can we