“Doing What is Right: Civil Rights and Civil Responsibilities” by Peter Bankson

July 21, 2019

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

We seem to be living through some pretty tough times. The ever-deepening drama downtown is raising the volume of fear and anger at many levels. From the interpersonal to the international, we’re learning to expect disrespect. It hurts!

Anne Lamott reminds us in our reflection for this season that “hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.” It feels to me like we’re in a dark night of the soul. Some days it’s a real challenge to “wait and watch and work” in the dark. And living with 100-degree days doesn’t help!

In this week’s Hebrew Scripture lesson, written about 3,000 years ago, the prophet Amos describes our times pretty well:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds. [Amos 8:5-7]

These days I’m caught in the middle of the tension between a deep commitment to be welcoming and inclusive, and the image I fear I might convey: I am an old, white, male American. I was born into a part of our culture that seems, these days, more ready to shout “Send her home” than “Welcome to America.” That is NOT where I stand, and not where I want to be pigeonholed. But from a distance I still look like I fit the profile. And even up close my prejudices leak through my armor, particularly when I haven’t recognized them myself. I want to change, to learn, to grow in my understanding, in my ability to help make a difference. But all that sounds like more doing, more action, more intervention. I may be having trouble hearing the call to be more reflective.

In fact, the other day I was talking about my new hearing challenges and the acupuncture supervisor wondered out loud if there might be something more existential that I’m having trouble hearing! She may well be right. It may well be time for me to pray for the insight to offer my energy in some new form, something with less “doing” and more “being.” I’ll stay tuned, but it makes me want to take a nap, and it isn’t even after lunch yet!

Anne Lamott encourages us to “Just show up and try to do the right thing.” Why does it seem so hard to do what is right? Why must we live through these painful times? Why hasn’t the Creator of All That Is given us a level path through a lovely garden to an eternity of bliss? That’s been one of the core, down-deep questions since, as a species, we woke up to self-awareness. I know I don’t have the answer, but I’ve been pondering an alternative that goes a bit beyond our early story of sin and salvation, the idea that in “Adam’s fall we sinned all,” and that once Jesus showed up to pay the price, we’ve been back on easy street.

Rather, I’ve been pondering the possibility that one option we’re being given by the Wisdom who calls us and the Opportunity who raises her voice is to learn from our lives, including especially our mistakes and our greed and our fear. If I can become more conscious of my poor choices, I might find a better path to love and reconciliation. Might this be part of what I’m finding hard to hear?

How to find and follow the path that is right for today? That is my question. One practice is to consciously help each other do what’s right, moment to moment. I’m convinced that as more and more of us harmonize our creative, inclusive work for peace and justice we will discover how to take responsibility for the health of a community that grows bigger and more welcoming every day. That’s a big dream, but it starts small: “If you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

Each of us is unique and important, and brings changing gifts to community.

Let me dig into this a bit by starting with this week’s Gospel lesson about Martha and Mary. These two sisters were clearly different, unique individuals, but part of the same family … or community.

If each of us is unique, why are we worried about being different? It seems to me that an awful lot of the anger and tension, at every level of community, rests on criticizing our differences. This week’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Chapter 10 offers a good example of how our differences can nourish our fears and frustrations.

Poor Martha is sweating in the kitchen, trying to get a satisfying meal on the table for their important guest, Jesus, and the rest of the household. Meanwhile her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, inviting him to go deeper in his teaching. Depending on where you stand on the matter of family (or civic) responsibilities, its easy to criticize one or the other of them. But as I read this lesson in the light of our challenging times this week, I was reminded of the importance of diversity and the need for different parts of the Body to help the whole community along the way.

The Apostle Paul speaks eloquently to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) about the importance of accepting and counting on our differences. If the whole body were an ear, where would the seeing come from? Mary and Martha each had important gifts and skills to offer to the community being built by Jesus’ presence in their home. Martha felt shortchanged when Mary didn’t jump in to help in the kitchen:

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me. “But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” [John 10:40-42]

Both the lunch cook and the rapt listener are parts of that little community. Each serving in that moment as a different part of that little body. I think this story points to an important part of why we named ourselves “Seekers Church.” Here a bit from our Guide to Seekers:

I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time.  Men and women of a stature equal to the greatest of the past are with us now, addressing the problems of the day, and pointing to a better way and to a personeity better able to live fully and serenely in these times.

The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers.  The variable is not in the presence or absence or the relative quality and force of the prophetic voices.  Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their message.  If their early attempts are ignored or spurned, their talent may wither away. 

It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service. [Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, pg. 8]

Thank you, Mary, for modeling that kind of creative listening. We need cooks, and seekers, and mediators and advocates and lots more to help us keep hope alive. And we have opportunities to work together in different ways to help bring about the dawn. Each of us is unique and important and brings changing gifts to community.

Here’s a current example. On the editorial page of this morning’s Washington Post there’s a “Taking Exception” article by our Pat Conover, calling us to look carefully at “An unsustained argument against raising the minimum wage.” We’ll see who pays attention.

As I think about this from my personal perspective, I have faith that as I change there will still be a place for me in the life and ministry of this community. Although I seem to be having trouble hearing it, I hope to find a more reflective way to offer who I am in support of our life together.

We are stronger together.

As we declare in our street-level window, “Seekers Church [is] creative and inclusive, working for peace and justice.” We try to live into that reflection from Anne Lamott to “…just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

closeup of altarscape with artist mannikins holding up a structure with the names and logos of organizations that Seekers supportHere’s an example of how we’re stronger together. This season as an image of our theme, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right,” we’ve had a team of little mannequins, our “bendy guys,” carrying what looks like a birthday cake, adorned with the logos of the missions and ministries we support as a community with our resources, our contributions of time, experience and money. This year, as a community, Seekers Church gives time, attention and financial support to 38 different missions and ministries, 26 in the United States and 12 in other nations. We only consider organizations where some Seeker is personally engaged. There’s an article in the “News” section of on our web site with links to more information about each organization.

The altar installation for our summer worship theme reminds me of those Sundays during our pilgrimages to Guatemala when we observed the parade in the Parque Centrale where a team of life-sized “bendy guys” was carrying a life-sized statue of Jesus around the square. The statue made its way steadily, but it was exhausting work. Individuals shared the effort, and the life of the community continued… a good example of shared leadership.

Beyond the missions and ministries we support together I know there are a lot of other communities where we offer our support. Think for a moment about other places where you exercise your civil responsibilities to help build healthy community. We can, and do, help in lots of different ways.

Civil Responsibility is a way to nurture community health.

When it comes to nurturing the health of the community there are other ways to help build community by exercising our civic responsibilities. The idea of civil (or civic) responsibilities arose in ancient Rome, where citizens who had certain freedoms protected by the state (their civil rights) wanted to improve the quality of life for their communities. This form of voluntary community-building takes lots of different shapes.

Community health comes from doing what is right. As Dave Lloyd observed last week, that includes loving our neighbors as ourselves. Showing up and trying to do the right thing is our way of being in these challenging times together. It’s one way of looking at our “civic responsibilities” as individual parts of the Body of Christ, parts of the larger community. Its how we can embrace our differences and be “US” together. (For me, that’s both “us” and “U.S.” Civil responsibilities include ways to belong that embrace our differences in different ways, here and in the wider world. Each of us is unique … and can offer something important to the community. Seekers offers us opportunities to nurture community health together. And, civil responsibility is a way to try to do the right things together.

Community health calls for a balance of civil rights and civil responsibilities. We’ve been hearing a lot more about the rights lately. But if we forget our responsibilities, community gets mired in judgment and blame.

In addition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” there are other rules and guidelines that have been developed to guide our thoughts and actions. At the highest level we have the Ten Commandments, given to Moses after the Israelites emigrated from Egypt, to guide them through 40 years in the wilderness. The constitution of the United States forms the basis for the laws of our states, and counties, and cities.

Many organizations have a vision or mission statement that describes the civil rights and responsibilities of their members. In the tradition of The Church of the Saviour each congregation has a call that guides the development of our life together, our rules of the road.

Seekers’ call lays out our aspirations to be an emerging part of the Body of Christ. It calls us to support community health in ways like this:

By “Seekers community” we mean an intentional body which sees Christ as our true life source.  Koinonia with one another and genuine self-giving to the world are the ways we can be in Christ today.  Seekers are not persons who have arrived, but persons who are intentionally on the way.

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.  We are committed to evoking and giving space to new gifts of preaching, liturgical leadership, creative worship forms, giving, mission and other acts of faith.

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.

These visions, or calls, shape the more specific obligations of belonging. If we commit to belonging to a community, we accept the obligations of the group, and expect to be held accountable within that community for our actions. In Seekers Church the Members’ commitment statement is a good example of these obligations. Each year we honor our founding as The Church of the Saviour in 1947 by making our recommitment, reaffirming our obligation to the civil responsibilities that guide our life together. Some of those obligations include:

As a member of this church, I will deepen my relationships in this local expression of the Body of Christ, sharing my gifts from God with others who worship with Seekers Church, and in the wider world. I will:

†         Nurture my relationship with God and Seekers Church through spiritual disciplines;

†         Care for the whole of creation, including the natural environment;

†         Foster justice and be in solidarity with the poor;

†         Work for the end of all war, both public and private; and

†         Respond joyfully with my life, as the grace of God gives me freedom.

We may not consciously recommit each year to obeying the speed limit, or following other laws, but most of us know what it means to be responsible and “law-abiding” members of community. And, our annual recommitments helps us keep these civil rights and civil responsibilities in focus. As I organized my ideas about civil responsibilities in Seekers and reflected on our commitment, I heard loud and clear, “Let your quiet time have more space in your life!”

We’re living through an angry time, a time when the need for healthy community is really important. But we are not alone. In this week’s Hebrew Scripture Amos reminds of the word from God. that although “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” We’re being reminded that “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” This kind of civil responsibility takes perseverance … and companionship.

  1. Mary and Martha remind us that each of us is unique, and important to the community in ways that grow over time.
  2. The altar installation reminds us that we are stronger together.
  3. And our giving as a community together offers us opportunities to nurture community health together.

Look at the bulletin cover. I invite you to find one of those logos that intrigues you, and let a question emerge. That question might be a good way to open a conversation in the kitchen after worship, to find an opportunity for fresh contribution to community health – to strengthen your sense of being part of a larger body.

As I thought about Amos and the terrible times he describes, I had an image of our global – national – and social communities fractured under the pressures of fear and anger. Then a friend reminded me that our national motto “E Pluribus Unum” includes an “US.” That got me thinking about another of those basic questions, when we talk about “inclusive” how big is our “us.” Who is my neighbor? And what can I do to listen and learn enough to help my boundaries relax in order to let in those who want to be part of that “U.S.?”

Thank God we’re in this together!



Print Friendly, PDF & Email
“50th Anniversary of Apollo Moon Landing and Memories of My Father: What Will the Church be in 100 Years” by Cynthia Dahlin
"Borderless Love of My Neighbor" by David Lloyd