Thursday, September 01, 2016

When The World Heals The Church

When The World Heals The Church
Rev. Ron Robinson, preaching Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, at The Welcome Table Christian Church, Arlington, TX
Reading: Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Thanks for the invitation and privilege to be here with you this weekend and in worship today. My debt to The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is deep; it is the church in which my mother was raised; it is the church which built an amazing seminary in which I was educated, and where I am now blessed to teach, and where I was inspired by so much that has led to the ministries of our own Welcome Table in north Tulsa today. And I have been promoting for more than a decade the wisdom of one of your denominational Vision Commitments—one thousand new congregations in one thousand new ways by 2020; one thousand new ways, which reflects the missional bigger bandwidth of being church in new environments that our hurting world needs.

At The Welcome Table church where we are, in and for the high poverty, low life expectancy, beautiful far northside of Tulsa, one of our favorite mottos and mission statements and tee-shirts is that we are there to “love the hell out of this world.” I like to think something like it was Jesus’ mission too, since there certainly was in the gospel accounts like in Luke today a lot of pain and struggle and hurt and oppression all around him, and which he entered into.

This motto I think even resonates with some of the theological tradition of Jesus’ birth and death as well as the way he lived his life. For God so loved the world, says John 3:16, Jesus was sent into it, and so, therefore, we are to go and do likewise, to be a sent people. And in some of our Christian traditions on Holy Saturday, which comes between Good Friday death and Easter Sunday resurrection, we commemorate the stories and speculations that grew up that Jesus’ loving and liberating spirit would have even gone into Hell to set free the souls there.

So, Loving the hell out of this world is something the church across the millennia has done when at its best, when it is living out its reason for being, which is to make Jesus continually visible in and through our lives and the world right around us, particularly visible in those places within us, within our communities, which seem the most hellish, in the places and with the people others abandon, neglect.
But let me say here that when we talk about Loving the Hell out of this world it really means we first have to let the world love the hell out of the church.

When I was growing up in the north Tulsa zipcode where we have returned to live, it was anything but hellish to me or to many around me, at least in outside appearances. We were the poorer working class side of town, but we were baby boomers and the Great Depression and the Great Wars of our parents and grandparents seemed like ancient history already, and society and its funding seemed made for us. And It was a segregated area back then, and we were white. It was a blatantly sexist and heterosexist time. Many of us just did not, could not, see the hell around us that others were going through. And our nostalgia often blinds us still to today’s struggles.  

That is why in the scripture today, leaping out at us that before anything else, it says Jesus sees the woman in pain, in pain for so many years, so important to make a point of the number of years, because others had probably grown so accustomed to her sight that they no longer actually saw her and paid attention.

Today in my neighborhood, my zipcode, it is a lot easier to see the death and destruction and struggles around us. It has deteriorated as the businesses, population, government supports all left with white flight when the area was at first integrated, then redlined and re-segregated. As it has become poorer and filled with people with darker skin, the life expectancy of our folks has shrunk, even as medical advances have grown. When our church began our missional transformation, to become not the best church in our community, but the best church For our community, the life expectancy gap between our zipcode and one just six miles away from us on the other side of town was 14 years. After nine years, and thanks to work on many fronts by many partners and others, this year the life expectancy gap shrunk to some 11 years. It is still an outrageous injustice that we die so much younger; and for us, those deaths are not just statistics but have names; but we are seeing that living out our faith and putting our limited resources and energy into community transformation rather than trying to grow more of us church members, has made a real difference—we often hear talk about being a life-saving faith, and in our area we have the data to prove it, with much to do. And because of the continuing deepening poverty, and the failure of the state government to do its part, we are never sure if the data is going to show us continuing to narrow the gap, or if it is growing again. Faithful Justice is being committed to a place and a people even if, especially if, things are not changing for the better.  

With all of the decline, the visibly fraying infrastructure and abandonment, still people even in our area have trouble seeing the wounds of others in our area; and if they never come to our side of town, and spend time with us, they will for sure not know so many do not have water or electricity in their homes, or that their homes are tents, campers, cars, boarded up homes, floors of friends or family, that as our surveys in our free food store have found 52 percent have high food insecurity, hunger pains when they come to see us, that so many have skipped days regularly from eating, eat spoiled food, that 47 percent are anxious and depressed, that 33 percent have diabetes, have chronic nutrition-related diseases, that 60 percent cannot afford healthy food and don’t have access to it. That we, a relatively small group all volunteer most all neighbors who also receive as well as help give, that we give out all told some 20 tons of food a month through our free food store, our gardenpark and orchard, and our meals.

Even I have trouble seeing, and I am continually being taught to see the struggles of my neighbors. This is especially true of residents who have lived in our area all their life and have remained through all the changes, but they still are often looking at our neighborhoods with yesterday’s sight and even they can’t fathom, until they have come face to face with it, the hunger and the sickness; that some of our children are growing up never having experienced a sit down family meal cooked at home, but only have eaten from packages.

In many ways, I think too often the church is like those life-long residents of our area—not seeing how the people around us have changed; our so-called blind side is thinking church can remain fundamentally unchanged and still connect with them the same as before, not seeing how they can help heal us, help us discover the depths of the gospel and of our purpose as the church.

But Seeing is liberating. Over and over in scripture, Jesus sees things and people others do not. And learning to see as Jesus sees changes everything. Who does Jesus serve, hang out with, take risks with? Who does Jesus’ heart break for?

To follow Jesus is to walk toward the wounded, the shamed, the oppressed, and to love the hell out of them. To follow Jesus is to know we are the wounded, the shamed, the outcast. Especially for the church to see itself as needing to have Jesus lay hands on us again, as he does the ailing woman, for us to be charged up again with the healing spirit and reminded who we are and who we are for. I like to think that instead of reflecting Jesus in the story this morning, as so many sermons have traditionally taught us to see ourselves, that the church is the long ailing woman, and the world around us is Jesus, the world healing the church of its isolation.

Even in biblical stories when it isn’t Jesus doing the hands-on ministry, it is someone else tracking him down to touch his garment, or going out and physically bringing friends to him. Risking rejection and scorn and failure.

Some, like those in the story today, of course, will want to make religion all about their rules and preserving the status quo. And I will say it was very important for the Sabbath to be observed; it was then as ever under pressure by the Empire; it was a way for the people following the God of Israel to be counter-culture and to fight back against their oppressors and their occupation. But even the good we can be about, maybe especially the good we are about, can become a barrier to what we are called to do.

So easily can the how of church, this or that practice or tradition or success even, such as the Sabbath keeping in our story today, can take the place of the Why. Jesus was reminding them, and us, of the Why of the Sabbath, the why of our being here, of responding to the felt needs and pains right before us, right around us, among us, and within us.

We believe we can best see one another, see those we would not otherwise see, when we sit with one another at the Welcome Table in our many church settings beyond the worship time—at our free food store events, or at meals at our community gardenpark and orchard, or in the community holiday festivals we sponsor, when someone is waiting to use our washing machine or shower, or browsing books in the free bookstore, or outside in the chairs we place by the outdoors electric outlet where people stop to charge up their phones or connect to our free wifi when we are not open inside. All of these encounters become the Welcome Table. And we are reminded by the community that The Welcome Table is not a place people come to; but is a place we create together, anywhere, anytime, by anyone, for everyone.  And, most importantly, they are places where the world can teach the church to see, to love, to be changed. The old missionaries went into the world to convert them; today's church needs to be a missionary church going into the world to be converted and changed and charged up by it.  We would not have accomplished anything in our area if we hadn't learned to fail to what we thought needed to be done, failed at what we wanted to do, so that God could show us what really needed to be done.

As I said yesterday in our time together in our workshop, I am inspired by your embodiment of The Welcome Table, and the potential you have for helping create welcome tables in a myriad of ways wherever you may be, in the myriad ways of being and becoming yourself, carrying the spirit of your gatherings with you throughout the week, a sent people in the loving and liberating spirit of Jesus,  laying hands on the world, yes, but never forget to let the ever-changing, ever-hurting, ever-teaching world, where God is already present, lay healing hands on you.  


Visions of Liberation: A Lesson on Freedom

Visions of Liberation: A Lesson For Politicians on Freedom, and A Call to Civic Engagement for those of us who complain about them
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, OK July 24, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson

 It seems to be a custom for me to preach the Sunday before our denominational church camp begins, and to tie my sermon into it in some way. This year the theme speaker at the camp now called The Point ( open to all) will be the Rev. George Kimmich Beach. He is known for much among our UU movement, especially as an author, and especially as an editor of collections of essays by our renowned 20th century theologian James Luther Adams who was his teacher. James Luther Adams was known as “the smiling prophet” and it is no wonder that the theme talks are on both the “savoring and saving” of the world.

So this Sunday, instead of giving you a preview of what my workshop will be about at The Point—missional church as you have heard from me before-- I want to preach about the lessons on liberation from JLA, as he is known. 

I have also been moved this week to preach on James Luther Adams theology because of how in political circles especially, and in some political circles more than others, the word Freedom is thrown around too freely, you might say, and how community is constructed in such a way as to foster a disunity at its core, and anything but a sense of vastness or greatness to its reality; how the concept of freedom is misunderstood to the point of it being twisted to very opposite ends, along with the perversion of what it means, in a religious sense, to be strong.  

Free Community is our tradition’s historic territory; Lord knows we have struggled with it and learned about it more than most, and so we better have something to say about it these days.

Yes, Our religious history, our tradition, our faith communities that go back to the very beginnings of this nation’s history, and in fact back before that into the church dissent for congregational freedom in England, our central force as a movement has been about upholding and embodying the depths of what it truly means to live in freedom. Our debt is to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, a synod attended by some of our oldest churches among the Unitarian Universalist Association, as it spelled out in the first document of radical congregational freedom how one actually lives in the depths of freedom, and that is through covenant.

You want to secure freedom? Then it only exists as you become members of a free community, one based on covenant more than creed, and you form a series of other relationships also built on freedom’s other names—love and responsibility—such as covenants between churches, between the church and its leaders, especially ordained ones, between the leaders, between the church and its wider community, and between the church and how it understands and experiences the Sacred. All of these are associational realities, and Associating was at the heart of James Luther Adams life and theology.

James Luther Adams—who taught at Meadville Lombard and Harvard and Andover Newton seminaries—was not our only theologian of freedom, but he was living and working before and after World War Two, with its very challenges to freedom, and also during the liberation revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies on up to his death in the 90s. In fact he was inspired by our process theologians with whom he was pretty much contemporaneous, like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and Henry Nelson Wieman, whose views were about the whole of cosmology and God as exhibiting both Freedom and Relationship and Novelty and Risk, especially Risk, not safety, at the core of existence itself. Existence which risks to be and become.

But JLA, a parish minister before professor, an always social justice activist and organizer beyond the academy, was the most connected to Unitarianism and then Unitarian Universalism. He rose to prominence among us for leading the very first Commission on Appraisal review and report, critique and challenge, of the American Unitarian Association in 1936 called Unitarians Face A New Age; it was really the beginning of his constant critique of religious liberalism as a whole; the report called for stronger association within our churches, between our churches, and with our wider communities, particularly those in our communities whose very freedoms were being most endangered by those in power. He always called for us to be more powerful to challenge others in power, and to share our power in solidarity with those struggling to claim and live out theirs. Make America Powerful Again, by amplifying the power of the powerless, not by concentrating it in fewer hands. In voluntary association is freedom born and strengthened; freedom is a reality only in relationship (all else is simply loneliness and license not true liberty); freedom requires the presence of others in order for it to freedom.

His personal story also mirrored many among us in our churches, at least those born in the first two thirds of the 20th century. His father was a fundamentalist preacher in the Pacific Northwest; JLA worked for a railroad that sent him to college in Minnesota. There, away from his family and in a higher education setting, he left the faith of his childhood and became a vehement opponent of religion, writing and speaking constantly in his assignments against religion, until one of his liberal arts professors commented back that JLA should be a preacher because religion was obviously the passion of his life, and introduced JLA to the humanist Unitarian tradition at First Unitarian of Minneapolis.

Not six months later he was a student at Harvard Divinity School. And his free to change theology didn’t end there either. He became one of the leading Unitarian Christians among us, and in connecting us ecumenically to other faith communities and other Christian theologians, especially his introduction to American audiences of the major German Protestant theology of Paul Tillich.  But he is also remembered for his pivotal work for us re-shaping us again coming out on the tail-end of World War Two, as he had going into it with the Commission on Appraisal. He was an author and advocate in the late Forties of Unitarian Advance which led to a greater room for theological pluralism, more communities, more commitment, more growth, and helped to quell the humanist-theist divide (or to make it a constant marginal rather than front and center issue among us) and which gave us some of the language that continues to be reflected in our current principles language.

Through it all, this pre-eminent theologian of freedom insisted that “freedom from” is secondary; that “freedom to” is primary. Freedom’s reason to be is to work and live toward liberation, toward a more just and loving community around us. A “freedom from” various risks can simply lead to the continuing of a status quo that oppresses those without status in society.

There is in this vein the famous anecdote he tells of his time in a Unitarian church in Chicago while he was a nearby professor. It was during the Sixties and the civil rights movement and the struggle to end segregation and its legacy of poverty that had children of Chicago living with rat bites. And during church board meetings there were debates about how visible the church as the church, as an association itself existing only in and for its wider relationships, should be in trying to end these racial injustices. One particular Board member insisted it was not why he went to church and what the church was about, that church was only for cultivating personal spirituality, the freedom of the individual mind—what our 20th century pre-eminent church historian and Harvard professor Conrad wright called such church as mainly being “a collection of religiously-oriented individuals” rather than church as a freely covenanted body, which has been our way, and our struggle, for centuries. JLA says the discussion on action the Chicago church should take went on for hours, into the night.  Then at one point when pressed by others to say not what he thought the purpose of the church was not for, but what it was for, the Board member thought and said: “I guess it is to get ahold of people like me, and change us.”

Conversion from “freedom from” to “freedom for.” Especially, for JLA, “freedom for excluded people.”

In the splendid trilogy called “The Making of American Liberal Theology”, which runs from the 1805 Unitarian theological takeover of Harvard University up to 2005, Gary Dorrien highlights the work of James Luther Adams and says acts of conversion are key to JLA’s understanding of the religious enterprise, even and especially for liberals. That is, Conversions that pivot us away from our own concerns, especially those middle class concerns that have tended to shape and reflect us, and toward the plight of others. Conversion even away from liberalism, which has tended he says to keep us focused on providing “religious sanctions for the values of middle class respectability” while the forces of oppression rise.

Dorrien treats JLA in the same group of theologians as he does Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, JLA leads off that chapter devoted to “Visions of Liberation”. JLA’s critique of liberals is similar to that MLK gave in his Epistle from the Birmingham jail. It is about liberalism’s lukewarm nature, its posture of passivity, what today we might call its captivity by its own (now waning) privilege. JLA’s conversion toward what would be known as liberation theology came in his early travels to Germany and Europe before World War Two, but after the rise of power of fascists. He witnessed both the timid capitulation of the liberal German church to the Nazis and met with leading members of another way of being church relating to society, the Confessing Church of Germany struggling against the power and values of those controlling the state, struggling even unto death. 

Historically, the roots of religious liberalism for Dorrien, and which he finds Adams critiquing, is a drive for the “third way” or middle ground of response to the Enlightenment. Religious liberals did not want to reject religion or reject the Enlightenment so they are always tempted to remain in the middle critiquing both extremes of each, and that makes them {us) susceptible to being a people who live in critique only, and who think it freedom, whose religious DNA or default mode is intellectual argument (religion is not this perspective or that perspective but this other perspective) which makes religion tilt toward emphasizing the mind and reason, and makes it about identity (who are we?) rather than about the “powers and principalities” within and among and around us creating and sustaining sufferings and injustices.

Adams came of a theological age in the wake of the deflating of the social gospel movement that, for all its strengths of compassion, had its overly optimistic view of “progress and brotherhood onward and upward forever” dashed by so many forces that culminated in World War One and the rise of fascism that led to World War Two. Adams, like many theologians of his era, had a more tragic view of history. It is why, for him, the deeper forms of freedom that come through voluntary associations and commitments to and for others especially “the excluded” the so-called “least of these” are so vital to the Common Good. Something we need to remind the nation of today. After all, it is the Common Good which binds us not the Common Great.

 If he were here today, JLA might say: we can’t just say we are going to make a country great again by the sheer power of our personal will, and beware of those who claim and ask for your trust to let them do it especially by themselves alone, and quickly, even if you might agree with what greatness might mean, because history shows, millenias of history shows, where such hubris, especially in the form of rampant nationalism, leads: to rubble.

Instead, as another theologian summarized JLA’s theology, “free [people] put their faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.” And for him, it is the very fact that “humans possess the…power to participate in the divine creativity” that warrants our faith in humanity. After all, he noted, freedom itself can also be used to dominate and oppress; it is only when it is rooted “in a will to mutuality that it is redemptive.”

Dorrien describes Adams’ belief that we are fated to be free, and that freedom and responsibility [how does your freedom lead you to respond, and where, and for whom?] are intertwined; “every attempt to escape from freedom and its responsibilities is an act of freedom; thus the burden of moral responsibility can not be relinquished…every faith is a faith of the free, but many faiths are unworthy of being chosen.”

For Adams, first, God is that kind of freely creative responding in love power that is a “commanding reality that sustains and transforms all life.” Second,  freedom “rightly used seeks freedom and social justice for others”—not for excluding the vulnerable so some can have more supposed safety, and more supposed freedom and choices and resources. True freedom is a liberating love, then, for all. And third, It is also a community forming power, and has a moral content and character and orientation to justice. It is more than just about freedom of belief and how one believes differently from others. Liberty is not simply license; that is a false sense that has more to do with being alone with a selfish will. It is instead a vision and action of liberation, and is inherently relational, associational.

Freedom “cannot abide a social evil such as racial discrimination,” he said, “and be genuinely free.” Such limited understandings of freedom as we encounter, that are not part and parcel with the Common Good, are masks, he says, “for a hidden idolatry of blood or state or economic interest, a protection for some kind of tyranny.”

These days, just as Adams experienced in pre-war Germany and in segregated America, there is the temptation to cultural pessimism and retreat; as I suspect Kim Beach might tell us this week there is always the temptation to only savor or only save, to lose oneself in the Is—ness of being or the ought-ness of doing, instead of letting the one lead us into the other as we see our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, particularly of “excluded others.” And pessimism and retreat is often a characteristic of those with the privilege to do so.

Instead, We need to resist the calls to a false freedom that would have us retreat from the risks of suffering, ours and others, and that would wall us off from the experience of deeper conversion to love and justice that happens when we open ourselves and embrace the radical associating with one another, especially those different from us, which the prophets of many ages have called us to do.

We need to remind our communities of the soul of our communities, that we need one another in order to experience real freedom, and commit to making such soul greater.

We need to restore one another, not repel one another; let in to our communal lives that creative reality of love and liberation that can re-create us, that moves forward not back, that can make all things new, and truly great, for all.