Jan 5, 2003 (Epiphany Sunday)
A Sermon for Seekers Church
by Marjory Zoet Bankson
How Does a New Call Come?
HT: Isaiah 60:1-6
NT: Matt 2:1-12
Have you noticed the star? The red satin one with a tinsel tail? How it has moved throughout Advent, from the upstairs hallway, down through our meeting area, to the stable on Christmas Eve? Now up on the cross for Epiphany, the Sunday when we celebrate the journey of the Wise Men who came from the East because a star beckoned.
We do not know much about the Wise Men. This is their only appearance in the biblical story. We know that they studied the heavens and paid attention to their dreams, which guided them away from Herod’s trap, mystics and scientists of the Ancient World. They were probably Zoroastrian astrologers from Babylon, included by Matthew in a numinous metaphor of worldly powers…bowing down to a new reality.
Zoroastrians believed in a closed universe caught in an eternal struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Nietzche brought their worldview into modern thought with his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, as he proclaimed the old fixed image of God to be dead. They understood the night sky as a fixed dome of stars reflecting patterns on earth. The sight of a super-bright rogue star was the sign of a cataclysmic change! The possibility of such newness cracked their static worldview wide open! You and I would say that the Wise Men responded to God’s call.
Last week, Jerry told the story of “The Other Wise Man” which Henry van Dyke set down in 1923. It is a story of distraction and apparent failure. However, as the seeker lay dying, he heard the words by which we recognize the presence of Christ: if you have done it to the least of my children, you have done it unto me. We would say that Artaban, Van Dyke’s “other wise man,” actually fulfilled his call… even though he did not know it until the end of his life.
As we celebrate Epiphany today, let me ask, what star are you following? Where does it lead? How does a new call come?
In light of this story, I see that this red satin star has been an unexpected symbol for my call. On the first Sunday of Advent in 1980, I preached here and that same star hung on the cross for the first time. Back then, it was not common for a woman to be in this pulpit. Fred Taylor was our regular preacher, but this was a special occasion. I think I was supposed to be introducing the presence of clowns for the four Sundays of Advent.
However, during the week before that sermon, Peter had received orders for Germany and my growing sense of call toward preaching and retreat leadership was in complete turmoil! To me, the news that we would be moving to Germany the following summer felt like a death knell for my hopes that I could find a way to shift from making pottery at the Torpedo Factory toward full-time spiritual inquiry. I did not want a star that would lead me to another country when I had just begun taking this call seriously.
Preaching was just one facet of a larger call to public ministry. Another was retreat leadership. When we arrived in 1976, I had a dream. In it, I was sitting on a street-corner with my potter’s wheel, handing out little wet pots like religious tracts. Within a month of that dream, my first invitation to lead a weekend retreat at a church in Lincoln, Nebraska, came from a Faith At Work connection and I recognized that I would be using clay in a different way…as a metaphor for spiritual growth. Then other invitations began to come…from Chicago and Virginia Beach and Columbus, Ohio. I began to test my call in the wider world.
Because we had no retreat mission group here at Seekers, I joined the Shepherds and taught my first class at the School of Christian Living as we shifted from being a Church of the Saviour mission to being a Seekers School. When I became a Steward in 1978, Emily was my sponsor and the mission group blessed my call to “outreach teaching.” I practiced leading retreats in other parts of the country and offered classes here.
In those days, the word “retreat” in this church was reserved for silent retreats at Dayspring. We did not really have other kinds of retreats. Moreover, because Sonya loved the unprogrammed space for families to gather at Wellspring on the overnights, we did not structure that time for learning either. I remember only one guided retreat…that Mary Clare Powell led for the women of Seekers. It was fabulous…but we did not do it again. Later, when Seekers joined the partners at Rolling Ridge, we had a place… but no culture of structured retreats for spiritual growth. The School remained our primary place of learning.
Mission Group Life
When we got back from Germany in 1982, I put my feet down in Learners & Teachers because my call to public ministry fit best there. Over time, I went to Virginia Seminary and took on the challenge of reviving Faith@Work magazine. The School became even more important as we opened the pulpit in the mid-80s and I felt guided to stay there while others came… and went. The names are legion: Emily; Muriel; Rozanne Oliver; Nancy Marchal; Mike Unger; Lewise Busch; Margalea Warner; Christine Weaver; Mary Youry; Ron Arms; Carolyn Shields; Anne Beaufort; Dan Phillips…and others. I learned to love each one…and let them go.
Lewise will remember when we got down to 3 members one summer and thought we could not possibly have a school in the fall…but then we sounded the call again and God sent us new blood, new energy; new life. We experienced a kind of death and resurrection that year and I learned to trust that process. The mission group has been my place of deepest belonging in Seekers. Can it possibly be 20 years now, week in and week out?
I learned to value the mission group as a crucible of growth, rubbing our callousness of comfort with the sandpaper of our differences. For much of that time, I have been the Spiritual Director…holding the spiritual struggles of each member in my prayers; Writing a weekly response to their reports; Asking questions; Walking with people in desert times — not always very skillfully. I have been often impatient; frequently critical; sometimes awkward with my comments; suspicious that nobody was reading what I wrote; and learning and growing in the process. Although we tend to be self-critical for our lack of diversity here at Seekers, I have experienced “otherness” in the crucible of the mission group that is truly hard to embrace. What we say in the Guide to Seekers Church: "that the mission group carries the seeds of the destiny of humankind," is true. Indeed, if we cannot learn to love one another here, how can we make peace elsewhere?
A New Star
Now there is a new star breaking over my horizon. Back in October, Sherri Alms and Emmy Lou Daly attended a retreat that Tiffany and I led at Kirkridge. Sherri said to me as we left, “How come we never see you this way at Seekers?” I replied, “Because we don’t have a form for it. We need a retreat mission group or something like that.”
As Advent arrived and we dug the satin star out of our Christmas decorations for the season, the call to a retreat mission group blazed hot in my prayer time again. Dreams fueled the fire. I was given the names of Emily and Muriel to share this call with and they too have spent time wrestling with the angel of newness at a time when I think all three of us would rather stick to what has worked in the past. That, however, is not the way of God’s call!
We hope to develop a variety of offerings to nurture the inner life of Seekers as well as inviting others to our space at Carroll Street. We have decided on a name to reflect that: Living Water — from the promise of “living water” that Jesus gave to the Samaritan Woman by Jacob’s Well.
Tonight, Emily, Muriel and I will be presenting our call to Stewards. Then we will sound the call in worship for other members. For those of you who might be interested, I can tell you that we will be meeting on Thursday nights at Goodwin House in northern Virginia.
Over the holidays, I have been grieving the end of my sojourn with Learners & Teachers. For the past 20 years, it has been a place where I can both give and receive in this community. Your participation in recent classes tells me that the need for good content and relational teaching is still there. As we move to Carroll Street, the School will be even more important and I have to trust that others will be called to keep it vital.
Back in 1978, when Emily was my sponsor into Stewards, she was trying to loosen my hold on money. She urged me to spend $1 on something for myself. Therefore, I bought this wooden camel at the Cathedral for our Christmas tree. Now it seems like a sign of a call that was being nurtured in a far country; carried all these long years in order to be opened up in Seekers now.
I see the possibility that the Living Water Mission Group can help us develop a culture of experiential retreats for ourselves and for others too. Because we have no onsite housing, we will have to be creative in our retreat formats, but I believe that we have lots of talent in this congregation and just need some locus for that energy. I pray that our mission group can be a catalyst for the different kinds of learning opportunities at Carroll Street.
We ask for your blessing and encouragement as we start out together, following a new star toward Living Water, a retreat mission group for Seekers.