The Seekers Church: A Christian Community
December 1, 1996
Marjory Zoet Bankson
Gospel Lesson: Mark 13:24-37
Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight, or at cockcrow or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!
What if you had a dream last night that this was the last day of the world. And what if, on your way to church, you learned that other people in your household had had the same dream?
And suppose, during coffee hour, you learned that other people here had also had that dream? Would you think that this might be the last day of the world?
And what would you do if this was the very last day of the world?
I used to give this as a writing assignment for junior high students when I taught school. After they had come up with their own answers, I would read them Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Last Day of the World,” in which a man discovers during his day at work that others had had the same dream … so he comes home at the regular time, has dinner with his family and tucks the children in after a bedtime story. He and his wife talk quietly about special memories they share and, after he turns out the light. Then he hears the water dripping in the bathroom. He gets up, tightens the handle and comes back to bed, embraces his wife and whispers, “Good night.”
What would you do?
The Gospel lesson for today is suggests that the end of time will come soon — within the lifespan of those who listened to Jesus, some 2,000 years ago. Assuming that biblical scholars have accurately determined that the Book of Mark was written some 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, we are faced with some alternatives concerning this passage: perhaps Jesus was in error or we don’t have an accurate account or Mark was creating a literary device out of Jewish history to signal a transforming shift was about to take place. We cannot avoid the clear description here of end-times — the last days of the world.
I. Modern Detachment
Last week, there was an article on the op-ed page entitled “Does Anybody Care?” I felt tired and depressed as I read the list of things we as a society no longer care about: elections and voting, sexual abuse, starving refugees, poor women and children… It was a cruel picture of lost meaning, lost connections and lost community. No bigger purpose, no cosmic story to draw us into public life.
Without a coherent story of purpose and direction for history, the possibility of ending life on this planet may only fill us with boredom. We just care about ourselves and try to protect what we have. On TV, we catch glimpses of the terrible things that people do when the restraints of civilization are removed — riots, rape and pillage. We regularly see signs of hopeless hatred, repressed desires or revenge. Life for many seems “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes observed. We see that Hobbsian view of humanity enshrined by the current effort to build more prisons and cut funding for social services. Many Americans feel detached and isolated.
As a result, many of us avoid scripture like the Gospel lesson for today because it sounds melodramatic, too much like nuclear holocaust or maybe just Star Wars. We leave such violent end-times stories to fundamentalists, who are only too happy to tell us that “wars and rumors of wars” signal that the Apocalypse is coming soon…maybe in the year 2,000! These people would take Mark 13 literally: in the end, God will gather the preselected ones and leave the rest to burn!
That’s a linear, logical and literal way to read the words. Conclusive and clearly wrong, since the end didn’t come in the lifetime of those who might have heard Mark’s Gospel read and taught. Like the now-famous scholars of the Jesus Seminar, we may simply conclude that somebody added this story to the text long after Jesus lived and that he could not have said or meant such things.
I want to suggest another meaning for this passage, one that fits with the narrative construction of Mark, and see this text in the context of Jewish tradition, particularly that of Passover. Mark puts this description of the “last days” in the middle of his Gospel, situated immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover…and his crucifixion. Passover reminds us of the terrible plagues in Egypt that eventually expelled the Hebrews into the desert, where they were shaped into God’s covenant people. Death…and then rebirth.
This passage also sounds like Isaiah or Jeremiah, describing the horrors of Babylon as preparation for turning their “hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.” Thus, there is the possibility that Mark understands the action of Jesus entering Jerusalem for the last time as a sign of massive upheaval, transformation of the community, a time of new birth! Not that this action presages the end of history, but a radical restructuring of society. It did mark the end of the stratified world order that Jesus lived in.
God’s story is the cosmic story that holds all things together … and in this apocalyptic text, we hear Jesus saying “Wake up! Pay attention! God is doing a new thing now!” Believers trust that God will continue the story, even if the present form dissolves. It’s a question we will all face in our personal lives, our community life and ultimately in what we believe about the future of the earth. If we pay attention to the placement of this text, it can be understood as an apocalypse of new creation, not judgment and destruction. God does come to gather in “the elect” from all the far corners of the world. Nothing says it will be just a few.
If this is the intent of Mark’s Gospel for today, it should be no surprise that Mark moves from this thunderous description of calamity and chaos to the tender story of Jesus at Bethany, when a woman came and broke open a jar of pure nard to anoint him for burial and Jesus says “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” It doesn’t sound like Mark expected the world to be burned to a crisp!
The Gospel text for today is a trumpet sound for a new beginning, not a death knell for creation, 2,000 years out of date.
II. Connected To A Larger Story Of Creation
When we know that our individual lives are connected to the larger story of God’s creation, it gives us a place to stand, to make decisions and sacrifices, to keep hope alive. That’s what Mark’s Gospel is all about: the new meaning of God’s realm on earth, no longer mediated through legalism and church hierarchy, but through the mysterious presence of God as Spirit.
Staying connected to the larger rhythms of God’s creation is essential for dealing the end-times, whether on a personal or a global scale.
- After Hurricane Hugo swept through Florida, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind, people made their way to a local church. Only a pile of debris was left, but the pastor invited everyone to a service of prayer and communion standing on the lawn. Many people said they didn’t know why they’d come but that the service helped them reconnect with what they had to do. It gave them a sense of belonging and community again. They had lived through the last days of their world and celebrating communion together helped restore a sense of future.
- During the American attack on Iraq, I was leading a retreat in Michigan. We heard the first news about 6:30pm on Saturday, while we were eating dinner. Fear was palpable. Some people said they were going home. I went to the microphone and invited everyone into the chapel for a prayer service after dinner, praying urgently for guidance about what we should do. We sat close together, on a rug up front by the altar, with those who had family members among our troops there sitting in the middle. We prayed and then shared the Eucharist, reminding ourselves that God cared about all of creation — people on both sides. Everybody stayed, though the content of the retreat shifted from self-exploration to learning more from members who had lived through wartime experiences. Being together helped us stay centered instead of fearfully hooked to watching the same loop of TV film over and over again.
- Sometimes ritual prepares us for a cataclysm ahead. There is a memorable scene in the Civil War movie “Glory,” in which the black soldiers gather the night before going into battle where they faced almost certain death. They sing and different individuals speak, reminding each other of their call, speaking truth, making confession and naming their connection to a larger purpose, even though most of them would not survive through the next day.
What is it that sustains hope in a time of despair and disconnection? For some, it is the simple ritual of gathering together in the light of a larger vision, a bigger purpose, God’s story of ongoing creation. At the core, that’s what communion is all about: suffering and death, followed by birth in a new form. Bread broken, wine as spirit, the body as a crucible of change.
Sacred ritual, which points to God’s cosmic story and its presence in the ordinary sensual world of our bodies, is not the only way to access the spiritual dimension of connection and new life.
- In Bill Moyers’ book, The Language of Life, the poet, W.S. Merwin, contrasts the deadness that comes with disconnection with the sensual sacred acts of creation that defy despair. In contrast, he says, poetry and other creative arts connect us to the world of senses and the imagination. Because the role of creative arts is so important in this community, I was drawn to his poem entitled PLACE, Merwin writes:
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not for the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves.
A tree, drawing death upward from decay to new life, ordinary, accessible and symbolic as the Tree of Life. As full of life as Mark’s story of the woman who broke open her alabaster jar and filled the room with its fragrance in front of horrified disciples — a story which Jesus said would be told again and again in memory of her. One that most of us have forgotten or never heard as an act of creation!
What would you do on the last day of your world? Plant a tree? Break open your treasured jar?
Or do something you’ve held back out of fear?
III. The Role Of Creativity
Last week, Peter preached about preparing pastor-prophets for the world as the function of this community — people with dual capabilities for CARING and CONFRONTING. He spoke mainly from the standpoint of one who works in institutions we did not create, about the mission group as a crucible for pastor/prophets. In the discussion afterward, Deborah mentioned CREATIVITY as another core value of Seekers and, as I wrestled with the Gospel lesson this week, I remembered my sermon on Seekers as an after-hours jazz club instead of a well-rehearsed community chorus. What would a jazz group do if it were the last day of the world? Can you hear it?
In some ways, the music I selected for today has that “last day” quality. The group is the MCC Gospel Choir … and more than half the members are HIV positive. Several did not expect to live until this CD was finished. All of them did! The director of that choir is seeing me for spiritual direction. I believe she comes because I can offer her a combination of care, confrontation and affirmation for her creativity … out of my grounding in this community and our theological framework of living with Jesus as a guide to understanding God’s new creation.
As though to confirm this interpretation of Mark’s dramatic description of end times as the birth pangs of God’s embodiment in community, I was struck by the creativity being birthed in Seekers in 3 separate conversations this week.
- * First, Kate Amoss talked about some possibilities for her thesis project — something like soul work as cell work, how our beliefs are embedded at the cellular level in our bodies. It was incarnational theology in a different key, playful and exciting. Not the usual coffee-hour conversation in a church parlor. Soulwork as cellwork — another version of bringing the Son of God into being as Meister Eckhart suggests in the reflection paragraph:
- What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and culture?
- Then, there was a phone call with Jackie McMakin, about the possibility of hosting Vicky Guzman for a silent retreat at Dayspring. Could we imagine a group of Seekers praying for Vicky and her ministry in El Salvador? What about introducing art materials? How might we encourage the connections made by the Seekers who didn’t visit ASAPROSAR last August? How could we celebrate Erica’s presentation of mission in El Salvador at the hunger banquet at her school? Feel our investment in the focometer that Dave arranged to be sent down for their eye clinic? Take seriously Kathy Tobias’ work with Salvadoran refugees, Olivia and David Artega?
- On Wednesday, Pat Connover came to visit my office, to catch me up on what the Homemakers Mission Group is finding about properties in the city, but the conversation wasn’t about buildings, it was about purpose — what we might want in a neighborhood if some of our “seniors” wanted to live in the same building as the church? What we might need as meeting space if Seekers became a hub for lay-led churches? How we might water the seeds of smaller churches in an era of full-service megachurches?
And these conversations don’t count the riches of our mission group or those at the School of Christian Living. All were seeds of the Spirit, scattered in our lives, needing the nurture of community so they take root and grow strong.
ADVENT is about waiting and watching. ADVENT begins with painful contractions — talk of apocalypse, images of chaos and change, sounds of grunting and groaning. Watch now for new birth, new forms, new connections!
- What would you do if this were the last day of the world?
- Would you plant a tree?
- Sing jazz or write a poem?
- Come differently to the communion table?
- Take care of the dripping faucet?
The Gospel of Mark says Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight, or at cockcrow or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!