"Living the Legacy" by Marjory Bankson
December 14, 2008, The Third Sunday of Advent
Gospel Reading: John 1: 6-8
…John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting in darkness as the earth whirls toward the winter solstice. It’s easy for us to miss the metaphor of deep darkness in our culture of perpetual advertising, although we might get a taste of it in the country or along dark stretches of the interstate. We miss the sharp contrast of John the Baptist as a "voice crying in the wilderness," claiming that the true light of God’s Messiah-the annointed one-was about to arrive. We may also miss the Genesis story at the beginning of John’s Gospel-which is the setting for the "first man/lonely man" association with John the Baptist.
Although I would love to tell you more about the wonderful class we just had in the School of Christian Living on the Gospel of John, I am going to set that aside in favor of another story, another witness to the power and presence of the living God.
This afternoon, some of us will be going to the birthplace of Seekers-to the old brownstone house at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue which has been the headquarters of Church of the Saviour since its purchase in 1950- in order to say "good-bye" to the building we have known as "2025," and to Gordon Cosby’s ministry there. At 91, Gordon is finally ready to lay down his preaching call, although the CoS newspaper, Diaspora, states clearly that he is not retiring from ministry.
Like John the Baptist, Gordon was called at an early age to "bear witness to the light." He preached his way through seminary, served as a battalion chaplain in World War II, and inspired countless members of Church of the Saviour to take up the work God was calling them to. Since 1948, when the first commitment statement was read by the earliest members of CoS, several hundred people have passed through that narrow gate.
As Jackie McMakin said last week, the School of Christian Living was designed from the beginning as a lay seminary to train everyone for ministry-with a conscious inward journey to sustain some particular outward journey. Every member was expected to attend classes in the school, and then find or form a mission group for action together. It’s part of our heritage when we say that Seekers is "in the tradition of Church of the Saviour."
Gordon’s understanding of corporate mission sharpened in 1965, when he went to Selma, Alabama, with a group of other pastors from Washington, DC. He came back stirred to do something here, locally, to address the systemic oppression produced by segregation. He turned his attention to Junior Village, a dumping ground for abused and neglected black children. Soon FLOC (For Love of Children) was formed and Fred Taylor, one the founders of Seekers, became its first director.
The office of FLOC was on the 3rd floor of 2025, so worship and mission were housed there. Sonya Dyer, an activist mother from northern Virginia, joined FLOC in the early days as a volunteer. Fred and Sonya worked together in FLOC as they participated in the successful effort to close Junior Village and place some 800 children in foster homes. Through FLOC, Fred and Sonya broadened their understanding of CoS mission groups in a wider network of cooperating churches.
During that time, there were two services every Sunday morning at 2025. Gordon raised his prophetic voice at both. The early service drew families with children-parents (including Fred and Sonya) who saw their family life as an important call. As mission groups proliferated in the early 70s, and CoS struggled to find a form which would allow these new ministries to keep growing, Gordon began to preach a new vision-that new churches might form around existing ministries. Fred and Sonya began to talk about a church that would grow out of their experience with FLOC, but which would be worship-centered and broader than a single mission.
In 1976, five little churches formed out of the original body of CoS. Gordon called it "the First Exodus" or "the New Lands." Fred and Sonya issued a call for Seekers "to be church," and to support ministry in four basic areas: work, family, citizenship and mission group.
The early service at 2025 became the Seekers Church, with Fred preaching and Sonya as liturgist.
Like the other little churches, Seekers expected all members to practice spiritual disciplines and to join a mission group after taking classes in the School.
For the next 20 years, Seekers continued to worship at 2025. FLOC moved to its own space and other groups came and went in the building, but 2025 was our church home. The other little churches claimed worship space in their place of mission. At 2025, we developed our own School of Christian Living, our own set of mission groups and our own style of worship.
When Seekers began in 1976, Gordon was ready to retire by our cultural standards-at age 59. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. By the time Gordon was 65, the Festival Center had been built and the Servant Leadership School began as a new call to spread the structures and ministries of Church of the Saviour to a wider audience. Gordon was ready to respond to a new call to his outward journey even as he nudged us out of the nest.
Then, in 1993, Gordon took up his role as John the Baptist again. He called for a Second Exodus-and dissolution of Church of the Saviour. By then, he was 76 and there were nine small churches plus the Gateway Mission Group (which supported the later service at 2025) represented on the Council. The little churches (including Seekers) filed papers to incorporate separately and, in 1994, voted to let go of Church of the Saviour rather than reforming it into some kind of an association.
Seekers began to look for a new home. It took us 10 years to find this place, then plan and pay for the renovation with gifts and loans from members sitting here today.. Nobody wanted to buy a church building that would stand empty during the week, so the renovation was planned to give us a true "ministry of place." We also promised ourselves that we would be generous in giving to others as we repaid the money that we had borrowed from each other.
We moved from 2025 to our new home on Carroll Street in June, 2004. I dare say we’ve done most of the hard inner work of grief and good-byes for the building at 2025 Mass. Ave.. Just as the Hebrews were shaped by their Exodus journey, we were shaped by the drawn-out process of leaving 2025 and settling in here.
In many ways, the real legacy of Gordon’s preaching ministry cannot be measured. It is the living word which he embodied and which we, in turn, live out every day-at work, at home, as voting citizens, and in the mission groups we belong to. But there are tangible results too, which can be seen as manifesting the Journey Inward and the Journey Outward.
Dayspring Retreat Center expresses our common commitment to the inner journey—to silence at the heart of worship and community, to prayer. The Epistle appointed for this day (I Thess. 5:16-23) expresses the essence of that inward life:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good….
Dayspring represents the inward journey that we share with other CoS communities. Once 2025 is sold, Dayspring will be the only remaining piece of land that we own together. Hopefully, it will become a place to gather, to deepen our lives together.
In the 30 years since he preached the First Exodus from Church of the Saviour, Gordon’s outward legacy can be seen in the nine little churches and countless missions which have been birthed from his vision of God’s word in the world. His pattern was simple and effective. He would focus on one mission until a critical mass of people gathered that call, and then he would move on. Over time, Gordon has addressed every one of the signs that we hear in the Old Testament reading appointed for today, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners….
Here at Seekers, we have tried to be faithful to our call to be church with distributed leadership. We don’t have a single charismatic leader like Gordon Cosby, but we have seen many people develop their gifts for proclamation and organization, for creativity and service for the common good. We’ve blessed people in their transitions and beribboned people who were heading off on mission trips as we live out the Isaiah scripture in many different institutional settings.
As a second-generation Church of the Saviour community, Seekers are especially good at ART and ADVOCACY, the charisms which Sonya named in her final sermon before our move. Celebration Circle and the Artist’s Mission Group hold up the value of ephemeral art-made for the sheer joy of creativity which is pouring through this congregation.
As advocates, we have offered our gifts for organization to many CoS ministries-to FLOC, Hope and a Home, at Potters House and Joseph’s House, L’Arche and the Servant Leadership School. Within the wider CoS community, Kate Cudlipp has offered her wise and steady leadership to the Ecumenical Council and she will oversee the final disposition of 2025, God willing. Keith Seat has represented Seekers on the Council, and has freely given his legal expertise to smooth the transition.
On this third Sunday of Advent, I want to name another gift that Seekers continues to offer to the wider community, and that is our wealth–money, time, energy and commitment. In spite of the stock-market dive, giving has remained strong this year and we are close to the year-end goal for contributed income. I invite you to take a look at the back bulletin board, next to the Christmas tree, where you will see a copy of the 2009 budget along with the "gifts" our children have been offering to God each week.
In your bulletin today, there is a colored envelope for the special Christmas offering. They will be there next week and on Christmas Eve as well. Last week the Stewards approved the recommendation from our Servant Leadership Team that the money be given to two families from the Silver Spring Interfaith Housing Coalition, and to help the four young Somalian refugees who have been living temporarily on the 3rd floor of 2025.
In addition, the Stewards decided last week to give $10,000 which would have been used to help repay the debt on our building, to three local food programs-because the need seems particularly acute right now.
Gordon Cosby would be quick to say that the best way to break our addiction to money, to counter our fears that there will not be enough, is to give generously. I know that’s one way to "release the captive" in me. And no matter what you have to give, you can participate in our collective giving with joy and gratitude. It’s one way to participate in the prophetic ministry which has been our legacy from Church of the Saviour:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon us, because the LORD has anointed us; he has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners………..
May it be so. Amen.