Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents

Sermon given at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity on Aug. 25, 2013 based on Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3.

I had a great week at church this week.

A few of the misfits and dissidents on the first night of
Jesus and Justice Camp (photo by Tom Gaulke)
Every night from Tuesday until Friday a group of about 15 to 20 people got together for what we called a “Jesus and Justice Camp”, and it highlighted what I love so much about this particular church on the corner of 31st and Lowe in South Side Chicago. On Friday night we started with the story of stone soup, a folk tale where people collectively make a “feast fit for a king” by sharing their varied foods with a protagonist stranger and with each other. Naturally, we acted out the story by making our own “stone soup”, and it was indeed darn good soup. Then we went upstairs to the auditorium of the First Trinity Community Center, AKA the Orphanage, and we shared our diverse views on more stories of wisdom and justice. Finally we ended with songs around a campfire, which miraculously did not spur the neighbors just across the alley to call the fire department. Surely God is with us!

And it was such a weird group! This church was like a former commercial emporium that was downsized to a gas station convenience store where the homeless rest, the revolutionaries plan their protests, and the dedicated faithful continue their mission come hell or high water. Hallelujah!

Though I risk aggrandizing this little South Side congregation, I can’t help but feel that maybe this is what it felt like to be part of those scattered, first century Jesus communities. The church lives with the tension of honoring the storied traditions of our forebears from centuries before and living into the unknown realms of a world that has already changed so much that we can hardly recognize it; staying within the good graces of the neighborhood and regional authorities and also challenging the rot that consumes so much of what we stone soup cooks can scrape together; recognizing the world as it brutally and beautifully is and conceiving the unfolding eschatological world that God is still creating.

Maybe the reason why I get so excited about this congregation at First Trinity is because I come to it as an outsider.

In 2010 I graduated from a small liberal arts college in the wooded hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania, and I had not a clue of what I was doing. I had been accepted into a young adult missionary program of the United Methodist Church (yes! I am Methodist! Hear me roar, you Lutherans, hear me roar!), and by May of that year I knew I was headed to Chicago to work for a non-profit that did a bunch of things I didn’t begin to understand. A week-long intern training helped clarify what Interfaith Worker Justice was all about, but I thought that I could find my own living community. After all, this was my chance to live the way that my hero, that Philadelphia ordinary radical with dreadlocks and an eastern Tennessee accent, Shane Claiborne, lived! I couldn’t wait to move half-way across the country to a bad neighborhood, befriend all the gang-bangers, and do everything that my parents and youth leaders warned me not to do!

And then I got a call that the far North Side co-op couldn’t accept me because I wasn’t a seminarian or a grad student. Not the call I was waiting for considering that I was still plucking crab grass out of the fringe of number 13 green at the golf course where I was biding my time. I frantically called my future co-workers at IWJ and my supervisor at the United Methodist Church. My chance to be Shane Claiborne was about to slip away! Help meeee! Somehow those good Methodists booked a flight for me to Chicago for a weekend to take part in another North Side co-op’s membership meeting. As I frantically made my arrangements, I got an email from one of my co-workers at IWJ about a Christian co-op on the South Side. But it was far away from the office. And the pastor had a last name that I didn’t know how to pronounce. And when I called that pastor, he told me to just use his first name anyway. What a weird place.

I spent that weekend doing my best to schmooze who I confidently thought would be my future roommates (15 of them), but out of courtesy, I made the long trip down the Red Line to see that weird place down south. I thought it was cool that it was so close to where the White Sox played, but otherwise, I wasn’t sure about it. I even saw two guys getting booked on Morgan Street just south of the coffee shop.

When I left Chicago at the end of that weekend, I still hadn’t heard of the North Side co-op’s decision about my place. Having less than a week to pack up again, I called the only cell number I had for the co-op. He reluctantly gave the bad news—they didn’t think I would be good fit. I curtly said kaythanksbye, and called Pastor Tom on the South Side to say that I would take the room in their community center.

I believe his response was, “Wait—you will?”

It was a hard transition from rural central Pennsylvania, what some of my college friends called “Pennsyltucky”, to the South Side Chicago. After accidentally driving into McCormick Place while trying to get to Lake Shore Drive and then scraping the car in front of me while trying to parallel park, I decided to stay dedicated to the CTA. The same coworker who found the room at First Trinity for me called the decision akin to a battered wife staying dedicated to her abusive husband. I was woken up by Chicago police detectives one morning after the gas station next door was the site of a shootout between a couple burglars and the cops. And I witnessed “thundersnow” for the first time.

What the crap is this place?

Well, apparently it was just where God wanted to work on me. It was at First Trinity where I first was introduced to SOUL and IIRON, the community groups with which I learned so much about grassroots organizing. It was Pastor Tom who directed me to Paul Tillich when I confessed that I could no longer turn to my evangelical theology to understand the social justice work I was doing. First Trinity even got me to get my trumpet back out when I had left it in Pennsylvania.

But more than those things, First Trinity has been my home.

When I read about start of the church in Antioch, how Luke describes it as the place where Gentiles were first accepted as Christ-followers, how it was so full of the Holy Spirit that Barnabas brought Saul (later called Paul) there, how they were so weird there that got a new name—Christians—I see bits of my journey through First Trinity.

For a church that was started as a place of refuge for the scattered German laborers of 19th century Chicago, First Trinity has had to reinvent itself and its mission. In the way that the Antioch community had to re-imagine community outside of born-and-bred Jews, First Trinity has had to re-imagine its mission as the only progressive, mainline Protestant church in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood. In that re-imagining process, it has become what I call the Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents. I hope First Trinity bears its title proudly.

In the way that First Trinity welcomed me in my desperate times, I pray that it welcomes the many desperate people in its midst. In the way that First Trinity developed me to fight for justice locally and nationally, I pray that it prepares even more people to catch that Holy Wind of righteous indignation when violence and oppression occur. In the way that First Trinity challenged me to use my creative talents in worship, I pray that it moves even more people to express themselves artistically. In the way that First Trinity has been my home community, I pray that it will be a sanctuary for many other people.

First Trinity is also a missional church, much like that Antioch church. I am moving on with my seminary training by beginning a year-long internship with First United Methodist Church, better known as the Chicago Temple, and it is my new mission field. Though I will continue to live at Trinity House, that re-commissioned parsonage next to the church, I will not be able to be part of First Trinity’s church life this year. The Chicago Temple is very different than First Trinity, and that will be difficult for me. However, First Trinity has trained me well to accept all manner of people and their various quirks, and it has taught me to boldly bring my own quirks to ministry. Be prepared, Chicago Temple.

First Trinity both welcomes missionaries and commissions them again. And for that, I thank you.

1 comment:

  1. We look forward to hearing about your new adventures in ministry, Joe. What a lovely message -First Trinity is blessed. Sara