Sunday, February 23, 2014

Life on Fire: Loving The Hell Out of This World

UU Fellowship Fayetteville, AR Feb. 23, 2014 Rev. Ron Robinson
Life on Fire: Loving The Hell Out of The World


There are a few passages from the Bible being told in many churches around the world today, including in some of ours. They seem appropriate for my themes of missional living so I want to share them too.
The first is from Leviticus (yes, Leviticus; this section is a favorite of environmentalists and food justice folks): The Lord said to Moses…When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” This must have caused no small amount of grumbling and some blank stares: We were the poor and alien and enslaved without land and now we have some of our own and, can’t we do what we want with it? Isn’t it just for us? We are the poor and starving ones still and don’t have enough food of our own (or church members or money or space or…or…) You want us to turn what we have over to others; to let others use our land for free? Especially the outcast the strangers the ones different from us, who will never become like us?
The second passage comes from the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you only love those who love you, what reward is there in that? Don’t even the tax collectors also do that?” Here the people are, oppressed, under the constant violence of the Roman Empire, and their own leaders are often collaborating against them; their land taken in some of the first urban sprawl; their very existence as a people is threatened. Love who? Say what? We have been hearing that phrase love your enemy for two thousand years and trying to ignore it and domesticate it, and still it can jump out at us; imagine the shock and outrage of the early hearers, in their context. Pray for whom? Bring the concerns of who into our sacred spaces? That’s too much change for anyone; at least let us keep them at a distance; peaceful co-existence isn’t good enough? Love? That means going where they are, getting over ourselves and into their lives and scariest of all opening up our lives to them. And hey, look what happened, after all, to the one who said we need to do this. Can’t my spiritual life just be met with the occasional visit to the Temple and staying out of trouble and listening and learning from the words of others?
The final passage for this morning sums up this sense that the spiritual life is going to be full of such shocks, such paradigm shifts, blank stares from others, new risks, and challenges to our very core of identity and purpose. It comes from the first letter of Corinthians from the Apostle Paul. First Paul writes about laying the right foundation for this new Corinthian community, a new and different kind of community in their time that brought people together who had never been considered equal, people who were trying to live as if another kind of world was not only possible but had already started to emerge and become real. He said that only the right foundation that can withstand fires should be built, so be careful what you make your foundation from, and don’t just do it based on what the world values and expects, especially the Empire that was ruling them with its values of competition, us vs. them, power over, and great affluence, perfect appearance, and victory. He wrote: Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
So, Up against all that the Empire promised and proffered as the way, Paul puts Love. Faith, hope, and love these three, but the greatest of these is love; meaning love is greater than how we are feeling about ourselves and the world; love is greater than what we think and believe about the world and even about God; the radical foolishness we should follow is that it is in loving the hell out of this world, not creating more hell in it for others, that we draw close to heaven.
So, I might say, if a church isn’t risking such foolishness, becoming a church for others, turning itself inside out, it’s not risking the depths of spiritual community.
Much of The world’s wisdom and values, much like they were actually in the first century when Paul was writing and forming communities, stress being bigger, richer, more powerful and influential, taking care of one’s own, focusing on your own identity and hanging out with people just like you, on how much you can consume, how much you can offer others to consume, how many programs you can run, and how well, and how entertaining you are. How attractive you are, in the literal sense of how many people can you attract and keep?
What we are finding out, however, is the terrible cost to being able to be that attractive, so to speak, and even those few who are able to spend the resources to pull it off, to do everything in church right that we were taught we needed to do, may still often come up short—we are entering a time when mostly only the large will grow larger in number—all primarily because there is not only a different playing field now, and players, but different game as well. So in response we are finding we need now a different scorecard for what it means to be a successful church.
Church researcher George Barna in his 2005 book Revolution captures well our new post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational and now even post-congregational world coming at us quickly. He predicted that by 2025, in just over a decade from now, that 30-35 percent of Americans will get their primary spiritual community connection and experience and expression in local institutional or organized churches as they have existed, whereas even as recently as 2000 it was 70 percent; another 30-35 percent will be via a wide variety of alternative faith-based communities from house churches to marketplace gatherings to new monastic communities to missional communities to recovery groups to pilgrimages to special events, just to name a few venues, compared to just 5 percent who were connecting this way in 2000. Another 20-25 percent will be via popular culture, arts and media, and 5 percent through family.
Couple this with the generational data emerging, that 70 percent of those 70 and over are in congregations on a regular basis now, but only 35 percent of those boomers 55 to 70 years old are, and only some 15 percent of those 35 to 55, and only four percent of those 18 to 34. And the numbers aren’t increasing for the young as they get older, as once was the case.
Churches built in a different era then, with a different foundation for those times, are finding those foundations shaking, or gradually slipping out from underneath them. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if it prompts us to get radical, to go back to the roots of what church is and is for, to live in the very Why of church, and of who it is for, before we spend our time obsessing on the Hows.
This allows us to create a “bigger bandwidth” of church in response. The current forms will continue and meet the needs of some, but we now have the chance to create new and different expressions for more and more people who aren’t connecting now. This is resulting in some forms of what we call the missional church, where the aim is to be the best church not IN the community but FOR the community; seeing ourselves as “a people” (not “a collection of religiously oriented individuals” [Conrad Wright, Doctrine of a Church], a people of passion, with lives on fire, to be Sent to listen and learn from others and, together with them, to love the hell out of this world.
 Sent. That is where the word missional comes from, out of the Greek word missio. We are ultimately to be not members of a religious club, with our gatherings as destinations, but our gatherings are to be our departure points, together in the community at large, and we are to be living missives, our ministry as our message.

Talk about paradigm shifts, changing default modes, and blank stares, I remember a time about five years ago when some of the church leaders from Boston came to Tulsa and were listening to me try to describe how we were doing inside-out micro-church in the far northside Tulsa area of abandonment and poverty and I could tell from their blank gazes that none of it was sinking in, our unwillingness to have members for example or our decision to give our space away to the community, or not having the name of our church on the front of the building anymore, or how we put service before worship, and yet how we were creating a community that were we to cease existing it would definitely be felt by the community beyond our group...To their credit they kept listening, and in the past few years, especially after being on the cover of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine, I have been privileged to speak often on what is called the missional movement; to keep giving people shocks and blank stares.
This movement, I hasten to say up front, is really more about changing the wider community beyond than it is about changing any particular way of doing church; for the world around us is always where we start, not with what we think we need to do for ourselves as church, but where is the suffering and the renewal going on in our neighborhoods (and globally too); in the process, we help one another heal and grow. To use a Lord of the Rings theme, it is not while safe in the Shire before the journey where we do all the healing and get ourselves all whole and then take off on the quest with and for others to change the world; it is only while on the mission itself, taking the risk, that we become vulnerable and trust one another enough to really the form the bonds of community it takes to accomplish our deed.

The title of the sermon today comes from the gatherings, the quests, some of us have started to share and explore together the possibilities of church manifestations that are radically focused outward to and with others, so radical that for some it might even mean living covenanted community lives of service beyond any congregational or organizational structures, while still being deep within a tradition or faith movement.  In part this falls under the beyond part of the “Congregations and Beyond” recent conversations of the UUA. But These gatherings of missional-driven folks are also for those who are remaining part of established churches and want to help turn them more toward counting people served than people in pews or as pledges. 
After a few years of workshop gatherings and online communities we had our first Life on Fire meeting in September at the UU church of OakRidge Tennessee and we will have our second one Feb. 28-Mar. 2 at our place, The Welcome Table in Turley and far north Tulsa neighborhoods in Oklahoma. In good UU fashion, and missional fashion, even though mostly we UUs have started the Life on Fire events, we have been enriched by the presence  and leadership of those in other churches and faith communities and we have them among us now too and welcome and need them too.

I will say that When we planted our faith community ten years ago, we began in a very different place and for a very different reason than where we are now and for what reason. We started in a fast growing suburb. The intent was not to become what we have become, but to be an established church that would look and feel pretty much like other churches and like what churches both UU and otherwise have looked and felt like since the 1950s and even the 1850s and even before. The intent was to start one that is focused on gathering people together around a message of religious freedom, one focused on how people relate to one another and support one another in the gathered community, one  where communal worship is the primary and central act of and for the gathered community as it sends out a message to the wider community.

Now here is where I say that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that; it is just that it is now only one way, one manifestation possible of the church and that we don’t any longer live in a one-size-fits-all world, and that includes church; and we certainly are moving into a landscape where we need “a bigger bandwidth” of church in order to meet people where they are because of their new diverse expectations of community and faith; not everyone needing community wants an attractional church, one that is geared to spending its energies on getting people to come to us and be like us. That kind of church is getting harder and harder to sustain unless you already are bigger and getting bigger. We have to diversify our forms in a community because Our wider culture has become more diverse in its needs, and because more and more places and people don’t themselves have the resources they once had.
When I think of the categories of spiritual communities Barna outlines that are emerging now, I wonder, sometimes, How will our Unitarian Universalism match up? Will we still be limited to congregations in a post-congregational world? If we don’t create a bigger bandwidth of what church is, we will be appealing to a much smaller segment than even we do now. Even within a single congregation I think we need people creating that “bigger bandwidth” and not expecting all to be on the same place along the missional spectrum; anywhere you can get people to move from internal to external, from program focus to people focus it will grow health for all.

And yet there is hope, and good news in the news. Because the culture has shifted so much that the big, no matter how big they become and no matter how good they get at what they do, will no longer be the reigning model of what church should be, this means  small and very small groups, with a big vision, with deep commitment to those our heart breaks for, and with large risk-taking, can thrive by changing the competition, changing the scorecard of success (as missional church author Reggie McNeal describes it). Why maybe instead of working on ways to grow larger, many of us should be working on ways to grow smaller in order to relate to more. Why success should be found in how grand and how many times we experiment and fail and learn from it to shape our next response.
Our task: How can we become church anywhere anytime and by and with anyone? That question itself challenges so much of the reigning model or mindset of why so many of us have “come to” church in the past—to “find our home, our people” and to create a center for distinguishable religious ideas. In a deeper cultural framework, we are talking about the shift from a modernist focus on fixed places and identities and centers to a new post-modernist focus on fluidity and margins and edges.

In my missional community, seven years ago, after we had failed at first trying to be an attractional church in the suburbs and had relocated to the lowest income lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa area, it became clear we needed to change to change our area which was so in need of basic support. We believed with missional church leader and civil rights leader John Perkins that churches or any groups should not get healthier and wealthier while the communities around them become poorer and sicker. As one missional leader has said (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution) we risked becoming smaller to do bigger things.
We learned that the numbers we needed to be concerned about were not the numbers in worship or that might join as members but were the numbers of the poor and sick and oppressed in our zipcode area where people die 14 years sooner than they do just six miles south of us along the same street. (Levin study, OU).  
So seven years ago, with a core group of just six to eight people and about a dozen in worship on a good day, and that really would be a good day, so to speak, these days, we made our big missional transformative move; we had just lost our biggest financial contributor from our original group,  but we felt called to serve our community and its severe needs especially because there was an absence of any other nonprofits or government and the other churches were only interested in their shrinking memberships. We were already shrunk so didn’t have to worry about that.
We talked among ourselves, and with our neighbors, about what the community needed. More People who believed like us was not on the list. Neighborhood Pride, spirit, safety, healthy food, cleaner environment, sense of a community, better animal control, better schools, these were tops. A church that helped that to happen is what was needed.
With fewer people and less money than when we started, we took a leap of faith and paid more and rented a four times larger space across the street and  opened up,  not billed as a church, but as a community center with library computer center clothing room food pantry health clinic and gathering space, in which we ourselves as the remaining small group church created space to worship amid the space we gave away for the service of others, rather than having a separate worship space of our own, and we also worshipped during the week and travelled to other churches to worship with them on Sundays, UU churches and others.  Lately we have been more of a roaming worship group to build relationships with others around us and to experience the kinds of dynamic worship we don’t have the resources to do week in and week out. Most of our small original group is gone, and most of the small group that made the missional move is gone too now, but the mission is still there and is beckoning a new form of church, again, to be created to help meet it.

One of my take-aways of our many radical changes as a group is that As we failed at what we thought we wanted to be, we became what the world needed us to be.
In doing this We were shifting from church as a What to church as a Who. Church in the new and ancient way that didn’t require it to be a 501c3 organization, with a building of its own, bylaws,boards, budgets. Those may be deemed helpful, but they aren’t what makes a church a church; that is its mission. And Church doesn’t have a mission; The mission has, and creates, church. The mission is the permanent; the church form is the transient. That is borrowing the words of Theodore Parker who reminded us that the church of the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church of the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church of the fifteenth century did not do for the 19th century; and we can update him to say that the church of the late 20th century will not do for the 21st.
Even as far back as the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the founding document of our radical American congregationalism formed by the oldest churches in our Association, church was grounded in its covenants, which is a way of saying its mission to and with others, and not just with those who joined a particular church, or became its leaders; for a church to be considered whole and healthy, then and now, it needed to be in covenant with the world around it; in fact, the more it struggles with its internal covenants with one another and its leadership, the more it needs its core identity of a people on an external mission, to and with those beyond its own circle. 

In our zipcode, in what has been described as “an abandoned place of the American Empire” [The New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al]…by 2009 we completed the first transformational missional move by creating the separate non-profit A Third Place Community Foundation to connect  more deeply with others and partner with them for renewal in our area, and to be the organizational wing of our mission, while as church we became organic, incarnational, even smaller so that we could keeping dreaming and doing bigger things. Which we did the very next year.
In summer 2010 through our nonprofit we bought the block of abandoned homes and trash dump and transformed it into a community garden park and orchard. Then in 2011 the nonprofit bought the largest abandoned building at the time, an old church building, for our community center. We called both the center and the park The Welcome Table. And so our church/missional community that had started as Epiphany Church then became The Living Room Church then Church at A Third Place became The Welcome Table. Four location changes and four name changes in 8 years, not mentioning how we started in living rooms, in a hotel meeting space, in the back room of a Panera Restaurant, and how we still look for ways to worship in the garden or at our service sites or places we partied like a bowling alley. And we may be morphing again very soon.
The impetus is to keep turning the church inside out, keep responding to those in need, and letting that need shape what the church becomes.
Our reason for being, what calls us together, is to be sent out to make visible in the world that Sacredness of Life that compels us to love the hell out of this world. To discern who our heart breaks for, in fact to listen and learn I would say, in my language, to who God’s heart breaks for, and let that guide us into how we become church.

          Now we have been expanding our food pantry into a free corner store for our area where 55 percent say they are unsure if they will have enough to eat, where 60 percent say they can’t afford healthy food, and we have a community art space, and crafts space, and free clothing and more space; we hold community events and community organizing meetings and put on free holiday parties and throw open the doors to the community, because no one else in our area is; we are now leading the way in getting a new seniors group organized, and we have the lofty dream of trying to put together a coalition to buy and use for the community the recently closed school across from us. Meanwhile the community garden park and orchard is growing and becoming an award-winning site for events itself.
And we do all this and the last time we worshipped together this past Sunday we had five people, a good turnout. I never say “just” five people, or two people. For We embody a theology of enough. We are a church of enough-ness. That frees us to live abundantly amidst a place of scarcity.
Which is why we need to keep stoking the fires burning within our own lives without becoming burned out, following that ancient image of the Divine as the bush that burns but doesn’t burn itself out, so we can be a spark for others. It is why mission to others is always mirrored with refreshing the spirit—why I hope you are here this morning, but as a Spiritual Departure point not a Destination Point.  It is why in our place we say we aren’t really giving out food or clothing or more as much as we are bearing witness to life in our neighborhood, giving relationship, community, connecting the disconnected, starting with what’s disconnected within us.
Finally, for perhaps the most difficult or challenging concept: While my faith and particular theology undergirds and guides all that I have done and seek to do, in our new unchurched and dechurched world it isn’t where I personally, or in community, seek to first connect with people. Not with shared ideas, not even with shared spiritual practices such as worship, but it is first in shared mission, service, something I can do with practically anyone. It is all because of Jesus for me, but As a Christian I don’t ultimately need, or think ultimately the world needs, more Christians. Just As a Unitarian Universalists, I don’t ultimately need or think the world ultimately needs more Unitarian Universalists. These are vehicles not the destination. Making more of either are not my mission.  What I need and I think we need and the world needs more of are neighborhoods and lives of an abundant and serving spirit growing justice. If that results in more people coming to adopt my or any specific faith perspective, great; but if not, if the specific communities and organizations I am connected with were to die away as the world changed from adopting their ways, then that is a legacy of radical love for the ages I will embrace. As Apostle Paul says, love is the greatest of these, greater than our beloved institutions, and I do, mostly, love them.
What I believe is that whatever happens in the future in and to my missional community we sometimes call church, and in and to my wider community we serve, or in or to our spiritual movement, the life and legacy of what we have done will, like all of us, ultimately live deepest in the relationships we make, regardless of what form they take or how long they last.
Our goal is not self-perpetuation, but growing our soul, and we do that by giving ourselves in risk, and foolishness, back to that Great Love, in which we live and move and have and find our being, our influence, our power, our new identity
It is a love that can set our lives on fire with a mission to love the hell out of this bruised and blessed world. 

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