Sunday, April 17, 2016
A Missional Charge To Church: Hope Unitarian Church
Charge to the Congregation, Hope Unitarian Church,
installation of the Rev. Cathey Edwards, Sunday, April 17, Tulsa, OK
Rev. Ron Robinson
It is a special privilege to be asked to charge THIS congregation today because for close to 40 years you have CHARGED me up.
I remember as a fairly new UU and journalist for a state magazine sitting in the minister’s office of the Rev. Bill Gold, one of your first ministers, interviewing him, and learning about, his views on church and the community and why Tulsa had the highest per capita percentage of UUs outside of Boston and what a difference it made for the community beyond these beautiful walls.
I remember the Rev. Jim Eller’s worship services here as we were coming into Tulsa being inspired to start a new church in our then home in Tahlequah, and his promoting a culture of abundance and not scarcity here over the idea that a Hope family might shift to our new church closer to their home, an early lesson in remembering why church exists in the first place as a movement of transformation beyond itself.
I remember particularly joining the Rev. Gary Blaine and Hope members at a weekend retreat at Western Hills Lodge with Professor Brandon Scott studying the counter cultural power of the parables of Jesus challenging us with new default modes for our lives committed to transforming the world, and how on the short drive back home I felt my call to seminary and ministry become urgent. And ever since then, you and your subsequent ministers, my colleagues, have supported my peculiar ministry journey and our new missional work on the northside.
My FIRST charge then is that you continue to CHARGE UP people to change the world--not just charge up one another, but more importantly do it for the one like I was, who will never be a member of your church, never pledge, never serve on a committee, who you may never know how they are changed because of what you do incarnating your mission beyond yourself.
Trust it will happen. Trust that when it happens it is more important than anything else. Particularly more important than how you might feel on any given Sunday about your minister, or one another.
In order to practice that kind of radical trust, though, to give yourself away, or as it is said, to get over yourself, for good, requires my SECOND charge to you: for trust grows only in the soil of VULNERABILITY. TO BE VULNERABLE is to risk hurting and being hurt and yet not letting that hurt DEFINE you, but REMIND you that you are alive and in community, and that your life here, like all life in many different ways, is meant to grow and seed and die, and it hurts to do all of that;
to be vulnerable is to risk disillusionment and disappointment and not letting that become despair, to be vulnerable is to risk, to actually court, failing at what you want to do and accomplish (and in that very failing perhaps discovering what the Spirit of Life and Love and Liberation needs you to really be and do);
to be vulnerable is to risk being led, by those you elect to lead you and by the ONE you have called to lead you even through uncertain and anxious and hurting times, and most importantly even to be led by those you exist to serve.
In fact, the only growth you should really be concerned about is the growth of vulnerability and risk-taking. Those make up the soil, the soul, of community for the community. They should be the first measure of your success.
It is difficult to be a church these days, which is a good thing. When it has been easy to be church church has lost its way and lost its mission of making its understanding of the Sacred visible in the world, especially with those who feel disconnected from the Sacredness of and in the world. We are I believe in a post-denominational, post-congregational culture, as congregations are finding that they are not, as they once were, the central place and way people seek to become connected and engaged in a spiritual or meaningful life.
That doesn’t mean congregations are not still vitally important for today’s world; they are. I wouldn’t bother being here today if I thought otherwise. But it takes more and more resources from smaller and smaller wells to try to keep up with life AS IT USED TO BE. The good news is that when you give up trying to maintain life as it used to be, or as you want it to be, a whole universe of new possibilities of life and of church opens up to you, as you become a part of a bigger bandwidth of what it means to be church. Your very fragility becomes your hope.
So my THIRD and perhaps most radical charge for you today is to give up any anxieties surrounding being A church, and all the angst of survival that congregations find themselves in, and become a part, your own part, of THE church, that is of the movement of the liberal and liberating, free and freeing spirit known by many names and many traditions and many kinds of relationships, one that is being manifested in many forms in our world today, religiously, culturally, economically, politically. We are not in competition with these forms of the Spirit, with these groups. I repeat. We are not in competition with them. We have acted like we are way too often. We are to be collaborators, co-conspirators, servants of and with them in the wider movement of the wider Spirit. Bring our gifts and perspectives to them, and let them help connect us to the world outside our own experience.
It is this wider movement of the liberating spirit emerging in this moment, and the suffering people being lifted up by this movement of movements, who are the ones truly CHARGING you today, beckoning to you today to take this turning point in your community history to come join fully in the transformation of the world wherever it is underway, and in doing so find lives, and YOUR life, transformed. Because we know this to be true: the covenant we celebrate today between church and minister will grow stronger only as you strengthen your other covenants of the free church: the one between member and church, yes, and the one between churches and between ministers, even more, but especially as you strengthen your commitment to the covenant between church and the place around you and the mission to it that has called you into being in the first place.
We ARE in uncertain, fearful, hurting times when people are shrinking their vision, their generosity, their values, their connections with others, and linking God, linking the Good Life, to convenience and comfort instead of to conscience and community, to those who have MADE it instead of to those who have LOST it. When you may feel yourself as a congregation most uncertain, most fearful, most hurting, just turn the focus of your attention inside out and you’ll turn your own lights back on.
A few years ago I preached the ministerial installation sermon at the oldest continuous church in our Unitarian Universalist association, the church of the Pilgrims, First Parish in Plymouth, Mass, begun in Scrooby England in 1606 and landed on this continent in 1620. (You know I have to get a little history in somewhere). At that installation, my colleague The Rev. Tom Schade gave the charge to that historic congregation, and among the things he said was this:
“There is a profound spiritual, religious, political, social and economic crisis in our country today. I won’t go through the list of problems. But the crisis lies in the fact that we cannot seem to get our hands around them; we cannot focus. Huge shifts and transformations going on all around us, but the country and the culture cannot keep up, that our thinking is skittering along the surface, distracted, like a kid … in a comic book store. And here we are, Liberal Religion, and we have not yet found our voice. We stand for some timeless truths and some rock-solid values and some fundamental commitments, (and) we have not found our voice – a way to speak clearly to the people about how to live in these times. We will find our voice only through trial and error, and that is the work of our ministry, and to do it, our ministers must be willing to take risks. My Question to you (he added to them, and I add to you), is this: Do you conduct your congregational life in a way that makes your minister brave? Or do you conduct your congregational life in ways that will make your minister more cautious, more nervous, more anxious and more afraid?”
So today may my charge to you find its FIRST recipient in your minister: Charge Her Up and turn her loose to charge up the world. Create the space and energy for her to be as Vulnerable as all get out so she can be a witness for the vulnerability so needed in the world receiving the lie that vulnerability and compassion are bad. And COVENANT with her today Not For Your Sake alone, so HOPE will HAVE a minister, but ultimately for the WORLD’s sake, for all those without hope.
We are One, but know that the We is not just this congregation, especially not just this gathered people today who become a people. WE includes all those who have gone before you in this space, and all those who will inherit what you do here today in all the spaces in which you may become church. Both those past and those to come whom you have never and will never meet should have voices at your table, charging you to carry deep within you this truth: you do not ultimately exist for one another alone, or for the perpetuation of this institution or its beautiful place, or even for our faith’s tradition; instead WE exist FOR the ONE, as the old hymn says, FOR the Earth made fair and ALL her people One.
Posted by Ron at 12:06 PM