Saturday, May 31, 2014

What The World Needs Now

Sermon, UU Congregation, Tahlequah, OK Sunday June 1, 2014
“What The World Needs Now”
By Rev. Ron Robinson

Readings: from Isaiah 58, and from Michael Durrall’s chapter Church as Activists not Spectators in Church Do’s and Don’ts.

Later this month I am going to be presenting a workshop at the UUA General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island entitled “Ministry in Abandoned Places: The 3Rs of Reaching Out.” It will be about our ministry at The Welcome Table in far north Tulsa and about the way of the missional church. The theme of the General Assembly itself is Love Reaches Out. It is a good theme for re-orienting our mission as congregations. That theme is capturing the movement within our wider movement toward what is called a focus on “Congregations and Beyond”; the beyond part is the many new ways our faith and values are being incarnated in relationships that don’t look or feel like congregations and organizations have up to now, but are ways of connecting with people who have little use for traditional models of congregations and organizations no matter how inviting and well run they are, and connecting with those who don’t have the resources to get to and be a part of “come to us” churches, but who are hungry for connection and service and celebration. Congregations will continue to have a strong mission for transforming the world, but if we don’t also look and live beyond ourselves and our own organizational needs then we will find ourselves with little relevance in the world.
 Preparing for the workshop has me thinking about the really three different church plants over three decades I have been involved with and how each was a different response to what I thought the world needed: first, during the 90s here in Tahlequah, second during the 2000s in the suburban world of Owasso, OK and in that church’s transplant into the far northside Tulsa neighborhood of Turley, and third now this decade as we are morphing into more of an organic set of missional relationships and networks and adopting some of the ways of the New Monastic movement, being shaped by what has been described as the 3Rs of radical community development: Relocation to abandoned places of poverty, Reconciliation of peoples across ethnic and other lines that are driving us into re-segregated lives, and Redistribution of goods and the Common Good to those most vulnerable among us without resources.

Those 3Rs are now guiding the reason for creating space for church to happen in the first place, moreso than growing the number of people who identify as members of a particular church. They are bringing back the old prophetic voices of religious traditions that stake out what “the good life” should really be all about.

As different as each of these church plants have been, as I look back, I see how the seeds of much that we do now at The Welcome Table on the northside of Tulsa is connected with lessons first learned in the first church plant here in Tahlequah. So let me start by pointing some of those out.

First, in the Unitarian Universalist world of the time in the 1980s when my family moved back to Tahlequah, this was considered a pretty abandoned place for starting a free church. We got a lot of “You’re trying to start a UU church where?” kind of responses and blank looks. The UUA growth estimate statistics for the time projected that we should be able to have a church of 11 people based, as they did back then in a very classism way, on the percentage of people in an area with a college degree.

 Even moving back here before we thought of starting a church got us some of the same looks and responses. We had just finished our graduate programs in Kansas. As a doctor and a writer we could have moved pretty much anywhere to live. We chose Tahlequah because we loved the land, had had a good time here as undergraduates, and primarily because we felt we were going into a place with a lot of folks in need and in poverty whom we could work with to make a difference in the world. Still, one person told us “Tahlequah is the kind of place you move from, once you get your education, not move to.” It wasn’t considered a cool enough, happening kind of place for a young couple.
Probably isn’t still in many people’s eyes. But these past ten years when we have talked to people about our relocating and downsizing to live in our zipcode with the lowest life expectancy in Tulsa, and doing church in a radically different kind of way there, and we get the blank stares,  we know, from our Tahlequah experience, that we are really at home, and in the right place.

And Tahlequah prepared us for rapid change that can come when you take risks and have faith in leaps. Not only did we quadruple that expected total number of 11 people in just a few months, but within a few years this church had seen a presence from two of the UUA Presidents and was being preached about all over the country. One of the reasons for that is the vision we had that we wanted to be a part of a different kind of story for church back then. Back then most UU groups that were being started by lay leaders were expected to follow what was called the stereotypical Fellowship model, one that would stay small and focus on discussion of ideas more than communal worship, and mainly be for the mutual support of its own members rather than be a force for change in the community of which it was a part.
I say stereotypical because that wasn’t really historically accurate for our Fellowship movement of the 50s and 60s. But when we started here we wanted to be a part of a new story, what was then becoming known as the new congregations extension movement with a DNA of spirituality and service and a community voice. So now, where we are, when we have become leaders, in an unexpected place, of a new story of church as missional community, even as church as a network of relationships both face to face and online, of incarnating faith in new ways in our new post modern, post denominational, post congregational world, again it feels like we are drawing upon our Tahlequah experience of breaking molds.

What the world needs, though, is what guided us then, and what still guides us now. The questions though which we now ask in determining what church should be and do and where it should do it have changed. They are not how many people have a college education, or how many people in an area believe like we do, or even have similar values that we do, much less who likes the same music or who listens to the same radio stations, all those old marketing questions that used to guide us in starting churches. It is particularly not how many people can we get to become members so we can easier meet our budget to keep taking care of ourselves. Now the questions are: Who in your community does your heart break for? Why should you exist in the first place and for whom? To what are you willing to die in order that you might live anew? If you ceased to exist, how many in the community beyond you would notice or be affected or care?

One of the many new radical expressions and experiences of church that I will be talking about in my workshop at General Assembly is that I often now believe our goal is not to create more Unitarian Universalists, or for me as a Christian also it is not to create more Christians. Becoming Unitarian Universalist (or if I was in another church community I would say the same about them) is not the end in itself we strive for, is not the Why for our existence, but is at best a means to a greater end. It is those greater ends we need to keep our eyes on, and our resources pointed toward, and that is the end of creating neighborhoods and communities that themselves help create lives of abundance and commitment to the most vulnerable and endangered in our society. Creating religious institutions is certainly one way toward that end, but only if they do not see themselves (and their beliefs) as the end in themselves; in fact, they may, in various ways through what they do and not do and keep people from doing, work against making the world a better place, especially for those beyond them (and maybe within them too) who are suffering the most. This is what happens when a church focuses on becoming the “best” church in a community instead of the best church for the community. It is what happens when a church seeks to thrive while a community around it declines.  

Just becoming a church member, I believe, or even believing a certain way, does not make the world a better place. It is as scripture said, “by their fruits you will know them”? Are the best fruits those of “right ideas” about the Ultimate, or “right relationships” with the most vulnerable, shamed, and outcast? Which fruit is deemed the “most religious”? This is especially true in areas where there is a lack of any groups living in and with and for the poor and marginalized and it is not a case of “other groups” available doing this mission. In our area, for example, the landscape is dotted with churches only opened on Sundays while buildings continue to be abandoned around them, or buses that come in from the big churches in other area who pick people up and bring them back and ignore the neighborhoods they live in, all to focus on creating a pseudo-community feel-good experience weekly; like a spiritual hit. These kind of abandoned areas seem to be growing in number throughout the US. It is an ages-old situation and question and challnge, and one the Hebrew prophets particularly, and the Christian early monks who moved away from Empire’s influence, all kept alive in their times and point us toward the right way now.

It is important to put this all in a wider context. If nothing else it should help alleviate anxiety, blame, shame, and conspiracy theories. This shift in ultimate focus is an aspect of living in the wake of the cultural move in the West from the churched to dechurched/unchurched culture. In the churched culture (that began to really lose its privileged place throughout the USA by 1963) the point of church life was, mistakenly, to continue the existence and power of the institution of the church in a world populated by the institutions of other churches, faiths. The church was primary, was the center, and the mission field was secondary, was a resource for the church. People tended to become or return to becoming the church-goers of their families and neighborhoods; brand loyalty was high and clearly defined culturally and there was little competitiveness between the churches, and littler still between the churches and the culture and its various opportunities outside the church. In this world making more Unitarian Universalists, or Methodists, or whatever, was the way the church realized its beingness in the churched-focused culture. 

Especially if you were in a church that also grew more and more percentage of its own coming in from other churches, then making more UUs became increasingly important, it would be seen, for its survival. In the dialectic of the age, the more the external community became less focused on the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. “The mission” used to be to perpetuate themselves in a world where the “missional field” flowed toward the church; in a world where the church as institution has been marginalized, the missional field has shifted and become primary, and so too then should “the mission.” In response the church today either flows toward the missional field, or it dies, gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. (There are admittedly many ways the church can flow, can empty itself, toward the missional field; our manifestation at The Welcome Table which is always changing itself is just one; there are exciting varied ways of being the church happening all over the UU world).

Is making more Unitarian Universalists (Christian, etc.) a bad thing then, or an unnecessary thing? Only I think if we make more Unitarian Universalists who think that the purpose of their faith is themselves and what they believe, and that it is more important to have and promote the right religious beliefs instead of the right religious relationships. And yet, aren’t ideas, beliefs, important and have consequences? Yes. For example, I say that what I try to do as a leader of a missional community among the vulnerable has all to do with how I understand and experience freely following Jesus, and comes from a theological commitment to a God of liberation and radical solidarity. But in reality what has been manifested at The Welcome Table has been enriched and deepened not so much by thinking about missional life and holding the right ideas about it but from living in it and growing in response to the needs of my neighbors. It has come more from failing at visions and endeavors and being able to respond to the openings and relationships that happen as a result.

It was here in this sanctuary that I met the ecologist and philosopher and economist and pretty good biblical interpreter Wes Jackson of The Land Institute and was moved by his call to move from knowledge-based decisions to not-knowing decisions, to mystery and wonder and the wisdom of community, and this has spilled over in the missional community into theological ways too. It has been freeing to make the Divine not about being right about things, not having all knowledge about things and how to do things the right way, as the main reason for being, and okay not having a simple bumper sticker or elevator speech message about who we are and what we stand for, as long as we are committed--as the title of one of Jackson's book has it--to becoming native to our place, and through it creating more compassion and justice in the world.  Yes, all the old theological commitments and positions are important to engage with (when I was in seminary I took a third of my courses in theology; it was a kind of graduate subspecialty of mine; and I had been studying Process theology for almost twenty years before going to seminary), but these positions which had delineated us in the old decades were always just a part of a deeper holistic religious tradition that included spiritual practice, communal life, and service to and with others, and these can move us toward being with others despite theological stances; all because the hurts of the world demand it.

It is true, though, that I am now more concerned with and am more urgent about keeping alive those in my zipcode than I am keeping alive theological differences or keeping worship services filled. My zipcode where there is a 14 year life expectancy gap with the zipcode just six miles away in a wealthier area (and by extension all those imperiled by even greater inequality and injustice today regardless where they are). That missional focus, that our reason for being is in being sent (hence the Greek word missio) into the places and peoples around us who have been left out and left behind, and in doing so we come into our own more fully and grow in imitation of the beloved community the more we attempt to initiate it in the world, is something too that’s even greater than preserving and promoting the “how” we do church, our polity, what we used to say was our ultimate commonality no matter the liturgical form or covenantal language a church takes as its own.

I don’t want to grow the numbers of Unitarian Universalists so that the democratic process in religious will flourish. Nor, for that matter, so any of the Seven Principles either will be adopted by more people. They can be and are being championed by any number of faith communities and more secular groups. Our calling is still higher than these, and the seven principles are also means themselves to put to use toward the ends of missional transformations in the world.

Again, I believe we are experiencing a shift from the old churched culture of people seeking and coming into, or staying in, a church because of what they have come to believe and think already and are entering the new unchurched culture where people are seeking and coming into or staying in a church because it is open and nurturing to what their beliefs might still yet become as they grow and deepen as persons through the primary religious act of healing engagement in the world beyond themselves.

Unitarian Universalism is not the end, it is the means; I say the same thing for myself about Christianity. And that makes a world of difference in how to impact the world now. We matter. But Not because there is a difference and uniqueness we must preserve in order to be ourselves. And Not so people of like minds have a place to call home and celebrate their like minds (or like values). We matter because we offer, or can offer what we have always offered in our historical inspiration, a way of radical loving covenantal freedom for people to connect with and grow with others, of all kinds of ideas and faiths,  into a more abundant generous hope-filled justice-seeking humbled people, Whose mission is to create beyond itself more of what the world needs: love, sweet love. It’s the 

only thing there’s just too little of. 

The Apostle Paul was right; faith hope and love these three; yes, faith is important; yes, hope is important, but the greatest of these, more important than what you believe to be true, or how you are feeling, is love. 

Love made real in our commitments to others, not just for some, but for everyone. Lord we don’t need another church feeling good or bad about itself and the future; there are enough of those; what the world needs now is love, bold love, for the least the last the losers of the American Dream. 

That, not church members, is what there’s just too little of.