December 11, 2022
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
the very craziest
of Second Comings
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Christ Climbed Down” from A Coney Island of the Mind
This Advent season, we’ve been invited to focus on waiting for the birth of Jesus from a slightly different perspective: “Waking Up.” That perspective, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s reference to “an unimaginable and impossibly Immaculate Re-conception” have led me to look at the narrative of Jesus’ arrival, in each of us, as some unimaginable re-conception. If Christ comes again, but in some new way, what might we expect?
Last weekend, while I was looking for a thread to help me string together different images of waiting for Good News in these troubled times, Marjory and I came to the Craftswomen’s Holiday Show here in our space. I was delighted by the pottery and purses, the food and clothing and artwork, all spread before the altar and filling the room. It was a wonderful image of “the work of human hands,” and brought to mind that phrase in our Communion prayer of thanksgiving. Standing here in our familiar, but in that moment re-imagined space, the Spirit lifted up from within me the image of Advent as part of the Cycle of Call that Marjory lays out in The Call to the Soul.
I saw Advent as a time of claiming God’s call, of opening a way to move through revelation to risk, from seeing a new future to taking the risk to step out in faith in a new direction.
That brought up the story of Gordon and Mary Cosby deciding to risk starting Church of the Saviour 75 years ago. This call was radically different from the typical path of Baptist ministers. In those days, building a big congregation was the model for successful ministers. For Gordon, however, shepherding a small, committed diverse family of faithful people committed to stand together embodied a model he had seen among his soldiers he had pastored during World War II, who could not leave their guard posts to gather for worship as a large congregation. And here we are today, a small “family o faith” supporting each other as we seek to respond to God’s call.
That memory brought to mind the Gospel story of Mary heading into the hills to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant – two women who were able to support each other through their “unimaginable conceptions.”
These images offered me some more general reflections on God’s call during Advent. Here are three ideas. I’m sure you’ll find more:
1. God’s call is often a “Gabriel Moment,” rising up from deep within.
GOD’S CALL IS OFTEN A “GABRIEL MOMENT,” RISING UP FROM DEEP WITHIN
Our Gospel reading for this week is the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. It is her amazing response to the appearance of the angel Gabriel, telling her know that she would conceive, and give birth to a child who would walk on water, and be known as the Son of God!
For me, Biblical images of the angel Gabriel appearing to an individual with a message about the future describe the emergence of some deep truth that is beyond logic, an awareness of being in harmony with the wisdom that is at the very core of creation. God’s call is often a “Gabriel Moment,” rising up from deep within. It may well be that kind of unexpected and alarming insight for any of us.
Other examples of this kind of uninvited insight that have emerged from our story as a family of faith include these:
- The way Gordon and Mary Cosby were called in 1960 to birth the ministry of the Potter’s House after they spent a night at an inn in New England, trying to sleep in a room over a noisy bar. That restless night got them thinking about how Jesus might well have felt more at home in a bar than in the staid church they had just visited… how a public venue like a coffee house could attract and support people who are hungering for community and a deeper inner journey. Welcome to the Potter’s House. A Gabriel moment?
- The way Fred Taylor (co-founder of Seekers Church) was moved in 1967 to join For Love of Children, and lead that non-profit ministry to close Junior Village. Junior Village was the DC orphanage where children who had been taken from dysfunctional families were confined. FLOC catalyzed finding supportive foster homes for all those children, and the city closed Junior Village! A Gabriel event?
- The history Peter Storey shared with us during his visit last month about how he wound up during apartheid as the first Methodist chaplain at the notorious South African prison on Robben Island. He was serving there when Nelson Mandela arrived to begin his life sentence and they began their amazing, reconciling companionship. Gabriel’s call?
I have the sense that here in Seekers Church the emergence of our ministry teams may well have been marked by these Gabriel Moments when the Holy Spirit interrupted the normal course of a day with a greeting like “Fear not, but I have some new way for you to help bring Good News to this Creation!” It will be interesting to talk with those who have called these ministry teams into being to get a clearer sense of how they understand the way God’s call came to them.
My second insight from looking at our scripture readings from this week is that when Call emerges, it is often not what we expect, and we resist.
In her introduction to the guide for locating yourself in the Cycle of Call, Marjory acknowledges the likely pain or anguish of the emergence of a new call:
Do you believe your life has a larger purpose? Want to align your energies with your deeper purpose or call? Connecting the inner and outer spheres of our lives often begins when something breaks through the smug shell of our self-reliance, demanding attention. Often that something is pain or anguish — because nothing else is strong enough to crack a self-sufficient ego and open us to the realm of Spirit.
We want to believe God calls each of us to a “good work” and yet we are hesitant to let go of what we know. Even if the old way is difficult, at least it is familiar. Reluctance usually marks the beginning of this inward journey–a path of Call which unfolds throughout life.
When it emerges, call isn’t always what we expect, and we resist.
The story leading up to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke describes the doubt and pain of Mary, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, as they try to process the news from Gabriel. When Elizabeth, long past her child-bearing years, became pregnant as the angel had told her, she went into hiding for five months, until the transformative visit by her cousin Mary. We resist!
Zechariah argued with the angel that Elizabeth was too old to give birth. So he was struck dumb until the baby was born, and Zechariah insisted, in writing, to follow the call of the angel and name the baby “John” even though others objected that there were no “Johns” in Zechariah’s family line.
Mary had her own doubt and anxiety on first learning of God’s call on her life. As Luke describes it just before our reading for this week:
[T]he angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you!” but she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.Luke 1: 28-29
Then the angel told Mary that Elizabeth was in hiding because she was pregnant! Mary saw with fresh eyes and responded by going to be with her cousin. Elizabeth came to a deeper reality when the baby to be John leapt in her womb! Sometimes it takes more than a casual look to see what’s really going on.
In this week’s reading from Matthew, Jesus didn’t seem to fit John’s expectations. From prison, John asked his people to go ask Jesus if he really is “the One who is to come.” They asked Jesus directly, and he told them to tell John what they 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at meMatthew 11:5-6
I love Jesus’ straight response. Jesus is NOT the “king” many had been hoping for. Jesus was doing the work that was needed to deliver the Good News to those in need. He was, as we sometimes say, “Walking the walk, rather than just “talking the talk.” His ministry didn’t look like what people had learned to expect: he didn’t come riding into town clad in shining armor with an army ready to overthrow the emperor. He wasn’t parading around in soft robes, inviting sycophants to adore him in order to receive his blessing. He wasn’t inviting supplicants to deny the needs of others or offer them high status on his social media platform. No, he was giving his life energy to work for justice. Our weekly prayer of commitment is a plea that we, too, will be led to walk that way:
Give us strength and discipline
to nurture our relationship with you;
to care for every part of your creation;
to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need;
to work to end all war, and violence, and discord;
and to respond joyfully when you call,
freely giving our selves as you have shown the way.
For us here in in Seekers Church, as we wait to wake up this Advent season, there may be some new and unexpected answers waiting to sprout. The “Good News” for today may not look like the old regime, because Creation is in a different place than it was even two or three years ago.
In addition to war and violence and the growing threat of climate change, we’re living with disease pandemics and massive food insecurities and an exploding global population. In our land, the cultural turmoil of political discord, mass violence, systemic prejudice, and destruction by flood, fire and volcanic eruptions put us in a situation where we need to wake up to new ways to help bring good news to all.
And even within our family of faith, the last few years have put us in a new environment, with fewer families and more elders and more grieving. This winter seems cold and dark. But our season of Advent reminds us that new birth is on the way.
And that leads me to my third reflection.
IN DARK TIMES BEFORE WE HEAR THE CALL, WE NEED TO WAIT AND KEEP PRAYING.
Life is a mystery … a gift from God. Sometimes we can see it, and sometimes we can’t. Our scripture readings for this week begin with a promise of new life:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus.Isaiah 35:1
That brought back another powerful image for me. In 2004, when we moved here to Carroll Street in Takoma DC, there was an open field where the Maple-Willow Apartments now stand. As our first Winter here turned toward Spring, suddenly that field was filled with thousands of blooming crocuses! It was spectacular! I remember gazing at it from our back porch and walking over to feel the promise of new life flowing from those shining blossoms.
Years later that field gave up its wild crocus patch to make space for those apartments, so new neighbors can live near the METRO (and Seekers Church.) We lost the crocus celebration there, but the promise of Springtime crocus continues in several yards nearby. I checked last week, but the promise is still buried. Although the crocuses have yet to emerge outside, they are stirring out of sight in the cold, wet earth. I brought this sprouting amaryllis to remind us that Advent is a time of waiting for the emergence of beautiful good news.
In dark times like these, we need reassurance to help us stay the course. We need to hear the encouragement offered in our Epistle reading, from James’ letter to the scattered churches:
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.James 5:7-8
But wait a minute. Don’t we believe that Christ is always with us? How can we understand the “Advent” of Christ this year? Is Advent a remembering of Jesus’ birth two-plus millennia ago? Or is Advent a crazy kind of “re-conception,” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti claims in our reflection for this season?
Life is a mystery…a gift from God. Sometimes we can see it, and sometimes we can’t. The Creator is doing a new thing: it will be worth the wait. I believe we might be waiting for Gabriel moments, here and now. Where? Consider these opportunities:
- Two weeks ago, we heard an encouraging Word from two recent participants in the New Story Leadership Washington DC internship program. These women are breaking new ground to work for justice and peace in the Middle East. Seekers has a long and deep connection with NSL. Might this be a healthy sprout, heading through the cold, wet earth toward new light and fuller blossom? Gabriel, are we listening?
- For over two years the group that has become our Racial and Ethnic Justice Ministry Team has been supporting a vigil every week on the sidewalk out in front of here, calling for justice and inclusion. The new team is expanding to support other ways to work for racial and ethnic justice. On Tuesday, five Seekers joined the Congregational Action Network vigil on the US Capitol grounds to support legislation to protect DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) immigrants. … Gabriel, are you waiting for a quiet night to wake us up to some new call?
- Since the brilliant crocuses gave way to the Willow & Maple Apartments, six more residential developments have begun to sprout nearby. There are about 1,250 new residences being built within 600 feet of our sanctuary. Some of our new neighbors might be looking for a creative, inclusive Christian community, working for peace and justice, where their children might fit right in. Any Gabriel Moments here?
During our sharing time this morning, Trish Nemore shared a description of “the real church,” written by Pat Conover when he was a 22 year old student at Chicago Theological Seminary. It seeed very much in line with our theme and my reflections, so I asked Trish if I could include it here. It might well have been a kind of Gabriel moment for Pat, calling him to a search for the real church.
Here’s Pat’s description:
The real church, which may or may not exist within the confines of the actual church, is that group of people known to each other at a significant level who are engaged in a real pilgrimage in the Christian faith, who are coming together for love, worship, fellowship, education and action, and are going apart for service, witness and Christian living. The job of the real church is to grow in loving relationship with others in the real church and to reach out to others and tell them the good news that they might become part of this real church.
Seekers Church is shaped by our understanding of God’s call on us. As we say early in A Guide to Seekers Church:
The life of Seekers Church is based on an amazing belief: each one of us is called by God to a particular area of service. Young or old, regardless of experience, skills or education, despite our past successes or failures, God calls each of us to a life of love and service. Concretely, it is a highly individual desire, placed by God in the heart of each person, to be about particular works in the world and in the church.Click here for the Guide
In her introduction to the Call Cycle Locator, Marjory speaks to this same point: “Reluctance usually marks the beginning of this inward journey–a path of Call which unfolds throughout life.”
The Magnificat is Mary’s response to waking up to something new and unimaginable coming to life deep within her. The Potter’s House has blossomed from the call Gordon and Mary heard that restless night in New England.
Although it shouldn’t be surprising that God’s Call comes at different times in life, it is. Once we’ve heard the Call and made the commitment, we want to get on with it, moving in the assurance that we’re “doing the right thing.” But this Advent season is reminding some of us – at least me – that as Creation changes, God’s call on us will probably take different turns as well. Like Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah in our readings for this week, we may have a “Gabriel Moment,” when Call emerges in a new, and uncomfortable, form.
The crocus is still in hiding, waiting for the right day to rise up from the cold, wet ground. And even as it emerges, the tiny green shoot will only suggest the magnificent blossoms yet to come.
Is it possible that the Magnificat might be our song? Are we feeling the Spirit move deep within? Are we ready for a mighty re-conception, putting us on the Way to a new form of working for justice with peace? Might our response be like the Song of Mary, as we wake up to God’s unanticipated call on our lives in these troubled times?
The crocus is waiting. You may not see it yet, but keep looking. We don’t know the hour … until the Spirit stirs in our soul and we know that an unimaginable and impossibly Immaculate re-conception is pushing up into the light. God’s call is often a “Gabriel Moment,” rising up from deep within. When it emerges, call isn’t always what we expect, and we resist. In dark times, before we hear God’s call, we need to wait and keep praying.
As Deborah shared yesterday in her reflection for this week on Inward/Outward:
As I live into the waiting time of Advent, Jesus still keeps surprising me by showing up in new places, saying odd things, and pointing out God’s presence in unexpected situations. More and more, I have come to know that God is in this here, this now, and that God is also in the future, whatever it will bring.Deborah Sokolove, “What Did I Expect, December 10, 2022 https://inwardoutward.org/what-did-i-expect/
We will be stirred in our sleep. We won’t recognize the Messiah at first sight. We may be asked “What do you hear? What do you see?” But I believe that Christ is with us, deep in our hearts, waiting again to lead us into an unimaginable and impossibly Immaculate Reconception, the very craziest of Second Comings!
May it be so!