Marjory Zoet Bankson: Night Sky and Empty Bowl

Third Sunday of Advent, Dec 13, 1998
A Sermon for Seekers Church
By Marjory Zoet Bankson

Night Sky and Empty Bowl

Hebrew Testament: Isaiah 35: 1-10…then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped….
Gospel Lesson: Matt 11:2-11…tell John the blind see, the lame walk…the dead are raised.

I was thrilled to see the simple altar for this Advent season — black velvet cloth, silver stars, votive candles and this empty coppery pot, made by hand in the New Mexico sun—like the vault of a starry night on the high desert, with tiny shepherd fires for warmth and warning, and an empty manger in the middle.

  • The bowl, coil-built and burnished, not perfectly round, waiting to be filled–.
  • The reflection paragraph from "Everyday Sacred" — an invitation to wake up!

To notice God in the small, the slow and the simple things.

  • The theme, "Just Enough," a beacon of sanity in this season of consumer excess.

I. Night Sky and Empty Bowl

Recently I enjoyed reading Thomas Cahill’s new book, The Gifts of the Jews, subtitled How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. I highly recommend it as a way to understand our faith tradition. Cahill says that the major religions of the ancient world were CLOSED SYSTEMS — with a pantheon of "sky gods" associated with the fixed stars on a heavenly dome above the flat earth, as well as other gods. Sumerians, Egyptians and Hindus celebrated the Great Wheel of Life, in which nothing new was possible under the sun — until Abraham heard a voice saying, "Go to the place I will show you" — and he went. That, says Cahill, was the beginning of individualism, of newness entering the closed system of human thought, and of the possibility for a living relationship with God. It wasn’t just monotheism, according to Cahill, but the advent of newness that made Judaism so revolutionary. You can hear the heartbeat of that NEWNESS in Isaiah’s song of hope and transformation this morning.

We hear some echoes of the ancient sky gods in the language of the Lord’s prayer, "Our Father, who art in Heaven…" but we also know the stories of the bowl — of Hagar and Sarah, of Abraham and his fallible humanity along with his faithfulness in following the voice that called him to a new place in history. The very idea that God would communicate directly with an ordinary human being was simply an impossible thought — until Abraham birthed it into our consciousness.

The altar speaks of both — night sky as a field of belief and empty bowl, a specific human being — waiting to be filled like Abraham’s heart or Mary’s belly, my life and yours.

In Everyday Sacred, Sue Bender tells the story of a friend who makes beautiful abstract photographic prints that were both "haunting and powerful." When she asked what created those rich and poetic images, her friend told her they were discarded x-rays of people and animals. Later that evening, a package arrived and Sue Bender saw that it was an elegant bowl.

"What is it?" she asked.
"An x-ray of the sacrum and pelvis of a woman."

Sacrum comes from the word sacred. My sons, she wrote, emerged from a wondrous bowl!

II. The Blind Shall See…

In the Gospel lesson for today, John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

John was a hard-liner, an idealist who called people to repentance. He preached the Day of Judgment, close at hand. In the tone of an angry sky god, John promised destruction to those who did not turn away from their wicked ways and "get right with God."

John and his disciples had some questions about Jesus –who enjoyed parties, didn’t avoid women and was rumored to have broken Sabbath laws more than once. I suspect Jesus seemed a little "too human" for John. Sky god and sensual bowl. Are you the one?

Jesus answered with Isaiah’s song of hope: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.

No talk of repentance. No claims of divinity. Just humanity being healed. Signs of a "kingdom coming," person to person, among the outcasts. Not the way John had pictured it. Too slow. Too human.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and I’m beginning to think David was right about his ambivalence. Everyone I’ve talked to seems to be resisting Advent this year, like we can’t quite remember what we’re waiting for. Maybe it’s been the unseasonal warmth — reminding us of global warming and what we haven’t done about it. Maybe it’s the calendar –a reminder that the Millennium will be upon us at this time next year but nothing really new seems to be happening. The furor over Y2K is a shallow substitute for what Isaiah prophesied about a new age to come.

Most of us come this morning, feeling a little battered and depressed by the political scene:

  • our mood colored by the lurid details of presidential perfidy and partisan rancor,
  • sad for a president who hasn’t outgrown his adolescent sexuality;
  • sickened by the underbelly of our legal and political systems where justice and mercy seem lost;
  • sorry that our insatiable appetite for news and scandal is feeding the frenzy.

As I brought my empty heart to prayer this week, a Bible story came to mind. Imagine this—an adulterous man, caught in the act, is dragged before Jesus to be publicly stoned.
As the kids say these days, "What would Jesus do?

What are we telling our children about the front-page news this week?
Are we taking a hard line, like John the Baptist? Or are we using this scandal to ponder the hard choices about forgiveness and accountability? What would forgiveness even look like?

I wonder if this whole public debate could be part of a process to grow out souls even bigger. Maybe it’s part of the newness we have to learn for the Millennium. Could it be part of the bigness of Spirit that will be asked of us?

A friend of mine observed, "Because most Americans don’t believe in heaven anymore, we demand perfection on earth! I think that’s why we haul people into court or blame doctors when people die." And I think he’s right. As a culture, we’ve done away with the "night sky," – a field of belief – and we’ve tried to fill the bowl with technology, to create a closed system that we can control if only we learn a little more, try a little harder and punish those who let their sinning show.

Sue Bender has another story in Everyday Sacred, which seems relevant here.

There was a serious student who went to great effort to search out a hermit who was reported to have great wisdom. He got very frustrated because the teacher refused to answer the long list of important questions that he had come with. Finally the old man invited him to tea.

"Keep pouring until I tell you to stop," the teacher said.

So the student poured until there was tea running all over the table.

"Can’t you see the cup is full?" the student said.

"And so it is with you," the teacher answers. "Your mind is full of too many things. Only when you are empty will there be room for more knowledge to come in."

Advent means clearing space, emptying the bowl so we can hold the newness that God has for us — to receive "just enough" for today. That simple act is not so simple! Finding ways to clear a Sabbath space so we can really listen for God’s guidance will keep us close to the Source of life — as Jesus was.

III. Just Enough

Threading through the fall for me has been a theme of celebrating Sabbath, not just by setting aside one day for rest and remembrance of God’s work of creation (as in "keeping the 4th commandment), but by "waking up" to God in simple things – the small, the slow, the ordinary.
Keeping the Sabbath can come in small bites, daily ways to remember our connection with God:
empty bowl and night sky.

Yesterday Peter and I went to the craft show in Gaithersburg. It’s our favorite way to shop for Christmas presents, talking with artists and supporting their handwork. There was a young photographer from Dayton, Ohio, who captured us the longest – and we didn’t buy anything. But he filled our hungry hearts with images of the night sky, which he took through a homemade telescope – Orion and the Andromeda nebula; the Hale Bopp comet and meteorites hitting Jupiter; Sirius, the Dog Star, and the Pleides, dancing together.

I had been working on this sermon, thinking about how ancient people saw the constellations like permanent etchings on a crystal sphere, but these photographs were full of life and movement. Framed newspaper clippings proudly told how NASA had posted some of his photographs on the Internet and a small sign told us that none of them were "computer enhanced." Here was a man whose sense of wonder was plain to see and I heard him talking to another visitor about how to build a simple telescope like his. It was "just enough" to feed my soul that day.

On Friday, I had a different kind of Sabbath experience. Last Sunday, I picked up a card for one of the Freeman family children. Peter and I don’t need another thing to stuff into our closets, but I was strangely touched by the challenge of finding the right thing for an 11-year-old girl whom I had never met. I chose a card with a church dress pictured on it and planned to spend about an hour on the project.

On Thursday, I glanced at the ads in the paper and picked a shopping center where two or three stores promised a department for juniors. I imagined there would be racks to choose from so I thought a little about the style an 11-year-old might wear, picturing the girls at Seekers for my model. I wanted the dress to make her feel good about herself at the brink of adolescence. The project began to feel like a spiritual bond — empty bowl and night sky.

I began to realize this was really new territory for me when I got to the store and didn’t know where to find girls dresses — and when I did find it (upstairs, in back of kitchen gadgets) I could not figure out how to translate the largest girl’s size into junior sizes. After visiting all the options, nothing seemed right. The Girls Department put me in a world of bows and smocks. Wrong style. I started to feel anxious and pressured, so I sat down on a bench and stared at the Christmas lights for awhile, reminding myself why I was doing this — and setting aside my stopwatch. I decided to expand my definition of "church dress" and get something she could wear to school, even a jog suit if necessary.

This may not be what Thomas Merton had in mind when he wrote about meditation, or what Jesus had in mind when he answered John that "the blind see," but when I went back to the Girls Department at Pennys, I found the perfect thing hanging against the wall — because it was an outfit in two pieces — a simple black velvet top and a swingy short black velvet skirt. Perfect! I hadn’t seen them before. And they were on sale! So I bought some white tights in the right size to go with them!

A delicious morsel in my bowl!
A Sabbath experience to usher in Advent because Sallie and Mary Carol and others have been faithful about their call to Hope and a Home.
"Just enough" for Sabbath.
And a glimpse of the night sky through a homemade telescope.

Go and tell John the blind receive their sight, the lame walk and the poor have good news brought to them.


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