Northwest Yearly Meeting Keynote Address 2015
Becky Ankeny, General Superintendent
Luke 12:35-38, 41-44:
“Keep your pants on and your flashlights handy, like servants who wait for their employer to return from his honeymoon trip, so that when he comes and knocks, they will open the door immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the employer finds prepared and watching when he arrives. This is the truth: he will put on his own apron, make them sit down to the table, and come and serve them dinner himself. And if he comes in the middle of the night or at dawn and finds them watchful, those servants will be happy.” … Peter asked, “Lord, are you speaking this just to us disciples, or to everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who is the faithful and wise steward whom his employer shall put in charge over his household to feed everyone in the house at the appropriate times? That steward will be happy if he or she is fulfilling that responsibility when the employer comes back. This is the truth: the employer will make that steward boss of everything” (paraphrased).
There are so many parables about us and God as servants and master. This relationship helps us understand that we are not the ones who call the shots, not the ones who own the house. We are caretakers, we are stewards, we are trustees, we are servants. God has given us responsibilities, and key in that word is the idea of response. Our work is in response to God as our master. This parable helps us ask what is important to God. As the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, what have we been trusted with by God? What have we been given to care for? How do we fit into this parable and the various other parables where God leaves people in charge of some aspect of God’s world?
It helps us answer these queries to look to the Bible to find what God loves and treasures and takes joy in. From there we can infer our own calling in this world and among the human beings God so obviously loves.
God loves creation and creating. Genesis tells us of light gathered out of dark (Gen. 1:4), land gathered out of sea (1:9); plants, trees (1:11): sun, moon, stars, universe (1:16); sea monsters, fish, whales, birds (1:21); creepy-crawlies, livestock, wild animals (1:24); procreation itself (1;22); all living creatures, especially including human beings in God’s own image, to whom God entrusted the care of the living earth (1:26). Both male and female human beings, charged with filling and organizing and ruling over the earth (1:27), caring for plants particularly (1:29). God also gave humans time, marking it off by Sabbaths—time to work, time to rest (Gen. 2:3, Ex. 20:11). And God gave humans choice—the choice to trust and obey God, the possibility of love—both human to human and human to Creator (Gen. 2:16,17; 2:23-25).
We are thus caretakers of God’s creation and creating. We care for the oceans, the wilderness, the farmland, the gardens, the villages and cities where people live together. We care for living things—we learn about them and from them, we find their usefulness in God’s grand scheme, we respect their natures and we help life to prosper. We hold the earth in trust for God. This is a human responsibility, not uniquely given to the NWYM Friends, but the widespread concern among us for the earth recognizes a God-given responsibility.
Traditions and Relationship
God loves being in relationship with humans (Ex. 20:6). When God led Israel out of Egypt, using Moses’s gifts and passion as the instrument, God gave the people clear instructions. Don’t ever forget that I did this for you. Steward this history, steward the Sabbath rest I require, steward all the feasts I’ve prescribed. Let everyone see the uniqueness of our relationship. Embody yourselves the universal pattern I, God, follow: setting slaves free (Ex. 20:2; 21:2; 22:21,22; Lev. 26:13), placing them in a way of life that has a gentle, restorative pace (Ex. 20:11; 23:11-12) and built in moments of festivity and joy (Ex. 23:14-17; Lev. 23), teaching them to remember their source—God—and their deliverer—God—and their shepherd—God—every day. Treasure this relationship. It is your inheritance, your heritage. And remember this also. I have relationships with other peoples as well (Deut. 2; Amos 9:7; John 10:16; 11:52). I am not without a witness throughout the world’s peoples (Acts 17; John 1:9; Romans 1:19; Psalm 19:1-3).
When Jesus came into the world as a Jew, he showed what it means to hold a tradition in trust for God (Matt. 5:17). He reminded everyone continually that the primary purpose of a human being is to enjoy a personal interactive relationship with God (Matt. 6:25-34; 7:11; 10:19-20; 12:50; 18:14; 22:37; 25:40; John 14:23, and so much more). He argued most heatedly with those curators of Judaism who cared most about the tradition—I think he loved the Pharisees so dearly for their commitment—but he saw that they missed the point. They focused on externals (Matt. 23:23-32; Luke 6:6-9). They made slaves to the tradition; they themselves were enslaved (Matt. 23:2-4,13-15). And they curated God instead of living with God in gentle, restorative, festive relationship (Matt. 15:3-6; 22:37-38).
Jesus shocked them—so obviously a teacher, a holy man, a prophet (Luke 7:16)—because he ignored externals and went straight for heart issues, their genuine life before and with God (Luke 7:36-50; Mark 7:1-23)). He told one curator of tradition, Nicodemus, you’ll never understand unless you are willing to start over, like a newborn infant—without preconceptions of what God wants and instead always a child in relation to God. God’s spirit, like the wind, goes wherever it pleases, despite your efforts to contain and control it (John 3:1-8). Don’t make the lethal mistake of attributing the work of God’s free spirit to the devil. You cannot yourself leave your slavery if you do this (Mark 3:20-29).
Each Other and Our Neighbors
So besides the creation and a relationship with God that our traditions point to, what has God given us to care for as NWYM Friends? God has given us each other and our neighbors (Gen. 4:10; Deut. 15:7-11; 24:14-15, 17-22; Matt. 22:39; 25:34-40; Luke 10:25-37).
We are trustees of our children, holding them in trust for God, trying to keep them alive and making it normal to live honestly and openly before God (Deut. 11:18-19; Matt. 19:13-15; Luke 17:1-3). We learn about and from the children God has sent us, we help those children find the gifts God has graced them with, we make space for them to take the place God made for them in God’s grand scheme (Luke 2:40-52). We are caretakers of our young people. NWYM Friends established Greenleaf Friends Academy and George Fox University as partial fulfillment of this care for our children. We need to welcome young people onto our YM boards and listen to what God is saying to them.
We care for others by clearing out the debris that prevents them from knowing God personally—knowing God experimentally. God does not give us the right to control and limit how other people know God (John 4:23-24; 15:16-17; 21:22). God does not ask us to be in charge of who gets to be part of God’s family (John 5:19-30; 6:44-45). Instead, God asks us to tell everyone everywhere the good news that Jesus is present to teach all of us (John 14:16-17, 26), that we have something in us that yearns toward God and that recognizes good (John 1:4, 12-13), and that God is also yearning toward us and eager to meet us more than halfway (Luke 15). Friends have traveled the world, beginning in the first generation with the Valiant Sixty, to point people toward God. NWYM Friends have traveled the whole world to embody and preach the good news—to Alaska, Bolivia, Peru, Palestine, Russia, China. NWYM Friends are also opening their hearts and church buildings to AA, Celebrate Recovery, neighbors from the street, children from around the world.
We are thus caretakers of each other. We listen to and learn from other people, we enrich others’ lives rather than impoverishing them; we make space for others to be in authentic personal relationship with God where God is making them whole and holy, where they can take joy in loving God and other humans. Friends’ heroes such as John Woolman and Elizabeth Gurney Fry, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Lucretia Mott, Hannah Whitall Smith, Herbert Hoover are excellent examples of living well into this kind of caretaking.
Sadly, Friends’ record of fulfilling our call to care for each other has not been spotless. Friends held slaves and trafficked in them for over 100 years before coming to recognize that slavery is inherently wrong. Friends enforced conformity to external standards of dress and forbade marriage to non-Friends with fundamentalist rigidity. Friends disowned young men who fought for the Union against slavery for violating the testimony of non-violence. Friends who adopted the practice of paying pastors soon fell away from the testimony of equality in ministry for both men and women. Friends are not immune to the currents and prejudices of their social contexts, not above racism or sexism or other prejudices, nor are they immune to the temptation to prefer economic stability to standing against social ills and the temptation to substitute form for living reality. We must acknowledge the truth that each of us has potential for blindness as well as sight, for evil as well as good, for error as well as truth. We need humility and repentance, and sometimes we need to change our minds, not in pursuit of some superficial relevance, but because sometimes we are wrong. And persisting in blindness, evil, and error alienates people from the Jesus we embody. We need to be born again, to start new in every generation and in every day of our individual and communal lives. We need to be born again to care for each other and our neighbors, all of whom God is trusting to our care.
God has also entrusted us with the good news, the Gospel. And we have this entrusted to us not so we can protect it but so we can share it. The dominance of Christianity in the U.S. is waning; we have seekers next door who need the Good News. NWYM has great opportunity to share our relationship with God with spiritual seekers outside the church, and we need to remember how far back to start. Like Paul among the Gentiles, we need to begin with the basics, namely the Creator God who gave humans freedom, is good, and uses human messengers (Acts 14). Like Paul, Quakers tend to focus on the good God intends toward us.
The heart of the Gospel is Jesus. We need to teach the history of the Incarnation. The essentials are in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10):
1) God anointed Jesus on earth with the Holy Spirit;
2) Jesus came to bless, heal, and free human beings.
3) Jesus was killed in Jerusalem;
4) God raised Jesus from the dead.
5) Many saw the risen Jesus, even eating and drinking with him.
6) Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead;
7) Whoever places his or her confidence and trust in Jesus will receive the remission of sins, release from slavery to error, dishonor, wrong-doing, disobedience
NWYM’s commitment to this Good News positions us well to speak to people who know little about Christianity.
When we care well for our neighbors, we may find that sometimes they bring alien ways into our congregations, creating tension.
Thus Peter’s sermon to insiders (Acts 11) reminds them that no human is common or unclean; that God shows no partiality, accepting any reverent and obedient person; and that God poured out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, even before any ritual of baptism.
The story of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) represents the continual conflict between established expectations and new membership.
Believers need to learn to be as welcoming as God and to recognize that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit transcends ritual. We NWYM Friends understand that Jesus has come to teach us himself and that within each person is the potential to respond to that teaching with obedience. We can invite our neighbors to “live up to the light you have.”
James’s response in the council of Jerusalem shows how an established group can welcome outsiders. “We should not trouble these who are turning to God with our whole religious history.” They asked new believers to commit to worshiping only God, to having sexual ethics, and to caring for the convictions of others in the fellowship. The Gospel is good news to all.
So let us consider together that we NWYM Friends hold the creation, our relationship with God, and each other and our neighbors in trust for God. Let’s consider what the limits of our trusteeship are. Let’s be as simply authentic as we can with God, knowing that God will help us move toward wholeness as individuals and as a small part of the church universal, the bride of Christ whom Christ purifies. And let us care for our neighbors who have not yet heard that they can be in a personal authentic relationship with God by sharing the good news and helping them feel welcome among us. Then when our boss, Jesus, shows up, he will find us doing a good job of caring for the other servants and he will put on his apron, sit us down at the table, and serve us dinner. May it be so.