“Discipleship Year” by Dawn Longenecker

February 15, 2015

Transfiguration Sunday

Good morning! Thank you for inviting me to take a turn to share with you today.

I’ve picked out one of my favorite scriptures to focus on. Here it is:

Matthew 13:31-32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; it is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

Jesus spoke about this seed as the smallest of all the seeds known and used by those in Israel. There were many gardens in that region, with lots of plants, many of which were larger than the mustard plant. The olive tree, for example, can grow to 20 feet or higher. The mustard tree has extremely small seeds and grows into a small bush. The one Jesus was most likely referring to grows to about 8 to 10 feet when mature. He was drawing attention to the comparison of the “smallest” to the “largest” and using it to illustrate how the Kingdom of heaven will expand in the world from a very small beginning to a huge presence.

Jesus used the mustard seed elsewhere in a proverbial sense too.  In Matthew 17:20: “He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”

What I love about this story is that we don’t need a large amount of faith; we only need a small dot, as small a seed as this. Just so you know how small a mustard seed is, here is one for each of you. I have one on my prayer table at home, after hearing Jim Dickerson preach on this passage years ago. It’s truly remarkable because we’re up against so much. There are magnificently powerful forces at work in the world; great violence, overwhelming poverty and injustice and earthly destruction that is hard to overcome. So it’s hard for me to believe that all the faith we need is as small as this seed to bring about the Kingdom. I think that’s why Jesus gives us such a clear illustration and urges us to believe beyond our small imaginations.

Before I came to the Festival Center to direct the Discipleship Year program, I worked at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home – a residential facility for children and teenage moms at risk in this area. In that context, even though it was a Christian institution, my individual seed of faith wasn’t nurtured enough, and I burned out. Plus the church I’d been involved with then didn’t have what I discovered here – within COS – a way to nurture small seeds of faith amidst deep, centered, disciplined practices within community. I got refreshed quickly upon arriving, despite coming at a time when there was a lot of controversy and struggle within the Festival Center, our mother institution. I came in February of 2007, and by the end of that year all thestaff had left (some of them pressured to go), except Tommie, Kayla, and myself. The Board had serious turnover as well. There was a major financial crisis,along with controversy over the focus of the anti-racism team that was active there at the time. I also had to bring the DY program back from a year where it had shut down due to low numbers. Amidst all this, I became inspired!

I’d faced my share of struggle previously within the Sojourners Community (where Jim and I were members for 10 years). I’d also worked in earlier years at Luther Place Church where anti-racism activity had gotten serious push-back. Thankfully, at Sojourners the joys far outweighed the challenges and at Luther Place – I saw amazing and wonderful things happen with their “Journey to become an Inclusive Community.”

The key for me is the strength of the church communities that are engaged in the struggle. I found out that here, within our COS network, there is a wonderful, vibrant community – with a rich tradition of both inwardly and outwardly grounded Christians who have an amazing depth and focus. I am also heartened by the understanding our community here has about institutions (Gordon used to speak about them regularly, about how we shouldn’t get too tied to our own creations, recognizing the unavoidable way they evolve to often mimic the culture surrounding us if we don’t regularly and vigilantly work to keep them relevant and life-giving).

In the Discipleship Year program, in the heart of our network, people come to serve for a year, working in ministries founded by the COS (and a few others), we have a curriculum of study that we follow on the central themes of our faith communities (including community, inward journey development and outward journey ministry). The volunteers go to the depths of their souls to search for God, to search for paths toward justice and peace. Here’s a window into our world:

 Our winter seminar series called “Power, Justice, and Faith” has us studying what has been termed by Walter Wink the “Principalities and Powers.” David Hilfiker kicks off our series by helping us look at the interlocking oppressions of capitalism, corporatism, consumerism, government power (and its dysfunction), along with how mainstream media props up and supports all of these. We study Wink, who helps us see that Power is both necessary and good – if used for the common good … But how they are fallen and destructive when not; and how by their very nature – institutions that are left to their own devises usually become calcified, mainstream, and even oppressive. He also talks about how the powers can be redeemed. We wrestle with the ways in which religious power is oppressive. 

After this we go each year to an anti-racism training that teaches us about institutional and systemic racism. It’s important that the volunteers attend this, as they are predominantly white and they serve clients who are primarily black and brown. It’s key that they understand the underlying root causes of the poverty and racism they face and to learn to be more effective change agents. Since 2012, COS members have joined us for this training, inspiring another anti-racism movement here within our network; helping us go to new levels in tackling institutional racism & build community across the race divide. It’s exciting, and this time I’m hoping that our anti-racism team won’t be shut down or fade away but will gain momentum as I believe the only way to do true social justice is with people of color and white together – rather than the old, tired paradigm of whites doing for blacks and other people of color – keeping our power (as whites) solidified at the top of the systems we’re in.

In our seminars we also have sessions on sexism, homophobia, mass incarceration, and environmental destruction. Truly when we’re in the midst of this series and afterward, we could easily move into a major depression due to the overwhelming nature of all this. Thankfully, one of the themes in this winter series is also spirituality and faith.  We aren’t focused on how one needs to believe a certain way but centered on where we find hope as sometimes volunteer aren’t Christian or are  seriously questioning their faith and so if we focused on belief it would be counterproductive. Then in the spring we circle back around to focusing on community again, like we do in the fall – all this gives them a strong base from which to operate, grow, and thrive.

I’ve seen such remarkable strength and growth in the participants of this program. We learn how to be more vulnerable, and to tackle conflict – not run from it, and face ourselves in intentional community. It’s a wonderful experience for them. They face a lot of poverty and injustice in their placements, learn about the depths of the challenges at the Servant Leadership School and through the seminars – but they also teach us! Sometimes they are the ones who have the deepest insights, boldness, and courage that we lack. They are often young (but not always – some are young at heart and haven’t yet given up on their idealism when they come here). They regularly teach and inspire those of us who come to know them. It’s a symbiotic relationship and very dynamic.

            It reminds me again of the story of the mustard seed. It doesn’t take a lot of faith to move mountains, despite what our logical minds tell us. What it does take is nurturing and caring for our seeds, having the soil around us that gives us life – which this community and other COS communities provide! You provide it to us by offering a representative (or two) – to serve on our local support team (right now we have Trish), provide mentors (right now we have Maybelle, who we consider as part of your extended church community), you go with us to the anti-racism trainings (many of you here have been to one or more of these), provide monetary support (thank you so much!) and most of all you are a model of church to which we can look to learn from; this is huge as these volunteers can sense an inauthentic church from miles away. Because of this our seeds grow, becoming stronger, and our faith grows too.

            Here are a few examples of some of the DYers who’ve inspired me through the years and I hope will inspire you as we also want to nurture and encourage your faith!

            *Chris Scott extended hospitality to a homeless couple sleeping on the back porch of the volunteer house. I was ready to give them the boot, as a neighbor was complaining, but Chris and others in the house didn’t want to turn them away, so for that winter they remained. Chris is now a pastor in West Virginia of three churches there. He joked when in DY that he might become a snake handling preacher. He doesn’t handle snakes, but he inspires all his congregations in the ways he used to inspire us with his passion for justice. While on the Jubilee Housing staff, he used to go downtown regularly to fight for affordable housing and he continues to work for housing justice.

            *Sasha Adkins and Rachel Winch both served a few years later. They invited a homeless woman who was both mentally ill and developmentally disabled into the DY house for showers, to store her belongings, to have meals and even sleep there occasionally … even though I was advocating against this. This woman worships at 8th Day, and she is a different person now. I never would have believed it back then. She now talks sensibly and calmly with people, sitting still for our church services, is off the streets in a home nearby. It’s amazing to see her transformation. These two volunteers, who worshipped regularly with 8th Day all that year, inspired others to embrace her more and not ignore her.

They also inspired us to have a deeper environmental commitment and sensitized us to the LBGTQ community’s needs.   Sasha went on to continue her environmental activism and teaching and Rachel moved to Arizona to help found a sanctuary house for immigrants facing deportation.

            *Tevyn East was a professional dancer when she joined us. She served at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and after DY she incorporated both her love of dance and her passion for economic justice and the environment. She didn’t settle into a typical job. Instead she founded the Affording Hope Project, which through dance and movement has traveled the US and brought to deeper consciousness the need to respond more fully to issues related to the economy and the environment. She is also, along with her husband, now leading the Carnival of Resistance, with more artists joining this movement for change. Additionally they are key leaders and funders for the Wild Goose Festival, where people come every summer to get inspired to live and act alternatively.

            *Jean Brown came to us and served at Joseph’s House, after having been a Presbyterian pastor for 8 years. She was 45, seeking a more alternative form of church and later joined the Dayspring community, carrying forward her dream that the inward journey will only be as strong as we dedicate our lives to making it. She also didn’t appreciate how churches can become dysfunctional under a sole leader, as in her own previous church setting.  She wanted a church community that people all create together, and she’s found her home with us.

            *There are so many more examples, including those you’ve met this year. You heard Ian’s sermon when he came last month. He’ll make a wonderful pastor somewhere! Emily Owsley’s also been making her rounds preaching at various COS churches. Her story of working at L’Arche and being transformed is incredible. She left her high paying job with an interior design firm to be with us and struggle to find a new way that isn’t so corporate.

            I’ll stop here, as when it comes to sharing and talking about COS and DY, I could go on forever. I’ll end by saying thank you – thank you for supporting the Discipleship Year program and the work of the Festival Center. Thank you for welcoming me and the volunteers into your lives – for nurturing our seeds of faith. Thank you for being dedicated servants on the journey and giving us hope and belief in the possibilities by your radical, strong example of church outside the norm. We are honored to be on this journey with you.

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