Elisabeth Dearborn: Ascending and Descending

A sermon for Seekers Church – Recommitment Season
Sept 9, 2001
Elisabeth Dearborn 

Ascending and Descending

Today I want to tell you something about my own journey, to explore the scripture passage for the week from Luke, and to put some questions before us as a community. I want to begin by putting on the altar here two paintings that come out of a period of retreat about a month ago which speak for themselves. One is the prophet Jeremiah; the other is The Veil Rent.

I came to Seekers from forty years as a Quaker where my experience of Jesus was direct and mystical. I had done almost no scriptural study. I was raised in a family where people said, “Anyone who is a Christian has been duped.” At l4, I was in a ceremony created by my mother and my older sister to de-baptize her Catholic boyfriend. It is understandable why I took my time arriving in an explicitly Christian community. God continued to move me along on the path, however, and three years ago, I came to Seekers looking for deeper roots, a community in which to carry both my direct experience of Jesus and the wounds of childhood. I hoped to find here a place where greater wholeness could arise and from which I might move more fully.

Long before arriving here, I met and studied with Marjory at the School of Christian Living at Dayspring in l983. With her inspiration, I helped to create a Quaker based mission group on spiritual gifts and call and collaborated in developing its curriculum. I taught in Quaker meetings with other members of the mission group all over this country and England. More than once, I traveled in the ministry under yearly meeting minute, a corporate recognition of a person led by the Holy Spirit to act on a particular concern. I worked at national, regional and international levels among Friends. I was deeply compelled by the questions of call and exploring how to remain in the Society of Friends while carrying those questions

During this time, an older Quaker gentleman invited me for a walk one day and told me that he wanted to give me his estate. Whatever it was the Lord was leading me to, he said, he wanted me not to be financially encumbered. His funds were modest; his encouragement was life changing. Elizabeth O’Connor talks in Eighth Day of Creation about patrons – not a word that feminists like – but he was certainly that in the best sense of the word. She also talks about the importance to a community of releasing individuals at the point of their gifts. Her book was a Bible for the Quaker gifts group. Eventually, after some years of this teaching about spiritual gifts among Friends, it became clear in l995 that it was time to lay down my active work and to wait. I waited several years. One day Jesse asked me to come to church here. I was ready and the idea of being in a community focused on call felt right.

Being in a Biblically based community was new for me. Scriptural study is one of the primary practices of Seekers. While I had lived for years with isolated stories of call as told in the Bible, it was only when I came here that I began to engage in the whole story. With David and Cynthia’s help in the OT class, I encountered the powerful faith of the Hebrews in a living God who led and informed their lives. I offer some reflections on today’s scripture with the understanding that I am a relative newcomer to this practice.

Luke 14:25-33:

Once when great crowds were accompanying him, he turned to them and said, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine. No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be a disciple of mine. Would any of you think of building a tower without first sitting down and calculating the cost, to see whether he could afford to finish it? Otherwise, if he has laid its foundation and then is not able to complete it, all the onlookers will laugh at him. “There is a man,” they will say, “Who started to build and could not finish.” Or what king will march to battle against another king, without first sitting down to consider whether with ten thousand men he can face an enemy coming to meet him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, long before the enemy approaches, he sends envoys, and asks for terms. So also, none of you can be a disciple of mine without parting with all his possessions.

Do you know the spiritual practice of asking a question that cannot be answered rationally like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” A plum line into the heart of exile?

How about “hate your mother and father?” This flies in the face of the primary teaching of love Jesus offers … or does it. “Carry my own cross? Give away all I possess?” Why include commentary about completing something you start or assessing your resources in the midst of these other startling instructions?

I sat all summer with these lines. A month ago, I went on silent retreat at a Trappist monastery and sat with them there. Finally, my mind began to open into a state of great harmony. My heart felt like the husk was breaking and the kernels going into free fall. I believe these words are a doorway into the mind of Christ. Perhaps all scripture is and this is just my first experience!

I read this scripture as a three-part instruction into the life of call. If one of us were to stand up here and say, “Hate your mother…” we would all be jolted out of our usual mindsets. We would awaken into something. We would struggle and be in a state of profound unknowing. It is just then, I believe, that we are available to the Holy Spirit.

So I read in this first instruction to practice being in a state of radical presence, openness to God. Instruction to strip our hearts of their usual attachments. Are we raising up among us those who carry the gift of radical presence?

What about carrying your own cross? In those days, crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state – runaway slaves and those who threatened the temporal order – So I read this to mean, radical surrender to the power of the Holy in the face of the worldly. I also hear “Carry your own cross” as an instruction to carry your own wounds until they become the ground of wholeness. This intention is certainly among the chief qualities of this community. Here inner work is taken seriously and the psychological hand in hand with the spiritual. How can we best raise up among us those who carry this gift?

Give away all your possessions? I hear this to mean, do my things encumber me? Am I available to the movements of the Holy Spirit? In this community, we have a whole range of lived responses to these questions. We have single room dwellers with few possessions and those who have large houses and substantial assets. We also have many in between. How effectively are we challenging each other in this area? Early Quakers did not have a testimony on simplicity; they found, however, that they needed to live lives that cut to the root in order to free the doing and the being to rise from the Source. As a Quaker for these forty years, I have been moved by knowing others whose entire possessions were laid out at a memorial service – clothes lovingly repaired over decades, wooden bowls worn with use – radical simplicity lived from the root. Are we raising up those among us who hold this witness?

Living mindfully with material things leads to sensitivity about how to live that extends beyond the circumference of our relationship to the material. When we ask, “What in me blocks grace?” it is a way of seeing simply, of seeing that the divine is meant to be wedded to the human. It is a way of saying yes, I will do my part; it is a way of restoring hope in the world. My part, your part, each of our parts, matters. One of those in the intercessory prayer evening on Tuesday night here said, "How could my one small prayer help?" Buber says in his translation of Jacob’s dream in Genesis:

I am clay; I am one of countless shards of clay. But my soul reaches
To heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and
Descending on it. Even the ascent and descent of the angels
Depends on my deeds.

To practice radical openness to God, radical surrender to our own wholeness and radical simplicity – as this scripture invites us to – involves working with those parts of ourselves that block grace. The primary block for me has been fear.

Consequently, over the last several years my focus has been on learning courage.

Eighteen months ago, I began to realize that a new call toward earthwork was emerging in my life. Not being a steward or having access to a Seekers-based mission group on the Earth, I helped call together an ecumenical mission group, much like the Quaker gifts group I was in some years ago. This group has met faithfully every other week, the same 5 people, working very similarly to a Seekers group, sharing worship and life journeys, and assisting each other in the work of our common call. Recently, when it became clear that I was led to organize a religiously based non-violent witness, two others in that mission group stepped forward to accompany me. I have also shared this call with the stewards in this community. As that process has been unfolding, I knew I would be preaching. As I waited for what I was to say, I had a dream.

The dream takes place in the new sanctuary at Carroll Street. An older man with a banjo is preaching. I look closely and recognize Pete Seeger! As we leave the sanctuary, I gather in the fellowship hall with Jeanne Marcus. She tells me Tobin has gone next door to dance with the kids. Hearing this, Richard and Shoshanna leave to investigate. Then, I pull a thank you note out of my purse.

I realize that I do in fact have quite a thank you to give this community.

Thank you, Seekers, for the great experiment in Truth we are proceeding with here – a community based on call. Will we learn to raise up and release prophets by our listening? I deeply hope so. What I do, what you do, matters. When any of us listens to that nudge of call in our lives, we water the seeds of call in everyone, not just ourselves. From the sounds of it, there are a few sprouts arriving, and some not just sprouts! One creative action on behalf of the world will help set positive forces in motion. When we ask “what blocks grace in me?” we remember that Jesus, healed, reconciled, and set loose positive forces, but he did something else. He asked men and women of his time to change their lives, their very selves, and he is still asking this today. The scripture today ends with, “Are you listening? Are you really listening?”

Thank you, Billy and Jesse, who were my first spiritual directors. Thank you, Jubilate. Through the disciplines of the Jubilate Mission Group here, I moved from being a person who had never read scripture regularly to being astonished as I followed Jesse’s suggestion that I read one line a day or a week until I got it. I began to receive the root that is in this practice.

Thank you, David and Cynthia, for that vital Old Testament class where I was asked to relate my own life to the stories in the Bible. This was life changing. Thank you, Dan and Margreta, for asking me to stand on the shoulders of the psalmists and write my own.

Most of you know the story of Exodus 3 where Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say sent me?” God says back, “Tell them I AM. I AM is my name.” Twenty years ago, I woke up one day, an Easter Sunday, with a dream of a crowd of people gathered in a public demonstration under a large banner that read I A M. In the dream, it stood for the International Association of Musicians. I did not recognize the "I AM" in the dream myself, but at the time, Parker Palmer was my spiritual director, and I took the dream to him. He laughed and told me to go read Exodus 3, which I did. Nevertheless, the reading of a piece of scripture is very different from living into it; Reading and understanding are two different things. Parker used to say, “You can’t think your way into a new way of living; you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.” Twenty years ago, I could not really take that dream in or its connection to Exodus 3. The holding of such a moment of divine intervention in our lives takes years and Embodiment of divine guidance is a much longer process that involves exploring what blocks grace in us. As I have lived in this community where the scripture is held up and where accountability to call is a beacon, I have found rising in me a new kind of clarity. This story sits differently in me than it used to. It is my sense now that I was given 20 years ago the guidance which is ripening into the Peacemakers non-violent witness which will take place 3 weeks from now.

I also wrote in the OT class about the experience in l977 of being in Quaker Meeting in an almond orchard in Chico, CA. On this particular August day, I had an experience of a very large presence that I came later to identify as an archangel. Again, it has taken years of carrying this experience to understand even how to speak about it. It has been consciously put to use once. I was leading a retreat in California when I became aware that a satanic presence was gradually overshadowing the room where we were meeting. I somehow knew that it came through a woman who identified herself as a witch. Experiencing the reality of this force, I sensed that I needed to call on the archangel, which I did. Over the ensuing period of silence, I felt the presence of Light grow stronger and finally fill the whole room; the presence of evil weakened and disappeared. At the close of that session, the woman shared an experience of releasing which had just occurred to her, after a life of being in what felt like prison, she said.

I share these stories because I want you who are now my faith community to understand the walk I am on and how it has been for me. It is clear to all of us that evil will be present on the days of the Peacemakers witness, if nothing else, in the intentions of provocateurs to commit violence. It is my sense that I am being asked to be obedient to a call from God and to bring what ladder I can to the angels who wish to descend on those days of witness, Sept 29 and 30, 2001, to accompany the Peacemakers here.

After forty years of participating in a peace church, it is no surprise to be called to non-violent witness. I have sat in meeting and worked alongside people who sail into the atomic testing zone, sit on rails to prevent the movement of nuclear weapons, block the opening of nuclear power plants and withhold war taxes. My first committee assignment at l5 was alongside a man who became Cesar Chavez’ right hand man in the organizing of the United Farm Workers Union. My next committee was clerked by the woman who headed the feeding of more than a million German children after WW II. I sat on committee alongside Elise and Kenneth Boulding who are/were giant forces for good in the peace movement in this country. The seeds of the action I am asking you to support me in were planted long ago and have been watered well. . They have taken years to grow into this particular form, but the form is no surprise. What surprises me is that in the reading of scripture, and in the sharing of community life based on call, I have come into the root that transforms the seeds.

I am clay; I am one of countless shards of clay.
But my soul reaches to heaven and beholds the angels
Of God ascending and descending on it. Even the
Ascent and descent of the angels depends on my deeds.

I hope that you will be with me in this call to peacemaking.

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