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.

And then again a few years later I was back here in this church for the very first Revival of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, feeling the spirit moving and directing more into the model of freely following Jesus’s model of ministry. Then a few years after that, already through seminary and ordained and serving in ministry, I came back to New Orleans five months after Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood. I was only here as a witness to briefly meet community organizers who were living amid the abandonment and destruction, living in place of those who had lived here before amid the abandonment and destruction before the flood. I came just to see the presence being created and re-created in what has come to be called, about many such places of poverty and inequality, an abandoned place of Empire. I was moved by the image I took away from the Ninth Ward, of kerosene lamps dotting the dark no power landscape where people were staying in damaged houses in mainly empty neighborhoods in order to show the world that these houses were still homes, waiting for renewed life.

By the way, the term abandoned place of Empire originated in the early centuries of the common era as monasteries and alternative communities left the major cities to live a different way of life and in a different set of values than that of the Roman Empire’s dominant culture of war and wealth and power and honor. Now it is used to designate those very uncool, unhip, under resourced high poverty low life expectancy zipcodes of the American Empire where business investment and public investment flees, where people who remain often feel shame for their lives because if they were only rich enough, smart enough, had made better choices in their lives, hadn’t gotten sick and broke, they would be able to move to the places where the supposed American Dream good life happens. The point of the mission of the missional church, you might say, is the let these people know that the American Dream might have left them behind, in a kind of worldly Rapture, but that are still and can be still a part of God’s Dream of lovingkindness and justice for all.   

Just a few months after that time in New Orleans I was in another such place on a global sense, witnessing the presence and visions and dreams of our Universalists in the Philippines, seeing how relational church can be, how committed it can be to its neighbors. And a few months after that I was at a missional church conference and there, all these experiences building up in me, I had an epiphany of how to turn our own small church plant inside out in order to better connect and serve our neighbors in our own abandoned place of Empire in Tulsa. That transformation really kicked off our still emerging experience of being a part of the missional church movement, which in its own way helped to launch these Life on Fire gatherings such as we had here this weekend, here at the Center in one of the great and few places where the missional spirit and the progressive spirit are intersecting to change lives and the world, right here and beyond.

We are beginning to do through our Welcome Table Church and our nonprofit organization A Third Place Community Foundation a little of what the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal does in the hosting of groups on mission trips to learn contextually about poverty, racism, classism, and hopeful struggle, to serve, and to take insights back. The Center’s experiences and our own experiences have helped me to see and describe church itself now, and in fact life itself now, as being a Mission Trip.

When people ask me what our church is like, I ask them if they have ever been on a mission trip, going to serve and work with others perhaps on rebuilding after a disaster or just to help in a poverty area with few resources, where you get outside of your comfort zone, go to others instead of expecting them to come to you, where you form close bonds as a small group in a short time, sometimes the smaller the better, and you do this in part by eating together a lot, where the daily aspects of life can be rough, where risks are taken and mistakes made and there is a lot of the blessings of imperfection around, and a lot of grace and forgiveness, where the service to and with others comes first and worship and learning fits in around it, where you are trying to make an impact both on your life but also on a particular area, where you have to take your clues from the folks who actually live there or else the mission will be all about you instead and you will just be perpetuating the disaster or conditions that sent you on the mission in the first place. Then I say that is what our church is like, what church can be like, all the time.

When I think about lives on fire, about missional incarnations changing church in its core, I am reminded about where I live in the Tallgrass Prairie, an ecology that once stretched all the way from Canada to the Gulf coast in east Texas. On the prairie there is a phenomenon that is a metaphor for the spiritual landscape of our time, for on the prairie, fire is a blessing, a way to keep a healthy growing diverse environment by burning away the invasive species that seek to create a monoculture that will eventually ruin the soil. Now in what is left of the Tallgrass Prairie we have to do our own burnings, own clearing away of all the underbrush that stifles diversity and new life. And after a prairie wildfire sweeps through an area, the blackened earth doesn’t remain that way hardly at all. In no time, green life is sprouting and the native wildflowers and the big bluestem and other native grasses bring forth the kind of natural diversity that feeds the wildlife and bees and butterflies that keep the earth an Eden.

In our own lives we can at times experience this transforming power of new and renewed and abundant life coming out of crises and scarcities. In church life we are undergoing the prairie fire now, and have been culturally for some 50 years as modernity and churched culture that existed for some 500 years have been burned away, swept away, from their formerly privileged position. In this new environment we are seeing what is called “a bigger bandwidth” of church shooting up; many diverse new or renewed sprouts greening the landscape of spiritual community. Some remain institutionally connected; others are independently organic. We have moved into a post modern, post Christian, post denominational, and now post congregational culture. From organization to organism. When I say post, it is not that any of these elements have gone away, or should go away necessarily; it is just that they do not have the same central place in culture as they used to have; now they are only a part of the wider spectrum of church manifestations, only one of the frequencies of the bigger bandwidth.  And the health of a movement we will be judged not in how strong are its remaining traditional bodies but in how much diversity of new manifestations and expressions it can become incarnated in a multitude of places and peoples. How vulnerable and risky church can become will be a measure of its success. One church of one kind for one big area is giving way to church by anyone anywhere anytime anyhow. How it gives itself away to build up the world is its identity.  

The fire that has been sweeping through church life is the Missional Life. Missional is different than mere mission as purpose. Missional means a people being sent to connect and serve with other people, going to where the most suffering and the least resources and abilities for healing are present. One’s mission could be to take care of people in one’s own group; that would be the opposite of missional. When we say one of the markers of the missional church is that the church doesn’t have a mission but the Mission has the church, creates the church, sustains the church, that’s the difference we are talking about. Missional is also the opposite of the old Missionary Church; the missional church goes into the world not to convert the world to becoming like it, to grow its membership, but it goes into the world to be converted by the world and its needs, it hurts.
Some call it incarnational versus the old attractional model of church. Incarnational as going out, making values real in the world, embodying our message, rubbing up against the people others flee from, who are not, also, attracted to us no matter how attractive we try to make ourselves.

 This gets to the heart of what a church is and is for. For example let me say upfront that  the mission of our form of missional church called The Welcome Table is not to increase the numbers in our church or in our Association, and not even to get more people believing the way we do; if all of that happens as a byproduct, that is fine. But the numbers I am interested in that drive our mission are the numbers dying in my zipcode 14 years before they do just six miles away down the same street. And The numbers we serve in our free food store that are going up when we want to see them go down. And The numbers without health insurance that are way too high because our area is full of people too poor to get in on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. And the high percentage numbers of abandoned houses and rundown properties. And The numbers of disabled and those with mental health difficulties and the numbers of those with felonies and the numbers who don’t have transportation and the numbers of children whose parents are addicts and the numbers of schools and post offices and community pools that closed because resources for public use are being cut to the bone and are being redirected to places where there are numbers of people who already have other options instead of remaining in places like ours where the need is great and few options exist, where very few nonprofits are located and where the other churches are mostly closed through the week too. And yes, I agree that there is suffering of many kinds in the wealthiest of neighborhoods, but that the resources to address that suffering varies greatly from place to place so place still matters.

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.