The Essence of our Faith
March 18, 2012
Good Morning! Thank you for inviting me to be with you here this morning. I bring greetings from Seekers’ Church! We so enjoyed having Fred with us last Sunday as our preacher. I think these kinds of exchanges are great ways for us to cross pollinate, to learn from each other, to see how other communities in our tradition are handling and dealing with the realities of living out our faith in the present era.
In our scripture this morning we hear Jesus responding to Nicodemus who came to Jesus and asked, “How can we be born again?” Nicodemus was an important person in the Jewish hierarchy, a member of the ruling council. He came with some deep questions and a confession of sorts, calling Jesus “Rabbi”, and saying, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus responds and says that if you want to enter the kingdom of God you must be born again.
Nicodemus confused and over his head, responds “How can this be?” And Jesus responds with the verses that we heard this morning …
”Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man must be raised up,” and then segues into the verse that every child who has ever gone to church knows:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
For many in the Christian tradition this is the essence of our faith; a succinct and total sound bite of what it means to be a Christian.
As we, in the tradition of the Church of the Savior, look ahead to the future, now that we have sold our family home (2025) and we see our founding parents becoming more frail, and see some of our most treasured and valued ministries floundering and in some cases dissolving, we are wondering what it is that we will be carrying forward? What is the essence of our faith AND what is the essence of what it means to be a part of the Church of the Saviour tradition?
Some of you may know that I am a missionary kid. My parents were missionaries to Japan. They spent over 30 years there and I spent 16 years in Japan while I was growing up. My parents’ ministry was church planting. One of the core values in my parents’ life and in their marriage was that my dad could invite anyone home for a meal at any moment! This of course was always a challenge for my mother, who always needed to be ready to serve a good meal to anyone who might show up on our doorstep. My mother also taught American style cooking and baking too many Japanese women, who came to learn cooking but also got a gospel message in a short devotional that my mother gave at the end of the class. Needless to say, recipes became a big part of her life. She was always collecting recipes and she had many cookbooks, but her core recipes were kept in three loose leaf binders where she wrote the recipes out in her own handwriting with notes on the side. When she died almost 5 years ago, I inherited those recipe books. They are full of family memories, cookies we had for Christmas year after year, favorite meals that we had when my sister and I came home from boarding school.
The books and the recipes are evocative, but I only use a small portion of the many, many, recipes they contain. For one thing times have changed and ingredients have changed. My mother’s cooking was basic Midwest style cooking and many of her recipes refer to oleo (a precursor to margarine) and she never used olive oil or anything radical like balsamic vinegar! And then there is the challenge of my older daughter and her boyfriend being vegetarian, and my realization lately that I really can’t eat so many carbs, and suddenly many of these recipes are no longer useful or even healthy any more.
When we think of the essence -The most basic core of something-There is a lot that we have to give up and discard even though it holds precious and powerful memories. What we need to figure out is whether this thing that we want to hold onto is something that will build the life that we are forging here and now and in the future or is it something that we are holding onto that only serves to anchor us to the past.
One of the essences of our Church of the Saviour tradition is Servant Leadership. This is in some ways ironic, since Gordon has always been such a huge iconic presence in our lives. And yet, he did model servant leadership in many ways. Servant leadership is counter-cultural. There is still a tendency for us to want leadership that tells us what to do, what to think and especially in religious circles, what to believe. The idea that in serving each other we can develop a vision on how we need to move forward, to listen into voice the prophetic voices that are amongst us, as Robert Greenleaf described in his pamphlet The Servant as Leader, is something that most people cannot understand and don’t have time for. Because, let’s be honest, having a servant leadership model makes everything take a lot more time!
At Seekers we have just completed a discernment process to call forth a new servant leader to join what we call the SLT (Servant Leadership Team) from amongst us. In the guidelines for our applicants it stated
For us, Christian servanthood is based on empowering others within the normal structures of our daily lives, as well as through special structures for service and witness.”
That kind of leadership requires a combination of listening for and learning from the work of the Spirit in our midst…..
The guidelines for applicants went on to list qualities and abilities we were looking for in a servant leader who would join the Servant Leadership Team#Footnote 1:
This is quite a list, and yet in the context of C of S tradition and in Seekers, we were confident that we would find the person we would need for this role. We were confident because it is such a deeply ingrained ethos in our community, lived out in our School of Christian Living, in our mission groups and in our life together. Seekers as a whole is involved in training and nurturing people to stop thinking only in egocentric terms of what they want, what they need, what they want from the community, and instead to ask, “What does this Body of Christ need, what does this Body of Christ want, and what does this Body of Christ want from me?” It takes about 5 years for someone who comes to Seekers to begin to see the difference. It is in that training and nurturing and empowering that we begin to see the shift from an individually egocentric way of looking at the world to a more holistic, other-oriented way of looking at the world-a way that we believe that Jesus embodied.
And we did find that person: Just last Sunday Trish Nemore officially joined me and Peter Bankson on the Servant Leadership Team. (As Peter says “We are two lady lawyers and an Airborne Ranger!)
We need more Servant Leaders in the world. We need more people who are thinking not in an ego-centric way, but seeing what is needed in relationships, in community and in the world, people who have the ability to listen more deeply to the woundedness that is all around us. Calling forth Servant Leaders is a most timely and critical gift that we can give the world.
But Servant Leadership training and empowerment does not happen in a vacuum. A second essence that I think is core to the tradition that we come from is the idea of the “three-legged stool.” By that I mean the idea of the Inward spiritual life, flowing through the community of believers, and then Outward into the world. The genius of this simple model is both timeless and essential to our way of seeing value in our spiritual lives. I want to focus on the community aspect of this three legged stool for the moment. Elizabeth O’Connor and Gordon have done more justice to the other components than I could ever do, but I think we need to focus a bit more on the contributions that Mary Cosby made to community life.
Mary is a gracious Southern lady. She knows to her very core the value of hospitality, of a gentle word of encouragement, of nurturing through praise and affirmation. She modeled the idea that community was a place where we begin to work out the inner wounds we carry, that it is a place for sharing the spiritual insights that are nurturing our inner life, that it is a place where storytelling and sharing from our lives could enrich and deepen our life together. Mary realized that community was a training ground for the bigger and deeper work that we face in the world.
The silver tea and coffee set that graced the table in the dining room after the ecumenical service was a symbol of her value of beauty and graciousness. She understood hospitality as the idea that all were welcome and were worthy of being treated with dignity and specialness. I think she was also the mediator of the challenging and sometimes harsh sounding words that came from Gordon. Based on the stories I have heard I believe that Mary’s focus was on the life of the community and that she balanced out the pulls of both the inward and the outward journey.
After my mother died, my dad decided that he wanted to go back to Japan. He was lonely in the retirement home that my parents had been living in for more than 10 years. He wanted to make a difference. And so with our blessing he went back to Japan at the age of 80. He is still there and this year he will be 85.
Now you have to understand, my dad never cooked. That was my mother’s role. He even burned popcorn! So in order to survive on his own he needed to learn how to cook. At first it was simple recipes that were part of my mother’s repertoire. But one of the things he really wanted to be able to do was to prepare homemade goodies to take to potlucks after church or to his English classes to share with others. So we sent him Mom’s banana bread recipe and he now bakes banana bread on a regular basis. He has even invited people over to his apartment to show them how to make it!
At the age of 84, Dad realizes how essential it is to nurture the life of community, to feed each other around the table and to build Koinonia. My mother’s ministry of cooking is continuing through my father who valued her contributions and decided that they were essential enough to carry forward. At least the banana bread recipe!
At Seekers we have found that without a vibrant and deep community life we cannot manage to balance for very long on the other two legs of the stool- the inward and the outward. Without a firm understanding that we are a part of the Body of Christ-that I am more than just one individual living out my Christian faith- we will forget that we cannot do this alone. We must understand that the Church is both fragile earthen vessel and grace filled body of Christ-broken and whole all at once. And that understanding can only emerge in the rough and tumble of life in Christian community.
And finally, a 3rd essence is joy. We are a high commitment church. We expect a lot from people. There was a time when I wondered if I could move forward in Seekers. At that time I had just learned a very hard lesson in “not what I want, but what the community wants.” Some other families with children were leaving at the time and so I had disguised my dissatisfaction by framing it as trying to find a bigger and better children’s program elsewhere. But when my daughter said to me one Sunday, “Mom, don’t leave Seekers for me. I am happy at Seekers,” I had to confront my own issues. When I finally decided to stay put I preached a sermon. It was a confessional and heartfelt sermon along the lines of…”I don’t want to be here, but I can’t go anywhere else, I have learned a hard lesson and so I will stay, but it is so hard.” In the comment time after the sermon the mother of one our members, who was visiting from out of town asked. “But where is the joy?
Where is the joy?
In the original members commitment statement of C of S there were many challenging words and phrases. Some of them are quite memorable, like: “I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ…”and “God is the owner and I am the ower.” These are powerful words and I think the impact of these words in the life of the community and in both the inward and the outward life was profound on all who lived them out, but there is something missing in these words. Where is the joy?
In the Seekers’ Stewards’ statement we have a list of commitments that we make: “To be a faithful witness of God’s presence among us, to foster justice and be in solidarity with the poor,” among others and then the final commitment reads “To respond joyfully with my life as the grace of God gives me freedom.”
Joy needs to be our response to the gift that God gives us…We would be poor witnesses to the power and healing presence of “God With Us” if we do not reflect the deep and abiding joy that comes from choosing this path. How could we respond to John 3:16, without joy? But we need to be reminded of this regularly. When we get stuck, when we are in the wilderness, when we are struggling, we need to be reminded that there is joy here, present among us.
My dad says that the hymn “Joy to the World” should be sung every Sunday. And I would agree.
We, as the inheritors of the legacy of the Church of the Savior have been given much. Like the recipe books from my mother we have the responsibility to look through that inheritance and realize that some things are unique and essential, that some things were never fleshed out in words but were embodied and present in the life of the community and should be given their just place and value as we move forward, and some things have emerged from our separate communities, which is a reminder that the story goes on and that we are only now seeing a close of a chapter, not the end of the story.
And so these are my answers to the question of what is the essence of the tradition of C of S.
What are yours?
Excerpted from February 12, 2012, SLT Needs Discernment Group’s-Call to Servant Leadership.
QUALITIES & ABILITIES
Servant Leadership requires a delicate balance of stepping forward when there is a need for visible leadership and stepping back when someone else is ready to offer their gifts in an appropriate way. Although specific roles and duties will emerge as the new team discovers their combination of passion, skills, gifts and needs, we will be looking for the following qualities and abilities:
Accountability -- through a mission group or spiritual director relationship, willing to be transparent about one’s inner life and the use of Seekers’ resources.
Administration --demonstrates ability to organize, define goals, and accomplish corporate tasks. The person will be known as a "self starter" who can work successfully with minimum supervision.
Biblical/Theological Understanding -- while not necessarily formally educated in these disciplines, aspirants should have a maturing understanding of central biblical themes and Christian traditions/doctrines and have a call to live out their Christian faith in ecumenical settings.
Community Life -- able to support the common good of the community by taking a share of leadership in speaking to and for the community at Stewards meetings, retreats, forums, and liturgical occasions including baptisms, marriages, and funerals.
Empowerment-- through Spirit-filled listening and other practices, will encourage emerging calls from within the community, facilitate the transition of individual call to community-supported mission, and be available to meet with and assist newly forming groups.
Inclusion – has displayed an inclusive spirit in welcoming a broad diversity of people into the life of Seekers and supports intentional efforts to include our children and elders.
Listener/encourager – able to hear and respond to the needs and desires of others without judgment.
Mission-- able to discern and challenge Seekers Church to live out its call to be on mission within the unique circumstances of our individual lives (work, avocation, citizenship or family life) and to develop a more mature appreciation for our individual responses to be a church whose life is intertwined with the life of poor and marginalized people of the city and world.
Networking – encourages connections among individual Seekers, the CoS communities and the wider field of ecumenical faith development.
Pastoral Care-- encourages caring relationships within the mission group structures of Seekers and can be available to respond to urgent pastoral care needs that are not otherwise being met within the community.
Prophecy – will help individuals and groups develop a communal response to current events or issues and shape visions for the future. This would include proposing long term themes or directions for the community and the supporting actions to enliven those themes.
Servant – actively and intentionally brings faith to the work of the SLT so their acts of ministry will draw people into their own faith within Seekers, the larger church, and society.
Sexuality -- able to bring to the pastoral team a healthy understanding of their own sexuality, protect their own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others, and support the leadership of both women and men.
Teaching/Preaching -- will periodically teach within the School of Christian Living and children's Sunday School and preach at the Seekers worship service.
Visible Leader -- comfortable embodying the life of Seekers and speaking for the community in public settings beyond Seekers.