Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejoice and Resist: A Post-Inaugural Sermon

Rejoice and Resist

Sermon at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Jan. 22, 2017

Rev. Ron Robinson

So here we are. I started writing this sermon at noon on Friday as the inauguration was underway, but in some ways I have been writing it for the 42 years I have identified as a Unitarian Universalist, living all of that time in Oklahoma except for four years in Kansas. Now is the best time for our message of all having worth, all being welcome, all needed at the table, and all of us guests on this planet, and forour commitment to deeds of love and justice superseding creeds, creeds of all kinds, for relying on our capacities for kindness and goodness superseding the powers and principalities that try to act as if they are Ultimate in our lives and communities and even, if we let them, in our hearts.

Now is the right time for us to remember what my mentor the Rev. Carl Scovel said in his Berry Street lecture, the annual Unitarian Universalist lecture that dates back to 1820, the oldest continuous lecture series in the United States. Carl received the distinquished service award from our Association, its highest award, and as a child he was raised in a Chinese concentration camp during World War Two and in his lecture he said:
 “At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return. And this is the supreme reality of our lives. This goodness is ultimate—not fate nor freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. And with everything else we know in life, the strategies and schedules, the technology and tasks, with all we must know of freedom, fate and finitude, of energy and order and mystery, we must know this, first of all, the love from which we were born, which bears us now, and which will receive us at the end. Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness, to know it without reserve or hesitation….Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict—not even survival—is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.”
Which is often, right, So hard to find.

But then I finished writing this sermon after yesterday’s day of marches for women’s and human rights which filled the streets of big and small cities, with people showing up for their values, and for people who are afraid. Showing up to say: We are still here, we want you to still be here, and together we must turn this moment into a movement, one very local and very connected.

It is why this sermon is titled Rejoice and Resist. Rejoice first. Actually the title comes from the theme of our upcoming annual General Assembly which will be held this summer in New Orleans. It was a theme that was picked long before any election outcome. It was tied to the spirit and struggle and history in New Orleans—a place known for both much rejoicing, and the needs to struggle and resist great inequities of race, ethnicity, class, gender. But it is a theme that is universal as well, needed everywhere. It reminds us that one of the first tasks of mourning is to seek out, find, and share the joy that eventually cometh in the morning after the long night of loss. It is why the feast accompanies the funeral. We need spaces for our stories of loss and love.

People of liberation around the world have always shown us that oppressors sought first silence and isolation, and the first act of resistance has been to fight against that with rejoicing, with community solidarity--show up and dance and sing and conspire. And find ways to eat together. We know the power of the sacredness of the shared supper at times of loss and fear; for the appetite is often the first casualty, and the path back to health. And so finding ways to gather together, to sing and share stories and supper together, and to always invite, invite, invite to our gatherings those who so often receive no invitations.

Let me stress this: Our rejoicing, as well as our resisting, needs communal forms.

This is why, for example, in our missional community in north tulsa one of our four main focuses is simply Party. The other three are justice food and art. But for a people with few opportunities and means for paid entertainment or to get across town where the major free festivals are held, just to throw parties is to disrupt the status quo of lives that feel, rightly and unfortunately, that they must work or seek work everyday to just get by.

Rejoice and Resist is an interconnected spiritual practice. And We are bearers of the tradition that says there are many spiritual practices that can grow your soul and the soul of the world; just as there are many ways to engage politically and socially to make this world one that aligns more with the principles we affirm. Our communities are the places where those paths and practices can cross, enrich one another, learn from one another. I should say some of my best companions in the 42 years I have been a Unitarian Universalist have been those who, for example, were liberally religious but conservative politically, as well as those who shared different theological orientations than I do. What held us together was not only our commitment to a deep essence of love in life, and humor and humility, and a desire to see that love shape a more just world (though our means to that end differed), but most importantly of all it was also over time simply our shared community space, the rituals of life and death of friends and families. These acts of showing up for one another, and extending that into the world around us, create the real forms of our life, forms that hold us and mold us and change the world around us, even moreso than slogans and messages and memes.
To do this, create these forms, to be this kind of spiritual maker space, we need to develop our paths and practices, to learn from others and extend ours to others. I see Rejoice and Resist as two poles on the spectrum of such paths and practices. For example, If we find ourselves mostly living in the resistance end of things, taking to the barricades whether they be on the streets or timelines of facebook, living in the sharing of ideas and arguments and policy statements, in the meetings after meetings and rallies after rallies (and I am living proof of much of that end of the spectrum, and we need to honor this way of deepening our life and engaging with the world), but now is the time for those of us who gravitate to this response to look over at the other horizon and learn how to Rejoice, and savor the world we seek to save.

 I remind myself often of the words of the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, too, who said that we let our dreams of community too often kill actual community. We forget our sense of being finite creatures unable to single-handedly create the world we seek; we forget to forgive ourselves and one another when our communities, small and large, fail to live up to our expectations.  

Developing practices of prayer and meditation, of dance and of staying in touch with our bodily selves, of learning to risk vulnerability and raise our voices in song--not to have perfect pitch but to be fully human, to learn to sit in nature and listen to soothing stories the earth has to tell about all it has seen, to feel the network of life moving through us and upholding us the same as that splendid life lessons of the moss and lichens on the ancient boulders that continue to grow, season after season, slowly soaking up all that life offers so they will share their beauty and comfort for the generations to come. Doing all this is a way to live against the grain of much of the culture that seeks to shape us and our world into being lives of reaction, of angst, of despair, and most of all to be lives lived in isolation so that we can be more easily manipulated for market purposes.  

Conversely, if our paths and practice have kept us perpetually in retreat—even in a good sense—and kept us in our echo chambers too long; if we have moved through our lives trying to keep ourselves shored up especially while those whose lives are not so easily protected have been increasingly marginalized and suffering, with fewer and fewer resources for themselves and their families, then we too need to risk moving along the spectrum toward engaging with others in justice work to grow more resilience and resistance in our communities.

I will say that since the election in November didn’t go the way I so wanted it to go, I have been nurtured not only by more deepening of prayer life but also by an explosion of community organizing being done. New organizing being done. New relationships forming. Some people are worried because there are so many new groups forming, but I see them as connecting and multiplying in ways no single group could do. We are becoming a network like that fungi that connects the trees in a forest, a living network helping one another to breathe and grow. And that is often unseen.

In one such group, we stood on a recent freezing night, hundreds of us, and held signs of welcome outside a cathedral for our Hispanic community after its youth had been bullied. In another group, we shared stories of the effects of state cuts on mental health in our families, to the damage of rising student loan debt, to how wild stray animals in our low income neighborhoods were keeping children from playing outside and keeping others from being able to walk and exercise, and we formed action teams to begin responding to these stories. In another group we have been advocating for our community policing and better training for law enforcement officers. In another group we have been working on our own systemic racial biases and privileges. In another group we have begun six task forces that each address a key part of the social determinants of health that have caused our side of town to have such a high disproportionate mortality rate. In another we had the highest turnout for a community meeting in a few years as people sought ways to create a neighborhood watch and protect themselves and their property. In another group we pledged to turn our city from an example of poor health to one of greater health access and education. In another group we are working to plant free food forests around the city. In another group both planning meetings and candidate forums have been held to keep before us the problem of too low education outcomes for our poor and especially minority students. And in an on-going group, the struggle continues to work on voting disparities, reform, and apathy.

I am seeing people get more involved as mentors, reading tutors, and we hope soon as community gardeners too; we have more people volunteering with us to help us keep growing our community food store, which does unfortunately keep growing in numbers of those in need, but we are working on ways to turn those numbers of hungry folks into advocates for policies and budgets that don’t rely on survival of the fittest, the wealthiest.  

There are so many ways that a spirit of resistance to the status quo is emerging that it in itself is a cause of rejoicing. And the refusal to stay under the covers---oh I sooo know that desire---is perhaps the most subversive and simple act of all. To actually smile and live “as if” this world were still on its way to the freedomland, as the old gospel in our hymnal says, and know it is still full of more people who want to build bridges than walls, to be able to say confidently there are enough resources in this world that we can share them with those without, enough ordinary love and extraordinary goodwill that we don’t have to fear, to do all this is the way movements of justice pass from one generation to the next.

Finally, I am reminded of the long arc of the movements against oppressive powers, and how losses of leaders are often followed by new leaders picking up mantles. Today in churches around the world people are hearing the story from the Gospel of Matthew of when Jesus finds out that John the Baptizer, who was leading a popular opposition based on prophetic action has been arrested by the government. It motivates Jesus into public ministry and mission, and for him to draw also from the ancient prophets like Isaiah whose words guide him immediately to a region of Galilee where, as scripture says, the people had sat in darkness. To them and throughout the region, it says, Jesus carried the message that God’s world was actually near, was here; he lived “as if” it were so; even with all of Caeser’s world’s proof to the contrary, and with the great mourning of the loss of John the Baptist, Jesus begins by inviting others to the party, the moveable feast, to that worldview of resisting and rejoicing. The story says he simply also began healing people as he went among them, healing all their sicknesses, turning none away, and as he did so those who had sat in darkness saw a great light.
I know this: You too are a great light, and there are many great lights of justice in the community beyond. That good news is worth rejoicing. That is worth sharing. We are breathing again. Like the prairie earth after a fire we are sending up a million green shoots of new life. And Those who are afraid may be a little less fearful today. Those who are disheartened may be a little more encouraged today. Those who despair may find a few more companions today ready to not give in to hate but to keep working toward hope.

In our neck of the struggling world, we say everything matters, no matter how small the act; so we are called to keep acting. In love. For all. Always. 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Freely Following Jesus: A sermon on Unitarian Universalist Christianity

“Freely Following Jesus” UU Church of Bartlesville, Oct. 9, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson

A week ago today I spoke to the Atheist Community of Tulsa. It was about our area of north Tulsa and its struggles and strengths and ways they could be a part of our renewal work. We didn’t spend any time talking about theology or church, but they knew where we were coming from—our ever-transforming church is a covenanted community in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a member of the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and a member of the Christian Community Development Association. And I began by thanking them for their presence and their mission in our community. I couldn’t think of a more “Christian” thing for me to do, just as they, by inviting me, supporting us, were being true to their deepest identity and purpose. We were in a small way creating a welcome table, intersections, a border, an edge where new life sprouts.
As I did so I thought of a time when I was visiting Massachusetts and worshipping for the first time at the UU First Parish of Worcester. Their minister’s sermon was titled “Why The Church Needs Atheists” and in it she talked about her own deep conversion to Theism through a mystical encounter, a theism that needs the witness of atheists. And right before the sermon, as it does each week, the church recited the Lord’s Prayer. I thought of that as the parable of the power of the free church.
And for 13 years I was privileged to serve the UU Christian Fellowship as Executive Director and to talk to churches about why UU Christians, or those who simply preferred to call themselves Jesus Followers, needed to be in right relationship with the many others on different paths among us in order to actually grow into the life of Christ we desired, and why the churches and others in them on different paths than ours needed us too in order to grow in their own way. There is nothing like having a loving and liberation oriented Christian in healing covenant with someone who has been spiritually, and sometimes physically, hurt by someone else using the name of Jesus or Christianity.
This coming Friday evening and Saturday we are hosting a retreat, free for any donation, that will be open to all of any theological orientation who want to meet with others to celebrate and explore this kind of progressive freely following Jesus spirit, to go deeper into its challenges and its promise, and though it is part of multi state gatherings hosted by the UU Christian Fellowship we will have conversation and workshop partners from other progressive churches too. I hope that it is a chance for others to learn about a part of UUism, as well as focusing on not letting Christian orthodoxy claim to be the one true Christianity.
One of the books we will have available is one published by the UUA a few years ago called Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I am getting ready to share some of the various voices from it to lift up what it means to freely follow Jesus, but I want to say that even in the many essays in the book there are many of our diversity of voices still left out. I would also include more of the voices of the Unitarian Universalist Christian who worships in a UU Christian church and for whom it is commonplace to think of UUism and Christianity as one thing. But also the voices of non-Christian UUs who are nevertheless a part of the UU Christian Fellowship, those who love to learn with us in bible study and even worship with us. These include atheists and agnostics and many others who do not claim to freely follow Jesus, but who find their own spiritual lives deepened by being around those who do; and I would include the progressive Christians who are not UUs who are a part of us too, who like what we bring to the Christian table and are sometimes amazed to find that what they think have been new discoveries in biblical and theological studies have actually existed for centuries, among us.
Here are some of the diverse perspectives and accounts in the book in their own words:
From Dave Dawson: --“I share a desire for the freedom to test the outer limits of my Christian faith. Within my church I am not told I am wrong, just looked at quizzically when I say I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ…I remain a UU Christian as a witness to those in mainline Christianity that, yes, universal salvation is alive and well, and it is a beautiful option for those people mired in shame-based churches.
 From Anita Farber-Robertson: --“It was not, however, going to be enough to want Jesus in my life. I was going to have to claim him, and let him claim me. I was going to have to say, “Yes, this is my path. You are my guide, my teacher, and my savior, for without you my soul would get brittle, my mouth grow bitter, my heart hard.”
 From the late Terry Burke: --“My baptism remains central to my religious self-understanding. As part of the confession of faith that Carl Scovel had me write, I said, “I believe that God seeks a loving, dialogical relationship with humanity, and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ calls us to reflect that sacrificial love in our lives. The cross and the faithful community proclaim that it is more important to love than to survive and that love is stronger than death.”
From Robert Fabre: --“So Unitarian Universalism was, for me, the pathway back to Christianity. No doubt I wouldn’t be where I am today, wouldn’t be the person I am today, without it. Ironically, the longer I’ve been associated with this liberal religious community, the more conservative I’ve become on a personal level. So now I can say, I believe that Jesus was the son of God (not God but the son of God); I believe in the resurrection (not the resuscitation of a dead body but the resurrection); and I believe that I am saved by grace (not because I accept Jesus as my personal savior but because, despite my confusion and my unbelief, despite my shortcomings and mistakes, in a mysterious way, beyond my comprehension and explanation, God accepts me).
 From Victoria Weinstein: --“Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.”
And From the late Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley: “Today, Jesus remains a central figure of my religious identity. And yet I don’t often call myself a Christian because there is no agreement on what the term Christian means, either within Unitarian Universalism or without…There are conservative and liberal understandings of the Jesus story and Christian witness, and none of these has any exclusive claim on Jesus or those who seek to follow him. In my Christian witness, no one’s soul (or spiritual salvation) is dependent on a particular ritual, obligation, or statement of belief. There is no giant cop up in the sky dictating who will go up and who will go down. And yet I have been moved to tears by liturgical expressions of the story of Jesus and his work as a mystical teacher. It’s most accurate to say that I am a nominal Christian who has also found truth and wisdom in pre-Christian and mystical religions, earth-centered spiritualities, religious humanism, womanism, and other theologies of liberation. I have embraced the spiritual practice of Thai Chi and the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I do not exclude any particular theology. As the spiritual says, there is “plenty of good room” at the banquet table.
The religious landscape in America has changed vastly since 1945 when the UUCF began. In UUism, in Christianity, and in UU Christianity. These UU Christian voices now are more diverse than you would have found when the UUCF began. Surprise, surprise, they are still changing. For a faith that roots itself in the theological belief that revelation is not sealed and cannot be sealed, we do, though, seem to still resist change. On the other hand, when we talk about ongoing revelation as a core value of our tradition, it doesn’t mean continually throwing the baby out with the bathwater in every successive generation, as if that is the mark of a progressive faith. Sometimes, often, ongoing revelation means returning to our touchstones and knowing them more fully because of where we have been, and being touched and supported by them even more deeply and strongly because of it.
Once upon a time to speak of Christian voices in our movement would have been a commonplace thing, as redundant as saying Methodist or Baptist Christian voices. To really grasp the notion of how commonplace Christianity is in our roots, we should look at the statement of belief approved in 1853 by the American Unitarian Association. This was more than a decade after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, both of whom still saw themselves as being in the Christian tradition even if heretics within it, began planting seeds that would grow our church to being a “more than Christian, more than any one path” church. In 1853 the Unitarian Association, the radicals in their days, described themselves (not prescribed themselves) this way: 
 “WE BELIEVE in Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the express image of the Father, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the God-head bodily, and who to us is the Way and the Truth and the Life. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the teacher, renewer, and guide of mankind. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Catholic Church as the body and form of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in all ages. WE BELIEVE in the Regeneration of the human heart, which, being created upright, but corrupted by sin, is renewed and restored by the power of Christian truth. WE BELIEVE in the constant Atonement whereby God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. WE BELIEVE in the Resurrection from mortal to immortality, in a future judgment and Eternal Life. WE BELIEVE in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the final triumph of Christian Truth.
It is important in understanding Unitarian Universalism to remember that we never voted not to believe that statement, to proscribe it, or any other; we don’t do that sort of thing; we only voted in the future on new language and new descriptions for new times, but not as official replacements that negated what came before; to some Trinitarian Universalists like me that 1853 language still in large part might resonate pretty well. And remember it was those very Christians in both the Unitarian and Universalist churches who helped to create a faith community that that would inherently be open to others different from them; in large measure because of the kind of Christians they were, they helped form an association where they could, and would be, in the minority.  It is not a bad cultural place for a follower of Jesus to be.  And, as we are discovering in other arenas, when we are all minorities of one sort or another, we need those intersections, borders, edge places even more where we meet and grow from one another.
            Especially after 1945, the year the UU Christian Fellowship began, there arose in many places, especially in new lay led fellowships, Unitarian Universalism as the opposite of Christianity, and it was considered a contradiction of terms to be a UU Christian. Not I might say here in Bartlesville when the Unitarian fellowship was formed here and in its original bylaws said it existed to promote “practical Christianity”, language evocative of the 1825 American Unitarian Association purpose of promoting what it called “pure Christianity” as opposed to creedal based Christianity. 
Over time though, and as Christianity liberalized itself in many of its denominations, UUs began to see how they were a more than tradition, rather than an anti this or that tradition, and that moved us into the conundrum phase with lots of questions about how one could be this or that, and what was it about UUism that Christians liked and what was it about Christianity that UUs were drawn to, for a prominent path of UU Christians was to be a UU but not UU Christian first.
Then it seems what we have morphed into in UU Christianity is that in some places and some churches it is still commonplace to think of UU and Christian in the same way, and some places it is seen as still a contradiction, and some where it is still just a conundrum to think about, but more and more we are in a place of Convergence, that intersection or border or edge or welcome table place.
In one way of convergence are those who converge different ways of primarily following Jesus or practicing their Christian faith. We have classic UU Christians who see Jesus as a teacher, who seek to follow his lessons. We have small c catholic UU Christians who experience Jesus in the traditions and rituals of the church over the centuries. And we have liberationist UU Christians who know Jesus in the actions of healing and liberating and being with the oppressed and marginalized and suffering. (You can read more about these types in the pamphlet Who Are The UU Christians by the Rev. Tom Wintle online). But more and more UU Christians are converging even within themselves these different ways of expressing their faith.
Add to that the convergence we also now have of UU Christians who are converging their UU Christian faith with say UU Buddhism, or UU neo-paganism, UU humanism, UU Jewish roots, UU mysticism. And finally among us are those who converge the UU part of their faith, whichever form or forms it might take, with their regular attendance and membership in a non-UU Christian community (or non-UU other form of spiritual community). And, to top the convergence all off, we do have UU Christian churches who are also affiliated with other denominations the same as they are with the UUA.
This progressive spirit of convergence is alive and well then, and, as we often say, we don’t think Jesus would have it any other way. In fact contemporary UU Christianity, and UUism in general, at its best, is like a living example of the way of Jesus.
Look no further than in the story from the Bible, from Luke 17, being read today in worship services by many Christian churches, and some UU churches, we find Jesus right where we often find him, at an intersection, moving along the borderlines between different peoples with different faiths. In this case between Galilee and Samaria, often enemy cousins so to speak of culture and faith, and both seeking to exist within the culture of the Hellenistic and Roman Empire occupying them. In this place, he encountered other outcasts, extreme outcasts from all of the cultures; he comes across ten lepers. They are supposed to act out of shame and go hide themselves (think of all kinds of people and conditions our cultures seek to shame today). But they speak up and though they don’t draw physically close, they shout out for mercy, for healing, for connection, for wholeness. And it is as if that alone was the healing.
For Jesus sees them, pays attention, and doesn’t ask what culture they are from, or what they believe, doesn’t try to determine their eligibility and if they deserve anything or not. He just tells them to go see the priests, which is what the routine was for one who had been healed, to get checked out so to speak, ready to re-enter the community that had shunned them. Even there, where they had retreated to a place on the edge of cultures away from all the powers that be, and from the usual sources of healing, they found healing, because Jesus was there too. And, the story ends with one of the ten healed lepers returning to the place and finding Jesus still there; returning to give thanks, for which Jesus says the leper has exhibited the deepest, fullest kind of wholeness.
But I suspect the leper also returned to find ways to give back healing too, to turn that place of shame into a place of grace, and of new community for all those outcasts and misfits who would keep coming, keep converging, to the borderlands, the intersecting paths, to find home. May we go and do likewise.

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.

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. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Seeing and Believing and Doing

Seeing and Believing and Doing
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, April 3, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson, The Welcome Table, serving North Tulsa and Turley

The 19th Century minister, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, one of the founders, albeit reluctantly, of the American Unitarian Association, used to sum up his ordination sermons for new ministers with this admonition: “Teach them to see.”
By that he meant not only to bring new knowledge and new understandings of religion to the communities, the whole communities, they served--though he did mean that, and that was, then and now, an important role of religion and religious leaders, especially of liberal religion that seeks to be liberating—but what he ultimately was getting at as their ministry duty was to help people cultivate a newer, broader, deeper way of seeing life. To see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To see one another, and each person seeing themselves as being, in the title of one of his famous sermons taken from the Book of Genesis, likenesses of God; not the same as, he would have hastened to explain, but as bearers of the spark, the possibility, of the divine.
Teach them to see, as fully as possible, because we can so readily become in our way blinded to limited narrow perspectives; in some ways that is an inevitable blessed truth of our finite lives; it is a blessing because it pulls us toward community. It is a problem only when we think we see it all, that everyone’s perspective must be the same as ours. And it is a problem when we don’t even fully see our own perspective; when we don’t go deep enough right where we are and see, as William Blake famously said, a world in a grain of sand. I so admire the naturalists who, for example, study life as it is revealed writ small, like David George Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen on nature revealed in a single square meter of forest floor.  
  • Haskell said in his study he was “applying the contemplative approach of narrowing down our gaze to a tiny, little window and thereby hoping to perhaps see more than we could by running around the whole continent just trying to see it all and do it all. And that's the contemplative gambit, narrow your gaze down to one breath, to one image, to one tiny, little patch of forest. And then from that, perhaps you can, like a pinhole camera, you can see further into the universe and the focus of the universe becomes crisper for you. (on the Diane Rheem show, NPR)
Haskell did his study on a small patch of old growth forest. That’s a cool place to do it. It is, though, where you might expect to see a lot going on in a little. But I believe we can and need to learn to see life most fully in the places where we are often taught it is the hardest to find, and in the people where we are taught there is nothing new or more to see, and in the times of life to see them too, especially the bad times, as not all in all bad and so miss the way they may open toward goodness.
Because if we don’t learn and teach people to see life and life’s spirit where others may not, then we will shrivel not only our powers of sight but our world too, and further divide it up between the full and the empty, the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad.
And that leads to seeing life as irrevocable, irredeemable, as fixed. Which takes all the creativity and transformation out of it. Which takes all the love out of it. Which takes all the justice out of it. Which kills it.
In our hymnal we have a reading taken from the Book of Genesis chapter 28 that says “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” It is powerful because it refers to a place that Genesis describes as just “a certain place” where Jacob came to in his journeys; it was a stony place, for he took a stone and used it as a pillow for his head as he slept, and in his dream he received a vision from God, and when he woke he was grateful for the gift of this certain, stony place.
The place where I live and work is like that. A place where others see only bad statistics, and some of them are bad—we rejoiced that in the eight years of our missional ministry there we have seen the life expectancy gap narrow from fourteen to eleven years, and of course followed that with continued outrage at such a continuing discrepancy, especially as the longer we are there the more an abstract term like life expectancy takes on real names of real people who have died among us too soon.
I get to talk with lots of people about our place, mostly in their own places but also when some come to work with us, and I tell them we are more than our statistics, though it is important to know them, and we are more than our stories of struggle with injustices and neglect; that we are most of all a place and people of spirit and that’s a story that doesn’t get told enough, even by our own folks who too often feel ashamed for living where they do—that if they had only been better, smarter, stronger, they and their kids would be able to move away like so many have done. That the good life, as it comes to be seen by them, is only possible somewhere else, and for someone else. That attitude seeps into the soul and as much as anything else affects that shorter life expectancy just as much or moreso even than the travesties of not having health insurance, of being too poor for Obamacare because of our state government refusal to accept Medicaid extension.
In fact one of the things we try to get people to see more fully is about health and life expectancy in our area itself. It is more than meets the eye that watches TV news or reads the newspaper. As much as we need more medical care access, more culturally competent medical care access, like having medical professionals that you see around you in your life and trust because they know you and live among you, and we desperately need more of that, even with that clinic access alone will still be a minor part of increasing life expectancy. Genetics accounts for some 20 percent; medical care access accounts for only ten percent; 50 percent of a longer life expectancy comes from lifestyle choices, and 20 percent, twice as much as from clinic access, comes from our environment, the social determinants like how much blight we live around and crime and stress and hunger, all of the things which in fact tilt people away from the very healthier choices when they are available.  (OU Community Medicine Report, see my report on the presentation and the report at
Seeing this, and seeing what often prevents people from making these choices, is hard when you are not where you can see and hear and learn from the people themselves. I just had a conversation with a good intelligent liberal friend and colleague who was trying to learn why people might not take advantage of the medical options that were available to them. He couldn’t see their whole life, just the choices they were making as if in a vacuum. I began to show him, to teach him to see, how the stresses of subsistence living, where your life is structured in smaller increments, meal to meal, day to day, opportunity to work hour by hour, perhaps with the addition of addictive self medication to supposedly help you cope with the stresses, and with how you see your own self worth, all of this means that you are not going to take the time to make appointments, for example, for preventive health. You are going to get by until you can’t get by, and then you are going to go to the place that has to take you, the ER, and not worry about the expense because you know you are never going to pay it anyway. And you don’t have the social network with the skills to help you overcome all that. If the hospital tries to shame you into better behavior it instead keeps you more mired in the attitude that is self-defeating.
We set up our clinics, our classrooms, our nonprofit helping agencies, our churches, our civic meetings, our elections, so much around the perspective of those with resources and without so many stresses, and then blame people, as one suburban progressive banker did to me at a regional event, for more of the folks from my area “not being at the table.” Talk about wanting to teach him to see; his privilege of having time and means and the kind of job that set him at the table, not to mention the way we run so many of our public meetings comes from a model that is based on higher education or even the classroom, a model that is a trigger to so many people who struggled in school for so many reasons.
When I get to teach people to see in person, I tell them I see my place with three sets of eyes. I am trying to get them to see it that way too. I see our area as I saw it growing up until the time I was graduated from high school, seeing it both as it was in a negative way, the legacy of racism and segregation, and in a positive way, the way there was so much social capital, connections among people, a more income integrated neighborhood, and more common resources put into the area in schools, parks, infrastructure; how you went to school together for example as my wife and I did from kindergarden through high school, which made it so much easier to communicate with the community than now when any neighborhood the kids of the same age might go to five to ten different schools, including home and online.
And I tell them I see our place as it is now, with its abandonment and isolation and ill health, its prison culture attitude as a place where people with felonies often come to live. But that I also see it with eyes of the future, and in some ways the future of transformation is happening also for those with eyes to see, in small ways not only in our Welcome table undertakings but in what some of our partners and neighbors are doing.
If I am rushed and can only take people on a tour of one part of our area beyond our properties, I take them to one three block stretch in our area. If I can to teach them to see I have them drive from one end of Peoria avenue in Tulsa to the other and observe carefully the disparities. But at least I take them to 53rd Street from Peoria to Utica and ask them to count the number of boarded up abandoned houses where families used to live, where dollars used to turn over into the community, and I tell them to also look at how right in the midst of that abandonment there are people putting extra energy into making their certain place a gate of heaven, and I tell them not to miss the small house with one of the best yards that is Sarah’s Residential Living where one of the houses that would have been abandoned is now a small intimate living space for seniors who need monitoring but not assisted living, keeping them in a homelike environment; a wonderful vision and response to a deep need, and how three more houses along that street are now owned by Sarah’s just waiting for volunteers to help transform them too.
Being able to see this way, these things, is to see more fully. And that is what we need. And when we can see a place more fully, we see the people more fully, and we see our connection to them. We can begin to believe more fully that another world is possible; yea, it is even already here and yet to come.
Today in many churches of many traditions across the world sermons will be preached about a classic story of this form of teaching to see, about seeing and believing in change. It is the story in the gospel of John about so called Doubting Thomas. No surprise that many will see it not as fully as it was meant to be seen, and will come away from it with a too limited perspective. It has much to teach us I think about how to see life. It was considered an extremely important story to the Johannine community that produced the gospel of John several decades after Jesus death; it was the story of the original ending to John’s gospel. It sums up so much of the wisdom the whole book was trying to make over and over that life and truth and the truth about people is more than what we see, that understanding comes from grasping the spiritual, the poetic, the metaphorical, that we can give ourselves and our lives to a story that can be more than real, it can be true.
Here are the highlights of the story and I comment on it, and we can see many places where John’s overall themes of spiritual truth, as opposed to literal truths, are resonating. The story picks up after the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary of Magdala soon after the crucifixion.
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 
Right here we are to see how times of fear and anxiety present us with the option to respond out of scarcity, to lock the doors and hide inside because of what has been taken away from us and what might at any moment it is felt be taken away from us; or to respond as jesus does, to see the situation with peace and ignoring the locked doors. The story goes on:
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Apparently being there somewhat miraculously and speaking peace to them wasn’t enough even for them for he felt the need to show them his wounds to signal who he was. Meeting them where they are, you might say, one of the first lessons of chaplaincy, of ministry, of truly seeing people. Only then it says the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Over and over John stresses peace, wants his listener readers to focus on it, see its need. John is composed at a time of great conflict, but wants the reader hearer to be reminded of peace. See that we should savor the world even as we see where it is in need of saving, as the famous John 3:16 points out that God first loved the world, all of it, no exceptions as we say, with all its hellishness, and because of that sent a Savior to love the hell out of the world.
Jesus goes on to say: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
I love that phrase because it fits in with our missional faith mandate to not set back and wait for people to come to us, to come see us, but to go be sent, the original meaning of the Greek word missio, to be sent to be with them. Here the disciples have been seeing themselves as a fortress kind of group, inside a locked room, retreating from the world, but Jesus is again articulating that to be one of his followers means not to be locked up at home but to be out serving the people.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Again Jesus is trying to get them to get over themselves for good, to live in a state of mercy and trust at a time and place when they more naturally would see their plight very differently, full of fear and blame.  
Now we get to Thomas and the heart of the story and of the whole gospel of John.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut [What again? They are slow learners; they have still locked their doors.] Jesus came and stood among them again and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 
Unfortunately that is where too many tellings of this story and in popular parlance end, with Thomas’ conversion so to speak, coming to belief. But the ending is not quite here. For Jesus then said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas is to be remembered not only for the change of mind, but the whole point is not his belief; it is his admonishment by Jesus that his way of believing is too limited; his sight too narrow. There is more than physical sight, touch, experience, all external to one’s self; there is also the internal way of knowing, of deeper sight and truths than by those who have to have all things nailed down, and there is trust in what you can not yet see.
I trust even though I can’t yet see or show easily to someone else that another  world is possible, a resurrected world if you will, even in my place and even in so many people others are quick to give up on, and in myself.
This has meaning for us too in how our religion can help transform the world around us into a more generous and just world. It means seeing ourselves anew, and also getting over ourselves for good too. My colleague Tom Schade writes about this often in his blog The Lively Tradition. Recently he has written about how what we take often for granted, it has become so rote and ordinary to us, the 7 Principles statement in the UUA bylaws, that it is often denigrated and dismissed, but how when we see them as not something whose purpose is to define who we are but as our mission steps for how the world should be, and guides for taking action in the world, we can transform ourselves from a small religious institution to part of a large and emerging progressive social spiritual movement.
  • There is a facebook meme that connects each of the 7 principles with what is pulling people together out in the streets.
    The inherent worth and dignity of each person with the black lives matter and trans rights movement; justice equity and compassion with the income inequality movement; acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth with the immigrant movement, including the response to islamophobia; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning with the climate change movement and fighting for science education; the democratic process in society at large with the voter rights movement; world community with peace and justice with the anti-war and acting like an Empire movement; the interdependent web of all existence with the fight against environmental classism and racism, for example, ala the Flint Michigan water crisis, the way natural disasters affect the poor and the vulnerable so much harder.
  • Rev. Schade says “People are fighting for the principles we have named as the Seven Principles in the streets everyday.  They may have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. We are not their leaders. The question is whether we will see them as our leaders.”
We need to see our principles, and our institutions, as ultimately about more than just ourselves in our own locked rooms, just getting by. In a book called The Small Church At Large, author Robin Trebilcock writes it well, saying that the only thing that it not good about a small church is when it is has a small vision. As another author frames it, Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution, we need to grow smaller to do bigger things in the world.
And we need to see our mission as being about the world and helping others to see themselves as more, and capable of more, than they see themselves now. That is what being a liberal religion, in all its manifestations, has always been about.
Tom says, “It is as though we think that our congregation is the Beloved Community, rather thinking of the Beloved Community as all humanity made fair and the people one.”
The virtues of how liberal religion is lived is the best way for people to see our faith and to see the possibilities for their own lives and their own places and times. These virtues are reverence, self-possession, gratitude and generosity,  honesty, humility, solidarity, and openness. We live in a time particularly it seems when it is hard to see these as blooming all around us, but that is because we are letting ourselves be blinded.
After our tornado in our area this week, it has been easy to focus on the destruction and the interruption in lives that are already struggling, and how the official response is so slow and so limited and the fears that the effects will linger and add to our abandonment, but what I kept seeing the past few days was, what we also should expect, and that is the ways people opened their lives and their homes to one another, in a place that so many people see differently, where they think it is not even live and let live  but die and let die.
Tom writes:
“The well-being of the planet and all who live on it depends on each of us making these values the cornerstones of our lives.  These virtues are the ethical implications of the way we religious liberals understand the world. Our mission is to embody these virtues, persuade others of their necessity, and convert the world to living in accordance with them.”

I hope if nothing else we might see anew the value and vision and possibilities of what we do deep down when we come together on Sunday mornings and, most importantly, what we do when we carry our Sundays vision with us into our Mondays.