Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Possible Church

The Possible Church: Sermon on the Installation of the Rev. Thomas Schmidt as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland, Texas, by the Rev. Ron Robinson…Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ancient Text:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit….from John 12…or in the version from The Message by Eugene Peterson: Listen carefully, Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way anyone who holds onto his life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

Contemporary text: From Church Do’s and Don’ts by Michael Durall: “Churches should always be places of respite and comfort for those in need. But the ultimate goal of congregations cannot be safe harbors, places only for wandering souls, or for those who are comfortably settled in. Churches should also be ports of embarkation for new and adventurous voyages. The most vital churches encourage members to form ad hoc groups that conduct short and long-term ministries throughout the community. If you church can do this, everything else will fall into place….Ministers and lay leaders need to believe they are leading the church somewhere. The #1 destination is increased outreach to the community.  Put this at the top of any strategic or long-range plan. Everything else is a means to this end. The true purpose of leadership is to create congregations of activists not spectators.  Church members who are passionate about external ministries can be trusted to do a good job. Church is not about managing programs and budgets. Church is about seizing opportunities to serve when they arise, because once past, opportunities are usually irretrievable. Church is about creating people whose hearts are full and generous, who embody a compassion for others. This is the true spiritual journey, one that crosses many denominational boundaries. Of course the modern day cop-out is that people are busy and can’t possibly add one more thing to their lives. But I believe people find time for things that are important. Being a member of an outwardly focused church may mean missing a football or baseball game, a NASCAR race, a movie, reality TV, time spent surfing on the internet, or countless other distractions that pass for life in America today. What is their value in relation to a hungry child that is fed, a lonely person who finds companionship, a broken heart mended? Church is about peoples’ real lives. Period.”


It is an honor and privilege to be here today, for a celebration, a commitment, and a challenge of what it means to be church. Let’s be clear that not many in our world are interested in what it means to be church. What we do here today is not even on the margins of their consciousness.  And we, the church, too often return the disfavor; our rhythms of church life, and our decisions of how to spend our time, talents, and treasure, all tend to be  focused primarily on ourselves; we keep our neighborhoods at best within our peripheral vision, and those neighborhoods that are more often than not not our neighborhoods we keep out of our congregational sight and mind and presence.  

Today we have charges and greetings from other ministers, and from other faith communities. Think of this sermon as a greeting too, and a charge too, from the world, especially from the world of people who do not share our values and beliefs, who will never become members of this or perhaps any other congregation, but who are struggling to have life and have it abundantly and who need us, in our own struggling and our own blessings of imperfections, need us to walk together with them, and need us to work with them, and need us to make life worthy with them. As we need them to constantly remind us why we, the church, exist in the first place, why we need to keep dying to what we have been, as people and as a people, so the world will bear more fruit.

       Walking together. It is a phrase that epitomizes our covenantal way of church. It comes from our past, from the promises made to one another by the band of courageous souls, or ship of fools many would have said, who had separated themselves from the Church of England at the village of Scrooby in the year 1606, risking their lives, to live faithfully by a covenant, to be as they called themselves, ‘The Lord’s free people, to walk in all his ways known or to be made known.” In 1620 when part of their group departed the Mayflower at Plymouth, they became the church that is now the oldest one in our Unitarian Universalist Association. 

In his book titled Walking Together: polity and participation in Unitarian Universalism, the late Conrad Wright, professor of church history at Harvard, describes the nature of the covenantal relationships that lie at the heart of the church that shall be free. There is the covenant, promises, requirements, between a person and church; between church and its ministers; between church and other churches; and between minister and other ministers. These are the four internally-focused covenants helping to establish right relationships among us, and they are often the most visible relationships, ones out of which we form organizations, write codes of ethics. They are about us. Think of them as like the materials of a ship that hold it together and give it the particular shape one sees as it sits in the harbor.

But Conrad Wright reminds us that there is more to our  covenanted relationships, equally as important if not moreso. These are more externally focused covenants: one is between church and world, be it known as a particular parish area, or a neighborhood, or some other body of people---a campus, an apartment complex---beyond our own; and then there is one ultimately between church and God, howsoever is called the Spirit or Source that is within, among, and yet beyond us, that which calls us or rises within us, but that sets us on a journey together with and for others beyond us. If the internal covenants are like the materials and design of the ship called Church, then the two externally-focused covenants are like the Sea and like the Wind; they are what give purpose to the ship, its reason for being built in the first place, and the reason for its particular shape. But when the Sea or Wind changes in drastic ways, as they have and will, it can sink or stall a ship built in the best of ways for other environments.

The church that is not grasped by the external covenants will not be complete, not be church, and will have added stress placed on the internal covenants; it will become, in Professor Wright’s words, “merely a collection of religiously-oriented individuals,” ones who, if or when they were to disappear, would not cause much of a disturbance in the lives of the people in their surrounding community.  That’s a good question to ask in determining our success; it is a part of what’s called the new scorecard for the church: are we creating the kind of disturbance in the world that if we were to disappear would be noticed and felt by people in our community. And, who are the ones in our community whose absence would be greatly felt, and how are we in relationship with them?

While today we are celebrating one of these internal covenants, that of church and minister, Know this: this covenant will only be as strong as are all the others. Where any one of them is weak or broken, the others will suffer. Strengthen any one of them with more trust and permission-giving authority, such as the covenant we celebrate, and the others will grow stronger. Especially, though, to strengthen this particular covenant we now need to put a priority on the external covenants because we have neglected them for so long.

Our very DNA was church reformation in the 17th century and as a kind of Protestants of the Protestants we have had a history of efforts to keep the Reformation in a Process of Reforming Itself, usually, though, we have focused on reforming the theological mind rather than the theological body, or church.  One of the notable exceptions on the Unitarian side was the work of James Freeman Clarke in Boston beginning the Church of the Disciples in 1841, which was purposefully created to broach the social issues of the time, and which broke the inward focus of church ownership by doing away with people paying for pews, who otherwise had no church life, and by growing more active involvement by members in all aspects of the church.

In an 1866 book, Clarke wrote about the church of his era in a way that speaks to us today, especially as we look for ways to be a movement that is more than congregationally based in this emerging period where fewer and fewer people are turning to congregations to nurture their spiritual life, regardless of how healthy and vibrant the congregation may be. This fact about the changing religious landscape means we need ever more radical ways of being and becoming what Clarke called The Possible Church.

He said the church may itself still be a blessing to the world if it overcomes three tendencies in order to become  a fourth option. One tendency we have to overcome is  seeking to recapture a Primitive Church nostalgically, but which cannot be done as no church was perfect to begin with; he says a second tendency to overcome is to remain stuck in our Actual Church, which he describes as “doing some good in the world but nothing up to its potential, and that it too often preaches to itself, ignores the poor and outcast and those unlike its own members; it is a church where people go in but not out, one that is timid, afraid of both love and truth, is sectarian, and more for clergy than for people”; he says, the third tendency to overcome is to aim for and judge church by the standards of an Ideal Church, “a kind of heaven on earth, where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest, one that penetrates every haunt of sin and pollution and brings forth the half-ruined child and places them in new homes, that is full of life, love, power, and freedom.” But, he asks, where is this church? and he answers “it was never here, is not here now, but is always coming before us.” The lure and the longing to live in the Ideal Church may in fact make the Actual church worse.

That leaves us with his fourth option, the creation of The Possible Church, “that which can be more than it is,” one he says that “lets in the bad with the good, that is not organized around creed or belief but around working together, not comprised of those who unite for the Lord’s supper but for the Lord’s work, who preach not to pew-holders but to the whole community, whose mission will be to go out to highways and hedges to seek and save the lost, and whose admission criteria is to get good and do good, contributing to a larger liberty and a deeper life.”

The Possible Church needed for our time is the one dedicated to making another world possible, especially for those who have given up on possibilities.

To do this we must act counter-intuitive; we must quit being anxious the church, about changing the church, and worry more about changing the world, right around us. I should have really titled my sermon The Possible World. Here is how we do it: we move from a church having a mission to The Mission having a church.  The first way keeps the focus on us as the church instead of the world.  It is our default mode. What are the church’s problems, issues, changes needed? We keep asking and trying to answer.  But the more we treat these churchy organizational questions and concerns as Ultimate, the worse they will get. And we will treat mission as something we can change, create, discard—like we do bylaws, leaders, buildings, ministers, and churches. But if mission is defined by the hurting, bruised world we live in, it is the Constant, and in response to it, the church is free to create and to change itself.

Is it right, after all, to have a successful church in a failing world? Especially successful measured by the standards of the American Dream Empire (one that is affluent, accomplished, with a great appearance, upwardly mobile, autonomous, taking care of its own, with lots of choices accessible to it)? What profit is there if you gain the world’s favorable impression, but lose your soul? Instead, from the fallen and buried seed that appears to die in the sight of the world and its expectations, will come the real transformation that will bear much fruit.

That is not only the wisdom attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, but it is the story of our tiny church back home in Oklahoma which turned even smaller and became more out of sight, became dead to the world, in order to seed a missional community bearing much fruit in the world.  

We decided we exist not to attract like-minded or common values people into a warm supportive community, but we exist for the healing transformation of our immediate neighborhoods, ones which have the lowest income and lowest life expectancy in our area, 14 years lower than in the highest area just six miles from us. We took down the signs that said we were a church and when we worshipped, and we moved out of our small rented space and we moved into a much larger rented space nearby at a higher lease we had no certainty we could pay for; and there we re-emerged as a free community center with a library, computer center, food pantry, health clinic, clothing and giveaway room, meeting space for the community invited to come voice their hurts, dreams, disappointments, visions, and there connect with one another and with our partners. We still worshipped, often more times than we had before, and in various ways, but our gatherings were right there in the center, we became a guest in our space given away for others, or we worshipped out in the places of the community we were working on, our blight to beauty sites, or we worshipped with other churches.

The church or missional community as it is known, went organic, and we created a non-profit foundation with others in our community from a variety of faiths to handle the organizational matters and help us do more with our neighbors. And just within the past year, we have, for example, purchased a city block of abandoned homes and turned that space into a community garden and orchard and park to produce healthy food for our unhealthy area, and it is becoming another public space for community to happen among people who otherwise wouldn’t connect. And we have bought the largest abandoned building, at the time, in our area, an old church complex that had been rundown and vandalized, and we have moved the community center and programs into it, expanding our food pantry by doing so, and making the building such as it is an asset again, and keeping our money turning over in our community rather than going to a landlord who lived outside our area.

Our food pantry gives out sometimes 11,000 pounds of food in a month. We also have coordinated the daily summer free lunches for more children in our area than anywhere else in our town, and we put on free community celebrations that uplift and feed hundreds of people and provide free entertainment in an area where no venues exist.

We are a tiny group—sometimes four to a dozen worshipping together—but we partner with many and are always looking for ways to incarnate ourselves in and with others, and we have our hearts and hands and heads in everything in our community from food to parks to the schools to health projects to streets to trash to crime prevention to animal welfare to working on incorporating our community so it can have more of a voice of its own. We see ourselves as The Church of Possibilities in this abandoned place of Empire.

Find ways to relocate to such places, to be neighbor-driven instead of needs-driven, to redistribute goods and The Good, to seek reconciliation. Do that and it will give you something to rejoice in worship; then worship will refresh you for service; it will become not a destination point for a spiritual life, but a departure point.   

Originally church was not a “come to us, be us” proposition, but it was a “go be with them” movement of diverse peoples, and is becoming so again.

Here is what we need to remember: The church is not, fundamentally at heart, a 501c3 nonprofit religious organization; it can and has existed, in ancient and emerging times, without bylaws, boards, budgets, and buildings, and clergy. Church does not have to be thought of as “a” church, that one “goes to” on the corner of this and that, and is even named a certain thing, but church can be lived out organically as a way people, two or more at a time, in covenant participate as expressions of “the church.” Imagine. Church anywhere, anytime.

For Church does not have to be only in the mode of help an us to become bigger and better, more competitive, where people despite our best intentions become the means to some organizational end; that is to follow the default mode of consumerism, of the Empire which is always seeking to co-opt the church; church doesn’t have to be about attracting and extracting people from one environment, at great expense, and placing them in our environment, always worrying they will leave us; church can be about turning outwards, helping others grow, serving the ends of others, giving ourselves away, incarnating who we are into the greater life, and of course always inviting others to do so with us.

Church may in the end choose to live its mission being an organization with boards, budgets, bylaws and buildings, with resources spent on creating worship crowd experiences that fill its buildings, and producing an array of programming aimed at meeting people’s needs throughout their life. Churches are finding ways to launch experiments in missional community even as they continue growing better their current ways.  But that one kind of Ideal church doing basically what it did in the 1950s and 60s just improved and on a bigger scale will not be the only or dominant model. Long gone is the one size fits all world, the three interchangeable as one broadcast channels world, the phone attached to the wall world, and in this new world, this new religious landscape described as post-denominational, even post-congregational, what we need is a bigger bandwidth for church.

Returning to our metaphor of the church as ship, with the world as sea, and God as the wind, my own struggling and amazing community has helped me push this metaphor even further. But here in the land of the drought, we might need to rethink such a watery metaphor. I am reminded then of one of my favorite novelists, Wright Morris, of Nebraska, who opened his novel The Works of Love, from 1952, with these sentences: “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.”
For in our world today, our task is not to craft a ship in dry dock then launch it into the world, worried that it might sink, worried about its captain and crew; instead today the church that wants to become possible for our times is best  viewed not as a ship at all, but as a group of swimmers already adrift in the sea, survivors of wrecked ships already, the wreckage of both sacred and secular lives,  survivors who have to band together and assemble in the churning waters of contemporary life these various and diverse makeshift rafts to hold them and whatever of use they can salvage; rafts that are built so if they capsize, and they will, oh they will, like all our covenants, they will now easily right themselves again, and will be beacons themselves out in the water, for other shipwrecked survivors they encounter as the wind and the waves take them all toward distant shores.

Perhaps in our world so fluid today, it is not walking together, but floating and rescuing together, that should become the new metaphor for our covenants, for what makes us church, a church possible of making new worlds possible.  I believe it is possible.