October 14, 2018
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
When we first arrived in DC in 1985, I was struggling with so many questions about God, what it meant to be a Christian, who Jesus was, and why any of it mattered. We had just gone through a complicated pregnancy, losing one baby while another, our oldest daughter Marian, lived. There were complicated questions about death and life, and why these things happen to good people like us. It was a complicated time, with Keith working long hours at a high-powered law firm and my choosing to stay at home with Marian. We heard about Church of the Saviour through the leadership in the church we attended in Kansas City. We had never read Elizabeth O’Connor’s books and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we just showed up one Sunday at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue.
I think Seekers saved me. When I say that I want to be clear that it was God working through Seekers that did that, but if I was going to be saved it had to have been the particular spirit that resided in Seekers that was going to be the instrument of my salvation. I say that because I needed a place to ask lots and lots of questions. I needed to not be told the answer but be given the space to find my own, or just be open to the possibility that there are no good answers. I needed a place to rest in God without having to pray, or read the Bible; to have space to struggle with feelings of anger and despair towards God. Not only that, I needed time to figure out what I really believed after having shed my evangelical fundamentalist upbringing.
Slowly I moved forward, and began taking an active interest in coming to the School on Tuesday nights when I could and coming on Sunday mornings regularly. Soon I was asked to be the Nursery Coordinator and recruit teachers for our youngest kids. I was really interested in having my kids get a good grounding in Christian values, so I agreed. What was interesting to me is that no one asked me tough theological questions or what I believed. What seemed most important was that I show up, do what I had promised I would do and listen carefully to the feedback people gave me.
What I know now is that indeed in this “do it yourself” church where we would rather ask questions then give out answers, it is not the quality of your theology that matters. It is rather your consistency and reliability in showing up that people actually care about. I think this is probably truly counterintuitive for a church. But when you think about our dispersed leadership with no full-time clergy, with different groups taking on important tasks, it becomes clear that being committed and showing up to do what you have been called to do, to actively be engaged in creating and recreating this body through which God ministers to each one of us, it is not so surprising.
Soon I began to learn about call and gifts. I took on the coordination of the whole Sunday School and joined a mission group. It was a busy and deepening time. I was learning what it meant to be part of a living breathing body of Christ. And then I hit a rough patch. As it has been throughout my life here at Seekers, it was the Sunday School that would teach me one of the most profound and difficult lessons in my spiritual life.
We had a large Sunday school at the time, with 50 kids at one point. We had been using some standard curricula, but it was not always adequate and there were the usual problems of some children being engaged and some not being engaged. There was a movement among some parents and teachers to try a different strategy and to use a new model for Sunday School and the curricula. A group of us went to visit a church that was using the new model to see if it would work at Seekers. I need to say up front that I was not all that enamored with the idea of changing anything. It was difficult already to recruit teachers with the old model and the new model was very teacher intensive, with a lot of emphasis on developing lesson plans yourself. I just knew it was going to be even more difficult to recruit teachers, take more time and require more direction and support from me. So I resisted. And just like when a rock is stuck in the middle of the river, and the water flows around it or over it, the flow of the conversation moved on without me and the decision was made to go with the new model and curricula. I resigned as Sunday School director.
A lovely recognition of my service to the Sunday School was organized and people expressed their gratitude, but it all felt like ashes in my mouth. I felt alienated and demoralized. It took me a long time to realize that in the exercise of my gifts and call as leader of the Sunday School, I had forgotten one terribly important thing. My gifts and call were to be used in service to and for the community. My gifts and call didn’t come with a caveat that said you can use my gifts but only if I like the way you want to use them. I had forgotten to be a servant first and had become a leader first.
Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, which Seekers has adopted as a model for how leadership should work in Seekers, says this: “The difference between the leader-first and the servant-first is the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Or as Jesus put it more succinctly in our lesson from Mark, “But many who are first will be last and the last will be first.”
As a servant first to the Sunday School, I needed to listen deeply to the highest priority needs of the people I was serving, not just what I thought was best for the kids and community or what would work best for me and the gifts I could offer. But in that I failed. As the writer of Hebrews says, “…all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to who we must render an account.”
Throughout this time the people at Seekers were supportive. When I became passive-aggressive in Stewards meetings, Mary Carol gently called me out on what I was doing. Marjory agreed to meet with me and slowly I healed. I preached several sermons around this issue, acknowledging my failure and my new insights.
Time moved on. I became a member of the SLT. The mission group that I had been a part of, which held the Sunday School, dissolved as our community changed and the number of children in our congregation dwindled. The Sunday School was again in crisis. There was a need for a coordinator and with no one volunteering this time, SLT decided that it needed to step in. (Sunday School is one of those rare things within Seekers that we have not allowed to die, even though no one was called.) Many different people led the Sunday School during this period. Kate Cudlipp, Pat and Trish rose to the occasion, and then Trish and I held it for awhile, and then we both set it down with some finality when Judy stepped forward a couple of years ago. I was really relieved, and probably somewhat burned out, after working with Sunday School issues for so many years. More recently, however, Dave and I from SLT have joined with Judy, who is still the coordinator, and became a part of the Children’s Team which supports Judy and the Sunday School. I picked up what I put down because I saw there was a need, and because I saw that there was institutional knowledge I held that could be used to help and support Judy. I am repeating all this history so that you can see how I cannot seem to escape Sunday School. I put it down, and then it just creeps right back up into my lap! I want to help, but I have also been somewhat resentful that I am back here where I started.
What I am beginning to realize, and what you probably have already seen as you have listened to this sermon thus far, is that the Sunday School has been and continues to be the instrument of some of my deepest spiritual learnings.
So here is the second thing that I am learning: I am called to this church, and I am called to be on SLT and to be part of Celebration Circle. I love some parts of each one of these callings. In Celebration Circle I love planning and executing the altars, I like writing prayers when I am liturgist, but I hate looking over the list of lections trying to make sure all the citations line up and the font is uniform or the spacing is even. I wish we didn’t have to clean up after the service, since I would much rather talk to all of you and have deep theological discussions about the service. I don’t like getting the hymnals out and putting them away. But it doesn’t matter what I like to do or not do; it is all part of the job, part of the call. We don’t get to pick and choose what we like and don’t like once we acknowledge God’s call on our life. The work of Celebration Circle is not just about the things I enjoy. It is about creating, supporting and facilitating the community’s worship life, and putting away hymnals is just a part of that.
Likewise, because I am called to Seekers Church, called to make this community a thriving and creative, nurturing part of the body of Christ, I am a part of the Sunday School team, which means that I still need to coordinate and recruit people to be in the nursery and work with parents and teachers so that all their needs are met and served, which is sometimes difficult and challenging. But there are parts of the Sunday School that I love as well. I love when our kids get engaged and learn something about their spiritual life, I enjoy talking with them about what they think about God. I love to hear from teachers who have had a successful time teaching. I also love hearing from kids who departed long ago, about how much they appreciated our efforts in teaching them.
As I read the Mark scripture I was struck by the rich man and his sorrow and reluctance at having to give up everything to follow Christ. I confess that I have not followed this injunction of giving away my money, so I totally understand the sorrow, fear and reluctance of the rich man. But I realized that not only do I hoard my wealth, I also hoard my gifts and callings. I don’t want to give myself away. I am afraid I will burn out, become empty and I keep worrying about my energy levels. But Jesus doesn’t call us to be his followers with some kind of caveat that says, only on Tuesdays and Sundays. He called me to be his follower every day and that means total commitment, showing up, doing what I promised to do, serving others and making sure that everyone’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, to see whether that is happening is to see if those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
Seekers’ Call (in part) says it this way:
Our call is to be a “Seekers community” which comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.
By shared leadership we mean empowering the gifts of women and men to help our worship flow out of and feed into the life of the community.
For us, Christian servanthood is based on empowering others within the normal structures of our daily lives (work; family and primary relationships; and citizenship) as well as through special structures for service and witness.
Seekers is committed to participation by persons of all ages. We see children, youth and adults of all ages as valuable and valued parts of our community, and desire their inclusion in our care, our ministry, and our life together.
I am saved because I have learned that the fullest expression of my gifts and call are found when I use them in service of others, not in service of my own needs or desires. I am saved because God is constantly calling me from a life of hoarding to a life of abundant giving, and I have abundant opportunities in this community to do that. I am saved because I am supported in this community when I lose my way or fall short. I am saved because I have the opportunity and privilege to serve our children and this community.
That is why I am saying Yes to recommitment this year at Seekers.
I hope you are too!