Ooctober 19, 2014
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Just a few minutes ago, we stood in a circle – so we could see each other – and celebrated recommitment as Seekers for the 39th time. Recommitment to Seekers has happened on the third Sunday of October each year since 1976, as an opportunity to step into the circle of belonging, believing, knowing, that we are part of a living body of Christ.
Most of us were not here in the beginning. Those who were have seen many changes. But at the core, there is still our call to be church. And every year, we have a new understanding of what that means.
In the gospel reading for today, the Herodians, followers of Herod Antipas and his family, are trying the trap Jesus. If he says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, he would be acknowledging the emperor’s divine right to rule – and their power and authority over the Jews. And if he says it is not lawful for the Jews to pay taxes, Jesus could be accused of disloyalty or fomenting rebellion, which was punishable by death.
Like a wisdom teacher or zen master, Jesus stops them cold with a question of his own. “Whose picture is on this coin?” he says. Then he poses his own conundrum: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God, what belongs to God.”
In those days, Caesar had the power to take whatever he wanted, so in one sense, everything in the physical realm “belonged” to the emperor. But Jesus was speaking to Jewish rulers who also worshiped the God of Moses and Abraham, the One who had brought them out of Egypt. Jesus knew they kept the Ten Commandments, which said they would have no other gods before God. Jesus was also pointing to a different understanding of power – one based on equality and inclusion rather than fear and extraction. He refused the tantalizing trap of either/or thinking.
In a world of class distinctions and economic privilege, Jesus reminded these hecklers that everything ultimately belongs to God. Life itself is a gift. It does not belong to us and it certainly does not belong to the state. That’s what made Jesus such a threat to the Romans. He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t care about their power to humiliate or kill him – his loyalty lay elsewhere. Jesus embodied God’s vision for human life and so he was free from their threats. Ultimately, that’s why the cross is a symbol of freedom. And Jesus’ followers, especially those at the margins of Roman power structures, responded to the good news that they, too, belonged to this spiritual realm of radical equality.
From the time of Jesus, the church was meant to bear witness to this alternative reality. And on this recommitment Sunday, I want to share a little of our own history – so you know something of the DNA in this particular body of Christ.
Pastoral Period 1976-86
In 1976, Church of the Saviour was 30 years old when Gordon Cosby called for the formation of small churches out of the single body he was then leading. Fred Taylor and Sonya Dyer began talking about their dreams for a different kind of church – one that would include every part of life as a field for mission. One that would address many different kinds of injustice. Here is what their initial call said:
(Read from Stalking the Spirit, p. 152)
That call was not approved by the C of S Council. It was too inclusive, too focused on gender issues and not on “the poor” — as poor and disenfranchised people were called then. And so, thru the summer of 1976, Fred and Sonya revised the call of Seekers and when they tried again in the fall, it was approved. By then, the paragraph that I just read to you had been boiled down to a single sentence: The Seekers community sees itself called into Christ’s ministry of deliverance from bondage to freedom in every personal and corporate expression.
During the first decade, which I see as the pastoral period, Fred and Sonya tried to develop a core group of what we now call stewards, who identified themselves as Seekers. All of the initial stewards had been formed by Church of the Saviour, so they belonged to many different mission groups now scattered among the other churches, and they were used to hearing Gordon preach every Sunday. There were no mission groups within Seekers at the beginning.
At first, Fred preached almost every Sunday and Sonya was the liturgist. I think that Sonya’s prayer language was formative for us. She kept her eyes on that radical inclusiveness of Jesus while Fred held up the need for social justice in the city. In the first five years, the number of stewards dropped from 18 at the beginning, down to 11 in 1982, but there were a number of young families attracted by our commitment to include children and the mood was hopeful. Fred and Sonya held the container of worship while new life flowed in.
Organizational Period, 1987-2000
By 1987, when Fred resigned as co-pastor and left for a new marriage, the stewards selected a ministry team to serve with Sonya. Peter joined the team then. We began a more organizational period that lasted until Sonya moved away in 2000. Most of the original stewards had been replaced by people who had come through our own School of Christian Living and had been shaped by Seekers. Some brought experience with intentional community from other places as well. There was a matrix of mission groups within Seekers where people could experience pastoral care and spiritual formation around a particular mission group call. Stewards also decided to open the pulpit to many voices.
In 1989, in response to Pat’s urging, we also made a specific addition to our call which reflected the paragraph which had been cut out earlier: We desire and welcome participation in Seekers of women and men of every race and sexual orientation.
As the decision-making body, stewards also decided to offer membership to anyone who wanted to be intentional about their spiritual growth through Seekers. We kept the more demanding commitment for stewards and recognized a growing sense of ministry in daily life. Stewards led the way by giving nearly 75% of our contributed income and deepening our spiritual roots through a monthly peer-group of Spirit Guides.
During that period, all of the stewards at Seekers were automatically also members of Church of the Saviour. Then, in 1995, Gordon Cosby asked each of the nine little C of S churches to incorporate separately – and so we did that. It felt like being kicked out of the nest! In reality, Church of the Saviour thus became an association of churches which owned the headquarters building on Massachusetts Avenue, where Seekers was then worshiping, and Dayspring Farm, which we still own together.
Seekers Church was the only one of the emergent churches still meeting at the headquarters building, and we could see the handwriting on the wall: one day we would have to move when that building was sold. As a whole congregation of members and stewards, we began the agonizing work of looking for a new place to worship, to meet, and to be. Nobody dreamed it would take ten years between the decision to incorporate and our arrival in this place, to plant our roots here on the northern side of Washington, DC.
Relational Period, 2001 to now…
In the year 2000, we bought this building and said good-bye to Sonya and Manning Dyer, as they moved to North Carolina. The number of stewards grew to a peak of 26 members – as though to gird ourselves for the struggle of moving, paying for the renovation, and evoking new leadership without Sonya. In retrospect, the timing of Sonya’s departure was probably healthy for us, because it made space for new voices to emerge – however shaky that seemed at the time.
Buying this building had taken every penny that we saved for a new space. We wondered whether we could raise enough money from ourselves, without borrowing from a bank, to do the renovation. We knew that we would need participation from everyone and indeed, when loans and gifts were solicited for the renovation, 40 different people responded with loan offers – meaning that nearly everybody would have a long-term stake in the new building. And among stewards, we recognized the need for a different kind of leadership, as we shifted our talk from “ministry team” to “staff” to the current understanding of a “servant leadership team.”
Once we moved into this building, in 2004, we felt the loss of some members who did not make the move with us – and we began to attract a more diverse population with no memory of Church of the Saviour. That’s why we need to tell this story from time to time, so that we all share the present with some knowledge of our past.
And now, after a decade in this place, at 276 Carroll Street, we are a different body of Christ. There are four new mission groups to supplement the four that came from the old location. We have a new Servant Leadership Team that includes Brenda and Trish. And we will soon welcome Vince Shepherd and Judy Lantz into the circle of stewards, which will bring the committed core group to 15 – nearly what we started with.
Becoming a steward is still a matter of call, not wealth, longevity or an election. It’s open to anyone willing to do the work. It comes from watering the seeds of commitment that begin with membership in this body. And so, on this recommitment Sunday, we stand here together, as visitors, members and stewards, one body – young and old, brown and pink, rich and poor, doubtful and sure, slave and free, educated in many different ways and yet held together by the spirit of Christ. For me, it’s a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, located firmly in the here and now.
Yes, we live in a political realm that demands taxes, statutes and laws, but we also live in a different reality – one that we have freely chosen because it can free us from the fears that come with our culture of individualism.
Recommitment is a way of saying “Yes” to God’s gift of new life in Christ.