Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The UU Missional Church

Me in the Everglades National Park, soon to see a beautiful Roseate Spoonbill, February 2013

Yes We Can, Yes I Can -- The Missional Church Within
By The Rev. Connie Yost

A Sermon Preached at the UU Congregation of Salem Oregon
February 10, 2013
             I just returned from our UU minister's intensive training retreat that happens every other year.  The first one was in 2011; I did not go but I heard so many good things about it that I vowed I would go this year.  So I did.  Wow.  Imagine 425 UU ministers worshipping and sharing bread and learning together.  It was all awesome, but it was the worship that really got me.  The music, the silence, the singing, the readings, the preaching.  My God.  What beautiful, hurting souls we all are. 

            Church, when we really do it right, celebrates who we are.  Who we really are.  And if you're anything like me, you have your successes and failures in life, your gifts and gaffes, your regrets and dreams.  No matter our age, state of our health, current or past history, we have a soul which longs to connect with a force greater than ourselves.  I submit that this force is love, it is compassion, it is what I call God.  The Quakers often refer to this force as The Light.  You may have a name you prefer, or no name.  Thomas Merton called it Mercy within Mercy within Mercy.  Think about that for a moment.  Think about a love so deep and so vast that it is pure compassion.  Mercy within Mercy within Mercy. 
            I have been studying Merton's book, New Seeds of Contemplation in an online course with 11 other folks, mostly ministers and chaplains.  For awhile I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to say about contemplation, which our facilitator pointed out is not something that we do, but something that we are -- our way of being.  It is being in right relationship with ourselves, with others, with God, and with all of creation.

            It is easy for me to think about being contemplative and in right relationship when I am in nature.  After the minister's retreat I spent a few days walking the Florida beaches, practicing the Sanibel stoop as I hunted for shells on Sanibel Island.  I saw many birds, turtles and gators at the national parks and wildlife refuge.  I went out on a boat tour in the Everglades.  No sooner had I told the captain that I really wanted to see a Roseate Spoonbill than one appeared right in front of us and flew around us for a few moments.  Floating through a narrow passageway filled with the air roots of the mangrove forest, I felt deep peace and contentment.  Even while walking the boardwalk in Miami Beach, I felt at one with all there is.

            But in thinking about being contemplative for this online course, I realized that I had had an important contemplative moment at the minister's retreat.  On the second day I realized that I was struggling with feelings of inadequacy, being one of the few community ministers in attendance, with the programming heavily geared towards parish ministry.  I felt like I did not have a lot to offer in some ways, and in other ways I felt that my entrepreneurial community ministry -- which I'll talk more about later -- is new and cutting edge but little understood at this moment.

            So on my morning walk on the beach, I find myself ruminating about my strengths and weaknesses, how others perceive me or don't get me, reminding myself how hard it is to do something new, and etc and etc. Suddenly I look up and notice the pelicans diving.  And all the seabirds.  And all the old people out for a walk.  Mercy got a hold of me and shook me hard.  Shook all those thoughts right out of my head.  It is the emptying that Merton talks about, the letting go of conflict and competition, the opening to being in right relationship.  And in that emptying, the judgments I was carrying about myself and others disappeared, and a deep peace and compassion took its place.

            So hold that image of mercy within mercy within mercy as I shift gears a little bit now-- I'll come back to it later.

            At the minister’s retreat, we spent a fair amount of time talking about church growth, or lack thereof.  For years now, it is well documented that the mainline protestant churches are in decline.  The UUA reports that our membership has grown in proportion to the overall population growth in the United States since 1990.  But the average age of UUs has also increased, which worries church growth experts.

            In some ways it seems that church decline and theories on church growth is all that I have studied and read and talked about since starting seminary.  Can our Church Live? was one of the books I read in seminary.  I spent a full school year as a ministerial intern in a declining mainline Protestant church, educating myself and the congregation on how we might thrive and grow again in a community that had changed while the church had not.  These days, the UUA is funding positions such as “church growth specialists.”  There is a lot of emphasis on reaching the younger demographic through technology and social media, and outlining strategies of how to attract those who are “spiritual but not religious” or respond “none” when asked about their religion.

            Do we want our church to live?  Of course!  We love our church, we have a lot to offer others and we definitely want them to come worship and be with us.

            But I ask you, do we have to spend all our time and energy shoring up our anxieties about church growth?

            What about us becoming a missional church, a UU missional church movement?

            Now let me define what I mean by missional church.  The Rev. Ron Robinson, a UU minister in Turley, Oklahoma has written a lot about this and has helped me understand the potential for our UU movement.  He says that if people are not coming to your church, the missional church says, go to them.  Quit thinking of the church as a What, as an It, and remember it is a Who.  Church is about covenant, about people, about right relationships.

            So what does the missional church look like?  It’s the coffeehouse church that some young UU ministers are starting in San Francisco.  It’s the rehab work spearheaded by a UU layperson in Lexington, Kentucky that provides group housing for low-income senior women.  It’s the community center, garden, food pantry and neighborhood advocacy work done by Ron Robinson and his band of volunteers.  It's the affordable and low-income housing project First Church LA decided to do on land originally slated to be the church parking lot.

            Just like Jesus came and turned the Jewish world of his time upside down, the missional church turns us around.  The missional church does not have a mission.  The mission has a church.  And what is this mission?  In Christian/Judeo terms, the mission is that God has designated us as the “sent” people, to fulfill God’s mission on earth.  What is God’s mission on earth?  To extend love, compassion and mercy within mercy within mercy to all living beings.

            In UU terms, the mission (should we choose to accept it) is to live out our values, especially those of love, compassion and mercy in the world, by living in right relationships with our nearest neighbors.  The mission does not ask how many new members we have; it asks, what have you done for the very least of these, my people, my beings?

            The world needs compassion, and a lot of it.  We live in a hard time.  There are too many people hurting.  There is too much poverty.  There is too much hatred.  There is too much violence.  There is too much degradation of the planet.  There is so much we want to change.  We wonder if our little efforts will ever really matter.

            Some of us have worked for change all our lives and feel hopeful that change is possible.  But there is growing number of people who feel that there is no hope at all; that hope, in fact, is dangerous. 

            Margaret Wheatley wrote a book 20 years ago in which she believed that she could change the world by showing that "there is another way."  She does not believe that anymore.  In her new book So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World she writes that

            "Our present global culture, with its emphasis on greed, self-interest, consumerism and coercive power, is leading us deeper into the darkness, farther from the values, objectives and ideals we've worked valiantly to create…I no longer believe that we can save the world.  Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion which cannot be stopped.  We're on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet.  We've lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real sources of satisfaction, meaning and joy."

            Whoa.  Whoa.  She does not say this lightly.  She does not want us to fall into despair and do nothing at all.  What she asks is that we give up the hope of results.  She writes, "How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing?...Hope is an ambush, because what lays in wait is hope's ever-present companion, fear:  the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed…Beyond hope and fear, there is clarity available, the clarity of knowing that this work is ours to do no matter what.  We may succeed, we may fail -- but no matter what, we will continue to persevere on behalf of other human beings, and the planet."  

            My message is this:  when we are grasped by mercy, when through our spiritual practice we know that deep compassion that sustains and guides us, we want to be in right relationship, we want to do the work.  Not because it will get results, right now, or ever, possibly, but because it is the right thing to do. 

            I already mentioned some of the exciting things UU ministers and lay people are doing to extend our love, compassion and mercy into our neighborhoods.  I am privileged to be part of a new UU nonprofit ministry called Chalice Oak Foundation, whose vision and mission is to help UUs and others who share our values be that missional church I have talked about.  I invite you to come talk to me in the fellowship hall after the service for more information about Chalice Oak and how you can help us equip leaders to transform the world.  I know from personal experience that the most fun, the most satisfying, the most meaningful, the most transformative and often the hardest work I have done in my life has been in relationship with people in my community that I could have very easily never known.

            Right now we have the opportunity to be in relationship with our neighbors through our outreach to Four Corners Elementary School.  Our volunteers work with students in the after school program, helping them with reading, gardening, crafts and homework.  We have the opportunity to partner with Trinity Methodist Church, which is next door to the school.  They are a Marion Polk Food Share pick-up site, and sponsor a fun, all-community BBQ each August.  They donated the land and help maintain the community garden that Four Corners students learn and grow their veges in.  The church's location, right next to the school, lends itself to all sorts of possibilities for serving the needs of the Four Corners community.  By being in partnership with other churches and nonprofits in our neighborhood, we gather strength and momentum.

            Can we as a missional church make a difference?   Can we be present in real, tangible ways to our neighbors who are living in poverty?  I say, Yes We Can.  But we are going to have to go out into the neighborhood to do it. 

            The missional church turns us around, turns us outward, away from ourselves.  Should we be growing and thriving when our neighbors are steadily losing ground?  Should we be thinking about how we can get our neighbors to come here, or should we search them out and serve them? 

            In the end, we may not be able to serve our neighbor in all the ways they need serving.  We may not be able to right all wrongs through our legislative advocacy.  Margaret Wheatley may be right, things which cannot be stopped have been set in motion that are destructive to the very life force of the universe. 

            But, but, but.  The important point, the one thing I hope you remember from this sermon, is that it is the building of the relationship that is most important.  It is the relationship we have to our neighbors that will save us, and them, both of us together in this thing we call life.  That is what it means to be a missional church, a people of the covenant, a people of right relationships.

            May it be so.  Amen and blessed be.

I invite you to enter into a time of prayer and meditation.

Great Spirit of Life
We call you by many names
Yet no name can contain all that you are
You are deep peace
Deep love
You are mercy within mercy within mercy
May your mercy be with us now,
Comforting and guiding each one of us, sustaining us as we serve your mission
Extending your deep mercy to all beings.

We pray for our neighbors, many of whom know the daily struggle of poverty
We pray for the children who come to school hungry and ill-cared for
We pray for the parents who work multiple low-wage jobs and still cannot make ends meet
We pray for all those who struggle with illness, addiction, and hopelessness

Great Spirit of Life
Make us beacons of your light
Make us your strong and fearless servants
Be with us, as we bring your mercy within mercy within mercy to all of our neighbors.


Copyright 2013 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved