Marjory Zoet Bankson: Advent and Apocalypse

November 30, 1998
By Marjory Zoet Bankson
Text: Luke 21:25-36

Advent and Apocalypse

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year (Year C in the lectionary).

Advent is the season of waiting and hoping for the birth of Christ in us, because we know development of life takes its own time. But the text for this morning gives a bizarre description of the end times, the Apocalypse. What are we to make of the juxtaposition?

The first Sunday in Advent is always an apocalyptic text, seemingly the very worst time to be having a baby. And yet that’s what the church calls us to hold in tension:

Advent and Apocalypse:

  • a fig tree buds with disaster and disintegration all around;
  • new life signals that the kingdom of God is near.

It was Roy’s message last week…Street children in Johannesburg, singing their own salvation…Lost boys… being crucified like Christ on the cross… crying out their true names. Harbingers of Advent and Apocalypse.

Though we do not live with the daily terror and harshness of street children in Johannesburg, our faith calls us to be with Roy as he does his work, his call to help them find their voices in the world. My gift seems small and tame next to his and yet I trust that in the great mystery of God’s realm, my offering as a storyteller will be enough…like the Sunday School Madonna here on the altar, surrounded by an Advent wreath of barbed wire.

This morning, three points for the beginning of Advent:

  • First, conception in chaos;
  • Second, carriage or miscarriage; and
  • Third, courage to conceive again.

Let’s focus on conception..

Ovum and sperm. Female and male. Otherness joined.

Even science has not been able to overcome nature’s way of beginning a new life.

It doesn’t take love, though we would want that, but it does take fertility. Opposites merge.

Enemies make love. A fig tree buds in the middle of chaos. God is near.

Think of the tension for those early believers who thought the end of time was coming in their lifetime. How did they manage to keep their faith and give birth to a new generation when they expected the Apocalypse? Converts, yes. Babies, no — and yet we know children are conceived in times of war. Something in us yearns for life, maybe more when the end is near.

Last week, I asked members of the New Testament class to write a credo of belief.

Here on the altar is Martha Phillips’ response. (Large painting) Male and female here at the base of the vine…lots of different leaves here between…and a beautiful flower which says "All one in the spirit." That flower carries the seed of God for Martha. An annunciation…a virgin birth.

But that doesn’t mean Martha can nourish it alone. She needs support, like the protection Elizabeth and Joseph gave to Mary during her Advent season.

Which takes me to my second point:

Carriage…or Miscarriage.

What does it take to carry the seed full term?

In community, we need both male and female strength to shelter and nourish new life.

It’s not so much about particular pairs, who’s married to whom. It’s about the whole image of God, male and female, manifest collectively.

Last Sunday, the men of Seekers stood along this wall and sang "The Rose" as an offering from their retreat the previous weekend. We saw and heard their separate strengths drawn close, in comfortable harmony — an image we rarely see in this culture.

To me, Sonya’s emotion spoke louder than words. "Twelve years ago," she said, "after Mary Claire and I preached, Fred asked ‘What is it you want for men?’ And now I know. It was this!"

No need for a big stadium or a program of promises. Just the sense of knowing one-another more deeply. It felt like the chorus for Roy’s music. They were "One in the spirit" instead of "ones in the spirit."

We heard the harmony coming five years ago, when Diane was pregnant with Covey and they preached an "annunciation sermon." Rachel told us her story of hunting for a church where she was welcome; of how she cried when she came home every Sunday until Diane got curious and began coming herself. Then Diane told us about the child she was carrying, how, with all the procedures they had gone through, they knew she was carrying a little boy. And I remember the stillness in this room.

Diane concluded, "We need the men in this community so we can get over our own homophobia before our son is born. There’s no reason to think he will be gay. We will need you," she said, "to be fathers and brothers and friends for our family." And the silence around them grew larger.

When the time for response came, Ken Leinbach spoke first: "I’m really glad to be part of your family," he said, "and know that (our son) Micah is going to have a playmate here." Others spoke and we could hear the rustle of angel wings. The men of Seekers joined to do their Joseph’s work. That’s some of what it takes to carry a pregnancy in these uncertain times.

Now Rachel and Diane are showing us another way to carry birth.

This time it’s adopting Nguyen Thi Tu, whose name could mean "fourth Nguyen daughter" depending on where the phonic sounds are. On our visit to Vietnam last year we learned that the government has a strict policy of limiting family size to two children because the population has doubled since the war. There are fines for a third child and job loss for a fourth. Abortions are free and frequent, so we know this child had a mother who valued her life, though she cannot care for her. Adoption means Rachel and Diane are helping us "enlarge our tents, lengthen the cords and strengthen the stakes" as Isaiah says.

Adoption doesn’t happen only in families. Communities can do it too.

This week, I had a long conversation with Jim Dickerson at the New Community Church over at 6th and S in the Shaw neighborhood. Seekers and New Community have had a long and good relationship not only church-to-church but also through Manna, Grace Dickerson’s after school program and the Hope and a Home Mission Group. I preached there a couple of weeks ago and experienced a lively worship with a "rainbow" congregation of many hues: black, African, Asian and white.

Jim said "We need three or four people who are really committed to this project to come and help for 2-3 years. We don’t want to overwhelm the leadership that’s starting to bud, but Grace and Marilyn McDonald and I need some help." They worship at 11, so a Seeker wouldn’t need to give up coming here entirely. I guess it’s more like good foster care, committed to launching a local church in a neighborhood that does have gifts but lacks the confidence to name them.

Carriage–or miscarriage. Not all conceptions grow into full term births. Miscarriage happens more often than we know. Growing up in an obstetrician’s home, I knew from my father that many first pregnancies end in miscarriage — as though Mother Nature had to clear the way for a full-term pregnancy. Those births often go unnamed and unmourned, but they leave a scar.

And in community, I think that happens too.

Seekers first try at birthing ourselves in a new place ended abortively. Even though many were ready to proceed with a bid on a building, the core group could not come to consensus and the process ended. Then the Homemakers Mission Group disbanded and we have let our body rest from that miscarriage.

Which takes me to my third point,

Finding the Courage to Try Again.

Advent and Apocalypse. The fig tree buds again.

Madelaine L’Engle says it well in her poem, "The Risk of Birth:"

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn —
Yet love still takes the risk of birth.
In Seekers, it’s love that takes on the risk of birth — again.

This month, the core members established a separate Fund for the Future, outside of our normal operating budget. Because we have not spent previous bequest distributions from Church of the Saviour but have loaned that money to Manna for housing redevelopment in the city, we are able to start the Future Fund with $150,000. Future bequests, special gifts or budget surpluses will go to the Future Fund…like a couple who begins saving for a house or apartment when conception begins. Mary and Joseph were not street people, living in stables and barns the rest of their lives. They too had a place for the child to grow into the mission God was calling him to.

The Future Fund can be a place where our call is nourished and stretched.

Sometimes I dream about having a place where some Seekers, preferably old and young, could live closer together — maybe in an apartment building where we could meet for worship. It won’t happen unless someone hears a call to look for that.

Sometimes Peter and I talk about a campus ministry for Seekers, where we could meet for worship and have the School of Christian Living on a college campus like GW or Howard, maybe developing the network of "cat-sized" churches by increasing our web-page contacts from that kind of center.

When you go upstairs, you will see a visual presentation of where we are giving and spending Seekers money on projects we care about. I think this has something important to say about who we are and what God might conceive in our midst during this Advent season. I invite you to look carefully at our current giving and pray about what we might give birth to as a community.

Where do you see new buds on the tree of Seekers?

And if you have suggestions or questions about what we are currently engaged in, talk to one of the three chairs listed on the bulletin board upstairs during the Advent season.

Three things then, to hold in prayer during Advent:

  1. What is God conceiving in Seekers now?
  2. How can we carry it to completion this time?
  3. And do we have the courage to try again?

I’m ready to say "Yes" like Mary. Are you?.

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