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.  


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