“Holding Up the Bigger Story” by Marjory Zoet Bankson

December 28, 2014


Text: Luke 2:22-40

….Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him….”This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

….At that moment Anna came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

In our text for today, two elders stand at the gateway of a new liturgical year. Anna and Simeon make this brief appearance – and they are never seen again. So why did Luke include these two unknown elders in his account of Jesus’ birth?  

As I have pondered this text for the past few weeks, three things began to stand out:

  1. First, Mary and Joseph have come to fulfill their religious obligation, to dedicate their first-born son to God and offer the expected sacrifices. They did not come expecting anything special. They are amazed (and probably a little frightened) by what they hear. Wouldn’t you be shocked if something like this happened when you brought your baby to be baptized or circumcised? Would you be able to nurture and bless the special gifts of that child, whatever they might be?
  2. Second, Anna lives at the temple, but she is not part of the religious hierarchy. Most likely, she received alms and offered her services in return for shelter. This poor widow is identified as a “prophet” and she finds her voice in the biblical story as she praises God for the life and purpose of this child. That was her call – and it was enough!
  3. Third,Simeon is a devout lay-person, and not a priest or a Pharisee – and he is being led by the Holy Spirit, so these two elders represent ordinary people who have eyes to see the presence of God. Simeon speaks directly to the parents, giving them a bigger picture for the child they are to protect and nurture. He is a prophetic voice from the ranks of ordinary people. His blessing (and his warning) speak truth and reality.

On Christmas Eve, Brenda and I sat in the sanctuary for a few minutes before our Christmas Eve potluck began. I mentioned that I was still wrestling with this text, and she said quietly, “I’ve always thought those blessings were meant for every child, and not just Jesus.”

Brenda’s comment made sense to me. I had been musing about the role of elders in a community of faith, as the people who might carry the bigger story of our place in God’s ongoing creation. It’s the big story that gives meaning to our day-to-day lives. If Jesus is the visible sign of God’s intention for human life, then every person who follows Jesus becomes part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

Redemption means “to recover or restore” something that has been lost or misdirected. For Anna, redeeming Jerusalem carries the sense of returning the capitol city to the spiritual center that it once was. For us, I would say that redeeming Washington DC means to restore the promise of “liberty and justice for all,” – not just a privileged class. That means addressing systems of injustice, as Martin Luther King did. He was able to act in the face of violence because he held a bigger picture – the dream of which he spoke so eloquently – and because he believed that “the long arc of history bends toward justice.”

When I hear the words of Simeon, that “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many,” I think of systems as well as individuals. The “falling and rising of many” suggest a truly level field where we can meet as human beings, where ALL lives matter; where dignity and respect includes everybody. When I was at Faith@Work, we spoke about “meeting Jesus on the patio,” — coming down from the high-rises of privilege and status, and coming up from the basement where we might have said “I’m just a janitor, a housewife, a sales clerk or a cleaning lady.” The phrase, “I’m just a…” is a clue that we need to encourage someone to step into their full humanity, their belovedness. I pray that Seekers can be a place where we practice this revolutionary concept of meeting as equals “on the patio,” because when we read the news or watch TV, we can see that our society needs a different structure for social and economic justice. What can we do to make that happen?

When I hear the words of Anna, that this child will take the lead in redeeming Jerusalem, I mentally substitute the words “redeeming Washington DC,” and I look around this room to see many who have been engaged in that work. Redemption is an ongoing process that happens over and over again, with every human encounter, every vote cast, and every policy decision made about where to direct money and who to hire for what job. We all work at redeeming Washington when we take time to listen, to support someone who is worthy of our support and/or to take leadership in some particular area. It’s not going to happen once and for all time. Justice happens one case at a time, one step at a time. Every time we choose to treat someone else as an equal, as a neighbor, we advance the cause of justice. Every choice makes a difference..


Recently, I’ve gone back to reading Robert Greenleaf in this book, Servant Leadership. You probably remember that Greenleaf was the source of our name, Seekers. In 1976, when we were forming this congregation, Greenleaf was writing about possibilities for nonviolent social change and his essay on “Being a Seeker in the 21st Century” touched Fred and Sonya, our founding elders.

Greenleaf was a Quaker, whose father was a blue-collar union man with little patience for organized churches, and yet Greenleaf recognized that it was black church leaders in the South who were leading the struggle for nonviolent change in the 60s. He was aware that leaders emerged because their followers were inspired to risk hatred and bodily harm. “It is Seekers who make prophets,” Greenleaf said, “by the quality of their listening.”

Fred and Sonya wanted this community to be a place where we could listen deeply to one another, discern those with a true servant’s heart, and give our support to those people. That’s not so far from the blessing and challenge of Anna and Simeon.

Here at Seekers, we expect all Stewards to be servants and ministers — to make the health and welfare of the whole community a first priority. Becoming a Steward is open to every person in this room – every person in this room — but it takes some preparation and time to know one another, to love and connect as part of an organic body of Christ, and to develop the capacity for sacrificial giving. We expect all Stewards to be ministers, capable of giving beyond what is convenient.

When Seekers began, there were 18 Stewards to carry the life and health of this community as their primary call. Today there are 16 Stewards, none of whom were among the founders of Seekers. That means we have had a slow and healthy turnover in the core group. Our two emeritae Stewards, Emily and Muriel, were among the founders. Their active participation in worship is a sign of our longer, larger story. Are you called to be a steward of Seekers? To actively share the longer story of our call as a community?

Servant Leadership Team

Today marks another passage and opportunity for our growth as a community. Peter is stepping aside from the Servant Leadership Team, which we select from the circle of Stewards. At first I thought, because we are married, that I shouldn’t say anything about this because there will be a more formal recognition of his new status on Feb 1. But I realized that if it were somebody else, like Dave Lloyd or Doug Dodge, I would say something, and so I will.

Because he has been on the SLT, Peter has made Seekers his first priority for the past 25 years. Whenever we have scheduled a weekend away or planned a trip, he has made sure another SLT member would be here because he has felt the trust that being on the SLT holds for the community. Now Brenda and Trish will continue holding that leadership position for us.

When Peter first joined the SLT in 1989, it was called a “ministry team” — to assist Sonya after Fred resigned and left for a new marriage. Some people referred to them as “staff,” and looked to them for administrative support rather than spiritual leadership. I saw those years as testing their servanthood. Three others, Bob Bayer, Kay Schultz and Shelley Marcus, served for a short while and left the community when they left the ministry team. When Sonya left, she and Manning moved to North Carolina to be near their grandchildren. Kate Cudlipp was called to the team when Kay and Bob left in 1993, and she died in 2011. In other words, nobody thus far has left the team and stayed in the community.

Brenda used the words “servant leadership” when she articulated her call in 1999. When she was confirmed, we recognized again the wisdom of Robert Greenleaf’s terminology, and they became our Servant Leadership Team – defined by the depth of their servanthood and the breadth of their capacity to hold the wellbeing of the whole body as leaders.

As a community, we have relied on the SLT in many unconscious ways. I know, because I have eavesdropped on many of those conversations. They love us, and tend us like loving parents – Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon.

Now, for the first time, we will be living into the reality that Peter has voluntarily stepped aside from the Servant Leadership Team, but is choosing to stay as a Steward of this community. He will continue to participate in his mission groups, but he will step away from your expectation of responsiveness. To be honest, we are hoping for a little more freedom from the expectations of others and the internal expectations that he has had because he has been part of the “paid staff.”

It’s important to note that we do have a model for this kind of shift among Stewards. There are several active members of our community who were once Stewards and now feel called to another primary commitment. I want to challenge you to  notice what we need in new servant-leadership. The question will be coming up as we move forward together.

In Conclusion…

Mary and Joseph came to the temple in order to fulfill an obligation, but what they heard there was an amazing prophecy of meaning and purpose for their lives. I pray that, as we go about the daily list of obligations and chores, we too can be open to CALL for our part in God’s story of redemption. It may be small or large. It may begin with the care of a child or an animal, but it may also be changing the structures and practices that guide our lives.

Simeon spoke truth about the disruption that would be caused by God’s vision for leveling the ground of our humanity – meeting one another in the kitchen, on the patio, or with the children – as we practice what it means to be on the journey with Jesus. We can expect opposition or derision. Ask for help and support when you need it. Give it when you can. Redemption is a long road, but we are on that road together.

With Anna and Simeon, let us praise God when we see good news for the lost, the least and the lonely ones,  holding up the larger story of God’s love and desire that we all become not just children of God, but mature, scrappy grown-ups of God – as Jesus and his disciples did.

May God bless the sharing of this word,


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