Sunday, September 28, 2014
Life = Mission Trip, a sermon in New Orleans
Life = Mission Trip
Sermon by Rev. Ron Robinson at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014
Today I will talk about what a very few people can become and do when their lives catch on fire with mission to love who and what others find unloveable, or as we say, when they love the hell out of this world, and how this is part of a big revolution in the why of church, that affects the how, the what, and the who of church.
But first let me say it is a privilege to be preaching here today. Let me say thank you because New Orleans has played a role in my being here, and in what I am preaching about. Twenty years ago I think this very weekend my wife and I were here in the church for worship just having finished a week being feted around the French Quarter from party to party up above the Quarter (in some amazing places) and to very nice restaurants down below. I had received that year’s Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for a Novella. It was one of the rewards for the writer’s life I had dreamed about and worked toward, but at the same time I had also recently started a UU church and was helping to start others and was getting more and more drawn toward ministry. Soon even such enticements as we experienced in New Orleans for the literary life couldn’t compete with where I felt my life needed to go, into “downward mobility” with the poor and suffering and into the stories of others whom few were paying attention to and seemed in fact to be turning away from. For me the move into ministry also meant going deeper into the story of radical hospitality and missional living I found most gripping of my soul in the life of Jesus and the early communities that were planted in his spirit.
The numbers I focus on as fulfilling our mission are the one to two thousand people fed each month in our food center, not only with a little bit of the food they need, but fed also with a place of peace and non-anxiety and radical love for them and sense of community of neighbors helping neighbors; the numbers of one to three hundred who will show up for our holiday parties we throw for the community because no one else is, parties thrown in the large abandoned church building we bought and are turning it into a community center, serving others out of it even as it needs so much work itself. The numbers of abandoned houses, we are working to get to be repurposed for community and for residents who will help in the community, as we have been helpful in getting some rundown abandoned houses in our neighborhood torn down and open space created, and as we bought a block of abandoned homes and illegal dump site and have turned it into a community gardenpark and orchard where many community free events are held and healthy food is grown and taught about and eaten by folks with few healthy food options.
I don’t focus so much on the numbers who worship with us weekly, some two or three up to twenty, though more is the merrier as some of our graffiti says in the sanctuary of the abandoned church building we use. We worship in space we have made and given away to others; we worship all over the place; we worship with other churches, mostly not UUs. This helps us and our people to grow and live in a “theology of enoughness.” We never say “just two or three or five.” We are a Church of Enough in a culture that says you can never have enough, or you get what you deserve.
Making more Unitarian Universalists, or making more followers of Jesus in my case, is not then the end we seek; making hurting lives in our neighborhoods just a little easier, so those souls can perhaps become their own green shoots out of burned soil is the end we seek and what we measure for success; anything else might be good and be welcomed but is secondary.
When we planted our local faith community ten years ago, we began in a fast growing suburb ten miles from where we are now, and with a different name, and purpose. In the past ten years we have rented 8 different places and used more than that, and we have used four different names, and I rather wish we had never used any name because that so easily gets you focused on yourselves instead of others. But back then 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. 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.
Seven years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be that attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, both relocating the church and returning with our family, it became clear to us that we needed to be able to respond better to the lives of our neighbors, and that what they were saying they needed was not more sermons and programs. We decided we needed to change in order to change our area. We believed 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 in order to do bigger things. We now strive 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”, a people, a very few people, all unpaid so far, who feel called and connected to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world.
Be-Loved, Be 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, not even ultimately bearers of a religious message with our elevator speeches, but to be living missives, embodiments of what we find Sacred, and incarnating that in places and peoples deemed profane not Sacred. That is what will make our lives catch fire, what will make them into sacraments.
In doing this We and the many new church missional manifestations in the world today, some much more radical than we are, are 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. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who reminded us in 1841 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.
I teach and love church history, and it reminds me often these thoughts and struggles are not new. We talk now of ancient-future faith because so much of the post modern era, the 21st century, has strong echoes in the pre modern and first century. In the very earliest centuries of Christianity, its communities were more organic than organizational; we have few of them intact through the centuries, but we have their legacy; they were more of a social movement. Even in our more recent church history, back when many of the oldest churches in our Association gathered to write the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism , it grounded its covenantal nature in 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 to be as a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. Often its own internal healing will occur from seeking to be healers to and with others. We know this truth in our own lives as well. If we waited to be whole ourselves before offering ourselves to others, we would not only never be whole in ourselves, but we would never help others. And yet what we do with our lives, our churches, on this grand mission trip is to offer up the depth of our selves, and so, to paraphrase our early Puritan ancestors, the errand into the wilderness for our faith is a journey into the wilderness of our souls, and as we grow them alongside others we are able to offer more to the world and receive its many surprises of blessings in return.
This is why one of the next Life on Fire gatherings will be back in Tulsa at The Welcome Table next May 29-31 for a focus on Spiritual Practices in Missional Settings. All of those spiritual practices we often associate with retreats to far off places of great natural beauty and solitude? What if we set them into abandoned places of Empire, and engaged in them with people who live in such places? What new practices might we even develop?
The ultimate impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church in many manifestations 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 connect the disconnected and to love the hell out of this world. To discern where hearts are breaking, and let that guide us into how we become church, become a people so bold, and on fire to go break our hearts together with theirs, and in doing that know the blessings for all that will flood in when we do.
Posted by Ron at 7:19 PM