Peter Bankson: Call, Ministry and the Gift of Our Imperfect Lives

Seekers Church: A Christian Community
In the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour

Peter Bankson
Epiphany Sermon 2005

Call, Ministry and the Gift of Our Imperfect Lives

Epiphany Reflection

I want to be famous to shuffling men,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

From “Famous” in Words Under the Words by Naomi Shahib Nye


Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom, I uphold, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


Today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we remember both the visit of the Magi to honor the Christ child in Bethlehem, and Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. It is interesting to me how fast we pass over the first 30 years of Jesus’ life, how little attention we have traditionally paid to his growing up, and his working life as a carpenter.


As I thought about baptism, and particularly about those that I have been a part of in this community, I had an insight: Being baptized means waking up to your place as co-creator, and getting on with it. Another word we use for that is “call.” It is a concept that has been around for a long time. Think of Jesus being baptized by John before he sets out on his Earthly ministry. When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” From that moment, he knew he was living out God’s call.


Many things that need to be done may not be “call” for you. Some of them might still be “ministry,” though, and that is worth taking seriously. Doing ministry can put us in a position to “see the dove … hear the voice.”


Sometimes there are things that have to be done, but they feel more like ‘duty’ or drudgery. Might these “chores” can also be a place of learning while we wait for that call from God?


In this season of Epiphany there is more than one way to look at the ‘gift of our imperfect lives.”

  • When you discover that a ministry is the joy that keeps you running long after your lungs and your legs are ready to quit, then I would say that is “call.”
  • If it is good news to others and you are willing to do it for their sake, maybe that is “ministry.”
  • Moreover, if it is good news to others but a burden to you, I would call it “chore.”


Epiphany is a season of discovery:

  • The magi discover that the King they seek is living in an unexpected place.
  • The path to justice and peace that we thought was clear before us is shrouded in the fog of war.
  • The good work that I am given to do is so mundane that it did not even make it into that holiday conversation I had with my brother-in-law.


So, what is God’s call on your life? What are you doing to find, or live into, that call? Moreover, how can the rest of us stand with you to encourage, support, honor and celebrate the gift from God that is you?

Call, Ministry or Duty?

The past few months I have found myself asking, “Just what is my call?” “What do I have to offer to this troubled world, “to establish justice in the earth,” now that I am old and ‘retired?” When I was at Communities In Schools, it was easy. I could talk about the mission of CIS and my part in it. The mission, “to help troubled kids stay in school, learn effectively and prepare for life” felt like an important way to help establish justice. Even though I was not working directly with troubled kids, I knew that I was part of something bigger that was doing God’s will.


But now, now that I’m not going to my cubicle every morning, sitting at my computer, looking for funding to keep the doors open and the staff paid, it’s easy to feel un-called. This is not a sermon, though, about “When God’s hangs up on your call…” No, I want to help us live into the gift of our imperfect lives, and this loss of vision is part of my imperfection.


I can talk about my call to be here at Seekers, part of our Servant Leadership Team, in a role that might look a lot like “ministry” in a more traditional congregation. Most of the time I feel good about what I get to do to help us keep moving. Nevertheless, a lot of it is hard to see from the outside.


It reminds me of a favorite image of a necessary but invisible “gift.” I do not do a lot of sewing, but I have done enough embroidery and sewn on enough buttons to know how a needle and thread works. When you begin a sewing task, you need enough thread on the needle to hold things together, plus enough extra to let you get the needle through the fabric on that last stitch. [Show with big needle and bright embroidery floss.]


The needle may be called to sew on a button, and so might the thread. However, the thread that is left on the needle, after the job is done, which was essential to reaching the goal, will be cast aside.


If that thread possessed a mind of its own, it might have very different feelings about its role in attaching a button. The thread that is holding the button in place has a permanent place, a visible role, a place of honor on the garment. Small, yes, but continuing to do an important job. It might feel that it is living out a call. It might even be proud of the job it is doing – holding that button with just enough slack to fit neatly through the buttonhole. It might even be proud of its accomplishment. (Alternatively, as a baptized button, its pride might be cloaked in the language of the “victorious Christian life.”)


What of the thread that is left on the needle when the job is done? Although it was essential, if it is small it is discarded at the end of the job or set aside for another task in the future. … sort of reminds me of Paul, in Acts, talking about his own life: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24) We are created for work. As part of the Body of Christ, we are baptized for good work, already prepared for us by God.

The Gift of Our Imperfect Lives

In Celebration Circle, we chose the theme for this season – “The Gift of Our Imperfect Lives” – for several reasons. First, we wanted to call attention to the wisdom behind the journey of the Magi, their honoring of truth not born of power, and the personal sacrifice that befell them because they chose to honor the wisdom they had received.

Second, we hope to focus on an important part of our call to be Church. We declare, “Our call is to be a “Seekers community” which comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.…


“For us,” we declare in our call, “Christian servanthood is based on empowering others within the normal structures of our daily lives (work; family and primary relationships; and citizenship) as well as through special structures for service and witness.”


What does this mean? What is “Christian Servanthood,” and how do we expect each of us to empower others within the normal structures of our daily lives (work; family and primary relationships; and citizenship) as well as through special structures for service and witness?

Call and Ministry: the Language of Good Works

In his “Handbook for Mission Groups,” written in 1975, Gordon Cosby speaks of one of the core values of Church of the Saviour: God calls each one of us to a particular area of service. Young or old; regardless of experience, skills or education; despite our past successes or failures – God issues each of us an individual call. Broadly defined, it is a call to a life of love and service. Concretely, it is a highly individual desire to be about a particular work in the world and in the church. It is a desire placed by God in the heart of each person. Gordon called this being “seized by the power of a great affection.”


When we begin to live out God’s call on our lives, we find that we are doing what we love. We are not people who understand God’s call as a mandate to some burdensome, tiresome obligation. We live in the mystery of Christ’s teaching that, while he carried the cross, his yoke was easy and his burden was light. To walk with Christ in an obedient life of service is to do what we love and, in doing it, to find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30). However, like Moses, we have found that God’s call might not always sound like good news at first, and may never be “easy” in the common sense of that word. God has said, “Set my people free.” We may not feel up to the job, and sometimes we are not sure God is either. Also like Moses, we know that we can struggle with God in prayer, and through the struggle deepen our understanding. If it is truly God’s call on our lives, doing what we love will be a flowing river of God’s grace into our lives.


It is in following our call that we experience the mystery of God’s presence in our community and an ever-deepening friendship with God in our inner lives. We grow in our faith, find rich fellowship within Christian community and experience new life and healing, all by following God’s call on us. We want Seekers Church to be a faith community where responding to God’s call is encouraged and supported, and we work, and play, and celebrate with that in mind.


For some of us this sense of joy in doing good works is more often a hope than a vibrant reality. Ministry may not always be Call.

What Would Jesus Do?

What ever happened to those bracelets with the beads spelling out “WWJD?” I suspect they journeyed to the back of the drawer because the more folks thought about the question, the harder it was to answer.


“What would Jesus do?” is a lot bigger, and much less obvious, than “What did Jesus do?” By my rough calculation, Jesus spent

  • 15 years of his life growing up;
  • 15 years working for others as a carpenter; and the last
  • 3 years of his life offering a ministry of healing and hope that is still with us.


Given our focus today on call, or “ministry in daily life,” what was Jesus’ call? What was Jesus’ ministry? How about when he was 25 years old? (Remember, according to the Bible narrative, he knew from a very early age, long before his baptism, that God had chosen him for a special role.)


He probably served the customers at his carpentry shop in a caring, constructive way. I would guess that he learned from his parents how to encourage a customer, and how to bite his tongue when someone wanted a new door that was well constructed, but not what he would have in his own home. Jesus was probably doing “ministry in daily life from a very early age, even though sometimes I’m sure it was a chore!


What about the Magi? They were ancient examples of “knowledge workers,” devoted to making sense of signs and symbols; living in an often abstract world. The plaque we have from Brenda’s sister Sharon reminds us in a light-hearted way that the Magi might not have been the most practical participants at Jesus’ baby shower. Nevertheless, the tale of their journey to Bethlehem to worship a “King” who was not born of royalty – and not of their own tradition – gives us a wonder-filled image of Jesus being chosen and honored as a gift.


We know the importance of giving presents. It’s harder sometimes to know the importance of being present, of being caring, comforting, witnessing, blessing, holding sacred space / convening community for the benefit of others, to establish justice … for the glory of God.

The Other Wise Man is a Story of Duty that Became Call at the End of the Story

There is a wonderful story about the journey of the Magi that surfaced again this year for me. “The Other Wise Man” was written in 1923 by Henry van Dyke, who served as a congregational pastor, Professor of English at Yale, an Army chaplain during World War I and as US Ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg. (He also wrote the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”)


I would commend this story to any of us who are struggling with God’s call. The subject of this story is Artiban, the fourth Wise Man, who had a life that felt to him like a near miss until the very end. He sees the same stars as the other Magi we know more about, determines that he must take three gifts to this new King. He starts from a different place, and rushes through the desert and the mountains to join the caravan of the other Wise Men who are recognized in the Bible. He stops to heal a dying elder and misses the departure of the caravan, but gets good guidance from the man whose life he saved: “Go to Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.”


Then, he sells his first gift for the provisions he will need to travel alone, spending his gift for Jesus on his own preparation. He gets to Bethlehem just after Joseph has taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt, another near miss. Caught up in the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” he gives his second gift to bribe Herod’s soldiers and save a child. Here he agonizes over spending his gifts for Jesus on a bribe. Does this sound familiar?

Hearing reports of the flight to Egypt, he heads there, and spends the next 33 years looking for the Jesus.


Finally, he gets to Jerusalem just as Pilate is trying Jesus. He gives his last gift to a fellow Persian, a girl who was being held hostage by her father’s debts. And then, as the crucifixion is in process and the “third hour” arrives…”One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay, breathless and pale, with is gray head resting on the young girl’s shoulder, and the blood trickling from the wound. …

“Then the old man’s lips began to move, as if in answer, and she heard him say in the Parthian tongue: ‘Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee and hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick and in prison, and came unto thee? Thirty-three years I have looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.’


“He ceased, and the faint voice came again. And again the maid heard it, very faint and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words: ‘Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.’


“A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artiban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy peak. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.”

Throughout his search, he never felt that he found his call … but his life and his gifts were ministry, and in the end, he knew that the gift of his imperfect life had been God’s call all along. Ministry may not always feel like call. In this season of Epiphany, we have time to re-consider the life and ministry of Jesus, and how we are responding to God’s call on each of us.

Claiming God’s Call

We all struggle with “call.” For some, it is seeing any meaning at all in the work we have to do. For many, the task is too mundane – not big enough, like being the thread left on the needle at the end of a job. For some, not tough enough – not painful enough, as though you cannot be serving Christ if it is joyful. What would Henry van Dyke think, he who wrote “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee?”) For some, even though it is important, the there is not enough sense of reward – What would my mother think? Alternatively, it may not offer enough reward, in the sense of income. (I would do that, but it would not pay college tuition for my child.)


Ministry may not be call … yet, but there is certainly room for growth. Could Jesus from 15 to 30 be “ministry?”


I see ministry in lots of places in “daily life:” (Seekers’ call is to support us in this.)

  • Sheri Bergen offering care and healing for stressed bodies;
  • Richard Lawrence on the Falls Church environmental committee;
  • Sherri Alms helping non-profit organizations find their voice and share their news;
  • Lewise Busch offering counseling and support to folks who need a lot of help and can’t afford to pay very much;
  • Emily Gilbert offering worship in the Alzheimer’s Unit at Goodwin House;
  • Colleen Schaefgen as a life coach and helping people cope with divorce;
  • Billy Amoss helping get millions of vaccinations to Russia;
  • Marjory Bankson offering her gifts as a teacher and narrative theologian in many settings;
  • Keith Seat helping folks get past their anger and find reconciliation through court-ordered mediation;
  • Kate Cudlipp guiding FLOC through a long transition after the departure of the founder;
  • Jane Engle offering pastoral care at Collington Retirement Community;
  • Jeanne Marcus helping us share our space with many different groups…


I think if we could look carefully and listen with an open heart, each one of us would know that we had some particular ministry. This kind of ministry in daily life is harder to claim when it happens here among us every week. We know how to give ribbons and blessings to trips out of town for special pilgrimages or missions, but we have nothing public to offer to honor and support each other in those daily grind ministries. Our Mission Support Group is working on this. Moreover, I am working on a research project, as part of the Faith @ Work Mutual Ministry Project, to look at how other churches do this.


For many congregations, the issue is that no one takes the time to look at this question. As you dig deeper, questions come up about who has the authority to claim, or name a part of one’s life as “God’s Call,” and how can calls like this be blessed and supported without creating jealousy or fostering egotism.


I am convinced that there are ways, usually within a small group like our mission groups, where we can support each other as we live out our call – to disperse with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.


So, what is your Ministry in Daily Life? It might be at home, or where you work…

Chores Do Need to be Done

Short of “ministry,” there is “duty“; those chores are important work that needs to be done but do not offer much delight. Think Martha in the kitchen at Bethany – her work was needed but her spirit was cramped.


This reminds me of Kitchen Police duty in the Army. Getting KP duty was a day off from training so you could stay in the kitchen and wash dishes, pots and pans. It was necessary but so undesirable that no one had to do it all the time. Actually, being the introvert that I am, I rather enjoyed KP duty IF I could get “pots and pans,” where I could sit by myself on the back steps of the dining hall and scrubbed the burned crud out of the bottom of the big stew pots. It was quiet, you could tell when you were finished and the cook was always happy to get the clean pots back so he could start cooking up something else.


One of the critical issues in the utopian communities that sprang up in this country a century ago centered aground who would do the chores. In theory, if every resident did what he or she wanted to do for the common good, everything they needed would be done. However, no one wanted to clean the toilets. Everyone complained about the mess, and before long, folks were moving out, leaving other chores un-done. It was the beginning of the end.


I think we have a reasonable, if unwritten, theology of chores here at Seekers Church. Many folks pitch in when things need to be done. Moreover, some tasks, like coordinating Sunday School, shift back and forth between call, ministry and duty. However, coming into this new home has raised the fact that there really are things that need to be done, that no-one finds joy in doing.


In this Epiphany season we are looking for ways to honor and support ministry in daily life. Beginning this Tuesday there will be a two-week class at tour School of Christian Living, exploring the Faith @ Work Mutual Ministry Project in more detail. I hope you will join Doug Wysockey-Johnson and me to explore these questions in more detail.

We can all be looking at our own perceptions of call, ministry and chore: What would it take me to shift a ‘chore’ to ‘ministry?’ What would help me deepen ministry in response to God’s call? What would help me support others and celebrate Christian Servanthood in the ordinary structures of my life? This is a season to look for our own answers to “What Would Jesus Do?”


Finally, what is our call as a church? Are we clear about supporting each other in ministry in daily life? What is most helpful? Is there emerging something more that our building, our energy and our budget can claim as our part of establishing justice in the earth?


There is an exciting opportunity in all this. Our benediction for this season captures it in a way that speaks to me. It is a quote from Nkosi Johnson, who had AIDS from birth, and during the 12 years of his life learned something about the challenge of bringing forth justice: “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are.” We could do worse.


Let me close with a reminder from Paul, who wrote this to the church at Ephesus … and perhaps, also to us here at Seekers Church: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)


May this be a time when God’s call to you is as clear as was the dove descending on Jesus as he stood on the bank of the Jordan. Let’s get moving!



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